In Search of the Great Unplugged

Whether it’s a full digital detox to kick-start the year or just a chance to switch off momentarily, the newly opened Qwabi Private Game Reserve offers just the sort of quiet luxury required to unwind and restore the senses.

By Leigh Robertson

When the beaches are packed — or closed, as so many have been in Cape Town and Durban over the past summer holidays — and the cities oppressively hot, noisy, and cantankerous, it’s not hard to see the bush as the very last vestige of unadulterated luxury, in which peace, quiet and calm along with all things easy on the eye rank right at the top.

There’s a meme (in all its variations) that comes to mind: ‘There is no Wi-Fi in the forest but you will find a better connection’. A solo hiker wandering fearlessly through the wilds, a couple in coordinated beanies sitting cross-legged on a mountain ridge. Whatever the accompanying image, the message is always the same: there are virtues to be found in escaping the always-on aspects of life as much as there are in avoiding the crowds.

But even the bush has its hotspots, as anyone who’s landed in a rush-hour queue of Land Cruisers jostling to view a fresh lion kill or get in on a leopard sighting has discovered. Plus, as much as the smartphone has become an object as maligned as it is coveted, they are never far from one’s side — even when the signal is poor, and they’re rendered nothing more than cameras at the ready for spontaneous snaps.

There are, fortunately, a few places that have managed to retain a feeling of relative seclusion, where complete blissful disconnection still feels possible. Among the very best in South Africa is the Waterberg Biosphere Reserve in Limpopo province.

One of only two UNESCO-declared savannah biospheres on the African continent, this is the natural world in all its pristine beauty, verdant from its flowing waterways and abundant rainfall, and interesting in its varied topography, from water colour-hued grassy plains to lush bushveld and soaring escarpments. That this natural wonderland is malaria-free makes it all the more surprising it hasn’t been over-run.

The efforts to preserve this fragile and precious biosphere are extremely encouraging, too. Qwabi Private Game Reserve, which opened its gates to guests in December, is an 11,000-hectare swathe of land once used for agriculture and which is now being carefully rehabilitated and rewilded. Qwabi’s stance on conservation is rigorous and holistic, whether bolstering its wildlife populations with the introduction of new bloodlines or working on longer-term plans to remove boundary fences with neighbouring reserves while safeguarding against poaching.

Privately owned, Qwabi’s existing infrastructure is undergoing a monumental renovation and refurbishment, with the first of its three distinctive luxury lodge offerings, Letamo, having just launched. Letamo is the larger and more family-friendly of the three and as such offers an ideal base for one requiring time out to recharge one’s senses without having to worry about bored kids. (It’s kitted out with all the amenities to ensure that everyone will be kept happily occupied.)

One gets a strong sense that Qwabi’s conservation ethic extends to its own community, with a very real buy-in to a shared vision from its entire staff. Over breakfast during a weekend stay at Letamo shortly after opening, a query about the lovely trill of an unknown bird led to a delightful animated conversation with a waiter about the Woodlands kingfisher, whose woo-woo-woo call is locally understood as a portent of rain.

This turned out to be true. What started as a clear blue-skied morning transformed in a matter of a few hours into a thrashing electric storm. But not that this prevented our group from heading out for a long late-afternoon game drive, admiring the gleaming landscape, breathing in the sweet clean air, pausing for a few quick botany lessons provided by a knowledgeable ranger while surveying some of the 5,500 plant species endemic to the biosphere.

One needs a good camera — even if only one’s phone — handy at all times. On this same game drive, the photo ops came thick and fast. Jolting up a steep track to reach a particularly good vantage point over the ‘Berg, the mist-like drizzle lifted and a vast double rainbow suddenly appeared, theatrically connecting the savannah plain to the sky. Not long afterwards, our vehicle rounded a corner only to be arrested by a crash of black rhinos, calmly ambling ahead of us at their own pace through the red mud. Then another stop to gawp at a hippo family hot-footing it across the sandy bottom of a large watering hole at an alarming speed.

By evening the sky had fully cleared to reveal bright stars, and we sipped our drinks listening to the rousing chirrup of Bubbling Kassina frogs deep in the reeds fringing the lodge’s waterhole, where the occasional splash and deep-throated grunt were reminders of the proximity of hippos to the boma.

As with daily lodge life in most game reserves, routines at Qwabi are arranged according to the dawn and evening game drives, which here feel especially obligatory and are always rewarding — even if one does not get to encounter the full Big Five roaming this vast tract of land, the staggeringly abundant birdlife is mesmerising.

In keeping with Letamo’s user-friendliness for families, there are additional drives at the civilised hours of 9 am in summer and 10 am in winter. While breakfasts and light lunches are offered at the lodge’s poolside restaurant, bush dinners are to be especially anticipated when the weather allows.

Even on drizzly afternoons, the hours can be happily spent in repose in the elegant comfort of the suites, which have been tastefully decorated to harmonise with the natural surroundings by the highly regarded interior designer Francois du Plessis. And then there’s the excellent Letamo spa where a wide range of replenishing treatments can be savoured, conducted by a coterie of well-trained therapists.

While there might be Wi-Fi in abundance in this particular neck of the bush, so too will one’s connection be of the deeper, replenishing sort after a few days in this beautiful private reserve. And anyway, one can always pretend there was no reception.

  • Start them on the conservation journey early. Letamo Lodge is a family-friendly destination with a generous offering of activities suitable for children of all ages. It comprises 58 rooms with categories ranging from standard and deluxe rooms to premium rooms, suites and luxury suites. Inter-leading family rooms allow for private and shared spaces for adults and kids to enjoy. There’s a separate kids’ swimming pool in addition to the large main pool set between the lodge’s restaurant and bar and a watering hole frequented by wildlife. A fully equipped gym, wellness spa and padel court provide additional diversions to the two daily game drives included in the rate. The 10 luxury suites have private plunge pools.

  • Qwabi Private Game Reserve is a three-hour drive from Johannesburg and is located 60km from the town of Bela Bela. Privately owned, Qwabi is managed by Newmark Hotels and Reserves, joining a portfolio that includes Motswari Private Game Reserve in the Timbavati, Nkomazi Private Game Reserve in Mpumalanga, and Mount Cambdeboo Private Game Reserve in the Eastern Cape.
  • Two more lodges on Qwabi Private Game Reserve are set to open this year: Babohi, exclusively for adult guests, will offer 25 rooms ranging from premium to luxury suites. Semela, ideally suited for group bookings, will offer 24 guest rooms. Watch this space!
  • For bookings and more information about Letamo at Qwabi Private Game Reserve, go to newmarkhotels.com
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