WATCH: The 5-star lodge where elephants drink out of the pool

2019-05-29 08:53 - Gabi Zietsman
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Zebras munching on yellow blades, a wildebeest looking for a mate, warthogs out on a family stroll - all while never leaving the laziness of a wildlife lodge.

This is known as a 'sofa safari' - the idea that you don't have to don a wide-brimmed hat and some veld shoes to see wild animals. In some places, they come to you, and at Mhondoro Safari Lodge & Villa, they come with out-of-this-world photo opportunities.

You might have heard of them - this is the place where elephants drink from their salty swimming pools, making for one extra selfie. At just the right height for their thirsty trunks, the lodge and villa pools have become a favourite watering hole.

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mhondoro's famous elephant pool

The famous poolside where elephants like to drink - but note that it is a saltwater pool and poses no threat to the grey giants. (Photo: Gabi Zietsman)

But there's more to Mhondoro than just their frequent visitors.

The 5-star luxury accommodation is nestled in the plains of Welgevonden Game Reserve in Limpopo in the shadow of Waterberg, just under three hours from the buzzing Johannesburg. This reserve comes with one key difference to its neighbour Marakele National Park - no private vehicles are allowed on its roads. Only safari vehicles and personnel may drive on its winding trails, offering a reprieve of the traffic that can accompany wildlife sightings.

jackal lying down in the grass

A jackal at twilight. (Photo: Gabi Zietsman)

Arriving in style

We said goodbye to the car at the entrance of Welgevonden, where we were picked up by one of Mhondoro's most energetic guides - Ivan Ueckermann. After a sip on some gin and tonic, our bags packed tightly onto his vehicle, we set off into the wilderness. In the middle of the day we weren't expecting to see too many animals on our way to the lodge - but the heat had sent a herd of elephants into the cool depths of a dam.

It turned into one hell of a pool party, the one trying to drown the other in a playful wrestling match, their trumpets signalling the joyous moment.

Even Ivan was amazed by a sight - in his long history of guiding he has never seen this before.

But alas we had to make it to the lodge before the evening game drive, and tore ourselves away from the delightful elephants to Mhondoro.

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elephants swimming in a dam

Elephants having the best time in the water. (Photo: Gabi Zietsman)

elephants swimming in a dam

(Photo: Gabi Zietsman)

elephants swimming in a dam

(Photo: Gabi Zietsman)

elephants swimming in a dam

(Photo: Gabi Zietsman)

The watering hole built for photographers

One of the key attractions of Mhondoro is its ingenious watering hole. Far in the front of the lodge, it's accessed by walking a 65-metre underground tunnel which lights up with each step, its walls lined with photos taken of its four-legged visitors. 

When you finally reach the end, you are unprepared for how close you'll be to the animals. The hide is built low under the ground, so that when you peer outside you're at eye-level with the wildlife - even below them. It's the best spot for any avid photographer, the waters creating an otherworldly mirror image.

It stimulates a very different dynamic compared to watching them from a safari vehicle - there you are removed, almost looking down on them, but at the watering hole the roles are reversed and you're left feeling a little exposed.

SEE: Riding through a Western Cape game reserve on horseback

wildebeest by water

A lone male wildebeest at the watering hole. (Photo: Gabi Zietsman)

warthog drinking water

A thirsty warthog and oxpecker. (Photo: Gabi Zietsman)

zebras at watering hole

A couple of munching zebras. (Photo: Gabi Zietsman)

Luxe accommodation fit for royalty

Mhondoro is owned by a Dutch couple, one in finance and the other interior design, and the latter has had a strong arm in the decor that permeates through the lodge - a mix of African chic and European style. Only 20 guests can be accommodated, a mark of its exclusivity, and the accommodation options include deluxe suites, a two-bedroom executive suite (which I stayed in), a family suite and a honeymoon suite with its own spa pool.

But the main attraction is the private villa that's almost a lodge by itself. It can accommodate six guests (a two-bedroom annexe is also available to add on), comes with its own elephant-worthy pool, a private gym and yoga room, your own personal chef (who is a delight), butler and housekeeping staff. Its price tag sits at about R45 000 a night - but is inclusive of everything you can think of. 

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bathroom in mhondoro's executive suite

The bathroom of the Executive Suite. (Photo: Gabi Zietsman)

Big 5 game drives

As the sun just starts to peek over Waterberg, you will be sipping on invigorating coffee before setting for a morning drive. Golden light spills over the landscape, and just like us the animals were already roaming around before the sun got too hot. We stopped next to a vlei for the usual bush appetisers to warm ourselves after the fresh air, but Mhonodoro does something a little extra - steaming bush pancakes and a delectable array of fillings - even milktart!

field guide showing a zebra skull

Our guide Ivan showing a zebra's skull to us. (Photo: Gabi Zietsman)

In the afternoon, our evening drive kicked off around four, which included a 'hunt' for an elusive male lion, roaming through the bush and trees much to the dismay of some monkeys nearby. We were so set on following him around that we ended up skipping our sundowners, but made up for it the next evening. 

lion running through the bush

A lion on the move. (Photo: Gabi Zietsman)

A cool tip - ask if you can sit in front next to the field ranger for the best seat in the house when it comes to photos.

But if waking up that early is not what you're looking forward to in a holiday, remember that amazing watering hole, where you can sit the whole day and just wait for the animals to come to you.

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chameleon on a human's finger at night

A surprised chameleon discovered on a night drive. (Photo: Gabi Zietsman)

Tracking elephants on a bush walk

Another fun excursion offered by Mhondoro is guided bush walks - without the safety of a safari vehicle. We started on foot with our guide from the lodge, intimidating the bush with his gun swinging on his side. His eyes are tuned into spotting tracks and signs of wildlife - benevolent or malicious - but the walk focuses a little more on the small critters and plants of the bush that you will miss on a game drive.

monarch butterfly on a stalk

A monarch butterfly. (Photo: Gabi Zietsman)

Walking in the wrinkly footsteps of elephants, we came upon some fresh dung where a beetle was busy creating its life-giving ball out of the moist sustenance. Our guide showed us the spot where hyenas have marked their territories with their anal glands. We checked out plants that come from afar because animals have dropped their seeds in their droppings.

While many exciting encounters could take place on a bush walk, it's more an educational tour and a close-up look at how the bush's ecosystem works in harmony with those that call it home - and humans are its guests. 

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dung beetle rolling in elephant poo

A dung beetle with its prize. (Photo: Gabi Zietsman)

*Disclaimer: Gabi Zietsman from Traveller24 was hosted by Mhondoro Lodge and Villa.

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