The Improbable South African Safari

By the time you taxi to a stop, Land Rovers appear to take you on the 15 minute drive to the lodge. It is pure and total luxury in the middle of the South African bush. If Mathis is there, she'll greet you with "Hi, I'm Susan and this place is my vision."

Each of the guest cottages has a fireplace, a sitting area and king-size bed overlooking a deck with a view of the game preserve. The enormous marble bathroom has a stand alone tub, also overlooking the deck. And there are three showers, two indoor and one outdoor. On the expansive deck are lounge chairs, a table and your own small private plunge pool where you can soak while watching the zebras and elephants pass by.

The public areas include a library, a large bar and lounge area, a wood-paneled formal dining room whose table can seat 18 for dinner, and a giant wine cellar that would make any Frenchman's jaw drop. All the public rooms are connected by a large polished rosewood deck overlooking the bush.

Four years ago Mathis opened her lodge, which was named for a South African queen, to her friends and family. That is the only purpose for which she envisioned it.

She recruited a loyal staff of about 30, three staff members for each guest. She seems to have a good relationship with them and some even call her Susan.

Apartheid Is Just a Memory

Growing up in Georgia, Mathis knew all too well the effects of racial discrimination. "All that stuff in the South never made any sense to me. I've never seen color," she said. Now she chose to spend the rest of her life in another area coming to grips with the end of apartheid.

Mathis said she offers better salary and benefits than other lodges in the area. And she has sent some of her staff to schools to learn other skills to get even higher paying jobs elsewhere. "My staff has accepted me as family," she said. "I want my staff to achieve."

But opening the lodge just for occasional friends and family was not keeping the staff busy. Her general manager warned her that the staff would leave if they didn't have enough work, even though Mathis was willing to pay them anyway.

So even though she didn't care about the additional money paying guests would bring in, two years ago she agreed to open the lodge to the general public. "Friends started to talk about it. People called and wanted to come. I was skeptical at first," she said.

She enjoyed living out of the spotlight. "My life is quiet, low profile," she said. "Remaining anonymous has not been a bad thing."

Mathis still wonders why outsiders would want to come and pay to stay at her lodge. But they come because it is probably one of the most luxurious safari lodges in Africa. If you don't like roughing it and are skeptical of so called "luxury tent" accommodations, this is the place to stay on safari.

So what does all this luxury cost? The rates for two people range from $1200-$1800 a night depending on the season. But you can get a better deal by booking through a tour operator. Rates include accommodations, all meals, drinks, including wine and liquor, laundry service, and two game drives each day, early morning and late afternoon.

And if you happen to be there one of the eight months Mathis is in residence you may get a chance to meet and dine with this strong-willed, charming American. "I'm one of the luckiest, most blessed people anywhere," she said.

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