From the dusty pastels of the arid Karoo to the lush green forests of the Garden Route, this trip covers some of South Africa’s most scenic landscapes. The malaria-free game reserves of the Eastern Cape will entrance you, and the Big 5 will keep your camera busy. This safari is a civilised way to see the big game of Africa, with plenty of local culture in the mix.
The wilderness of the Kruger National Park is rightfully famous for its wildlife, but if you are pregnant, or travelling with small children, or just not keen on taking prophylactics, the malaria free Eastern Cape safari is one of two great alternatives. The other is the Kalahari & Madikwe safari.
The first stop on this journey takes you to the arid plains of the Karoo. It is hard to visualise today, but these plains used to run wild with migrations of springbok that stretched from horizon to horizon. Fortunately, increasing numbers of the farms here are being acquired, consolidated, rehabilitated and allowed to run wild again.
Large stretches of farmland around the Port Elizabeth/Grahamstown area of the Eastern Cape have undergone a similar conversion over the last two decades. This area is more lush, and closer to what most people would expect from a traditional ‘bush’ experience. A nice contrast to the first stop.
The journey concludes with a few days in Knysna, one of the most popular coastal towns along the Garden Route. With the beautiful Knysna estuary out front, and dense forests of yellowwood trees in the back yard, this is the idea spot for a few relaxed days of exploration before heading home.
The plains of the Karoo used to run thick with wildlife, and some of its residents can still remember stories of the billowing clouds of dust kicked up by migrating herds of springbok. (The last recorded migration was in 1896). However, what’s good for springbok is also good for sheep and goats, and over the years, commercial farming won the day. The Mountain Zebra National Park was proclaimed in 1937 to stem the tide and succeeded in saving the mountain zebra from extinction. The park extends over more than 28 000 hectares of land and the current population of zebra in the park number in the hundreds. More recently, a stronger environmental consciousness has seen the development of a number of outstanding game reserves in the area. There is even an idea to link the Mountain Zebra National Park with the Camdeboo National Park. This is a massive area, and it will take years to get together, but will be spectacular if it succeeds.
The Eastern Cape has grown in prominence as a wildlife destination in recent times. The Addo Elephant Park has always been the cornerstone of conservation in this part of the country. It was proclaimed in 1931, when only eleven elephants remained in the area. Today this finely balanced ecosystem is sanctuary to about 500 elephants, and has one of the densest African elephant populations on earth. The park has grown steadily over time through land acquisition. But, importantly, its success has spurred the establishment of a number of top end private reserves in the Eastern Cape. These reserves do not span the vast tracks of land of the Kruger National Park and its private siblings, but most are big enough to allow for the natural movement of its wildlife and provide a pleasant alternative to the parks of the north. And the these parks have the big advantage that they are malaria free.
The temperate climate of the Garden Route makes it an ideal destination to visit at almost any time of the year, and it has been a favourite with local and overseas visitors for decades. It consists of a narrow stretch of land that is wedged in between the Indian Ocean, and the Outeniqua and Tsitsikamma Mountains. There are gloriously long beaches, lush (by South African standards) forests, rugged coastlines, tranquil lagoons and amber rivers. (The rivers get their colouration from the tannins that leach out of the fynbos vegetation). Although the beaches are often promoted as the main attraction of the Garden Route, it is the forests that inspired its name. With their giant Outeniqua yellowwoods (podocarpus falcatus), bottomless gorges and impenetrable vines and ferns, the forests have long been an infatuation for those with a love of nature. Much of their depths remain unexplored and, thankfully, unexploited. Perhaps their greatest treasure is that they are home to a handful of Knysna elephants.
Set on the plains of the Camdeboo, Samara is a 28 000 hectare private game reserve that encompasses the southern flank of the Sneeuberg mountains near Graaff-Reinet. It offers a variety of luxury accommodation and game viewing in a landscape that is dominated by vast mountain plateaus and endless views across the plains of the Greater Karoo.
Described as ‘heart-stoppingly beautiful’, Samara is known for frequent sightings of the elusive, nocturnal aardvark. Its rehabilitated cheetah, Sibella, epitomises the spirit of Samara, as has played a vital role in the rejuvenation of these graceful, but endangered cats.
Samara Karoo Lodge sleeps up to 20 guests in garden cottages featuring additional outdoor showers and private patios, or in the restored homestead with its wide wraparound veranda. All suites open out to private patios with outdoor sofas and awesome views. Two large ‘Camdeboo’ suites overlook the eponymous plains, and two ‘Sibella’ suites overlook a waterhole, where birdlife abounds and animals come to slake their thirst every day. The historic Manor is for the exclusive use of up to 8 guests. Services include a personal ranger, chef and butler, with nannies available on request.
The plains of the Karoo used to reverberate with the sound of hooves as the vast herd of springbok migrated across its vast expanse. These herds are long gone, but there is a movement afoot to try and link the Mountain Zebra National Park with the Camdeboo National Park. This would form one of the largest conservation areas in South Africa. With its spectacular landscapes of grassy plain, rocky outcrops and big mountains once again filled with vast herds of springbok and Cape Mountain Zebra, this would represent a major conservation success.
Samara is one of the key proponents of this idea, and is situated on 28 000 hectares of prime land – land that is large enough for a self-sustaining eco-system that carries the herds of antelope that used to inhabit this area, and the predators to keep the balance that helps maintain these fragile eco-systems. After the acquisition of 11 individual farms, the land was allowed to rest for many years. It has now recovered from the effects of generations of agricultural exploitation, and is slowly beginning to realise its full potential.
Mount Camdeboo is another conservation story that started as the dream of one family. The diverse landscapes on Mount Camdeboo Private Game Reserve are now host to an incredible variety of wildlife including the endangered white rhino, cheetah, and herds of antelope, zebra and giraffe, which roam freely through the reserve.
Positioned in a secluded corner of the Amakhala Game Reserve, this intimate family-run lodge is set on the banks of the Bushman’s River and has a breath-taking vista of rolling African plains. Hillsnek offers a Big 5 safari experience in 3 luxury, tented suites, where privacy and personalised attention is the hallmark of every stay.
Linked to the main lodge by raised wooden walkways, the tents are elevated on expansive wraparound wooden decks. Each tent includes an inside seating area, a romantic outside shower, and is discreetly positioned to ensure maximum privacy.
The wildlife is abundant and HillsNek is committed to the conservation of the Southern White Rhino, Ceratotherium simum. It is also home to the site of the first dinosaur fossil discovery in southern Africa - Paranthodon africanus.
HillsNek is available as an exclusive use lodge on request, and its intimate space is ideal for families, small groups, or those seeking a truly romantic retreat.
The Addo Elephant Park was proclaimed in 1931, when only eleven elephants remained in the area, and almost certainly saved these majestic animals from extinction in this part of the country. Spurred by the success of the Addo, and its increasing popularity amongst travellers looking for a malaria free alternative to the game reserves of the north, a number of private game reserves have been established in the area over the last few decades.
These reserves do not span the vast tracks of land of the Kruger National Park and its private siblings, but most are big enough to allow for the natural movement of its wildlife and provide a pleasant alternative to the parks of the north
Kwandwe Private Game Reserve is an example of such a conservation and community success story. Located 65km from the coast and in close proximity to the Garden Route, the Reserve’s 22 000 hectares of pristine wilderness is home to the famous Big Five. It also boasts a remarkable variety of smaller predators and general game, including cheetah, kudu, springbok, eland, red hartebeest, giraffe, black wildebeest and gemsbok.
Another example is the cluster of lodges that make up the Amakhala Game Reserve, which began in 1999 as a joint conservation venture between the owners of six lodges, and now encompass 11 upmarket lodges in its preserve.
Family managed Kanonkop House offers award-winning boutique accommodation in 5 elegant suites, with uninterrupted views of the Knysna Lagoon and Heads. It is surrounded by a beautiful garden and a small indigenous forest, yet is only a 5 minute drive from the Knysna’s town centre and its Waterfront.
Each spacious, well-appointed suite has been individually created and decorated, incorporating the ideas and artwork of talented South African artists. Focusing on natural light and texture, each features a bath and separate shower, an indoor sitting area, and a private deck with magnificent views. The three lagoon-view suites feature opulent finishes, and the two garden suites are light and airy and open out onto a sun-drenched wooden deck that overlooks the pool and surrounding garden.
Kanonkop House is an ideal base from which to discover the surrounding area. Perched on the edge of South Africa’s largest natural forest, alongside an immense tidal lagoon, Knysna is an eco-wonderland offering magnificent beaches, hiking, walking, cycling, and a wide range of restaurants and shops, many of which are within easy walking distance of Kanonkop.
The Garden Route encompasses a long, thin stretch of land along the southern coast of the Cape. To the north, it is contained by the Outeniqua and Tsitsikamma Mountains, which are always just a little distance into the interior. The Garden Route has gloriously long beaches, lush (by South African standards) forests, rugged coastlines, tranquil lagoons and amber rivers.
Larger towns include the likes of Mossel Bay and George, but it is the smaller enclaves of Knysna, Plettenberg Bay, Wilderness, Sedgefield, Witsand and Nature’s Valley that draw leisure travellers back year after year.
Rivers tumbling from the mountain slopes have carved the landscape into deep gorges and twisting valleys, shaded by steep slopes and plunging cliffs. The Keurbooms and Knysna rivers flow into tidal lagoons at Plettenberg Bay and Knysna respectively. Sedgefield Lagoon, which is open to the sea, is fed by Swartvlei, the biggest body of water in an area commonly referred to as South Africa’s ‘Lake District’.
A large swathe of this region is protected within the Garden Route National Park. However, due to early development of the region, the park is fragmented into smaller sections and has no fixed beginning or end. The Wilderness National Park, the Tsitsikamma National Park and the Knysna Lakes area are some of the better-known sections within the greater park.
More recently, the Garden Route has seen the establishment of a number of top class game reserves. These are very popular due to their proximity to Cape Town, and the fact that malaria does not occur this far south.
This safari commences and ends in Port Elizabeth, South Africa