Expert Reviews – Kwandwe GR

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

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.

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

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!

The Eastern Cape’s last wilderness
Overall rating

Kwandwe possesses a thrilling sense of space. Its luxurious quintet of lodges and villas has a total of around 25 rooms, and when we visited it was less than half full, meaning that a mere three wildlife-viewing vehicles had the reign of the 220km2/85mi2 reserve. Kwandwe was converted from farmland in the 1990s, but its location on the Karoo-like plains flanking a 30km/18mi stretch of the Great Fish River gives it a more remote feel than most of its counterparts in the Eastern Cape. In addition, I felt the vegetation – a mix of Albany thicket dominated by the shrubby spekboom and a sparser cover of grass and succulents typical of the Nama Karoo – was in unusually pristine condition. Wildlife viewing is excellent. Based on our one-night stay, you’d ideally want three nights to stand a good chance of seeing all the reserve’s most charismatic species, including lion, elephant, buffalo, black rhino, white rhino, cheetah, giraffe and plains zebra. Dry-country antelope such as eland, greater kudu, red hartebeest, black wildebeest, gemsbok, springbok and steenbok are conspicuous, as are large grassland birds such as ostrich, blue crane and Kori bustard. Two unexpected highlights were a porcupine grazing in full daylight in the open grassland opposite the lodge, and a flock of dashing white-fronted bee-eaters (reputedly this lovely species is a recent arrival that now nests on the river’s muddy banks).

Black rhinos in Kwandwe Game Reserve
Overall rating

Kwandwe is undoubtedly one of the top private reserves in the Eastern Cape. As is the case with Shamwari and other reserves in the province, it consists of rehabilitated farmland, which has been restocked with animals that once roamed free in the area. At 22,000ha/54,363ac, the reserve is bigger than most of its competition and I did appreciate the uninterrupted views across indigenous bush and almost pristine wilderness. Shamwari is a Big Five reserve, but the approach to wildlife viewing seems to be quite holistic with as much emphasis on lesser-known animals as the big flagship species. A real treat is the rhino viewing. There are plenty of white rhino and black rhino are unusually easy to see as well (our vehicle even got charged by one). Black wildebeest is another special of the area which I was excited to see as well as several antelope species such as springbok, red hartebeest and gemsbok. Birding is excellent as well; look out for South Africa’s national bird, the endangered blue crane. Winter is a good time to see some of the nocturnal species such as aardvark and aardwolf as they tend to leave their burrows earlier in the evening. I even saw a porcupine in broad daylight. There are only two lodges and three private villas on Kwandwe (26 beds in total), which makes the experience very exclusive – I did several game drives without seeing another vehicle. It goes without saying that the lodges, the food and general service are outstanding.

Best Safari Experience in the Eastern Cape
Overall rating

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.

Average Expert Rating

  • 3.8/5
  • Wildlife
  • Scenery
  • Bush Vibe
  • Birding

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