Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Kwandwe Game Reserve: May/June 2010

It was with anticipation that I left Durban to travel to the 22,000ha Kwandwe Game Reserve in the Eastern Cape in late May. This is an area that I am not too familiar with, and was keen to visit here, for a number of reasons. The main one was to see the different wildlife species, as opposed to the lowveld of Mpumalanga and the Hluhluwe uMfolozi Park species that I am pretty familiar with and to familiarize myself with those lodges that we may send clients to.

We arrived at Kwandwe, which is situated in the Grahamstown region, in time for lunch on a wet morning. In fact, we had traveled from East London to Kwandwe in pouring rain. We were transferred from the reception to Ecca Lodge, whilst there was still a fine rain prevalent, but this fortunately cleared up in time for our afternoon drive.

What can one say about Ecca Lodge? This was, as expected, subject to the same high standards as all other &Beyond Lodges that I had visited. Set in thick vegetation overlooking a dense valley, Ecca Lodge offers a breathtaking view onto an escarpment of steep shale cliffs. Expansive wooden viewing decks provide the ideal setting to soak up the bushveld atmosphere with a leisurely lunch or a sundowner drink. The Lodge’s pagoda-style corrugated iron roofs and walls of wood panelling blend seamlessly into the magnificent landscape.

Rooms are airy and open, with barely a barrier between the indoors and the African bush. Minimalist chic is the order of the day in modern, spacious bedrooms that share wraparound wooden decks with the suite’s private sitting rooms. Retro light fittings and polished concrete floors combine with shades of olive and burnt orange for a warm yet modern look. The ultra-modern bathroom, with its mosaic mirrors and glassed shower, refreshes and delights. An outdoor shower with a shiny tin tub tips a broad wink at safari tradition.

On the first afternoon game drive we watched two black (yes folks, black!) rhinos sparring over a female in some thick bush for about half an hour and then moved on. About twenty minutes later we chanced upon a female black rhino and her sub-adult calf, again in thick bush. We must have spooked her, as she took off and was running parallel to the road (and our vehicle) for about 30 -40 seconds, when she suddenly came out of the bush, straight at us! Now this was a scary moment – we are mostly all aware of the cantankerous nature of black rhinos, especially with a calf at her side. She reminded me of a steam locomotive, with all this 1500 kilograms of grey/black, puffing, angry rhino face to face with some very wide-eyed people on the back of a game drive vehicle, less than 10 metres away. She snorted and puffed, our ranger revved the motor, and a stand-off took place. We won – the rhino took her calf and disappeared, not to be seen again. Oh, and we saw three young male lions, but tame stuff compared to the rhino.

The next morning we had a very interesting interaction with cheetah. We had chanced upon a male cheetah that had obviously been feeding on a kill the whole night. This animal was ambling across the open plains with his stomach hanging almost to the ground, full of some unfortunate animal that was dinner. He arrived at a tree and started sniffing around and then scent-marked this area. I thought that he would then move on but he didn’t – he started calling. This went on for quite a long time until he moved off. Two minutes later he was back, with more calling and sniffing, which then gave us the idea that he was onto something. All of a sudden he took off, with us in hot pursuit in the vehicle over the grassland. I then spotted two other cheetahs not too far off, but our male gets there first! By the time we arrive, he has already cornered a female and mounted her, with her sub-adult cub looking on in surprise. You can almost hear the cub thinking, “Mom, what are you doing?” Anyway, our male has his way with her and she and her cub disappear whilst he then takes a breather and we leave the scene.

That afternoon I opted not to do a game drive. It had turned quite cold and the ranger and other guests had stated that they intended looking for elephants on that drive. Now don’t get me wrong – I think elephants are the most magnificent animals and I have the utmost respect for them, but sadly, I am a keen amateur photographer and up to this point have never taken a decent photo of an elephant. So this was my choice – elephants or the Super 14 final. The rugby won (as did the Bulls). Oh yes, when the ranger and the other guests returned, they had seen elephants but not much else on this drive – maybe the cold had something to do with this.

The following morning we were fortunate to see two bush pigs, but they were un-cooperative and didn’t hang around for a photo. What we did see was a lactating lioness, with another female and a magnificent male lion in close attendance. They had killed something in the riverbed but the thick bush made it impossible for us to see what it was. They had come out of the thick bush for a breather or possibly to fetch her cubs to join in the feast when we saw them. She had a slight wound on the foreleg, whether as a result of a kill or during the feeding frenzy, I’ll never know, but they did offer some nice photo opportunities.

My views on Kwandwe? I would certainly visit here again given the opportunity, and can safely recommend this lodge to clients. I did however find the lack of general game a bit of a disappointment, but the sightings that we did have made up for this. We saw gemsbok, eland and hartebeest at a great distance, and had some good sightings of zebra and black wildebeest on the gallop – alas, they too were too quick for a decent photo.

Gorah Elephant Camp: May/June 2010

Thereafter we headed down the N2 to Gorah Elephant Camp, which is the only private concession situated in the middle of the famous Addo Elephant National Park, home to the densest population of elephants on earth. Upon entering the gate we didn’t see too much, so Janice started asking where the elephants were. I prevailed upon her to be patient, I was sure we would see some sooner or later. When we came to the historic Gorah Manor House, there were about fifty elephants in the front of the lodge, some at the waterhole and the rest out on the open plain a couple of hundred metres away.

We checked in and were shown to our “tent” I have used the exclamation marks for tent, because this is not one’s idea of a normal tent. This had a 4-poster double bed, his and her basins, shower, bath, fluffy towels, sherry, overhead fan, lights, four (not two) hot water bottles in the bed at night and all other modern conveniences that one could wish for. This was not a “tent”, this was a suite.

The food at Gorah was superb and no meal was enjoyed in the same room twice. Soft candle lit ‘secret’ corners with warm fires and paraffin lanterns put a soft layer of romance on the entire house in winter while the mood was set for a sumptuous five course meal. Estate wines and a choice of international beverages completed the dining experience, and decadent desserts teased my senses. Breakfasts and lunches were enjoyed on one or the other of the verandahs, depending on the weather.

The afternoon game drive, as with all game drives here, brought forth many elephants, buffalo, kudu, hartebeest, zebra, warthog and on one morning, five lions. Unfortunately they were a bit too far for a decent photo. The mornings were cold and invariably the area around the lodge had a thick blanket of mist in the early morning until the sun had burned this off, so breakfast was enjoyed before going out on a game drive. Addo is one of those places where an early morning game drive would not be too rewarding – most animals here seem to only get moving once the sun had warmed the earth.

During the course of our fist night here, some hyenas had killed a kudu cow on the verandah leading into the Manor House en route to breakfast. It was considered bad form to leave the carcass here so that people had to step over this to get to breakfast, with blood and entrails making footing decidedly unsafe, so the carcass was moved to the open area about 500 metres from the lodge. Now breakfast was enjoyed with the carcass a mere speck on the plains, and some animal activity in evidence. This turned out to be Black-backed jackal, so after breakfast we made our way to the site for some photos. The jackals were more interested in the abundance of meat and took little notice of us. Of the hyenas there was no sight – these are the shy type, not the brazen hyenas of Kruger Park or Hluhluwe uMfolozi! Another interesting sighting was of a colony of termites coming out of the ground (what we know as “flying ants”). This caused a frenzy of feeding from various bird species, with about seven or eight different bird species enjoying this bounty.

Late one afternoon a lone jackal, obviously with a massive thirst from too much kudu, came to the waterhole in front of the lodge. After he had drunk his fill, he settled down for the evening. We were in the Manor House, when I heard an elephant trumpeting. I went out for a look, and twelve elephants at the waterhole had spotted the jackal. The younger ones were trying to intimidate the jackal, claiming the waterhole as their own. They were trumpeting at him, mock charging and in general just being difficult. This jackal was made of stern stuff, he would not budge, save to face up to the elephants. One of the younger ones then splashed water with its trunk at the jackal, but he stood his ground. The result, Jackal – 1, Elephant – 0. The elephants moved off, and the jackal stayed for the night. The next morning he was still there, when he was intimidated by a hyena. Again he stood his ground and the hyena eventually moved off without any blood being spilt.

There is no fence around Gorah, and when I was photographing our tent, I had the feeling that something was not right. Looking around, I came face to face with a buffalo (not really face to face, he was about thirty metres away), but I did the only thing I could do, I retired to the safety of my tent with supreme alacrity. The buffalo moved on, and then a lone elephant bull wandered past my tent, not in the least concerned with being fifteen metres from a human armed with a camera and with every intention to photograph him.

Gorah is an excellent destination and I would have no hesitation in recommending this to clients as a wild-life destination. Here I suspect one would be more than satisfied if you didn’t go on a game drive, as the activity around the waterhole in front of the lodge has more than enough to offer. The accommodation, staff, food and general ambience are second to none. They have an incredible road network for their sole use, and I doubt that we traveled more than one kilometer on any of Addo’s public roads. This means that one is not disturbed by the general public, and you can enjoy private sightings for a long as you wish. My only qualm, and please bear in mind that it is a personal preference, is that there is no electricity here. Lights are provided by candles, lamps and solar energy, which tends to be a bit dim if one wants to read in the tent. Who knows, the romanticism of candles may far outweigh this little gripe of mine, depending on your personal tastes.

Belvidere Manor near Knysna and the Drostdy Hotel in Graaf Reinet: May/June 2010

Two other one night stops that I made were at Belvidere Manor near Knysna and the Drostdy Hotel in Graaf Reinet.

The story of Belvidere begins in 1830 when the land was acquired by George Rex, the "squire and proprietor of Knysna" who settled here and became the foremost timber merchant in the district. When a young Scotsman named Thomas Henry Duthie married George's third daughter, Caroline, in 1833, he bought the farm named Belvidere from his father-in-law for £750. In April 1835 the young family, now with a first baby, named Caroline after her mother, moved into their cottage, which was situated where "The Bell" now stands. At that time it would have had timber walls and a rush roof and the cellar which now houses the wine would have been used as storage. By 1848, the family had quite outgrown the cottage. There were twelve children in all, and plans were made to build a larger house. Foundations were laid on 2 October 1848, and in November 1849 the family had their "first dinner out of New House". At that stage it was a single storey building with a thatched roof, dormer windows and small bell-turret. In its life, Belvidere House was an official post office serving the local community, with business being transacted from the glass door in the drawing room. It was a centre of gracious hospitality, welcoming every person of note who visited the Knysna area.

This venue also houses Knysna's smallest pub, The Bell Tavern, which is housed on the site of the original Belvidere farmhouse, and indeed a feature of the pub is the wine cellar viewed through the window in the floor, where freshly caught game would have been hung. With a yellowwood ceiling and ironwood block floor this is a cosy venue.

We stayed here in a cottage with bedroom and en suite bathroom, a comfortable lounge and kitchen, which can be used as a self-catering option.

The Drostdy Hotel is a living national monument. The foyer, with it's doors open, has a perfect view down the street to another national monument, Reinet House, one of 220 national monuments in the oldest town in the Eastern Cape and the fourth oldest in South Africa, Graaff-Reinet. Next to the swimming pool area is Stretch's Court, which is a cobblestone street, lined with colourful shutters and bougainvillea. The imposing slave bell reminds of a time when these cottages were emancipated slave quarters. Each and every one of the 51 rooms varies in size, shape, and decor. All are en-suite, equipped with air-conditioning and all modern day amenities to ensure a luxurious stay.

Graaff-Reinet has a rich history which is depicted in the many museums, a plethora of century old indigenous Karoo architecture and a visit to the Valley of Desolation should be undertaken by every visitor to experience the awe-inspiring rock formations and the splendid view across the Plains of Camdeboo.

Samara Private Game Reserve : May/June 2010

My last visit was to the venue that I was really looking forward to, the Samara Private Game Reserve, which is about 35 kilometres from Graaf Reinet. Heart-stoppingly beautiful, is how award-winning Samara Private Game Reserve in the Eastern Cape, has been described. I was really keen – I had visions of aardvark, herds of springbok, eland, mountain zebra and more. Nestled on the breathtaking Plains of the Camdeboo, Samara Private Game Reserve is proud of its unique heritage. The unique historical tales of Samara date back as far as the late 1700s, beginning with the world famous and extraordinary ornithologist, heroically named Francois le Vaillant. After having arrived in Cape Town in 1781, le Vaillant had only the clothes on his back after the British destroyed the ship on which he was traveling. With the generous assistance of Colonel Gordon, he set forth on the long journey inland. Upon reaching the vast open Plains of Camdeboo, le Vaillant set up a fortified camp on the Plat River, which runs through Samara Private Game Reserve.

The lodge is stunning and we stayed at the Karoo Manor, in one of their three Karoo Suites. The three Karoo Suites are individual Karoo style cottages in the garden and each has a luxury en-suite bathroom, is air-conditioned and has a fireplace. Echoing the pulse of the Karoo, the interiors seek to fuse the elegance of luxury colonial era with the untamed beauty of the African bush. Cradled in the softest linen, one gets lost in the sleepy rhythms of the land and the tranquil sounds of the Karoo. The Karoo Manor has complete wrap-around verandahs, many spacious rooms and roaring log fires. Boy, did we need those fires!

The night before we had stayed in Graaf Reinet, and a heavy downpour, thanks to a extreme cold front moving through the country, had occurred during the night. The morning sky showed patches of blue and I had high hopes for good weather. We reached Samara before lunch and there were more blue patches in evidence. That afternoon we went on a game drive and it was very cold, but with less and less clouds in the sky – my hopes were soaring. We saw some kudu, gemsbok, Burchells zebra, duiker, monkey and baboons, as well as some white rhino. All I wanted was aardvark! Our ranger tried his best, but we were just unfortunate, no aardvarks were seen on that drive. What I did see was many, many aardvark burrows, testament to the numbers of aardvark that must surely be here. Where were they?

During the night I heard the unmistakable roar of rain on our roof and we awoke to a very, very cold morning with very fine rain and mist. Remember, this is the Karoo – they are not supposed to have rain in winter and only a little in summer. Maybe no-one had told the weatherman? I went on the morning drive, up a stunning mountain track and onto the escarpment overlooking the Plains of Camdeboo. This track reminded me somewhat of the Sani Pass in some ways. Now we get to the top of the mountain and what happens? The skies open and the bitterly cold rain comes thundering down. Cameras are protected as best they could, animals, and there were animals, black wildebeest and mountain zebra, are lost in the mist. The Plains of Camdeboo are not to be seen and I have to take our guides word that they were in fact below us. We’re now fortified with hot chocolate and Amarula and we head down the mountain, freezing and wet. What happens next cannot be blamed on the weatherman. Two buffalo are on the track in front of us. I desperately want to get back to the lodge to dry off, dry my camera and enjoy a roaring log fire, but am hampered by the presence of these two buffalo bulls. They cannot go off to the left of the road, it is too steep and they will fall to their deaths down the mountain-side, they cannot go right off the road, it is to steep and these are not klipspringer! So now we follow them down the mountain, them plodding ahead and us freezing behind. Every time the ranger thinks he can sneak past without bumping them or nudging them to their deaths, one or the other turns around and gives us “the stare”, so we back off. Eventually we reach the bottom and the buffalo are able to get off the road and we are able to reach the warmth of the lodge.

Sadly, the rain did not let up, and if anything, it got colder and colder, so I missed both that afternoon and next mornings’ drive. During breakfast on the day of our departure, our ranger bravely set out to find cheetah for us, and located one in thick bush (yes thick bush in the Karoo!) which he offered to take us to. I politely declined his kind offer, as this would have meant going out in the rain, leaving the vehicle and walking up to the cheetah in the cold and wet, being hindered by wet vegetation, to see this animal. I still had to get to Bloemfontein in one piece with my health and good nature intact!

Maybe one day I’ll have the opportunity to visit here again – I would love to do this in good warm weather as this really is a stunning lodge which has magnificent suites and a very lovely Karoo Lodge.

Friday, June 4, 2010

Mala Mala Rattrays : May 2010

On the 15 May 2010 Justin & I set out on our educational, our first stop was Mala Mala Rattrys Camp, this camp is Definitely among the best of the lodges we have stayed at and would in my mind be worth a visit, our 'Little Khaya' was a home from home with His & Hers bathrooms - one with a Double shower and Toilet and the other with a Ball & Claw Bath and toilet, both bathrooms have under floor heating and dressing rooms leading off from them. The bedroom has a huge King sized bed and is open plan with a Desk and lounge area which then leads out onto your own Private deck with your heated plunge pool and views of the Sand River.

The Lodge Facilities consist of a Library, African themed air-conditioned Dining room, a historic bar featuring photographs of the early days, a Large wooden safari deck where meals are served, a large filtered infinity pool with magnificent views across the Sand River, a small gym - for those who feel active and a steam room.

The food at Rattrys was stunning and catered to all types of tastes, Breakfasts and Lunches are both Buffet style with both a continental and hot breakfast being served, for dinners we spent the evenings in the Boma (which is weather dependant) around a lovely warm fire, lucky for us we had clear Skies and enjoyed a boma dinner for both of our nights at the lodge.

Onto the most important part of any Game Lodge - The Game Viewing, we had some wonderful sightings and saw all of the high profile animals such as Lion, Elephant, White Rhino, Buffalo and the elusive Leopard.

Besides all the high profile animals our Ranger Gordon found us Kudu, Impala, Hippo, Crocodile and many more different types of animals, he also found a 3m Rock Python and has a knack for finding Chameleons, he found 6 of them on just 1 of our night drives and has a record of 16 in only one night - truly a talented Ranger! and his Love of the Bush really does shine through.