Ghost Mountain Inn
There is something inherently different about being African.
It the feeling that wells up within you when you look out of an aero plane window as you cross the Okavango Delta and the earth is splintered with a myriad shards of sunlit pools.
It’s the smell of summer rain on burnt red earth.
It’s the smile of the person at Passport Control at OR when they say “welcome home”
It’s the knowing, with unwavering certainty, that this is where you belong…
So often I forget this..
I forget how incredibly lucky I am to have been born on this magnificent continent, with its complexities, it’s problems, it’s incredible people and it’s raw, in your face unbridled beauty.
Take a trip with Colin Chester to the infamous Ghost Mountain Inn.
Now don’t get me wrong…I am a city boy .
I don’t profess to possess any Bear Grylls survival skills which would see me fending off 5 lion and a pygmy hippo with an acacia twig in one hand, whilst starting a camp fire with elephant dung and a flint stone with the other.
But I do know places of outstanding beauty when I see them (and I am not referring to the January sales at Gateway)
My better half and I admonish ourselves (often) for not taking advantage of what is arguably on our doorstep.
There is always an excuse.. Work.. the need to simply put our feet up and forget about work and do nothing…Work..the need to…
Your basic hamper wheel of life.
So when the opportunity arose to escape for a weekend to Ghost Mountain Inn, a mere 3 hours from our home, we immediately started planning the padkos menu.
Priorities – What good self-respecting South African leaves home on a road trip without the all important Padkos?
Of course I say a mere 3 hours drive. But when you are used to everything you need being within a 5km radius of your house, the prospect of driving for 3 hours is rather daunting, and there was, I confess, a degree of trepidation about the journey, (whoever said it isn’t about the destination it’s about the journey has not spent 9 hours on an international flight trying to sleep with their head on an inflight pillow designed by the descendants of the Marquis de Sade)
My fears however were unfounded…
It is an easy drive on the N2 North from Durban to Mkuze.
In fact it wasn’t an easy drive, it was a really pleasant drive.
The North Coast of KZN and in particular Zululand is an incredibly beautiful landscape, with rolling hills of bright green sugar cane, seemingly endless plantations of trees, and when you are fortunate enough, swathes of natural bush.
Its also an “idiot proof” route – Which is just as well, because in spite of the miracle of modern science, the GPS, my sense of direction is often wanting.
You don’t leave the N2 until you see the Mkuze/Ghost Moutain turn off.
Very well sign posted, the hotel is a short drive through the town, a left at the T junction, and the hotel is 400m down the road.
On arrival, we were greeted by the staff like long lost family. and as they had been proactive enough to email all the regulatory COVID questionnaires prior to our arrival, check in was ultra efficient and painless.
Ingrid, the Hotel GM made a point of coming to introduce herself, and within minutes of our arrival at the check in desk, Jean, the Safari Manager was at our side.
I wish the world had more people like Jean..
Quirky, straight shooting, with a knowledge of the area that would rival Wikipedia.
Jean is a no BS type of person, whose love for the environment and the community are worn on her sleeve.
There are no airs and graces.
“I’m taking a drive down to the dam wall this evening… Meet me in reception at 6 and bring your drinks”
You didn’t have to ask me twice! Wine.. Fresh air..African Sunset..wine…
I confess I found myself gawking a little as we were led through the hotel to our suite to make ourselves comfortable, freshen up and relax before our evening excursion.
The hotel spills out over a tropical paradise of a garden… With two swimming pools, huge fig trees and masses of tree orchids.
Add a huge sunken fire pit area, a wicker egg chair suspended from an ancient fig, a wooden boardwalk through towering reeds which leads onto a jetty with an idyllic seating area in the waters of the bordering dam and you are just beginning to scratch the surface of what Ghost Mountain Inn has to offer.
But of course there was more…
Our first floor suite was located right at the end of the corridor… And boy was it a suite!
Out first response was a nervous laugh and a gobsmacked “ this can’t ALL be ours ..can it?”
Impeccably decorated, the suite has a well appointed kitchenette, (which is great for those who love to self-cater! We were only doing a two nighter, and our stay included breakfast and dinner…So went for the “do as little as possible option”), a large lounge with it’s own TV, a significant bedroom, with four poster bed , (with it’s own tv) and dressing room, with the lounge and bedroom sharing a large balcony complete with recliner and outside table and chairs, and a bathroom…..
But not just any bathroom…
With a freestanding bath, and shower larger than my entire bathroom at home, this was THE bathroom! And as if that were not enough, large glass stack doors opened out onto a large outdoor veranda, complete with outdoor shower!
All of this with a spectacular backdrop of the Lebombo mountains with the crown jewel, Ghost Mountain, framed between large fever trees.
We sat on the ottoman at the end of the bed, silently taking in the views..For the first time in many many months I felt I could breathe.
Places like this are good for the soul.
After a shower and change of clothes, we headed off to meet Ingrid for our evening drive (with a compulsory stop at the bar en route for that glass of red wine.
We bundled ourselves into the back of a Game Viewing pick up, and were introduced to our Narina and Mark, professional travel writers who were accompanying us on our excursion, by straight-shooting Jean.
A short ride through the outskirts of Mkuze led us to a dirt road, forested on either side by magnificent fever trees.
We arrived, as promised, on the edge of the dam, just in time for sunset and a leisurely stroll to the dam wall as we watched the sky painted with hues of gold, crimson and pale purples.
There is nothing quite like a sunset in Africa to remind you of how insignificant we are in the greater scheme of things.
On our return to the hotel we made out way to the terrace to continue with our sundowners..the seal had been broken and the remaining contents of that wine bottle were calling!
Jean stopped by to let us know she had arranged an early morning hike and expedition up Ghost Mountain…She eyed out my full glass of wine… ”it’s at 6am”
I eyed out the remaining contents of the bottle..Jean’s good sense won out.
At 6 on Sunday morning, we were met at reception by Jean, (does she ever rest?), who introduced us to Abe, who would be our guide and driver.
He was accompanied by his young son, fresh out of school.
“He will follow up the rear as we walk up the mountain to warn us if there are any dangerous animals following us”.
Suddenly the rest of the contents of the wine bottle seemed like they may have been the more sensible option.
Abe drove us through the outskirts of the town, and turned onto a well-maintained dirt road, which led us ever higher up the back slope of the legendary Ghost Mountain.
Very soon, the town of Mkuze and hotel were far below us, looking more like dinky toys than real buildings.
When he finally stopped the vehicle, the air was chilly…it was just after 6am , and we had journeyed high up into the Lebombo’s.
After a safety brief, we set off with Abe on a on a steep trail which led us up towards the summit of Ghost Mountain.
At this juncture it is possibly prudent to add that if you are unfit or impaired, this is probably not the activity for you.
The trail is steep in places, and as you are relatively high above sea level, the air is a lot thinner than what it is at the base of the mountain.
If however you a moderately fit and don’t mind a little sweating, then I have only two words for you..
It was an unforgettable experience.
Abe is possibly one of the most interesting men I have ever had the privilege of meeting.
Having worked at Hluluwe /Umfolozi park for many years, his knowledge and passion for the environment, the wildlife and his community is astounding.
As we made out way towards the summit, we stopped periodically for him to fill us in on the history of the area, gesturing expansively across the landscape as he described the rise and fall of Zulu Kings, their wars and their descendants.
He looked troubled as he described the challenges faced by the current communities and the threats to his beloved environment.
This is a man passionate about his heritage.
When we finally summited Ghost mountain, it was a surreal moment.
We were standing on the crown of the mountain from whom the area took its name.
Tshaneni as it is referred to by the local community is shrouded in myth , mystery and intrigue.
The site of fierce and bloody battles and the burial place of kings.
A section of the Ndwandwe tribe, headed by the Gaza family, had their home beneath this mountain until they were conquered by Shaka in 1819 and the head of the family, Soshongane, fled with his followers into Mozambique, where he founded the Shangaan tribe.
From early times it had become customary to bury the bodies of Chiefs on Ghost Mountain. High on its slopes there is a taboo cave, used as a tomb by generations of the Gaza family. Soshongane and his descendants, although they lived many miles away in Mozambique, were carried back to the Ghost Mountain when they died.
Their bodies, mummified and wrapped in the black bull skins, had to be transported by bearers who travelled by night and hid during the day to avoid detection by the Zulus.
Over the years strange lights and flickering fires have reportedly been seen among the fissures and cliffs of the summit with reports of strange sounds being heard.
To find out more about the fascinating history of this area, check out the Ghost Mountain Inn website!
This was a morning I shall remember or many years to come.
After returning to the hotel and wallowing down in a fantastic breakfast, (I built up an appetite with that hike), Chef Samir showed us around the grounds and gave us a behind the scenes look at their community projects.
Having worked in management in a Corporate environment for the most part of my career, prior to heading out on my own, I am all too familiar with “Corporate Social Investment”
Well intentioned, and initiated by good people sadly many of these projects are often ill thought out and unsustainable.
What I saw at Ghost Mountain Inn was something I have never seen before – a community invested in itself by itself with a plan to create sustainable incomes and real forms of poverty relief.
The hotel sits on a sizeable piece of land, and have provided stake holders in the local community with land, seeds, tools , storage, irrigation and training to create large vegetable gardens.
The vegetables are then purchased, at market value, by the hotel for their own needs, and any surplus produce is either used by the growers for their own needs, or sold at the local market by them for additional income.
It’s a win win.
The hotel has a supply of fantastic fresh produce, while significantly reducing their carbon footprint, and the local community has a sustainable income
Prior to this, the people selling produce at the market would need to purchase it from Mtubatuba and bring it back to Mkuze to sell.
A distance of 104km…One way!
Chef Samir’s enthusiasm is palpable and infectious. He believes in this project, and knows the difference it can make.
The gardens are composted with the vegetable and garden waste from the Hotel and the manure from the very large chickens resident in them.
Future plans include a training academy for the local community interested in making the Hospitality industry a career.
“The local community don’t have the opportunity to be exposed to the dishes and experiences that so many of us do” explained Chef Samir. This puts them at a disadvantage when it comes to potentially finding employment at more urban establishments.
The Academy will give them this exposure and certify them, which will significantly improve their chances of finding employment.
Headed up by Gert Van Wyk, the Social Investment Projects are initiatives making a tangible difference to the quality of life of the local communities.
The Hotel also works very closely with the Kingsley Holgate Foundation.
Only having two nights at Ghost Mountain Inn meant packing in as much as possible into a 48 hours window, and of course, as the age old expression goes “no rest for the wicked”.
The indominable Jean made sure we were booked on the 3pm expedition – up onto the back bone of the Lebombo’s which tower over the town of Mkuze, to give us insight into how the local community lives.
Our guide, Isaac, was taking us to meet with Justice Myeni, who has lived in the local community since childhood.
Isaac, it turns out, is a man of many talents, with a wickedly sharp sense of humour, and a boundless knowledge of the area.
As we headed up the narrow pass onto the ridge of the Lebombo range, he filled us in on the community and what we could expect.
“These are middle class people… Many are teachers, nurses or work in white-collar positions. The community is proud of what they have achieved, and people have managed to elevate themselves, building nice houses and infrastructure”
Isaac certainly was not wrong.
As we entered the village, it was clear that people had invested what they earned in their properties and environment, and were justifiably proud of what they had achieved.
Our next stop was to collect Justice..
Justice is a man larger than life, with a booming voice and matching enthusiasm!
“I have lived her since I was a child. I still live with my parents who have also lived here all their lives. This is a community where we take care of one another”
I found myself chuckling as we drove through he streets of the village as Isaac described his ideal wife.
There are certainly no overly PC overtures with Justice.
It was a fascinating glimpse into a culture which I, as a white South African, had never witnessed.
Justice explained how the community was largely crime free using an analogy about cattle theft.
“If 5 of my cattle are stolen, and I know Isaac has taken them, I will go to the Chief and report this.
The Chief will then do an investigation and call all the parties together to question them.
Once he has done this, he and the elders will sit and make a decision.
If Isaac is found guilty, he will be made to pay a fine – Something like paying me back 7 cows as punishment and then 3 cows to the chief for disrespecting him in his community.
If Isaac fails to do this he will be asked to leave the community.
When agreement is reached, we shake hands and we are friends again.
Because of this, young children and women can walks around our streets at night and they are safe”
I thought about the alarm system in our house…The electric fences which surround us…. Somehow the ways of this community seemed to make far more sense.
Our cultural experience culminated with sunset G&T’s on the edge of a cliff top, high above Jozini Lake, with the foothills of Swaziland in the distance.
A wooden table, complete with white table cloth was set up on a perfectly flat area, and we toasted yet another perfect day in Africa.
What a spectacular way to end off our last evening in this magnificent place.
With the prospect of having to leave in the morning and head off back to the rat race looming, we settled down pensively on the terrace at the hotel for an early evening dinner.
48 hours really was not enough time to see everything we wanted to…
But Jean and Isaac had other plans for us!
“Isaac and I have arranged for you to go out onto Lake Jozini in the morning. Will 9 am be ok? You aren’t in a rush to get back are you?”
Those moments when you feel like you have won the lotto!
After a leisurely breakfast the next morning, we were whisked off to Lake Jozini in an open Safari pickup by Isaac.
It’s a brief journey from the hotel to the lake, which for reasons known only to the authorities is apparently now officially called “Pongolapoortdam”.
But everyone still refers to it as Lake Jozini – A damn side easier to say.
The Inn owns two vessels which are moored at the Lake, and rebuilt and maintain the ablutions in the area – Another investment in the local community.
We were on the smaller of the two vessels – “The big one is used for booze cruises” Isaac informed us. “It’s probably a little early in the day for that”
I have to confess that neither of us had ever been to lake Jozini…We were “Lake Jozini Virgins”.
I don’t know what I expected… Water, as one would. Some crocs, maybe, and if we were lucky, a few hippos that had strayed from their beaten path to St Lucia.
What did I know…
Indeed, what did I know!
It was only minutes before we encountered our first pod of these gargantuan beings.
And from that moment, it only got better!
Isaac is like a wildlife Wikipedia.
It was like having the tour director of National Geographic show you around their backyard!
He knows everything about the environment and wildlife in the area, enthralling us with details of how the lake filled to capacity within hours during the 1984 Demoina, fascinating us with the history of the Hippos of the area, and pointing out the flocks of white faced whistling ducks nesting on a small island.
But it was when he spotted the elephant that he became incredibly animated!
“Jean is going to kill me for seeing them before her!” he laughed.
“ We haven’t seen them for about 6 months! They have made the journey back. This is the scouting party checking out the grazing lands for the matriarch”
It’s a surreal experience seeing elephant from a low slung boat on a body of water with them towering like Leviathans filling the view.
It gives you and extraordinary perspective on just how enormous they are…And how silent.
With the boat engine switched off, and only the occasional bird call to break the silence, these magnificent animals seemed to glide across the grass in silk socks.
Hell, I can’t even get off the couch in front of the TV on a thick rug that silently!
And the menagerie kept on coming..
By our return to the dock some three hours later, we had managed to spot Hippo, Crocs, Elephant, Giraffe, Buffalo, Wildebeest, Impala. Warthog, at least 4 pairs of Fish Eagles, innumerable bird species, multiple miscellaneous buck…Hell, we even had a guest appearance by a likkewaan!
Our two days (and one morning) at Ghost Mountain Inn were poignant reminders of how fortunate I am.
Fortunate to live on this wild, beautiful and misunderstood continent, and fortunate enough to have places like this resort on our doorstep.
Places that are not cookie cutter copies of resorts you could find anywhere in the world, but are unique. And invested in their guests and their communities.
Take a leisurely drive – the scenery is spectacular and Ghost Mountain isn’t going anywhere.
Pack light clothes – Mkuze was a good 5 or 6 degrees warmer than the temperature when we left our home in Umhlanga..
If you are moderately fit, try to make the hike up Ghost Mountain. The views are epic, and Abe is an outstanding guide.
Make the most of the time at the resort – You are close the Hluhluwe /Umflozi reserve if you want to see the Big Five, and the resort will happily arrange a safari for you.
There are a number of safari and cultural experiences available to you.
Take a bathing suit – The pools are awesome and it gets pretty warm there.
Relax! – There is even a GREAT Spa at the resort if you want to pamper yourself,
Rush – The point of going to place like this is to unwind. If you want to chill by the pool the entire day, then that’s what you should do.
Disrespect the local communities and cultures – If this has to be explained you probably should be looking for an alternate resort.
If you would like more information on this exceptional resort, browse their website and have a chat with them.