Thursday, July 28, 2011

EASTERN CAPE VS SABI SANDS – THE BIG GAME OFF! - seen through the eyes of our Senior Operations Manager

The Eastern Cape is home to numerous new lodges and I took this opportunity to explore the region. I was particularly interested to see how this area compared with the Sabi Sands, adjacent to the Kruger National Park, which is where we usually operate our incentive groups.

Shamwari Safari
Access to the Eastern Cape Game Lodges is quite simple, I flew on SA Express which was a 1 hr 15 minutes flight from Cape Town to Port Elizabeth (PE), the main hub of the region. There are also flights to and from Johannesburg. Port Elizabeth Airport was refurbished for the Soccer World Cup in 2010 and the airport is looking very modern and compact.
The Eastern Cape has a similar climate as the Kruger National Park. Travelling as I did over our winter it was also equally cold in the evening, but the days are sunny and warm. On one game drive, our one ranger read -3 C with wind chill factor, so my advice is dress warm! Kwandwe has the most extraordinary enormous baby romper padded suits with hoods and mittens for the game drives. They look hysterical, but really do the job.

The vegetation is very different to the Sabi Sands. It is called Eastern Cape Thicket and reminded me quite a bit of the Pilanesburg with alternating low rolling hills and open plains covered in thick low scrub bushes as well as Acacia thorn shrubs. There are very few trees, except in the ravines. Subsequently, the giraffes do most of their eating with their heads down.

The history of the area is fascinating and something that should be incorporated in the tour of the area. A lot of the farms are still owned by the same families that arrived in the area as the 1820 Settlers. Plus, the Great Fish River was the border where the white settlers and the Xhosa people first met and fought for many years. The nearby town of Grahamstown is the perfect place to study this.

An added advantage is that the area is Malaria free.

KWANDWE PRIVATE GAME RESERVE (andBeyond and Relais & Chateaux)
Kwandwe, means “Place of the Blue Crane” in Xhosa

It takes approx 2hrs 30min to drive to Kwandwe from PE. The last ½ hour is on a gravel road. One first stops at the Heatherton Towers, which is reception for all the Camps. It is the original fortified farmhouse of the area. The reserve is 22,000 hectares and they have 30km of the Great Fish River frontage, which flows all year round. The lodges in the area start their game drives at 08h30 (in winter), otherwise they operate the same schedule as Sabi Sands in the summer months (namely 05h30 start). They have an airstrip that can take a Kingair 200 – it is a ½ flight from PE. They have the Big 5 (Elephant, Lion, Rhino, Leopard and Buffalo), about 20 Lion (2 prides) and 50 Elephant. They also have a lot of game that one does not get to see very often further north – Eland, Springbok, Aardwolf, Aardvark, Blue Crane, Black Wildebeest, lots of Black Rhino, and Oryx. They have maintained the African villages on the property, with electric fencing, so the staff get to stay with their families. Kwandwe has 4 uniquely styled lodges.

a) Great Fish River Lodge
It is lovely, with 9 rooms spread along the river, all with private heated pools and under floor heating. The décor is done by Chris Brown, who does all the andBeyond properties. I spent the night here and it was very comfortable. I even saw Aardwolf for the first time on a game drive, which was amazing.

b) Melton Manor
I loved this property, it was my favourite at Kwandwe. It only has 4 rooms, so is perfect for a family unit. It offers a private chef and an open plan living area complete with huge fireplace and open kitchen. The décor was divine, all dark salmon and avocado colours, but very cozy like a private home, with a big central pool from where you can watch the animals grazing.

c) Ecca Lodge
This lodge is busy being refurbished and is very modern, all glass and wood. It has six gorgeous, huge rooms all with private pools. The bathrooms have one wall made up of mirror mosaic, which is stunning. This would be a fantastic summer camp.

Ecca Lodge
d) Uplands Homestead
This is a classic old farmhouse, with high ceilings and wooden floors. It is the only camp that has electric fencing as the pool is at the end of a long lawn. Prince Edward has stayed here several times and offers complete privacy. It has 3 rooms and these can only be booked for exclusive use.
Other activities on offer at Kwandwe include:
A Carnivore research day with a Dr Bisset - they track leopard (collared) and hyena.
Fishing in the river.
Rhino Capture. They dart and capture to put a microchip in the Rhino’s horn. They use a Robbi 44 helicopter and can take 2 passengers (plus pilot and vet). This is seasonal, but they can work around it to include clients. This activity is not available midsummer (Nov – March) as animals do not react well in the heat.


This reserve is 7,000 hectares and is made up of 5 private farms that joined forces in 2000. They only have 2 Lion that are in an enclosed 1000 hectare area. All the camps are privately owned and managed (similar to the Madikwe region). We saw a cheetah with 5 semi adult cubs, which was amazing. In the Sabi Sands this would be rare due to the large number of other predators. Unfortunately, they will sell 4 of the cubs as the land cannot sustain more males than the one that they currently have. With regards to game viewing I was only able to go on one game drive - at the time of our visit we saw mostly buck and Giraffe. They do have between 15 & 20 Elephant and some Lion but no Leopard or Hippo.

a) Safari Lodge
This lodge was gorgeous with 11 rooms, but unfortunately in a soft game area – i.e. only buck and Elephant (no big cats). It was built by an artist couple, who, during our stay, were away exhibiting at the Grahamstown Festival. The attention to detail was wonderful. In my view it was the best camp in the whole reserve, with thatched half tents i.e. floors and roof, but tented walls. They have a deck with a telescope and heated seats. The breakfast looked fantastic. It would be great for locals who wanted to get away from it all.

b) Leeuwenhof Lodge
This was a lovely old farmhouse built in 1908, with lots of history, and still owned by the same family. The main house had 5 rooms, whilst the Shearers Lodge has 4 rooms. They have converted one of the old sheds into a chapel and the pub was an old stone grain cellar. It had a very nice family atmosphere. Unfortunately it is located right on a national highway.

c) Hlosi Lodge
It was very nice – big old style individual rondavel rooms, with open bathrooms and outdoor showers. The main area was very classic game lodge, with a high ceilinged thatch roof.

I have been advised that rhino darting is possible in this area, but requires careful planning well in advance.


Shamwari is now wholly owned by Dubai World. The reserve comprises of 25,000h of reclaimed farmlands. They offer the Big 5 which are free roaming. They are approximately 45 minutes drive from PE.

a) Long Lee Manor
This is a very elegant property – painted Mount Nelson Pink, but I was told that this is due to change. They have rooms in 3 different buildings and 2 big pools. There are 30 beautiful en-suite rooms - lots of duck egg blue and greys, with red touches and beautiful bathrooms. They have recently been renovated to increase the size of the rooms. From the lodge one looks out over the plains, where Riverdene, Sarili Lodge, Born Free Educational Centre and the Rehabilitation centre are situated. It has an old colonial feel to it and still beautifully maintained. They have an airstrip which can take a Kingair 200 – 16-seater. From Cape Town it is 1hr 30min charter. From PE it is 15 minutes. They also have a helipad for helicopter transfers. They have a spa with 2 treatment rooms, offering Decleor products and a small gym.

b) Eagles Crag
A very unusual lodge. It is in the more mountainous, northern region of the property. It is actually located in the middle of a ravine, so you look out at a rock face and the rooms are set in thick bush. It has 9 suites with private pools. The public areas are very modern - soft colours, steel handrails everywhere, big modern photos of animals, giraffe necks etc and glass walls. Downstairs are 2 conference rooms. There is a spa and gym. The food was amazing – I had a hamburger for lunch (I always believe that the real test of a kitchen is if they can cook the most basic food well…and it was a superb hamburger). The breakfast was excellent – crispy bacon without asking for it and a poached egg that was actually medium. The rooms are seriously stunning, but I would recommend this for couples or singles only, as the bath is open on one side, with a four poster bed in middle and basins, toilet and shower on other side (both with doors).

c) Lobengula
This was the previous owners private lodge, which has been closed since 2007. It has a 70’s feel with a sunken bar next to the pool, plus sunken lounge area around the fire in the living area. I have not seen this style for a long time. Quite fun actually, and very classic old camp – maybe they should reintroduce the whole theme. They are looking at doing a whole refurbishment in the near future.

d) Bayethe Tented Camp
This is their Honeymoon or couples camp, with 12 tents. They have built 3 new tents, which are stunning. Wooden flooring, with fireplaces and pools and the main area is overlooking a waterhole. I saw it at night, but it still looked great.

e) Riverdene
This is the camp especially for kids and families. It offers full time nannies and it is strategically fenced in. They run a special kiddies game drive - including a booklet that the kids have to complete - “My nose is called a trunk, what am I” and collecting pieces of black and white rhino dung etc. Very nicely done.

f) Sarili Lodge
This is a large house, very modern and refurbished, with 5 rooms. One has to take the whole lodge exclusively. It offers great views over the plain.

Born Free
This is a centre where they have Lion and Leopard in camps. These animals have been abused by humans and cannot be put back in the wild. Apparently, the one male lion hates people so much that it you go near the fence he will try to attack you! Needless to say, we looked from a viewing platform. They do a lot of educational for local schools here. There is no charge, but one can make a donation.

Wildlife Rehabilitation Centre
This is exactly what it is. Animals come in from all over, to be healed and returned to the wild. There were baby warthogs (so cute), a young giraffe, a young rhino whose mother had been killed, and some black wildebeest.

My overall thoughts
The Eastern Cape offers a unique safari experience - as the Group Ecologist from Shamwari, John O’Brien said, “It is a conservancy of farmland that has been brought back to Bush”. At the end I cannot say one region is better than the other, as they all offer something different. It is important however to match your product to your clients needs and expectations. I do believe that the Eastern Cape deserves our support as it is so vital to develop and maintain new regions conserving our natural heritage.

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