Expert Reviews – Kwandwe GR

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Best Safari Experience in the Eastern Cape
Overall rating
4/5

Eastern Cape game reserves have long been considered ‘soft safari options’ by many, but in recent times the Eastern Cape has finally evolved into a genuine safari destination, boasting top quality, malaria-free, wildlife-viewing without the crowds. And Kwandwe, a member of Relais & Châteaux, is undoubtedly the pick of the Eastern Cape safari experiences. Of the four camps on this private reserve, Great Fish River Lodge – Kwandwe’s flagship safari lodge – is surely the pick of the bunch. The Kwandwe guides are steadfastly dedicated to the task of tracking down the Big Five, but, for me, it is the high quality rhino viewing that inevitably steals the show at Kwandwe. With five-star accommodations, elaborate menus, impeccable service and top quality wildlife-viewing in scenic surrounds, there is no disputing that Kwandwe has plenty to offer first-timer safari goers and old-hands alike.

Black rhinos in Kwandwe Game Reserve
Overall rating
3/5

The quality of the lodge, food and guiding is impeccable, just as I expected from ‘& Beyond’ when I first organized my stay here. The reserve is very new. Formerly degraded farmland has been restored and restocked to make another excellent Big 5 destination. Kwandwe competes in the Cape area with Shamwari only. The Cape attracts loads of tourism and these parks can conveniently be visited as part of the famous Garden route.

Because the park is very new, wildlife isn’t as habituated yet and tends to be slightly skittish. I also found that wildlife densities weren’t that big. The vegetation in this area is very sensitive and quite rightly, there are strict rules about off-road driving after rain or in sensitive areas. I fully agree with the policy, but it means that some of the viewing isn’t as good as in other private reserves. As a regular visitor to the parks in the Kruger area, I enjoyed the specials for this area more than the big 5. I saw blue cranes and black wildebeest. I also saw several black rhino, which is extremely rare in other parks. I had been trying to get a good shot for days and finally got rewarded on my last drive when a rhino charged the vehicle. Black rhinos are known for this, but it was the first time it happened to me.

Eastern Cape’s best Big Five safari location…with its share of special sightings
Overall rating
4/5

The three days I spent in this wonderfully exclusive park (where you rarely see another vehicle) raised my opinion of South Africa’s private parks. In this era when rhinos are critically endangered, it comes as an inestimable privilege to be able to actually see these magnificent creatures (both black and white) by the dozen. Even when you’re not in direct sight of these great lumbering beasts – or when your road isn’t blocked by boisterous black rhino males, kicking up dust and mock charging – you’re constantly aware that every trail seems to be a rhino highway. Their presence, along with huge elephants, adds excitement – a feeling of delightful tension – to Kwandwe’s walking safaris. Excellent guides and spotters (from formerly disadvantaged communities) add to the experience.

This 220km2/85mi2 Big Five reserve is also world-class cat country, yet populations are small enough that you get that feeling of ‘intimacy’ that comes from a growing understanding of the complex social interactions of the various predators. Highlights of my trip included some experiences that surpassed those in some of Africa’s most famous wilderness areas: a sighting of eight cheetahs in one huddled spot (a mother and five cubs, plus a roving male and his adult son); frequent sightings of a shrewdly hunting young lioness (and her two frustratingly clumsy brothers); a male leopard who we saw hunting (primarily, it seemed, for the neighboring female) for two days in a row. One evening our sundowners were interrupted when a big male leopard wandered curiously within 5m/16ft of our makeshift ‘bar’.

Kwandwe’s bush-cookery course – under the expert tutelage of executive-chef Xander Barnardt – boosted my braai (grill) skills spectacularly. The same can’t be said for my fishing prowess, however: our boating trip on Kwandwe dam was interrupted by rhino-sightings, hippos with newborn babies (the tiniest I’ve ever seen), and a family of clawless otters frolicking constantly around our boat. In the thick of all these sightings we never even made a cast.

Kwandwe Private Game Reserve is a world-class safari destination. Just don’t expect to do much fishing!

Big 5 in the Eastern Cape’s Frontier Country
Overall rating
3/5

Kwandwe is one of the newest and most exclusive private reserves in the Eastern Cape, home to all of the Big 5 and with just 4 small luxury lodges dotted across 22,000 hectares of picturesque hills and valleys on either side of the Great Fish River, it has one of the highest land to guest ratios of any park or reserve in South Africa. Watching a storm roll in whilst having a sundowner on top of one of the reserve’s highest peaks is a moment I’ll not soon forget.

Like Shamwari and other parks in the Eastern Cape, Kwandwe is a great conservation success, having rehabilitated former farmland and wildlife species that were long-since eradicated from the region. Today, more than many of the other Eastern Cape reserves, it really does resemble a veritable wilderness and has become particularly renowned for black rhino sightings.

Kwandwe is also a community success, with most of its staff employed from formerly-disadvantaged local communities.

The lodges are all immaculate, the rooms are enormous and the food is top notch, but sometimes the service and guiding still show a few rough edges. It’s not quite in Shamwari’s league, but it’s close.

Average Expert Rating

  • 3.5/5
  • Wildlife
  • Scenery
  • Bush Vibe
  • Birding

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