The Alternative South African Safari

Seeing South Africa’s big five in their natural habitat needn’t break the bank. Within two hours of Port Elizabeth lie both the Amakhala Nature reserve and Addo Elephant Park

Article by Louise Gillespie

Whether a budding photographer, art lover or wildlife enthusiast, a visit to this year’s World Wildlife Photographer of The Year exhibition at London’s Natural History Museum is well worth the trip. One of the more shocking images selected by the judges is a prize-winning series of photographs that tells the story of the illegal poaching of African rhino horn. The main image is that of an African rhino slumped on the ground with a gaping wound in its face where its horn once proudly protruded. The photographer wanted to share the plight of the African rhino as it fights for its existence against poachers seeking their horns for the Asian market where their value for medicinal or most disturbingly for improving one’s society status continues to soar.

A journey to the expansive plains of the Kruger National Park in South Africa to witness the majestic Rhino in its natural habitat is truly awe inspiring, however it can add a considerable amount to a budget especially if you are already planning on including Cape Town and the wine regions in your itinerary. For those taking a trip to Cape Town who fancy a less pocket burning and more accessible wildlife experience, then a short hop to Port Elizabeth is highly recommended. Just an hour’s drive from the industrial coastal city of PE lies a variety of parks, private reserves and conservation areas that play home to Africa’s big five.

Amakhala is one such reserve which covers an area of 21,000 acres and is an easy drive from the city. The reserve features a beautiful hilly landscape with sweeping ridges from which you can look down upon the herds of elephant, springbok and wildebeest grazing below. Amakhala has a range of accommodation styles from 1920’s tented camps to the more luxurious Bukela Lodge and Hlosi suites which are exceptionally family friendly. Each accommodation offers daily game drives with local experts. Our driver, Juan-Luc, was an avid bird enthusiast with an exceptionally keen eye for spotting the most camouflaged creatures. As we drove along he pointed out the bright blue pearl breasted swallows that were ducking and weaving through the grasses alongside the vehicle. These little birds clearly believed our vehicle was a wild creature as it threw up insects in its wake and the birds swoop down to feed on their prey.

As we crested a ridge we came across a white Land Rover with ‘Chipembere Rhino Foundation’ on its side and a guard sat within. He was part of the Rhino Protection Programme. The many images in the press of gunmen surrounding rhinos like bodyguards had caught my attention back in the UK, but the stark realisation of seeing a part of this programme in person made me realise that of all the creatures in the reservation, it was the people inside our own vehicle who had the capability to be the most dangerous. We rounded a corner and discovered a female rhino sat peacefully amidst the bushes, her ears flicking back and forth in an effort to determine exactly what we were. Rhinos have a very keen sense of hearing to compensate for their poor eye sight; lifting her head to acknowledge our presence, her magnificent horn seemed to gleam in the sunlight. We left the rhino in peace and journeyed on to meet a family of cheetahs and spent a happy hour watching them taunt a group of hapless warthogs before we discovered a majestic male lion flanked by two lionesses stalking through the grasses.

The great thing about traveling in this part of South Africa is the sheer diversity.  A short drive took us from Amakhala across to Addo Elephant Park and up into the Zuurberg Mountain range to the spectacular hideaway of Camp Figtree. This is one of the few places that I am reluctant to write about for fear of more people visiting and preventing me from getting a room.

Situated at the end of a winding gravel road, high up in the mountains, Camp Figtree offers spectacular views of the surrounding lush mountains. Dotted with the vibrant purples of jacaranda trees, the carpet of green envelops the nine tented suites which are charmingly connected by wooden boardwalks. We stayed in the last suite with panoramic views that take your breath away. After the concierge had shown us our rainfall shower, our bath complete with organic toiletries, our four-poster bed and indoor and outdoor seating area he advised me that as I was from London I needn’t worry about where my next caffeine fix would come from. He assured me that a flask of hot coffee would arrive outside my door every morning.  Upon leaving he casually offered over his shoulder “oh and watch out for the baboons in the morning.” Needless to say, we checked the door was locked immediately after he departed.

True to his word, I awoke to a steaming flask complete with a little caddy of milk outside our door. We sat drinking coffee on our veranda listening to the sounds of the wildlife coming to life; a morning chorus like no other.

Camp Figtree organise daily drives to Addo Elephant Park and further afield if requested. We chose to head to Addo and as we meandered down the steep gravel drive we kept a keen eye out for giraffe and elephant hidden amidst the surrounding orange groves. We drove through the park gates and after a short drive came to a sudden stop. We all grabbed our cameras, leaning out eagerly, fingers paused ready to snap whatever beast was around us. But we saw nothing! We had in fact stopped to let a small black dung beetle cross the road. Oblivious to the waiting audience, or perhaps enjoying his moment on stage, it ambled along. A protected species, squishing a dung beetle in the park comes with a hefty fine so these little creatures have right of way.

Onwards we went and stopped at a large waterhole where a herd of elephants were enjoying the waters: swimming, drinking and splashing about. It was a very special experience to watch these majestic creatures cavorting in the water. We felt that a day spent watching nothing else would have been a day well spent, but Addo had more to offer us and we drove past zebra, karibu, warthogs and hyena. Through the thick bushes we saw the tips of large ears as elephants comically hid themselves in the undergrowth. Soon a herd crossed the road in front of us in parade format with three babies sandwiched protectively between them.

It was back at the hotel, sipping a gin and tonic on the veranda of the old colonial style property that we were given an insight into conservation and poaching from a local viewpoint. Simba, one of the many superb staff at the hotel, described the unbreakable connection he felt with the country and its wildlife. When talking about the poaching of rhino horn, he explained that the ignorance and corruption which lay at the heart of the problem was something that needed to be addressed before any major changes could occur. Yet Simba seemed positive about the changing views of the tourists which visited the hotel and the surrounding parks. There seemed to have been a shift in mentality from just wanting to take a picture with a big animal to actually questioning and seeking to understand the conservation efforts that enabled tourists to see these impressive creatures.

Kruger may offer considerably more space and more wildlife, but to see at first hand the humanitarian efforts to save Africa’s magnificent creatures, there really is no experience quite like a visit to Amakhala and Camp Figtree.   riddle_stop 2



Rooms in Bukela Lodge at Amakhala Game Reserve start from £318 /

Rooms at Camp Figtree start from £205 /

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