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  • By Gretchen Richter de Medeiros

There was something immediately magical about River Bend Lodge

We’d been driving along South Africa’s gorgeous southern coastline and the famous Garden Route for 10 days. Heather was my trusty navigator, spotting road signs, tracking our mileage, and guiding me through the turns. I’d gotten comfortable driving on the left side of the road from the right side of the car, but still appreciated her reminders to “hug, hug, hug the curb” when turning left.

Approaching Port Elizabeth we veered north, following signs for Addo National Elephant Park. Heather read our travel agent’s instructions aloud, guiding us towards River Bend Lodge, a private game reserve where we would stay for two nights and three days. We finally reached the massive gates and buzzed for permission to enter. Large signs warned us of the danger of lions within. Exciting!

We’d had some fun animal experiences along the way. We’d seen African Penguins and Rock Hyraxes near Hermanus; Bonteboks, Mongoose and African Oyster Catchers in De Hoop; a monkey sanctuary in Knysna; and hundreds of Ostriches outside of Oudtshoorn. But there was something immediately magical about River Bend Lodge. Maybe it was the lighting, maybe it was the rolling hills, or maybe it was just the thrill of arriving at our first official safari. Whatever it was, we were smitten.

We followed another vehicle past the Lodge up to a thatch-roofed home on a rise. A tall, broad, curly-haired guide jumped out, heartily welcoming us as he opened the van’s doors. “Hello! Hello! So nice to meet you!” we said, “I’m Steve,” he said, all of us talking over each other. “We’re so glad we’re here!” He laughed, and introduced Samuel, who would be our cook while at River Bend’s Long Hope Villa. We caught each other’s eyes with disbelief. A Villa? Our cook? Whaaaatttt???!!!

As budget-conscious travelers, not luxurious vacationers, we’d been staying in self-catered lodging throughout our RTW trip. We’d hired travel agents to plan South Africa, but we hadn’t quite realized River Bend would be a 5-star safari experience. The safari-chic villa’s wide-plank floors, fully stocked bar, game-room and giant beds charmed and thrilled us. Each of the bathrooms offered sweeping views, as did the canopied outdoor daybed situated just-so on a low hill beyond the home’s private swimming pool. So glamourous!

After a brief and delicious lunch of chicken, salad, and warm, buttery rolls, Steve rallied us out to the specially-rigged-for-photography-jeep. We slipped on long sleeve shirts, slapped on some hats, and slopped each other with sunscreen for the first of our game-drives.

First we saw a dazzle of zebra, mothers with their frolicking young. A family of warthogs peered at us curiously, then scampered away with stiff, flagging tails. “Come on guys, follow me!” they seemed to say. We came upon the first of the “Big Five”, a lone Cape Buffalo knee deep in a creek, calmly chewing on grasses and reeds. Steve told us stories about the animals, the collaboration between River Bend Lodge and SANParks, and life as a field guide. He laughed at our unwavering joy each time we saw an animal, any animal, “you’re the only ones who get this excited about warthogs,” he told us.

Near the end of the afternoon, we parked on a ridge with a panoramic view of the property. Steve flipped down a grate attached to the front of the jeep, setting a large cooler on top. He started digging out treats and supplies for our first “sundowner”. Napkins. Goblets. Juice. Cheese-and-Tomato skewers. Dense balls of sweet South African doughnuts. And to top it all off, a chilled bottle of Champagne. It was like Mary Poppins’s magic carpet bag! We nibbled and sipped as we watched the sun begin to set… spectacular.

Heading back towards the lodge, Steve lamented the fact that we’d not yet seen any elephants. He spoke of the herd that lived on the property as if they were his close friends, telling us about their habits and quirks. “I’m not sure where they’ve gotten to,” he said, “I think they may have wandered way up on that mountainside, and if they’re up there, we won’t get to see them today.”

He expertly negotiated the narrow dirt road, bouncing over the ruts and warning us to raise our arms to ward off the branches scraping the sides of the jeep. As we rounded a bend, we suddenly came face-to-face with a meandering young elephant bull! Steve braked. Thrilled, he advised us to be quiet and stay still. Our group watched in awe and silence as the bull considered the jeep in his path. He chose instead to go up and around us, calmly climbing a low bank alongside the vehicle. He was so close, we could have simply reached out our hands and grazed his head, ear, shoulder or flank… again, spectacular.

With that amazing experience, our first day at River Bend Lodge drew to an end. We had a lovely evening meal with Samuel, then fell gratefully in to our beds made up with crisp, lavender-scented linens. Early the next morning we heard a light tapping on our doors. It was our 4:30 wake-up call. Fresh butter-and-chocolate rusks (cookies), hot tea, and strong coffee awaited in the kitchen. Steve came in with bundles of warm ponchos, warning us that the morning drive would be chilly. And thus began another splendid day.

Over the next 48-hours we got to see Jess the Lioness lazing in the grass, raced ostriches, tasted antelope jerky, and spied a Scrub Hare cleaning his whiskers. Each meal was a pleasure. The kids splashed in the pool. The grown-ups drank goblets of South African wines. Samuel shared his recipe for rusks. We may not ever have quite as luxurious an experience again, but we’re thrilled we had this one at River Bend Lodge.

- special thanks to Meagan Yash and the folks at Global Basecamps who organized this portion of our trip.

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