To mark Nelson Mandela’s 100th birthday, The STAND seeks out the late president of South Africa’s favourite places of refuge – still a salve for body, mind and soul.
It’s difficult to overstate Nelson Mandela’s importance to South Africa, and any visitor to the country will see his influence with every step they take. There are a number of places to learn about Mandela’s importance within South Africa’s complicated history: the Apartheid Museum in Johannesburg, Robben Island off the Western Cape and Mandela House in Soweto. And to truly understand where he retreated to for rest and recuperation – and to write – there is the Saxon Hotel and Shambala Private Game Reserve.
To mark what would have been Mandela’s 100th birthday in July 2018, The STAND visits these places of rest and relaxation to discover why they were such places of inspiration for one of the 20th century’s most inspiring political figures.
Set amid 10 acres of pristine gardens, the historic Saxon Hotel in Johannesburg’s leafy Sandhurst neighbourhood is where Mandela stayed as he worked on his autobiography, The Long Walk to Freedom. At that time, the property was the residence of current owner and Compare the Market founder Douw Steyn, himself a close friend of Mandela.
Opened as a hotel in 2001, the Saxon maintains the sense of serenity that surely provided Mandela the peace and quiet needed to complete his memoirs. The hotel is light and spacious, with dual sweeping staircases to welcome guests, and the 53 rooms and suites are elegantly decorated, in a contemporary African style.
Gourmands will welcome the opportunity to try the cuisine of Luke Dale Roberts – of the acclaimed Test Kitchen in Cape Town – at Luke Dale Roberts X the Saxon, expanded from a one-off pop-up to a permanent restaurant at the hotel. And art aficionados will appreciate the thoughtful focus on African artists throughout the Saxon – Hilton Edwards, Hannes Harss, Fiona Rowett and Sandile Zulu are among those featured.
“Much-needed peace and quiet time”
Post-presidency, Mandela was invited by Steyn to take refuge on his estate within the Shambala Private Game Reserve. It was here Mandela entertained dignitaries and friends, but mostly rested and recuperated with his third wife, Graça.
Mandela’s former private secretary, Zelda la Grange, wrote in her book Good Morning, Mr Mandela, that “Shambala not only created the perfect setting for him to write, but also provided much-needed peace and quiet time.”
Largely unchanged since those days, the Nelson Mandela Villa (as it is now known) has been open to the public since 2015. Fully operational, with six bedrooms, butler service, private chef and Wi-Fi, it includes amenities such as an indoor heated pool overlooking a waterhole, a vast outdoor deck and a presidential suite. And an authentically African feel prevails throughout, from the circular kraal (main area) enclosure to the thatched roof, leadwood tree pillars and carved Rhodesian teak door frames.
Paradise on Earth
Steyn’s Shambala safari reserve itself is as tranquil as it is vast. About 200km north (three hours’ drive or a short hop by helicopter) of Johannesburg, it’s an unspoilt 30,000-acre expanse packed with diverse wildlife, and certainly lives up to its name, ‘Shambala’ being a Tibetan word meaning ‘Paradise on Earth’.
Steyn is passionate about animal conservation and had always dreamed of owning a game reserve. So 25 years ago he began buying farmland under the Waterberg mountains in the Limpopo province, on land formerly used for grazing and growing watermelons. Over the next decade he gradually restored it to bushveld, introducing 40 types of mammals, including the so-called ‘Big Five’ (lion, leopard, elephant, rhino and buffalo), and creating the luxurious Zulu Camp.
Originally created for Steyn’s family, the Camp, as befits its name, is built in traditional style: the kraal overlooks the river and is surrounded by trees festooned with weaver bird nests, while accommodation is in eight thatched luxury chalets a couple of minutes’ walk away. These suites are a hideaway from the modern world: no TV, no Wi-Fi (there’s a spot at the bar if you really need it). And there’s no restaurant menu – the chef asks for your likes and dislikes and creates meals tailored to guests’ preferences. The rooms are peaceful but not silent; nature’s soundtrack is musical and hypnotic – birdsong, baboons barking as they play on the opposite riverbank and the croaky chatter of unseen frogs.
A spa overlooking the river offers African-inspired treatments, and sessions are finished off with the Shambala rain stick, which mimics the sound of rain falling and is used to soothe babies in African cultures. Star attraction, though, is the wildlife: the elephant herd stems from a group of orphans Steyn rescued from a culling programme in Zimbabwe before bringing them to Shambala; zebras wander around gracefully; giraffes peer at you as you drive by; and we were humbled to watch two regal male lions yawn and stretch as they woke from a post-prandial snooze.
Evenings at Shambala take on a special magic with the sunset cruise on the Steyn Dam, built in 2001 after Steyn decided to dam the Frikkie-se-loop river. After permission was obtained from the governments of Botswana, Zimbabwe and Mozambique, the result man-made lake is the largest in southern Africa. Today it’s home to hippos and crocodiles, a watering hole for the reserve’s residents and the perfect place to fish before watching the sun turn the sky a dramatic orange.
There really is so much to do here, including game drives, guided bush walks, star-gazing, mountain-bike riding and bush picnics. However, the serene atmosphere is more conducive to rumination than activity. As Mandela himself once put it, “The peace, tranquillity and natural harmony of Shambala serves to remind us of our own striving for reconciliation and togetherness.”
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