Text and images by Stephen Cunliffe
The Eastern Cape is home to an astounding six of South Africa’s seven major biomes: a veritable botanic melting pot. From thickly vegetated mountain slopes caked in euphorbias and aloes to undulating plains smothered in nutritious Albany Thicket, the incredibly varied terrain supports a diverse spectrum of wildlife scattered across breathtakingly beautiful and historically rich landscapes. With the traditional Big Five (lion, leopard, elephant, rhino and buffalo) in residence and the great white shark and southern right whale frequenting its marine protected areas, the Eastern Cape can rightfully claim to be home to the Magnificent Seven. This is South Africa’s premier malaria-free, family-friendly safari destination and the ultimate grand finale to any journey down the Garden Route. From affordable Addo to exclusive Kwandwe, the Eastern Cape boasts a wealth of safari options to suit every wallet.
Kwandwe Private Game Reserve
Arriving at the Heatherton Manor reception, we received a warm welcome and ice-cold glass of delicious homemade lemonade: the perfect antidote to a sizzling summer’s day. We were soon entrusted to the care of our guides, ranger Doctor “Doc” Ndyawe and spotter Sizakhele “Siza” Ngcane.
The perennially smiling Doc and eagle-eye Siza boasted over 20 years of Kwandwe experience between them and they’d witnessed firsthand the reserve’s transformation from degraded farmland back to pristine wilderness. After languishing for decades as a barely profitable goat- and ostrich-farming region, nine farms straddling the Great Fish River were painstakingly restored to their former glory. Surviving wildlife populations were augmented with an extensive reintroduction programme that saw a staggering 7 000 animals returned to the rejuvenated 22 000 hectare sanctuary. Driving across a thriving natural landscape en route to our lodge, I was left in no doubt that this ambitious and far-sighted project had been an unmitigated success.
Kwandwe, a member of Relais & Châteaux, is widely regarded as the premier safari option in the Eastern Cape, so I was more than a little excited as we pulled up to the reserve’s flagship safari lodge. River Lodge enjoys a stunning setting perched above the perennial Great Fish River. Across the river shale cliffs, sprouting fiery aloes and giant candelabras, formed a mesmerising backdrop to the lodge’s idyllic setting.
Strung out along the south bank, the unfenced camp comprises nine luxurious suites decorated in a classic-contemporary style. A decadent guest to staff ratio of 1:4 ensured a level of luxury, service and feasting well beyond my expectations. After a delicious calamari salad for lunch, we opted to forego the air conditioning in favour of our private plunge pool and spent the heat of the day wallowing happily and taking in the view.
Later that afternoon, before getting down to the serious job of wildlife-watching, I had an opportunity to visit the Mgcamabele Community Centre. Realising the importance of having local community buy-in and support for their conservation dream, Kwandwe’s social development partner, the non-profit Angus Gillis Foundation, facilitated the centre’s establishment as well as the ongoing upliftment of impoverished communities living within and alongside the game reserve. I was impressed by their community-conscious approach to conservation and when I later mentioned this to Kwandwe General Manager, Graeme Mann, he responded, “You’re absolutely right; at Kwandwe community development is not a window dressing for tourists, it’s the driving force behind what we’re doing here.”
Rejoining my family for the 5pm evening game drive, we began a three-day wildlife extravaganza that delivered high quality sightings of a wide array of large, charismatic mammals. With only eight vehicles and 44 guests spread between four lodges when the reserve is choc-a-bloc, Kwandwe is one of the lowest density private game reserves in South Africa and we were treated to a near-private wildlife experience.
Our guiding duo was steadfastly dedicated to the task of tracking down the Big Five, but, for us, it was the superior rhino viewing that stole the show. Kwandwe is a well protected rhino haven and we were spoilt with one crash of white rhino after another – many with young calves in tow – not to mention a big belligerent black rhino bull that took an instant liking to our open-top game-viewer!
Add to this a sighting of two lionesses with their four sub adult cubs devouring a black wildebeest kill while a satiated black maned male slumbered in the shade nearby; a trio of ever alert cheetah; a rare brown hyaena; a pair of bat eared foxes with pups; an elephant family fording the Fish River; a huge herd of buffalo slaking their thirst and the full spectrum of general game… and you have a wildlife-viewing experience that stands tall alongside the best in the country.
On our final evening we were in for a big surprise. Cresting a rise, we came across a fully stocked temporary bar erected at Bonzai Lookout high above the meandering Great Fish River. Our vivacious hostess kept the martinis and bubbly flowing as the sun sank toward the western horizon and a pair of rambunctious hippos cavorted in the river below.
As darkness brought down the curtain on our final day, we somewhat reluctantly retreated to the vehicle. Sharp-eyed Siza (who had not been partaking in the revelry!) spotted a distant creature walking along the far bank. Firing up the spotlight, the unmistakable glow of two bright eyes blinked back at us from across the river. “I think it’s a lioness,” speculated Doc as we set off to investigate. But, Siza, with the eyes of a hawk, soon corrected him: “No; it’s a leopard!”
While one of the other lodge vehicles kept an eye on the elusive feline, we thundered off towards the bridge and crossed the river. With radio-relayed guidance from Bonzai Lookout, we detoured off the road in search of the big tomcat. Five minutes later we rounded a bush and found the regal beast calmly surveying his domain. It was a Hollywood-style ending with the lord of the night providing the ultimate heart-stopping climax to our action-packed safari adventurs.
Later that evening, Graeme joined us for dinner and shared a few interesting insights: “Being a malaria-free destination is a major attraction, but it doesn’t define us. Our problem is that most people still don’t realise you can enjoy a genuine wildlife experience right here without travelling to Kruger. And to be honest, I don’t see the other local safari lodges as competition; our real challenge is to promote the Eastern Cape as a safari experience that measures up to the best in the rest of Africa.”
With five-star accommodation, sophisticated cuisine, impeccable service and top quality sighting of over 30 large mammal species in scenic surrounds, there is no disputing that Kwandwe has plenty to offer safari first-timers and old-hands alike.
Addo Elephant National Park
Don’t despair if Kwandwe falls outside your price bracket, because self-catering Addo Elephant National Park offers excellent value for money and the full spectrum of indigenous wildlife. Originally established in 1931 to protect the last surviving elephants and buffalo in the Eastern Cape, 180 000-hectare Addo has evolved into one of the country’s premier wildlife safari destinations.
While Addo is home to the Magnificent Seven and synonymous with some of the best elephant viewing in all of Africa, it offers considerably more to the discerning safari connoisseur. Whether you opt for self-drive or guided game drives, hiking, horseback safaris, 4x4 adventuring or whale-watching, Addo has something for everyone.
Accommodation options are just as varied, although I gravitated towards the intimate 10-bed Spekboom Tented Camp in the heart of the Park. Comprising five large permanent dome tents with proper beds and fresh linen, it’s a simple, but comfortable, camp with 24-hour access to a hide overlooking the local waterhole where a big bull elephant provided quality entertainment when he angrily chased kudu and warthogs from the water’s edge.
That night, as Orion chased Taurus across the night sky, a quartet of jackals serenaded us to sleep in our little camp after another memorable day. Before nodding off, I relived the day’s highlights: a magical morning spent conquering the half-day Doringnek Hiking Trail in the Zuurberg section of the park, a rare caracal sighting on the way back, an elephantine extravaganza of thirsty beasts swimming and drinking, and the unexpected bonus of a relaxed black rhino patrolling his territory.
The Eastern Cape offers safari experiences that rank up there with the best in South Africa. But don’t take Graeme’s or my word for it, every safari enthusiast worth their salt should go and experience this impressive wildlife renaissance firsthand.
Source: Explore SA