This secluded river cottage in the wilderness of the Grietjie Nature Reserve offers a perfect and intimate wildlife experience. We are gifted with a rare opportunity to notice the often-overlooked lives of the creatures great and small who call the African bush home.
Besides the verdant green beauty surrounding our cottage, the first thing I notice is a deep dinner plate-sized hippo footprint. It’s right outside our cottage on the sandy pathway leading down to the Olifants River.
Now, I’m no tracker, but dampness on the inner edge makes me think a hippo walked past recently. And I can clearly see the hippo’s toe marks pointing towards the river a few meters away behind a dense thicket of thorn bushes. At least, I think, those were its toes!
It’s a subtle reminder to pay attention to our surroundings. There are no fences between us in our pretty river cottage garden in the Grietjie Nature Reserve and the free-roaming wildlife of the Greater Kruger National Park.
So, what is this Greater Kruger National Park?
The Greater Kruger National Park (GKNP) refers to about 20 private game reserves along the western border of the Kruger National Park (KNP).
In 1993 the fences between these reserves and KNP were dropped, allowing wildlife to roam freely between the two wilderness areas. But not humans.
Humans must make a choice. Either visit KNP, which is typically a self-drive experience, staying in budget-friendly accommodation. Or select one of the private and usually exclusive 5-star game lodges in one of the many Greater Kruger game reserves.
I’m a fan of both Krugers. Neither one is better than the other. For me, it comes down to the experience I’m after, my trip budget, and how much time I have for my trip.
I found a self-catering gem in the Greater Kruger for this trip, a small, secluded stone cottage on the banks of the Olifants River.
From here, we intend to do one or two self-drive day trips into the Kruger Park, and a couple of game drives or guided bush walks in the Greater Kruger. We’ll spend our evenings outdoors around a bonfire sipping wine and star gazing.
Time to Meet Our Neighbours in the Grietjie Nature Reserve
We hear splashes and what sounds like happy hippo laughing grunts in the river while we settle into our cottage. So we’re reasonably confident that it is safe to go down to the riverbank for a peek.
A small but dense thicket of thornbush lines the pathway. It’s impossible to see what might be lurking on the other side. And this is where we meet our first neighbour, the resident bushbuck nibbling on the thornbush’s tasty green shoots.
I’m not sure who was more startled, the bushbuck or me? Although I suspect it was me. I’m trying to be hyper-alert to the sounds of the bush, especially any charging or grumpy hippo sounds, but all I can hear is the pounding of my own heart.
This is the first time I’ve ever gone in search of a hippo on foot. We typically only ever encounter them from the comfort and safety of our vehicle. Despite their large, cumbersome size, they’re surprisingly fast and agile on land. And they are super aggressive about their territories which is probably why they’re considered the most dangerous of all Africa’s creatures.
On the banks of the river, an Egyptian goose honks a welcome.
Opposite us, a small herd of impala daintily pick their way down the riverbank to the water’s edge for a drink.
And above them, vervet monkeys feast on the ripe fruit of a sycamore-fig tree.
We have been noticed! An old battle-scarred hippo glares at us from the middle of the river.
Maintaining eye contact, it turns towards us opening its cavernous mouth showing us large dagger-like fangs. I’m not sure if this is a threat display, but I’m not hanging around. We beat a hasty retreat to the safety of our patio, followed by hippo snorts of derision.
It is Busy in the Bush
For us, a bush stay is a busy time. We typically head out shortly after sunrise in search of wildlife. Our senses are always on high alert. Was that flicker under a bush a lion’s tail? And that briefly glimpsed grey shape as we drove past, a rhino or an elephant? Oh no, it’s just another rock.
But here, from the comfort of our raised patio on the Olifants River with a cold beer in hand and at a safe distance from grumpy hippo, we don’t have to go out looking for wildlife. It is all around us.
Tiny waxbills build a nest in the thatch above us.
Tempted by the fresh, tasty green shoots on the edge of the garden, our neighbour, the bushbuck, has decided we aren’t a threat and has returned.
A troop of baboons casually saunter through our garden, keeping half a wary eye on us.
And on the opposite riverbank, a giraffe makes its way down for a drink.
The Daily Routine of the African Bush Unfolds
And so, we abandon our plans and hang out in the gardens and the swimming pool near our secluded wilderness river cottage. Instead, we immerse ourselves in the daily routines of the African bush around us.
Each day begins with a profusion of bird calls. A jubilant dawn chorus slowly peters out as the day warms up. Only to resume later as it gets cooler, building up to an ear-splitting crescendo at sunset.
Except for the red-breasted cuckoo whose piercing and monotonous three-tone ‘Piet-My-Vrou’ (Pete-may-Frow) call bombards us all day. So much so that I contemplate fresh chicken for dinner.
Grumpy Hippo and her friend return from their nightly forage on the plains. With a splash and a happy grunt of satisfaction, they glide to the middle of the river, where they’ll spend most of the day in intermittent conversation. I had no idea that hippos had such an extensive range of vocalisations; they grunt, honk, groan, growl, roar and chuff like an old steam engine.
Pretending to be an innocent log floating in the river, the resident crocodile does his slow rounds. First, he patrols up our side of the river and later, he glides down the other side in search of an unsuspecting meal.
And twice a day, the resident troop of vervet monkeys passes through our garden foraging as they go. But first, they inspect the cottage. On our first evening, we forgot to put our bag of charcoal briquettes away. After eyeing us out for a while, one brave soul darts in, grabs the bag, rips it open and tastes a briquette. Its face is a comedy of disappointment.
And What of the Elephant, the Kudu and the Waterbuck?
They are here too.
A large waterbuck bull observes our daily swim from the safety of a nearby hill under a tree overlooking the unfenced swimming pool. We float motionless in the sun-warmed water. Above us, small white clouds race across the blue dome of the sky, congregating on the horizon promising rain later. After careful observation, the waterbuck decides we are incredibly dull and moves off.
A blur of iridescent blue catches my eye. With a light splash, a woodlands kingfisher joins us for a swim. Only he’s much more energetic than us. He flits in and out the water from a nearby tree branch announcing each dive with a delighted staccato trill.
A loud Thwack, Clack, Thwack disturbs our afternoon siesta in our hammocks under a beautiful tree in our garden. It sounds as if someone is indulging in a spot of traditional stick fighting nearby. Only it’s not humans. Across the river, two kudu bulls fight.
The kudus chase each other along the riverbank, weaving in and around the trees and shrubs. Every so often, the one being chased stops turns around and lowers his mighty spiral horns to meet the equally impressive horns of his pursuer with a forceful thunk. The power and brute force behind these clashes are astounding and leave me seeing stars.
Eventually, they retreat exhausted with no clear winner. Although I don’t understand the rules of kudu stick fighting so maybe there was a winner. With a toss of their magnificent horns, they disappear in different directions into the bush.
And the elephants? They are here too.
We hear them trumpeting and spot their distinctive footprints on the swimming pool pathway. Our host, Oli, says they often stop for a drink in the swimming pool. And when we left, we saw them; two youngsters stepped out of the bush to wave us goodbye.
Blissful Campfire Solitude in the Grietjie Nature Reserve
Our stay in the Greater Kruger wilderness coincides with the new moon. Each evening starlight and the flickering campfire flames offer the only illumination outside our cottage. Of course, the cottage does have an outside light, but we’ve chosen to switch it off.
We sit mesmerised by the flames in companionable yet blissful solitude with our evening glass of wine in hand. But we’re not alone in this seemingly infinite starlit darkness of the African night.
A polyphonic chorus of African night insects underscored by froggy base notes emanates from the bush around us. The ever-present nightjar prays its fervent ‘lord deliver us’ call.
Grumpy hippo splashes and chuffs in the river. The baboons nesting in the trees along the riverbank mutter in sleepy annoyance at their noisy hippo neighbour.
In the distant hills, a hyena whoops a spine-tingling cackle. A lion responds with a low-pitched guttural grunt. A flicker of fear courses through my body. I take a large, calming gulp of my wine. Soothed, I remember that a hunting lion is always a silent lion.
We’re Still. We Listen. We Observe.
As the days drift past, far away from the demands of our city lives.
We are still. And the kingfisher swims with us. Young impala gambol along the riverbank. The bushbuck nibbles the plants on the edge of the patio.
We listen. Waterbuck snorts an alarm call when we approach the swimming pool. Grumpy hippo reports on the state of the river. The dawn chorus becomes the sunset requiem. Jackals yip and hyenas cackle while lions move through the dark wilderness, grunting as they go.
We observe. The surprisingly human antics of the curious vervet monkeys. The waxbills finish their nest. Giraffe comes down to the river for a daily drink. Two alpha baboons posture and howl, challenging each other for dominance of their stretch of river.
It is an intimate wildlife experience in this vast lounge of the Grietjie Nature Reserve’s wilderness. We are gifted with a sense of oneness with the natural world, of belonging, even if it’s only for a few days, under the great dome of the African sky.
Grietjie Nature Reserve Good to Know
Where is Grietjie Nature Reserve?
The Grietjie Nature Reserve is about 30 kilometres south of Phalaborwa off the R40 in the Limpopo Province of South Africa. The reserve forms a part of the Balule Nature Reserve, which in turn is part of the Greater Kruger National Park.
River Cottage on the Olifants River
The river cottage is a few metres from the river. It sleeps two and lies in a secluded glade of thick bush and trees two or three hundred meters downriver from the main lodge at Mufbu Lodge.
The cottage is well-equipped with the usual self-catering equipment, including a coffee plunger! All you need to bring is your food, drink, plenty of mozzie spray and your swimsuit. And maybe your hammock.
Our delightful host, Oli Kuhnel, checks in on us every morning. Later in the day, groundskeeper Michael pops by to check on us too, and if needed, a report on any wildlife in the area that we should be aware of.
We booked our river cottage in the wilderness on Airbnb.
The Main Lodge: Mfubu Lodge
Suppose a secluded river cottage isn’t your thing. In that case, there is also the elevated main canvas and timber lodge built on stilts with three bedrooms and two bathrooms, an open-air lounge, a deck, and a dining area. An aerial walkway connects all the rooms, so your feet never have to touch the ground.
The lodge nestles below the protective branches of giant jackalberry trees with open views down a beautifully manicured lawn to the Olifants River. According to Oli, Mfubu means hippo, and most evenings, grumpy hippo emerges from the river to graze here.
There is also a swimming pool on the riverbank. But you do have to share it with the kingfisher and an occasional elephant.
Guests can book a catered package with Oli or choose to do their own thing from the well-equipped kitchen area. There is even an ice-cream maker.
You can book Mfubu Lodge under the name Olifants Bush Hideaway on Airbnb.
In this part of the Grietjie Nature Reserve, the only mobile service provider that works is Vodacom, but reception can sometimes be quite sketchy. It’s a good idea then to bring a Vodacom sim card along for emergencies and if you need to reach out to Oli for any reason.
Grietjie Nature Reserve is Home to Incredible Wildlife
But it’s also home to many dangerous and sometimes deadly creatures.
On the day we left, a pride of lions took down a kudu on the driveway to the lodge about 100 meters away from our cottage shortly after sunset. They hung around between their kill and the swimming pool for two days.
And then the hyenas came the vultures too. And so did the crocodile! According to Michael, the crocodile dragged half of the kudu carcass past our river cottage’s front door and down the sandy pathway to its lair in the riverbank.
Had we been there, we would have been trapped in the cottage for a few days. I can think of worse places to be trapped, but the point is while many creatures in the African bush may look cute and cuddly, they could kill you in seconds.
So, if you have young children or aren’t comfortable alone in the African bush, I wouldn’t recommend staying at the river cottage; choose to stay at the main lodge instead.
If you’ve been here or can recommend a similar place, I’d love to hear about your experience in the comments below.
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DISCLOSURE: While I left Oli’s beautiful place as a friend, I have no commercial relationship with Mfubu Lodge, Grietjie Nature Reserve, or any of their affiliates. All photographs, experiences and opinions expressed in this blog post are my own.