A frequent question on the ‘net’ is which Game Reserve near Port Elizabeth is the best – and while I can’t vouch for any of the others, I can tell you that the Shamwari Reserve was amazing.
But I’m ahead of my tail – which is not an unusual position.
We start the day in the absolute lap of luxury that is the Conrad Pezula. For the first time in our trip – I’d rather not leave. In fact – I’m even thinking of buying real estate. It’s only the discomfort of the South African reality that keeps me from chatting up a real estate agent. I just can’t get my head around the constant locked access points, focus on security, and the fences. There is a very obvious lack of respect and even comfort between colours and classes that just makes my skin itch. But that’s the topic of another blog.
Today we must drive to Founder’s Lodge in the Shamwari Game Reserve, and we’ve done the GPS thing to find out how long it will take to drive to Port Elizabeth and counted backwards. We must leave by 9:00 to make it there in time for lunch and the afternoon game drive.
Breakfast turns out to be more of an adventure than I’d planned on. I wanted to eat on our balcony – sitting in the sun and enjoying the stunning view. To do that – I must make coffee. And there’s a single serve coffee machine in the room. Perfect. Until I try to figure out how it works.
I’m old, but not stupid – and the thing stumps me. It just won’t turn on. Yes, I checked that it was plugged in, and yes I checked that the plug was on. No action. So I call the front desk. They tell me there’s a switch on the machine, hidden in the back. I try that – nope. It isn’t going to turn on. And worse – out of the 4 coffee packets they have given me – I’ve used up two. One in the first attempt – a second in the next attempt.
They will send someone. Who within seconds is there – with another machine. He checks our machine, agrees that it is not turning on, and plugs in the newer machine. It turns on – (green light on the front), and we thank him.
Try 3. I put in the coffee thingy – put the mug under the spout, and push the green light. The machine gurgles and burps and starts producing coffee. And doesn’t Stop! I fill my mug, and I’m on the 2nd mug when I turn the machine off and give up. I’m calling the office – again.
Seconds later another young man appears at our door – who shows us that to stop the machine from producing coffee you must push the button on the front when the light turns red… It offers you options you see – the first time it turns red, that’s a single espresso. The 2nd time – espresso Double, and the third time – Americano!
Problem – in learning how to use the machine – I’ve used up all the little single serve coffee things they have given us. So another trip from the front desk to give us a few more pouches of coffee.
I’m sure there is someone at the Conrad Pezula who is giving up on making any money on our stay! We have definitely kept their staff occupied.
Breakfast done (whew) – we call the front desk (yet again) for luggage pickup, Victor hikes up to the office while I continue to drink my lovely coffee enjoying my fabulous view and try to work up the courage to actually leave. But I have no choice – the bellman with the golf cart arrives, takes our luggage out to the cart and offers me a drive up the hill. We absolutely must leave.
When I come back to South Africa – perhaps in another life time – this is the place I want to stay!
We drive down the Head, and head East along the N2. This is a ‘major’ road that winds along all the Garden Route – but in this section it is just one lane in each direction, with large shoulders they use to create space for cars to pass on the right. Remember – drive on the left! At the sides of the road at first are what I’d call middle class housing, but it quickly becomes either township or informal settlements with the corresponding piles of garbage. Question to self – why is everything so clean except the areas near the townships and informal settlements?
Eventually even that bit of housing disappears and we are driving thru fields of grain, some irrigated, some not. There are also herds of cows and sheep to see, and the occasional horse farm. It’s not the most exciting driving – although the view of Plettenberg Bay is stunning. These are some of the finest beaches in South Africa, but we are on a mission – we must get to Port Elizabeth.
The road is often actually 3 lanes – achieved not by widening the road, but by changing the location of the paint. So imagine two lanes with large shoulders. To get three lanes – you get rid of the shoulders on each side – and either make the no passing line on the far right of the 2nd lane (we have two lanes heading east), or to the far left of the 2nd lane (we have one very narrow lane heading east – they have two lanes heading west). It’s actually pretty neat, although my husband thinks they should make the passing lanes appear only on the uphill sections – he can’t pass the heavy trucks on the down hill portions, they gain too much speed.
Speaking of speed – the limit here is 120 km/hr. And no one goes 120, except us and the occasional truck. So we are pretty consistently the passed, not the passer.
After about 2 hours of this, we decide to enter into the GPS the actual address of our destination – and discover to our alarm that it isn’t in Port Elizabeth – it’s an hour NORTH! Oh, no. We’d calculated our trip based on getting to the reserve in time for lunch – and now we are definitely going to be an hour off.
Mad checking of paper work later – we realize that lunch doesn’t even start till 2:00 PM – and the game drive is at 3:30. We should just make it – but there’s no time to waddle. Not like we’ve been going slowly – but we try to pick up the pace a bit.
The outskirts of Port Elizabeth appear – first informal settlements, then townships, then middle class housing and finally the city itself. It’s a huge port – I count over a dozen giant container ships at anchor in the bay – and I would imagine there are some actually in the port, but it’s not visible from the N2. Which has become a 4 lane highway at this point – and the roadway switches from concrete to asphalt. My husband says that the driving is easier on asphalt – I don’t know or care – I just want this road trip to end.
As we steam pass a gas station – I say – there’s a gas station – but my husband is focused – we are getting to the reserve on time.
Suddenly I see an Elephant on my left! Wow – it’s an Elephant!. We are driving past the Addo National Elephant Park – and the next stop will be the Shamwari Reserve. I’m getting excited.
Meanwhile the N2 is down to 1 lane in each direction again, and the side roads are not all paved. We’ve left Port Elizabeth (and what passes as civilization) far behind.
It is at this moment that my husband checks the gas gauge. We are at 1/4 tank – and we need to find a gas station. I keep my eyes peeled – but we are far from anything that even looks like a town. Hopefully there will be a gas station near the lodge.
The instructions say – take the unpaved road at Sidbery and follow the signs. We do as told, and find our selves facing a formidable wrought iron gate. Oh dear – what did we do wrong? We stop to try to figure things out when a guard appears to ask us – where are you heading? We tell him Founder’s Lodge – and he’s immediately reassuring. You are fine, you are right, this is the right place. You have arrived!
It turns out that the Founder’s Lodge is inside the reserve, and we’ve arrived at a back door. The gate is there to keep the animals in – and given the number of Elephants, Rinos, Lions, etc that we will see – I totally get it.
Our welcome at the Lodge is lovely – Susie, the manager, greets us with cold towels and a drink of our choice, and quickly ushers us into lunch. We ask about gas – and are assured that they will get a spare tank with 10 gallons or so for us tomorrow. Meanwhile, they will park the car – we need to go into lunch.
There are only 6 rooms in the lodge, a total of 12 guests. We are divided into two groups, each with our own Ranger who will take care of our every need from dawn to bed time. One group are 3 couples who came together from the Cape Town area, our group is composed of two couples from Port Elizabeth, and us.
Our Ranger is Freddie – and he’s a charmer. He joins us at lunch to explain that the game drive will start at 3:30 – right outside the front door of the lodge, and we should dress warmly – we won’t be back till after sunset. He also asks what drinks we’d prefer for ‘Sundowners’ – I opt for water. I’m just not that big a party kinda gal!
Our quick tour of the Lodge is, as the welcome made us expect, impressive. Our room has a wall of glass facing out onto the private reserve of the Founder – independent of but adjacent to the Shamwari Reserve. Using the concept of an infinity pool, the garden appears to continue smoothly to the watering hole for the animals of the Reserve about 150 meters away. But actually there’s a wall with electric fencing separating us from the animals – at least the animals who would be daunted by a wall. Fortunately, there are no predators in our private reserve – so while the baboons and monkeys might be an issue – the larger vegetarians are happy to stay on their side of the fence.
Onto our quick tour of the Lodge (it’s lovely), and then onto our ‘Safari’ vehicles to start our first game drive.
These are very upscale vehicles indeed. Modified Toyota Land Cruisers – there three rows of two leather seats, so each person has an unimpeded view to the side and because the seats are raised one above the other, to the front as well. There is room for a driver and a spotter – but Freddie will be serving as both for us.
Turns out that all vehicles in the park are exactly the same design, color and style. That makes it very easy to spot any unauthorized vehicles – and Freddie starts our tour by telling us that the Shamwari Reserve has had no poaching incidents in the past 15 years. They have 24/7 anti-poaching teams – and they are armed and serious. You do not touch our animals. Kruger Park, on the other hand has had over 300 incidents this year – and while the numbers are down from 2016, any Rino poaching is bad. Folks involved with the animals are working hard to educate people on the absolute uselessness of killing Rino’s for their horns – they are made of exactly the same material as our fingernails – but folks seems to love to ignore the truth. It’s sad.
He also warns us to keep our hands inside the vehicle – the shape of the vehicle is known to the animals and they won’t bother us, but if you break the shape by sticking an arm out – you will alarm the animals. He also warns us to not make loud noises – or to call to the animals. They will in fact turn away if we do that – so we’ll get the opposite of what we’d like as far as pictures go.
And we head off. For our first drive, Freddie decides to head North – into the wilder, less traveled part of the Park. There are tracks carved thru the bush that keep the vehicles off the slow growing vegetation, yet allow access to almost all parts of the huge park. The rules for the drivers are simple – stay out of sight of other vehicles, but stay in contact by radio in case someone spots something exciting. And stay on the cleared tracks. There are parts of the park where you can drive off road, but generally that’s done either to go around a wash-out, to allow another vehicle to pass, or to get closer to a Cat. All other game is to be observed from the already tracked ‘trails’ in order to avoid disturbing them – or killing vegetation.
As we drive along, I’m impressed by the beauty of the place – despite knowing that there is a fence all around us – the place feels wild and free, and a lot greener than I remember either the parks in Kenya or Botswana. There are fairly large trees growing in the sections where the Bushman’s River winds thru the park, and the open ‘grass lands’ seem to go on forever. And game abounds. Zebras with colts, Springbok’s, Kudu, etc are everywhere to be seen. Freddie spots an Elephant across a valley from us, and heads in that direction. He’s a solitary Bull – and he is huge. Mildly chomping away at the tops of Acacia Trees, he ambles along, at times ahead of us, at times in back. He takes a quick right and heads up a steep hill – and Freddie tries to follow on the trail. Suddenly the Elephant is in front of us – right in the road. We can’t pass him, and he’s headed straight into the sun. Lousy photos – cool view! Finally Freddie takes a chance and at a widening in the trail, drives carefully behind the Elephant to put us ahead of him with the sun at our back. We take lots of very good photos – and then the radio bursts into life – they have spotted a Cheetah. So we leave our elephant to head in that direction.
The Cheetah is just sitting on the ground behind a bush – casually watching us watching him. So beautiful, and so peaceful. We also spotted a sleeping lion – there is little as boring of course. Well satisfied with our game drive, we stop at the top of a look out for a much needed ‘pee’ break and Sundowners. What an amazing landscape.
There are about 10 Lodges in the Shamwari Game reserve, most much larger than ours – and we have driven past several. I think ours is just perfect – but it’s nice to know there are options if we want to return.
I’m thinking that what really matters is the quality of your guide and his (her) ability to position the vehicle so that picture taking opportunities are the best. That often means knowing not only where the animals are – but to guess where they will be going – and keeping track of where the sun is since we can’t shoot into it. And since you are supposed to stay on the tracks – being on the right track at the right position at the right moment is an art!
Back at the Lodge, the vehicle circles around to the Boma – a raised area with a fire lit to welcome us home. The staff is lined up to greet us – and hand us warm drinks.
Sigh – I’ve gone to heaven and it’s in South Africa.
Signing off to ready myself for ”The Founder’s Dinner” – The Soup Lady