tanding on the edge of a mountain deep in the wilderness of Lapalala, about three hours north of Johannesburg in the Waterberg region of Limpopo, the Palala river sounds like the ocean. The intensity of water crashing against rocks is amplified by the cluster of green-hued mountains where lions, cheetahs and leopards roam, and birds such as the crested francolin make themselves heard. It is within this protected reserve that Noka Camp effortlessly blends into its surroundings.
Five luxuriously designed stilted tents line the cliff edge, each connected by a 250-metre-long floating solar walkway that powers all the electricity in the camp. Only one per cent of the entire lodge touches the ground, having almost no impact on the soil it so graciously sits on.
Inside, the bright, wide-open spaces are brought to life by sweeping views through large glass panels. All four double villas and one family suite have a separate sitting area, an outdoor deck (with a glass floor) and a heated pool. Large sunken baths add a touch of laidback glamour, too. The interiors, designed by Sarah Ord, pay homage to the wildlife and colours of Lapalala. There are large animal portraits and subtle hints of spots and stripes on cushions.
An intimate communal area consisting of a bar, lounge, dining space and an open-fire pit is where the socialising happens (when you feel like leaving your villa). This offers panoramic views of the reserve and an endless sky that turns inky black at night to make stargazing a magical experience. There are never more than 16 guests at any time, and by the end of your stay, you will know most of them and almost all the staff at Lepogo.
“We’d love you to see our wildlife,” is the first thing Kate Hughes, the operations director and co-owner, tells me when I meet her. By our, she means several hundred wandering the 50,000 hectares of Lapalala reserve. To her, though, they are very much her own. She refers to them by name, has seen the birth of some in the wilderness, and mourned the death of a few too. She checks in on as many during her daily game drives and gets giddy when witnessing something new. “I’ve never seen a rhino pee before,” she says as liquid spurts from a lone male.
Kate’s passion for wildlife comes from her upbringing in rural England. “We’d grown up in nature and wanted to be able to leave a legacy for the future; for the conservation and protection of the wildlife we love so much.” As a result, the camp is one of the few safari lodges in Africa that operates entirely on a not-for-profit basis.
Lepogo Lodges is also the first luxury camp on the continent to offset the carbon footprint of every guest through various initiatives, including the Community Stove Project. The programme encourages households to switch from traditional open fires to more eco-friendly cooking options.
Early morning game drives can be brutal. A biting wind numbs your face — thankfully, the safari vehicles have seat warmers and cosy flannel ponchos. Within minutes, though, you forget all about it when a herd of buffaloes or a dazzle of zebras gaze straight at you with innocence so pure it could exist only in spaces where humans are a minority.
Interspersed between the altering landscapes, changing soils (from red to white as you go north), and bushes growing through unruly plains around rivers and lakes, you see wildebeests, impalas, kudus and even warthogs. Lapalala has fewer humans per square kilometre than any of the ‘Big Five’ wildlife tourism destinations in Southern Africa and the largest protected reserve in the Waterberg Biosphere Reserve.
Some of the wildlife is monitored with the help of collars. Does this make Lapalala a large zoo? I ask my guide, Juan. He responds with detailed reasons of why collaring makes sense: the park can control overpopulation and therefore eliminate the need to cull; it helps to understand the movement for future research; and assists vets in locating an injured animal quickly, enabling them to protect endangered species.
The practice of collaring does not guarantee a sighting but allows expert rangers to ascertain a rough location. From a visitor’s perspective, it means a higher likelihood of seeing the magnificent seven inhabitants — lion, leopard, elephant, rhinoceros, Cape buffalo, cheetah and the wild dog — which are less likely to be spotted from a safari vehicle.
During a bush walk, we were lucky to stand metres away from two young cheetahs lazing in the sun. We also admired a lioness taking shelter behind a rock with her two young cubs. Encounters like these shape your experience and are made even more special by the exclusivity that places such as Lapalala offer. Strict building regulations mean there will never be more than four commercial lodges within the reserve, giving those that come here front-row seats to the action.
As well as the thrill of game drives, there are plenty of less adrenaline-fuelled activities to enjoy: fishing along the Palala river or swimming in its fresh waters, surrounded by nature. For the culturally inclined, there is a short walk across the river to learn about Iron-Age settlements and admire bushman paintings that go back centuries.
The food is sourced locally, with vegetables and herbs grown at Lapalala Wilderness School just outside the reserve. The education centre was established in 1981 by well-known artist and conservationist Clive Walker and philanthropist Dale Parker to teach children the importance of the environment and biodiversity. For more than 30 years, the institute has created and nurtured several guides, rangers and leaders protecting fragile ecosystems. In November 2022, the nature school moved to a new carbon-neutral building with a carefully curated vegetable garden as part of the facility.
Noka’s head chef Chris treats each plate and produce with just as much respect and care. His experience of working at prominent hotels in the Middle East and Europe is on show with food and techniques that travel far beyond the continent of Africa.
Between meals, the kitchen is busy preparing muesli for breakfast, or the fresh goodies stuffed in jars on the kitchen tops of each villa — every snack and sweet treat is made on-site. The three-course menu changes daily according to the produce available. It covers a variety of options for vegans, vegetarians and meat eaters.
Being in Lapalala’s wide-open spaces is a healing balm for those wounded by the pace of modern life. For Kate, it balances the daily stresses of running a relatively new business and managing another just a few kilometres away. Melote, her next project, is a three-storey, multi-generation villa scheduled for completion by the end of this year. Kate invites me to see the property and the wow factor for myself.
Driving through game-rich flatland into a construction site, we are welcomed first by giraffes, then by contractors. Even with just the barebones, Melote has an imposing presence; grand, open and prominent — and very different to Noka.
Kate assures me that although the building does not integrate as seamlessly into its surroundings as Noka, it is still eco-friendly. “All of the excavated material will go back into the build. The soil will make a feature wall inside the house and the stones will be used within the garden,” she says. Like Noka, all profits will be ploughed back into the conservation and protection of the surrounding reserve.
Saying goodbye to Noka is tough — not least because all staff gather and sing an emotional farewell song as your vehicle drifts back to civilisation, but also because staying here makes you feel so in harmony with nature – and that’s beautiful.
Getting to Johannesburg
British Airways flies from Heathrow to Johannesburg twice daily, with economy tickets from £650 and premium economy from £1,500. Noka Camp is a three-hour drive from the airport.
Nightly rates for 2023 from R16,500 (£837*) per person on an all-inclusive basis.
For more information on Lepogo Lodges, please visit lepogolodges.com.
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