Wild at Heart: Wildlife Watching in Shamwari

Published 10 January 2017

Round the World Experts

It was early evening and the sky was a deep ochre red, a typical African sunset full of heavy atmosphere and dark brooding beauty. The sun had already slipped below the horizon, turning everything around us into silhouettes, including a leopard hiding in the branches above… so began an unforgettable South African experience for traveller Dale R Morris.

Rhinos in Shamwari

Leopard stalking

As the waning light failed completely, the leopard’s sleek shadow stirred and slipped silently to the ground. That’s when our guide leaned out from our safari truck and traced her movements with his spotlight. “Shhh now,” he whispered. “She’s stalking something, and we don’t want to affect the outcome.” It was a needless request, of course, for we were so enraptured that we had all long since fallen silent. Then, like a jack-in-the-box, she sprang. There was a harsh snort of alarm, then a small creature leapt from cover and vanished in a puff of dust. We all heard the scream.

Leopard hunting an antelope

“She got it,” shouted our guide excitedly, and there in his torchlight was a small brown antelope pinned down by the world’s most exquisite predator. We lingered, watching her feast until a lion roared somewhere nearby; and then, like a phantom, she vanished back into the trees from which she had come.

Lions, Shamwari

Big Five spotting

“Well that’s the last of the Big Five,” said our guide rubbing his hands together happily. “Everyone hungry for dinner?” It had been a perfect end to a perfect day at Shamwari Game Reserve in South Africa’s Eastern Cape – a private 25,000-hectare five-star safari destination famous for its conservation efforts, excellent service and six opulent lodges. We had seen elephants playing in a big shallow lake, rhinos tussling, buffalos grazing, lions lolling with their adorable cubs and now a magnificent leopard. Back at the Eagles Crag Lodge the guest chatter at the dinner table was all about our animal encounters.

Eagles Crag Lodge bedroom, Shamwari

“I was sure that bull elephant was going to charge at us – he was huge,” said one gentleman as he chewed on his Kudu steak. “And that big lion,” said another guest through a spoonful of soup. “Those eyes. They stared right through me.”

Elephant safari, Shamwari

Shamwari Game Reserve

This is Africa, pure and unsullied by the hands of man, or so it seems. But just 26 years ago, Shamwari was little more than a disused farm, full of snares and fences. There were no luxury lodges back then, no verdant hills and no wildlife. But that was all to change when entrepreneur Adrian Gardiner bought this barren real estate and seeded it with animals brought in from game auctions and other private parks. Antelope were released and elephants too, followed by rhino, hippos, buffalo and a menagerie of locally extinct herbivores. Once these populations reached critical mass, carnivores were introduced to control them: cheetah, leopard, hyena, lion and wild dog. Now Shamwari is once again a wild and untamed wilderness.

Open air dining, Shamwari

The crack of dawn

The following morning at the ungodly hour of 5am, four other guests and I headed off into the scrubby Eastern Cape bush once again. I am told it’s best to be out early due to the inclination African animals have to doze as the heat of the day picks up.

“Only mad dogs and Englishmen go out in the midday sun,” said our guide as we went past herds of zebra and the occasional skittery warthog. “So, shall we stop for a bush breakfast or head off to find those lion cubs again?” We opted for the coffee and scones. The lions could wait, and besides, our guide had elected to pull up at the most beautiful watering hole I have yet to encounter.

Eagles Crag Lodge pool, Shamwari

Safari in style

Our days on safari in Shamwari were punctuated by profound wildlife encounters from the safety of our open vehicle, or else on foot as we walked in single file behind our armed guide. The afternoons were for relaxing back at the lodge, swimming in the pool, taking a spa treatment or enjoying the chef’s five-star fare. But as comfortable as they were, the hours spent at the lodge were just a stopgap between our mornings, late afternoons and evenings spent out in the bush.

Lazy leopard, Shamwari

Wilderness reborn

On the last evening of my Shamwari safari, we once more found ourselves parked beneath a tree with a leopard in it. The light faded to black and in the spotlight we could see her scanning the darkness for signs of food. And then she descended. Yet again, there was a harsh sound of panicked antelope, the cracking of twigs and a blood-curdling scream.

Shamwari is rather like a phoenix that has risen from the ashes. Once a wilderness, it was destroyed, only to be reborn as a wilderness again.

Set off on safari in the Shamwari Game Reserve on Round the World Experts' Luxury Garden Route & Safari holiday.

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