THERE are some formidable road hazards in Africa: potholes as deep as wells, thorns as sharp as needles and that continent-wide suspension-smasher ‘ the road itself.
Yet it’s none of these things blocking my LandCruiser at the entrance to Kariega Game Reserve in South Africa’s Eastern Cape Province, but a steaming knee-high pile of elephant dung. In the middle of the road. Clearly I am not in Kansas any more.
It’s an apt welcoming “gift” to Kariega, a game reserve so packed with critters I take a peek under my blanket before getting into bed to ensure I’m not bunking down with a black mamba.
Occupying 9000ha of coastal hinterland overlooking the Indian Ocean 140km northeast of Port Elizabeth, Kariega boasts a veritable Noah’s Ark of biodiversity.
There are 280 types of birds, several snake species and 25 game species, including the “big five” lion, leopard, elephant, buffalo and rhino (black and white) plus hippo, hyena, giraffe, zebra, wildebeest, warthog and various antelope in the reserve.
In fact, “kariega” means steenbok a kind of tiny antelope in the local Xhosa language.
This high concentration of animals, coupled with the reserve’s easy access from a major airport (Port Elizabeth) and its malaria-free status, makes Kariega a great option for those wishing to maximise their likelihood of seeing game in a short time, or for parents travelling with concentration-impaired youngsters.
Over two days and four game drives, my party of five is spoilt: we see four lions (like domesticated cats, they spend much of their day sleeping, and these ones take little notice of our car as they laze in the grass), several giraffes munching on branches, a family of elephants (while the adults are too busy eating to pay us much attention, one youngster charges us), several kudu, bushbuck and impala.
We even see one of the park’s three endangered black rhinoceroses: what was an uninteresting dark boulder on a hillside suddenly prompts a flurry of excitement when we learn it is one of the rarest creatures on Earth.
Thomas Sibanda, our driver and guide, is not only an expert dung-dodger but a wealth of environmental information.
He explains that the giant terracotta-coloured termite mounds strewn throughout the park contain airconditioning systems “as complex as the one you have in your home”; that weaver birds only build their bell-shaped nests on the eastern side of trees (a handy tip if you ever find yourself lost in the bushveld); and that the huge stands of ubiquitous cacti, though introduced from Latin America and considered a noxious weed in South Africa, are now among the African elephant’s favourite foods.
After each drive we retire to Kariega Homestead, one of four lodges in the reserve and its most atmospheric. Kariega used to be a chicory, cattle and pineapple farm and the colonial-era homestead evokes some of this past, with its green corrugated-iron roof and rambling established garden.
There are five bedrooms furnished with knick-knacks from the frontier era: antique woven mats line the floors; gold pan-like Zulu hats are mounted on walls; and after a day spotting game, guests can collapse into comfy wicker armchairs and basic but tasteful queen beds.
This appreciation for Kariega’s colonial history is also celebrated in the kitchen, where Kariega Homestead manager Adriana Pienaar serves up hearty meals once enjoyed by Boer farmers but now considered a little daggy in the new South Africa.
Highlights include biltong soup (I have my doubts about a liquid made from dried meat but it is creamy and delicious), spicy boerwors sausages cooked on the braai (barbecue), and a piquant salad made from spekboom (a small-leafed succulent), chickpeas, cranberries and blue cheese.
“I love to cook for guests,” Pienaar says, “and this way I can keep the old style of cooking alive while educating foreigners about our culture.”
Though Pienaar is descended from Afrikaans-speaking settlers who began farming the Eastern Cape in the 18th century, this part of South Africa is more known for the so-called “1820 settlers”, a group of 4500 English men, women and children lured by the British Crown to settle that year in a bid to assert control over a region contested by competing Boer and Xhosa communities.
Amazingly, nine wars were fought between European settlers and the Xhosa between 1779 and 1879 and it is said this part of South Africa once had the highest concentration of British military installations in the world.
“Yet it’s a history that many South Africans don’t know about,” says Alan Weyer, Kariega’s general manager and a passionate amateur historian.
“In 1812, 3000 (British) Redcoats held off 30,000 Xhosa at Grahamstown just down the road from here, but unlike battles like Rorke’s Drift (against the Zulu), we don’t tend to hear about them because Michael Caine isn’t fighting the Xhosa! (A reference to the 1964 film Zulu.)”
Kariega, Weyer explains, was once located in the middle of this hotly contested frontier, so undoubtedly would have seen some action during the Xhosa Wars, as the nine conflicts are called.
Ultimately, though, natural surroundings are Kariega’s greatest attraction. The park’s rich diversity of fauna is matched by a surprisingly varied landscape.
This is not your stereotypical savannah of big skies and flat bushveld where the only trees are acacias with leopards sleeping in them.
Instead, Kariega is undulating country, with valleys of subtropical greenery and white butterflies, hillsides covered with cacti, aloe and jacarandas, and bare hilltops offering vistas of giraffes and elephants and of the glittering Indian Ocean beyond.
The winding, bird-rich Bushman’s River is another distinct habitat and is best explored by speedboat or canoe. In fact, game drives are far from the only activity on offer: choose from fishing, swimming, the aforementioned river exploration or pampering in the spa.
There are five walking trails in a corridor of the park fenced off from the animals that will kill you but among those that won’t. Guests can hike them with or without a ranger but with all these critters sharing the same outdoor loo, whichever option you choose, remember to watch your step.
The writer was a guest of South African Airways and South African Tourism.
– Getting there
Qantas flies daily from Sydney to Johannesburg, while its codeshare partner South African Airways flies there six times weekly via Perth. SAA connects Jo’burg to Port Elizabeth (1hr 40min) several times daily. From PE airport, Kariega can be reached by hire car or staff at the game reserve can arrange transport.
See qantas.com.au and flysaa.com
– Staying there
As well as the homestead, Kariega has three other lodges, each with its own chef and ranger. Kariega Homestead and Main Lodge have 4-star ratings, while Ukhozi Lodge has 4 1/2 stars. River Lodge (5 stars) is the most opulent option.