Cover Jesse and Jessica Kienle Maxwell with children Luke and Layla Gabrielle, Christian and Stephanie Kienle Gonzalez with daugthers Andrea and Arielle, and Max and Zelda Kienle blend in the postcard-perfect scenery of Lapalala

Amidst one of the largest private reserves in South Africa, Jessica Kienle Maxwell rediscovers the joys of travelling with family as well as navigating through its challenges and rewards

“There, every day felt surreal. A gift. We loved watching the kids run around carefree in nature, getting their hands dirty playing with sticks and stones. It was a real joy to see them like this, without needing to wear a mask or shield the entire stay,” enthuses Jessica Kienle Maxwell, who has admittedly fallen in love with Lapalala Wilderness, a 48,000-hectare reserve in South Africa’s northernmost province of Limpopo. Together with her husband Jesse Maxwell and children Luke and Layla Gabrielle, her parents Max and Zelda Kienle, and her sister Stephanie Kienle Gonzalez with husband Christian and daughters Andrea and Arielle, Jessica went on a safari journey to South Africa—a place that she likens to their second home.

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“I have visited South Africa a handful of times before, but each time feels like the first. There is just so much to see and discover in this wild and vast country,” she adds. And who wouldn’t get mesmerised? South Africa, after all, is home to some of the world’s best game reserves like the Kruger National Park and Sabi Sands—both with an unrivalled diversity of wildlife including the Big Five (lions, elephants, leopards, rhinoceroses and buffalos), the best safari experiences, incredible gastronomic and wine scene, as well as the most breath-taking landscapes and sunset views on earth. “We enjoy the whole safari adventure—from the game drives to the warm and welcoming people, tastefully designed lodges and culinary experience. It is a feast for the senses,” she says.

An evening flight from Manila to Johannesburg with a three-hour layover in Doha, then a swift chartered plane ride to Lapalala took the family to their first-ever international trip since the start of the pandemic. “We had mixed emotions about it [but] we were extremely happy to travel again, and just generally excited for the kids, as they had just been home mostly all of last year and this year. We were also constantly worrying about the situation there and concerned about how well the children would be protected during the actual travelling part,” Jessica confesses. On top of their worries was another lockdown imposed in South Africa due to the rising cases of Covid-19 Delta variant just a week leading to their departure. “Our plans of exploring Cape Town sadly had to be put on hold. We were very lucky to have still been able to push through with the second leg of our trip [in Lapalala],” The family ended up spending a few more days in the bush—a real dream for them—avoiding staying in Johannesburg, the country’s COVID-19 epicentre.

They spent several days in Limpopo province, in the centre of the Lapalala reserve. They stayed in a place at the bottom of a tall cliff along the Palala main river.

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“Every afternoon, this majestic cliff would turn into a deep maroon colour as it reflected the sun setting adjacent to it,” Jessica recalls. The reserve is tucked in the mountainous region of Waterberg, which stretches from BelaBela in the south to Lephalale in the north, and from Thabazimbi in the west to Mokopane in the east. Its scenic mountains and rivers form part of an expansive wilderness area that is one of Unesco’s biosphere reserves. The breath-taking mountains hold a flow of streams cascading into crystal-clear rock pools.

While the land is dry in winter, the summer rains bring the reserve to life. Its lush forests teem with birds, rhinos play on the grass, giraffes indulge in leaves from the trees, elephants and rhinos frequent the waterholes. Lapalala is a well-preserved area that naturally attracts animal species. Along with the

Big Five are animals like eland, impala, waterbuck, bushbuck, zebra, wildebeest, crocodile, leopard, baboons, monkeys, galagos, servals and a lot more.

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Known for its sustainability efforts, the reserve has been focusing primarily on building awareness of the interdependence between mankind and nature since it was founded in 1981. With a vision to practise sustainable conservation, the reserve provides a safe habitat for rare and threatened animal species, employment within the community through tourism enhancement and opportunities to invest and participate in the future of the reserve. It also aims to educate and encourage the next generations to continue championing sustainability for years to come.

I have visited South Africa a handful of times before, but each time feels like the first. There is just so much to see and discover in this wild and vast country
Jessica Kienle Maxwell

To achieve these, Lapalala hosts a combination of special species breeding programmes, community collaboration in conservation projects, tourism pro- motion and a well-established education programme offered through the Lapalala Wilderness School.

Their days in South Africa were filled with so much joy going on long game drives where the kids would join them. “We loved seeing their faces light up when they would spot animals. When we would observe and follow them, they would be quietly watching and asking questions, genuinely curious. This made the whole trip worth it,” she shares.

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When not on an early game drive, their mornings were spent having riverside brunches, keeping themselves fit at the villa’s private gym, doing yoga al fresco, or simply relaxing in the lanai and by the pool of the cosy four-bedroom villa. The kids would play outdoors, enjoying every minute of their precious childhood, at the sprawling gardens. “[Our] children loved running around, playing tag and throwing balls. It was a mini paradise and retreat for all of us to recharge,” Jessica shares. Afternoons were perfect for picnics by the elephant pools with the sun aglow. At happy hour, the family would gather around a bonfire to enjoy gin and tonic over a good conversation while watching the skies slowly turn pitch black and brilliant swathes of light streak across the blackness of the universe.

Delicious healthy meals whipped up by the in-house chef were a delightful part of their trip. One of Jessica’s favourite moments was when her sister Stephanie and brother-in-law, Christian, organised a surprise lunch to celebrate their father’s birthday. Beautifully set up along a river, the group feasted on fresh salmon, hot mushroom buns, grilled sausages and decadent cupcakes. This was followed by a dip into the freezing river with both the children and the adults relishing the afternoon full of love and laughter.

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“Travelling and seeing the world is almost just as important as my children’s education. I want my children to experience new places, and be open and accepting of other people, cultures, traditions, beliefs,” Jessica explains. More than that, travelling is a great way to reconnect and bond with the family specially in these precarious times. “Some of my fondest memories with my parents and sister growing up were those trips we took during summer and winter break, when we would visit family members abroad, or discover

a new city or country and visit all the tourist attractions! This was part of the adventure and excitement of travelling. I would like for my children to look back at our family trips the same way,” she adds.

Travelling is doable. As scared as we were at first, we felt it was important to us, and something worth taking the risk for
Jessica Kienle Maxwell

And because travelling nowadays is not the same as how we all used to pre-pandemic, extra caution must always be exercised. For Jessica, this means doing everything they could to make the trip as low-risk as possible. “We made sure to choose seats that were at the far front or far end of the cabin, where we felt there weren’t too many people around. The cabin staff were very helpful and understanding of our situation and made sure to help where they could. During the transit in Doha, we found a comfortable nook in the lounge where we stayed grouped together with as little interaction with others as possible,” she narrates. They also made sure to sanitise their seats and hands regularly and brought portable air purifiers that were always kept close to the children. “My four-year-old has become accustomed to wearing a mask but keeping it on for more than 20 hours straight is another story. This was stressful, but we did everything we felt we could do to make it as low risk as possible.”

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In a short period of time, Jessica and her family were able to somehow escape the chaos brought about by the pandemic. Those moments they shared, the meals they had, the wildlife, sunsets and stars they witnessed are for keeps. While travelling now is worrisome and a hassle, it is not impossible if extra precautions and safety measures are in place. “I would firstly encourage everyone to protect themselves and protect others by getting vaccinated. This is the first step to fight this deadly virus, but it will only work if everyone does it,” she says. “Travelling is doable. As scared as we were
at first, we felt it was important to us, and something worth taking the risk for. At the end of the day, you need to keep living life the way you want to, but do
it smartly, responsibly, and as safely as possible.”

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  • PhotographyDana Allen and Christian Gonzalez
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