When in February 1990 Nelson Mandela was finally freed after 27 years’ incarceration, he traded his cell at Victor Verster Prison near Cape Town for the home of the Afrikaner insurance tycoon Douw Steyn, in the Johannesburg suburb of Sandhurst. The two had been introduced by members of the ANC. Mandela spent six months there, editing his autobiography, Long Walk to Freedom, and drafting South Africa’s interim constitution.
Steyn, meanwhile, who is worth a reported £700m, having founded Auto & General in South Africa and BGL, one of the UK’s largest consumer insurance groups, harboured dreams of owning a game reserve, and was beginning to buy up farms and land — a total of 10,000 hectares — within sight of the Waterberg mountains in Limpopo province, 200km or so north of Johannesburg. What had been grazing land and watermelon fields were gradually restored to bushveld.
Next he acquired the animals: rhinos, Cape buffaloes, wildebeests, antelopes, zebras, giraffes, baboons and meerkats (Comparethemarket.com, one of BGL’s brands, shot its successful “Compare-the-meerkat” UK advertising campaign here). Some of them would end up as fodder for the predators that followed — lions, leopards, cheetahs, hyenas and jackals. Such game does not come cheap: a giraffe can cost R18,000 (almost £1,000), which makes for an expensive dinner if the lions decide to take one out. Yet more than 40 kinds of mammal now thrive here.
Steyn also decided to dam the Frikkie-se-loop river, a tributary of the Mogol, an undertaking that required permissions from the governments of Botswana, Zimbabwe and Mozambique, in order to create the largest man-made lake in southern Africa — 30 hectares — home to hippo and gigantic Nile crocodiles, which can be six metres long, weigh a tonne and live to be 100.
Yet for all the ferociousness that resides here (a wild elephant, enraged by encroachment on its turf, once crushed three adult rhino to death), Steyn called it Shambala — Sanskrit for paradise or place of peace — and built a cluster of beehive-like thatched huts to stay and entertain in, very much in the tradition of Zulu “iQukwane” huts — except that they are air-conditioned, furnished with rustic French antiques and have lavish en-suite bathrooms.
In time Mandela, with whom Steyn had become friends (he’d stayed with Steyn again after he separated from his second wife, Winnie, in 1992), visited and admired what the businessman had created. As Mandela’s assistant, Zelda la Grange, recalls in her memoir Good Morning, Mr Mandela, “Douw invited Madiba [Mandela’s clan name] and Mrs Machel [his third wife, Graça] to his farm Shambala in the Waterberg. It was a relaxed luncheon . . . When [they] returned they told me that Douw had offered to build a house on the farm for [their] use, where they could relax as no one would be able to disturb them there. [They] knew not to refuse the offer as Douw didn’t take lightly to being refused. In no time he built the most beautiful house on the farm, before even completing his own.”
The result was Mandela House, into which Mandela and Machel moved in 2001 and which provided a regular retreat from their main home in Johannesburg. From this summer, after the official period of mourning that followed Mandela’s death in 2013, during which the house was shut up, guests will be able to rent it for holidays.
Steyn has a habit of turning his private residences into places to stay. First his Johannesburg home became the Saxon Hotel, one of the finest in Africa. Then in 2012, his Shambala retreat became Zulu Camp, a nine-chalet safari camp on the edge of a dammed river, the Sterkstroom, one of just four properties Steyn has built on the estate, the others being his own home, and the rather smaller one he built for Zelda la Grange.
In contrast to the outwardly Zulu aesthetic of the camp, the simple wood- thatch-and-stilts construction of la Grange’s Kudu Lodge and the quasi-Palladian style of Steyn’s own rather overblown mansion, Mandela’s bungalow conforms to a style one might call contemporary African. The classic zigzag “iguana’s elbow” motif has been woven into the thatched roof to symbolise good fortune. The chandelier in the main porch is made from spiralling kudu horns and porcupine quills. The carved teak frame of the front door was commissioned from the Mozambican master carver Matsemela ike Nkoana. Traditional beadwork decorates the lampshades, curtains and counterpanes throughout the six-bedroom, two sitting-room house. And the loggia in which Mandela’s collection of African paintings hang is faced with a colonnade of leadwood pillars.
Untypically for a holiday rental (though not a presidential retreat), there are offices and a conference room, with a table designed to evoke a Xhosa shield, a nod to Mandela’s ethnicity. Thabo Mbeki and then Bill Clinton were, incidentally, the first to sign the guest book. But Mandela welcomed other celebrities, too. Oprah came often; Morgan Freeman and Matt Damon dropped by while filming the South Africa-set rugby film Invictus; and the housewarming event thrown for him by Steyn, whom la Grange likened to Jay Gatsby for the “over-the-top lavish parties” he likes to give, was attended by all 93 contestants from that year’s Miss World Contest, direct from Sun City.
Also unusually there’s a fully equipped medical suite, though it stands to be reconfigured as a spa. And the wide wheelchair-accommodating corridors and grab rails in all the bathrooms are further reminders of Mandela’s age — he was 83 when he moved in — as is the fact that the heated swimming pool is indoors rather than out.
Whatever resonance the former residents give the house, however, the chief appeal of a holiday here is always going to be the wildlife. Almost as soon as I’d arrived, an impala had sprung across the rear lawn towards the watering hole, home to a pair of hippo (safely fenced off from the house) beyond. Though those sightings paled beside what was to come.
During two unforgettable days, I saw more than 20 types of animal, many of them endangered (sable antelopes, black rhinos, white lions, black impalas). I learnt to identify red hartebeests, steenboks, klipspringers and gemsboks, and to tell apart the groups of rhinos we kept encountering, not least the triumvirate of young males who’d blocked the road into the reserve within minutes of my arrival.
I watched more hippos and baboons from a boat on the dam at sunset; and spotted a black-chested snake eagle from the back of an elephant as its young ambled alongside us. (The elephants here, orphans from a culling programme in Zimbabwe and their progeny, are domesticated now.) The highlight, however, was the sight of a cheetah at rest amid dappled woodland.
I did not actually sleep at Mandela House, which opens on July 1, but stayed a 20-minute drive away at Zulu Camp, which is under the same management as the Saxon Hotel, and I could not have been happier. Having been built as a private retreat, its atmosphere is homely rather than hotel-like. The little pool is for cooling down in rather than swimming; there’s no gym, though there is a small spa offering good massages. There are no TVs in the rooms, nor WiFi or much of a phone signal. There’s also no menu and scant choice in the restaurant, though the chef, Maveer Thulsie, will discuss your likes and dislikes. (Trust him: his inventive soups, in particular the sweet potato and rooibos are delicious, and the beef and tuna were of the highest quality.)
There is no faulting the comfortable rooms either, nor the attentiveness or charm of the staff, led by the lodge manager Sabelo Ngidi, who began his career at South Africa’s First National Bank, through which he met the Saxon’s managing director, who hired him as his PA and swiftly promoted him.
But it is nature that really counts here: the birdsong in the early morning, the occasional animal call, the heady scent of wild mint, the sight of fireflies dancing above the river at nightfall. And of course the animals, which greatly outnumber humans. (Go out on a game drive, and you won’t see another vehicle.)
It is, as Mandela wrote, a place where the “peace, tranquillity and natural harmony serves to remind us of our own striving for reconciliation and togetherness”. No wonder he wanted to see out his days in what he called “this special place”.
This summer’s other big safari camp openings
Tourism to Zimbabwe continues to recover (2.1m arrivals are expected this year), and Wilderness Safaris has just opened Linkwasha, a camp on a private concession within Hwange National Park. Nine permanently sited khaki canvas tents, one large enough for a family of four, look out on a watering hole frequented by elephants, and you should spot wildebeests, zebras, lions, buffaloes, leopards and many other animals too.
wilderness-safaris.com, from $550 per person per night
Angama Mara, Kenya
Set on the Oloololo Escarpment, 270km west of Nairobi on the edge of the Rift Valley, Angama Mara opens this week. Overlooking the Maasai Mara, it’s an idyllic place from which to watch the great wildebeest migration that takes place between July and October. By safari-lodge standards the style of its 15 “tented suites” is modish and modern, with polished parquet flooring, mid-century-style furniture and 10 metre-wide walls of glass, great for gazing at the panorama beyond.
angama.com, from about $990 pppn
Ebony Lodge, South Africa
Also poised to reveal a new contemporary aesthetic is Ebony Lodge, the original base of upmarket safari operator Singita, where a complete overhaul will be unveiled on July 8. Located on the banks of Sand river in Sabi Sands Game Reserve in South Africa’s Kruger National Park, its lavishly specced 10 one-bedroom and two two-bedroom thatched suites (each with plunge pool) have shed their hitherto rather oppressive colonial style in favour of an altogether lighter look.
singita.com, from about £940 pppn
Khaudum Lodge, Namibia
July also sees the opening of four nine-room “luxury eco-lodges” in northeast Namibia’s remote Khaudum National Park, home to herds of elephants, red hartebeests, kudus and giraffes. Operated by a new company, Namibia Exclusive Safaris, the camps are located in an arc that stretches from Brandberg through Damaraland towards the border with Botswana.
steppestravel.co.uk, from £480 pppn
Claire Wrathall was a guest of Shambala game reserve and British Airways. Mandela House, which sleeps 12, costs from R70,000 (£3,808) a night; chalets at Zulu Camp, each sleeping two, cost from R12,495 (£680) including all meals, drinks, game drives and bush walks
Photographs: Elsa Young; Reuters; Mike Myers