At the extreme southern tip of Africa, just south of Cape Town, lies a modest 19,000-acre nature reserve, well-known among botanists for its astonishing variety of native floral species. Most visitors to South Africa, however, head there to see the Cape of Good Hope and the lighthouse at Cape Point, not the unusually abundant vegetation. Thinly scattered across the windswept peninsula are also a few antelope—mainly springbok, eland, and hartebeest—but they too attract little attention. The famous South African game regions, notably the immense Kruger National Park, lie more than 1,500 miles to the northeast. There, in the torrid subtropical veld, lion and leopard stalk their prey alongside spectacular herds of buffalo and elephant, as well as an increasing population of black rhino.
Few visitors to Cape Point ever realize that things were once remarkably different. In 1652, when the Dutch East India Company established a supply station for its ships sailing to the Orient, the Cape seemed an unpromising place, not least because it was infested with dangerous wild animals. Elephant and buffalo were ubiquitous, while large numbers of lion lived and hunted in the dunes that lined the shores of Table Bay.
By 1720 ivory hunters had entirely eliminated elephant from the southwestern Cape; less than a century later, the British explorer William Burchell lamented the virtual eradication of elephant, rhino, hippo, eland, and ostrich from the entire Cape Colony. In 1842, the last lion living south of the Orange River was reported shot and killed.
Until just a decade ago, the loss of big game from the southern tip of Africa seemed completely irreversible. The idea that great herds and their ever-present predators would again roam wide tracts of the Cape was so far-fetched as to be little more than a daydream. But amazingly, this is precisely what is beginning to happen. Wealthy entrepreneurs, international environmental organizations, and the South African government are all playing a part in reclaiming much of the Cape provinces for wildlife. And with each new victory, either on private estates or in several rapidly expanding national parks, high-quality game lodges are springing up to take advantage of the unprecedented opportunity: Tswalu Kalahari Reserve opened in 1996 on the arid savanna of the Northern Cape; Gorah Elephant Camp, based around a Victorian farmhouse, opened in December 2000 in the Eastern Cape; and Kwandwe Private Game Reserve, a sumptuous property overlooking the dramatic gorge of the Great Fish River, opened its doors a year and a half ago.
The style of these three camps and lodges is very similar to the more famous lodges in the north, but these relative newcomers have a couple of distinct advantages. To begin with, they are all within easy reach of Cape Town—anywhere from one and a half to two and a half hours by air. In high summer (December to March) they also share the generally sunny and warm climate of Cape Town. This means that when you're most likely to visit Cape Town (see the Travel Guide in this issue) you can, within just a few hours, reach three world-class game reserves during near-perfect conditions. (Summer in the north, by contrast, is the height of the rainy season, during which the skies over Kruger are frequently leaden, the roads sometimes impassable, and the vegetation so dense as to act as camouflage.) The other great advantage—and this may seem harsh but it is, unfortunately, a fact to be reckoned with—is that the Cape region is entirely free of malaria. In contrast to the warmer and wetter subtropical areas to the north, where parasite-carrying mosquitoes thrive, the Cape provinces are cooler and drier, on average. (The area's latitudes are comparable to Georgia and the Carolinas in the Northern Hemisphere.) Thus, Cape safarigoers carry no risk of becoming sick from malaria, or from the side effects of anti-malarial drugs.
"When this park was established, over seventy years ago, there were just eleven elephants. Today there are more than three hundred sixty." I'm sitting in the passenger seat of a Land Rover chatting with Darren, a ranger from Gorah Camp, beside a water hole in Addo Elephant National Park. It's a broiling day in early December, the sky is cloudless, and at 8:30 a.m. the temperature is already pushing 90 degrees. Addo is 45 miles north of Port Elizabeth, a city in the Eastern Cape province, an hour's flight from Cape Town.
"All these elephants are directly related to the original eleven, which is why they've just brought down four big males from Kruger to expand the gene pool," Darren continues. "In March a pride of lions is being translocated from the Etosha National Park in Namibia. Then, once the lion are established, they'll put in cheetah and leopard."
Directly in front of us, around 30 elephants are enjoying an enthusiastic bath, the adults spraying themselves (and occasionally us) with trunkfuls of muddy water, while half a dozen youngsters, some little more than a year old, slither around on the shoreline before finally plucking up the courage to venture into the reddish ooze. Mud not only cools the elephants down but also helps to remove parasites and acts as an extremely effective sunblock. As we sit watching, other elephant families emerge from the surrounding vegetation, wave upon wave, until eventually I can no longer keep an accurate count. There must be 80 or 90 at least.
No matter how peaceful the scene, it's impossible not to feel a twinge of alarm when such huge animals come so close you can almost touch them. One particularly impressive tusker pulls up abruptly within ten feet of our vehicle and peers down myopically at its occupants. Extending his trunk in my direction, he probes the air, sampling the intruder's smell. The trunk's pink, moist, freckled tip comes within five feet of my face. But just when it seems that he's going to reach into the vehicle, the elephant pauses, turns ponderously, and ambles away, indifferent and unconcerned.
"I've never heard of a wild elephant actually touching anyone," Darren says reassuringly. "But you do have to be careful. The bad signs are when they start blowing dust, flapping their ears, or tossing their heads. Fortunately in Addo they're quite used to vehicles by now. Unlike the buffalo, which still come into the open chiefly at night, elephants seem to have forgotten about having been hunted. If we meet one on the road, we just pull over and let it go by."
Once little more than a fragment of fenced-in wilderness in the middle of an ocean of farmland, Addo Elephant National Park has doubled in size during the past six years to its present 370,000 acres. But this is just a taste of things to come, as an extraordinarily ambitious project to create a "Greater Addo" conservation area has recently received financial backing from the South African government. The plan calls for Addo to reach 1.1 million acres in 15 years, making it the country's second largest national park, behind only Kruger.
Throughout Africa, administrations are spending less and less on wildlife conservation these days, chiefly because of demands for improved housing, health care, and education. The decision by South African authorities to finance Greater Addo (along with the country's parks board, the United States Humane Society, and the International Fund for Animal Welfare) clearly indicates their faith in the potential social benefits of the plan. Turning huge tracts of arable land back into wilderness may seem a strange way to help the area's human population, but in fact wildlife tourism today creates many more, and better-paid, jobs in South Africa than does farming.
One particular beneficiary of this new public-private partnership is Ian Hunter, owner of Gorah Elephant Camp (as well as the well-regarded Hunter's Country House, at Plettenberg Bay on the country's famous Garden Route). Hunter began negotiating to acquire the first private concession actually inside a South African national park back in 1997. Three years later, after a "long and nerve-wracking process," he secured exclusive access to 35,000 acres in Addo and permission to build a tented camp, based around the ruins of a mid-19th-century ranch house. The camp consists of ten tented suites, constructed from heavy, cream-colored canvas, each with its own lavishly appointed bathroom, polished pine floors, and white mosquito netting draped above voluptuous king-size fourposter beds. Gorah House itself, now restored to full Victorian colonial splendor, is a wonderfully evocative place, with beamed ceilings, open fireplaces, book-lined shelves, leather armchairs, and a mesmerizing view from its terrace over open, rolling savanna.
After the heat and excitement of the morning game drive, I spent the afternoon lounging on a sofa, gazing contentedly through my binoculars at the animals arriving at a nearby water hole. A colossal male elephant (one of the recent arrivals from Kruger), a family of ostrich, and about a dozen red hartebeests were joined by a herd of kudu, the most striking of African antelopes, the males resplendent with their superb spiral horns. Then, as twilight deepened to reveal the brilliant constellations of the southern night sky, an armada of huge Cape buffalo, 100 animals or more, silently emerged from the darkness.
"The absence of malaria was once the downfall of the Eastern Cape. It meant that it was easy for the settlers to move in here. The first lot arrived around 1820 and soon shot all the game to prevent it from killing their livestock."
I'm standing with Andrew Mortimer, general manager of Kwandwe Private Game Reserve, overlooking the ravine of the Great Fish River, an obvious natural frontier that for a good part of the 19th century marked the boundary between areas of European colonization, to the south, and the lands of the formidable Xhosa people. (Nelson Mandela is a Xhosa, as are numerous other members of South Africa's governing party, the ANC.) Kwandwe is another new and remarkable conservation project (little more than an hour's drive from Gorah) that has been financed by American billionaire Carl DeSantis, the chairman and founder of Rexall Sundown, the U.S. manufacturer of vitamins and dietary supplements. Having been persuaded to buy the land in 1998, DeSantis went on to invest a total of ten million dollars. As a result, big game has been introduced on 40,000 acres of previously unprofitable farmland, an area approximately 15 miles long by six miles wide.
"Today, paradoxically, the absence of malaria will be the savior of the Eastern Cape," Mortimer continues. "It will be a huge asset in the development of safari tourism." An affable and engaging man in his early 30s, Mortimer is giving me an extended guided tour of his fiefdom, a stirring and expansive tract of land partially covered by patches of impenetrable bush, undoubtedly capable of swallowing large numbers of buffalo, elephant, and rhino. I mention that it seems the kind of landscape anticipated by many first-time visitors to Africa: grand, elemental, and sun-bleached, beneath an immense dome of cloudless sky. He nods. "And apparently, according to the historians, the Fish River Valley may once have had the highest density of game in the whole of southern Africa."
The initial inspiration for Kwandwe (which means "place of the blue crane" in Xhosa) came from Angus Sholto-Douglas, a native of nearby Grahamstown and now one of the project's directors, who, having spent years searching for an area suitable for environmental reconstruction, finally discovered an ideal location practically in his own backyard.
"Angus met Mr. DeSantis on holiday in Botswana," Mortimer says. "His ten million dollars has enabled us to demolish twenty farm buildings, construct a nine-room lodge, and introduce over seven thousand head of game, including elephant, rhino, lion, and cheetah. We're also thinking of restoring brown hyena, which used to exist here. The antelope population is probably close to capacity, but we expect the number of predators to increase by up to sixty percent. We were told that if we introduced thirty-five elephants we'd be able to go until 2021 before worrying about the reserve being overstocked. So we put in twenty-two, which should enable us to get to 2035 without having to consider either birth control or translocation."
Kwandwe Lodge opened on October 1, 2001, and little more than a year later it was accepted as a member of Relais & Châteaux. Designed by Greg Milne, an architect with no previous experience in safari-lodge construction, it occupies a striking site perched high above the serpentine course of the Great Fish River. From afar the lodge is deliberately inconspicuous, the contours of its roof following those of the nearby hills so as to minimize its intrusion on the landscape. But the interior is dramatic and opulently furnished: Its steeply pitched thatched roof is decked with cast-iron chandeliers; its floors are covered by Persian rugs; tables in the dining room are set with hand-embroidered damask linens as well as with pewter, silverware, and early-19th-century china. The nine suites, each a self-contained structure with a spacious sun deck and private plunge pool, are similarly luxurious, with both indoor and outdoor showers, a claw-foot "Edwardian" bathtub, king-size bed, air-conditioning, direct-dial telephone—all the facilities, in fact, that you would expect to find in a top-notch city hotel.
"Ten million dollars buys you quite a lot in South Africa," Andrew Mortimer says, as he politely ensures that none of the amenities accidentally escape my notice. "But Mr. DeSantis expects us to make a profit from now on. And that's precisely what we want to do: to prove that it's possible to provide good jobs and to make a reasonable profit through wildlife conservation."
The best-known environmental reconstruction project in South Africa is Tswalu, a vast private reserve in the Northern Cape at the edge of the Kalahari Desert. In many respects Tswalu blazed the trail for Gorah and Kwandwe, by returning a patchwork of unprofitable farms, an area of about 375 square miles, to pristine wilderness, and then restocking it with appropriate species. In all, the project involved the demolition of 26 homesteads, the relocation of 7,000 head of cattle, and the removal of 500 miles of fencing, 2,300 electricity pylons, 38 concrete dams and 110 miles of road—a heroic undertaking made possible only be the messianic personality of English owner Stephen Boler, to say nothing of $21 million of his personal fortune. However, Boler died of a heart attack in 1998, at the age of 56, just two years after Tswalu had opened, and for a while it seemed that the project might founder. But the reserve was acquired in 1999 by the enormously wealthy Oppenheimer gold and diamond family, and today conservation work continues much as before.
It took an hour and 15 minutes to fly from Cape Town to Upington, the nearest large town on the way to Tswalu, where I clambered aboard a single-engine Cessna for a 40-minute flight to the reserve itself. The landscape of the Northern Cape is one of arid savanna, where bleached grassland is interspersed with clumps of sparse vegetation and long parallel dunes of fine reddish sand. For most of the year the sky is cloudless, but from January to March there can be brief afternoon thundershowers. In this semidesert region, however, prolonged clouds and rain are virtually unknown.
Tswalu's Motse Lodge nestles at the foot of the stark Korranaberg Mountains and merges with its surroundings so successfully that it's virtually invisible from 300 yards away. When it was completed, in 1996, the $2.5 million that had been lavished on its nine suites and stylish public areas was virtually unprecedented. Since then, however, safari lodges throughout Africa have become infinitely more opulent and sophisticated, providing amenities and levels of comfort that were unheard-of a decade earlier. Despite having inspired a host of imitations, Tswalu remains a special lodge, partly due to its harmonious design (which uses local stone and thatched roofing) and exceptionally spacious accommodations, but also because of its spellbinding view directly out into the immensity of the Kalahari, one of the most extensive and least corrupted wilderness areas in the world.
The Tswalu game reserve is divided into two sections separated by a high-voltage electric fence. The larger of these, the Conservation Area, contains herbivores and is dedicated to breeding endangered species such as sable and roan antelope, as well as the desert black rhino (nine of which have been born on the property). In contrast, the Predator Area provides a home for lion, cheetah, and, most probably, leopard. About the latter it is impossible to be certain: Shortly after their introduction they vanished into the mountains, much to the chagrin of everyone involved.
"The fence that can restrain a leopard has yet to be invented. If they want to, they'll just jump vertically—ten feet or more." I am sitting with Josie Stow, who is one of the managers at Tswalu, on a sun deck overlooking the lodge's water hole, where a family of elegant, rapier-horned oryx, the quintessential desert antelope, is peacefully drinking.
"Ideally, we'd like to have just one area containing a full range of species," she continues. "It would definitely be preferable for our guests. But first we have to be certain that a balance can be maintained. And we'd still need protected breeding enclosures for the sable and roan. They're just too valuable to let the lion eat them all. If the fence between the Predator and Conservation areas does come down, it's going to be three or four years from now, at least."
Despite this cautious assessment, preliminary steps are already being taken to integrate the Tswalu reserve and thereby return a large tract of southern Africa to an entirely natural condition. Desert black rhino have recently been moved into holding enclosures within the Predator Area, to acquaint them with their new surroundings. Later that morning I'm taken to watch two cheetahs being darted and fitted with radio collars so that they can be released inside the Conservation Area—doubtless to the extreme discomfort of the smaller antelope, which until now have led a blissfully tranquil existence.
Sedated and blindfolded, the cheetahs lay on a leather sheet in the back of a pick-up truck, being fussed over by four of Tswalu's rangers. I reach out and touch their surprisingly coarse and wiry fur while their teeth and claws are checked and antibiotic cream is massaged into the punctures left by the dart gun. It's a moment that seems somehow weighted with a greater significance, as I watch people working so assiduously to restore what generations before them so heedlessly destroyed. The return of wild animals to large areas of former farmland is a momentous reversal of history—a development that inspires at least a modest degree of optimism about the future of African wildlife.
Your Own Private Cape Safari
WHERE TO STAY
GORAH ELEPHANT CAMP Ten opulently furnished tents, mounted on wooden decks, that provide the same level of amenities you'd find in a five-star hotel suite: satinwood fourposter bed, blackwood dressing table, and wrought-iron and clay wash basins. The tents are widely spaced on a hillside and all have a splendid view across an expanse of rolling grassland. They also overlook a water hole constantly frequented by animals. An extremely civilized atmosphere in the middle of the wilderness. Tented suites, $950. For reservations: Box 454, Plettenberg Bay 6600, South Africa; 27-44-532-7818; www.gorah.com.
KWANDWE PRIVATE GAME RESERVE A new endeavor from CC Africa, one of the continent's most respected safari companies. The nine self-contained, air-conditioned suites, each with its own sun deck and plunge pool, occupy a memorable setting along the rim of a valley overlooking the Great Fish River. This member of the Relais & Châteaux group represents the state of the art in safari-lodge construction (local stone and saligna wood, floor-to-ceiling fold-back doors). The suites are so comfortable and well appointed it can be hard to summon the will power to venture outside. Suites, $1,290. For reservations: CC Africa, Private Bag X27, Benmore 2010, Johannesburg, South Africa; 27-11-809-4300; www.ccafrica.com.
TSWALU KALAHARI RESERVE The Motse lodge provides accommodations in seven stone-walled, thatched-roofed cottages with private decks for admiring the view. Public facilities include both indoor and outdoor dining areas, a library, and a sizeable swimming pool overlooking the Kalahari plains. The second lodge, Tarkuni, a 30-minute drive north, accommodates up to 14 people and has its own manager, chef, rangers, and private safari vehicles. Motse suites, $1,085; Tarkuni Lodge, $3,100, inclusive. For reservations: Box 1081, Kuruman 8460, South Africa; 27-53-781-9311; www.tswalu.com.
South Africa has an excellent domestic air network, and planes are modern, clean, and reliable. To reach the Eastern Cape (Gorah and Kwandwe) from Cape Town you must first go to Port Elizabeth by 737 (75 minutes). From there to the lodges you proceed either by car (one to two hours) or by light aircraft (20 to 40 minutes). Private air charters in South Africa are inexpensive (approximately $300 an hour for a four-seat Piper or Cessna). The Northern Cape (Tswalu) is more remote: Daily flights from Cape Town to Upington are 80 minutes; there you can connect to a private Cessna charter for a 40-minute transfer to the lodge.
WHEN TO GO
The warm and sunny weather in the Cape region begins in December and lasts through March. January and February are usually the two nicest months, with temperatures rarely exceeding 85 degrees. (But beware: an hour's drive inland it may well be 20 degrees hotter!) The Eastern Cape (Gorah and Kwandwe) has two rainy seasons, in April/May and October/November, with the best weather again coming December through March. The Northern Cape (Tswalu) sees occasional clouds and thundershowers in January and February. However, as this is a semi-desert region, sunshine is the norm throughout the year.
Two Roads Less Traveled
Two marvelous private estates within a three-hour drive of Cape Town offer more modest wildlife encounters than the bigger game lodges, but greater opportunities for hiking, birdwatching, swimming, and cultural pursuits.
One of the places closest to Cape Town where you can see wild animals and enjoy a kind of mini safari is this wonderfully atmospheric Victorian homestead just 75 minutes northeast of the city, at the edge of wine country. A working wheat and sheep farm in a majestic mountain setting, the 19,000-acre estate also has a private nature reserve that is home to numerous antelope species (eland, hartebeest, wildebeest) as well as spectacular bird life, including the endangered blue crane, the national bird of South Africa. Guests go hiking in the surrounding hills, as well as rowing and windsurfing on an idyllic lake (actually a reservoir) nearby. The homestead has just five bedrooms, splendidly appointed with Victorian-style fabrics and furniture; they all have exceptionally comfortable modern bathrooms with tubs. Although there are ceiling fans, there is no air-conditioning (except in the dining room), which some may find uncomfortable at the height of summer. Great care is taken with the French-influenced cuisine, and bread, cakes, and pastries are baked on the premises daily. The homestead is surrounded by rose gardens and has a large saltwater swimming pool. Rooms, $290; suite, $320. For reservations: Box 36, Hermon 7308, South Africa; 27-22-448-1820; www.parksgroup.co.za.
Three hours north of Cape Town by car (or one hour by air charter) is this private 15,000-acre wilderness reserve, in the spectacular Cedarberg Mountains, close to the edge of the Great Karoo desert. In addition to a wide variety of antelope and bird life, the reserve is well-known for its astonishing flora, seen to best advantage in spring (September and October). Guests also go on guided hikes to see the remarkable rock art left behind by the Cape's indigenous San Bushmen people. The seven rooms and nine suites are all exceptionally well appointed and offer open fireplaces and private terraces overlooking the landscape. There are no fewer than four swimming pools and a state-of-the-art spa. The cuisine is contemporary, drawing on the Cape's rich culinary heritage, and employs organic produce from the estate's own vegetable garden. Bushmans Kloof is a member of Relais & Châteaux. Rooms, $380; suites, $615. For reservations: Box 53405, Kenilworth 7745, Cape Town, South Africa; 27-21-797-0990; www.bushmanskloof.co.za.
Lodge prices show high-season double-occupancy rates from the least expensive double to the most expensive suite.