Her friends thought she was nuts, and South Africans said she'd never be able to do it. "Just watch me," she told them all.
Susan Mathis proved them all wrong. Against all odds, this tough, independent, wealthy widow from Atlanta, Ga., designed, built and furnished an ultra-luxury safari lodge in the African bush, 12,000 miles from home.
"I had never done anything in my life. I had been a housewife," she told ABC News. "I had never built a doghouse." Now at age 68 she has found happiness, 17 years after her husband's death.
Harvey Mathis was only 57 when he died of a sudden heart attack while watching television at home. He and Susan had traveled the world together, but went only once to Africa, a place he never really liked.
After being widowed, Mathis made three trips around the world. But in every place she couldn't overcome the memories of the wonderful times she had with her husband.
In the end, she was drawn to South Africa, the only place where she didn't have fond memories of her husband. "This place had such a pull. I couldn't see me anywhere else," she said.
She never really considered remarrying. Most of the available men were either too old or too poor. "Men are only interested in one thing, money," she said. "I didn't want to be a nurse or a purse."
Mathis did fall in love again, but this time it was with South Africa. The beauty, the animals, and especially the people she met, pulled her there. "The people are genuine and wonderful," she said.
She wanted to share her new love with friends and family. So she decided to build her own luxurious safari lodge and invite them to visit. Just five guest cottages, a house for her and another guest house. "I could afford it so I did it," she said.
"My friends thought I had totally lost my mind," she confessed. And men in South Africa told her the 100 plus acres she bought near the Madikwe Game Reserve was not suitable for building. "This is not a woman's world in South Africa," she lamented.
But this inexperienced woman, who by her own admission had never picked up a hammer, drew inspiration from her deceased husband. He made his fortune in construction and real estate. "Anything can be built on," she said.
Susan Mathis was determined. Construction took over two years and most of that time she lived in a tent on the property where she supervised some 300 workers. And she furnished the lodge with artifacts and paintings she purchased herself in Africa. "This was the first time in my life I bought exactly what I wanted," Mathis said. In her prior life in the states she inherited her homes and furnishings.
She created the Mateya Safari Lodge, her own South African San Simeon, a game park version of the luxurious castle William Randolph Hearst built for his friends in California. But while her lodge started out for friends and family, it's now open to anyone who can pay the five-star rates.
When asked how much she spent on the lodge, Mathis took a deep breath and said, "I wouldn't dare tell you." But her general manager revealed the lodge and its artworks are insured for about $15 million.
As your small chartered aircraft approaches the red dirt landing strip at Madikwe, South Africa, you can almost hear the ghost of Fantasy Island's Herve Villechaise crying out, "The plane, the plane."