Sleeping with giants

NOVEMBER 2011 – The Eastern Cape is elephant country, and there’s no better place to get up close and personal with these intelligent, highly social mammals than this five-star bush lodge on a private concession within Addo Elephant National Park, home to the densest population on earth. Sitting on the cool veranda of the 19th-century homestead that forms the heart of this romantic tented camp, watching calves frolicking in the nearby waterhole, you can almost imagine yourself part of the herd.

The world was a very different place when Hester Vermaak stood on the shady veranda of the newly built Gorah manor house. It was the middle of the 19th century and this was still frontier country; the farthest reaches of the growing Cape colony. Back then Gorah was one of the wealthiest farms in the district. Hester’s hard work – and the world’s love affair with ostrich feathers – had paid off, and she was known far and wide for her elegant home and warm hospitality. Plates were never empty, and the door never closed to travellers at the home of Hester Vermaak. The years passed, and today the green hills that run down to the sparkling Indian Ocean east of Port Elizabeth are a frontier of a different sort. The farmlands lie fallow and conservation is king: fences have been pulled down, lands restored and indigenous wildlife returned to their original stomping grounds.

The Eastern Cape, with its mild weather and malaria-free bushveld, is now known for Big Five escapes that make the perfect bookend to lazy days spent exploring South Africa’s picturesque Garden Route. A host of private game reserves have mushroomed on the road between Port Elizabeth and historical Grahamstown but, when it comes to Eastern Cape safaris, size certainly does matter. The herds of antelope and elephant that make this corner of South Africa famous need vast areas to roam across.

The Addo Elephant National Park – South Africa’s third-largest national park – provides just that; 264 000 hectares running from sweeping coastal plains to the craggy hills where the rugged Zuurberg rises into the escarpment. And hidden away on a private concession amidst this lush landscape of valley bushveld, Gorah Elephant Camp enjoys the best of both worlds.

Morning and afternoon game experiences traverse Addo’s network of tracks, but also enjoy exclusive access to the quiet off-road routes of Gorah’s 5 000-hectare concession; the first ever to be granted in a South African national park. Unlike Addo’s self-drive visitors, Gorah’s guests get to savour the true joy of a private safari escape: the thrill of having a piece of African bush all to yourself.

When Addo Elephant National Park was first proclaimed in 1931, just 16 elephants remained in the area. Today, this delicate ecosystem is home to hundreds of these magnificent pachyderms, along with Cape buffalo, rhino and a rich variety of antelope and bird species. But don’t forget to open your eyes and ears to the subtle wonders of Addo too: the humble dung beetle that’s endemic to these hills, the shy herds of endangered mountain zebra and the rumble of a lion’s contact call echoing across your hilltop sundowners.

While game drives introduce guests to the remarkable diversity of wildlife in Addo, the elegant manor house and luxurious tented suites are half the glory of Gorah, an award-winning member of the prestigious Relais & Châteaux collection. Wooden walkways wend their way between just 11 en-suite safari tents, where simple white canvas walls belie the homely luxury within. Four-poster beds and cosy armchairs cry out for afternoon naps, or perhaps spend the day on your private deck with a glass of bubbly and a pair of binoculars.

Addo is home to more than 300 bird species, making it a paradise for twitchers, but as the sun sinks towards the horizon keep an eye on the lodge waterhole for thirsty elephants coming down to drink. After dark, the rustle of nocturnal activity through the canvas adds a frisson of excitement to a good night’s sleep. But not before savouring the gourmet delights of Gorah. As a member of the acclaimed Chaîne des Rôtisseurs, dinners in the historic homestead – a proclaimed national monument – are a triumph of crystal and candlelight, with an epicurean à la carte menu and extensive wine list ensuring a memorable evening. On warm nights, enjoy dinner under African stars in the open boma, or on the veranda with views of the floodlit waterhole. After dinner sink into a deep leather armchair and swop travel tales by the cosy fire, or browse through a book from the extensive library. With its high ceilings, magnificent iron fireplaces and collection of African memorabilia, Gorah makes for a loveably old-world escape.

Some 150 years on, the Gorah welcome is as warm as ever; the accommodation still sumptuous and the valley views still breath-taking. Old Hester would be rather proud.

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