A former ostrich farm, Kwandwe again a natural haven
In a bizarre quirk of history, it was the Model T Ford that spelt the end of ostrich feather hats. Awash with great billowing plumage, the bonnets had been at the height of fashion during the Edwardian age. They were much admired when worn in equally fashionable open-topped limousines. But, with its small doorway and cramped interior, Mr Ford's economic Model T meant that fashion had to take a back seat. The result - the collapse of South Africa's burgeoning ostrich trade, and bankruptcy on an unknown scale.
But almost a century on and the former farmlands of South Africa's big bird business are at last witnessing a comeback. This time around the ostriches roam free along with a full gamut of wildlife, on land where the only shots taken today are through long lenses.
It's 5am, and I'm furled up in a wool blanket, perched on the back of an open-topped Land Cruiser - fretting because my BlackBerry's lost the signal. All I can think of is how my bloodstream needs caffeine, and how a day without e-mail will take months to set right. But then, suddenly, there's a muffled cry against the first rays of silvery African light.
I glance up, squinting uneasily into the middle distance. Five metres from where I'm crouching, still clutching my BlackBerry, is a massive bull elephant. He's looking at me disapprovingly, ears flapped forward, tusks bowed down, as if he's about to charge.
The world slips into sharp focus while my adrenal glands prepare for fight or flight. As someone who spends his life mollycoddled by technology, and rather meaningless luxury, I realised right then how separated I'd become from the brutal reality of the natural world.
For me, nature is something you watch on the Discovery Channel or on the evening news - as you learn how more of it's been savaged to make way for the BlackBerry realm that is my home.
My ranger guide, a South African version of Crocodile Dundee called Brendon, fishtails the vehicle out of harm's way a moment before the tusks reached their target. Sighing with relief, we continue on the morning game drive, and on our quest for lion cubs.
Nestled in the wilderness of the Eastern Cape, 160 kilometres from Port Elisabeth, Kwandwe is one of a new breed of private game reserves. A great lure from the beginning has been that the region is malaria-free. Once populated by a full compliment of wildlife, it was "settled" by white farmers in the 1830s, ringed with fences and farmed for ostriches. Regarded as little more than vermin, the original fauna was picked off for trophies and for sport, leaving a decimated animal population.
The original settler and his family worked the land and are buried beneath it. Beside their graves is another - oversized and angular - the farmer's favourite horse. In one of the lodges there's a faded sepia print of the family's Edwardian generation. Sitting to attention, dressed in their Sunday best, the women are all sporting the fabulous ostrich hats that brought them such wealth. But when the bottom fell out of the ostrich business, the farmers' own world collapsed.
For much of the 20th century, the farmsteads lay silent. Then, following a dream, the naturalist Angus Sholto-Douglas, who manages the reserve, was approached by an American investor. The rest is history. Over a decade, they bought up nine farms, encompassing more then 20,000 hectares, and prepared them to receive wildlife once again.
"It wasn't so simple as trucking in animals and letting them get on with it," says Angus. "Painstaking planning was necessary to check the kinds and quantities of animals this vast property could sustain."
Long before the first creatures arrived, 3,218km of fencing had to be removed, along with telephone lines, water troughs, dangerous machinery and the odd farm building. The result was a wilderness, returned to its natural state, a landscape unblemished by man.
The foliage, known as succulent thicket, was in good shape and ready for the food chain. Gradually, over months and years, animals were reintroduced.
Taking care to ensure they were as unstressed as possible after the drive, they were held in bomas, huge pens filled with trees and foliage - in which they could spend weeks getting used to their new environment.
Herds of elephants, Cape buffaloes, hippos, giraffes and six rare black rhinos were introduced early on, in a Noah's Ark of creatures. Then came the cheetahs, the lions, the brown hyenas and the leopards. The carnivores had plenty to support them - oryx, eland, zebra, gemsbok and springbok, all of which graze on the grassland and scrub.
With the aid of a tracker, perched in a hot-seat mounted on the vehicle's fender, Brendon takes great care give the animals their space.
"This is their home far more than it is ours," he says, "and it's critical that we don't do anything that will impact on their world." Pausing to steer up an abrupt incline, he adds: "I once saw a tortoise on its back out here. It was struggling to turn over and was about to become a predator's lunch. I flipped it over and, by doing so, I changed the order. I think about it even now. Because I allowed a tortoise to live, a predator may have gone hungry."
At Kwandwe you can't help but be touched by the order of the natural world, and by the humans who strive to maintain it. On a continent where the animal kingdom is under constant threat, there's a sense that in this small corner of Africa great achievements are being made. Yet despite all the work, poachers still succeed in their evil work. Last year more than 300 rhinos were killed illegally, the black-market value at their horns put at about £35,000 (Dh207,526) for a single kilogram.
Without doubt the way forward, the new breed of private game reserves, like Kwandwe, offer low-impact safaris in which you're far more likely to see animals rather than loads of other tourists. With a range of wonderfully indulgent lodges managed by &Beyond, part of the Relais & Châteaux group, the only hardship is choosing which mouthwatering main course to feast on at lunch.
And, in addition to the balance of nature, the Kwandwe reserve has ensured another all-important balance - that of the local community. A number of small villages are found on the reserve, and those who live in them are at the heart of life. Some are employed as staff in the lodges or as rangers and trackers, while others are involved in community projects. One endeavour is gathering the traditional knowledge of medicinal plants from the elderly, and recording its wisdom for generations to come.
Kwandwe is popular with the A-listers eager to spend time relaxing as discreetly as possible. Among them, the UK's Prince Edward has taken a keen interest in the reserve, visiting three times. Lured by the Big Five (lion, elephant, leopard, rhino and Cape buffalo), and by his interest in the reserve's youth projects, the prince has witnessed Kwandwe's rise into a well-rounded and exclusive retreat.
Spend a few days watching animals in their native habitat, and you begin to forget all about the pressures of e-mails and the internet. Even a diehard "Crackberry" addict like myself, I found I couldn't care less about the world I'd left behind. My priorities had changed. After a couple of days all I could think about was seeing lions.
On the last morning, with only minutes to go of the final game drive, Brendon Crocodile Dundee spotted fresh paw prints in the dust. Risking his life, the tracker clambered on to his fender seat and, through a sixth sense of his own, led the way.
Minutes later, we came upon them. A pair of lionesses in the early morning light, a nest of honey-yellow cubs scampering about beside them. It was one of those moments that gets etched on to your mind. And I hope it will stay with me always.
As we turned quietly round to head back to the lodge, I mumbled a prayer of thanks to Henry Ford. After all, had he not come up with the Model T, ostrich hats might still be in vogue and the magic of Kwandwe might never have been conjured at all.
If You Go
The tour Africa Travel (www.africatravel.co.uk) arranges tailor-made holidays to South Africa. An eight-night trip, including four nights with breakfast at the Taj Cape Town (www.tajhotels.com) and four nights with all meals and game drives at the Ecca Lodge at Kwandwe Private Game Reserve (www.andBeyond.com), costs from 29,084 South African rand (Dh14,679) per person, with return flights on Etihad Airways from Abu Dhabi, including taxes and transfers
Updated: February 25, 2011 04:00 AM