Tibby and I stayed for four nights from 21st November 2020 at Shamwari Private Game Reserve which is 80km from Port Elizabeth in South Africa.
Shamwari is an expensive reserve catering almost exclusively to foreign guests. At this time there are almost no foreign guests, so they have mothballed five of their seven camps and are offering heavily discounted rates to South Africans. We took advantage of that offer.
Shamwari is 25,000 hectares in size, slightly smaller than the Mountain Zebra National Park, 200km north. It is only 30km from the Addo Elephant National Park which is six times bigger. This area of the Eastern Cape used to teem with animals but they were largely hunted out in the 1700s and 1800s. A far smaller Addo Elephant National Park was created in 1931 to preserve the last seven elephants in the area. Today there are 600 elephants in the enlarged park. Shamwari was created in 1992 by combining several overgrazed farms and was extended over the years. Several other private game reserves have since been created in the area. This is an attractive game viewing area for tourists because it is malaria free. Shamwari has a full time ecologist who ensures that the diversity of game is maintained and managed. Animals are swapped with other reserves to avoid inbreeding. The area has experienced a drought for several years and thus large numbers of animals, including hippo, have been transferred off the reserve. Many of the female lions and elephants have been put on contraception to also keep animal numbers contained through this challenging time. Having said that game numbers are high enough for the tourists to be kept satisfied. I saw four of the big five within five kilometres of the main lodge. It is the philosophy of the Reserve that game drive vehicles can go off road to get closer to animals but not to the extent of stressing them. A distance is kept from the animals allowing them to move closer if they want. That does mean, that in general, the animals are not skittish and one can get close, especially to the large animals.
Our game guide
Because of the low number of guests we were assigned a guide who was our host for the duration of our visit. He is Timothy Donnelly who I rank as one of the best of the three hundred game guides that I have experienced. Timothy has an intense and deep love of conservation, has a detailed knowledge of a huge variety of conservation subjects, knows and loves the Shamwari Reserve intimately, was hugely sensitive to our interests and was a delightful and caring host. Our experience of the reserve was hugely enhanced by his guiding. I did seven game drives with Timothy with a total duration of about 24 hours.
Geography, topography and scenery
Shamwari is home to five of South Africa’s seven biomes making it a very enjoyable place to experience. One moves quickly from plains through scrubland to forests and from riverbeds through deep gorges and wide valleys to mountain ridges and peaks. The soil is white one moment, rocky for a while and a few kilometres later is deep red. This is an exciting environment to experience.
There are three prides of lion in the Reserve plus a few lone males. We saw members of the Southern Pride twice. The pride comprises a mother and four eighteen month old youngsters, three of which are female.
I had a game viewing experience that was completely novel. We spent time with two of the eighteen month old lionesses when Timothy expressed the view that one of them was interested in a nearby Angulate tortoise. These tortoises are very small and a fully grown adult is only about five inches high. He was correct and the lioness approached the tortoise and picked it up in her mouth. She tried to crush it with her jaws but the shell was too hard so she played with it like a ball for a few minutes. Her sister distracted her so they moved away from the tortoise. After a few minutes the tortoise made a run for it (not very fast) which attracted the attention of the original lioness. She repeated the process of capturing the tortoise in her mouth, failing to crush it with her jaws, playing with it and then being distracted. The tortoise decided not to move. Eventually we moved on and so I do not know what the outcome was, but I suspect that the tortoise eventually lived to tell the tale.
It is the prime responsibility of parents to prepare their children to be independent. This is even more true in the animal kingdom. The mother of the Southern Pride has been hunting alone since the birth of her children which must have been a challenge. She is teaching them to hunt but they still have a way to go. We have heard how one of them was very confused by a tortoise. On our last morning we saw more examples of the need for more training. Lions very rarely hunt giraffe because they are hard to bring down and can inflict serious injuries by kicking. When lions do hunt giraffes several lions are needed to bring down a giraffe. We were therefore amazed when we came across one of the young lionesses stalking three giraffes. The giraffes looked at the lioness with disdain, not believing what they were seeing but when she charged they were forced to canter for a short distance to rid themselves of this pesky nuisance. She then turned her attention to a more manageable group of impala which she herded, like a sheep dog, towards her sister. The impala were completely unaware of the sister lion near them but she did not have the nerve to tackle them and so they escaped. The last photo shows the lioness crouched just beyond the impala. The mother lioness sat higher up the hill, with a heavy heart, as she realised that lots more training was needed.
The father of the Southern Pride youngsters avoids fatherly duties and largely wanders by himself. We found him on the edge of a plain on the third day. He wasn’t bothered by us at all and deigned to raise his head for a short while.
Up in the north of the Reserve on the fourth day we were high on a ridge when we saw the male of the Northern Pride relaxing in a small clearing below us. We circled down and saw glimpses of other members of the Pride. And then a lioness called to her very young cubs and displayed them to us on the catwalk. There are four cubs but I could only capture three of them together. The Pride as a whole, including the four new arrivals, seemed to number twelve.
The reserve have ninety elephants in several separate herds. One sees elephants on most game drives. I like to focus on parts of the animal when I photograph.
On the afternoon of the fourth day we were making our way along a valley running from south to north. There was thick vegetation either side of the track so there was little place to escape. We rounded a corner to come across two white rhino blocking our way. We retreated a small distance and gave them time to escape from us. After five minutes we inched forward to find that they had disappeared. At that moment a young male elephant appeared coming down the track towards us. We had no time to move away. The elephant flapped his ears and trumpeted and hesitated in front of us. Timothy started talking to the elephant in a soft voice, asking him to calm down, not to worry and pass us quietly. We eased back and to the side of the track and the elephant passed by on the other side.
Shamwari has an undisclosed number, but a lot, of rhinos. A few have had their horns cut short to make them safe from poachers but the ecologist on the Reserve has concluded that rhinos with amputated horns behave differently and so they have suspended this programme.
All the above photos are of white rhino. Black rhino live in thickets and are more skittish than white rhino. On the last morning we came across a black rhino in a clearing. We stopped about one hundred metres from him but on his path. Rhinos have very poor eyesight so he continued approaching us trying to work out the source of the noise he had heard. About twenty metres from us he accelerated into a mock charge for about eight metres and then turned and ran into the bushes.
On the morning of the fourth day, in the north of the Reserve, we came across a herd of about thirty buffalo who were unconcerned by our presence.
There are two cheetah brothers on the Reserve. They are very comfortable with being approached by game drive trucks so one can get close. We saw them relaxing on the first game drive we did.
On the way back from the north on the afternoon of the fourth day, about 15km from the first sighting, we came across them again and photographed them in the setting sun.
Unusually the Reserve has both Impala and Springbok and there were plenty of both around. We also saw kudu, water buck, red hartebeest and mountain reedbuck.
Because of the drought there is very little water in the dams of the Reserve and the Bushman’s River only has a few stagnant pools so there is little space for hippos. Most have been moved to reserves out of the area, with dams. The water level of two dams in the north are maintained by pumping from boreholes. We were happy to see a couple of hippos in that dam.
We saw lots of giraffe, zebra, warthogs, monkeys, hares and dung beetles.
Leopards have a lifespan of fifteen years. Leopard tortoises have a lifespan of ninety years. I suspect this tortoise has seen a few generations of leopards.
I am not a birder but enjoy seeing and hearing birds although my camera lens is not long enough to do them justice. We saw surprisingly few raptors except for Fish Eagles.
Tibby and I both attended Bryanston Primary School in Sandton, South Africa. Their school badge displays a hoopoe, which is colourful bird found in that area. There were lots of hoopoes in the reserve which made us very happy.
Otherwise I photographed birds when I could, and most times they escaped before I could raise my camera.
Although my family has deep horticultural roots I am an ignoramus when it comes to identifying flowers, plants and trees. I do, however, appreciate their beauty. There were some beautiful flowers in the Reserve.
In my view Shamwari has a wonderful physical location and is managing its game very well. Our game guide, Timothy was outstanding. Tibby’s beauty therapist was one of the best of the many she has experienced. The rooms and communal areas are well appointed and very comfortable. I appreciate that these are difficult times, that the reserve was closed during lockdown and that guest numbers are very low. However, I feel that the front office, restaurant serving staff and the chef all need further training. They are currently not providing the five star service that they should.
Round trip to Grahamstown and Port Alfred
We did a five hour trip from the Reserve to Grahamstown and Port Alfred and back along the coast past Kenton. We stopped at the 1820 monument near Grahamstown to find that it is a performance venue with very limited information about the 1820 settlers. We tried to access Rhodes University but were turned back. The rest of Grahamstown was a disappointment.
The drive down to Port Alfred was very attractive. The Royal Alfred Marina is very pretty. The beaches are impressive. We had a pleasant lunch at Tash’s with a lovely view of the river. It is clear why so many like this town.
The drive back was delightful.
Addo Elephant National Park
I did a six hour trip to Addo, entering in the north at the Main Camp, passing Gwarrie Pan, Rooidam and Harpoor Dam and then taking the main road to the Matyholweni Gate.
I have visited Addo and seen almost no elephants but normally I see a lot. This trip was the latter. Normally there are elephants at Harpoor Dam. This time there were none although as I drove for the next ten minutes, I came across herds moving in that direction. At every other waterhole, and in between, I saw elephants in huge numbers, including many babies. There was also a sprinkling of other game including a large herd of buffalo which were heading to the road. I did not wait for them because we had had such a good buffalo viewing that morning in Shamwari. Addo offers a comprehensive and easy game viewing experience.
The map of the park shows a coastal section, confusingly called Colchester, which is also the name of the southern part of the park. I tried to get access to this section but was told that the principal area of interest was the beach, with no other roads and access being through a private resort with a fee payable. I did not follow that route but then did a 50km loop off the R72 which brought me close to the back of very high sand dunes, but with no beach access. This is fertile land with big dairy herds.
And then our lovely four days came to an end.