Kwandwe Private Game Reserve in South Africa’s Eastern Cape covers not only a vast 22,000 hectares of unspoiled wilderness but is home to over 7,000 animals, both endangered and rare. It’s a living testament to gold standard conservation all set in five star luxury. Anthea Ayache visits the reserve – and never wants to come home
The gravel crunched underfoot as we followed our guide’s torch beam. The sounds of the African bush filled the night sky. For now, it’s predominantly insects alerting us of their whereabouts, which is a relief as we walk along the unfenced pathway leading from the Great River Lodge to our accommodation, one of nine independent villas dotted along the river’s edge. The sign back in the mainstay of the property clearly states ‘under no circumstances is a guest to walk in or around the lodge at night unless accompanied by a staff member.’ It’s clear why. Kwandwe Private Game Reserve in South Africa’s malaria-free Eastern Cape spans 22,000 hectares of pristine bushland where 7,000 animals including lions, leopards, elephants, and buffalo are free to roam at will. This is their home ultimately; we are just guests.
While I’m a little jittery at the thought of a carnivorous cheetah jumping out of the nearby bushes, our guide is more than at ease. He laughs off my fears explaining that the wild animals tend to stay away from this area – any rustle is more likely to be one of the many different types of antelopes who take refuge in the lights of the Great River lodge, having learned the relative safety of being in an illuminated area inhabited by humans.
We are shown without event to our villa, a luxurious suite designed in keeping with Kwandwe’s award-winning philosophy for understated luxury. High thatched wooden roof, overhead mahogany celling fan, earthy interior tones and vast floor to ceiling windows with uninterrupted views over the sweeping landscape. Breathtakingly beautiful.
Over our stay we will see a range of kudos, springbok and monkeys as they visit us either near or drinking from the villa’s private plunge pool. Of course, it’s only the monkeys who actually steal anything. We left a canned drink unattended only to find a grey vervet monkey happily sipping on it’s contents mere moments later.
But the real animal adventure takes place in an open top jeep with our guide, Rowan and his eagle-eyed tracker where days are spent sighting endless parades of elephants, dazzles of zebras and journeys of giraffes as they meander the vast resort.
The two daily safaris – four hours each in length, if not more, and interspersed with lavish coffee breaks and brunch – start at dawn and cover dusk, when animals are at their most active. These excursions are filled with wildlife sightings thanks to outstanding guidance from the ‘Best Safari Guiding Team’ in South Africa, an accolade picked up by Kwandwe Private Game Reserve at the 2017 and 2018 Safari Awards.
From rhinos eating grass at the banks of the flowing Great River to hundreds of baboons marching in unison through the overhead cliffs like a scene straight out of Planet of the Apes, there is never a dull moment for animal and conservation lovers. Guests can sit in awe as a herd of 20 elephants silently wander by, only the sound of boughs breaking underfoot alerting you to the presence of these huge yet silent species, or watch as a pod of hippos’ heads surface from the river for a fleeting glance at their enthralled spectators. Lions sit nestled on cliff edges, looking out over the landscape for dinner where springbok swiftly bounce by through a pasture of grazing zebras and wildebeests further afield pounding the plains with their skittish hooves.
With such vast terrain (four times the size of Bermuda!) and a maximum capacity of 52 guests staying at any one time, animal sightings at Kwandwe Private Game Reserve can best be described as signature. These memorable moments face-to-face with some of the world’s most magnificent beasts, tend to take place with only one or two jeeps at the most in the vicinity; your own private viewing. While the experienced team of rangers do radio through findings to inform other guests of specific animal whereabouts, you will not encounter the cacophony of cameras from a multitude of 4×4’s as is often the case at more commonplace reserves. This lends itself to more alert animals, aware of your presence rather than a pride of lions nodding off while a fleet of jeeps look on.
But it is not only the incredible wildlife on offer here. With one of the largest land to guest ratios’ in the Eastern Cape, there’s a lot of property to cover and spectacular scenery to admire. At Kwandwe the thorny landscapes and craggy mountains are as majestic as the animals themselves.
The vast, sprawling reserve, which was reclaimed from farmland for wildlife conservation in 2001, reaches the horizon in all directions with rolling hills carpeted in Spekbom bush as far as the eye can see. This brambly bush is not just pretty, it’s one of the top five most carbon-absorbent and air-purifying plants in the world and 60 per cent of the reserve is covered in it. Testament to spekbom power, hanging white lichen drapes and dazzles from bushes and bramble, a beautiful form of fungi only capable of blooming in pristinely pure air.
Throughout the reserve guests can also see and smell the wild rosemary, sage and lavender growing in abundance while any guest suffering from a cold can pick some naturally-occurring bitter leaves to add to a tea later in the day. Those with a thirst for something a little stronger can slip some local Amarula into a mid-morning coffee break with hot chocolate and croissants served with a spectacular backdrop. Ours took place at the top of rugged hill we had ascended in search of the reserve’s oldest lioness that gave breath-taking vistas over the valley and river below. While the 17-year-old had evaded us on this occasion, we would track her down later that day.
Conservation & Sustainability
Kwandwe has an array of disease-free breeding animals including the notoriously susceptible Cape Buffalo, as well as Cheetah, Lion, White Rhino and Black Rhino. Their founding stock has allowed other game reserves across South Africa to repopulate healthy numbers of these animals and their contribution to conservation is noteworthy.
With a 100 per cent poacher free record to date – no small feat in a country where it’s estimated three rhinos are killed every day for their horn – Kwandwe can be proud of their achievements. Here they have successfully reintroduced and maintained more than 7000 wild animals, including elephants, the white and black rhinos, hippos, lions, leopards, and brown hyenas. They even returned the cheetah to the Great Fish River Valley for the first time since 1888. We were fortunate enough to see one of these elusive big cats as it drank by night from a nearby watering hole.
The reserve takes conservation seriously with educational activities such as rhino darting for future tracking, or a specialised rhino drive to learn about this endangered species available, but they also care for their local community through the Ubunye Foundation, Kwandwe’s very own social development trust under the patronage of British royalty, the Countess of Wessex.
The Ubunye Foundation is a non-profit that is working to develop twelve rural communities, two of which are within the reserve itself. The reserve employs over 100 people from the surrounding rural communities, at least half of which are women. They also provide a positive health programme to staff, families and 10 surrounding rural villages and have built a primary school, a preschool and an aftercare centre on the property for children of their staff. Every guest staying at Kwandwe makes a direct contribution to the community and conservation via a small levy on their bill.
Sustainability is also at the heart of Kwandwe Private Game Reserve. The reserve is water independent thanks to 30km of the Great Fish River that runs through the property which is treated on site making the reserve highly aware of the property’s water consumption. Grey water is re-used for irrigation purposes and all plastic, glass and aluminium is sent to a recycling centre in nearby Grahamstown. Thanks to the abundance of fresh herbs and flowers in the area, all their bathroom products are locally made with essential oils from lavender, sage and rosemary. The wood and thatch that make up their beautiful suites are all locally sourced as far as possible while watering holes throughout the reserve and the 200km electric fence that encircles the vast estate, are all solar powered.
While sadly the fence must exist in this day and age to keep the animals safe from poachers, Kwandwe Private Game Reserve is large enough to sustain the energy of even the most long distance animal. Here a specialised team of avid animal lovers are providing a natural habitat and highly safe sanctuary for some of the world’s most highly endangered game populations; all set within 5-star luxury surroundings so that animal lovers, photographers and keen conservationists may live out a holiday of a lifetime while ensuring the continuity of these precious beasts.
Emirates Fly direct to Johannesburg starting from AED3,800
The nearest national airport is in Port Elizabeth, which lies 160 km from the reserve. A chauffeured transit car can be organised.
Accommodation at Great Fish River Lodge, as well as Ecca Lodge, starts from Rand 8690 (AED2,660) and includes full board suited accommodation, twice daily game drives and bush walk safaris accompanied by an armed specialist ranger and tracker team.
For more info visit www.kwandwe.com