Head of Product and Group Marketing, Lisa Nel, visited Kwandwe Private Game Reserve for 3 safari filled nights in November 2021. She was treated to luxury stay at Ecca Lodge, world class wildlife sightings, action-packed activities and a thorough site inspection of the reserve’s other four properties. Below, Lisa shares her experience, and all the information she feels is important for any future guests that book through Ker & Downey® Africa. This pristine wilderness in the heart of South Africa’s Eastern Cape is renowned for its high quality guiding, diverse experiences, and the thousands of animals that call the reserve home.
“Kwandwe is an extension of the scenic Garden Route, located in the Eastern Cape province of South Africa. It is a great option for travelers that want to self drive but is also easily accessible by taking a short flight to Port Elizabeth Airport followed by a 2-hour road transfer to the lodge. There are daily flights from Durban, Cape Town and Johannesburg into Port Elizabeth. A driver will meet you at the airport and assist you with your luggage before hitting the road. The drive is very beautiful and I highly recommend a stop at Nanaga Farm Stall – a great rest stop half way where you can purchase many local farm to table items from bottled preserves to fresh pineapple juice.
After you arrive at the main gate, you will take a short game drive to Heatherton Towers where the main reception is located. On the way to reception, we saw a journey of giraffes on the move in the bush, followed by a huge herd of buffalo. There was lots of excitement in our vehicle as we had witnessed one of the Big Five before we’d even checked in!
Kwandwe Private Game Reserve is made up of 16 old cattle and ostrich farms which have been rehabilitated into one of the largest Big Five private reserves in South Africa. The name Kwandwe means ‘Place of the Blue Crane’ in Xhosa and is also a breeding area for this national bird of South Africa. It has five different accommodation options. These are all ultra-luxurious and each one has been designed to suit a different kind of clientele.
From reception it is a short 15-minute mini game drive to the lodge. We stayed at Ecca Lodge and were the first guests lucky enough to experience this understated authentic safari lodge in 11 months. Upon arrival we were shown to our rooms where our luggage and a wonderfully thoughtful welcome gift were waiting for us. The professional and friendly staff showed me around and explained all the amenities in my room from the two outdoor showers and laptop sized safe to the private plunge pool on the large wooden deck. The room features floor to ceiling glass windows and sliding doors from the main lounge area and the bedroom look out onto an incredible view of the bush. Ecca Lodge comprises three family suites and three double suites, however if there are more than 3 families they can be accommodated in the double suites as there are two additional day beds.
There is an unobtrusive electric fence around the lodge which makes it safe for families with children. There is also a separate kiddies TV and playroom – the only TV in the lodge is to be found in this room. The lodge is relaxing and comfortable with lots of different seating options under a canopy of trees offering guests space and privacy. The decor is more on the modern side and not your classic ‘Out of Africa’ safari style so it is best suited to a guest that wants a more contemporary lodge. Ecca Lodge is very suitable if you are wanting an intimate safari or are booking a family safari.
The food served was delicious and the dishes were impressively styled and substantial. The lunch provided was a choice of three options, one always being a salad for those that prefer something on the lighter side. Dinners comprised of a starter, two different options for mains, followed by a dessert. One of my favourite dishes was the red velvet malva pudding with rooibos custard and spekboom gel – made with local ingredients. I really enjoyed getting back from game drives and enjoying a drink at the gin station that was always set up around one of the many campfires. Standing around the fire with a gin and tonic in hand chatting about the eventful game drives and wildlife sightings with other guests was a great experience. As the lodge is fully-inclusive there are no hidden extras for any alcoholic and non alcoholic beverages.
We also visited the other accommodation options at Kwandwe, including the Great Fish River Lodge, Melton Manor, Old Fort House and Uplands Homestead. We were advised that Uplands Homestead was the most popular exclusive-use house, however my personal favourite was Old Fort House. All the properties come with a private ranger and tracker as well as a private chef.
Great Fish River Lodge comprises nine chalets, all set away from the main public areas by a raised wooden walkway. Each chalet has a private plunge pool with sweeping views over the Great Fish River. No children under 12 can be accommodated at this lodge. They have a large walk-in wine cellar just off the main dining area which features a huge fireplace – great for the chilly winter evenings.
Melton Manor has 4 en-suite bedrooms and is not too far from Great Fish River Lodge. It has a beautiful industrial sized kitchen and the house is built around the swimming pool that leads out on a large lawn with steps down to a boma. There is a main lounge and a family room with many board games and reading books. The couch in this lounge was so comfortable I even asked our host where to buy it!
The Old Fort House is the largest and most opulent with a separate gym, study with TV, and main lounge area that leads out onto rolling lawns. It also has a huge kitchen, a chilled walk-in wine cellar, outdoor herb garden, large swimming pool, 4 en-suite bedrooms and two spacious outdoor dining areas.
The Uplands Homestead reminded me more of a Karen Blixen ‘Out of Africa’ safari property. The homestead is an old farmhouse, built in the 1800’s, and lovingly restored. It retains its old-world charm and still has the original wooden flooring. This elegant home has 3 en-suite bedrooms with the main bedroom boasting a bath so large that they had to remove the ceiling to crane it in!
Activities include twice daily game drives, a guided walking safari, catch and release fishing at Galpin Dam, conservation with rhino tracking, and erosion regeneration with Spekboom planting. There is also a junior rangers programme on offer with age appropriate backpacks with various goodies from sticker books to magnifying glasses. There were so many highlights on the game drives. Each morning and evening stop was something special, including a freshly made crumpet breakfast stop and a delicious Mediterranean meze platter sundowner stop. I was most impressed that they served Bloody Marys with celery as this is my absolute favourite sundowner beverage.
The spekboom planting makes each guest feel like they are really contributing to the conservation efforts at the reserve by assisting with soil erosion. We all got to plant a spekboom at no additional cost. Our ranger Dave, explained to us that the plant is excellent for removing carbon dioxide and improving the quality of air we breathe. It also helps with binding the soil disrupted by the cattle that previously inhabited the area. Galpin Dam is the largest dam on the property with plenty of bass. Everyone enjoyed the catch and release fishing at Galpin Dam, as it is not something that we usually get to experience on a safari. One of the guests managed to catch a fair size bass which stirred a lot of excitement within our group! It was swiftly released back into the dam.
I have to say after all the positives, the highlight at Kwandwe is undoubtedly the high quality of game viewing. I have had the privilege of visiting many reserves and national parks in my lifetime, but I have never ever seen a cheetah and leopard on one game drive before. I have also never seen the entire Big Five within 24 hours – but we did at Kwandwe! There was hardly a 5-minutes gap on each game drive when we didn’t see an animal. This was made possible through the knowledge and experience of our dedicated ranger Dave and our incredible tracker Suki, who has been with Kwandwe for over 17 years. I learnt so much through the many interesting anecdotes and facts about the various fauna and indigenous flora.
I also really enjoyed the diverse terrain and different landscapes from rolling hills and grassy plains and savannah to thick bush, all in one game drive. This ensures that the reserve is suitable for many kinds of wildlife from leopard tortoises (one of the Small 5 animals) to the world’s largest antelope – the Eland.
I highly recommend it for clients who want to experience a world-class safari in South Africa and see plenty of wildlife during their stay. It is also a great option for twitchers who want to have one of the best bird watching experiences with over 300 bird species recorded in the reserve.
I would like to extend a massive thank you to Michelle for the invitation, Graeme who assisted with hosting us and showing us around the various lodges, and of course our ranger Dave and tracker Suki. What a special gem this reserve is!