It would take more than rain and hail to dampen our enthusiasm for this gem of a lodge, situated on a private reserve close to Grahamstown in Eastern Cape.
“I have to admit”, says our guide Jason, “that I’ve never been in a situation like this before”. Just fifteen minutes ago we were admiring a beautiful white rhino and her calf, right out in the open, just a few metres away. OK so she was a bit skittish, charging up and down a bit. “Odd behavior”, remarked Jason, “But she’s probably sensing the storm”. The thunder, at this point, seemed far away.
And only five minutes ago we were watching magnificent Duma, undisputed king of the reserve’s lion pride while his associate female showed more than a passing interest in a nearby Blesbok, stalking low against the ground as the sky darkened. Fast.
Just two minutes ago we were still debating whether to stop soon for sundowner drinks, or head back to the lodge. Then it came. The wind whipped up, lightening flashed overhead, squalls of hail stones scattered the bush and thunder crashed across the green hills. Jason put his foot down. “An open top vehicle is the last place you want to be in a storm”, he says as we dash for the nearest shelter. We arrive just as the full force of the storm hits, huddling in our ponchos with other guests and guides, everyone caught out by the fast-changing weather. Tonight our G&Ts will be chilled by hailstones. Now that’s something to remember!
Only four hours ago we arrived in the blazing hot sun, greeted by Molutu and Koleka with a cocktail, sipping chilled wine over a delicious smoked salmon lunch, and relaxing in our private plunge pool. Which brings us onto Kichaka itself. What makes this place so special?
It’s hard to know where to begin, but when in doubt, start with the people. Charming Koleka is our ‘butler’ – the one who shows us our room, takes our orders and remembers what we like to drink. Matt, the chef, makes an appearance at the end of each meal to check everything is well with his guests, and receives unanimous applause each time. The food at Chitaka is very impressive – from the choice of six hot breakfasts (as well as the buffet) to three-course gourmet dinners each night and delicious lunches, just small enough to leave room for afternoon tea and freshly-baked cakes.
Our thatched chalet, one of ten, is huge, beautifully decorated and opens onto a large private wooden deck and private heated plunge pool. Best of all, our chalet (and the main lodge) look out onto a small dam inhabited by a hippo called Harry, who you’ll hear honking if you’re lucky.
The attention to detail is superb, from a personalised welcome note and free wi-fi to an IPod docking station attached to speakers, so you can listen to your own music if Harry is away from home. The main lodge is no less luxurious, with a main lounge, including a grand piano that guests are encouraged to play, and a diverse library. Huge log fires provide warmth and intimacy on cold winter days and the main swimming pool is stunningly situated right next to the dam, so you can pretend you’re swimming with Harry.
As well as regular game drives, guests are free to request night drives, with decent chances of spotting caracal and aardwolf (and, recently, even the ultra-elusive aardvark). Bush walks can also be arranged, there’s a great spa, and for something different, ‘cosmic safaris’ can acquaint you with the southern night skies. Even fishing can be arranged.
It’s still drizzling for our game drive next morning but it doesn’t matter – we find the lions again and more interestingly (for us) see two crows mobbing a long-crested eagle. Jason adapts well to his guests’ interests, is as passionate talking about termites as he is about the Big Five, and the quality of guiding is well above many similar lodges. As guides ourselves, this is important and makes a big difference to our enjoyment.
It’s our last night (sadly), we’re walking back to our suite after another sumptuous dinner from Matt and spot an animal flash across the board walk. It’s gone to fast to be sure, but could it have been the elusive caracal, that cat we’re so desperate to see? There’s one that’s often spotted close by. We soon forget our disappointment – we open the door and the light from 80 candles spelling ‘We Love U’ cast flickering shadows across the room, enticing us to a bath filled with hot water and bubbles, a complimentary bottle of chilled sparkling wine within easy reach. It’s been a year since our honeymoon but it feels like that all over again.
To us, a lodge ‘has it’ when enough of the small things come together to create a great experience, and it’s amazing how clear it is, and how quickly it becomes obvious. (When, that is, you’ve had the good fortune to visit as many safari lodges as we have). Whether you get sunshine or storms (or both), take it from us – Kichaka has it and if you’re looking for an Eastern Cape safari, you won’t go wrong here.
Good for: Honeymooners and families alike looking to combine a convenient safari with great hospitality
Not so good for: ‘True’ wilderness, although it’s up there with the best Eastern Cape has to offer
Our verdict: Elegant luxury and attention to detail make this one of our top picks of Eastern Cape lodges