By Hayley Kannemeyer
When one thinks of birthdays or anniversaries of family members, fond memories and moments of growth are captured and shared with each another.
With our time spent at Shamwari Private Game Reserve, we might have arrived as strangers, yet surely departed as family—sharing in the tales of growth, milestones reached, development of people, and pure passion from every member on staff.
While being famous for its busy port and as the birth province of the late Nelson Mandela, we’ve discovered yet another reason to explore this part of our beautiful country—the Eastern Cape. A mere 75 kilometres from the metropole of Gqeberha (formerly Port Elizabeth), driving over the Sundays River, one is welcomed by the rolling hills of Shamwari Private Game Reserve. This wildlife sanctuary spans an area of 250 square kilometres, with the 27km long Bushman’s River dissecting the reserve over a vast distance.
In October 2022, Shamwari celebrated 30 years of existence. It was back in 1992 when elephant, white rhino and hippo were first reintroduced to the malaria-free area as part of an ambitious conservation project that aimed to reverse nearly 300 years of human impact in order to restore the province’s reputation as one of the richest wildlife areas in southern Africa. Today, Shamwari is a declared Protected Environment—a conservation success story that has made the Eastern Cape an international safari destination.
Our visit to Shamwari to mark its 30th anniversary was a whirlwind tour of enthralling wildlife sightings, exquisite cuisine, top-class service—and, of course, a birthday cake fit for the occasion.
Upon entering the reserve, the Welcome Centre swiftly and efficiently got us ready for the adventure that lay ahead. Departing in an off-road vehicle, we very soon encountered a small contingent of giraffe and the reserve’s southern pride of lion, with the larger of the females heading up the group and a rather lazy male bringing up the rear each time we sighted them.
The drive to our accommodation took many twists and turns, over hills and through valleys, with breathtaking views of the natural surrounds and a few white rhino, elephant and wild game grazing peacefully on the wide-open grass plains.
At the helm of our vehicle was a very capable game ranger and tour guide extraordinaire, Mino. It was clear he possessed a wealth of knowledge and a deep passion for fauna and flora—here was someone who truly has a love for what he does, made very apparent by his demeanour and driven nature (no pun intended).
Mino has been employed at Shamwari for 11 years, and knows the reserve like the back of his hand. Whenever we encountered wild game, he was able to predict their actions long before they had intended to make any kind of move: stretching, walking, grazing, glaring… It was a sight to behold, and further evidence of the passion instilled in everyone working at Shamwari.
After a couple of hours of touring around, we were reminded that it was time for lunch at Sindile. We had been so mesmerised during our education on the behaviour of the wild animals that the thought of nourishment had completely eluded us! Sindile is Shamwari’s latest camp addition, named after the reserve’s famous 16-year-old female leopard who had been a force to be reckoned with: she had survived numerous lion maulings to raise five litters of cubs. Aptly, Sindile means “survivor” in isiXhosa.
The luxury tented accommodation is situated atop a hill, much like a solitary leopard’s sanctuary that blends into the surrounding bush—an excellent vantage point from which to gaze over the surrounding landscape of grassy plains, the gentle river and a waterhole that attracts several wild animals including elephant and rhinoceros. When rainfall is not at its optimum, the reserve makes use of borehole water to supplement the low levels of water.
The restaurant at Sindile, with its executive chef and team, served up a veritable taste explosion with a variety of locally sourced offerings, beautifully prepared to all our requirements. Conversation around the table was lively, as we were quite a menagerie of personalities.
When lunch had just started settling, we were whisked away to one of the organisations in which Shamwari plays a very instrumental part: The Born Free Foundation. It was such an eye-opening encounter, learning about how the reserve works hand in hand with the local community for their upliftment by initiating various projects to create job opportunities and assisting in cleaning up the area for the betterment of their health and living conditions.
Glen, another employee who’s passionate about looking after animals who need special care, took us on a walk around the Born Free facility to see the leopards rescued from Sudan as well as lions rescued from an international travelling circus. They are now enjoying their retirement at the reserve in a large enclosure, being fed at leisure, where they no longer have a worry in the world after having been mistreated for so many years.
The visit was followed by a drive through the bush where we enjoyed sundowners in the middle of nowhere, with all the game rangers keeping a close eye on our immediate surroundings, just in case the odd lion felt it needed its thirst quenched with a single malt! The peacefulness of the wild, juxtaposed with the fact that there were unseen creatures lurking nearby, was strangely thrilling.
A beautifully designed five-course meal awaited us back at Sindile, complete with a glorious birthday cake in celebration of Shamwari’s 30th year of existence. Such a lovely time was punctuated with laughter, singing and celebration along with the staff who felt like close friends by the end of the evening.
The following morning called for an early start to find the wildlife, still doing their stretches and prepping their hunting plans for the day. We were lucky enough to track two black rhino, not often spotted on game drives. They are a bit more elusive than their white cousins.
We headed to a different lodge for breakfast, all the while looking out for the leopards that had recently been sighted in the area. Eagles Crag, set high in the hills of the reserve, is surrounded by awesome rocky outcrops that are home to the birds of prey after which the lodge is named.
Each of Shamwari’s lodges has a unique design and decor style, and we were fortunate to visit more than one during our stay. Every unit at Eagles Crag is tastefully decorated, using natural materials as well as high-quality items for that luxury safari factor.
The Rehabilitation Centre was the final stop on our visit, showcasing the extent to which the reserve’s resident wildlife need to be protected. We learnt, too, how instrumental humans are in ensuring the future of animals under the threat of predators and extinction due to poaching and other external factors.
We met Ntombi and Frank, a baby rhino and sheep that were paired together in order to encourage Ntombi to socialise and prepare her for her reintroduction into the wild in the next few years; it was truly astonishing to see different species able to live in harmony with one another.
There are also meerkats, elephants and a few more other species in the Rehabilitation Centre, so capably managed by an amazing group of qualified animal carers.
The reserve has such a plethora of offerings, it’s surely a must-see when touring the Eastern Cape. Whether its the numerous animals, luxurious accommodation or cuisine of international standard you’re after, Shamwari Private Game Reserve has it all and so much more. Here’s to another 30 years of conservation success!