Polite though it was for the animals to greet us on arrival at Shambala Game Reserve, it was a little overwhelming.
Dropped off by the excellent Jarat Tours after a short two-a-half-hour drive from O. R. Tambo International Airport in Johannesburg, we drove through the grand entrance of the reserve on the waiting 4X4 to be met by three of the four lions that roam the park.
With the summer sun beating down, it was quite a start to our safari experience at Shambala.
As we sat and watched the lions lazily roll in the grass, just metres away, white rhino grazed in the background.
An unforgettable sight.
Covering almost 10,000 hectares in the Waterberg Mountains of South Africa’s Limpopo Province, the park is home to a rich diversity of wildlife - including the fabled African ‘Big Five’.
The magnificent bushveld stretches as far as the eye can see in all directions, home to a wide variety of remarkable flora and fauna.
At the heart of it all sits Zulu Camp – a member of The Leading Hotels of the World and one of the most luxurious accommodations you can imagine.
Arriving after our private game drive, we are met with champagne, hot towels, and the greetings of the Shambala team.
All of which, needless to say, are very welcome.
The camp is built in traditional Zulu style, with streams from the nearby river running through it.
With just eight honeycomb-shaped chalets on the whole camp, guests are guaranteed a natural experience staying in the heart of the bushveld.
From early morning until dusk the air is filled with what residents call the Shambala Chorus; echoing birdcalls in the morning, giving way to the croaking of bullfrogs in the evening.
Our chalet was closest to the main Zulu Camp building, with just a few metres and huge roaring fire – safely contained in a pit - separating the two.
Decorated in an elegant Afro-French Provincial style, our home for four nights has a double bed dressed in fine linens, French armoire and full length mirror.
There are also an outside shower, a personal favourite of mine, and a private deck overlooking the surrounding bushveld.
Quickly unpacked, we spent the first night chatting around the fire with the Shambala residents, planning the days ahead.
This is a very personal, intimate, retreat, where personal relationships are formed, both between guests and with the permanent residents.
The day is yours to spend as you see fit at Shambala.
You can simply lounge on the sun deck, drinking the day away, or venture in the landscape around you.
Nature is naturally the star of the show, with guests invited to enjoy as many game drives as they wish during a stay.
Heading out for a private drive, Matthew, our knowledgeable guide, talks us through the many species of animal we encounter as we slowly cruise around the muddy tracks of the park.
Snapping away with our cameras, we encounter zebra, kudu, warthog, giraffe, impala, and a family of rhino in just a couple of hours – quite the menagerie.
While some safaris can see guests driving for hours in search of their objective, Shambala feels relatively accessible, with sights of interest never far away.
Two families of elephant also roam the reserve, carefully monitored by keepers who have worked with them for decades, offering a rare chance to see these huge animals in their natural habitat.
There is a strong sense of being close to nature throughout, surrounded by the calls of the animals as they go about their activities oblivious to the observers nearby.
A connection with nature is at the heart of the Shambala experience
Back at Zulu Camp and the exclusive luxury is further in evidence.
A butler - in our case Jan - is on hand to assist us at all times, while we are also greeted by a personal chef.
Given its semi-remote location, you might be forgiven for expecting a limited choice of cuisine, but chatting to cook and it quickly becomes apparent anything is possible.
Everything at Shambala is tailored to your personal preference.
On the menu during our stay was crocodile carpaccio, the freshest lobster I’ve ever eaten – no mean feat given that Shambala is hundreds of miles from the coast – ostrich, and kudu.
All were superb.
As we eat eagles soar in the sky and hippos to wallow in the river nearby - what more could you ask?
Zulu Camp at Shambala
Away from the game drives, there is plenty more on offer.
The intimate wellness retreat at Shambala Spa, situated in a secluded bush clearing along the riverside, is a wonderful place to spend the afternoon.
We were given a warm welcome as we enjoyed our treatments.
Each therapy is unique, created using pure, natural ingredients, aromas and textures to enhance a holistic sense of wellbeing.
It would be easy enough to spend the whole duration of a stay at the spa, whiling away the time relaxing on the sun deck, basking in the warmth of the African sun.
For the more active, there are also bush walks with the guides, and even a shooting range, while there are volunteer programmes for those who are passionate about conservation.
For those with an interest in history, the Nelson Mandela Villa is also located on the property.
Originally intended to be a place where Mandela could hold discussions with political leaders, the retreat gave him the opportunity to work uninterrupted on his efforts toward South African reconciliation.
Since his passing, the property has been reborn as a spacious and elegant accommodation, including five luxury bedrooms with en-suite bathrooms.
This home is truly a piece of paradise, humbly displaying an understated luxury and reflecting the rich roots of tribal design.
Enter through the masterfully carved front door and you walk into a place for reflection, a haven for writing words of wisdom, and a centre for reconciling differences.
Nelson Mandela Villa at Shambala
The highlight of our stay, though, was a cruise on the lake.
Former Shambala owner Douw Steyn dammed the river that flows through Shambala to create an artificial lake, purely for atheist purposes.
Now the largest artificial, private body of water in Africa, it offers a great habitat for birds, fish, and amphibians of all kinds.
Floating slowly across the placid water taking in the sights, it is hard to think of anywhere else on earth I’d rather be – truly a once in a lifetime experience.
Shambala is a Tibetan word meaning ‘Paradise on Earth’ and it is hard to disagree out here.
Shambala Private Game Reserve is built in traditional Zulu style with streams from the nearby river running through the camp.
The remarkable setting of the camp reflects the guests stay of luxurious comfort and internal reflection.
It is a holistic experience journey and ideal for quiet contemplation. Within this beautiful setting, guests will have a chance to reflect and gain a true understanding of the connection with the environment.
Find out more on the official website.