If spectacular footage of South Africa during David Attenborough’s BBC series Africa has somehow failed to inspire an African adventure, maybe the lure of an up-close-and-personal safari off the popular Garden Route will do the trick. We sent Jonny Payne to explore Gondwana Private Game Reserve near Mossel Bay.
“There are elephants outside Hut 2”, PG our guide says. “That’s my hut!” I cry, half in delight and half in fear of the scale of destruction caused by the gigantic beasts. We’d been traipsing around Gondwana Private Game Reserve for two and a half hours without even a glimpse of a dark grey trunk or the tip of a tusk, but here they are, two fully grown and pregnant females tending to the lawn outside my hut.
They saunter around for a while as we cower on the porch of the main lodge, but they soon come towards us stealthily – well, as stealthily as a two-tonne hormone-crazed animal can. At one point, one of the guests shouts: “They’re right outside the toilet window!” We all crowd into the cubicle as the elephant tears clumps of grass while looking at us surely wondering: “What on earth are they all doing in there?”
An hour earlier, we were calmly driving on the rust-red soil tracks skirting the base camp when a large figure strode into view on the horizon. “One of our female lions”, PG explained. She looked much bigger than I had expected, but maybe this was due to the low nature of the fynbos vegetation. But as we inched closer, it quickly became apparent she was a fine specimen.
A zebra was soon in her sights, but PG quelled any excitement of a chase by telling us she was on her way back from the previous night’s kill: a whole gemsbok decimated by her pride in a single night. He pointed to her swollen stomach as evidence.
We were soon at the site of the kill. A few bones could be seen scattered amongst the shrubs and PG said the male would be around here somewhere. Without having to move, I saw a huge face glaring back at me and pointed excitedly to the others. Think of a typical lion drawing from a four-year-old – huge mane, sharp teeth and a cute but powerful face that would cause carnage in seconds – and that’s what was just metres away.
After an early start the following morning, we find a few kudu, springbok and giraffe grazing the valley floor. But while most of the larger animals seem rather late for work on this Monday morning, PG provides some fascinating insight into some of the reserve’s smaller tenants.
First, he shows me a termite soldier magnified on a petri dish and then points to a small gap in the termite mound. We watch as the workers hurriedly fix the hole in minutes, which keeps the temperature of the gigantic mound constant so they can cultivate the fungus needed as food for the larvae – a great insight into the species that weighs more pound for pound than the world’s human population.
Spectacular scenery and vivid vegetation
I had been on a safari before, further north in South Africa‘s famous Kruger National Park, where I had luckily seen the Big Five in a matter of minutes. But Gondwana has a different feel – it’s less about the clamour to ‘tick-off’ as many animals as possible and more about the experience of being amongst nature.
The savannah grassland of the Kruger is replaced by shorter and more colourful fynbos shrubs – the majority of which are endemic to this part of the world. This vegetation along the impressive swathe of coastline linking Cape Town to Port Elizabeth contributes to the area’s name; the Garden Route.
But it’s not just the tapestry of buttery yellows of the straw flower, purples of the September flower and pinks and whites of the iconic protea that differentiates Gondwana from the Kruger. While the Kruger’s scenery is impressive, the landscape here is truly breathtaking. The Outeniqua mountain range lurks in the distance creating layer upon layer of dusky green peaks, whilst the rolling hills of the western side of the resort would give Middle-earth a run for its money.
Add this to Gondwana’s accessibility (just off the main N2 route, 4 hours from Cape Town or 3 and a half hours from Port Elizabeth); its claim as the only reserve on the Garden Route with free-roaming Big Five game; and the added benefit of being in a non-malarial area, and it’s an attractive option for safari virgins or veterans alike. Far from competing with more established resorts, Gondwana is the perfect compliment to a more traditional safari or a good choice for those seeking adventure just off the main tourist trail.
Luxury huts with traditional origins
The reserve’s luxury Kwena Huts (one of which is set aside as a spa) are designed with more than a nod to the traditional dwellings of the Khoisan, the original people of this area. The semi-spherical thatched roofs rise out of the ground like neatly positioned molehills. Panes of glass have been added in the roofs as windows to the magical night sky directly above the comfy beds; the deep baths look out over the undulating landscape; and there are wood-burning stoves for the cool nights.
After the excitement of the elephants on the return from the evening game drive and a wonderful four-course meal in the lodge’s restaurant, I am escorted to my lavish hut, past pairs of dung beetles attending to their fresh, steaming feast. I relax with a mug of warm cocoa to the sounds of an orchestra of frogs in the adjacent watering hole.
Some people love their stay here so much, they never truly leave. I meet a friendly couple from Cape Town in the communal main lodge. They had been the previous year and decided to buy one of the tastefully integrated properties on the reserve. Residents can even take a short course to enable them to go on their own 4×4 game drives (equipped with a two-way radio in case of emergencies).
I have to admit to being sorely tempted to a life on the reserve as I leave and head back onto the concrete N2 motorway, the Garden Route’s main drag. I wonder if I could persuade the elephants to do my gardening on a regular basis?
Gondwana Private Game Reserve
Address: Off R327, Mossel Bay 6500, South Africa
Telephone: +27 (0)44 697 7002.
Kwena Huts from: R2400 per person all-inclusive (breakfast, lunch, high tea and dinner plus two game activities – game drive, horse safari or fynbos walk)
Self-catering accommodation from: R600 per person
Don’t miss next month’s article on living like a bushman in Botswana’s Kalahari Desert and exploring the wildlife-rich Okavango Delta.