Saturday, October 22, 2011

South Africa’s iconic Shamwari Game Reserve – Conserving a Vanishing Way of Life, One Step at a Time

On a recent trip to South Africa’s Eastern Cape, I was invited to visit the world-famous Shamwari Game Reserve where I experienced the Big 5 for the first time.

In South Africa there are only two ways of travelling – local and luxury.

’Local’ takes you to places you never knew existed. The sights, sounds and smells that can only be discovered in the moment. The townships, where haphazard shelter is built out of corrugated iron, bricks and tyres. Places where small businesses announce themselves in spray painted letters, and where life happens on street corners to the tune of gospel, hip hop and Afro-Jazz.

’Local’ is in the colourful markets packed with goods and people, moving this way and that, in organised chaos. Where the Mamas of Africa carry their babies on their backs while they walk with sacks of maize, suitcases, firewood or other awkward objects, balanced delicately on their heads.

Then there are the gathering places for transit – trains, busses and taxis – where the crowd is a heaving swarm of mixed destination. Where you are absorbed without prejudice, bumped into, sat up against, touched. In the community of Africa, the concept of personal space is as foreign as you.

As the South Africans say, “Local is lekkar!” (roughly translated, “great”) and I have to agree, but for this trip, I was in the mood for something different.


Luxury travel in South Africa takes to you to the places of imagination – the places you’ve dreamed of, heard about, read about – but never knew for sure if you could ever get there. It’s the place of colonial travel tales, of dreamlike postcards, the pages of National Geographic and scenes from the Discovery Channel.

This is a world of catered sustenance, crisp linen and soft beds. A world of lifetime memories available for the taking, right then and there – of crazy experiences like shark diving, sky diving, abseiling and more. Of game drives and tented safari camps, where evening conversation is graced by the distant sounds of predators while excited dinner guests trade stories of wild life encounters, adventures and triumphs. ‘Luxury’ in South Africa is not merely a way of travel – it is a destination that is not marked on maps, not tracked on Google Earth nor charted on GPS.

It is the Magic of Africa – and I wanted to find it.

Here, the wealth of a ‘United Nations in Travel’ falls like soft rain on the sometimes harsh landscape of Africa’s most southerly nation, nourishing the ground so that it can sprout anew – with jobs for the local community, investment in the local economy, and the conservation of indigenous flora and fauna – including the Big 5, and especially the Rhino.

An endangered species, the rhino has already been rescued from the brink of extinction once before in South Africa, but now it is finding itself in dire straits once again, threatened by the chaos of fortune makers, mystics and desperate cure-seekers intent on getting one thing – the horn. Of the 20 000 rhinos living in South Africa, this year 324 have already been killed illegally for their horns.

There is a crisis in the bush, and we’re running out of time – fast.

It seems a desperate situation – but the power of conservation cannot be underestimated, nor the power of public outcry, and no organisation is better placed to help bring attention to the situation than the iconic Shamwari Game Reserve, named the “World’s Leading Conservation Company & Game Reserve” for the past five consecutive years.

Shamwari, meaning ‘friend’ in Shona, is a vast reserve of 25 000 hectares of land in South Africa’s malaria-free Eastern Cape, located along the Bushman’s River, mid-way between Port Elizabeth and Grahamstown. Once densely populated by prides of the now-extinct Cape Lion and vast herds of Cape Buffalo, Zebra, Black Wildebeest, Elephant, and Rhino, this was the site of mass hunting throughout the 19th and 20th centuries, until all that was left was a drought-ravaged, overgrazed piece of land overtaken by exotic plant species and overrun by goats, cattle, and sheep.

It was in this context that Adrian Gardner, Shamwari chairman and founder, had a vision to bring the land back to its natural state, and starting 20-years ago, he embarked upon a re-wilding project focused on eliminating alien plant species, removing abandoned wire fencing that disrupts the natural migration of animals, and building natural dams to control erosion – all to create an area where wildlife and vegetation could be successfully restored. It is thanks to his determination that visitors to Shamwari today have a rare and precious opportunity to experience an indigenous view on South Africa – the way it was meant to be.

The destination of choice for international celebrities and royalty, Shamwari is known for its accolades and awards, including Africa’s Leading Safari Lodge, and offers plush accommodation, world-class service and exceptional game viewing. Coupled with its relentless commitment to sustainability and conservation, Shamwari highlights the impact we can have on the world, for better or worse.

The truth is, Nature needs our help – and Shamwari is showing us how.

A once forlorn stretch of land is now the thriving home to five of South Africa’s seven bio-domes. The local community that once had little hope for employment is now at the heart of a healthy economy. Orphaned elephants, injured cheetahs, ill rhinos – animals that once would not have survived – can now be saved in the Shamwari Rehabilitation Centre. Big cats that were once abused and subjected to horrific conditions in captivity around the world – have now been rescued and returned to Africa where they can have a better quality life through the Born Free Foundation and Shamwari’s two Big Cat Sanctuaries. And the precious rhino – who is now under constant threat of poaching – now has a little more hope with the protection of Shamwari’s expert and highly specialised Anti-Poaching Unit.

Operating 24-hours a day, seven days a week, rhinos are tracked using micro-chip technology. The programme is the most sophisticated and respected anti-poaching outfit in South Africa, and costs millions of dollars to operate each year. While the system can do nothing to stem the demand for rhino horn, so far it seems to be working at protecting the stock of these vulnerable wonders.

And so it was, that with the utmost of respect and admiration, I undertook a journey to Shamwari Game Reserve, where I would – for the first time in all of my travels – experience the Big 5.

Arriving at the pink walls of the entrance, flanked by the flags of nations, I daydreamed about the adventures I was about to have. While exchanging pleasantries with the guard, a sign on the gate caught my eye and sent shivers down my spine with its stark warning, in three simple words:

“Danger – wild predators.”

Instantly my mind changed gears from Daydreams on Puffy Clouds to scenes from Jurassic Park, the gates eased open and before I knew it, we were in.

I surveyed the scene – it seemed innocent enough. We drove along the wide gravel road, lined by scrubby bushes and took in the view of the rolling hills as far as the eye could see. It wasn’t long before we caught sight of a parade of elephants, not far from the road. Drinking from a pool of water, they seemed to be enjoying a pause in their daily meander. Smaller ones frolicked while the larger ones stood by, their enormous size only a fraction of the presence we were feeling. Although they seemed not to pay us much notice, the energy inside the car had just hit the roof.

After a while we carried on in spellbound silence.

We would be staying at Bayethe, one of Shamwari’s seven lodges. Upon arrival we were greeted with refreshing fruit cocktails and steaming face cloths before settling in. A subdued place, Bayethe is a collection of luxury tented huts that run along a central walkway, each tucked into their own private bush. Except at the main lodge, when everyone would gather together at meal times, trade stories and meet the new arrivals, I got the feeling that this was my own private corner of Africa, and the singsong of birds emanating from somewhere deep inside the bush, was my own serenade.

Our ‘tent’ was more like a honeymoon suite with all the luxuries one could imagine – hardwood floors, a walk-in closet with his and hers appointments, a roaring fire, a plush bedroom graced by flower petals, fluffed pillows, a personalised welcome note and handcrafted nougat, a master bathroom, an outdoor “bush” shower and an indoor bathtub of immense proportion. Outside we had our own private deck and a romantic pool. Faced with the prospect of a long bubble bath followed by wine and fireside lounging, I began to toy with the idea of tucking in for the night.

Alas, I snapped out of it reminding myself I was on a mission. It was safari time.

Back at the lodge my fellow adventure-seekers were already gathering around the Land Rover like hungry vultures. We politely introduced ourselves to our game driver, Ben, and then found ourselves silently vying for the best seats. Sizing one another up, we edged into position – in as civilised fashion as we could muster, of course, yet with all the seriousness as our wild counterparts at the nearby watering hole. We needn’t have worried– they were all great seats. One by one, we took our places amongst a confusion of blankets, hot water bottles, puffy jackets and fuzzy hats. It was afternoon and the temperature would fall, along with the sun, before our return. The diesel engine humming beneath us, we traded happy glances, revving with excitement until it was finally time to set off.

We swung uphill along the wide gravel road, the dust rising behind us like rust-coloured mist. Almost immediately we spotted a group of eight giraffe, their small faces balanced on long necks, set on smaller bodies balanced on stilt-like legs. Looking simultaneously graceful and awkward, we stopped and whispered as they chewed their cud.

Thick bush pressed up against the road’s edge, parting at times to reveal small clearings and open plains. We craned our necks and squinted at the distance, impatiently hoping for another sighting while we bounced along the road, eventually stopping at the top of a ridge where we could see a herd of buffalo dotting the landscape. Looking through the binoculars the hairs on my neck started to stand on end when I got a glimpse of golden lumps, huddled in the long grass under a tree. A pride of lions, getting a last rest before hunting time. We sat in the quiet stillness, whispering and murmuring to one another. When we had all got our fill, our game ranger turned off onto a smaller passageway that would take us deeper into the wildness.

The narrow path we followed twisted and turned, and the thorns of the trees we moved through seem to reach out and tear at the canvas above our heads. Rushing through pot holes, dips and bumps, the lane sometimes vanished beneath us until we found it again in abrupt landings that threatened the wellbeing of elbows, knees, and bottoms.

Before long we came to a clearing and stopped. There they were – elephants – and they were walking in our direction. I hugged my hot water bottle closer, hoping for some sort of comfort. One elephant alone was larger than the Land Rover and all seven of its occupants alone. They snorted and probed us with their eyes, all the while pulling noisily at the bush with their elegant trunks, making loud ripping sounds with each twist. Not phased, they carried on watching us, lifting clumps of grass and dirt to their wet mouths, before grasping and ripping out more.

We waited in absolute silence – no one dared move an inch. They were so close now I could see the tiny hairs protruding from their leathery skin, which hung from their haunches like an oversized shirt that had lost its shape. Seconds stretched into ages as we held our collective breath, our eyes fastened on their eyes, while a baby elephant scuttled between the matriarch’s trunk-like legs and raspy tail, unaware that we were locked in a moment that would be ingrained in our memories forever.

Although our hearts were warm, the air now carried a chill and the sun rays began to pierce glory through the clouds. We carried on, snaking along the river until we came upon a brown hyena, the rarest kind. He looked ragtag with bristling long hair on his body but short, spotty hair on his legs – and like a celebrity who knows they’re about to appear on the ‘Worst Dressed’ list he quickly escaped the gaze of our cameras, disappearing into behind the next ridge.

In the quiet of the bush Ben’s walkie-talkie suddenly came alive. It was another game driver who had spotted a leopard, the most elusive of all the members of the Big 5. Disappointment about the brown hyena’s early departure was but a distant memory as we set off in the direction where the leopard had been seen.

As we neared we could see the Land Rover of the other game driver pulled off to the side. We slowed and approached quietly, and although we were in a flush of excitement, we spoke to one another in hushed tones. The ranger motioned to a place in the thick bush and I peered through my binoculars to see a gruesome scene – the fresh carcass of a Kudu lay balanced among the branches of the tree. Still supple, shredded muscle swayed in the breeze. Sure enough, the leopard was nearby, guarding his kill. He seemed aware of us but stayed aloof, not paying us any mind, just like a house cat that’s not in the mood. He graced us with only a view of his rump, keeping the rest of his powerful body tucked just out of sight.

It was just as well – we had seen a leopard in the most extraordinary of circumstances – we had seen more than enough.

After some time we moved off again, this time in the direction of Bayethe. Ready to get home for the night, we would shortly collide with one more encounter.

It was just before sunset. The last dusting of light fell upon the landscape, illuminating it in rich, golden hues. Daytime seemed to take one last breath as Night’s long, shadowing fingers held her in their embrace. A place in the distance seemed to glow, drawing my eye towards it and suddenly I saw them, standing quietly, gently, munching on succulents.

A family of rhinos.

I studied them closely, choosing to focus on one in particular in the waning light. Most of his face was covered in the dark shadow his great horn – just one aspect of his power but now the form of his greatest vulnerability.

He looked at me – curiously – his small, soft eye taking me in. Was I a threat? Did he need to worry?

He carried on grazing – the most powerful vegetarian on the planet – watching me from behind his mass of armour. He seemed to relax. I was an innocent tourist, and he was safe – for now.

As we turned to leave I knew I had found what I had come here looking for – the Magic of Africa, alive and well.

No comments:

Post a Comment