The land before time
Originally published in Cape Etc magazine
‘Just ring for an escort if you come to dinner after dark,’ says Linda, who’s showing us around Gondwana’s Kwena Lodge. ‘A few weeks ago we had lions sitting over there.’ She gestures to the long grass disturbingly close to the foot path.
‘Don’t we need an escort during the day?’ I ask, trying to sound equally at ease with deadly predators in the shrubbery.
‘Oh, no, you’ll probably spot anything before it gets too close,’ she cheerfully reassures us.
That’s the thing about Gondwana – it’s about as close to the bush as you are likely to get anywhere in South Africa, with no fences separating the lodge from its 11 000 ha of protected reserve. Here, ongoing conservation projects protect the likes of cheetah, leopard, white and black rhino, Cape mountain zebra and endangered species of fynbos. The reserve takes its name from Gondwanaland, the southern supercontinent of some 120 million years ago, before the landmass split into the continents we know today.
We make it to our hut in one piece, though ‘hut’ doesn’t really do this modern take on the traditional Khoisan dwelling justice. Each suite has been cut into the hillside, so that only the rounded thatched roof is visible from the road, making Kwena look more like a semicircle of 14 giant molehills, blending seamlessly with the surroundings. Inside, the open-plan suite is spacious and cool, with an open shower, a luxurious bath overlooking the bush and – the pièce de résistance – a circular skylight above the king-sized bed for a little stargazing.
We have a bit of time for a laze on our stoep’s deckchairs before reporting for high tea and an afternoon game drive. A stone’s throw away the indigo water of the lodge’s infinity pool reflects the few puffy white clouds scudding across the sky. If it weren’t for another guest reading in the cocoon of a covered lounger at the water’s edge, I’d half expect an antelope to wander over for a drink. But high tea waits for no one, so rather than dive into one of those rippling clouds, we head up to the bar area, where pots of tea are flanked by little confectionery armies.
‘I am Delicious,’ says a voice. I wonder if I’ve stepped into some African version of Alice in Wonderland and double-check that the tea-bag tags aren't tiny 'drink me' labels,
‘Perhaps I should say, “My name is Delicious”,’ says the voice, which turns out to belong to our ranger. ‘Before the husbands are getting jealous,’ he adds.
A few pastries later and we’re trundling into the bush in the Landie. Zimbabwean-born Delicious has been in khaki for 22 years, six of those at Gondwana, and he knows its latticework of roads and jeep tracks better than any GPS ever could.
Unlike some reserves, which fence off or feed their animals to guarantee sightings, Gondwana is more about heading off into the unknown to see what you can see. You may not tick the big five off your list on your first drive, but where would be the reward in that? A big-five sighting is on everyone’s bucket list, but the chance to spot an African wild cat, tiny grey duiker or iridescent boomslang (tree snake) shouldn’t be far behind.
Having said that, our afternoon gets off to a flying start with a trio of browsing giraffe, their tall necks reaching way up into the blue domed ceiling of the world; their long tongues questing out to nab a stray leaf from time to time. Contriving to be both majestic and remarkably silly-looking at the same time, the giraffe nonetheless play second fiddle to a rhino stomping its way past the vehicle, as cool as three tons of cucumber. If you’re lucky enough to see one of these animals, freeze the mental image and hold on to it tightly. Thanks to the poaching crisis, there’s a very real chance the future holds nothing but children’s tales of when rhino walked the Earth.
This particular large lady is a white rhino, though the name has nothing to do with her colour. There’s a theory that ‘white’ is actually a mistranslation of the Dutch word wijd (wide), referring to her square jaw, adapted to grazing. Black rhino, on the other hand, have curved mouths for browsing on shrubs and trees.
But, of course, it’s the horns our friends in the East are after. The behemoth beside us is minus one, though not due to poaching or even preventative measures. She woke up angry inside the game capture vehicle transporting her here, Delicious tells us, and charged into the side of the truck, breaking off her horn. Even without the prized appendage, she’s a beautiful allegory of the African bush: proud, strong, enduring – and you wouldn’t want to wake up anywhere near her in the dark.
Sundowner hour finds us ranged along a ridge beside the vehicle, sipping on gin and tonic, beer and local wine. Grey clouds have shouldered their way across the sky, but shards of light are piercing through to touch the green valley floor. In that moment, even the most hardened atheist could see why Africa is described as God’s own country.
The Outeniqua and Langeberg mountain ranges overlook the reserve from the north, east and west, and every now and again on the game drives you can spot the Indian Ocean in the distance, sublimely incongruous. In the fading light, all the colours seem richer, as though, like the animals, they were merely resting in a patch of shade, waiting for the sun to ease off before coming out to explore the landscape.
It’s an effort to leave that perfect spot, but ‘Deli’ is packing up the bar and dropping hints that whet our appetite for dinner. All meals are included during your stay at Gondwana. Tonight we feast on melt-in-your-mouth fillet and traditional malva pudding. In our future are venison skewers, crocodile carpaccio, linefish in an acqua pazza sauce and other delights from chef JC Nortier, but for now, it’s time to turn in – a 5:30 am wake-up call looms.
And that’s how the days pass at Gondwana: Delicious game drives, delicious food, repeat. In between, there’s time for catnaps in the sun and finally slipping into the cool water of the best-positioned pool in the Cape.
We see a pair of hippo watching us from a dam, nothing but their eyes and adorably twitchy ears visible above the water, and later, a lone male ripping up grass, his massive rump giving the vehicle a run for its money, size-wise. A bachelor herd of eland, Africa’s largest antelope, regards us solemnly. The rumble of the Landie startles a pair of beagle-sized bushbuck, which shoot across our path and into the trees. We watch a lion watch his lioness watch a herd of wildebeest. We spot the rare Cape mountain zebra, and their more prevalent plains cousins, with foals. We nearly die of nerves as an elephant investigates the front of our vehicle with its trunk, pacified by a soothing word from Deli, who says he talks to the bull every day.
Now it’s the final morning and we have been huddled under ponchos in the vehicle for more than an hour without spotting a thing, somewhat disappointingly. But that’s not quite true, I realise. If you open your eyes, Gondwana has much to show you – even without an animal encounter every few minutes. The landscape is anything but monotonous: now sweeping plains, now rolling hills, now multicoloured fynbos, now shoulder-high protea forests. The rising sun is turning the tall grass to silver as birds flit from tree to bush to sky, and insects whirr and chirrup all around.
And suddenly, just as I’ve made peace with the still morning, there in the grass is a cheetah making its way towards some shade. It ripples over the ground like a spotted breeze, all lithe muscle and watchful tear-stained face. In a way, it’s a lot like the reserve itself; unexpectedly appearing in the middle of nowhere, but so beautiful, so vital and so full of secrets, you can’t help but want to stay and stare at it for days.
Photo by David Clode