Place of untamed beauty

NOVEMBER 2012 – The luxuriously layered contemporary interiors at Great Fish River Lodge in Kwandwe Private Game Reserve echo the earthy tones and textures of its dramatic surroundings in the heart of the Eastern Cape. Here an expansive, biologically diverse landscape – with a wealth of wildlife but a limited number of guests – makes for a truly unspoilt safari experience

High above the euphorbia- and aloe-studded banks of the Great Fish River nestles Kwandwe Private Game Reserve’s flagship lodge. Known as Great Fish River Lodge, it promises understated luxury, warm-hearted hospitality, big-five game viewing and breath taking vistas. This is where it all began over a decade ago, when privately owned, award-winning Kwandwe first opened. Spanning 22 000 hectares in the Great Fish River valley in the Eastern Cape, the reserve puts to rest any misconception that game viewing in this part of South Africa doesn’t have the same wow factor of more high-profile reserves further north. Kwandwe includes 30 kilometres of pristine river frontage, characterised by sweeping sandbars and steep cliffs providing distinct habitats for thousands of animals and botanical treasures. Meaning ‘place of the blue crane’in Xhosa, Kwandwe is considered a conservation victory – former farm land restored to pristine wilderness – and provides sanctuary to lion, leopard, elephant, rhino, buffalo, cheetah, kudu, zebra, Cape grysbok, black wildebeest and much more. As Kwandwe is a private reserve, night drives are a daily feature of safari life, and often result in unusual sightings such as porcupine, aardwolf and aardvark. The reserve is a veritable biological melting pot with six of South Africa’s seven major biomes converging here. It is also a breeding sanctuary for numerous threatened bird species, not least the endangered blue crane. Given the vast extent of the reserve and the wealth of animals on the land, a safari here feels wild and unspoilt – and the added bonus for families is that the Eastern Cape is malaria free. There are a maximum of 44 guests on the reserve at any given time as Kwandwe has an exclusive footprint of only four lodges. For romance and privacy, Great Fish River Lodge is heaven. The nine thatched suites have chic, newly revitalised interiors, with lots of little luxuries such as candles, fragrant bath salts, exquisite Mungo Design throws and plump cushions. Foldaway doors lead out onto a siesta-friendly deck and plunge pool. Cape clawless otters may be spotted frolicking in the river below while birds of prey nest in the cliffson the opposite bank. This may be the most African of the Kwandwe lodges but an element of the Eastern Cape 1820 settler farmhouse vernacular – interpreted in each of the lodges – remains a common thread. The look is classic yet up to date and never detracts from the views or the river. In the main lodge, wide stone fireplaces create a focal point. Deep sofas, slip covered n earthy linens, encourage relaxation in the sitting areas and cosy library. Pewter, glass, ostrich eggshells, hides and horns provide subtle points of interest without creating clutter. Recently appointed chef Quintinn van Rensburg prepares a constant round of delicious meals interspersed with snacks, picnics, sundowners and afternoon teas. A graduate of the prestigious Institute of Culinary Arts in Stellenbosch, Quintinn likes to combine classic French techniques with seasonal ingredients and South African flavours. For families, nearby Ecca Lodge is perfect– it has six retro-inspired suites, each with a separate living room that converts easily into a second bedroom.

For those who value their own space, Uplands Homestead is an original 1905 farm house transformed into a sole-use villa with three suites exuding charm. Melton Manor is a contemporary take on a traditional frontier farmhouse with wraparound verandas overlooking a pool. It has four suites and can also be booked as a whole for exclusive use – with a private butler, chef, ranger and tracker team, as well as a private 4×4 safari vehicle for tailor-made excursions.

Throughout the year, Kwandwe offers so much to see and do. Twice-daily game drives are complemented by guided walks, sundowners and picnic meals in the bush. During the cool, dry winter months, the landscape is ablaze with the graphic orange, red and yellow flowers of indigenous aloes frequented by sun bird sand drongos. A later wake-up call is encouraged, and the morning game drive may include an indulgent bush breakfast that extends to midday if sightings are good. It is also a wonderful time of year to walk, track animals or take a scenic coastal flight – the reserve is a mere 65kilometres from the Indian Ocean. In spring, the scrambled-egg bush flowers profusely after the first rains and gemsbok, springbok and red hartebeest drop their young. After a typical summer thunderstorm, the reserve is transformed into a tapestry of wild flowers and the succulent elephant bush gets delicate lilac flowers. Wherever you look, there are zebra and wildebeest babies. In this pristine wilderness, whatever the time of year, life is good.

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