A MAJOR shortcoming of any game reserve is that the game refuses to perform on demand. Planning for a weekend of Big Five viewing is something of a crapshoot, as we discovered on a wet weekend at Leopard Mountain Lodge, a 23000-hectare rhino reserve just past Mkuze in northern KwaZulu-Natal. The lodge itself overlooks stretches of bushland and riverine forests, framed by the distant Lebombo mountain range.
In the days prior to our visit, rain had fallen for the first time in months, breaking a worrying dry spell. There was water everywhere. Every ditch was a pond, cracks in the road had turned to rivers, sand roads were mudslides - and the animals were nowhere to be seen.
It rained through the first night but had stopped when we woke at dawn for the early-morning drive. Leopard Mountain Lodge, like most upmarket game lodges, offers the usual early-morning drive, the sundowner drive and an outing to a well-constructed and comfortable hide overlooking a drinking hole. So there we were, a handful of South Africans and a pair of Argentinians, off to see the animals that would surely have left their lairs, holes and trees to stand on the side of the road and pose attractively. "There were elephant here two days ago," said our guide cheerily. It was soon clear that they had buggered off to drier climes. After an hour and a half of impala- spotting we stopped for tea.
By 8.30 we were at our breakfast tables, having spotted a good number of pretty little birds, lots of nyala, a couple of kudu and many, many more impala. Never mind, I thought, I could do with a good breakfast and a lie down with At Home , Bill Bryson's entertaining social history on why we live the way we do. There are worse places to read a 500-page hardcover than a spacious, private stone and thatch chalet with sweeping views of bush and forest - a view best appreciated from the extra-large king-size bed.
We all gathered for our trip to the hide at around lunchtime. I took my book. The rest took binoculars and misplaced confidence. After 40 minutes we spotted our first living creatures, a bed of ticks on a bench. A welcome diversion and a sound medical excuse to return and eat chocolate brownies. Our sunset drive was a little more productive. A herd of buffalo, three zebra and, at the entrance to the lodge, a rhino named Stoffel who was apparently over 30, on his last legs and more of a mascot than a sighting.
Never mind, I thought, as I sat down to a spectacular dinner. Leopard Mountain offered the best food I have ever had at any game lodge - light, fresh, and irresistible. I got stuck into venison fillets, Roquefort flans, chocolate tortes, poached salmon, risotto, home-baked onion bread - anything, in fact, that was placed before me. I rolled back to my chalet, leaving instructions not to wake me for the morning drive. We woke to sunshine, packed, ate and headed back to Durban via a short detour through Hluhluwe game reserve. Half an hour later we had seen a rhino mother feeding her baby, an annoyed elephant, four happy elephant, a troupe of baboon, neck-butting giraffe, buffalo, wildebeest, a couple of fishing birds and what might have been a leopard in a tree with a kill. It's just dumb luck.
IF YOU GO
WHERE IT IS: The Zululand Rhino Reserve, which houses Leopard Mountain Lodge, is a National Protected Area in the Msunduze Valley in northwestern Zululand. In 2004 the 15 landowners, mostly farmers, removed their internal fences and created a 20 000ha endangered-species reserve, which actively promotes the conservation of black rhino.
WHY GO THERE: To eat far too much food, far too often and enjoy it far too much, and to get away from it all in splendid comfort. There are just nine chalets, all discreetly dotted along the mountain top, all with lounge areas, verandahs and more space than you could possibly need. Oh yes, and to spot game.
WHAT IT HAS: Natural Heritage Site status, mainly because of the rare and beautiful kudu lilies which can be seen around the lodge. The lodge also has a romantic private dining area within a mini boma, which is such a gorgeous experience that I recommend finding any excuse to eat there.
THE FOOD: The chef was trained by Cape Town's celebrity chef Reuben Riffel and it shows in each perfect dish.
RATES: Per person sharing R1 495 per day, which includes breakfast, afternoon tea and a four-course gourmet dinner, two game drives and a visit to the hide.
GETTING THERE: From Durban take the N2 highway, onto the D464 District Road/Leopard Mountain Lodge turnoff on left 32km after Hluhluwe. Proceed to main gate of Zululand Rhino Reserve and follow signposts 12km to lodge.
From Johannesburg take the N2 highway onto the D464 District Road/ Leopard Mountain, turnoff on right 19km after Mkuze. Proceed to main gate of the Zululand Rhino Reserve and follow signposts 12km to lodge.