Makalali Main Lodge – reviewed

 

The Good

  1. Traverse rights on 27000 ha [reclaimed bushveld] offers all-year access to the Big 5 including Black Rhino.
  2. Spacious rooms have an outside shower, an outside patio [two chairs & a small table], cotton percale linen, durable mats and the other / expected amenities including free Wi-Fi, in-room spa treatments and a small bar-fridge.
  3. Contemporary décor & a well-appointed common, offers a suitable balance between comfort, luxury and value.
  4. The lodge features a small rimflow pool, a basic curio-shop and four, open-plan rest areas.
  5. A large under-cover seating area services a buffet-style breakfast & lunch.
  6. Dinner is served in a well-appointed, open-air boma. This facility boasts an open-flame cauldron-type campfire & the requisite seating [safari-type director chairs]. Buffet-style outdoor dining is prepared on site over open flame. A river-sand-covered floor completes the dinner-under-the-stars
  7. Breakfast is a combination of fruit platters / cold cereals and chef-served hot food. Lunch is served the same way.
  8. A small library displays Africana literature and a robust ‘field guide’ collection.
  9. Free Wi-Fi.

The Bad

  1. For the puritans the ‘Big 5’ is not free-roaming. The reserve’s buffalo are protected in a small 500 ha boma. A young heifer, hand-reared, is as tame as the ‘safari’ itself.
  2. Game-viewing is average at best.
  3. Under-maintained thoroughfare & access roads are a disquieting recipe for a back-ache, bleeding / bruised kidneys and a long-stay headache.
  4. Main Lodge overlooks the aging River Lodge, a ‘5-star’ facility located immediately opposite / across the shared river frontage. River Lodge, in turn, overlooks the Main Lodge’s public areas & its residents’ outdoor showers.
  5. The location, although remote, does not ‘feel like the ends of the earth’ but is more contrived, synthetic and offers nothing unique to the experienced safari-goer.
  6. No table linen at dinner.
  7. Drinks, including water, are for own account.
  8. Unimaginative setting & locale.
  9. Whilst meeting the ‘combination-holiday’ brief, Main Lodge is a confusing pastiche without focus or a unique service-delivery.
  10. Illogical design flaws in the bathrooms & other design-safety flaws [e.g. no railings / protection around living trees in deck cut-outs] are an accident in the making.
  11. Field-staff are poorly-trained & have no ‘plan B’ for experienced safari-goers expecting more insight rather than a paint by numbers safari.
  12. No safari-vehicle ramp / loading bay for older guests makes getting into the vehicle difficult.
  13. Guest parking is rustic at best.
  14. Access to the facility is ‘difficult driving’ [i.e. a corrugation nightmare] particularly for guests travelling in a sedan-type vehicle.

The Ugly

  1. Despite being expected, NO arrangements had been made for our 3-year old son.
  2. We were asked to join a family of 8 [offshore guests] on a safari vehicle, a request we declined. The vehicle has seating for 9 adults plus one extra in the front seat next to the driver. On the assumption that our son was to stay behind [policy not communicated to us at the time] and given the reserve’s policy that trackers vacate the jump seat and sit in the vehicle at a Big 5 sighting, who was doing the maths?

Bottom line

The 30-room, boutique hotel [sub-divided into three dormitory-style, double-story blocks of 10 rooms each plus a common area incl. pool, viewing deck and a boma] offers a fair balance between comfort & value; and is best suited for guests on a combination holiday. Whilst some improvements are required across the range and the experience is more synthetic than expected, our stay was pleasant [but for ‘the welcome’] and generally rewarding. Simple fixes include better safety awareness and more attention to detail, particularly on arrival.

The Welcome‘ should extend beyond the indemnity forms & a pretty juice – guests might even enjoy an orientation of the facilities & an accompanied walk to the allocated room… The library, whilst well-appointed, is at odds with the minimalistic décor – patrons expose their backs to the draft. The location of the lodge [a misnomer really] is at odds with common sense unless the adjacent River Lodge is to be relocated elsewhere. In context Main Lodge has only been ‘operational’ since October 2017 & in fairness, the structure is raw and unfinished. Maintenance work is on-going – an unpleasant reminder for guests hoping for an experience more ‘idyllic’ / opulent.

The setting itself would turn a funeral up a side street. Cut thorn-tree branches, to promote new growth at a guess, decorate the lodge-gardens and the immediate areas adjacent to and around the walk-ways en route the rooms. A raw-concrete footpath is appended to the wooden walkway servicing the commons. This concrete oddity immediately passes its intended finish & snakes its way away into the distance. Guests appreciate a brisk walk into the bush / night before the path retreats on itself & meanders back towards the residential block in an impressive loop. Somnambulant patrons are exposed to close-up / distant / close-up views of the brick & steel dormitory. The same thorn stockade prevents retiring guests from cutting the corner [three-meters if it’s a foot]; an activity forbidden clients even if staff do the same when nobody’s watching, of course; but we were… Guests who ‘take a chance’ – as we did, mostly to avoid a feeding elephant bull – are subjected to torn evening-wear and a probable poke in the eye, particularly if you’re small or only 3-years of age.

A mooted water feature / dam, nearest the viewing deck, was empty but for some green scum and a few frogs. A ploughed field, nearest the pool, offers sweeping views of the pump house for guests inclined to enjoy the view & a field guide. The pool itself [pretty in blue, esp. at night] will not meet the needs of a full house; & neither will the seating built for 18, meant for 60. Pool equipment and other bric-a-brac is in full view from the ‘viewing deck’.

Dining is a fusion of western & African cuisine. Some local touches, whilst rare, are an interesting change from the STD fare. The food, generally, was freshly-prepared, tasty and well-presented. ‘High tea’ and the tea & coffee stations are concessions to the expected rather than exceptional. Kitchen staff, service staff and the lodge-management were attentive on the first evening but offered diminishing service returns with familiarity. A song / dance routine by the kitchen / service staff, presumably for departing guests, at and during breakfast, was a nice touch.

The rooms are spacious, well-appointed and durable. Cupboard-space is fair as is the bathroom – a minimalistic -themed offering in need of decorative accessories. A throw or two on the wooden furniture would be a nice addition. Plug-points cater for most needs. A small tea & coffee station, kettle and bar-fridge service the snackers. Sisal-type mats and good quality percale linen are a surprise. The outside shower, however, overlooks the nearby River Lodge and is for the ambitious only. There is no soap-dish or a towel-hook on view whilst guests are on display, outside.

Inadequate drainage under the shower pools the grey water and makes for an unpleasant smell in the mid-afternoon. The indoor bath / shower is expansive and whilst separated by a simple pane of glass only, overlooks the outside shower and the expanse beyond. It’s not for the reclusive but offers a modicum of privacy. The bath-taps are, however, out of reach for patrons already seated in the bath – an inconvenience, really. Non-slip bath / shower mats are conspicuously absent. The WC is recessed into an enclave – an unpleasant experience for patrons who enjoy their space or who are ectomorphically challenged. Seated patrons have sweeping views of the geyser appended to the wall outside. Neighbouring guests have unimpeded audio and particularly for those on the walkway to and from the blocks where sound generally echoes. Bathroom cupboard space, the basin and towelling are, however, generous. A small inbuilt safe, the legislated 4-star amenities and wood-rim mirrors complement the adequate lighting. The light switch for the patio-lighting is, however, accessed from a non-descript position on the wall outside; a frustration for those who like to sleep in the dark rather than walk in the dark.

The lodge does not offer a Kids’ bush-programme / formal childminding of any description – a confusing policy given the look & feel of the facility as a whole. Informal childminding services were offered at R50 per hour – a service we did not avail ourselves of given the change of circumstances highlighted below.

Main Lodge does not target ‘the romantics’, those on honeymoon or those looking for timeless elegance; and neither does the facility cater for the ‘whole family’. Our son slept on the floor – no other sleeping arrangements were made or offered to us. We were, however, accommodated by management elsewhere. It is policy that children under the age of 6 are not permitted on a safari vehicle. Our son is exceptional, however, having grown up ‘on safari’ and I think the field staff will attest to that. In fact, the kitchen / service staff were gracious to a fault with our son – the abiding memory. In retrospect, although we had hoped to take our son on safari, we are familiar with the no under-6 policy; a policy general to most safari-lodge operations. We were offered the exclusive use of a safari vehicle to accommodate our photographic equipment and our son, at no extra cost; an important point of departure and whilst I can speculate why, that’s not important here.

At a glance

  1. First-time safari-goers and group series patrons will find the game viewing compelling, if not rewarding.
  2. Service levels are respectable rather than impeccable.
  3. The architecture of the lodge recalls the boutique-themed hotels on the waterways of the Zambezi and Chobe rivers; ground-breaking in the South African market and perhaps an idea before its time.
  4. Activities are limited to safari / game drives.
  5. Safari-walks are not offered.
  6. Young children are not catered for.
  7. The interior design is no-apologies, contemporary minimalism.
  8. The private reserve is populated, year-round, with the Big 5. In summer, migratory birds add to the bushveld ambience.
  9. The facilities / amenities are functional, and the vehicles serviced and clean.
  10. Wi-Fi access is robust.
  11. Do not expect to be shown to your room and around the facility on arrival. Luggage is, however, dropped off at the room.
  12. Welcome drinks are served as are scented cloths offered guests returning from safari / game drives.
  13. The lodge is not fenced against dangerous game. Walks in and around the lodge-grounds are ‘at your own risk’. Patrons sign an indemnity form on arrival.
  14. Design flaws in the 3 blocks are dangerous. The walk-way servicing the rooms on the upper level [our room was on the ground floor] has an unmarked, 5cm drop to the main passage. Patrons who misstep or trip are likely to fall towards the railing – an avoidable eventuality.
  15. Safety issues in the public areas are a concern. Walk-ways are inadequately guarded as is the main viewing deck; elevated some 2 – 3 meters above ground.
  16. In-room spa treatments are offered at an extra cost.

The location, although removed, concedes a contrived look & feel. It’s neither tranquil nor elegant. Nonetheless, Main Lodge delivers a comfortable stay with high-end amenities and features. Repeat-business, even so, might be a step-too-far.

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