Lions and eco luxury on South Africa’s Eastern Cape

Pristine wilderness and eco-friendly lodges have made the Kwandwe Reserve a key stop on South Africa's Garden Route. Ruth Styles went to visit

At first glance it looks like an innocuous grey rock surrounded by a cloud of shimmering green leaves. Then it moves. ‘There it goes,’ says Mike, the ranger charged with showing me around the Kwandwe Reserve. ‘Check it out.’ I peer through my binoculars and it comes into focus. I’m looking straight at one of Africa’s most endangered mammals: the beautiful black rhino.

Here on the Eastern Cape, black rhinos were nothing but a distant memory until a man called Angus Gillis came along just over a decade ago, bought a former goat farm and set about transforming it back into an animal’s paradise. The southern half of South Africa was the first to feel the effects of colonisation, with the Dutch, followed swiftly by the British, launching expeditions from Port Elizabeth and Cape Town in search of virgin farmland and game to hunt. As a result, the Eastern Cape’s wild residents were driven north with many finding refuge in what is now the Kruger National Park. The land left behind, meanwhile, was turned into a larder for goats. Until, that is, Gillis turned up.

‘All in all we have introduced around 7,000 animals,’ explains Kwande manager, Graeme Mann. ‘Cheetahs were extinct in the Great Fish River Valley for over a hundred years before we brought them back and that’s a massive achievement. Bringing back rhinos and having a thriving population [of them] is another big achievement for us.’ What’s particularly interesting is that Kwandwe has brought back more than just the big tourist-friendly beasts: they’ve also reintroduced the smaller ones, including goat-ravaged plants. ‘We put a big emphasis on trying to put back what was once here in the past,’ adds Graeme, ‘down to even the small stuff.’

The success of the reintroduction programme is what has made it possible for Kwandwe to begin eco-tourism operations, which as Graeme points out, is one of the few ways a reserve like this can sustain itself. Kwandwe has two lodges, one with six rooms and one with nine, plus two sole-use villas. All in all, the reserves can accommodate 44 guests at any one time, which on a 20,000-hectare property means peace, quiet and uninterrupted animal viewing opportunities are in ample supply. It’s a delicate balancing act though. After all, a stay at Kwandwe isn’t exactly cheap and as a result, expectations are high. The key for the reserve is to provide a luxury experience that doesn’t negatively affect conservation efforts so a few innovative tweaks have been needed.

As we talk, Graeme and I are sitting in the cosy lounge bar at Great Fish River Lodge, where a cheerful fire is crackling away merrily in a huge double-sided hearth. ‘Like sitting in the lounge and watching the fire burn over there,’ he says, nodding towards the fireplace. ‘You know, we need to have the fires but then the wood that is burning is alien vegetation that we buy from a guy locally who clears black wattle, which is a invasive alien in South Africa. So he makes money twofold: he clears alien vegetation for different landowners and we purchase wood from him.’

Wood fires aren’t the only method of caring for the environment that Kwandwe has employed – for instance, the perimeter electric fence is solar-powered – but it’s just one of the many ways in which the reserve works with the local community. And that is crucial, not only for providing a source of income for people living in an impoverished area, but for ensuring that conservation efforts can continue untroubled. The land on which Kwandwe sits has already been cleared of its wildlife once and keeping the new introductions in good shape is proving a labour of time, love and above all, money. Part of the conservation cash is coming in from the lodges themselves but more comes from the reserve’s TB-free buffalo breeding programme. Still more comes from tourists looking for a real conservation experience, which is where the reserve’s black rhino tagging programme comes in.

Currently home to around 50 of the critically endangered mammals, much of Graeme’s time and effort is spent on orchestrating anti-poaching operations, which cost upwards of one million rand (£76,000) every year. So far, the reserve has been lucky but with 347 rhinos already killed this year in South Africa alone, you get the sense that it’s only a matter of time before someone has a go. In the meantime, tagging operations help the reserve management keep tabs on the rhino population and their whereabouts, as well as providing an opportunity to microchip the horns. ‘We need pretty much every adult rhino on the reserve to have unique ear notches for visual identification plus microchips and that exercise costs us about 20,000 rand (£2,000) per animal,’ says Graeme. ‘Vets, choppers and chips; all these things cost money. The microchips you put into the horns grow out, because the horns grow continuously, so you have to go back every three to four years to put more chips in. We don’t like to give out our own numbers [of rhinos] for security reasons but it’s a huge cost. Getting guests involved makes life for us much easier: a great experience for the guest helps subsidise the operation.’

Among staff on the reserve, attitudes towards poachers are hardening with everyone from the trackers to the lodge staff intimately concerned with the future of their wild charges. And it’s not hard to see why. Out and about on the reserve with Mike and his tracking partner, Bongari, we came across lions, black and white rhino, cheetah and hippos all thriving and largely untroubled by the human world beyond the reserve’s boundaries. Most of the time, Mike, who sees these animals every day, is even more excited to see them then I am and almost bounces out of his chair with glee when we come across a pair of cheetahs. And Kwandwe really is beautiful. From the hilltop where we stopped for a ‘Bongari special’ (a mocha coffee enlivened with a generous dose of Amarula liqueur) on the first morning, you see zones of yellow and green rolling hills stretching out in every direction, interrupted only by the odd navy blue river canyon. The sheer variety of flora and fauna is huge and although the reserve is free from the traffic, people and electrical sounds most of us hear everyday, the air crackles with birdsong at dawn. It’s really no surprise that many of those who visit – the Earl and Countess of Wessex among them – keep coming back.

But tourists aside, the real winners here are the animals themselves. It’s rare to find former farmland that’s been so thoroughly rehabilitated and the low-impact, high luxury eco-tourism model that has replaced it is paying dividends for local people and wildlife alike. ‘We like to think, especially on the guest side, that it is not just about [them] coming here to get pictures, but about instilling a bit of Africa in them, trying to touch their spirit,’ says Graeme. ‘And I think it is an easy thing to do in a place like this. But making people aware of the challenges that face conservation in Africa goes without saying – we do it every day.’

For more information about Kwandwe, see

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