Two rhinos, sculpted from waste oil drums, stand by the entrance to Mantis Founders Lodge. The pair are symbols of both the progress made saving rhino and future ambitions for the species at the birthplace of Eastern Cape conservation.
Those sculptures are also a symbol of Mantis properties’ eco-commitments. After all, the acronym stands for Man And Nature Together Is Sustainable. Mantis Founders Lodge is “where it all began”, when Adrian Gardiner set out on his mission to re-wild this dramatic landscape. From introducing flightless dung beetle through oxpecker birds to elephants, it was a hugely ambitious project.
Soul-reviving safaris, at dawn and dusk, drive through almost 100 square miles of distinctive eco-systems with an abundance of wildlife, fauna and flora. Yet, the Eastern Cape is not just about The Big Five: a 70 minutes’ drive takes guests to Port Elizabeth for whale and shark spotting. The Big Five expands to the Big Seven.
Just inside the entrance to the reserve, we turn into the Founders Lodge estate where gardeners strim and weed to create manicured gardening perfection at the heart of the bush.
Chilled flannels and a cool drink welcome us. As we are guided to our room, our luggage follows.
Recently built above the breakfast room, elevated room 7, aka The Honeymoon Pod, is reached by a flight of stairs. Whilst some rooms have their own gardens, number 7 has a roof garden with dining table, chairs and spectacular sweeping views across the valleys and bush.
One wall is almost entirely devoted to sliding glass doors showcasing a serene vista across the lawns to a blue gum tree. Perfectly positioned, a sofa provides pole-position game-viewing. Beneath the tree, Rodney, a large white, rhino browses from his never-ending breakfast, lunch, and dinner buffet. Reassuringly, an electric fence keeps Rodney and his family at a safe distance.
It is what is missing from our spacious room that makes it even more attractive. No mosquito nets. The Eastern Cape is malaria free. High winds and an absence of surface water keep the malaria-carrying mosquito species at bay. Light-wood doors and timbered ceiling give a ski-chalet feel to our room. Though tribal spear curtain rails and an Africa climate map remind us that this is Africa. Plus there’s a wraparound balcony for those views across the bush.
Alternatively, topping a hill just under a 2km drive away, there is The Railway Carriage, resplendent in its regal red and cream livery. Once it was the carriage that Adrian Gardiner used to travel across Africa’s railways.
Now, it has three bedrooms that sleep five for exclusive use for family or friends. A private chef and butler provide the service. Expansive decking hosts an al fresco lounge and dining area overlooking a magnificent valley. Soon there will be a watering hole, fed by the carriage’s grey wastewater, for game viewing beyond the boma and swimming pool.
At the end of the carriage, the newly built Ticket Office houses showers with floor-to-ceiling views across the bush.
Heading into the eighth year of drought, with rain around 30% of usual levels, guests are encouraged to use water economically. A free-standing white oval bath is tempting, particularly with a side table of bath salts, candle and Healing Earth toiletries.
But a rain-forest shower, with views past the rhinos to the distant hills, is an eco-friendly option.
Featuring just seven rooms, Founders Lodge offers a range of dining options. An indoor boma as well as an outdoor boma host braais of beef lollipops, kudo sausages, chicken breasts, pork chops and vegetarian kebabs.
A private dining evening is a very special occasion. Seated in the library by Adrian Grainger’s priceless collection of birding books, candles romantically light our table for two, whilst a family have exclusive use of the formal dining room.
Large, limited edition wildlife photographs by David Yarrow appear throughout the impromptu dining rooms. After dinner guests meet by the billiards table in the bar.
An outdoor swimming pool, overlooking the valley where a dazzle of zebra and impala roam, is one of the locations for lunch. A small swimming pool in the courtyard, next to the gym, is a favourite cooling off spot after a spell in the steam room.
Then, of course there are the star attractions, early morning and late afternoon game drives. As well as the macro safari of spotting elephants browsing on trees, Scooms, our driver / guide, also focuses on a micro safari.
He describes how workers and soldiers combine in the countless termite mounds. Looking up he tells us about birds that imitate the alarm calls of other species to scare them away from good food sources.
Flights from both Cape Town and Johannesburg take guests to Port Elizabeth. The Mantis Hotel there, No. 5, makes for an ideal stopover, before the final transfer to Founders Lodge. Many guests extend their stay to begin their quest for the Big 7, embarking on whale or shark watching expeditions.
Other nice touches
Game drives call in on Munu, a black rhino who lost one eye in a territorial fight with another rhino. Then infection spread to his remaining eye blinding him. Now, as one of just 250 remaining southwestern black rhino, the search is on for a mate for Munu. Meanwhile, we feed him his favourite blue-flowered plumbago. With his own Facebook and Instagram pages, plus two full time staff looking after him, Munu has become an unlikely social media celebrity.
For children, there is a Bear Grylls adventure experience in the valley. Although it is an opportunity to relax by one of the pools, most parents can’t resist going along too.
Accommodation at Founders starts from £551 per room, per night, based on two people sharing (all-inclusive).
Exclusive use of the Founders Railway Carriage starts from £1060 per night on an all-inclusive basis for an average family of two adults and two children. This includes a dedicated personal team, all meals, soft drinks and local beer/wine, game drives and onsite activities.
The best bit
On selected dates, guests have the opportunity to take part in rhino conservation. After tracking, sometimes using a helicopter, and sedating a rhino, guests assist with medical procedures.
Perhaps taking responsibility for monitoring pulse and ocular movement. Grasping their clipboards, guests participate in a rhino health check, helping to assess dung composition, vertebrae and hip protrusions. During the drought, additional food is provided for the rhinos. This gives an opportunity for medicinal pellets to be mixed into the feed to treat any problems diagnosed by the health check.
The final verdict
Craig and Glynis, the husband-and-wife team managing this small lodge, are always on hand. They guide us through the day’s programme and patiently answer our endless questions. With a decanter of port in our room and Scooms serving morning coffee and evening sundowners on game drives, this is a luxurious exploration of the Eastern Cape.
Disclosure: our stay was sponsored by Mantis Founders Lodge.