Words by Ali Catterall

When the great Nelson Mandela needed time out to rest, think and write, he escaped to the homes of his great friend Douw Steyn. Both are now luxury hotels and places of calm and wonder…

Any visitor to South Africa will see Nelson Mandela’s influence with every step they take – and that extends to the places he retreated to for rest, recuperation, and to write his memoirs: the Saxon Hotel and Shambala Private Game Reserve. For those wishing to literally follow in the footsteps of greatness, these luxurious retreats, featuring a wave of refurbishments, are both available to stay in, along with some unforgettable, hands-on adventures such
as stargazing, traditional South African fishing, sunset boat rides and bush picnics.

Set in 10 acres of garden, the Saxon Hotel in
Johannesburg’s Sandhurst neighbourhood is where
Mandela stayed while he worked on The Long Walk
to Freedom. At that time, it was the residence of his
close friend current owner Douw Steyn, the founder
of Compare the Market. Opened as a hotel in 2001, it
still has the serenity that gave Mandela the much-needed peace and quiet needed to complete his autobiography. It’s light and spacious, with dual sweeping staircases, and the elegant 53 rooms and suites are decorated in a contemporary African style.

The Saxon is also offering a revamped Nelson
Mandela Platinum Suite to celebrate the centenary of
the late president. Drawing inspiration from Madiba’s
Xhosa heritage, Johannesburg artist Dean Simon was
commissioned with overhauling the existing Nelson
Mandela Suite. It features bespoke furniture and art, with a distinctly African theme – dark wood, animal skin rugs, and geometric African patterns.

Foodies will also look forward to the new fine-dining outlet, Grei, which loosely means “a society of people”
in Portuguese, and has already been nominated for a
World’s Leading Fine Dining Hotel Restaurant 2018 by the World Travel Awards. The six-course tasting menu combines Chef Candice Philip’s passion for passion for herbs flavours and intricately-plated dishes. There are also vegetarian and pescatarian-suited options. Meanwhile, art aficionados will enjoy the African art on display throughout the hotel, from the likes of Hilton Edwards, Fiona Rowett and Sandile Zulu.


When the great man needed to retreat from public life, he headed 200km north of Johannesburg to the Shambala private game reserve. Tranquil and vast, it’s an unspoilt 30,000-acre expanse packed with diverse wildlife – including the so-called ‘Big Five’: lion, leopard, elephant, rhino and buffalo, plus zebras who wander around gracefully, and giraffes that peer at you as you drive by. It certainly lives up to its name – ‘Shambala’ is a Tibetan word meaning ‘Paradise on Earth’. There are two accommodation options: the Zulu camp and the six-bedroom Nelson Mandela Villa which is largely unchanged from the days Mandela recuperated there, and has been open to the public since 2015.
Along with butler service, private chef and Wi-Fi,
there’s an indoor heated pool overlooking a waterhole, a vast outdoor deck and a presidential suite, while with its thatched roof, leadwood tree pillars and carved Rhodesian teak door frames, there’s an authentically African feel throughout.
The Camp is built in traditional style, with eight
thatched luxury chalets a couple of minutes’ walk
away: but be advised – there’s no TV, no Wi-Fi, and
no restaurant menu. A spa overlooking the river offers African-inspired treatments, and sessions are finished off with the Shambala rain stick, which mimics the sound of rain falling and is used to soothe babies in African cultures. There’s so much to do here, including game drives, sunset cruises, guided bush walks, stargazing, mountain bike riding and bush picnics. And the prestigious safari property has launched a number of exciting new wildlife based
activities: in line with Shambala’s anti-rhino poaching
programme, there’s now an opportunity to accompany Shambala’s team of researchers during an expedition. Evenings at Shambala take on a special magic, as evinced by a sunset cruise on the Steyn Dam. The manmade lake is the largest in southern Africa, home to hippos and crocodiles. Not only a watering hole for the reserve’s residents, it’s also the perfect place to fish before watching the sun turn the sky a dramatic orange. And fishing enthusiasts will relish the opportunity to cast their nets and rods here. A three-hour trip features a tour in the bass boat fishing alongside an expert guide, who points out the prime fishing spots, as well as the authentic local way of catching fish with indigenous plants. Literally wrapping up the day, a local astronomer is on hand to guide guests through the constellations, complete
with refreshments, while they snuggle up in blankets; a perfectly romantic end to an unforgettable day.