South Africa offers an up close and personal look at nature. Just don’t get too close to the cheetahs, writes Paul McCarthy.
"They don’t see us as food, and they don’t see us as a threat, so we should be fine.”
Reassuring words, but when an eight-year-old cheetah in its prime looks back at you and appears not too pleased to be disturbed on a beautiful sunny morning, the park ranger’s comments feel a little optimistic.
We are in Mount Camdeboo Game Reserve, about three hours’ drive north of Port Elizabeth in the Great Karoo region of the Eastern Cape, where ranger Dale is taking us on a game drive at sunrise.
A clear, chilly morning has given way to another warm day, and our cheetah was soaking up the rays when rudely disturbed by this group of visitors.
Walking towards the big cat to get a better look, the cheetah decides to move off, so we follow, and the game drive turns into a morning stroll across the high veld.
We walk in single file, partly not to frighten the cat, but also so that if we come across any potentially dangerous snakes or other reptiles, our guide will be there first to hopefully keep everyone safe.
The reserve, which covers 14,000 hectares, has allowed the land to be restored from farmland to its natural vegetation, and enjoys an abundance of native wildlife, from the aforementioned cheetah to mountain zebra, giraffe, springboks, and many others.
Another cheetah on Mount Camdeboo is the only animal there with a name.
Tandeka, a 12-year-old female, was saved by staff after shattering her tibia and fibia while hunting.
She has since fully recovered and produced another litter — a remarkable feat after sustaining such a life threatening injury and spending an extended period in rehabilitation. We found her at ease, sleeping in the shade after eating her latest kill.
The previous evening, just after our arrival at the resort, on our first game drive, we saw a herd of African buffalo in the distance. Dale declares that the animal is, in his opinion, the most dangerous creature in the wild due to their unpredictable nature.
With one of the ‘Big Five’ ticked off my list so early on the visit, we soon get close to another of the reserve’s stars.
Mt Camdeboo has just three rhino, and we have found two of them, a six- and three-year-old pair that are inseparable.
Sitting in the 4x4 watching them peacefully eat grass, we notice the horns are quite small. Dale says they had to be cut to guard from the constant threat of poachers, who have attacked the reserve three times in recent years.
The horn grows back (it is the equivalent of fingernails on humans) so the staff are set to repeat the operation again, all to stop the terrible destruction of this magnificent creature.
The reserve ( www.mountcamdeboo.com ) offers accommodation in beautifully restored Cape Dutch houses cupped in the palm of the Sneeuberg Mountain range.
A highlight is enjoying a glass of wine as the sun sets over the mountains, watching a black eagle return to its nest on a sheer cliff face.
As elsewhere in this vast country, the food on offer is sumptuous. On our first night, our chef treats us to a braai in the gardens. The South Africans love their version of a barbecue and the feast of traditional Karoo cuisine is a fitting end to a magnificent day.
Around 100km east of the reserve is the town of Cradock. The journey, however, takes three hours as our guide Benji — acting on local advice — takes the mountain road.
The journey over the pass is spectacular, but the rough, unpaved roads make driving difficult, even if traffic is limited to the odd 4x4 journeying to the few farmhouses dotted along the way.
Benji’s good humour and insight into this fascinating country make the journey highly enjoyable, as does his proficiency in seven of South Africa’s 11 official languages.
Cradock is an unexpected delight. On arrival, we are greeted by Lisa Ker, whose family run the award-winning Die Tuishuise & Victoria Manor guesthouses and hotel ( www.tuishuise.co.za ).
Her mother Sandra bought several of the small houses on Market St with the initial aim just to preserve them,
The 30 or so period houses have now been restored to offer unique accommodation.
The houses are beautifully furnished and offer an ideal base for families or groups staying in the area. Lisa is a real force of nature in the community.
For lunch, head to True Living to enjoy organic, local food — top tip, try the homemade lemonade, simply gorgeous.
The café also has a bakery and craft shops, where goods such as Karoo Poppies, handmade rag dolls using traditional spinning techniques, are available.
Another sight sure to grab you in the town is the Dutch Reformed Moederkerk church, which dates back to 1868 and was modelled on St Martin-in-the-Fields in Trafalgar Square, London
A fascinating local character is Olive Schreiner, regarded as the first South African novelist, and her life story is housed in the Schreiner House museum.
The house, which is located at 9 Cross St and is a satellite of the National English Literary Museum, contains a modern set of exhibitions portraying the life of Schreiner.
A tragic story from South Africa’s past concerns the Cradock Four — Matthew Goniwe, Sparrow Mkonto, Fort Calata, and Sicelo Mhlauli — who were abducted and killed while travelling from Port Elizabeth to Cradock in 1985.
This horrific event is now regarded as being a catalyst for the end of the apartheid regime, and Lingelihle Township where the men lived is worth a visit.
While the area is still in obvious need of improvement, listening to the local jazz band practising their tunes while local children play football on the street outside is a delight.
The cemetery where the Cradock four are buried is nearby, as is a monument to the four men.
Just 10km from Cradock is Mountain Zebra National Park, which was established to try to save the Mountain Zebra from extinction.
The park, which has now expanded to 284sq km, is home not just to the eponymous zebra but also cheetah, cape lions, buffalo, and many other species.
Charl, our ranger, takes us cheetah tracking, and we find the big cats resting under a tree. On the drive-through back to the visitor centre, one of our group spots a lizard sitting on a rock to enjoy the sunshine.
Charl tells us it is a sub-species he hasn’t seen before, and is unable to identify, so we are left with the hope of having discovered a rare new species on the trail.
The park is enjoying a rise in popularity, with self and guided drives, hiking, and ancient rock paintings, all available, as well as accommodation on-site.
As we drive on the long, straight roads back to Port Elizabeth, passing the roadside fruit sellers, it is easy to see why the Eastern Cape is attracting greater numbers of visitors eager to see more of what South Africa has to offer.
KLM fly daily from Dublin to Cape Town via Amsterdam Schiphol.
KLM launched two daily flights from Dublin to Amsterdam last year, connecting Ireland’s capital city to KLM’s worldwide network of over 150 destinations, via its award-winning hub at Amsterdam Schiphol.
In March, KLM increased the service to four daily return flights. Economy fares start from €549. See www.klm.com or call 0044 20 7660 0293.
From Cape Town, it’s a 70-minute flight to Port Elizabeth. Airlines operating the route include BA and South African Airways.
Where to stay
The Irish Examiner stayed in the delightfully restored Manor House at Mount Camdeboo Private Game Reserve. See www.mountcamdeboo.com
In Cradock, Die Tuishuise & Victoria Manor is a must stay. The Victorian guesthouses can accommodate four people, and are an excellent base for exploring the region ( www.tuishuise.co.za ).
Karoo food is a speciality in the restaurant, with a complimentary glass of sherry as you arrive.
For a variety of tour options, and excellent informative guides, go to www.calabashtours.co.za
The company also runs a trust that helps many people in schools and townships. Mount Camdeboo and Cradock are a three-hour drive from Port Elizabeth.
Mountain Zebra National Park ( www.sanparks.org ): Guided or self-drive game viewing, cheetah tracking, guided walks, and rock paintings all available.
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