* This article first appeared here in the Saturday Citizen Newspaper
The wildebeest, nyala, and jackal were quietly sipping their daily fill from the watering hole below me, while I was drinking in the vivid sunset that was slowly bowing over the Lowveld. The bushveld rolled out before me, stopping only before the mighty Drakensberg mountains kilometers in the distance. A staff member walked by, and reading my mind noted with a smile, “Yes, this happens every day… welcome to Hoedspruit”.
Having previously regarded the Lowveld town as a mere gateway to Kruger, a four-night stay was about to broaden my horizon. Both my research and subsequent conversations with residents revealed that the town was growing, and I wanted to find out why.
JB Burger, an operations manager at a local lodge described Hoedspruit as “a booming little town surrounded by several wildlife estates where people are living in semi-Kruger conditions. A growing ex-pat community helps to add some spice to the area, so it’s hardly a homogenous community. You’re guaranteed to meet some interesting people.”
More than just a doorway to Kruger, the town was now growing as a destination in itself. Increased direct flights from both Cape Town and Joburg have improved the town’s accessibility to the extent where Hoedspruit is becoming a popular spot for a second home for South Africans wanting the bush lifestyle, many even using it as a weekend destination.
Lucky Rapitsi, a local journalist who also mans the tourist office shared with me some of the town’s challenges and victories. When I asked what some of his recommendations were he quickly rattled off a list of attractions including the scenic Panarama Route, the Blyde River Boat trip, and a visit to Nyani Cultural Village. Armed with his suggestions, and some of my own research it was time to explore what visitors can do when visiting Hoedspruit. Here are some of my highlights.
WHAT TO DO
- Kruger Game Drives
A visit to the park should rightfully be the number one activity on your itinerary. If you’re going to opt for the self-drive option, a 40-minute drive takes you to Orpen Gate. If you prefer to enjoy an open-top safari vehicle and the expert advice of a guide, African Dawn Safari operate drives in and out of the Park.
- Chopper Flip
Hoedspruit Helicopters offer you the bucket list opportunity to explore the area by air. I was collected from my lodge and taken on flight to the Blyde Canyon and back. Passing over the Rietvlei Reserve en route meant I spotted wildlife for most of the ride, until the bush gave way to farms and then canyon. This exhilarating activity is even more meaningful as the choppers are supplied by Wild Skies Aviation: a company involved in wildlife conservation and the aforementioned tourist trips which help fund their important work.
- Blyde Boat Trip
The largest green canyon in the world is a mere 30-minute drive away from town, and why not also appreciate it via a boat ride. We met a hippo pod, were treated to impressive views, and the ‘weeping face of nature’ is the second largest tufa waterfall in the world (both an eerie and striking sight.)
- Pampering at Africology
Who says that a bush-break can’t involve a little pampering? Kelly and her Africology Spa team have a beautiful space in town and ensured that all my aches and pains soon disappeared as I enjoyed a relaxing massage and facial.
The variety of activities around also account for the town becoming a destination in its own right. The beauty of Hoedspruit is that your time in the park can now be complemented by other activities.
For those of you, who like me, prefer to remain active, a visit to Hoedspruit means you can have your Kruger time, but also keep up the fitness levels: Hoedspruit ‘rent a bike’ and Hoedspruit Cycle Club are options for bikers, Louwveld Trail Running will keep runners inspired, and then there are several hiking trails available.
WHERE TO EAT
- Sleepers Railway Station Restaurant
A location institution of note, Sleepers is a converted railway station in the centre of town, and here you’ll find locals chatting away over hearty pub meals and late afternoon cocktails. Look out for their themed evenings, and Sunday roasts.
This fairly new eatery on the Hoedpsruit scene is quickly emerging as a firm favourite with locals and tourists alike. Cooked’s menu is seasonal, and the food sensational. My waitrontold me the roast pork belly was a favourite: let’s just say I’d now consider driving back to Hoedspruit for this meal alone.
- Safari Wines
Safari Wines are dedicated to bringing the best of the Cape Winelands to the Lowveld. Besides a notable wine shop, there is an upscale tasting room where you can be taken through a wine or gin tasting, and then a restaurant space with various tantalizing foodie options.
- Khaya Ndlovu Manor House
The Manor House, where I lodged for my visit, is also open to the public for bookings. The breakfast buffets and four-course dinners are complemented with the best views in town – make sure you arrive before sunset… you’ll thank me after.
WHERE TO STAY
Minutes from town and the airport, you’ll find the Khaya Ndlovu Manor House. It’s situated in the heart of the 5500-hectare Rietspruit Reserve and home to a variety of wildlife including three of the big 5: rhino (both black and white), lion and leopard. I quickly realised that this was not your average game lodge. Although there’s a natural focus on wildlife, the staff want the guests to enjoy everything that the greater Hoedpsruit area has to offer, and arrange everything for you.
The Manor House is a marvellously large building, but manages to retain a homely feel with luxuriously decorated spaces and undertones of classy African renaissance. The reception hall and lounge spill out onto the elevated bar and pool deck, with a panoramic view, and below the pool is a watering hole frequented by game.
Owners Trevor and Lisa live on the property and are very active in hosting guests in their home. Over a sunset cocktail, I had the chance to hear a little more of their story. Reclining on the poolside sofa they were clearly at home; Trevor confident in his buttoned-down shirt, and Lisa elegant in her African-print dress.
I quickly realized that Trevor wasn’t your average lodge owner. This maverick businessman come property developer had big dreams. “When I first spoke to the Hoedspruit local council 30 years ago, I told them we need to brand Hoedspruit as the gateway to African Safari. At that stage, the town had one or two little shops, a railway siding, and air force base, and that was it.” Not only has that happened, but this Lowveld town is becoming a destination in its own right.
His role in developing several wildlife estates in and around Hoedpsruit has helped give the town not only a larger local footprint but international also. Today a steady stream of guests from around the world visit both the Manor House and town and are embraced by warm bushveld hospitality. This was a wild first, and definitely not last visit to this emerging wildlife corner of South Africa.
Both Cemair and Airlink offer flights into Hoedspruit from Cape Town and Joburg. I opted for Cemair, branded as South Africa’s most personal airline, and wasn’t disappointed. It’s a two-and-a-half-hour flight from the Mother City, with a delicious meal and drinks served on the flight. At Eastgate Airport there are three car hire options, just remember to book in advance as cars are limited.