Why has a game reserve been voted the Leading Conservation Company for ten years running? Zoe West finds out… It’s the golden hour in South Africa’s Eastern Cape. A Jackal Buzzard cries its distinctive weeah ka-ka-ka and a lone impala stands scouring undulating slopes of coarse bush, forest and grassland looking for its herd. We observe the scene silently, contemplating our long exhausting yet exhilarating safari drive. It hadn’t been an afternoon spent chasing ‘the big five’ though we encountered them anyway. It had been an afternoon tracking wildlife, not hounding it. At Shamwari Game Reserve using all the senses, acute observation, patience and concentration to follow animals is just as important as the sighting. A drive here is an enchanting look at a time gone by when great beasts freely roamed the South African land and with a bit of help, will again…
Shamwari began life on the back of a very good question, ‘Why can’t wildlife exist here?’ Adrian Gardiner, the founder of Shamwari, believed it could. It had before, why not again? Built on his vision to conserve a vanishing way of life in South Africa, and against others ‘better judgement’, he took 25,000 hectares of unused farmland and slowly re-introduced Africa’s great animals to their rightful home. Shamwari slowly became not only a very successful game reserve, but one with a heart.
This was apparent the moment we met our game ranger, Fritz, whose compassionate and inspiring enthusiasm even for ‘the little five’ was infectious. I was extremely nervous about our first drive. Coupled with the fact I’d just found out I was pregnant I was given the privilege of sitting up front of our great open air jeep. I later questioned this privilege when facing a stately lion on our path who blatantly didn’t want to move for anyone, not least six uneasy humans and a suspicious ranger.
‘I’ve never quite trusted this one,’ Fritz whispered.
I wasn’t sure if this was for effect or he actually meant it, but looking into his intense eyes I’d opt for the latter. I just hoped today wasn’t the day the lion proved him right. Setting out, we were told that only a century earlier lions, buffalo, rhinos and elephants wandered this land side by side, until hunters wiped them from existence. By 1853 the Eastern Cape had seen its last rhino and by 1878 the Cape Lion was shot to extinction. Like the smell of rhino dung, these words hung thick in the air…
Despite not chasing the animals, sightings came thick and fast – a tender moment watching an attentive rhino nursing her calf, a reclusive hippo hiding in a muddy lake spotted only by his beady eyes, and a thrilling moment catching a pack of wild dogs making a kill. Witnessing these scenes, knowing these great beasts had been returned to their natural habitat was surprisingly moving. Though not protected from their natural predators anti-poaching laws on this private land at least saves them from hunters in a country where hunting is still legal. And, two Born Free Centres on site offer sanctuary to those cats that can’t be returned to the wild, now an alien environment to them. I took time to go and visit some of those who had been re-homed. For one particular cat, Shada, rescued from a 6ft x 6ft rusty cage in a French circus, expected to breed cubs to sell on to other circuses, it had been a sad existence. Hearing the plight of Shada, Shamwari planned to liberate her from this cruelty. It was a long, complicated and expensive procedure, but finally she was bought to Africa with two other lions who hadn’t been out of their cages in nine years, to their rightful home. I was told that as soon as the lions were released they raced to the back of their new 5-acre enclosure not quite knowing what to do with themselves. I fought back a tear and gave myself a good talking-to. Shada appeared content, ready to live out the rest of her life in peace. Shamwari understands they can’t save every big cat living in such conditions but they can use the ones they have rescued to educate youth for the future. Learning and education are words you hear a lot at Shamwari, but it never feels like a lecture, just an honest approach to a sympathetic way of life.
Back in the jeep we drive past the lodges, of which there are six. Traditional African lodges such as Lobengula where we stayed, an exclusive outside camp, a restored ice-cream pink colonial house and a new environmentally friendly thatched villa. This is an expensive place to stay. Brad Pitt, John Travolta, Nicholas Cage and Tiger Woods have all been guests, and it’s obvious why. Apart from the drives, the service is outstanding. Staff are ever-present yet you could be forgiven for missing them so unobtrusive is their manner. Modest touches like warm facecloths and a hot chocolate follow late afternoon drives, gastronomic delights are served in abundance on elegant dark timber terraces and the lodges are sumptuous in their décor yet strive to be kind to the environment. This is five star accommodation. However, volunteer programmes are available minus the high price tag. I was certainly tempted by the thought of becoming a conservationist or environmentalist. Speaking to John O’Brien, Head Ecologist at Shamwari, he enthused about being able to make a difference – educating local children, of which there are 800 a month, on the importance of their heritage and conserving it, tirelessly trying to create a balanced ecosystem not just with wildlife, but with the land and working towards becoming energy-efficient. There’s lots to be done and I wanted to join right there and then.
As the afternoon wore on and I considered never leaving, a chilly breeze encircled the jeep and caused us to huddle in jumpers and blankets. Engorged with information and sightings we were content, and ready for our warm petal-filled baths and complimentary red wine. Until we ran into a small herd of buffalo part-concealed by stark barren trees. Encouraged to venture out and take a closer look at these mighty beasts my initial reaction, ‘Are you mad?’ was reciprocated with gentle goading from fellow passengers who convinced me this was a good idea. Cautiously I agreed. Skulking slowly towards them, recoiling every time someone stood on a twig, I was fixated. The colossal velvety creatures were mesmerising, their stocky bodies solid, strong and composed. And we were so close. Too close. I swiftly found myself staring straight into a dark, brooding eye. One of them had spotted me and I’m ashamed to say I was terrified. We’d been told not to run, which I couldn’t have anyway, but I did begin to laugh and not just a small nervous laugh. I became hysterical, particularly when I found myself cowering behind a small elderly Dutch lady who looked at me quizzically. ‘You want me to save you?’ she asked.
I blame it on the nerves and told Fritz this when reprimanding for putting our lives at risk! I am reminded this is not a zoo, but a wink told me all was forgiven. Later at the braii, South Africa’s answer to the BBQ, I was told by Fritz he had never seen anyone react like that. Maybe I’m not cut out to work at a reserve after all. Well, not if I want to live to tell the tale!
Cuddling an open fire in a forest clearing beneath an evening sky saturated with stars, storytelling flowed thick and fast amongst the game rangers who relayed alarming encounters with the untamed wild and we re-lived our own memories from the past couple of extraordinary days. Along with the quite-agreeable taste of warthog, the perfume of burning wood and the cackle of a nearby hyena, I knew this was ‘one of those moments’ that would stay with me forever. I felt as content as Shada in her new home, and part of me never wanted to leave.
With a dedicated group of people who treat animals and their environment so sensitively, it’s hard not to fall in love with a place like Shamwari. But, if you are intending to go on safari to see the ‘big five’ at any cost and expect to see large groups of animals and tourists at every turn, the Kruger may be more fitting where you are literally guaranteed to see every animal you desire. But, the Shamwari experience is an enriching one that goes beyond the chase. It has heart, and that is no more evident than in the passion of its people. No wonder then that this special place has been voted Leading Conservation Company at the World Travel Awards for the past ten years. Shamwari means ‘friend’, and that’s exactly how you leave it… Zoe West