– Safari Review by Klein Companions, Jonathan and Sophie Ellaby, Klein Collection Safaris
Royal Malewane… Mention these two words to anyone in the know, and people begin to visibly cringe with envy. A reputation as perhaps the most exclusive lodge in Southern Africa is a lot to live up to – and what better occasion than our honeymoon to see if the name really lives up to the reality? We find out.
“Wow, there’s a welcome committee waiting for us!” I exclaim as we drive up to Royal Malawane’s inconspicuous entrance, where six angles, almost all dressed in white, are waving us in. Magdel, our sweet hostess, introduces everyone – one member from every department of the lodge is represented, be it the spa staff, a butler, Nathan the executive chef, or the lodge’s legendary head guide, Juan Pinto.
We walk along the wooden boardwalks to the main lounge area, adorned with large sofa arrangements, giant stone vases with floating flowers, majestic cheetah statues and Persian carpets. Magdel and Juan ask us what we specifically are hoping to experience during our stay – what special interests? The phenomenal experience of the guiding team can cater for anything. “Once we had a guy who only wanted to learn about beetles,” remembers Juan. “So that’s what we did”.
Extravagance beyond your wildest dreams
As Magdel shows us to our suite I have a moment of “pinch me, is this for real?” Everything about Royal Malewane oozes grand old colonial class, especially the suites. We had to walk around in circles a few times to soak up all the small details – antique furniture, king-sized four poster bed (with a heated carpet and wooden step to reach it), fireplace with intricately wrapped firelighters, private plunge pool overlooking the riverbed, a thatched sala for that essential afternoon outdoor nap, Molton Brown toiletries, a free standing window-side Victorian bath, outdoor and indoor shower, a fully loaded mini-bar with crystal glasses…. the list could go on and one. The interiors are designed by co-owner Liz Biden and the pieces are her personal collection.
And if you would rather have your gin and tonic brought to your suite instead of mixing it yourself the solution is at your fingertips. “9 is the magic number”, Magdel reminds us. Dial it day or night; your wish is their command. And with a staff/guest ratio of up to six to one, almost anything can be achieved.
Before we head out on our afternoon game drive, Nathan, the executive chef, arrives to give us a rundown of today’s lunch menu. Shortly after, Lloyd, the sommelier at Royal Malewane, arrives to give us wine recommendations then Chris, our charming butler, arrives to take our orders, all executed with friendly, but not over-familiar unobtrusiveness. The balance is perfect and the interaction with staff an enjoyable pleasure. There’s no over-zealous pampering (such as placing the napkin on your lap – one of my pet hates) yet not once during our stay do I remember having to ask for anything. It’s already been anticipated. Hospitality becomes art.
With the head chef being so visible (at every meal), there’s never any doubt that genuine passion goes into every dish. We enjoy a Mediterranean-African three-course lunch menu – a salad composée of smoked salmon trout and grilled Mozambican prawns, grilled beef fillet with a port sauce, kingklip served with fresh tomato & onion sauce, and as a dessert a duet of pears poached in red and white wine served with berry coulis and vanilla ice cream. And that’s just lunch. Bon appétit!
It’s time for our afternoon game drive and Juan leads us to the vehicle. Juan and Wilson are one of the most infamous guide-tracker teams in Africa. Wilson is one of just two Master Trackers, and the two have worked together for 15 years, guiding celebrities and assessing guides at the highest level – the pair are, quite simply, the benchmark by which the standards of tracking in Africa and the world are set, and as keen as anyone to share their knowledge. For us, this is an even greater privilege than the stellar luxury that Royal Malewane offers. And even if you don’t end up with this pair as your guides, the other guiding teams are also among the best qualified anywhere, all with “SKS’ (Special Skills) qualifications. Overall, Royal Malewane has easily the best guiding team of any safari lodge.
We stop for everything big and small on our drive (including a huge black mamba, the most venomous snake in Africa) and engage Juan’s encyclopedic bird knowledge to tick off some mean LBJs from our twitcher list. Stopping for a superb spread of snacks and drinks for sundowners, Juan pulls out a telescope for some new-dimensional stargazing. Don’t forget a good star app for your smart phone when on safari – SkyView is a good one.
Lloyd welcomes us back with a cosmopolitan and we sneak in a cheeky dip in the pool before being escorted to dinner, which tonight is taking place in front of the blazing fireplace. Nathan has prepared a fantastic six-course tasting menu and Lloyd has done the wine pairing; we have zucchini and parmesan soup, grilled Scottish salmon with gorgonzola green beans, grilled rack of Karoo lamb, steamed chocolate pudding and finally a fine selection of cheeses. Never would we have expected such delicacies on a safari, and nothing has ever matched Royal Malewane’s food before or since.
On foot with rhino
Jonathan wakes me up the next morning before the 5 am wake up call – he’s so thrilled at the prospect of going tracking with Juan and Wilson that he wants to make sure we don’t oversleep. We’re in good time to indulge in the lavish early morning buffet with a vast selection of food – yogurt, fruit salad, rusks, muffins and scones.
Soon Wilson spots some fresh rhino tracks from the vehicle and we head into the bush on foot. “Think the way the animal thinks,” says Juan, when the trail goes temporarily cold. “Rhino like the grass that grows underneath Marula trees, so let’s try over there”. Sure enough, there are the tracks. We find them after an hour, dozing lazily, and with the wind in our favour we creep close. It’s fascinating, electrifying – then we silently withdraw without them having even seen us – the way trailing should be done.
Tracking is the origin of science, yet it’s a skill that hardly any of us now possess. It challenges you to a completely new way of thinking, to analyse your own thought processes and embark on a journey of discovery. In this sense, tracking is a metaphor for life. It’s a privilege to have Master and Senior Trackers Wilson and Juan introduce you to this new world.
After lunch we pursue the celebrity guest book (photos and tributes from the likes of Richard Gere and Elton John, who seems to have made Royal Malewane his second home). I head to the award-winning spa, where a 25-meter (heated) lap pool is the dominant feature. Want to do game watching while running on a treadmill? No problem – the fully equipped, air-conditioned gym has floor-to-ceiling glass looking out on the bush. Jonathan opts for the privacy of our private plunge pool and a moment’s relaxation. The problem with Royal Malewane is there’s so much to take advantage of, that you sometimes forget to relax! Two nights is an absolute minimum here – three or four better. Elton John books it out two weeks at a time…
Instead of driving back to the lodge after sundowners on our evening game drive, we’re driven to a secret location for an out-of-this-world bush dinner. With a Moroccan theme, tonight we’re treated to an authentic Bedouin dinner. Even in this remote setting, miles away from the lodge, the attention to detail is astonishing. The dining tables are decorated with fresh flowers, there’s a separate lounge area with antique couches set up next to the dining table, there are place cards and menus on every plate and I quickly lose count of the dozens of lanterns illuminating the venue.
The staff has been working for four hours setting up everything and the chefs have been cooking since the early morning hours. We enjoy a magnificent four-course dinner – spiced beef keftas, vegetable and chick pea soup with flat bread, lamb, chicken tagine, curried vegetable tagine and couscous alongside a selection of Moroccan condiments. For dessert: malva pudding with cinnamon and vanilla crème Anglaise. A magical evening that will not be forgotten, and unsurpassed by any other bush dinner we’ve had.
If someone tells you they were treated like royalty, they usually weren’t. Royals don’t talk about the way they are treated. It becomes true when you don’t even realise that’s what’s happening. At Royal Malewane, nobody will bow to you, pamper you, or even lay your napkin on your lap for you. Not once will you feel that anyone is in your personal space, yet you’ll want for nothing and feel totally at ease. It all comes down to one word: Effortlessness. And every guest, royal or not, is treated the same.
Of course, this kind of experience doesn’t come cheap, even by five star standards, but hospitality like this defies any star rating – which is why fully 30% of Royal Malewane’s guests are return guests. If you’re one of the 70%, you’ll be one of the 30% next time, because there will be a next time.
Unless you want it to be a once-off – a honeymoon or other special occasion, which would be fitting because you’re not going to top this in any safari lodge in Southern Africa.
It’s an experience you’ll cherish forever. We certainly will.
Good for: honeymooners, small groups and families (if children are under 12, one of the suites sleeping four – the Malewane or Royal suite – needs to be booked). For large families and corporate entertaining, Africa House is a six-bedroom villa set nearby with a beautifully colorful African interior, and comes with a private chef.
What we liked best: Impeccable service, world-class guides and understated elegance
What we didn’t like: Hmmm, that’s a tough one…
Our verdict: Royal Malewane is truly in a class of it’s own
We would love to help you plan your own African safari. Contact us today.
Email: info[at]kleincollection.com | South Africa Tel. +27 (0) 21 813 6961