MAKALALI (54 kms from Hoedspruit Airport)
Northern Province of South Africa
Tel: (+27 11) 883 5786
Fax: (+27 11) 883 4966

Hoedspruit is in the Northern Province of South Africa, and as you fly in you see a terrain that is green, but not impenetrable. There are trees and brush below but one easily discerns the flat lay of pastureland.

The fully air-conditioned minibus swings onto a well-paved highway and whizzes along. You cannot get an appreciation for the largeness of this country unless you drive it. The veld stretches out from flatlands to gentle hills that seem to creep up into the magnificent Drakensberg Mountain Range. Up here at least, the fruit orchards (mango, papaya, citrus, passion fruit, litchee) are lush and heavy with fruit but they also appear stark and martial, soulless against the spontaneous random patterns of the savanna.

After an hour, you turn off the highway onto a dirt-packed road. At the large carved wooden and padlocked security gates, you continue another 10 kms before the camp turnoff. Only then do you realise how enormous this game reserve is - 2000 hectares and growing. (They have agreed to knock down common fences with the reserve 'next door', which will allow two prides of lion, for example.)

At this point, a Makalali Ranger takes you into his bleacher-seat Land Rover and ferries you to the entrance of your camp. At Makalali (Suto for 'a place to rest'), there are four camps (Tandane, Mkiwa, Emtomeni and Phiva).

A cluster of common rooms and six guest cottages comprise the Emtomeni (Suto for 'Jackalberry tree') camp of the private game reserve. The thatched roof encampments of the Shangaan tribe inspire Makalali.

The camp manager checks you in, then shows you the common spaces - the boma, or open air space, where the barbecue dinners are normally held; a circular swimming pool that mimics a watering hole; chaise lounges on the deck that connects to the covered deck area. Rough-hewn tree branches are tamed into railings. The bleached skull of an elephant is perched on a pedestal, a thing of beauty in itself. Tables for two dot an outer terrace that fronts the main common room.

This room is the largest, sprawling under one large and intricate soaring thatched roof, all of which is in the hug of the large and lacy Jackalberry (Think: California Oak). And this main area overlooks an active river - which acts as a genial watering hole for the animals at dusk.

Guests are accommodated in thatched suites, each overlooking the river below. Each suite is approached by a wood slat walkway; to the left, is an open room hung with bamboo blinds on three sides. This is your own 'sala', or living room, a private thatched perch furnished with comfortable pillows that invite you to sit or lounge in bliss. To the right is another polished wood deck from which you access your bedroom, wonderfully designed with wit and savvy. The fabrics are African, and a fireplace in each suite takes the chill off cool nights.

But it is the bathroom, with wrought iron work, studded with semi-precious stones and whimsically manipulated by an Italian craftsman into washstands and mirrors and candle stands and lampshades, that makes you smile broadly! There is a deep soaking tub and a separate toilet. And outside, a shower with views of the skies above and the river below.

Someone took a lot of time to be creative yet functional with the guestrooms at Makalali. And one eats exceedingly well here too!

All meals for the camps are prepped in a main kitchen by the Executive Chef, and finished at each camp to ensure freshness and perfect temperatures. There are plenty of continental dishes to choose from, but the best bets are the ones with the local flavours and authentic recipes. Meals inspired by the fine kitchens of Morocco or Tunisia.

Breakfast is hearty, and lunch is always cold, and magically served. Typical: chilled carrot/sour cream soup, and a collation of flat bread, smoked trout salad, a local mild cheese, a salad of corn, olives and Chinese sweet beans, pasta/feta. Delicious, smart, heart-healthy stuff.

For dinner, guests group in the communal dining room, and offered cocktails or other refreshments. The cook comes in to announce the menu. Then lanterns and woodburning braziers around the terraces are lit, and the coals in the fireplace if it is cool. The sounds of the forest come up - frogs and crickets in growing crescendo and wind rifling the trees.

The feast begins with a chilled butternut squash/mango soup or a corn and tarragon cream chowder. Main course choices were from grilled steak marinated in herbs, served with Basmati/wild rice, or fish curry or lamb tandoori, on a bed of couscous, served with a salad of pearl onions and green beans and mixed steamed vegetables. Or a red cabbage with sultanas salad, and petit squash and courgettes. For desert, a wicked pound cake drenched with a brandy/honey/almond sauce. A robust Meerlust Rubicon goes perfectly with the meal.

Until 1996, the rolling land of Makalali was a cattle range, so it is relatively new as a Game Reserve. But the animal population, both resident and introduced, has obviously thrived, and animal sighting is a treat, especially with the help of wonderfully savvy rangers. There are four prides of lions and, just recently, 13 new cubs were born. Elephants, rhinos and leopard abound too, but because of the fear of infecting them with legacy cattle vulnerabilities, there are no buffalo here. Giraffe, hyena, jackals, impala, and so much more, including astounding bird life, makes each drive a discovery of the heart.

Far less formal than many of the luxury game parks, Makalali is heaven for adventure travellers that relish the balanced blend of the wild and the wonderful, but always in context of the jungle outside.