An unforgettable day at Kariega Game Reserve, South Africa
As soon as I arrived at Kariega Game Reserve, I was instantly impressed. I was met by Robert, a Malawian who had the warmest smile. He took my bag and told me that my boat transfer would be arriving soon but, in the meantime, I could enjoy a cool drink on the jetty next to the river. Here, he told me that Kariega had been owned and operated by the Rushmere family since 1989, and that today, the area is home to the Big Five. Protection of the wildlife in collaboration with the local community is central to the reserve’s ethos and a great success story.
Kariega is situated in South Africa’s Eastern Cape, 80 minutes from Port Elizabeth. There are five properties, each with a character of its own; from honeymooners to families, there is something for everyone. I was staying at Settlers Drift, the most comfortable lodge on the reserve. Without a doubt, this is our favourite bush retreat here and we would recommend this to couples and groups of friends alike. The boat pulled up and out jumped Wayne, the lodge’s head guide. Engaging and full of energy, he has been at Kariega for nine years and has worked at Settlers Drift since it opened in 2014. We jumped onto the boat and cruised up the Bushmans River for half an hour until we arrive at the lodge. What an entrance!
On our first game drive, I was blown away by Kariega’s landscape and topography. It was the most beautiful I have ever seen in the Eastern Cape. Wayne took us up to the highest point in the reserve and we watched a herd of elephants cross the plains below like ants. It is hard to imagine that this used to be farmland, where farmers hunted the local wildlife in order to protect their herds. Wayne told us that, in the past, large numbers of indigenous species were brought close to extinction. However, the conservation efforts of the team at Kariega have meant that wildlife here has experienced an incredible revival. For clients who are interested in finding out more about this, we can arrange for you to join the Conservation Volunteer Programme. This will give you the opportunity to get your hands dirty and learn more about conservation management with the help of the local community on a Big Five game reserve.
We headed back down to the valley floor to the elephants – a breeding herd with some babies. Usually a herd such as this would keep their distance from the vehicle, as the mothers are often protective of their young, but these elephants came unbelievably close to us. As they passed by, Wayne explained that if you treat elephants well, they will do the same to you. It is obvious that Kariega is doing wonders with their animals.
Later, as we sipped our sundowners, we could hear lions calling in the distance. We guzzled down our G&Ts and jumped back into the car to go and find them. Wayne explained to us that we could hear the two big male lions calling for the females, and told us he had a good feeling as to where they might be. After nine years at Kariega, he knows the movements of all of the animals very well. Soon, we arrived in the area that he thought they might be in and we started tracking. By now, it was pitch-black, so Wayne used his spotlight to try and catch the reflection of their eyes. We heard another roar. It was clear they must be nearby. He moved the car to a new spot and we looked again with the light. Nothing. I had been in situations similar to this before, where the guide would have given up, but Wayne was determined to keep going. It was like an exhilarating game of blind man’s bluff.
Finally, Wayne parked in a new spot and turned off the engine. We remained in silence. I was busy daydreaming watching the stars dance above me, when my body started to vibrate as a lion’s roar went straight through me. We turned on the spotlight and there they were, hidden in the long grass just 10 metres from us. We were awe-struck. We sat there for a few minutes, just enjoying the moment, and then began to head back towards the lodge. However, the night was certainly not over. First, we saw a porcupine, then a nocturnal bush pig and then we turned a corner and spotted an aardvark. This was the first aardvark I had ever seen and, without realising, I let out a shriek of excitement. We also saw another two porcupines, making this my best ever night drive.
On our return, over dinner, we discussed the day and talked about our incredible sightings. Wayne said that with the Kariega and Bushman rivers running through the reserve, together with five distinct ecosystems – including valley bushveld, savannah, fynbos, riverine forests and acacia woodland – guests are guaranteed a wonderful range of wildlife and there is never a dull moment on safari drives.
Here, at cazenove+loyd, we always tell our clients that a guide can really make or break your experience. Spectacular Kariega has some fantastic guides who know these animals so well; therefore, I put my magical day down to my guide – and, of course, the reserve itself. We would recommend Kariega to anyone looking to explore an unspoilt, malaria-free and untouristy South African private reserve, with glorious, varied scenery that is home to bountiful wildlife.
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