In the years after he left office as South Africa’s President, Nelson Mandela would often retreat to this six bedroom house not far from the entrance of the 24,710 acre Shambala Private Game Reserve, in the the country’s Limpopo province, a two and a half hour drive or an hour by helicopter north of Johannesburg. It was built for him in 2001 by the Reserve’s owner, South African insurance magnateDouw Steyn, a friend who also owns Johannesburg’s exquisite Saxon Hotel, Villas and Spa. Mandela would go on game drives with the Reserve’s guides, hold meetings, reflect, receive visitors, among them Bill Clinton and Oprah, whose names and photos are displayed in the oversized guest book in front. After his death, his widow Graca Machal returned the house to the owner. And on April 27th, the country’s Freedom Day, the house, called the Nelson Mandela Centre for Reconciliation, was opened for outsiders to rent. Knowing that this was Mandela’s retreat, you get a special feeling just standing inside, as if the walls were imbued with his spirit.
The design of the thatched roof house is, at Mandela’s request, simple but it’s also elegant and sleek with distinctly African touches–furniture and design accents in African woods, large, colorful portraits and Mozambique style carvings by master craftsman Matsemela ike Nkoana in honor of Graca Machal’s heritage. Mandela’s office is intact as are most of the room settings, including the still functioning but now dated looking TVs; it was decided to keep the house in the style that he knew and not add more contemporary touches such as flat screen TVs. It’s more entertaining anyway to watch the three hippos in the backyard water hole instead or go on game drives to see the rhinos, elephants, giraffes in the Reserve, then come back for a swim in the indoor pool.
Meals are the domain of young chef Maveer Thetsie, the executive chef of the Reserve’s other property, the eight cottage Zulu Camp, and he’s quite a talent…creating colorful, flavorful collections of stuffed vegetables and pastas, meats infused with herbs and a full scale braai, a South African barbecue. You can dine outdoors listening to the hippos or the more formal dining room. Or do as the famously humble Mandela often did, sit in the kitchen and talk to the staff.