Safari for all seasons

A safari on a restocked game reserve offers up rhinos, (damp) lions and a unique glimpse into South Africa's history

There's something a little sad about watching a lion in the rain. Sloping through the wet grass, less tawny-maned King of the Jungle, more big cat with bedraggled mop. There's something a little sad too about sitting shivering in an open-topped Land Rover, huddled under a blanket in a voluminous green waterproof cape, teeth chattering as the rain sleets down. Not warm, tropical African rain mind, but icy, European-style rain. But then the weather in the Eastern Cape is not guaranteed in October. This is the southern spring, when depressions sweep in from the Indian Ocean. On the plus side, a safari here is malaria-free and easily tagged on to the end of South Africa's perennially popular Garden Route.

There's something a little sad about watching a lion in the rain. Sloping through the wet grass, less tawny-maned King of the Jungle, more big cat with bedraggled mop. There's something a little sad too about sitting shivering in an open-topped Land Rover, huddled under a blanket in a voluminous green waterproof cape, teeth chattering as the rain sleets down. Not warm, tropical African rain mind, but icy, European-style rain. But then the weather in the Eastern Cape is not guaranteed in October. This is the southern spring, when depressions sweep in from the Indian Ocean. On the plus side, a safari here is malaria-free and easily tagged on to the end of South Africa's perennially popular Garden Route.

We were at Kwandwe, a private game reserve, for a couple of days: a safari taster. We weren't looking for lion, however, so Mark, the head ranger, veered off across the scrubby bush. Kwandwe offers rhino-tracking on foot and, with Rudy the tracker perched precariously on the seat on the bonnet, we scoured the ground for prints or piles of fresh dung. At 5am in the stinging rain, though, the rhino were sensibly sheltering in the bushes, under the trees - in fact anywhere but out in the open where we could spot them. Eventually, more worried that we'd succumb to hypothermia than because we'd stumbled onto a fresh trail, Mark grabbed his rifle and we clambered out of the jeep and set off on foot in single file, slithering through the mud.

Kwandwe, which opened in 2001 and was created from an old farm, is one of CC Africa's (Conservation Corporation Africa) private game reserves. The organisation began restoring farmland to wilderness and reintroducing game to its original habitat with Phinda game reserve in KwaZulu-Natal. Kwandwe covers 16,000 hectares on the Great Fish River and has been restocked with wildlife once endemic to the region. Around 7,000 animals have been released into the reserve including zebra, hippo, eland, wildebeest, black and white rhino, buffalo, elephant, giraffe, cheetah and lion.

The history of the area stretches back to the Stone Age and there are a number of archaeological sites to the north and south of Kwandwe spotted with rock paintings. Before the arrival of white settlers, this was the land of the Xhosa people - and the Big Five (buffalo, elephant, leopard, lion and rhino).

However, with the eastwards spread of Boer farmers, descendants of the first Dutch farmers who colonised the Western Cape in the mid-17th century, the animals were gradually wiped out. The region saw numerous frontier wars between the Boers and Xhosa which eventually led to what became known as the Great Trek; the Boers moved on once again to settle in the Orange Free State and the Transvaal Republic. Because of the repeated clashes and Xhosa raids, few people wanted to settle in the Fish River area in the middle of the 19th century - until one Arthur Wingfield Douglass, a British sea captain bound for Australia in 1860, decided he liked the look of the place. He bought and merged a few small farms (the land that now makes up Kwandwe) and built Heatherton Towers, which is now the game reserve's reception building. Six kilometres from the main gate, this gracious lime-washed building is where you register (with homemade cookies and fresh lemonade) and leave your car - you're transferred to the lodge by Land Rover.

Because of the unrest, Douglass built his homestead as a kind of fort with turrets at each end with slits for guns. He was a man of some importance, becoming the Minister of Railways in the Cape Colony government and even acting Prime Minister at one stage.

Heatherton Towers saw many distinguished guests: Cecil Rhodes and Lord Milner were frequent visitors for shooting parties and political discussions. Douglass was also a keen horseman and built a polo field at Heatherton (there was croquet for the ladies). He originally farmed Shorthorn cattle imported from Scotland, but on a visit back to England for discussions with Queen Victoria he noticed that ostrich feathers had become all the rage. On his return to Africa he turned Heatherton into an ostrich farm, invented the first incubator for ostrich eggs and even wrote a book on the subject. Today, driving towards the entrance of Kwandwe, you still pass fields of the rangy birds and bowls of the giant eggs provide a striking decorative touch in the rooms. The history of Kwandwe adds a fascinating dimension to the safari experience. Every afternoon Alan Weyer, a local historian based in nearby Grahamstown, comes to the main lodge to give a talk. He also offers tours of the surrounding area.

As well as the main lodge and the recently opened Ecca Lodge, you can immerse yourself further in the history by staying in Uplands, another old homestead dating back to 1905 set in its own valley. At one time there were four Douglass sisters living at Heatherton Towers, but one of them moved to nearby Uplands. It's been sensitively restored and now sleeps six. Sepia photographs of the family adorn the walls as do framed newspaper cuttings about the ostrich farm. With high ceilings and polished wooden floors, it is elegant yet comfortable, with roaring log fires and antique furniture. The kitchen is very Mrs Beaton. The house also has its own chef, ranger and butler.

Accommodation at the main lodge consists of nine suites: a stylish mix of wood, stone and thatch and soaring rafters. The rooms, down little pebbled paths, are rustic chic in design yet luxurious: cement floors scattered with Persian rugs, a huge chaise-longue at the foot of the bed, leather armchairs in olive green scattered with zebra print cushions. At the door there's a hat stand with umbrellas and a tray with a decanter of port and two tiny glasses. Above the bed spears are suspended. Crisp white linen comes as standard. Quirky touches include lampshades made out of coconut shells and tissue box covers of porcupine quills. In the bathroom, free-standing baths are positioned next to glass doors that open onto the bush. If that's not close enough to the big outdoors, in addition to an indoor shower there's an outside shower so you can wash beneath the stars. There's no TV or radio - just the sounds of the bush. Another gravel path takes you down to your own plunge pool and sun lounger overlooking the sluggish Fish River.

Back in the rain, the rhino were still hiding. But the elephant weren't. Doubled over, trying not to squeak in our waterproofs, we spotted a bull elephant felling trees and munching on branches. Behind us, crashing through the undergrowth, was the rest of the herd.

A couple of hours later, at the main lodge, chilled to the bone but exhilarated, the sun finally came out. That's the thing about spring: the skies can clear as quickly as the storm descends. Ordering hot chocolate to be sent to the room, we squelched across the lobby intent on a spot of wildlife watching from the comfort of a hot bath.

TRAVELLER'S GUIDE

GETTING THERE

Virgin Atlantic (0870 380 2007; www.virgin-atlantic.com), British Airways (0870 850 9 850; www.ba.com) and South African Airways (0870 747 111; www.flysaa.com) fly non-stop between London Heathrow and Cape Town. In October, fares should be available for around £550 through discount agents, if you are prepared to change planes en route.

From Cape Town you can either fly to Port Elizabeth or drive there along the Garden Route. From Port Elizabeth it's a 90-minute drive to Kwandwe.

STAYING THERE

Rates start at SAR4,795 (£425) per person per night based on two sharing including full-board accommodation, drinks, game drives and laundry. For more information, contact the Conservation Corporation Africa (00 27 11 809 4300; www.ccafrica.com); Alan Weyer (00 27 46 622 7896; www.alanweyerstours.co.za) and South African Tourism (0870 155 0044; www.southafrica.net).

FLIGHTS AND FIGURES

A glance at the flight schedules suggests that British Airways dominates the market between the UK and Southern Africa, with South African Airways (SAA) offering a range of regional connections from the two main gateways, Johannesburg and Cape Town (pictured), and Virgin Atlantic providing some useful competition. But airlines from continental Europe may offer cheaper or smoother journeys to many travellers. The following examples are all for flights in November this year - late spring in Southern Africa and the shoulder season before the main midwinter peak.

Take a journey such as Birmingham to Cape Town. Through discount agents, you can find a fare as low as £550 on Lufthansa via Munich. From Bristol to Johannesburg, the fastest journey is on KLM via Amsterdam. And since Air France and the Dutch airline combined, you can get routed one way via Paris and the other via Amsterdam, all within a return fare below £700.

Newcastle to Lusaka is a more specialist journey, but SN Brussels comes to the rescue. This Belgian airline rose from the ashes of Sabena, which went bust in 2001. For around £750 it will fly you from Tyneside to the Zambian capital and back - though the last leg, between Nairobi and Lusaka, is flown by British Airways. From Manchester to Maputo, the capital of Mozambique, Air France is charging around £730 through discount agencies - including an SAA connection from Johannesburg to Maputo.

The main fares wars, however, are on the links from London to Cape Town and Johannesburg. To Cape Town, Lufthansa via Frankfurt or Munich looks the best deal at a shoulder-season fare of around £550 return. Johannesburg, which is both closer to Europe and experiences more competition, is available for less than £500 on Air France via Paris.

Fares for Christmas and New Year are already sky-high: departing on 18 December, and coming home a couple of days after New Year, will cost at least £1,000 return.

Simon Calder

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