Great Fish River Lodge exudes luxury and charm in the midst of scenically spectacular Kwandwe

The first week of February saw Katherine and me take family visiting from America on an Eastern Cape wildlife safari. Unbeknownst to many, the Eastern Cape is home to six of South Africa’s seven major biomes: a veritable botanic melting pot that supports a diverse spectrum of wildlife scattered across breathtakingly beautiful and historically rich landscapes. With the traditional Big Five (lion, leopard, elephant, rhino and buffalo) in residence and the great white shark and southern right whale frequenting its marine protected areas, the Eastern Cape can rightfully claim to be home to the Magnificent Seven, providing a grand finale to any journey down the Garden Route. From affordable Addo to exclusive Kwandwe, the Eastern Cape boasts a wealth of safari options to suit every wallet.

The belligerent black rhino bull

We kicked off our safari at Kwandwe (www.kwandwe.com) – the Eastern Cape’s premier private game reserve. The luxurious splendour of their flagship safari product – Great Fish River Lodge – was our home-away-from-home for the duration of our four-day stay. Our guiding duo of Doc and Siza were steadfastly dedicated to the task of hunting down the Big Five, but, for us, it was the top-quality rhino sightings that proved the game-viewing highlight of our Kwandwe safari experience. This well-protected rhino haven spoilt us with one crash of white rhino after another – many with young calves in tow – not to mention a big belligerent black rhino bull that took an instant disliking to our open-top game-viewer!

Add to this sightings of two lionesses with their four sub-adult cubs finishing off a black wildebeest kill while the satiated black-maned king slumbered in the shade nearby; a trio of ever-alert cheetah; a regal leopard patrolling his territory; a rare brown hyaena; a pair of bat-eared foxes with pups; an elephant family fording the Fish River; a huge herd of buffalo slaking their thirst and the full spectrum of general game… and you have a wildlife-viewing experience that stands tall alongside SA’s very best.

With five-star accommodations, elaborate menus, impeccable service and close up sighting of over 30 large mammal species in surprisingly scenic surrounds, there is no disputing that a Kwandwe safari has plenty to offer first-timers and old-hands alike.

An elephant bull grazes in the Colchester Section of Addo

Our next safari stop was the perennial favourite Addo…

While the constantly expanding Addo Elephant National Park (www.addoelephantpark.com) is home to the Magnificent Seven and synonymous with some of the best elephant-viewing in all of Africa, it offers considerably more to the discerning safari connoisseur. Whether you opt for self-drive or guided game drives, 4×4 adventuring, hiking, horse-back safaris, birding or whale-watching, Addo has something for everyone.

Accommodation options are just as varied, although in my opinion there is one option that stands head-and-shoulders above the rest: the intimate 10-bed Spekboom Tented Camp that lies in the heart of Addo’s prime game-viewing section. Comprising five large permanent dome tents with real beds and fresh linens, it’s a simple, but comfortable, camp with 24hour access to a hide overlooking the local waterhole where a big bull elephant in musth provided some quality entertainment when he angrily chased kudu and warthogs from the water’s edge.

Each evening, as Orion chased Taurus across the night sky, a quartet of jackals serenaded us to sleep in our little camp at the end of yet another highly memorable day in this incredibly diverse national park. Before nodding off on the final evening, I relived the day’s highlights: a magical morning spent conquering the half-day Doringnek Hiking Trail in the Zuurberg section of the park, a rare caracal sighting on our game drive, not to mention an obligatory elephantine extravaganza of thirsty beasts swimming and drinking, and the unexpected bonus of a relaxed black rhino patrolling his territory in the recently opened Colchester section of the park.

Although it’s been labelled a ‘soft safari option’ by detractors in years gone by, I was impressed to discover that the Eastern Cape has metamorphosised into a genuine safari destination, boasting outstanding wildlife-viewing without the crowds. Get the full safari story at: www.stevecunliffe.com/wp-content/uploads/2010/01/Explore-SA-Eastern-Cape-Safaris.pdf

Addo is home to some of the highest densities of elephants to be found anywhere in Africa

February was the month for safaris and after a short break back in Cape Town where we found time to walk the stunning Orangekloof section of the Hoerikwaggo Hiking Trail (www.hoerikwaggotrail.org), we flew to Nelspruit – gateway to the Sabi Sands – for a weeklong safari with friends.

An impala ram in his prime is still no match for a cheetah

Thanks to a generous invitation from our good friends Duncan and Kirsti Gutsche, we were staying at a cool private lodge on Buffelshoek game farm in the far northeast of the park. Cruise Camp, barely a frog’s hop from the unfenced Kruger boundary, is slap-bang in the midst of a highly productive game-viewing sector of the internationally acclaimed reserve.

The Sabi Sands Private Game Reserve (www.sabisand.co.za) garnered a deserved reputation as a stronghold for prolific and well-habituated wildlife. The result of this is unsurpassed game-viewing opportunities even in the height of the green season. In ten plus visits to the Sands I’ve never had a disappointing wildlife experience with each trip being a different degree of WOW and this one was no different.

The 'sundowner' is a time-honoured African tradition

From observing marula-loving elephants to lazy old duggaboys; from watching a male cheetah feeding on an impala to tracking a trio of male lions; from trailing a leopard with her two young cubs to some of the best-ever rhino sightings… this is a park that always delivers.

We made a point of taking our time to savour our sightings and in return we were rewarded with memorable encounters and opportunities to appreciate and interpret the animal behaviour on display. Throw in some ice-cold beers, delicious gin & tonics, tasty snacks, enthusiastic nature-loving friends and you have a perfect concoction for a action-packed, fun-filled safari that we all wished would go on at least another week!

In spite of the 'rhino genocide' currently ranging in neighbouring Kruger... the Sabi Sands Private Game Reserve remains a bastion for the beleaguered species