Text by: Lesley Stone
Could anything be more thrilling than watching a lioness menacingly walk towards you, growling out a warning while her six cohorts loll alertly at the side of your vehicle?
Yes. Watching those seven lions when you’ve just realised you have a puncture, and you need to climb out of the Land Rover and stand around while the rangers change the tyre. Oh-oh.
A puncture amid a pride of lions isn’t ideal, but they’d brought down a wildebeest the day before and didn’t look hungry. Besides, the rangers at Kwandwe Game Reserve took it all in their stride. First, we reversed for a few hundred metres as the last of the air leaked from
the tyre with a pathetic ‘ppfffff’. Another vehicle parked across the road in front of us for protection and the rangers quickly changed the tyre. We climbed back on board and drove past the still somnolent lions, joking with relief about what a tasty feast they’d missed.
Kwandwe straddles the Great Fish River in the Eastern Cape and became a Big Five reserve after patching together several old farms and reintroducing more than 7,000 wild animals, including black and white rhino, elephant, cheetah, Cape buffalo, hippo and leopard.
With only 26 bedrooms spread across five different lodges, Kwandwe boasts one of the highest land-to guest ratios in South Africa. My chalet in Fish River Lodge was gorgeous inside and hugely entertaining on the outside, with steps leading down to a private plunge pool by the river, so you can skinny-dip while the animals drink right in front of you. If you’re less of an
exhibitionist, you can have spa treatments in the privacy of your room, while gourmands can look forward to meals like perfectly cooked quail, Norwegian salmon and chocolate mousse.
Fish River Lodge feels delightfully adult, and family groups are more at home in Ecca Lodge, a kid-friendly option with organised activities including cooking sessions and learning about conservation.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                    The stylish Kurland Hotel near
                                                                                                               Plettenberg Bay
The Eastern Cape is the poorest province in South Africa, with 65% of its population of seven million living in rural areas. Guests at Kwandwe can volunteer to help out at the community centres the reserve supports for 10 local villages through its Ubunye Foundation. The lodges also run a health programme for the villagers, fund the construction of a primary school and provide after school care for the employees’ children, since almost all the staff are drawn from the local communities.
Despite the presence of such luxurious game reserves, the Eastern Cape is far better known for its vast empty spaces and beautiful beaches than for its animals, so it’s easy to organise a bush, beauty and beach combo.
Ancient sentinels
I’d long heard friends who are photography fanatics raving about the stark splendour of the Valley of Desolation, but when I arrived, I wasn’t sure I was going to actually see it. As our minibus entered Camdeboo National Park, the rain began and the wide views closed in under gloomy grey clouds. But we pushed on, winding up the twisting roads to a deserted car park. A short ramble across rocky scrubland brought us to the edge of a precipice. Then the sun suddenly emerged to illuminate bizarre 120m-high columns of dolerite sprouting up from the plains of the Great Karoo far below. If it had been a movie, you would have said the timing was too twee to be real.

The Valley was declared a National Monument of geological and scenic significance way back in 1939, though that’s a mere blink ago for columns that were formed by volcanic action and shaped by wind and rain erosion over the past 100 million years.
This wasn’t the weather to linger on Camdeboo’s hiking trails, which suited me fine, because the beach was calling. The best way to round off an Eastern Cape adventure is in the time-honoured tradition of heading to Plettenberg Bay for a sun and sea finale. Plett Tourism Authority is making a big effort to promote the town’s attractions, and that shouldn’t be difficult when there’s plenty to do like bungee jumping from Bloukrans Bridge; gorge walking; visiting bird, monkey and elephant sanctuaries; or touring the Tenikwa Wildlife Awareness Centre, which rescues and rehabilitates injured animals.
Plett’s beaches themselves come in different flavours, one ideal for surfing, another designated for dog walking, one for catching a whale-watching cruise and some just for that old-fashioned activity of lying in the sun. I set off from aptly named Central Beach on a kayaking trip with Dolphin Adventures, and the owner popped me into a double kayak with a guide to give me
extra stability against the waves on a blustery morning. It’s huge fun, paddling along in the swell, admiring the coastline and hoping a dolphin will come cavorting by.
A toast to risk taking
After that workout all my aching arms were fit for was raising a glass of wine, so it’s handy that Plett has been busy developing a wine route. There are 14 recently developed wine farms, and 10 are open for tastings. They specialise in Sauvignon Blanc and sparkling white wines because the zippy ocean breezes and occasional mists are too harsh for sun-loving red grape varieties.
Winemaker Anton Smal of Bramon Wines pioneered the new wine route, and says many eyebrows were raised in disbelief when the first vines were planted. No vines were introduced without a thorough analysis of the soil and prevailing weather conditions to give the
grapes a fighting chance, he says.
A great place to stay near Plett is the Kurland Hotel, an elegant old manor 20km out of town. It’s filled with intriguing nooks and crannies, with a well-stocked library, an on-site spa, a tennis court, and a playroom and jungle gym for kids. And if you didn’t see enough
animals on the safari part of your Eastern Cape experience, look out for the Kurland’s polo horses and Shetland Ponies!
For more details about Kwandwe Game Reserve, go to kwandwe.com