Sunday, September 17, 2006

South Africa's Shamwari game reserve home to lion, leopard and other "Big Five" animals

Rhino? Par for the course in South Africa

Christopher Martin-Jenkins chases golf balls and big game in a neglected region of South Africa

GOLF, the sea, sun, comfort and a touch of the wild: it is well known that South Africa offers all these things, plus the considerable advantage of no jet lag. What may be less commonly known is that the Eastern Cape offers a cheaper and wider alternative to the three areas that normally attract the well-heeled.

Off they go in their thousands each year to the Cape Province, the game parks of the Highveld or the war sites of KwaZulu-Natal. The hunters search for the “big five” with cameras and malaria pills; the swimmers freeze in the Atlantic or the Indian Oceans around Cape Town, or enjoy the warmer waves of sultry Durban; and the golfers seek a wide variety of courses.

All bar the war sites are available at a place that deserves better than to be known merely as the last stop on the Garden Route or, to cricketers, as the stage for South Africa’s first Test match. Port Elizabeth admittedly has none of Cape Town’s style and elegance, but you can sense the carefree atmosphere of its more attractive western end the moment you land at the airport, where it takes only half an hour for visitors to collect their bags, hire their car and reach the long sandy beaches of Algoa Bay.

Five minutes west of the surfers is a reason for any discerning golfer to head for Port Elizabeth: links that are truly to be mentioned in the same breath as the coastal courses of Scotland, Ireland, England and Wales. I do mean links. Humewood is a deceptive name for a course that does not need trees or length to test the best.

The challenge comes instead from bunkers, a low, thick green bush that provides cover for a few puff adders and wild tortoises, the humps and hollows of the old dunes, a subtle layout and above all the wind. The members here jest at having two courses at Humewood, the east and the west, although both occupy the same 18 holes laid out by the renowned Stafford Vere Hotchkin in 1931. On Saturdays they play one competition before noon, when the Indian Ocean that glistens close to every hole is a flawless blue; and after it when one of the winds turns a seven iron to the green into a long three.

The president, Keith Simpson, is hoping that the stars of the African and European tours will get every wind that blows from December 14 to 17 when the club stages what is officially the 2007 South African Open, the oldest professional golf tournament apart from the Open itself. It will be 50 years since Harold Henning joined Sid Brews (twice) and the immortal Bobby Locke as winner of the four previous S.A. Opens at Humewood.

And it will be 75 since Hotchkin, designer of the PGA’s headquarters at Woodhall Spa, in Lincolnshire, laid out what to my mind is as enjoyable as any course in the southern hemisphere. The club’s symbol is the crown plover which, like the blacksmith plover, gets more respect than the oldest member. A ball landing within two club lengths of a fiercely protected egg may be moved without penalty.

Shamwari game reserve, the second port of call for my wife and me, is becoming a less well-kept secret than Humewood. It is a great and successful enterprise in conservation, where 20,000ha of unspoilt, hilly country, reclaimed from farms, seems more than enough for the reintroduced “big five” (lion, elephant, rhino, leopard, buffalo) and a marvellous variety of both buck and birds in the environs of the Bushmans River.

Occasionally there appeared to be herds of Land Rover sweeping majestically across the plain, but in three days we had isolated experiences too and saw all but buffalo and the elusive leopard. White rhino were plentiful, and a cheetah nodding off beside a kudu bull it had just killed is an image that will linger in my memory.

What three of the six lodges lack in rawness they make up for in accessibility — a comfortable 90-minute drive from Port Elizabeth — the lack of malaria, and great comfort. More like remote hotels with two big game drives as the chief attraction, they are cheap by the standards only of “exclusive” game reserves, but a high standard of food and wine is included at £430 per person per night.

Bayethe Lodge, at the same price, offers genuine tents that differ from those used by the likes of Stanley and Livingstone by being six times the size and offering lighting, bath, shower, loo, comfortable beds, air-conditioning and heating.

For super-luxury combined with a genuine feeling of being at one with nature, an extra £95 is probably worth paying for one or the other of two fabulously sited lodges. Lobengula, with only five rooms, is hidden in a deep valley in the bushveld; Eagles Crag, also in a valley, points towards a thickly wooded cliff where bird sound is all around and the eagles can be studied from a private deck beside each of nine tastefully furnished rooms. Both lodges offer every creature comfort, including spas.

A less ambitious enterprise has started on the borders of Shamwari at an old railway halt, Alicedale, where an old schoolhouse has been turned into a hotel; luxurious, a little soulless as yet but more affordable at around £100 a night. It offers local game drives and a golf course designed by Gary Player. Most of the greens are little bigger than the Postage Stamp at Troon and winds are less vicious here.

After the rigours of 5.30am alarm calls at Shamwari, the Plettenberg Hotel at Plettenberg Bay was a wonderful place to complete a holiday. Just into the Western Cape, it is more sophisticated than the little seaside resorts to the east. Set on a headland, the Plettenberg overlooks two sandy bays, the estuary of the Keurbooms River and the Tsitsikamma mountains. Rooms, food and service were impeccable at the most spectacular of any South African seaside hotel.

Need to know

Christopher Martin-Jenkins travelled with Okavango Tours & Safaris (020-8343 3283) which can tailor-make a similar holiday comprising three nights’ B&B at the Windermere hotel in Port Elizabeth, three at Shamwari game reserve (full board and game drives), and three at the Plettenberg hotel with B&B. The price, from £2,660pp, includes return flights to Johannesburg on British Airways and on to Port Elizabeth, and car hire. 0,,10292-2165571,00.html

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