We could see for miles. Rolling hills, vegetated and green… just how it used to be.  This was the Kwandwe I had heard so much about, its conservation and community success stories, and its history and culture.

From the early San inhabitants, whose rock art reveals the once abundant wildlife, to the Frontier Wars (1779-1878) between the English settlers, Dutch farmers and resident Xhosa nation. To the many years of farming – first ostrich for their exotic feathers, and then cattle – hunting and poaching which saw amongst other, the decimation of the local cheetah population.

We were driving through the reserve with Graeme Mann, GM of Kwandwe Private Game Reserve, on our way to the Mgcamabele Community Centre. In some way the Centre is at the centre of everything that Kwandwe is about, so it was fitting to be spending some time there. When Kwandwe first started early in 2000, the vision was to not only develop and restore a piece of land back to its former glory but to establish a means of employment and social development for those communities living in this poverty stricken region in the Eastern Cape.

The initiation of Kwandwe’s social development arm, the Ubunye Foundation (previously the Angus Gillis Foundation), in 2002 saw energy and resources being focused on these local communities. What sets the Ubunye Foundation apart from so many other social development operations is that it focuses on facilitating an asset-based approach to development where the key is community participation in preference to purely a needs based approach – ‘it’s all about harnessing people’s potential rather that focusing on what they lack’.

kids shoesWe were visiting the Mgcamabele Community pre-school and day care centre that was established on the reserve for staff children – Graeme’s son is one of the children that delight in the daily programme of creativity, learning, play time and rest. The kids also receive a snack and lunch to keep them going through their busy day.

We arrived during nap time, and were greeted with the synchronised sounds of blissful sleep instead of the usual song and dance. This gave us time to check out the computer training centre that is used for one of the adult based education programmes, we learnt about the savings programme and how this provides life skills and financial education as well as the foundation for income generating projects and entrepreneurial endeavours. Examples of these projects include weaving, beading, soap making, bee-keeping, vegetable and herb gardens as well as spaza shops – many operated by women, who often bear the brunt of economic hardship and family issues.  Some of these gardens supply fresh produce to the kitchens of the lodges within Kwandwe.

Another successful project is the Siyakhila doll-making cooperative, which incorporates traditional handcrafts such as beading, braiding and sewing. These dolls are available for guests to purchase at the Kwandwe safari shop.

IMG_8147We pause a while to watch an old bull elephant as he feeds on low growing scrub, the tell tale weeping from the temporal glands evidence that he is coming into musth. He is pretty chilled, but we choose to leave him in peace. Graeme continues to tell us what a mammoth task it was to reclaim the 22,000 hectares of farmland that stretched out on either side of the Great Fish River and then remove over 3,000 km of fencing, telephone lines and water troughs.

“Thankfully the vegetation was in good condition and ready for  the re-introduction of game” he says, “and now this land is once more abundant with thousands of animals, including lion, black and white rhino, buffalo, elephant and cheetah in their natural environment”.  I had to agree, this most certainly was a conservation victory.

poolside at KwandweBack at Ecca Lodge, we took some time to relax in our spacious suite, its interiors reflecting the natural hues of the bush, its furnishings clean and contemporary with a somewhat funky feel.  Enjoying the privacy of the (relatively) warm plunge pool and outdoor shower had me feeling a tad risque… the only audience a Southern boubou, keeping a discreet distance.

20160418_092830On our first couple of game drives we had Ryan our ranger to ourselves, and as luck would have it, he was a birding fundi, something we as wannabe birders were delighted about. We spotted the ghostly form of a Southern pale chanting goshawk in the early light of dawn, watched as a black-winged stilt foraged in the shallows of the dam and delighted at the unexpected sight of a greater flamingo.

We even ‘saw’ an Egyptian goose high on a cliff, spotted by our tracker… that turned out to be a lanner falcon – much to the hilarity of us all. It was great to know he was human, as his tracking skills had led us to consider otherwise.

coffee stop on game driveFederico and Maria from Florida had joined us, and as this was their first safari experience it was obvious that the Big 5 would be high on their list. It wasn’t long before we stopped… for a little bird in the distance, and a LBJ (little brown job) at that!

According to Ryan it was an ant-eating chat, not convinced, my hubby found his birding app with its bird calls and moments later the little bird was ‘chattering’ in the bush alongside the vehicle – Federico was amazed and his comment ‘ok, I can go home now’ set the tone for a fabulous couple of drives. We somehow knew that the ‘big’ sightings would be great, but they weren’t what would make our game experience special.

cheetahAnd yes, we did see lion, cheetah and buffalo… bat-eared fox and aardwolf as well as many more birds, a leopard tortoise and a variety of antelope. We shared conversation, laughter and binoculars; G&T’s, biltong and Amarula ‘bush coffee’… as well as a very special moment. It was unexpected and took us by surprise, we had been searching for a leopard, it was being elusive so we stopped for coffee.

It happened a short distance away, and the first we knew was when Federico apologised “sorry about all the kissing, but we just got engaged… we have so enjoyed our time together that we wanted to share it with you”. Any thought of a leopard sighting now a thing of the past, we toasted the occasion with coffee, and again with bubbly at the Lodge.

20160419_095646It was a special moment, and such a privilege to share in it. ‘This epitomises a ‘bush’ experience’, I thought to myself, confirming that when on safari it’s not always the ‘big’ sightings that are the most memorable.