Small wonders Christine McCabe
It’s the little things that matter on a South African safari, writes
LAST night I dreamed of aardvarks, a peculiar night-time reverie by anyone’s reckoning. Recently returned from South Africa’s Eastern Cape, I find my subconscious reeling with ravishing images of smoky bush, blue-lit hills and wild creatures of all shapes, sizes and degrees of menace.
The words aardvark and safari are not immediately synonymous, and indeed when ranger Graeme asks what animals I most hope to see during my three-day stay, I go for broke: leopards (Graeme’s groan is audible), cheetahs, elephants, black rhinos, lions.
Fellow traveller Jim’s list is alphabetical, albeit a tad eccentric, beginning with the aforementioned aardvark. This odd request, dismissed at first, takes on a life of its own as the safari progresses and our night-time game drives become curiously preoccupied with a desire to spy this shy creature. Stories of our quest spread from ranger to ranger across the Kwandwe Private Game Reserve and soon everyone is on the lookout.
Over gin and tonic taken alfresco on a thorny ridge as the fiery sun sets, Graeme attempts to compensate for the sorry dearth of sightings with as many stories as he can muster, including the compelling tale of a brave aardvark armed only with his digging claw who slew a young lion. But no aardvark, lion’s bane or prey, appears out of the darkened Kwandwe bush and we are forced to make do with several cardboard cut-outs placed around the villa by our jovial butler, Chris.
For nothing, not even a virtual aardvark, is too much trouble for the fantastic team at Melton Manor. This sole-use safari villa, perched above the Great Fish River, meandering for 30km through the 25,000ha Kwandwe reserve, features four enormous double-bedroom suites and comes complete with the services of a butler, chef and on-call safari team of ranger Graeme and his prescient tracker Siya.
Opened 12 months ago, Melton takes the concept of villa rental to a new level: no longer just private pool and bespoke dining but a full-on African adventure tailormade for a family or small group of friends.
It’s one of four accommodation options on the Relais & Chateaux-accredited Kwandwe run by the visionary Conservation Corporation Africa. There’s the family- friendly six-suite Ecca Lodge, the stylish Great Fish River Lodge (nine suites with private plunge pools set high above the river valley and favoured African haunt of Prince Edward) and another villa, the 1905 Uplands Homestead (sleeping six), set in a remote valley ringed by aloe-daubed hills.
Kwandwe, or place of the blue crane in Xhosa, lies at the heart of the malaria-free Eastern Cape and is one of a growing number of private reserves in the region. The road northeast from Grahamstown is lined with the tall fences of these small reserves, recently converted from farms. But the Conservation Corporation Africa property represents much more than a financially expedient conversion; rather, it’s a significant conservation triumph that also supports the local community through employment and the provision of schools and other essential infrastructure.
At Kwandwe, severely degraded farmland has been carefully restored through several years and restocked with animals formerly endemic to the region based on the study of settlers’ accounts, hunters’ journals, even fossil records.
Today you will find, as you would have a century ago, the Big Five (lion, elephant, rhino, buffalo and leopard) together with cheetahs, black wildebeests, hippos, the rare black rhino. And aardvarks.
Located an easy 40 minute-drive from Grahamstown and 90 minutes from the coastal city of Port Elizabeth, Kwandwe nevertheless lies off the beaten track, set behind huge gates hung with a small, thoughtfully placed sign: Lions! (Exclamation mark being redundant, one would have thought.)
After travelling along a dusty gravel road for several kilometres we arrive at Heatherton Towers, a fortified homestead dating from the Frontier Wars, but today it’s Kwandwe’s reception. Even before climbing from our van we spot warthogs, kudus, giraffes and the rare and elegant blue crane.
Greeted with a tall glass of sweet, homemade lemonade, we’re given a brief run-down on reserve protocol (no leaving the Jeep, no flash photography near elephants) before Graeme and Siya whisk us across the reserve for 30 minutes, through increasingly thick and feral shrubbery, to the remote Melton Manor.
Lapped by bush and set back from the river valley precipice, Melton Manor is the last thing you would expect to find out here. We’re talking one seriously chic safari pad. The bedrooms feature pistachio-green walls, dusky-pink armoires, enormous beds mounded with an Everest of perfectly plumped cushions and an equally commodious bathroom with freestanding tub enjoying bush views and set beneath an immense handmade crystal, rusted wire and clay-bead chandelier.
A private terrace protrudes into the bush, but a stroll beyond this point is not recommended (the lodge is unfenced and elephants and lions do saunter by from
From Page 1 time to time). Across the river, leopards lurk in the darkened succulent forest.
The U-shaped villa wraps around a large courtyard dominated by a single guarri tree and a swimming pool dancing with jewel-like orange dragonflies. Deep verandas are set with squishy sofas; at night braziers are lit and the guarri tree is strung with hurricane lanterns. The main reception rooms are equally stylish, with a generously stocked open bar, cheery country kitchen and large library loaded with board games as well as a television, DVD and internet.
We arrive in time for lunch: tasty beef satay, barbecued chicken and a medley of outstanding salads. I beg our chef, the gorgeous Siziwe, for her recipe for a delicious Thai chilli pineapple salad. The recipe duly arrives, rolled in parchment and wrapped in ribbon.
Attention to detail is a Melton mantra and Siziwe’s food is indicative of the fresh, tasty and generous cuisine that is championed by Conservation Corporation Africa lodges across the continent.
After lunch, guests generally nap through the hottest part of the day. I slide open my bedroom doors, despite there being nothing between me and the Big Five, and drift off to the sounds of the warm wind in the long grass and small birds singing on the wing.
We wake at the crack of afternoon tea, a spread comprising steaming pots of coffee and tea (and their iced alternatives), dainty fairy cakes, rum babas and fist-sized biscuits. It’s swiftly becoming apparent we’re likelier to be killed by kindness than a rogue elephant. And it’s a kindness that extends well beyond the usual villa protocol. After returning from another fruitless after-dark aardvark hunt, when the temperature has plummeted and the night bush crowding the narrow track seems alive, we spy tiny lights by the roadside. They are hurricane lanterns guiding our final approach to the manor.
Siziwe appears with a tray of hot gin toddies and we return to our rooms to find a bubble bath drawn and our slippers and robes laid on our beds.
Life at Melton is not entirely indolent, however: game drives fill most of our waking hours, the first departing at about 6.30am. Bed tea appears through a hatch in the wall, after which we sleepily gather our safari clobber: notebook, binoculars and sensible hat. Rather paltry when measured against the Tongan royal family, who arrived at Kwandwe with full-kit pith helmets, goggles and white scarfs along with a set for Graeme. The group cut quite a dash, he confesses.
Off we set, helmet-less but ever optimistic on the aardvark front. As mornings go, the African version takes some beating: quiet and still, the sun spreading slowly over hills portent with the possibility of incredible creatures at every turn. Sightings of lions and elephants are relayed from base courtesy of Kwandwe’s bush telegraph, but generally we meander across the 25,000ha following Siya’s highly attuned nose.
The small things — a jackal daintily eating berries from a tree or a lumbering tortoise — are as charming as the large. A lone bull elephant makes short work of a spekboom (pork bush), a baby white rhino bravely protects mum with a rambunctious charge toward our Jeep.
We enter rugged ground to follow the park’s largest and fiercest lioness as she leads her cubs back to a zebra kill. Kwandwe’s creatures, even the hungry, take little notice of our vehicle and we have the privilege of observing them going about their business without artifice or fear.
I enjoy these long, bouncy drives as much for the landscape as the animals. Six of South Africa’s seven vegetation zones converge in the Eastern Cape and Kwandwe’s tough, prickly plants are as beguiling as its animals. Venerable sneezewood trees and pretty jacket plums sit cheek by jowl with tall, old-man aloes, many the worse for wear, thanks to hungry elephants. Finger-stubby euphoria exude a narcotic sap highly prized by baboons. ‘‘ I sometimes find them lying on their backs, completely wasted,’’ says Graeme.
By the river, succulents are so large and numerous they form a forest and in winter the reserve is a riot of flowering aloes.
The morning drive is capped with an enormous breakfast, after which there’s ample time to grab another nap, study the bird guide or send one’s grubby safari duds to be cleaned, a sometimes risky operation with hyenas and baboons making occasional raids on the laundry yard.
Worse things happen at sea and on safari. Our efforts to locate a rare black rhino prove fruitless although in the process we see almost everything else, from kudus (a German visitor thought the large-eared antelope to be rather like Prince Charles), handsome oryxes and enigmatic black wildebeest to warthogs, zebras, giraffes and a crash of baby white rhinos. Birdlife is prolific and we spy the rare blue crane on several occasions, together with the weighty kori bustard, bell-chanting goshawk and handsome fish eagle. Our last game drive proves especially memorable when, high in the blue hills near the Uplands Homestead, we happen upon a family of cheetahs, mum and five almost-grown cubs.
As we grapple with our cameras, the cubs lope and sprint around the Jeep like overgrown kittens; their mother poised as elegantly as a Cartier brooch while regarding the distant plain.
It’s not a moment easily forgotten and one among many that will forever lodge Africa in my heart. And as for that lion-slaying aardvark, he continues to roam the realms of my imagination. Christine McCabe was a guest of South African Tourism.
Melton Manor’s tariff starts at 19,080 rand ($2664) a night for eight adults, including all meals, drinks and game drives. Kwandwe also operates a range of signature safaris for budding naturalists. More: www.ccafrica.com. The Angus Gillis Foundation, formed by Kwandwe co-owner Carl DeSantis, invests in communities surrounding the reserve. More: www.angusgillisfoundation.co.za.
Under an African sky: As night falls at Melton Manor at Kwandwe Private Game Reserve in South Africa’s Eastern Cape, the table is laid for a bush dinner; guests enjoy fine food and drink, and the prospect of wild animals wandering the grounds
Elusive creature: Shy aardvarks prove hard to spot at Kwandwe