STEPHEN SAMUELSON April 11, 2012
Too close for comfort? A male lion in Kariega. Photo: Supplied
The Eastern Cape in South Africa is a growing destination for game reserves, writes Stephen Samuelson.
It could have been a small boulder, a tan-coloured rock sticking out of the long grass.
Getting closer, despite its stillness, it soon becomes clear that this is no rock. It is a full grown lion.
From where I am sitting at the back of an open jeep, the male lion is lying just three metres away. It looks content and well fed, which is just as well because I feel a strong sense of vulnerability. I am working on the theory that the jeep offers little protection if the lion were to feel a little peckish.
But the primeval senses of flight or fight are not the rules of this game park; stay seated and do not make any loud noises. In other words suffer your vulnerability in silence and forget the lengthy waiver form you signed before leaving the safety of the homestead ringed by an electric fence.
Our guide is not perturbed. This is not the beast he fears in the park.
This is the Kariega Game Reserve in the Eastern Cape of South Africa; a two-hour drive east of Port Elizabeth, about halfway on the road to East London on what South Africans call the Sunshine Coast.
The area is famous for many things. Its surf beaches are world renowned, even if the shark attacks garner unwanted headlines. The region is also the birthplace of Nelson Mandela and Archbishop Desmond Tutu. And a burgeoning game reserve industry is now adding to its reputation.
Pineapples used to be the economic staple of farmers in this region, but the cheaper labour from Indonesia and Thailand has curtailed the industry's viability.
Kariega does not possess the classic terrain that one imagines goes hand-in-hand with safari.
There are no broad sweeping grasslands filled with grazing herds of antelope, nor is it savannah, although there is a hint of both. The land is bushveld.
It is hilly terrain covered with low vegetation that has been beaten down by the winds from the nearby Indian Ocean.
Kariega is split into two, divided by the road down to the popular seaside town of Kenton-on-Sea.
The original reserve was founded in 1989 and is now home to 31 lodges. Giraffe, zebra and white rhinos roam freely on this side. The other side of Kariega hosts the big five: lions, elephants, buffalo, black rhinoceros and leopard. The mandatory two-to-three metre high fence is testament to this.
It is here that the homestead I stay in is situated. A farmhouse with five bedrooms, bar and swimming pool, and yes, ringed by an electric fence.
Alan Wyer is the general manager, a former pineapple farmer who is fluent in the native Bushmen language of Khoi, complete with its unique use of click consonants.
Wyer says that the land of Kariega and its neighbours was frontier country. These hills were part of the bloody battleground where the British fought for supremacy in the Eastern Cape over the Xhosi.
Like most frontier wars it was a long-standing contest for possession and economic dominance.
The Zulu war, fought to the north in what is now Kwa-Zulu Natal province, has been made famous by films and TV series. That conflict lasted six months. The Frontier Wars between the British and Xhosa do not have the Michael Caine film to make them famous, although they were much bloodier and lasted much longer. Nine wars in all, fought intermittently over 100 years.
The big five were plentiful in the region before the British arrived, but over a period of time the lions, rhinos and elephants disappeared from the region, while the leopard retreated to hidden areas. The Xhosi, Boers and British used the land for grazing and there was no room for predators.
I spend about eight hours in the reserve over three days and in that time there are close encounters with lions, elephants, giraffes, white rhinos, zebras, antelope and wildebeests.
It's on the last trip through the Kariega Reserve that we finally spot the black rhinoceros. This is the beast that our guide fears to surprise. With poor eyesight and a cranky disposition – a combination that sometimes results in the animal charging into trees – the black rhino's first instinct is to attack.
Our guide tells stories of quick reverses in the jeep when he stumbles upon the beast. It's a two-step routine with potentially serious consequences.
Just as well we spot it in the distance halfway up a steep incline. From where we sit it looks small enough to be a plastic replica in a toy box.
It's close enough for me.
Stephen Samuelson travelled to South Africa courtesy of South African Tourism and South Africa Airways.
South African Airways in conjunction with Qantas fly daily direct to Johannesburg from Sydney. Connecting flight to Port Elizabeth. Two-hour drive to Kariega.
Kariega Reserve (www.kariega.co.za) Kariega has four accommodation types.
Main Lodge from $274 (off-season) to $404 (peak) per person per night. All meals and morning and evening game drives included (drinks excluded). Children 12 years and under half price. Children 3 years and under stay free
Ukhozi Lodge from $323 to $479 per person per night. All meals, selected drinks and morning and evening game drives. No children 10 years and under (adult for all others).
River Lodge from $348 to $492. All meals, selected drinks and morning and evening game drives. No children 10 years and under (adult for all others).
The Homestead $2115 to $2862 per night for entire premises. Maximum 10 people (adults & children). All meals, selected beverages and morning and evening game drives).