This is Africa. This is where the wild things are – and there are plenty of them. Tourists haul themselves to our majestic republic year upon year to experience a smidgeon of primal exhilaration, and the best way to do that isn’t by city-hopping. No, only a Big Five experience can truly do the trick.
Take a moment to create a mental image of the Eastern Cape – rolling, spekboom-dotted Karoo hillsides give way to impossibly long stretches of brown-sanded shorelines, and the two are straddled by a strip of lush, dense, monkey-infested forests.
Hidden just outside Grahamstown, embedded on the very edge of the Great Karoo, lies Kwandwe Private Game Reserve, an honest-to-God chunk of heaven on Earth.
Occupying 22 000 hectares of rehabilitated farmlands around the mighty and greatly-revered Great Fish River, Kwandwe offers visitors exceptional wildlife encounters, shelter and comfort at a selection of luxury retreats.
It’s not enough to call Kwandwe breath-taking. Indeed, it’s an experience that leaves one gasping for more of the raw, unbridled natural world it has allowed to thrive.
Let’s not faff around here – Kwandwe is a premium establishment. From arrival to reluctant departure, guests are given the hospitality experience of their lives.
Accommodation is split into two categories – lodges and villas. Of the former, there are two: the Great Fish River Lodge and Ecca Lodge. Uplands, Melton Manor and Fort House make up the villa selection.
The difference between the two comes down to the needs of visitors – lodges are suited to couples and small families, while the villas accommodate larger private groups on an exclusive-use basis.
All accommodation includes free, unlimited Wi-Fi – a must for any visitor – as well as all meals and two game drives per day. In-room (or on-balcony) spa treatments can also be arranged for an evening wind-down.
Great Fish River Lodge
Overlooking the thick, brown waters of its namesake, with suites flanking a main leisure area via a gorgeous wooden walkway, this lodge is Kwandwe’s honeymoon escape.
Aimed primarily at couples, suites are tastefully and appropriately decorated with the kind of local trinkets that give it a distinctly African safari feel.
Each room has been blessed with its own plunge pool, some of which rest just metres from the river itself.
The suite’s balcony looks across to the high river banks, where antelope, zebra and giraffe graze in full view of sublime outdoor showers.
Suites are spaced out well, creating some much-needed privacy and ensuring minimal light pollution. The sense of isolation and the deep, imposing quiet make stargazing an immersive experience akin to a lucid dream.
Don’t get too comfortable, though – this lodge is the only one not surrounded by wildlife-deterring electric fences. The security guards mandated to escort you to and from your suite at night delight in relating stories of lone lions weaving along the long pathways after dark, and there’s a grain of truth in every myth!
Ecca Lodge is a firm favourite of many of Kwandwe’s regular visitors, and it’s not difficult to understand why.
With six vibrant, youthfully-decorated suites flanking a trendy bar area and a glorious pool-with-a-views, it’s perfect for small family vacations.
Each unit has its own plunge pool and outdoor shower, and the airy living spaces open onto wooden decks with spectacular views of the vast thicket.
Unlike the Great Fish River Lodge, Ecca is surrounded by a high-voltage electric fence that keeps all but the tiniest of critters at bay. You’ll sleep easy at night knowing your kids are well-protected from the nocturnal shadow-prowlers.
Kwandwe also caters to larger families seeking total privacy and luxury, isolated from everything but the wildlife.
Each home comes standard with a butler and chef, as well as a private-use game vehicle guided by an expert team of tracker and ranger.
The Melton Manor villa is a modern home with a rustic touch, with private suites meeting in open, communal areas ideal for relaxing family dinners.
Uplands Homestead, meanwhile, is a throw-back to a time gone by, with its colonial farmhouse design belying the modern amenities that ensure a truly comfortable and luxurious stay. Although smaller than Melton Manor, it’s every bit as impressive, with its own boma, swimming pool and large lawns – perfect for the little ones.
Kwandwe’s crown jewel, however, is Fort House – a modern mansion with its own wine cellar and spa room, looking out at arguably the best view in the reserve. With a beautiful infinity pool and a TV in nearly every room, it’s a genuine home-away-from-home for families used to the good life.
The culinary experience at Kwandwe will surprise you, and have you questioning how the chefs manage to conjure up such magical meals in the middle of nowhere.
If you’re not enjoying an expertly-curated set menu at your lodge or private home, you could be tucking in to a hearty buffet in a boma under the stars, with plenty of drinks and conversation to go around.
Chefs at the private homes will, as the rangers say, literally cater to your every whim and need. From Karoo lamb curry to perfectly-seared oryx and kudu, it’s all on the menu. Are your taste buds watering? They should be!
Kwandwe’s wealth lies in its impressive biodiversity – that’s why you came, isn’t it? The search for the comprehensive Big Five experience ends here.
Several prides of lions roam the vast expanses of the reserve, exercising their dominance over its multitudes of antelope, zebra and giraffe, while respecting the thundering elephants that constantly re-shape the landscape.
Cheetahs chase down even the swiftest of prey across kilometres of open plains, while the mighty and unpredictable buffalo herds dot river banks under the watchful eyes of the equally volatile hippopotami.
Elusive leopards prowl the dense vegetation, curiously gazing down at you while you look for them. Thousands of birds circle above as rodents and lizards dash and dart between bushes looking for their next meal.
Every twist and turn of a game drive has the potential to end in a breath-taking wildlife encounter. The expertise of the reserve’s rangers, combined with the eagle-eyes of its incomparable trackers, ensure that every drive supplies enough ‘oohs’, ‘ahs’ and photo opportunities to leave you with your fill of Africa.
To be in the presence of an entire pride of lions devouring its fresh kill, or two bull elephants clattering their ivory tusks in a monumental battle for dominance, is surreal, even spiritual. To say you get up close is an understatement – your bravery will be tested, that’s for sure.
Aside from the regular game drives, visitors can also embark on walking safaris, in search of a better understanding of the big game and the environment around them.
Big Five quests are often associated with South Africa’s northern provinces, but Kwandwe is living, breathing proof that a genuine big game experience can be found just a couple of hours away from Port Elizabeth.
Impeccable service, top-quality dining and a plethora of ecological wonders make all 22 000 of its hectares worth exploring in search of once-in-a-lifetime moments – of which one visit may provide several.
The Great Fish River is the lifeblood of this Karoo fringe region, and it has created an ecosystem ripe for thriving populations of Africa’s most beloved and cherished creatures.
Kwandwe is undoubtedly one of the Eastern Cape’s hidden gems, but should remain neither secret nor unknown – it’s earned its place as one of the country’s established, premier Big Five experiences.
All uncredited photos courtesy of Kwandwe Private Game Reserve.
For more information and rates, visit http://www.kwandwe.com.