Kuzuko Lodge Sylvester

Sylvester the Lion with his girlfriend, Angel, at Kuzuko Lodge in the Eastern Cape. Image: Supplied

Kuzuko, far more than a luxury lodge and great escape. Just ask Sylvester

The Eastern Cape’s five-star Kuzuko Lodge is an authentic Karoo bush escape that ticks all the boxes for a family or couples getaway.

Kuzuko Lodge Sylvester

Sylvester the Lion with his girlfriend, Angel, at Kuzuko Lodge in the Eastern Cape. Image: Supplied

If there’s only one reason — despite there being many — to visit Kuzuko Lodge in the heart of the Karoo, it is South Africa’s famous feline “escape artist”, Sylvester the Lion.

A recent family excursion to Kuzuko has left us with some indelible memories of our stay.

Perfect Big Five weekend getaway

We chase a Karoo sunset with its last rays brushing the backs of some impala and a darting steenbokkie into Kuzuko Lodge’s reserve where we are welcomed by our ranger Freddie van Rayner with the news that he heard Sylvester’s mighty roar the night before. And it was a “close call” not far from the staff accommodation. 

With excitement we picture the once-wandering lion sniffing the stars close by in the 15,000ha reserve — a concession area on the northwestern side of the Addo Elephant National Park overlooking the Zuurberg Mountains a stone’s throw away from Port Elizabeth. The perfect destination for a Big Five weekend getaway.  

Kuzuko Lodge
Images: Supplied

Kuzuko Lodge: Sylvester the Lion’s pride and joy

Kuzuko Lodge celebrated 12 years of “conservation and community” in November 2020 and is the “Place of Glory” where this big cat with the itchy paws finally found his pride and joy in May 2016 after escaping twice from the Karoo National Park, close to Beaufort West, in 2015. 

Watch: Sylvester finds his feet at Kuzuko Lodge after 2016 relocation 

The decision to relocate Sylvester to Kuzuko came after a global public outcry over his future, following an initial decision to put the lion down after he was found the second time round by master tracker Pokkie Benade.  

‘Taste’ of Sylvester and Fielies at the dinner table

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Power couple: Kuzuko Lodge’s Sylvester and Fielies have formed a strong bond and eventually a coalition. Image: Supplied

As it was before We get a “taste” of Sylvester and Fielies (the male lion he has formed a coalition with) that night at the dinner table along with our delectable three-course meal.

Kuzuko’s tireless conservation efforts have inspired Silkbush Mountain Vineyards’ winemaker Chris du Toit to make four special blends for the lodge in honour of their “stars”: Sylvester Altitude Red; a Fielies White, as well as a Jasmin Viognier and Saracen Red. 

The last two blends are in celebration of the captive-born cheetah Jasmin who was reintroduced to the wild at Kuzuko and Saracen the resident bull elephant respectively. 

  • The visit to Kuzuko Lodge was conducted last year before Lockdown Level 3 and the alcohol ban was announced.

All the creature comforts

After our dinner, we head back to our luxurious yet earthy chalet fitted with all the creature comforts and crisp white linen one could dream of. 

You could even keep an eye on the world via a flat-screen, but it is far more enticing to listen to nightjars calling out to a half-moon hanging in the Karoo night sky and marvel at the feeling of truly being far from the madding crowd…and close to Sylvester.

Kuzuko’s environmental education legacy

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Kuzuko Lodge game ranger Freddie van Rayner. Image: Cornelia le Roux

Kuzuko has rescued the homesteads of the original farms that the reserve consist of for unplugged off-the-grid accommodation and has also converted the old barn into an environmental education centre spearheaded and run by our ranger.

Van Rayner, who is passionate about teaching children from disadvantaged communities, such as those from Bracefield, Middelwater and Verdun primary schools, has stars in his eyes when he enthuses about educating the children in the ways of the wild and nurturing conservationists at the centre.

This ties in with Kuzuko Lodge’s vision 12 years ago to establish a world-class game lodge that would create an interdependent relationship between conservation, job creation and social transformation.

This vision has been achieved through the Kuzuko Foundation which has been established to promote job creation (90% of the staff complement hailing from the surrounding areas and Somerset East), access to health care and education to the local communities who suffer under unemployment and poverty in the area. 

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Ranger Freddie van Rayner shows Jordan Gathorne-Gillham around at Kuzuko Lodge’s education centre. Van Rayner spearheaded the centre and is the driving force behind taching children ffrom disadvantaged school the way of the wild. Image: Cornelia le Roux

Breakfast at Sylvester’s

The next morning we are up at the crack of dawn, saluting the Winterberg with its spekboom stubble from the deck of our chalet before heading to the main lodge building for our game drive.

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A game drive that proved to be an unforgettable one.

After a steaming cup of coffee, we bundle ourselves into the ranger vehicle with our eight-year-old manning the front next to Freddie, feeling all chuffed about the opportunity to operate the radio as part of Kuzuko’s Junior Ranger Programme.

We chug along while she radios the lodge that we are off on our early morning adventure. Her words are still crackling in the crisp Karoo morning air when we go around our first corner…literally into the lion’s den.

There, crouched beneath a shepherd’s tree, Sylvester and Fielies are crunching away at a hearty breakfast of warthog ribs. 

Kusuko lodge lions

Now, when a lion lifts his head from his kill and stares directly into your eyes over a short distance, you know you should look away…but you don’t. The golden glare of its amber-coloured eyes are strangely hypnotising and this unique emotion can best be described as a mixture of fear and wonder.

And looking into Sylvester’s eyes, I can’t help but to wonder what stories this feisty lion could tell us about his 370km wanderings before he found his place of glory.

Family pride

Joining the breakfast party are Sylvester’s “girlfriend” and mother to his cubs, Angel, and Fielies’ Nika with whom he fathered two cubs. 

The four sub-adult lion cubs were successfully relocated to the neighbouring Magic Hills game reserve on 6 October 2020.

Reserve manager with lion’s blood in his veins

And snapping away on the other side of the “breakfast table” at his beloved lion pride while we try and keep as still as field mice in the ranger vehicle, is the man behind Kuzuko’s big cat conservation efforts, reserve manager Gerhard de Lange.

De Lange, who, according to his wife and lodge manager, Catherina, has lion’s blood in his veins, has been studying lion behaviour from as far back as 1992 when he assisted with the relocation of 19 free-ranging lions to the Pilanesberg National Park.

Fascinated with these animals, he made it his hobby to follow them and learn more about their behaviour. This he did, day and night for four years, and the lessons he learnt during this time regarding the skills, tactics and techniques used by these lions to protect their territory proved invaluable. 

Kuzuko Lodge a big cat conservation success

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Sylvester the lion. Image: Cornelia le Roux

When we sit down with De Lange in his crammed office afterwards, we learn about the natural forces that set Sylvester on the run in the first place. Sylvester fled the Karoo park because he was intimidated by two older male lions.

“He never had a pack of his own and he was consequently intimidated by two older male lions. Sylvester was in real danger‚ and that’s why he had to escape — or be killed,” explained De Lange.

He added that after almost being euthanased during his escapes, Sylvester was “living proof that conservation‚ when done right‚ is always the preferred option”.

But what De Lange hails as the “highlight of his conservation career”, is that of the sister lionesses Angel and Nicka.

De Lange said Nicka and Angel had been born in nearby Addo Elephant National Park in the winter of 2014‚ but their mother died that December from a suspected snake bite and the cubs disappeared.

Angel Kuzuko Lodge
Angel the lioness at Kuzuko Lodge. Image: Cornelia le Roux

Weeks later‚ a field guide found the starving and emaciated cubs and took them to a boma to recover.

Enter De Lange and his “mother bakkie” with which he succeeded in raising the cubs without human contact.

De Lange set about to teach Angel and Nika to hunt by following his Toyota Land Cruiser. He used his vehicle to get close to the cubs without directly engaging with them‚ and they soon began treating the Land Cruiser as a member of their pride and started hunting with it.

Eighteen months later, the two feisty lionesses caught their first kudu bull and introductions to Sylvester was in order.

Cheetah conservation

In addition to its lion conservation milestones, Kuzuko has also over the last few years actively contributed to the Cheetah Metapopulation Project (CMT). Together with the Endangered Wildlife Trust (EWT), as well as other more recent partnerships, close to 30 cheetahs, including some of those that were born in captivity, were relocated,  adding diverse genetics into the project. 

Captive-born cheetah Jasmin was the first cat from the Ashia Cheetah Release Programme to be “wilded” at Kuzuko Lodge in 2018 and in October 2020, the reserve celebrated the news that three cubs were born to Kuzuko’s newest resident – a female cheetah — introduced into its male collation in late 2019. 

Asked about his approach in wilding the cheetahs, De Lange chuckled: “I’ve got a lot of cheetah books, but I’ve never read them and neither have the cheetahs!”

“The success of this project will not only help us increase the cheetah population at Kuzuko, but will lay the foundation for a much bigger conservation future for these big cats,” said De Lange.

Infinity and beyond

Kuzuko Lodge

The infinity pool at Kuzuko is the place to be after a day in the Karoo sun. The views from the pool area are truly spectacular and the birdlife in the late afternoon adds to its sparkle with starlings swooping through the air before they “dive-bomb” through the water.

Take a virtual game drive:

Other activities at Kuzuko Lodge

Apart from the game drives the following are on offer to guests:

  • Guided nature walks;
  • Stargazing during evening cosmic safaris with the lodge’s eight-inch telescope;
  • Cave paintings displaying San rock art that has been dated at 400 years old;
  • Various kids’ activities, such as the Junior Ranger Programme; a Wilderness Rumble; Khoisan cave painting session and a Tiny Tots Programme;
  • Birdwatching at the bird hide;
  • Gym facility overlooking the reserve; and
  • Pampering and relaxation at the Kuzuko Lodge Wellness Centre which also caters kids and teenagers.

Valentine’s Package

For the month of February, Kuzuko Lodge has put together a special Valentine’s Package which includes dinner, bed and breakfast, as well as a 30-minute couples spa treatment or game drive for R3,000 per couple per night.