The Saxon Hotel and Shambala Private Game Reserve review: stay in two of Nelson Mandela’s favourite places
Two luxurious properties offer an opportunity to walk in the great social reformer's footsteps
On his release from prison in 1990, Nelson Mandela often worked from his own private villa at Shambala Private Game Reserve in South Africa’s Limpopo province, a refuge built specifically for him by the reserve's owner, businessman Douw Steyn. And it’s easy to see why. Set amid more than 10,000 hectares, the luxurious retreat provided Mandela with the space and tranquillity to recover from his 27 years in prison. That sense of space and calm can still be found in abundance at the reserve to this day.
Shambala's sister hotel, The Saxon, located in the exclusive suburb of Sandhurst in Johannesburg, also has strong links to the late South African president. It received him on his release from jail, and became his first home as he recuperated and began to think about his future - and the future of his country.
Together, the Saxon and the Shambala offer a fascinating view of the South Africa Mandela helped to build, not to mention adventure and relaxation in abundance.
The Week Portfolio visited both of these favourite retreats of the great reforming president, on a trip that encompassed high South African luxury both in the city and in the bush.
The main atrium that greets guests on their arrival at The Saxon Hotel
The Saxon Hotel, Villas and Spa
Sweeping through the imposing gates and into the manicured grounds of The Saxon is the perfect way to put the flight from the UK behind you. Originally a private family home, the majestic Saxon Hotel, Villas and Spa boasts a mixture of luxury suites and villas, two impressive restaurants, and of course the Nelson Mandela presidential suite.
A fully equipped spa, with hair salon and manicure studio completes the collection of services any weary traveller could wish for after completing their journey.
Suites are huge – bigger than many British one-bedroom flats – and are decorated with a tasteful mix of European and African art and sculptures, and stocked to the brim with Molton Brown products.
The generous suites feature a well-judged mixture of African and European design elements
Breakfast and lunch can be taken on the hotel's beautiful and spacious terrace, which has plenty of shade – as well as a plunge pool – for those scorching hot summer days.
The Saxon's beautiful fig terrace and plunge pool
Or, if you’ve sunk too deep into the ridiculously comfortable beds and can't tear yourself away from your suite, the rooms also come with their own private butler, who is on hand to solve your problems both big and small. Want your suitcase unpacked? Your butler can do that for you. Need help synching your music to the in-room speakers? Just dial your butler. Run out of ice for your champagne? Simply… you get the idea.
The Saxon also boasts two stand-out restaurants – the elegant Qunu, which takes its name from the small rural town where former President Nelson Mandela was born, and serves up an innovate take on South African cuisine and the Luke Dale Roberts X The Saxon.
The handsome Qunu restaurant features live vine walls
On our visit to Qunu, we enjoyed a starter of ravioli with a duck egg, truffle and brie – a delicate plateful of total indulgence, and a main course of venison served with white chocolate carrots and whipped maize. Even more indulgent is the wagyu, bone marrow and truffle – a dish that sounds like the last word in decadence and absolutely lives up to its billing.
Our herb-basted wagyu sirloin was cooked to pink perfection, and the fries on the side could have been a dish in their own right. Smoked and doused in bone marrow, with truffle mayonnaise, they are chips, yes, but not as we know them. Amid the indulgence, diners should be sure to keep some room for dessert though, because the entire pudding menu, from the white chocolate ginger mousse to the coconut milk rice pudding with pineapple sorbet is exceptional.
For those looking for something extra special, the restaurant currently known as Luke Dale Roberts X The Saxon takes diners on a journey through the latest South African gourmet food trends with either a five-course or eight-course tasting menu. The fine-dining establishment currently bears the name of the country’s most high-profile chef, but has been overseen for some time by head chef Candice Philip, a budding culinary superstar in her own right. She is overseeing a revamp of the glamorous restaurant, which will close its doors at the end of March and reopen in April with a whole new concept of her own.
Not just a meal, but a journey, at the Luke Dale Roberts X The Saxon restaurant
Whichever restaurant you choose, it’s just a short walk back past portraits of notable previous guests – including Oprah Winfrey, Bill Clinton and Mandela himself – before you can collapse in your suite’s giant bed for some much needed rest.
Shambala Private Game Reserve
Of course, there’s only so much relaxing you will want to do in Johannesberg before South Africa’s great outdoors calls to you. Fortunately, The Saxon's equally glamorous but more remote sister resort Shambala – just three hours away by car – offers all the adventure you could wish for.
From the Saxon, the journey through Johannesburg’s urban sprawl soon gives way to broad highways, which snake for miles beneath massive skies. A few hours’ drive later you may start to spot impala and other antelopes by the side of the road, and eventually, farmland where giraffes pop their heads up to munch on the juiciest leaves at the tops of the canopies.
At the end of the scenic drive, visitors will veer sharp left off the main road, to be met by a dramatic shimmering pool of water, which marks the entrance to the exclusive resort and hints at the adventure awaiting beyond its gates.
Zebra are found roaming across the entire reserve
It might look like an impregnable moat, but in fact, the pool has a shallow central avenue along which cars can drive up to the gate. But even after you are through the main gates, the drive continues, though this time through the bush. Immediately, you are likely to begin spotting game – here a herd of zebra, there a family of warthogs. Finally you pull up to Shambala’s main camp to be greeted by a sentry with a semi-automatic rifle, who, amid the darkness is flanked on either side by two massive flaming torches – a scene reminiscent of Jurassic Park.
Thankfully, Shambala is far from prehistoric inside. Located close to the stunning Waterberg mountains, the reserve has just eight chalets in its main site known as ‘Zulu Camp’, making it perfect for those looking for an intimate safari experience.
High ceilings in each of the thatched cottages at Zulu Camp offer a wonderful sense of space
Accommodation comprises traditional individual honeycomb-shaped chalets decorated in Afro-French provincial style. Although the structures may appear rustic from the outside, Shambala really is the epitome of luxury in the bush. Along with a fully equipped indoor bathroom, the huts also feature a deck overlooking the bushveld, and an outdoor shower for those feeling brave enough. Oh, and a private butler as you will by now have become accustomed to.
Out on the deck is the perfect spot for sundowners
Dining is a personalised affair. With so few guests, the chef doesn’t bother with a menu – instead meals are prepared to guests’ preferences with a vast choice of options available. We enjoyed beautifully prepared rump steak one evening, as well as a traditional brai (BBQ) on the Zulu camp veranda another, complete with the view of a hippo taking his evening swim. But had we wanted it, the chef would have sent away for fish, game or whatever else our hearts desired.
The private reserve itself sits with 10,000 hectares of bushveld and boasts the big five along with the full gamut of kudu, zebra, impala and giraffe.
A rhino and her calf
Individual safaris are offered and knowledgeable guides are on hand to answer any questions you may have about the flora and fauna. And there is certainly plenty to ask about.
We stopped to watch hippos slowly submerge in a lake, their huge frames sinking into the depths before silently re-emerging. After a rare sighting of a female rhino and her calf wallowing in a cooling pool of mud, we thought our day’s game drive was complete, but before we made it back to camp we came upon two male lions resting in the shade of a tree after feasting on an impala. Being that close to such powerful animals is an unforgettable experience – their bellowing roars, which are audible five miles away, still echo in our ears.
Two lion brothers share the pride at Shambala
At the end of your stay, all guests at Shambala are treated to a sundowner cruise on the 30 hectare Douw Steyn lake, the largest man-made lake in southern Africa which is home to hippos, crocodiles and plenty of indigenous fish, which you can fish for your lunch.
Douw Steyn lake
Sailing off into the sunset felt like a fitting end to a trip to two outstanding resorts that not only effortlessly combine luxury with a good dose of adventure, but also bring you closer to the greatest parts of South Africa: the transcendent bush, the magnificent animals, and the man who redefined a nation.
Rooms at The Saxon Hotel, Villas and Spa start from R7,400 (approximately £440) based on two people sharing a luxury suite including breakfast, complimentary minibar, and sparkling wine on arrival. saxon.co.za
Stays at Zulu Camp at Shambala Private Game Reserve start from R 11,750 (approximately £700) based on two people sharing a chalet including all meals, sunset cruise, game drives and bushwalks. shambalaprivategamereserve.co.za/zulu-camp
Exclusive hire of The Nelson Mandela Villa starts from R75,000 (approximately £4,450) off peak, or R85,000 (approximately £5,000) during peak season including all meals, sunset cruise, game drives and bushwalks. shambalaprivategamereserve.co.za/nelson-mandela-villa