Back to Kwandwe: coming home
As we turn onto the gravel road that takes us up to Kwandwe’s main entrance, we are engulfed in the vegetal smells of Albany thicket, mingled with the earthy dust wafted up by our car tires. Two Kudu bulls emerge from the spekboom and cross the road in front of us, while the wrought iron sign for Heatherton Towers points us towards Kwandwe’s reception house. This 1800’s building is just one of the many signs of the history that underpins this iconic game reserve...
Founder of Wild Wonderful World, Grant Pengilly, first came to Kwandwe in 2006 as a safari guide for CC Africa. He was soon joined by Jonty Bozas, who guided at Kwandwe for another four years after that. Jonty later became director of both Wild Wonderful World Safaris and Conservation. Those who have heard safari guides recounting stories of their early guiding careers, know better than going into too much detail… Let’s just say that much fun was had and friendships were cemented for life. Revisiting Kwandwe after 10 years brings back memories of times less troubled and certainly feels like coming home!
Founded in 1999 by four likeminded individuals, Kwandwe epitomises the transformation of run-down, overgrazed and overexploited farmland, into a pristine wilderness area that is a haven for wildlife of all shapes and sizes. The Eastern Cape is steeped in culture and history, albeit not always one to be proud of. The Great Fish River that gives life to the reserve was a hotly contested border during the Frontier Wars of 1779 to 1878 between the Xhosa nation, Dutch farmers (Boers) and the English settlers. Up until the mid-1800s, the Fish River valley was full of large numbers of game, which included herds of elephants and black rhino, and predators like leopard, cheetah and the now extinct Cape Lion. Their presence was well-documented in local San rock art and in the diaries of elephant hunters and frontier explorers such as Barrow, Paterson and Baines.
The arrival of the Dutch and English settlers to the area in the 1800’s saw wildlife hunted and driven off these lands in favour of goat and ostrich farming which became widely practiced. Kwandwe used to house Heatherton Towers, one of the first ostrich farms in South Africa to export the decorative plumes to Europe. Since then, extensive sheep, goat and cattle grazing had brought along several thousand kilometres of fencing, windmills, metal pipelines, drinking troughs and other signs of organised agriculture. Little space and opportunity remained for wildlife to thrive, as illustrated by the loss of the last two remaining cheetah in 1888.
Kwandwe’s founders bought up the nine livestock and pecan nut farms, tore down all internal fences and started the long, hard work of restoring the land to its pre-1800 glory. By the time Kwandwe welcomed its first safari guests in 2001, the reserve had reintroduced a staggering 7,000 animals. For the first time in over 100 years, they welcomed back thriving populations of black and white rhino, buffalo, elephant, hyena, cheetah, lion and leopard. In addition, literal herds of general game such as kudu, springbok, eland, red hartebeest, giraffe, black wildebeest, gemsbok, hippo, and steenbok now roam the Albany thickets once again. ‘Kwandwe’ is Xhosa for ‘Place of the blue crane’ and signifies the invaluable contribution that the reserve has had to wildlife conservation. As one of Southern Africa’s biggest conservation successes, Kwandwe continues to pioneer innovative environmental conservation methods, working tirelessly to restore the barren farmland to its former glory.
AI & environmental conservation
Apart from re-wilding through animal translocations and conservation research projects, carbon acquisition forms a huge part of the restoration journey. Environmental conservation is one of Kwandwe’s strongholds. One of the indigenous scrubs has been planted en-masse on Kwandwe and surrounding land: with over 1.8 million porkbush (or “spekboom” in the Afrikaans language) plants planted since 2000. In addition to spekboom being highly palatable to many herbivores including rhino, it is one of the top five carbon-storing plants. Estimates point out that 100 hectares of spekboom equivalates to reducing carbon emissions of 260 cars for an entire year. In areas where the soil has been exploited by intensive farming and grazing, spekboom works to renegerate the soil and fight desertification. Safari guests are encouraged to get involved in the environmental conservation activities at Kwandwe, including planting your own spekboom patch which you can revisit during future visits to see the evolution!
For our team revisiting Kwandwe after 10 years, it is remarkable how nothing has changed in terms of its conservation guiding principles. Yet at the same time, the reserve seems to have adopted the most modern of technologies when it comes to protecting endangered species. The use of articial intelligence (AI) systems and drones to protect rhino is just one example of many where Kwandwe is at the leading edge of conservation. Solar GPS tracking collars are used to inform an automated AI system of erratic movements or lack thereof. This automatically triggers a drone to fly to the exact location, allowing the APU to safely assess the situation on the ground and, if needed, plan intervention accordingly.
The Eastern Cape is by many measures the poorest province in South Africa. Approximately 60% of its population of 7 million people lives in rural areas. The Ubunye Foundation was established by the founders of Kwandwe in 2002 as an integral part of their commitment to the local area and has grown to become an independent non-profit organization. Its reputation is built on innovation and rooted in a genuinely developmental approach. Whilst the relationship with Kwandwe remains very strong, Ubunye has expanded its reach beyond the reserve and currently works in nearly 30 communities in the Makana and Ngqushwa Municipal Districts. Since 2002, Kwandwe’s social development arm has provided benefits that include housing and services for over 400 people, a pre-school, primary school, the allocation of land on the reserve and facilitation of a community centre and an agri-village, leadership and professional computer training, and a health program.
Safari at Kwandwe: a five-star experience
Set on the edge of the former Karoo Basin where several of Africa's vegetation zones converge, Kwandwe’s landscape is dominated by expansive valley bushveld on open plains and rolling hills. This undulating landscape is covered in a blanket of succulent euphorbias, aloes and spekboom, among the characteristic plants. Low termite mounds, low-growing shrubs and lots of Albany thickets are interspersed with open areas. In the winter months (June-August) aloes brighten up the bushveld with their colourful flowers; the perfect time to visit this unique game reserve. Shimmering dams are teeming with bass and yellowfish, offering catch & release fishermen a world of opportunity.
Privately owned & managed, Kwandwe boasts 22,000 hectares of pristine valley bushveld, surrounding the Great Fish River. With two game lodges and three sole-use villas, safari tourists are spoilt for choice when it comes to choosing a place to experience the African safari dream. There truly is something for everyone, from romantic couple getaways to private family and group trips. Kwandwe is one of the largest private Big 5 game reserves in South Africa, which makes for one of the lowest vehicle densities across the board! With a maximum capacity of just 52 guests, going on safari at Kwandwe offers the increasingly rare feeling of being alone in the immensity of the African wilderness.
At Kwandwe, there is no rushing in-and-out of sightings. This provides a unique opportunity to observe wild animals and their natural behaviours. Kwandwe’s experienced safari guides know the reserve and its history like their back pocket. Their passion for the reserve and its conservation ethos is palpable, sharing their wealth of knowledge and often promoting longer game drives in the day, facilitated by the colder weather. The game viewing is nothing short of extraordinary and hard to rival even in far larger parks, with some of the best white and black rhino viewing in the country. For the seasoned safari-goer, Kwandwe is the place-to-be for viewing some of the smaller, elusive animal species, like bat-eared fox, aardwolf, caracal, meerkat, aardvark, porcupine, small spotted cat, striped polecat, and brown hyena.
The whole experience is polished off with top-notch service, which is just the cherry on the cake making guests feel special and cared for. Kwandwe’s drink stops are some of the most elaborate we’ve experienced, with a canny ability of choosing the exact best spots to watch the sun set on another exquisite day in Africa.
For those looking to experience the best of South Africa, Kwandwe’s location makes for the perfect natural conclusion to a journey along the world-famous Garden Route.
For safari-fanatics, combining a classic safari in the Kruger National Park with a stay at Kwandwe’s hidden gems offers an eye-opening experience of some of South Africa’s top wildlife destinations.
2023 rates: from R13,450 per person sharing. Click here to enquire.
Written by Evelyn Poole