Shortly before the first covid lockdown, I was lucky enough to travel to South Africa on a family holiday. Now, after a year of no travel, I have been reminiscing about this adventure and can't wait to send passengers on a Gondwana safari trip so they can experience the amazing wildlife and beautiful landscapes for themselves when restrictions allow.
Having spent much of the past twenty years travelling throughout Latin America, this was a fantastic chance to get to know somewhere new. Cape Town was a big hit with all of us, and we loved the journey along the Garden Route, especially the whale watching in Hermanus and getting up before dawn to see the meerkats pop up out of the red earth near Oudtshoorn. But the highlight for all of us was the safari in Gondwana, a game reserve in South Africa's Western Cape, a four hour scenic drive from Cape Town... read my blog to find out why.
The lodge setting is beautiful, surrounded by fynbos vegetation and rolling hills and a backdrop of mountains. Being only a 90-minute drive from Outdshoorn meant that we could have a relaxed breakfast at our hotel and then arrive at the lodge in the late morning in time for lunch and then a game drive in the afternoon. Even the drive to the lodge is a special experience, passing herds of wildebeest and zebra, and we had our first sighting of a rhino on the way in.
Big Five Reserve
Gondwana Game Reserve is large enough (11,000 hectares) that on the four game drives we took, we went in different directions and saw different parts of the reserve each time, with a surprising variety in the landscape. There is a good range of wildlife, although the populations of the predators in particular are fairly small as the land needs to be able to support the animals. We were able to see most of the main species during our stay – lions, elephants, rhinos, buffalo, hippos, giraffes, zebras, wildebeests, impala, baboons, monkeys, kudus, elands, springboks and plenty of others. Apparently leopards pass through the reserve, but are very rarely seen.
We were incredibly lucky that one of the lionesses had had cubs shortly before we arrived. They had been hiding in a wooded valley, so had not been seen yet, but during our game drive on the second afternoon, she was spotted on the edge of a wooded area, with her cubs playing around her. We were able to observe them as darkness was falling, and they then walked out of the woods and past the safari vehicle. This was our wildlife highlight, but there were many other great experiences to come...
Morning & Afternoon Game Drives
The game drives were excellent, with completely open vehicles offering excellent viewing - there is no roof, as it gets in the way of the wildlife viewing, especially when in a valley. This means that if it rains, you get wet. Rain ponchos were provided, which were fleece lined, warm and good for the wind. It can get cold, so take warm clothes, hats and gloves. There were ten guests in each vehicle (three rows of three and one seat next to the ranger) and all had an excellent view, including when sat in the middle of the row. There is a gravel road network and off road tracks, and the vehicles can go off road, so the journeys are bumpy. Not all vehicles have seatbelts, and there are no roll bars, but the rangers are excellent drivers, going slowly where necessary.
The rangers were knowledgeable about the different wildlife and the overall ecosystem, talking about the different plants and birds, as well as animal behaviour and even the animal dung! This meant that the whole of the game drive was interesting throughout, even when not viewing large game. There was a good variety of wildlife on each safari outing, and the ranger tried to make sure we saw most of the animals during our time at the lodge. There was inevitably some repetition, but also a focus for each game drive, so one afternoon we'd see elephants and the next we'd see lions.
The game drives are in areas of wild animals, so you have to be aware that there is some risk from the wildlife. The vehicles do get relatively close to the wildlife, and the animals can sometimes approach and even bump vehicles. The rangers will move away if animals approach the vehicle, but it is not always a quick exit. There are no guns in the reserve.
There are up to 80 – 90 guests staying in the whole reserve, and we did see other vehicles, especially at the start and end of the game drives, but it did not feel crowded and as the vehicles can communicate with each other by radio, this meant that wildlife locations could be shared. The reserve is well run, with a good focus on conservation – anti-poaching vehicles are always around, and there is close tracking on the lions and rhinos.
The morning game drives started early – around 6am – and lasted around three hours, returning to the lodge in time for breakfast. The evening game drives started at around 4:30pm, returning to the lodge around 7:30pm, after dark, in time for dinner. There was a 20 minute stop for tea/coffee in the morning and for a sundowner in the evening, with a selection of snacks and drinks, including gin and tonic, beer, wine and soft drinks. These were at a safe spot with a beautiful view of the reserve against the mountain backdrop, so we were able to get out and stretch our legs.
Free Time Between Activities
We had free time to relax between the game drives, although with lunch and afternoon tea, the day seemed to fill up. Various activities are available, including mountain biking, hiking and fishing in the Protected Species enclose. This is a 1,000 hectare fenced-off space about 20 minutes’ drive from the main lodge, with safe animals that are kept apart from the main reserve, including giraffes and cape mountain zebra. Mountain bikes are available, with helmets, and there are various trails ranging from short and easy to long and tough. We went on a mountain bike ride on the short trail, which was a great experience, as we could stop and admire the grazing wildlife – cycling with zebras and other animals nearby was very special.
Safari Lodge Accommodation
The main lodge is lovely, with thatched buildings and an attractive, but unheated, swimming pool. The Kwena huts, where Llama Travel guests stay, are a short walk away from the bar and restaurant and the rooms themselves are very nice with a glass panel above the bed, so you can see the stars at night, is a lovely touch. During the day, you can walk alone, but after dark, you need to be accompanied by a member of staff from the lodge, as the lodge area attracts wildlife. When I was there, there were often zebras near the huts and one evening, a passing herd of elephants stopped for a drink from the swimming pool!
Wine & Dine
There is plenty of food throughout the day, with lunch consisting of a main course and a dessert. Afternoon tea is at 4pm, with tea, coffee, hot chocolate and sweet and savoury snacks provided. Dinner is at 7:30pm, after the game drive, with a soup, starter, main course and dessert offered. The food is more varied than at lunch, and changes each day. Vegetarian options are offered, but are quite limited.
Great For A First Time Safari
We loved our stay at Gondwana, seeing lots of wildlife, and I especially enjoyed the bike ride in the protected species reserve. Perhaps if you have been on other safaris, the smaller animal populations at Gondwana may be a downside, but as a first time safari experience, it really is the perfect way to extend a trip by a couple of days after the Garden Route.
If you'd like to visit Gondwana on a South Africa holiday, browse our trips here or call us on 020 8263 3000 to speak to an expert.