Shiluvari: A tranquil hidden gem seven hours north of Joburg is well worth a visit
Visiting Shiluvari requires a little adventurousness — this is not Sun City. The lodge sells serenity, and a large part of the attraction is the solitude and silence in an enchanted setting where one gazes across the gently rippling waters towards the dense bush and pecan groves of the Soutpansberg.
At least once in a lifetime, every South African should make the pilgrimage to the mind-blowing landscapes and cultural-historical riches of the Mapungubwe National Park in the far north. The only drawback is the driving — at least seven hours by road from Johannesburg.
There is a solution that eases the pain of travelling in a sweaty car, provides a charming diversion and gives an opportunity to do a good deed. Break the journey short of Makhado (once Louis Trichardt) and spend a night or two at the Shiluvari Lakeside Lodge. Near the town of Elim beside the Albasini Dam, Shiluvari (Xitsonga for wild pear) is a hidden pleasure known to a few initiates. It is black-owned and managed, and like many small tourism ventures in South Africa, struggling to survive.
It was built by the Girardin family, descendants of the Swiss missionaries who founded the Elim mission hospital in the late 1800s. Until recently, it was a watering hole and workshop venue for NGO types in Limpopo, as well as drawing custom from foreign visitors en route to the Kruger National Park’s Punda Maria gate in April-June.
The NGOs have withered away, while a lethal mix of Covid and July 2021’s Jacob Zuma-inspired mayhem has sapped the foreign trade. Shiluvari’s manager, Ntsakisi Tlakula, told the M&G that the epidemic had killed off 90% of their business and initially forced the retrenchment of all 12 staff members. Some have been rehired since the lockdown was lifted.
The Limpopo Economic Development and Tourism Authority supplied R50,000 in Covid relief; nowhere near enough to pull the lodge out of the doldrums. Other potential funders, such as the National Empowerment Fund, the Industrial Development Corporation and the National Department of Tourism, have spurned approaches, objecting that “the lodge’s balance sheet is not strong enough”.
The Tlakula family — silent partners until they bought the lodge and the 20ha of surrounding land in 2013 — has dug deep into its own pockets “to keep the momentum going… we’ve subsidised the business in the hope that there’ll be a turnaround”.
Visiting Shiluvari requires a little adventurousness — this is not Sun City. The main drag from the NI to Elim is in spotless condition. But after turning left from the town centre, one follows 7km of potholed tar road, followed by a 2km stretch of gravel that needs grading but is negotiable in a two-wheel drive with clearance.
There are crocodiles and hippos in the lake, so swimming is not a good idea. And wifi has been discontinued to cut costs.
Elim itself is a typical former homeland town strewn over a wide expanse with a shopping mall — it has about 70 businesses, according to Tlakula — as well as the usual jostling crowds of spaza shops, shisa nyama joints and funeral parlours.
In a review in 2005, Mail & Guardian writer Nicole Johnstone described the area as “unprepossessing”, but added that the first impression “leaves you… unprepared when the beauty of the landscape and the charm of the people (at Shiluvari) sneak up on you”. The comment still applies. Spotless and nicely decorated on a dragonfly theme, with all the standard amenities, the thatched rooms and cottages have lost none of their offbeat stylishness. The lawns and beds of sub-tropical plants are well tended, with items of quirky statuary left by the previous owners, including a life-size model in concrete of the domba snake dance, a local coming-of-age ceremony for girls.
The staff bends over backwards to make guests feel welcome. The food is good and the cook, Malawian Vorster Moyo, recruited from another local lodge that closed, personally takes orders and does a post-prandial assessment to check for complaints.
Tlakula says the lodge “sells serenity”, and a large part of the attraction is the solitude and silence in an enchanted setting where one gazes across the gently rippling waters towards the dense bush and pecan groves of the Soutpansberg.
We were the only overnighters, though a small group of locals joined us at the waterside deck and bar. The tariffs are R1,600 for a double room, including dinner for two; breakfast for us both was R300.
“The lesson of Covid is that we had to change our market mix,” Tlakula said. “We’re now aiming at a South African clientele who want peace and quiet, including so-called ‘black diamonds’ visiting and working at the Elim mall.
“Another segment of the local clientele is people looking for picnic spots and bigger swimming pools, but that’s not what we’re about — and it sets us apart from our competitors.” (There is a well-kept pool, by the way.)
Birding was a major drawcard of Shiluvari, and JJ, a benevolent Afrikaner with an endearing mutt, Lula, still offers info-cruises around the lake that give twitchers an opportunity to scan for water birds. We saw jacana, darter, fish eagle and malachite kingfisher, among others. Even more promising was the onshore birdlife, much of it sub-tropical: on a short dawn stroll I spotted osprey, lesser striped swallow, golden weaver, scarlet-chested sunbird and black cuckoo shrike.
Tlakula said a knowledgeable bird guide is on hand. To get itself back on the agenda, the lodge should perhaps make itself known to Birdlife SA and post and update a bird list on its website.
Johnstone’s review shows that Shiluvari once had a gallery of works by local artists (internationally known sculptor Jackson Hlungwani lived nearby), a lounge with a fireplace where drinks were served, and a dining area of tables decked out with traditional textiles. Tlakula said they still had some of the collection in storage. Why not bring it out of mothballs, and import new local art, to strengthen the Tsonga vibe?
As part of the survival exercise, the dining/lounge/curio shop area has been cleared to make way for a hall that is hired out for local functions. Dining now happens on the verandah by candlelight. Covid has slimmed down the offering, but we had a very good stay — there’s still magic in them thar hills…
How to get there: Take the N1 north to the roundabout 3km south of Makhado (Louis Trichardt), and take the third exit onto the R578 to Elim. Turn left in the centre of Elim and drive 5.6km along a tar road until the sign to Shiluvari is seen on the left. Drive for another 2km along a dirt road.
Contact details: 27 73 918 3303; [email protected] DM/ML