The Improbable South African Safari

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.

Falling in Love All Over Again

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.

The Plane!

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."

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.

Mathis has willed the lodge and its artwork to a trust for education and conservation in South Africa. And the lodge will be her final resting place.

"I want to be cremated and thrown right out there," she said gesturing toward the African bush her lodge overlooks. "I'm in heaven right here."

And how does she think her late husband feels about all of this? "I think he's in a state of shock," she said. "Every once in a while I go to the cemetery to visit his grave to see if he's still there."

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Editor's note: ABC News producer Tom Giusto recently stayed at the Mateya Safari Lodge while on vacation in South Africa. He paid the full group price for his trip and received no special treatment.