Small won­ders Chris­tine McCabe

It’s the lit­tle things that mat­ter on a South African sa­fari, writes

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Front Page -

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.

Check­list

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.

www.southafrica.net

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

Pic­ture: Photolibrary

Elu­sive crea­ture: Shy aard­varks prove hard to spot at Kwandwe

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