Welcome To The Waterberg


The new Qwabi Private Game Reserve offers luxury conservation-conscious experiences in the malaria-free Waterberg Biosphere in Limpopo.

By: Inga Sibiya 

It was Maya Angelou who said, “People will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.” After spending a week being washed over by the Waterberg’s wet cycle, and left completely astounded by the various fauna and flora of the biosphere, it’s worth considering the amended: people will remember what you did and what you said, because of how you made them feel. 

Part of the Newmark Hotel Group, Qwabi Private Game Reserve offers a safari experience that harks back to the era where curiosity and reverence for nature influenced the way in which we interacted with it. Bushwhackers who have spent their fair share in various game parks know all too well how often sightings can be ruined when crowds of compacted land cruisers descend upon a group of unsuspecting animals. Qwabi, which translates to African wild cat in Sesotho, joins 19 other lodges within the 650 000-hectare Waterberg Biosphere that has made a commitment to sustaining the ecosystem through ethical game lodge and safari practises.  

What is particularly appealing about the recently renovated game reserve is that it is set in one of the only two UNESCO-declared savannah biospheres on the continent. On top of that, the richly diverse savannah biome is in the malaria-free Waterberg wilderness, which is believed to be more than 2.5 billion years old. The pay-off is the dramatic scenery, as evidenced in the striking landscapes and the extraordinary wildlife that roams this lush area, fronted by Africa’s Big Five. 

“We’re striving towards creating a sustainable conservation community,” explains Ryan Roach, Group Commercial Director at Newmark Hotels. This is no simple undertaking. The ambitious conservation project focuses on preserving the natural heritage sites within the area, as well as safeguarding all the animals that call the area home.  

Rewilding and reviving

The private game reserve, previously agricultural land, has been thoughtfully rewilded with more species being introduced regularly. In conjunction with the Waterberg Nature Conservancy, Qwabi have also embarked on an intensely focused genetic management programme, bringing in healthy black-maned lions from a Kalahari bloodline and elephants from bloodlines that carry large tusks, as well as  carefully managing the existing wildlife. 

More than 5 500 species can be found in the reserve, including several uncommon birds and animals like white-backed night-herons, aardvarks and brown hyenas. With such abundant birdlife, it’s a birder’s paradise and having one of the most prolific Cape vulture breeding colonies nearby means these vulnerable raptors can often be spotted. 

We could enjoy a game drive with any one of the six safari rangers that work across the three lodges – Letamo, Babohi and Semela – however, one particular ranger, Frederik ‘Frikkie’ Barnard, is a wealth of information from explaining hyenas’ navigational methods to detailing plants and bulbs in the forest that are safe for human consumption.  

Qwabi is a refuge for a thriving white rhino population, which is under constant hi-tech surveillance. An anti-poaching team 50-rangers strong is armed and always on call to ensure as few animals as possible are harmed. All the lodges and reserves that are part of the conservation project have pledged to discontinue dehorning of rhinos.

The Qwabi team have maintained that while dehorning rhinos deters poachers short-term, it just kicks the can down the road, forcing poachers to cast their nets wider, so to speak. Now, one of the largest populations of rhinos left on the planet are left to exist in the Waterberg Biosphere, as nature intended.  

On standby was Qwabi General Manager Dr André Uys to share his wealth of experience about animal conservation with us. As part of the conservation project, the local reserves and lodges within the conservation habitat plan to relocate roughly a dozen cheetahs as part of a bigger programme to transport over 100 cheetahs from South Africa to Asia over the next decade.

With a global population of only 6 500, a severe intervention is needed to ensure these endangered wild cats aren’t wiped from the planet completely. The intention is to translocate a group of cheetahs annually and monitor their mating habits and reacclimating in order to preserve the population. 

Qwabi sits on the precipice of history, as it has a hand in facilitating the revival of many endangered species. Though this game reserve occupies only 11 000-hectares of the Waterberg, the greater region is vast, and the remaining animals are free to roam within the thorn trees, along the cliffs and around the rivers and streams of the area.  

This makes animal sightings a treat, but not a given. After all, we are in the animals’ backyard. The Waterberg Biosphere boasts over 40 species of game, including sable antelope, nyala, oryx, eland, giraffe, buffalo, white rhino and well over 300 species of resident and migrant birds. Daily game drives from Qwabi can get you as close to the animals as ethically possible, but nature takes care of the rest. 

Something for everyone

Meanwhile, the thoughtfully curated child-friendly safari offering at Letamo Lodge makes it a shoo-in for an impactful family holiday. Activities coordinator Lindsay Whitton is all about building the next generation of budding conservationists and in lieu of this, she has devised the Junior Conservationists Programme to encourage a deep, long-lasting appreciation of the natural world.

“At Qwabi, conservation underpins our core values and we want to instill this same passion in young children. It’s the way forward and all the activities we offer have this front of mind,” she says. “There will be an opportunity every day to do something age-appropriate both in camp and nearby, with youngsters chaperoned at all times. Whether it’s learning about tracking, seeing how indigenous seeds grow or hanging out in the Junior Conservation HQ, youngsters will leave us with a fresh appreciation of nature.” 

All this while they offer guests a high-end leisure experience. We get to enjoy the animal calls that echo between the mountains in style and comfort. For additional privacy, Babohi is an exclusively adult lodge. It’s a serene bushveld escape with fine cuisine, refined accommodation and polished service. Semela Lodge lends itself better to corporate retreats and larger private functions, such as weddings.  

We stayed at Letamo, where the luxury suites have their own plunge pools, making them perfect for couples. The on-site wellness spa, which includes a fully serviced fitness centre, has a tranquillity room for meditation and three treatment rooms with a variety of treatments, from crystal massage to a baobab facial. And while the main restaurant is elegant, bush dinners under a shimmering night sky are a highlight on the experience agenda. With next-to-zero light pollution, the stargazing at is unrivalled.  

Clearly a very appealing spot for a wilderness wellness retreat. 

The Essentials

The climate is generally mild in the Waterberg region, with the coldest temperatures experienced in July and the hottest in December. The months of December and January also typically see late afternoon thunderstorms roll in.  

Qwabi Private Game Reserve is approximately three hours by road from Johannesburg and 60km from the town of Bela-Bela in a malaria-free area. It is easily accessible for self-drive visitors, although guests may also fly into the reserve via helicopter. For bookings, visit bookings.newmarkhotels.com 

Getting there

SAA flies between Durban and Johannesburg and Cape Town and Johannesburg several times a day. Visit flysaa.com

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