An Off-the-Grid African Gem

By Chelsy Maumbe

Tranquility is sitting on a sun bed outside Sable Sands Lodge, coffee mug in hand, as we gaze at the parade of elephants plodding along the ancient riverbed of the famous Dete Vlei, towards the solar pumped “wildlife waterhole” in the warmth of the early African morning sun. This is wild, raw, a majestic beauty of nature and the epitome of living.

Brought back into existence in 2012, this ‘off the grid’, eco-friendly safari lodge, is family owned and managed by Marleen Post and Brian Sabeta, who are both passionate about food and wildlife, they have steadily established a great reputation for their personalised and custom-made experience complete with an adoring team, homely food and unparalleled elephant encounters. Sable Sands is located within a private Forestry Concession on the outskirts of the unfenced and world-famous Hwange National Park, conveniently situated 8km from the Hwange National Park, 7km from the Painted Dog Conservation and 200km from Victoria Falls.

The main area holds the restaurant, lounge, library and a bar with full views of the vlei and the “sable sands”. A quaint little tree house allowed us to cool off in the shade during the heat of the day. The lodge has adopted the use of sustainable energy resources such as sun, fire, gas and a sound-proofed generator, harvesting dead wood for cooking and heating up the traditional wood boilers. Each deluxe room has solar lamps for later in the night once the generator is switched off to allow guests to enjoy the sounds of the African night. We are truly disconnected from the hustle of the city life and immersed fully into the sounds and sights of the bush instead.

Delicious and freshly prepared, the food at Sable Sands is, where possible, supplied from a local garden of fresh herbs and produce, and is certainly a contributing factor to their consistently high reviews: Marleen and Brian are both from a food and beverage background. In the evenings, we enjoyed three course dinners inside the main dining area, and had cosy chats under a blanket of the starry African night sky with Chenai and MC while the flames of the nightly camp-fire flickered in the breeze.

There is nothing quite like sleeping in the midst of the wild to bring one closer to nature’s wonders. Our vlei room, one of their five tasteful lodge rooms, overlooks the waterhole and is directly situated at the Dete Vlei. It is designed following a traditional Zimbabwean round rural home structure called ‘rondavel’, built from brick with big thatch roofs and has an en-suite bathroom. We have an adaptable sleeping set-up with mattress converters that can easily transform from single, twins or doubles at the drop of a hat. It is a welcomed relief, to live in this mix of nature, wildlife, comfort, with millions of stars blanketing us, and the nightly sounds, a lullaby. Nestled in the teak forest, near the tree house and swimming pool, the ‘classical’ rooms built in 1989, housed Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II and her husband Prince Phillip, in 1991.

A soft knock on the door, tells us that it is 6am and our morning drive will begin within the hour. We are privileged to be doing the two star safari which means we will experience two safaris, early morning and late afternoon in both the Sable Sands private concession, the neighbouring estate and into Hwange National Park. Covering over 14,000 square kms (half the size of Belgium) the Hwange National Park is Zimbabwe’s largest National Park and home to over 350 birds add more than 100 mammal species. Our safari planning is entirely at the expert discretion of our gifted Safari guide, Munyaradzi Pakamisa. Inspired by his father and Beks Ndlovu, he joined  Zimparks in 2009 as a game ranger and resigned in 2015 where he then moved to being a guide. With expertise garnered from being both a ranger and a guide, Munyaradzi decides the best route to take depending on the game movement. The only other guests are boarding a train to Victoria Falls that morning, so we have the safari to ourselves, yay! Our warm green ponchos on and glass console bottles in hand (there is an emphasis on avoiding single use plastic bottles) we excitedly board the safari vehicle and begin our chilly morning tour.

Driving down the dirt roads as we meander through the ever-changing landscape, from dense forests to jaw-dropping open vleis and acacia woodlands, we identify a number of waterholes where boreholes have been drilled to supplement water for the animals. At the Nyamandlovu Platform, a breathtaking picnic spot and viewing point, we stop to watch the animals coming to the watering hole to quench their thirst and as we have our lovely brunch packed for us by the kitchen team. It is a pure, wild and exceptionally beautiful experience to eat and drink in the unspoilt nature together with the wildlife; to go back to the basics of just listening, seeing and feeling. The Dete Vlei is frequented by herds of sable antelope, elephant, buffalo and other plains’ game species with lucky sightings including lions, cheetah, painted dog, jackal and on the rare occasion, leopard. Add to this the incredible selection of an estimated 350 bird species and you have one the most beautiful wildlife havens on earth. At the end of our drive, we spot very fresh lion tracks and spend the better part of an hour trying to trek the majestic animal but are unlucky; we will have to see the lion another day.

After lunch, we settle down on the plush cushions in the lounge area, and interact with the staff, who have plenty of striking stories to tell about their encounters with various guests and wildlife over the years. Million Moyo, the barman and waiter at the restaurant started working in the ’90s for when the lodge was still under the management of Touch the Wild. Having developed his passion fully for wildlife and tourism over the years, his fondest encounters are from moments shared with many OAT groups (Overseas Adventure Travel) who have stayed at the lodge. He has encountered the cheetah before at the lodge and appreciates the glow of a cheetah’s tear.

We are joined by Chenai Dodzo, (the marketing manager), on our sun downers safari, where we encounter a large population of very special ‘Presidential Elephants’ and learn about their family structures and behaviours. The adrenaline rush, sitting in an open safari truck as tens of elephants file closely past us in the most defined line is inimitable. The National Park is not fenced, therefore, all animals wander freely through. Our other sightings include zebras, warthogs not forgetting vast and stunning species of birds and of course the beautiful, sable antelope. Our stop, at Acacia Grove, which is charming piece of land along the vlei, scattered with old dead acacias and teaks; we watch mischievous baboons playing with and teasing each other in this their very special jungle gym. We are right at home here, sipping on a chilled glass of white wine, with an array of finger foods and dips, as we watch the sun set over the edge of the concession.

The Sable Sands family is a conservation friendly group, and truly have the earth and wildlife at heart in all their works. Currently, they wholeheartedly support The Soft Foot Alliance, The Painted Dog Conservation Centre and the Cheetah Conservation of Zimbabwe. The Soft Foot Alliance is based in the communal area located on the edge of the Hwange National Park and uses simple solutions to regenerate the landscape for the people and wildlife so people can co-exist with other soft feet on the landscape. The painted dog conservation aims to protect and increase the range and numbers of painted dogs in Zimbabwe through action and education. The cheetah conservation Project Zimbabwe (CCPZ) helps to conserve cheetahs through (applied) research, education, collaboration and capacity building. The Sandra Jones Centre is a home for orphans and abandoned babies and children in crisis, which has been operating for over 10 years and has had over 900 children pass through their care.

Driving out, we find ourselves face to face with more than 200 buffalo, beasts  roaming past in a cloud of dust, make their way to the watering hole. It is an exhilarating experience that leaves a large footprint on my soul. We make a promise to return, as we bundu bash through the forest back to our busy lives.- © NZiRA Travel Zimbabwe, Issue 14

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