August 1

A Waltz with Mother Nature at Kwandwe Private Game Reserve

August 1, 2023

We can try to control Mother Nature, but she’ll always have her way. As the elephant towers above me in the road ahead of us, every fold in his skin visible, his eyes unblinking and staring into my soul, a lump forms in my throat. We’ve just arrived at Kwandwe Private Game Reserve in South Africa’s Eastern Cape Province, and our guide for the duration of our stay, Tiaan, is taking us to Great Fish River Lodge to check in. However, Mother Nature had other plans. This time, in the form of this magnificent pachyderm blocking our way…

Close up encounter with elephant at Kwandwe Private Game Reserve

Our gentle giant friend greeting us on our way to Great Fish River Lodge at Kwandwe Private Game Reserve

Wild Welcoming Committee

Of course, we don't mind at all, and we slip out our cameras slowly, too scared to spook our welcoming party. I notice that I'm holding my breath, my heart hammering away in my chest, a deafening sound in such a silent setting.

"He's in musth, which means his testosterone levels can be up to three times more than usual, so he's just trying to show off a bit," whispers Tiaan, turning to face us. But I notice he's still keeping our friend in his peripheral vision. "Can you smell him?"

I inhale deeply, also not taking my eyes off him, trying to pick up on his scent among the sweet, almost herb-like aroma of the bush I love so much. I've always wished I could bottle this scent and take it home with me, but something tells me that it just won't be the same.

That it needs to be paired with these wide-open skies and the critters populating the untouched landscapes. It's like when you travel and enjoy a certain wine, then bring it home to crack it open, but it does not taste the same. On safari, it's all about the little moments that come together.

Thorn tree at Kwandwe Private Game Reserve

A safari is all about the little details

Waiting Game

The elephant looks like he has all the time in the world. Which, of course, he does. But eventually, after staring until I feel like my eyes are dried out, our elephant friend seems to get bored of the area and wants to move on. 

There's something almost reassuring about how he waddles on, swinging his trunk as he goes. It makes me think how even the biggest hurdles in our lives dissipate eventually. Although not every "hurdle" is quite as spectacular as this one, and it certainly started our safari at Kwandwe Private Game Reserve on a high note. 

Wide-eyed, we all turn to each other, silent gasps and head shakes summarising the close-up sighting as best we could. Because you certainly can't put these safari experiences into words. Even though that's exactly what I'll be trying to do here… 

Staff greets guests at entrance of Great Fish River Lodge in Kwandwe Private Game Reserve

Arriving at Kwandwe Private Game Reserve feels like a warm hug

Sawubona, Kwandwe

Radiant smiles from our real welcoming committee greet us as we reach the entrance of Great Fish River Lodge. It's almost like the staff has appeared out of thin air, ready to welcome us to their slice of safari paradise. And paradise it is, as I can immediately tell that Kwandwe is even more special than I pictured it in my imagination.

Following a curved staircase down to the big wooden doors, a modern twist on a safari lodge welcomes you. The open-plan room is designed to draw your eyes to the view, which, as the name suggests, is the Great Fish River. A huge double-sided fireplace's dancing flames flirt with me in the corner of my eye, and I quickly move over to soak up some of the heat radiating off it, a welcome sensation after the fresh air on the open game drive vehicle that brought us here.

Luxury safari at Kwandwe Private Game Reserve

Admiring the view from our suite's balcony at Kwandwe's Great Fish River Lodge 

Everything about the lodge invites you to linger a little longer, to run your hand along the fabrics and decorations mindfully placed to take you on a journey of the senses. I sink into a huge armchair and sigh as I stare out at the wildlife on the other side of the Great Fish River, already feeling that safari feeling settling in.

Any remaining stress from home starts to melt away and a growing anticipation of what could be awaiting us awakens, like butterflies spreading their wings in the pit of my stomach...

Rise and Shine, Sunshine

I'm wrapped in as many layers as possible, ready to step into the still-dark morning. My bones feel it first, the chill waking me up better than any coffee ever could. The night is still not ready to give way to day, its nocturnal regulars calling out like an acapella choir, each unique but somehow blending beautifully into one song. 

We're heading out on our first morning safari, and I'm jittery with excitement. It's almost like that sensation of having had a glass of bubbly on an empty stomach –  you feel deliciously delirious yet wide awake. 

After Tiaan fetches us from our rooms, he introduces us to our tracker, Jason. He has a blinding smile and a superpower in spotting wildlife designed to be camouflaged in the bush, which will be very handy on our drive today.

Snuggled under our blankets and hot water bottles, we head into the belly of the bush, the vehicle's headlights giving us little glimpses and Jason's light further illuminating details usually enveloped by the night's cloak of darkness.

Guide Tiaan at Kwandwe Private Game Reserve

Our guide Tiaan really made the experience that much more memorable

Spekboom Forests

So, it's true. The air is fresher out here. After asking Tiaan and Jason about the bafflingly thick forests of spekboom that seem to flourish throughout the reserve, they confirm that the spekboom is one of the top five carbon-storing vegetations on Earth, significantly helping to offset their carbon footprint and purifying the air we breathe. They also get up to 200 years old and contain so much water that some wildlife don't consume any water other than what they suck from these fleshy, plumped-up leaves. 

Suddenly, Jason lifts his arm almost ceremoniously, pointing to his left, and we see a giraffe poking out above a tree. He's shredding the tree with his thick, rubbery tongue, seemingly oblivious to the sharp twigs and thorns around his food. As he moves on, I'm taken again by how he looks like he's running in slow motion instead of walking, a fascinating juxtaposition of awkward yet graceful.  

Sunrise at Kwandwe Private Game Reserve

The sun slowly but surely making its debut

Sunrise Surprises

The sun is starting to drip through the dark clouds, casting an orange glow over our excited faces. As the day leaks through the remaining night, it soon takes over, and our eyes hungrily drink in the vast open plains, looking for anything that could be anything. 

Our heads turn left, right, up, and down, scanning the sky and plains. A kori bustard, Africa's largest flying bird, lifts its head and stares as we drive past, and more wildlife bid us good morning. 

But then Tiaan's guide radio crackles and makes an announcement I've personally been keeping my ears peeled for…

Then There Were Two 

"Two male lions spotted…" I don't hear the rest. I'm sitting right up now, eyes wide and ready to see big cats in real life! We make our way to where Tiaan's colleague spotted them, and sure enough… There they are. Two male lions that look like they walked off the set of a shampoo commercial. 

Two male lions at Kwandwe Private Game Reserve

The two brothers seemed entirely unbothered by our presence

"They're called the Bosch Gift lions because that's the area where they were born," whispers Tiaan, as we all gawk at the two brothers lounging in the morning sun rays in a dry riverbank mere metres from our vehicle. "They're Kwandwe's most prominent alpha males."

And they sure look like that too. Yawning and showing off their impressive teeth before getting to their feet and swaggering, tail swishing, to higher grounds. We follow, of course, and I watch in awe as they both flop back down onto the ground. I feel like I'm seeing double, the two brothers mirroring each other's movements. And I haven't even had my Amarula coffee yet.

From a distance, a tower of giraffes is on high alert, frozen in place and keeping a watchful eye on the brothers as if to say: "Don't you guys dare try anything."

Tower of giraffes spotted at Kwandwe Private Game Reserve

Frozen in place, the giraffes almost look like statues

Morning Medleys

High on the thrill of our up-close wildlife sightings, we almost reluctantly leave the brothers for our sunrise coffee in the bush, a highlight on safari. Tiaan plunges coffee before spiking it with a generous splash of Amarula, a South African cream liqueur.

Although you might question having alcohol so early in the morning, all I can say is, don't knock it until you've tried it because it's an absolute safari classic. Each sip feels like someone you love wrapping their arms around you, especially in this morning's icy weather. 

Jason sets up a camping grill, and within minutes the smell of melting butter and dough mixes with the bush aromas. We're having crumpets in the bush for breakfast, and I don't think anything has ever tasted this good. We smother them in Nutella, adding berries, mint leaves and jam for extra deliciousness. It's just the sweetest way to start the day. 

Crumpets in the bush on safari at Kwandwe Private Game Reserve

Crumpets in the bush tastes twice as nice

From Ostrich Farm to Conservation Success Story

As we head back, Tiaan tells us more about the history of Kwandwe, which means "Place of the Blue Crane" in one of South Africa's 11 official languages, isiXhosa. 

Kwandwe used to be a commercial ostrich farm owned by farmer Arthur Douglass who invented the world's first ostrich egg incubator. Today, however, it's not only a prime family-friendly and babymoon destination because it's malaria-free but it's also a haven for endangered species. For example, the black rhino, cheetah, blue crane, and other small, rare species like the African wildcat, small spotted cat, and serval. 

Rainbow over Kwandwe Private Game Reserve

Kwandwe Private Game Reserve is a conservation success story

They've also focused on creating a refuge for sensitive subtropical thicket vegetation, reclaiming farmland and placing it under conservation. 

The entire Kwandwe experience is built around a high yield/low impact conservation model, with one of the highest land-to-guest ratios. As I sit in the open-air game drive vehicle, listening to Tiaan speak, I'm acutely aware of how privileged I am to sit here and experience it all first-hand. 

Tracker Jason at Kwandwe Private Game Reserve

Our tracker Jason has superpowers when it comes to spotting wildlife from a distance

From Land to Water

Tiaan pulls over next to a dam, and I see a hippo head with a little mini baby one bopping in the water. I grab the binoculars to get a closer look and giggle. They look so comfortable, almost like they're in a spa.

Next thing, there's a splash and an otter slices through the water like a pro-Olympic swimmer. "They've got their own raincoat, an oily layer that helps them swim like that," Tiaan explains. We sit, waiting for it to pop up again, but it's a little sneaky one as we don't see it again. Tiaan confirms they can stay underwater for around three minutes, so we instead move along to see what other animals are going to come greet us…

Kwandwe's Delicate Dance with Mother Nature

As we drive, I suddenly see a clearing where wooden logs and branches are strewn between thorn trees. Tiaan explains that the thorn trees are an encroachment species and will take over everything. Therefore, they place these logs to curb its growth, so it's like a delicate dance with nature to work with and protect it.

Something that suddenly stands out to me is how pruned the pathways are where we drive. I've been on safaris before where you have to duck left and right, up and down, to avoid the branches hitting you. However, this was smooth sailing. 

"Yeah, we trim the bushes on our main paths," Tiaan confirms. However, just as he says it, we come across a sweet thorn bush in our path. I chuckle softly at the timing of this and how it again reminds me how nature will always win. And we can't control her even if we try. 

On a game drive at Kwandwe Private Game Reserve

You spend a lot of time with your own thoughts when on a game drive

Keeping You Guessing 

A flash of colour grabs my attention, and I see the metallic blue-green sheen of a Cape starling's plumage shimmering in the sun. In the distance, a buffalo is getting its morning cardio in, running up a steep hill.

We pass an escarpment with mustard yellow splashes and see dassies scurrying across, balancing on the edge. Living on the edge, I think to myself. Although that's really what all wildlife do daily, living on the edge of life and death, winning and losing, being predator or prey. 

"Did you know that a dassie is closely related to an elephant if you look at their DNA?" Tiaan asks us, and I shake my head in disbelief. That's Mother Nature for you. You try to rationalise her, and she'll just serve you another surprise to keep you guessing.

Fikile welcomes us to the lodge at Kwande Great Fish River Lodge

Fikile's smile lights up any room

Lodge Lounging

Kwandwe feels like coming home. I don't know how else to put it. Pulling up to the entrance of the lodge, the same friendly faces already waiting with steaming towels, you just feel that glow of returning to somewhere and someone you love.

We walk in, shaking off the cold like a dog trying to get rid of water droplets on its coat. Again, the fireplace is a welcome greeting, and we pull up chairs right next to it, recounting our sightings from this morning, cheeks flushed and eyes bright.

Warming up at the Kwandwe Great Fish River Lodge

Warming up on the balcony at Great Fish River Lodge

Lunch arrives, and I'm delighted by the flavourful and beautifully presented vegetarian options. Nothing on this menu is an afterthought, every meal is prepared purposefully, and this is very clear from the first bite. 

Still buzzing from our morning in the bush, we take the wooden walkway to our suites to freshen up and enjoy some downtime before we get to do it all over again. Of course, even if we take the exact same route out into the bush, no two game drives are ever alike. And I can't wait to see what this evening will have in store for us.

Reversing Roles 

The afternoon brims with promise as our game drive vehicle's wheels start turning, and we head back into the bush. On the horizon, the sun is streaming down like ladders from the heavens, which is exactly what my mom always told me it was as a kid.

Sunlight steaming down at Kwandwe Private Game Reserve

"Angel Ladders" as sunshine streams down at Kwandwe Private Game Reserve

Jason points out a couple of eland antelope not too far away from us. "It's the biggest antelope of them all," says Tiaan, killing the engine so we can watch it in silence and turning to face us. "Can you see how that one is darker than the others? That indicates its age, as eland bulls get darker as they age." 

I chuckle again, thinking of how this is opposite to us human beings whose hair lightens to grey as we age. It continues to fascinate me how nature likes to reverse roles.

Old buffalo bull at Kwandwe Private Game Reserve

A buffalo will always beat you in a staring contest

Chasing Sunsets (and Cheetahs)

We turn a corner, and suddenly, as if summoned on the rangers' radios to wait there for us, we see cheetahs perched on the side of the dirt road. 

Ready, set, action! I joke with Tiaan that they've been training the wildlife to get them ready for us on this day. We marvel at how these spotted felines swagger, sleek and looking as harmless as a house cat. Yet we all know they're expert hunters and, of course, the fastest land mammal on earth. 

Two cheetahs on a game drive at Kwandwe Private Game Reserve

Cheetahs ready to pose for our photos

But then little things happen that again reinforce how fiercely independent Mother Nature is. Suddenly, as if she flicked a switch, the heavens open, and rain pours down on us. But then, moments later, the sunshine washes the landscape again. A constant over and underexposed waltz, and we go from light to dark, dry to wet. 

Tiaan pulls over the vehicle for sundowners, another safari highlight. As if it's magic, bottles of different drinks from wine to Amarula, whiskey, gin, and more appear, along with some scrumptious South African snacks like biltong, a dried beef similar to American jerky. 

We stand, shoulder to shoulder, drinking in the view as we sip our sundowner drinks. There's always this moment of silence, when everyone sighs happily, that I just love. I relish it, my eyes sweeping across the landscapes and trying to bottle the moment so I can take it home with me.

Sundowners on safari at Kwandwe Private Game Reserve

Clinking G&Ts as the sun goes down at Kwandwe Private Game Reserve

Night Drive Back

As we slowly make our way back, the dark now having engulfed the day entirely, the only light is coming from the safari vehicle's headlights and Jason's tracking spotlight. He swishes it left then right, up then down, to spot any nocturnal animals that are out and about.

Two yellow eyes stare, unblinking from a tree. "A spotted eagle owl," Jason immediately identifies it before he points out a scrub hare dashing sporadically across the dirt road in front of us.  

Suddenly, Tiaan stops the car and turns off the headlights. Jason is now illuminating a small shape in the road ahead with a dimmer light. 

Night drive at Kwandwe Private Game Reserve

Trying to spot nocturnal animals that are starting their day, Image Credit: Tania de Kock

"Look, it's a nightjar bird," whispers Tiaan. "They have whiskers, and when they land,  they stand on one leg," he says. 

Intrigued, I lean forward. "Why's that, Tiaan?"

"Well, Tania, that's just what they do," he says simply, a smile tugging at the corners of his mouth. 

I sink back into my seat, a little laugh escaping my lips. While I'm sure scientists have attributed this behaviour to many different things, the way Tiaan put it suits me just fine. 

Of course, you did it again, Mother Nature. I get it, you have your way, and as much as I try to understand it, sometimes it's just not in my framework to be able to do so. 

The Great Fish River Lodge at Kwandwe Private Game Reserve

The Great Fish River Lodge where we stayed, Image Credit: Kwandwe Private Game Reserve

How to Get to Kwandwe Private Game Reserve

One of the reasons Kwandwe is such a great option for a safari is that it's super easy to get to. A short 45-minute to one-hour flight from Cape Town International Airport to Gqeberha (formerly Port Elizabeth) Airport. From there, it just takes around two and a half hours to drive to Kwandwe's entrance. 

We highly recommend you make a pit stop at Nanaga Farm Stall on the way to try their freshly baked "roosterkoek" bread, pineapple juice, other delicious treats and gift shopping.

Alternatively, we can plan a fly-in safari for you, as Kwandwe has a private airstrip on the reserve. 

Sunshine greeting guests at Kwandwe Private Game Reserve

Sunshine waving at us at reception

Come See Kwandwe for Yourself  

Our team of Travel Experts explore each and every one of our destinations, accommodations, and experiences themselves first to ensure it's of the highest quality for you. Therefore, we know all the ins and outs of travelling through Africa and can recommend the best for you and those you're travelling with.

Whether it's your special setting to pop the question, honeymoon, babymoon, anniversary, family or friends getaway, or even a solo expedition, we're here to make it one to remember for all the right reasons. 

Reach out today, and let's start planning your trip to Kwandwe Private Game Reserve! 

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About the author 

Tania de Kock

Tania has always been an avid reader, which ultimately led to her life-long dream of becoming a best-selling author. She loves travelling, super spicy food, South African wine, and cats! When she's not reading with a glass of wine, you can find her at the nearest beach or camping, running or hiking in the mountains.

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