I’m a lister! I count birds, the registration numbers of planes I have flown in, Cape Town licence plate numbers and, of course, animals that I see on safari. I do my own “diversity challenge” whenever I am on safari. This involves counting mammals. Anything bigger than a scrub hare counts and if you count 20 different species on a 3-night safari then you are doing well. When it comes to maximising your chances of seeing as many different animals as possible, my personal favourite is Kwandwe Private Game Reserve where you can reasonably hope for 30+, if luck is on your side.
Expect the unexpected
Most of the popular safari destinations will offer up elephant, buffalo, lion, leopard, and all the other postcard favourites. We all hope to see those (at least) but have you ever heard of a gemsbok, eland or a black wildebeest (the better-looking cousin of the more common blue wildebeest or gnu)? What about an aardwolf, hartebeest, caracal, or bat-eared fox?
These are some incredibly rare animals to see (and even difficult to pronounce correctly) and all of these animals get a special counting column in my record books. One record I am incredibly proud of is two different aardvark sightings on one game drive at Kwandwe! What is an aardvark I hear you ask? Well, that is a good question as very few people, even very experienced safari enthusiasts and guides have ever seen one in the wild, let alone two. They are that special.
Aardvarks are medium-sized, nocturnal animals with a long snout. Their name, directly translated, means “earth pig” and they are deadly termite hunters. With strong claws for digging and ripping open termite mounds and a long snout with a sticky tongue, no ant or termite stands a chance when an aardvark settles down for dinner.
My longest streak was seeing an aardvark each day for five consecutive days at Kwandwe. With a skilled and sensitive guide, you can even get out of the vehicle and sneak up to view them close-up on foot.
Why is Kwandwe so special?
Kwandwe is one of the largest private game reserves in Southern Africa and is quite unique in that the 22 000 hectare conservancy is in a convergent zone of 7 of South Africa’s 9 biomes. To put this into perspective, the Kruger National Park, which is traditionally the country’s foremost safari destination, is almost entirely within 1 biome. Kwandwe is located in the Eastern Cape province of South Africa which is also at the top end of the famous Garden Route.
This diversity in habitat types means that the game viewing is seldom predictable. After spending time watching elephants dodge hippos as they cross the Great Fish River you may only have to drive less than a mile before you come across a mother leopard and her cubs chasing each other around ancient-looking euphorbia thickets.
The edges of the reserve, and the river valley, can get pretty thick. Towards the centre, these thickets give way to wide-open expanses that are a landscape photographer’s dream. These open areas often help greatly in finding animals and it’s not uncommon to crest a hill and scan down with your binoculars to spot cheetah, rhinos or lions on the plains below. Or even all three from one position.
The entire scene can change when the sun sets. As the tracker sweeps the open areas, his spotlight picks up reflections in eyes of huge herds of springbok (South Africa’s national animal), springhares, porcupines and even a black-footed cat, if you are lucky. And if you are extremely lucky, you might catch a glimpse of another of my personal favourites, the brown hyena (my record is five on one game drive).
Kwandwe is “big sky” country
The open areas at Kwandwe are simply spectacular. The sky changes with each minute and the cloud formations are incredible. In summer, the rains roll in and you can watch and predict their movements, and almost dodge the downpours. Whilst it might be thundering on one side of the reserve, you could quite easily be sitting in pure sunlight on the other.
On winter mornings, this thick mist swirls through the reserve and there is nothing quite as moving as the roar of a lion patrolling his territory, the sound echoing off the mist so that you cannot quite determine the distance as he suddenly appears, ghost-like, out of the mist toward you. As the mist clears with the rising sun, you can often spot the snow-capped Amatole mountains in the distance. There are certainly very few places in Africa where you can see snow on safari, albeit in the distance. Kwandwe also offers a malaria-free safari experience, great for those travelling as an extended family with youngsters or grandparents in tow.
Your private remote wilderness
With one of the lowest guest-to-land ratios of any reserve in South Africa, this space is all yours and you never feel crowded. Most of the time, when you find an animal, you get to spend as long as you want with them, unlike many other areas where shared concessions mean you need to make room for others after a few minutes.
This is particularly important if you are travelling with your family and have younger children. At the Kwandwe lodges that do allow children, families get their own vehicles and their own ranger and tracker team. That adds to the exclusivity of the reserve and is pretty vital when you want to spend time doing what you and your family are interested in. That could be fishing in the Great Fish River or on one of the dams on the reserve (all catch and release), picnicking, walking, an outdoor cooking class or, for the more adventurous, getting involved in the local conservation initiatives and joining the researchers and veterinarians in tagging and monitoring a rhino.
Leaving a legacy
The diversity of wildlife is only one of the reasons why Kwandwe sits on the top of my list of favourite South African safari destinations. The people who live and work at Kwandwe are passionate and dedicated. Everyone lives in two villages on the reserve and many have been there for generations. The guiding industry in South Africa often has a high turnover but guides who end up at Kwandwe tend to stick around and a number of them have met partners and are raising families there. They know the land intimately and can tell you the history of each water hole and river crossing, as well as the detailed lineage of each lion or cheetah cub.
Kwandwe invests heavily in its people and in the communities surrounding the reserve. This is the future of conservation, and the only way to create sustainability and proper success from any of the conservation initiatives.
The aardvark challenge
Go! Count some aardvarks! Visit Kwandwe! I challenge you to start your own diversity list which I am sure will top any animal list you have made anywhere else in Africa. And what is even more important, by travelling to Kwandwe you know that your contribution protects this amazing and diverse habitat for many generations to come.