Loving Local

Game drives with a bird's-eye-view: Eastern Cape's stylish fly-in safaris

Claire Keeton takes off on a five-star safari adventure

01 April 2018 - 00:01 By Claire Keeton
One of Fly Karoo's Robinson helicopters in the heart of the Great Karoo overlooking the Sneeuberg.
One of Fly Karoo's Robinson helicopters in the heart of the Great Karoo overlooking the Sneeuberg.
Image: Morne van Jaarsveld

We met Tertius Myburgh on a cool morning at Plett airport, an uncrowded terminal which is fast becoming an air hub for the Eastern Cape.

Seven of us clambered into a Britten-Norman BN-2 Islander for the first flight. This is no luxury jet but a trusty twin-engined workhorse which can carry up to nine passengers.

Plett Air Safaris' Myburgh - who has about 8,000 flying hours in his logbook - is exactly the man you want in the left-hand seat - the pilot's seat - especially when weather conditions deteriorate. On the second day of our trip he would bring us safely into Kwandwe Private Game Reserve, overlooking the Great Fish River, in a storm.

PLETT TO GRAAFF-REINET

As we took off, we had gorgeous views over Plettenberg Bay before heading inland to Graaff-Reinet.

After landing at the "one-zebra airport" (okay, we saw more than one) in Graaff-Reinet, we drove to the Valley of Desolation in the Camdeboo National Park, before jumping into a helicopter owned by Karoo Air.

With its reddish rock towers, Camdeboo is a rugged park with unimpeded views across vast plains and the Sundays River below.

The horseshoe shape of Graaff-Reinet was obvious after we took off from the golf club's helipad.

GRAAFF-REINET TO SAMARA

As we headed for Samara Private Game Reserve, helicopter pilot Francois Fitzgerald flew low over the plains, where we spotted various species of buck.

When we crested the mountain top, we surprised herds of wildebeest and kudu, which galloped away at speed.

We could see into hidden gorges and onto the cliffs, where vultures like to nest and hunt.

When we crested the mountain top, we surprised herds of wildebeest and kudu, which galloped away at speed

We made the 45-minute trip flying low, spotting game, then rising like a vulture above cliffs named after them (aasvoelskrag).

A sumptuous brunch with champagne was waiting under a gazebo when we touched down in one of the most spectacular spots for a feast I've seen in my 30 years of hiking and climbing mountains around the world.

Later, on a game drive at the lodge, we quickly learnt that, when it comes to hunting, the cheetahs of Samara are king.

Four cheetah cubs with bloody maws stood up when we got to the banks of a dry river, to guard their kill against us intruders.

The kudu on which these lanky cubs were feasting had been provided by their mother.

Samara reintroduced free-roaming cheetah to the Karoo and their breeding here has been a huge success.

But Samara is just as renowned for its aardvark, as it is one of the few places where they are regularly sighted. Guide Gibson Mufoya said they even saw aardvark digging during the day.

That may change when lion are reintroduced. They are next, after elephants were reintroduced last year.

The 1800s-built Karoo Lodge and the Manor House, a grand villa with a pool, are peaceful places to stay and the food is outstanding.

SAMARA TO KWANDWE

Late the next morning we took off for Kwandwe Private Game Reserve.

On a game drive here, we got an idea of what it must feel like to be prey when a lion, roaring loudly, stalked up to our open game vehicle. We sat dead still as the vibrations echoed around us.

Another lion then joined in some distance away and the majesty of their duet kept us transfixed. That, and fear.

Even though it was drizzling, that game drive at Kwandwe with so many lions was one of the most memorable I've been on. One of the vehicles had a flat tyre and had to wait before the rangers could safely change the tyre (and, no, we didn't offer to help, in case you were wondering).

Views from the mountain top of "Samara Mara" stretch over the Plains of Camdeboo, making it an exceptional picnic spot.
Views from the mountain top of "Samara Mara" stretch over the Plains of Camdeboo, making it an exceptional picnic spot.
Image: Claire Keeton

Usually Kwandwe's guests get to enjoy a craft-gin-and-beer bar in the bush at sunset. On this evening, though, we savoured the gin as we dried out in front of the fire inside the lodge, where the food and service were consistently excellent.

The Great Fish River rooms on the banks of the river are perfectly placed for guests to watch elephant and tune into the birdsong. The Ecca Lodge rooms are vast and brightly designed, with nooks for children.

Kwandwe makes a special effort for kids. For example, when adults get a gin bar, the kids have a small milkshakes-and-treats bar at their height. The reserve also offers a junior-ranger programme, and one guide and vehicle per family.

KWANDWE TO PLETT

The morning saw us on a final leg back to our little seaside airport at Plett.

PLAN YOUR TRIP

Plett Air

Flights from R3,000; package deals available. Call Tertius Myburgh on 078-911-9583, e-mail bookings@plettairsafaris.co.za or visit plettairsafaris.co.za.

Karoo Air

For prices, phone 064-751-6609, e-mail bookings@flykaroo.co.za or visit Fly Karoo Air.

Samara Private Game Reserve

From R3,210 per night; specials from May. Phone 031-262-0324, e-mail reservations@samara.co.za or visit samara.co.za.

Kwandwe Private Game Reserve

From R8,690 per night; specials available. Phone 046-603-3400, e-mail reservations@kwandwe.co.za or visit kwandwe.com.

Claire Keeton was a guest of Plett Air Safaris, Fly Karoo, Samara Private Game Reserve and Kwandwe Private Game Reserve.

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