Free from cell phones and BlackBerries – the little known malaria-free Eastern Cape of South Africa is an eclectic winter getaway.
Johannesburg is now easily accessible via South African Airways directly from Dulles, and the comfortable flight will provide plenty of time to slow down before you land in this part of the world. With a short connecting flight to Port Elizabeth – on the Indian Ocean – then an hour drive from the airport, many of the dozen or more private game reserves are within range.
All play host to the hallowed “Big Five” of gaming: lions, elephants, rhinos, leopards, and buffalo. “It gets down to a malaria choice,” said South African-born, Norman Pieters, president, South African Airways Holidays, in Miami, FL. When I found out that these reserves not only offer excellent gaming, but are also malaria-free, it was an easy decision for me. Although malaria has been absent in the U.S. and Europe since the early 1950’s, this mosquito-borne disease still kills nearly one million people per year in Sub-Saharan Africa. However, because of its diverse climate and terrain, the Eastern Cape Province has never been affected by malaria – so moms, dads, and kids do not have to take preventative anti-malaria pills or sleep under mosquito-netting to experience the thrill of spotting magnificent animals in their natural habitat.
“You can see the ‘Big Five,’ but these reserves are in their infancy,” Pieters, a veteran gamer, told me. This is because indigenous animals and vegetation have been relocated from the more established reserves to these newer private ones. It takes years of breeding to build them up and balance the reserve.
Listening, looking for big game
I find myself sipping hot tea while looking out over the porch of my cabin at Pumba Private Game Reserve in Walmer, Port Elizabeth – only 12 miles from historical Grahamstown. Pumba, however, takes the idea of a Safari lodge to another level by offering modern luxury in the midst of the bush. Each of the eight cabins has an individual outdoor plunge pool on a private terrace overlooking Lake Kariega. Every detail has been considered to cater to visitors: even electrical adapters for every country are built into the wall.
Not only are the accommodations luxurious, but the scenery is breathtaking. In the distance, a herd of giraffes drink at the shores of the lake, their long necks cutting through the morning mist. As I rise from my bed – I prepare myself for my first game drive. We were advised to wear neutral colors so as to be safely camouflaged in the open-roofed Land Rover.
Exploring the bush
Rangers conduct game drives twice a day – both in the early morning and at dusk – when it’s slightly cooler and the animals become more visible. We began our brisk early morning drive in the hope of a lion sighting. Although wild game is the big “get” on a safari, the wild herbs, cacti, and eucalyptus are not to be overlooked.
We learn from our ranger, Graham, a hulking blond from Capetown, that the female hippo is the only confrontational animal and is therefore the most dangerous. “They’ll go after you. Other animals won’t.”
We spot a three-year old lioness on the horizon. All of the other animals on the grassy plain turn and face her, standing at attention. “She’s on the hunt,” says Graham. “Let’s give her some space.” We spot a second lioness making a kill. The baby wart hog, or pumba, is dangling from her mouth by its rear, she brings it over to our open vehicle. It is amazing to view this close up, although as an animal lover it’s not something I relished watching. “We want them to kill as they would in their natural environment,” explained Graham.
Ravenous feast, boasting on our finds
The sun is setting ahead as we spot more animals – a yellow mongoose and a graceful, relaxed giraffe. We spot three white rhinos. As we get closer, you can see their square lips which operate like a lawn mower. The afternoon drive is four hours, and we’re both exhausted and exhilarated from the wind blowing dust in our faces while staying alert to spot game.
Later, back at Pumba, we are hungry and dine on Karoo lamb and South African Stellenbosch Pinotage as we brag about our lion sighting to other guests. I soon learned that mealtime conversation centers on close encounters with South African wildlife: “How many of the ‘Big Five’ did you spot today?” It’s a competition among the rangers and the guests. After dinner, a ranger escorts each of us to our respective cabins with the promise of a 4 a.m. wake-up call for the morning game drive.
No two drives are the same so I look forward to each one. That’s why those who engage in the sport return time and time again. Once you stay at a fancy cabin in the bush and see incredible animals in their natural environment, you’ll never again view a zoo in the same way.
For more information, contact:
South African Airways
Pumba Private Game Reserve and Safari Lodge
Port Elizabeth, South Africa
P: (27) 46.603.2000