South Africa’s landscapes and animals are impressive, but Kwandwe Private Game Reserve adds luxury to provide one of travel’s great wildlife experiences, writes Brian Johnston.
I’m willing to bet that Kwandwe is one of the world’s few hotels where guests risk being eaten by a lion while walking to their room. True, a guard with a torch accompanies me, but he seems rather amused by my nervous scanning of dark, rustling grass. He’s also a very skinny guard, whereas I’m an overweight tourist given added flavour by a tasty ostrich-steak dinner and accompanying glass of red wine. I feel sure the lion will consider me the choicest titbit.
Staff are clear that I should never walk to my lodge alone, but they fail to suggest what I should do should a lion pounce. Do I freeze, or push the skinny guard in its direction as I flee? Such thoughts run through my head at Kwandwe Private Game Reserve, sending a delectable frisson of fear down my spine. After all, just that afternoon from a safari car, I saw a lion lurking in a thicket, looking in need of a good feed.
Such is the yin and yang of staying at Kwandwe, which scares you with lions and yet lulls you with luxury. The game reserve is located in South Africa’s Eastern Cape, a two-hour drive northeast of Port Elizabeth, and makes a fine add-on to the well-travelled Garden Route, which stretches along the coast between Mossel Bay and Storms River, bracketed between big access points Port Elizabeth and Cape Town. Accommodation is in individual lodges full of timber and settler furniture. I have a private deck and plunge pool overlooking the Fish River, though admittedly I’m too anxious to use them. I don’t even open the windows for fear of leaping lions.
At the communal lodge and dining room, guests have meals and sit around the fire with whiskeys, swapping tales of the day’s adventures. Nobody has seen an elusive leopard yet, but we’ve all seen lions, eland, springbok and giraffes lurching against the horizon. Only that afternoon, a group of guests was stopped on the track by a rhino bigger than their vehicle, with a horn like a battering ram. Later tonight, we’re off to track down those elusive beasts that haunt the first page of our dictionaries, aardvark and aardwolf.
It’s the wildlife, of course, that brings people to Kwandwe and South Africa’s other game reserves and national parks. The meals are great, the bar is open and I can snuggle down in Egyptian cotton for the night, but the luxury is just a mere incidental pleasure to the wilderness all around. Kwandwe is about animals, and a lot of them.
Two excellent daily safaris to view the wildlife are part of the package. I set off with other guests in an open-top Land Rover early in the morning and again before sunset, when the wildlife is at its most active, on four-hour explorations. We’re accompanied by guide Owen and tracker Dali, who perches on the front of the vehicle and acts as a spotter. We certainly need him. Sometimes I’m just metres from an animal before my unaccustomed eyes pick it out against the dry, golden grasses of the background.
Owen is an encyclopaedia of information. As we admire a herd of elephants we learn they spend all but six hours of the day eating, and can devour 200 kilos of vegetation. The effort wears down six sets of molars after which, with no more functional teeth, the animals will starve to death — a reminder that nature in Africa is cruel as well as beautiful.
Tension mounts as the radio splutters with a message that there are lions not far away. Watching a pride of lions, or cheetahs lolling under a shady tree, is one of the great thrills of Kwandwe. Along with giraffes, elephants, rhinos, buffaloes and zebras, such animals are at the top of most people’s must-see list. Kwandwe also has a magnificent range of small critters, from bright butterflies to malachite sunbirds that sip nectar from flowers in a flurry of emerald-coloured wings.
Of course, one of the best wildlife experiences in South Africa, coupled with all-inclusive, luxurious accommodation, doesn’t come cheap. Still, it’s worth saving up for the adventure of a lifetime and a close encounter with Africa’s astonishing creatures — as long as it isn’t too close, of course. Whether you get your money back if you’re eaten by a lion is unclear. Each evening, as I walk to my lodge through shivering grasses, I feel the same creeping fear, even though common sense tells me that nobody at Kwandwe has ever been eaten. Not yet, anyway. Where else in the world can you have such a thrill just walking to your hotel room?