Trish Beaver

A visit to the Emdoneni Lodge near Hluhluwe is a fantastic way to get up close to some of Africa’s endangered cat species and enjoy watching hippos frolic in the St Lucia estuary.

More than just a great holiday spot, Emdoneni Lodge is also a special sanctuary for African wild cats at the Zululand Cat Conservation Project, an experience to be relished. You don’t only learn more about the habits of local wild cats, if you stay over at the lodge you can expect soft beds, laden buffet tables, friendly staff and stargazing on the pool deck.

Zululand couple Louis and Cecillie Nel started the cat conservation project 27 years ago when the lodge had only seven rooms, but today they are the proud owners of a 50 room lodge that offers stylish accommodation for couples and families in the form of family rondavels, luxury and standard chalets.

The cats at Emdoneni Lodge enjoy a meal (left) while ambassador cheetahs tolerate being admired up close for some of the most Instgrammable moments

 The cats at Emdoneni Lodge are fed while guests learn about the ambassador cheetahs that are used in the programme to educate the general public. You can admire these beautiful felines up close and hear how they have adapted to their environment.

Each cat has special trademark characteristics, like pointy ears, or colouring that helps them hunt their prey. The mighty cheetah uses its long tail like a rudder to give it balance and stability when chasing another animal.

These beautiful creatures are severely threatened because of the dwindling numbers and human encroachment on their natural territories. Many of the animals at Emdoneni have been rescued. Breeding cheetahs in captivity is extremely difficult, however the project has had success in breeding all 4 species.

Over the years, the project has successfully released over 30 cats back into the wild. These include four cheetahs, 13 caracals, 22 servals and four African wild cats.  The ever-shrinking gene pool that causes birth defects is a problem.

Getting up close to them felt like a real privilege, especially when – like the rhino – only intensive conservation efforts can save cheetahs from extinction. In addition to the cheetah celebrities, we also saw Serval, Caracal and the lesser-known African wild cat.

This cat that may seem just like a feral version of your average household feline, but it has  distinctive marks on its tail and back. They do breed with domesticated cats as their genes are closely linked. Following a magnificent dinner, prepared and served by polite and friendly staffers we rolled back to our room. Well-fed and happy.

We were thrilled to discover that – Major Tom – one of the local domestic cats had honoured us for his nightly snuggle.  You can expand on your “wild” experience by booking a stunning river cruise at the nearby St Lucia estuary.

Our next adventure was a cruise on the St Lucia estuary with Heritage Tours & Safari. Once, crocodiles were common along the banks, but the main attractions here are the hippo families.

These sneaky snorkelers, they submerge when they hear the engines of the cruise boat, but slowly you see their eyes and ears breaking the surface. They keep a safe distance but while hippos may look like gentle giants, they are dangerous and therefore no casual fishermen are allowed along the river banks. The guide showed us an impressively-sized hippo tooth.

You can spot hippo aplenty on a river cruise at St Lucia.

Many older hippos have nasty scars from defending their territory. We enjoyed the cool breeze and our cruise guide’s colourful banter as we admired the handiwork of the weaver birds who had claimed a thick reed bed for their nests. Above us circled an African fish eagle, his trademark call distinctive in the quiet air. It thrilled us to see a few hippo pods. Two rowdy teenagers jousting and bumping each other put on quite the show!

Thoughtful and hand made gifts were a lovely surprise when we returned to our air conditioned rooms. A perfect day culminated in a pampering session at the lodge spa where the excellent gentle smiling therapists kneaded the tensions of the past few months away.

On warm evenings wallow in the pool or settle next to one of the outdoor fires on nippier nights, cocktail in hand, where we watched the moon rise through a telescope.

The craft markets offer the local communities a way to earn money. You can buy pineapples, bananas and avocados at great prices and lots of other treasures. On the way back to Durban, stop at Zamimpilo Crafts, a community enterprise that sells fresh produce at great prices and home-made mementoes.

On the way back to Durban, stop at Zamimpilo Crafts, a community enterprise that sells fresh produce at great prices and home-made mementoes.

Emdoneni Lodge have seasonal specials and their Endangered Cat tours are open to the public on a daily basis with 2 tours a day.   The Emdoneni Spa is also open to day visitors. Booking is advised for both the cat tours and for spa bookings.