Where the bugs don't bite

It may not have marauding lion packs, but the Shamwari Game Reserve offers something its wilder rivals just can't guarantee: a Malaria-free encounter with the 'Big Five'

Disease. Not the first thing that springs to mind when considering where to go big-game watching. More likely, you'll check out the likelihood of seeing the 'Big Five' (elephant, lion, leopard, buffalo and rhino) and ponder the level of luxury you can afford. Malaria prophylactics are way down the to-do list, along with cancelling the papers and buying super-strength sunscreen.

Disease. Not the first thing that springs to mind when considering where to go big-game watching. More likely, you'll check out the likelihood of seeing the 'Big Five' (elephant, lion, leopard, buffalo and rhino) and ponder the level of luxury you can afford. Malaria prophylactics are way down the to-do list, along with cancelling the papers and buying super-strength sunscreen.

It seems an immutable law of game watching in South Africa that the best game hangs out in the most remote and malaria-ridden regions. For many people (pregnant women, young children and those with certain medical conditions) these are no-go areas, not because they will definitely contract malaria, but because the consequences are so serious if they do. For others, the decision is not so clear cut.

Whether you are allergic to anti-malarial drugs, wary of their side-effects or unconvinced of their efficacy as the malaria parasite becomes increasingly drug-resistant, the end result is the same. If you want to stay in malarial areas, you must indulge in a tedious twilight ritual of anointing your body with insect repellent, donning trousers, long socks and a long-sleeved shirt. With the best will in the world, though, there's always a chance that a malarial mosquito will break through the defences.

Many people consider this a price worth paying to watch animals in some of the most stunning scenery on the continent. If you don't, there is an alternative.

Most of South Africa's good game viewing is in the north and north-east of the country, deep within the malarial belt. However, there is a malaria-free zone close to Johannesburg (which most British tourists tend to avoid because of its reputation for violent crime) that includes Pilanesburg National Park, Madikwe Game Reserve and a massive conservation project, the Shamwari Game Reserve.

Shamwari is the brainchild of Adrian Gardiner, a South African businessman who, in 1991, bought an 1820s British settler's farmhouse as a country retreat. His aim was to create a reserve there and return the land to what it was before the British settler cultivated it and shot all the game.

Some species had hung on in spite of the farmers - kudu, duiker, bush buck, baboons, bush pigs, and the ubiquitous vervet monkeys, nestling in swaying bushes. Leopards too, due to their shy nocturnal habits, still hunt here and the conservation unit at Shamwari has re-introduced several creatures, both great (elephant, hippo, zebra, giraffe, rhino, warthog and buffalo) and small (such as the flightless dung beetle).

They also have lions, but these are kept within an enclosure, built to reassure local farmers that the big predators could be safely contained. Visiting them is a little like touring Woburn or Longleat but some might consider the absence of marauding lions a blessing. Not these guys. The staff are eagerly anticipating the release of a pride into the reserve later this year, along with cheetahs.

What struck me as I arrived (after the initial shock of seeing a white rhino grazing, unconcernedly, just by the turning off the main road) was how pristine the animals looked. In this managed environment, it would be cruel to leave sick or wounded animals untreated, although vet Johann Joubert, cheerfully announced "the lions will soon do that job for me".

This could be seen as just a rich man's hobby (black rhino, for instance, cost around £20,000-25,000 each and the reserve has nine) but, far from seeing tourists as a necessary evil to finance the conservation work, the reserve is constantly improving the facilities to make your stay as relaxing and luxurious as possible.

The amiable manager, Joe Cloete, runs a tight ship, overseeing Shamwari Lodge (which, with its thatched roofs, is evocative of traditional bush camps) and the four other former farmhouses which now serve as accommodation: Long Lee Manor, Highfield and Bushman's River Lodge and Carn Ingly. Except for Carn Ingly, which has a rather cottagey feel, the farmhouses have all been restored in grand Out of Africa style, retaining the original features wherever possible.

The recommended activity is early morning and evening game drives, in the company of a young team of rangers committed to showing you the animals you hope to see. There's plenty of time left for unwinding by the pool or training your binoculars on the near-distance. If you are of a restless disposition, you can explore the multicultural village, which offers insights into the architecture and customs of the Xhosa, Ndebele and Zulus, or The Born Free Foundation, where lions and leopards, maltreated in captivity, have been resettled.

Even after a short spell in the bush, the success of the Shamwari team's conservation mission becomes apparent on the drive back to the nearby town of Port Elizabeth. The roadside dairy farms look forlorn and strangely denuded of vegetation and, suddenly, ecologist John O'Brien's dream of extending the reserve as far as Grahamstown, 68km away, seems incredibly attractive.

Diona Gregory travelled to South Africa with SARtravel (020-7637 3560, e-mail: info@artravel.com) which offers tailor-made southern Africa itineraries.

South African Airlines (0870 747 1111) flies daily from London Heathrow airport to Cape Town from £549 return or to Johannesburg from £462. Onward domestic flights are available from both these cities to Port Elizabeth airport, 50 minutes drive from Shamwari Game Reserve, or alternatively, you can travel from Cape Town by bus.

Accommodation starts at £168 per person, per night, including meals and game drives (tel: 00 27 42 231111, fax: 00 27 42 2351224, www.shamwari.com).

For more information, call Addo National Park (00 27 42 6400556), or Pilanesberg National Park (00 27 14 5355355/6/7/8) or click on www.tourismnorthwest.co.za

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