‘Paradise on earth’ is a phrase many luxury resorts use, often without justification, but Douw Steyn, arguably South Africa’s most successful international entrepreneur, uses the Zulu word for it, Shambala, with pride. That is the name of his 30,000 acre private game reserve three hours’ drive north of Johannesburg.
Fly into that city at dawn, the typical time for long-haul flights to arrive, and less than 24 hours from leaving your home the other wide of the globe, or where it seems to be, you find yourself in a paradise Adam and Eve would have been happy with. The gal went to find out.
Finally, after a drive that seems to include some 30 miles of road construction, you turn off through an inches-deep ford, to Shambala Private Game Reserve’s thatched reception lodge where your vehicle is parked during your stay. You are welcomed by Shambala manager, Conrad Meyer, one of Africa’s finest hosts.
He offers chilled towels, chilled waters, chilled Möet & Chandon. This is not a glass, incidentally, but a bottle. Take the whole thing with you for the next stage of your arrival. Transfer to a Toyota Land Cruiser, and you drive 30 minutes through the scrubland, stopping for a giraffe here, some zebras there.
Douw Steyn has long had his own home here (an extraordinary two-floor Palladian affair overlooking a big lake he created). Two years ago he opened a luxury safari lodge, Shambala Private Game Reserve, not to make money but to give pleasure.
Each of the eight villas looks like hobbit meets a bird’s nest with a bit of beehive thrown in. The walls and ‘ceiling’ are, inside and out, thatch held with sticks. Inside you have instant boiling-hot water, and top-quality bed and bathroom stuff.
Your private outside deck has a second, outside, shower. There is air-conditioning and a telephone – instead of television, look at the panorama through your windows. You have WiFi, and free, in public areas.
Because of the animals around, you are not allowed to run or walk outside the immediate compound and there is no gym as such but they will bring you a Pilates ball, weights and stretch bands.
What is more glorious than lying on your wooden deck and doing some of the exercises that Nathalie at Bodyism taught me at The Bulgari Hotel London only a couple of days ago? Do a big stretch and the frogs around seem, exactly at that moment, to applaud in a cacophony of croaking. I do another big stretch and wonder which other Leading Hotel, anywhere in the world, can match this?
The front door of my hobbit house opens to the communal yard, the size of a tennis court. It is covered in pebbles, that get into the gaps of the soles of my Nikes and thus, sadly, on to the polished wood floors of my house, but of course, being Shambala a doormat is provided. This yard is right by a mini-lake formed by the river that runs between resort and 20-foot high cliffs.
By the yard’s railings are trees filled with nests of village weaver birds. The grapefruit-shaped nests, formed of green leaves, are built by males and if the females do not approve, they thrown them down to the ground in a show of domestic abuse, and the males have to start all over again.
Go up seven wood steps from the yard to the spacious recreation zone, with a curvilinear thatched roof and open sides – yes, judging by the supply of black golfing umbrellas strategically placed around, it does sometimes rain. There are two tables for ten, and, beyond, seating areas with a library of wildlife books or such tomes as Women Writers of Africa, and a cabinet with bottles of Hennessy, Remy Martin XO and 20-year KWV brandy.
Weave around in an S-shape to a big bar, a wall display of some of the resort’s wine cellar – labels by Jordan and Meerlust, for instance – and a 15-foot wavy-edged swimming pool and loungers and another dining area with tables-for-two.
At this all-inclusive resort, you can eat where and when you choose. The chef, in pristine whites, but fortunately without a white hat (it would be over the top, and this establishment is discretion personified), comes to discuss what you would like to eat.
At lunch he produces a freshest salad and a tofu creation. Dinner is avocado salad and roast lamb, with home-made wholemeal rolls. Butter rolls are under a silver hat. For dinner service Piet augments his beige polo shirt and chinos with white gloves.
The Methode Ancienne Springfield Wine Estate 2004, a Cabernet Sauvignon, is carefully served from a stylish decanter. Last weekend a Middle Eastern royal was here – even the 35 staff will not reveal more, even to me – and yes, chef can do hallal, although kosher is a challenge.
All food has to be trucked in as nothing can be grown on the spot. Strict environment regulations forbid even the growing of non-indigenous herbs in pots. Introduction of produce on the root leads to immigration of alien insects and before you know where you are all kinds of foreigners have been brought into paradise.
Typically, after such a dinner, you then walk back past the blazing log fire in the centre of the luxury resort’s courtyard and discuss plans for tomorrow. An elephant ride anyone? A sunset cruise on the ark, also known as the two-deck cruiser on the lake that Douw Steyn built? Watch this space.