confession of a safari virgin

First published in the Cape Argus on October 1, 2012

As a reporter I’ve written many stories about rhino poaching. Of course we don’t want our rhinos killed for their horns – they are part of our African heritage and a useful earner of tourist revenue.

I understood all that. But it was only when we were driving through the depths of the Shamwari bush, and came upon a white rhino and her calf, that I truly got it. She stood there, grazing and ignoring the click of our cameras.

She was huge, magnificent and majestic, and somehow timeless.

When I was growing up, in what was then called Bophuthatswana, holidays were a fairly simple affair.

My siblings and I had two choices: we were either staying at home with my father’s side of the family or getting into a taxi to Soweto to visit my mother’s side.

I didn’t go on a real holiday to another country until last year, and neither did I go to the sea until well into my adulthood.

And I was grown up before I understood the meaning of going on a safari – my experience at Shamwari a few weeks ago being my introduction to the “African safari experience”.

I joined a group of journalists for a weekend at the famous Eastern Cape reserve where we were to spend a night at the Shamwari Explorer camp, followed by a night at the luxurious Villa Lobengula.

I didn’t know what to expect.

After an hour’s drive from Port Elizabeth airport we arrived at the reserve with our host for the evening, Geran, who had entertained us during the drive with stories of some of his safari exploits all over the continent.

Once in the reserve we were loaded on to a game vehicle for an afternoon drive before heading off to Explorer Camp, where Geran would be hosting us for the night.

After a game drive that included a traffic jam caused by three giraffes who had gone walkabout in the main road, and a stop-off to watch the rhino and her calf as they grazed on the side of the road, we arrived at Explorer Camp.

But not before following two cheetahs which were on what seemed like a late-afternoon hunt.

We diddn’t immediately know we had arrived at the camp, because it is hidden behind trees and a large boulder that the reserve has used for maximum effect by building a wooden deck on top of it.

The view of the sunset was breathtaking.

The sundowners went down well with the sound of animals and birds providing the soundtrack to our conversations. Amid all that natural beauty I felt rather insignificant – it was a humbling experience.

After drinks we were shown to our tents, which were fitted with two beds, lights and all our camping needs, right down to a headlamp.

We finished the evening with a braai and conversation around the fire as Geran reassured us that there was electric fencing around the camp to protect us from wandering predators, not to mention the odd elephant.

In the morning we set off for a game walk – it seemed surreal to be looking at the animals up close, at eye-level rather than from the safety of a vehicle.

Rifle in hand, Geran led the way and pointed out spoor indicating the animals that had wandered around the area at night.

In the distance we saw some giraffes catching the morning sun, and as we were about to finish our walk we spotted a group of animals that included warthogs and impalas, but they shot off in all directions as we got closer.

After our walk we had a good brunch at Explorer Camp before setting off for our luxury experience at Villa Lobengula. It is an indication of the size of Shamwari that Explorer Camp and Villa Lobengula are an hour’s drive apart.

During our journey we saw zebras, whose elegant stripes make them my favourite animals, and a tortoise crossing the road.

The villa is all luxury. We were treated to chocolate cake before being shown to our rooms, then had a massage, somewhere between Thai and Swedish style, before dinner and drinks around a blazing fire.

They’re keen on the preservation of the body at Shamwari – before breakfast we had a yoga session, my first.

There is something calming about the villa and its surrounds. The minimalist décor, with lots of white and open space in the room, adds to the sense of peace.

The couple who run the villa explained that they wanted guests to have a tranquil and relaxing time and that activities such as game drives, spa treatments and picnics were available.

There are no set times; Lobengula fits its schedules around your needs and wants.

The food was excellent – it is sourced, we were told, as locally as possible, with vegetables grown on the property.

After a day of roughing it – well, slightly – at the Explorer Camp, followed by five-star luxury at the villa, leaving on Sunday for the airport was a mournful experience.

The contrast from camping to luxury, from yoga to massage, from viewing the world from a vehicle to seeing animals while walking, made for a beautiful balance.

Shamwari is not cheap, and I realised this was probably a once-in-a-lifetime experience.

That being so, I’m glad it was spent in the hands of people who clearly enjoyed what they were doing and went out of their way to make our group feel comfortable.

And best of all, I saw a pair of rhinos and understood why they are worth fighting for. They belong here, dammit.

I was a guest of Shamwari Game Reserve in the Eastern Cape, an hour from the Port Elizabeth Airport.


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