Activities / Eastern Cape

An Interview with Graeme Mann of Kwandwe Private Game Reserve

Updated Wednesday, 9 January 2019

Kwandwe Private Game Reserve showcases the lushness and beauty of the Eastern Cape’s fauna and flora. It is the perfect getaway for locals and visitors alike. Home to prey and predator, along with a breath-taking variety of birds and other impressive animals, this is a nature-lover’s delight. We interviewed General Manager, Graeme Mann, to hear what’s behind the success of this reserve…

An Interview with Graeme Mann, GM of the Kwandwe Private Game Reserve

When was Kwandwe established? What was the vision?

Kwandwe is the result of the shared vision, resources and energy of four very dynamic individuals. It must have been fate at play many years ago when Carl DeSantis and Erika Stewart went on safari to King’s Pool Camp in the Linyanti region of Botswana and met then-lodge managers Angus and Tracy Sholto-Douglas.

The result was a collective dream to find and develop a piece of land in South Africa’s almost forgotten Eastern Cape and restore it to its former glory. The result is Kwandwe, 22,000 hectares of pristine private wilderness stretching either side of the Great Fish River, which meanders for 30 kilometres through rugged landscape which is once more abundant with thousands of animals, including lion, black and white rhino, buffalo, elephant and cheetah in their natural habitat.

Many guests come here to tick off the Big Five, but there is so much more to the Reserve. It is also home to populations of black wildebeest, serval, brown hyena, black footed cat, aardvark, aardwolf, and springhare amongst others.

Twelve years later, now under new ownership and with four small luxuriously appointed lodges in the 22,000 hectares, Kwandwe has evolved into a highly respected, world-renowned eco-tourism destination.

Kwandwe Private Game Reserve

Has this initial vision changed at all? If so, how?

The vision hasn’t changed, it has however been realized! Kwandwe is a renowned conservation and community success story in its own right. Comprising just 22 rooms split across four small Relais & Chateaux accredited lodges, it provides understated luxury and one of the highest guest to land ratios in SA, guaranteeing true exclusivity.

The 22,000 hectares is home to the famous Big 5 as well as a diverse number of smaller and more unusual species. In addition to a wide variety of safari activities including game drives and bush walks, picnic lunches and dinners alfresco, sundowners on the dam’s pontoon and boat excursions, we have also introduced a number of ‘active participation’ activities that invite guests to get involved in the conservation and community initiatives being carried out on the reserve.

Kwandwe Private Game Reserve

What sets Kwandwe apart from other game lodges?

The biggest factor is the size of the land vs the number of guests we can accommodate at any one time, according us one of the highest land to guest ratios in the country. This also ensures a high yield/ low impact conservation model and guarantees Guests on the reserve true exclusivity.

Other factors include:
  • On 30 km of privately owned Great Fish River frontage
  • Game-rich country with Big Five (black & white rhino, elephant, lion, buffalo and leopard) as well as a remarkable variety of predators and general game, including cheetah, kudu, springbok, eland, red hartebeest, giraffe, black wildebeest and gemsbok
  • A paradise for birdwatchers, the Fish Eagle and endangered Blue Crane are among a wide variety of birds found on the Reserve
  • Excellent nocturnal viewing – aardwolf and aardvark are regularly seen
  • Immensely rich in history
  • The perfect add-on to an itinerary featuring Cape Town and the Garden Route
  • Malaria-free destination
  • Ideal for families and small groups of friends travelling together
  • Two sole-use safari villas – include private ranger/host, tracker, butler, chef and exclusive use of an open 4×4 safari vehicle
  • All 4 lodges are members of the renowned Relais & Châteaux association
  • Specialist Safaris: Big Game Walking Safaris, Rhino Monitoring Safaris, Rhino Conservation (darting and notching) Safaris
  • Our own social development arm, the Angus Gillis Foundation, which works with communities in and surrounding the Reserve

What is its role in the promotion of the Eastern Cape on the global tourism platform?

Kwandwe undertook an enormous responsibility by reinstating threatened and endangered wildlife back into the Eastern Cape. Before the arrival of the first cheetah in 2000, it’s sobering to know that the last two cheetah in the area were killed in 1888.

The Great Fish River’s abundance of wildlife, before European settlement of the area, is well documented in local San rock art. Reading through the historical accounts of mammals in the Great Fish River and planning their reintroduction was one of the most exciting periods of Kwandwe’s development.

Kwandwe Private Game Reserve

The Eastern Cape is a biological melting pot of vegetation types, from euphorbia forests to spectacular displays of winter-flowering aloes. This means that it caters to a great variety of wildlife not found elsewhere in the country.  The Eastern Cape also has a more sustainable, longer term Big Five game-viewing future than, say, the Western Cape, thanks to the endemic vegetation’s ability to sustain the immense dietary requirements of elephant populations.

From a tourism perspective, an added bonus is Kwandwe’s easy access location in the malaria-free Eastern Cape, within driving distance of Grahamstown, Port Elizabeth and the unparalled beauty of the Garden Route and Indian Ocean.

Kwandwe is proud to be a key role player, along with other partners and reserves in the area, in establishing the Eastern Cape as a world-renowned safari destination.

Kwandwe Private Game Reserve

Please tell us a bit more about the various accommodation options at Kwandwe (Ecca Lodge, Uplands Homestead, and so on):

Kwandwe has four small luxury lodges, of which two are sole-use villas. All are Relais & Chateaux accredited.

Great Fish River Lodge: Nine luxurious and private suites feature ensuite bathrooms, indoor and outdoor showers, separate w.c, twin basins, personal bars and covered private verandas with plunge pools. The décor is classic- contemporary African-inspired, with natural palettes of earth-toned fabrics.

Ecca Lodge: Six spacious and private suites feature ensuite bathrooms, indoor and outdoor showers, separate w.c, twin basins, personal bars and private decks with plunge pools. Interior design reflects natural textures in hues of burnt aloe orange, rust and olive. Furnishings combine clean, contemporary sofas with venerable old collectables from the area.

Melton Manor: A sole-use safari villa featuring four bedrooms with spacious bathrooms and innovative “butler hatches” for discreet room service. This is a contemporary Frontier farmhouse, recently refurbished with new décor reflecting the splendour of the Manor’s remote location and the scale of the surrounding landscape. The spacious u- shaped lodge features high ceilings and deep verandas, overlooking the central courtyard and its large swimming pool.

Uplands Homestead: A restored farmhouse dating back to 1905, this sole-use villa features a contemporary farm style kitchen, three spacious bedrooms with en-suite bathrooms and private verandas. The furnishings exemplify rich colours and textures, and combined with the original antiques give this laidback luxurious home a comfortable and romantic ambiance.

Kwandwe Private Game Reserve

Do you have honeymoon suites and / or family rooms?

Great Fish River Lodge is ideal for honeymooners. The ‘adults only’ lodge (no children under 12; all the other lodges accept children of all ages), its spectacular setting high up on the banks of the Great Fish River with sweeping views over the reserve makes it a very romantic setting for honeymooners.

Both sole-use villas are ideal for families as they come fully staffed with a private butler, chef, ranger, tracker and safari vehicle – so safari days, activities and mealtimes are completely flexible.

Ecca Lodge also accepts children of all ages; 2 children can share with parents in the separate lounge area.

What facilities and amenities do you have?

Great Fish River Lodge and Ecca Lodge: although the two lodges are very distinct in terms of their décor as well as location, each of the lodges’ suites are privately situated a short distance away from the main lodge area and have a private deck with plunge pool, indoor and outdoor showers, double vanities, separate loos, personal bars and all the usual amenities one would expect at a luxury lodge (hairdryers, in-room safes etc). Each lodge also has a main lodge pool, dining area (indoor as well as outdoor), Great Fish River Lodge has a small gift shop, Ecca Lodge has an indoor play centre for children. Complimentary wifi throughout for all lodges, complimentary childminding. In-room massages can be arranged.

The villas have various indoor and outdoor dining and relxation areas, private staff (butlers, chefs, rangers, trackers, vehicles), and each villa has a large swimming pool.

The reserve has a private airstrip (right nect to the Reception area) with daily scheduled flights to and from Port Elizabeth. There is also a large gift shop at Reception (Heatherton Towers).

In addition to a wide variety of safari activities including game drives and bush walks, picnic lunches and dinners alfresco, fishing, sundowners on the dam’s pontoon and boat excursions, Kwandwe has introduced a number of ‘active participation’ activities that invite guests to get involved in the conservation and community initiatives being carried out on the reserve.

Kwandwe Private Game Reserve

What makes Kwandwe great for families with children?

Kwandwe is an ideal and stimulating location for children. Not only are there a host of tailor-made activities on-site to keep little ones entertained, but our malaria-free status and proximity to a range of family and child-friendly activities in the area make this a safari experience without parallel for kids.

Our two sole-use villas, Uplands Homestead and Melton Manor, are ideal for families. Days and safari activities at the villas are flexible and completely tailor-made with dedicated staff including a private chef, butler, ranger, tracker and safari vehicle. Children of all ages are also welcome at Ecca Lodge, with a maximum of two children aged 16 years and younger able to share with parents. Children 12 years and older are welcome at Great Fish River Lodge.

Activities for children include ‘poo’ safaris and spoor tracking with the ranger and tracker, Minnow’s fishing trip with the ranger, finger painting, making animals from clay, daily treasure hunts, special game drives outside of normal times where available, baking, pizza making competitions, DVDs and popcorn, chocolate mould making, creature cookie baking, bedtime stories with milk and cookies

Children receive ‘Rangers in Training’ bags with pencils/crayons, booklet for identifying wildlife, water bottle and special amenities (shampoo, body lotion and bubble bath).

Game drives at Ecca Lodge: regretfully, children 5 years and younger cannot participate in game drives unless a sole use vehicle is booked. When available this will be provided at no charge – ideally during the day so as not to clash with scheduled game drives (early morning and evening), otherwise a charge will apply. Children aged 6 to 11 can be accommodated on game drives at the lodge manager’s discretion. Children are however welcome to join a daily ‘Stripes & Hooves’ adventure at Ecca Lodge, a daily one hour morning game drive after breakfast with or without their parents to view ‘non-aggressive’ game such as giraffe, zebra, monkeys, warthogs etc at no additional cost.

A special children’s menu is sent to parents to choose meals in advance of arrival.

Experienced childminders are available by prior arrangement at no additional cost.

Kwandwe Private Game Reserve

I see you have a number of conservation projects underway; please tell us a bit more about these:

Kwandwe Private Game Reserve is a highly respected, world-renowned eco-tourism destination with an exceptional conservation track record and a reputation for sustainable community upliftment.

Kwandwe has successfully managed to maintain a sustainable high yield/ low impact conservation model. The 22,000 hectares (54,000 acres) of rehabilitated wilderness stretches either side of the Great Fish River and comprises only four small luxury safari lodges, according it one of the highest acre to guest ratios in South Africa. The successful development of this conservation model is key to furthering Kwandwe’s numerous conservation initiatives.

  • Reclaiming 20,000 hectares of farmland and placing it under wildlife conservation
  • Providing a refuge for the sensitive sub-tropical thicket vegetation
  • Reclaiming areas of intense agriculture
  • On average sub-tropical thicket stores 40 tons of carbon per ha; Kwandwe has in the region of 13,000 hectares of sub-tropical thicket, amounting to 520,000 tons of carbon being stored on the property
  • The reintroduction of the endangered black rhinoceros
  • Returning cheetah to the Great Fish River Valley for the first time since 1888
  • The reintroduction of small feline species, mostly rare, absent from the area viz. Serval, African wildcat and 
Small Spotted Cat
  • The reintroduction of some 7 000 wild animals, including elephant, both species of rhino, hippo, lion, leopard, brown hyena etc
  • Eleven postgraduate research studies conducted on wildlife and vegetation on Kwandwe
  • The reestablishment of populations of disease-free Cape Buffalo, Cheetah, Lion, White Rhino and Black 
Rhino on many game reserves in South Africa from Kwandwe’s founding stock
  • Providing a breeding refuge for the Blue Crane
  • Conducting a leopard population census along with a drive to relieve farmer-leopard conflict in the immediate area
  • A new conservation focus of studying the Brown hyena’s diet to gain a better understanding of the general biology of these animals as part of the greater ecological system on the reserve

Kwandwe Private Game Reserve

How are you involved in community and / or green initiatives? How can your guests contribute to these?

Please see above for our green initiatives as these often go hand in hand with our conservation projects. We are also proud of our contribution to the development of thriving, empowered communities both within and surrounding the reserve through the numerous ongoing initiatives of the Angus Gillis Foundation.

Kwandwe has been involved in the following community related initiatives:
  • Creation of the Angus Gillis Foundation, a registered non-profit organisation that works with communities both within and neighbouring the reserve
  • Employment of over 200 people from rural communities, of which at least 50% are women, doubling the income of most households
  • Providing a positive health programme for staff, families and 11 surrounding rural villages
  • Funded the construction of a formal primary school within 2 km of the reserve’s Eastern boundary
  • Providing a preschool and after-care centre on the reserve for staff’s children
  • Co-funded Rhodes University in the construction of the Development Centre
  • Donated land for the development of an agri-village
  • Allocated land on Kwandwe and facilitated the construction of the Mgcamabele Community Centre
  • Over 60 members of staff have been through an accredited leadership programme
  • Providing adult based education and training with an on-property computer training centre

Kwandwe also has also initiated a variety of volunteering activities enabling guests to add value to these community projects during their stay at the reserve. As well as being able to donate educational toys and resources to the local school and training centre, guests are invited to impart their skills and expertise through the donation of their time during their safari – assisting with gardening projects or maintenance at the Mgcamabele Community Centre (1/2 a day); giving a class for the children or a workshop for the teachers at Fort Brown Primary School (2hrs); training community centre staff in computer skills or health and fitness (2hrs); arts and craft activities at a local day care centre (1/2 – full day) or simply giving up an afternoon to enjoy playtime at the pre-school (2hrs).

Kwandwe Private Game Reserve

What animals can visitors look forward to spotting on the game drives on offer?

Kwandwe’s 22,000 hectares is home to the famous Big 5 (black as well as white rhino), as well as a diverse number of smaller and more unusual species. It is also home to populations of black wildebeest, cheetah, springbok, oryx, eland, kudu, serval, brown hyena, black footed cat, aardvark, aardwolf, and springhare amongst others.

Further still, Kwandwe is a bird lover’s paradise (over 300 recorded species on the reserve) and also affords protection to a variety of these – South Africa’s national bird, the endangered blue crane, from which the reserve gets its name (‘Kwandwe’ means ‘Place of the Blue Crane’ in Xhosa Knysna), the turaco (known locally as the knysna loerie), bokmakierie, southern-black korhaan, black harrier, malachite sunbird, eastern clapper lark, and south african shellduck – all endemic species that are also seen regularly here.

Why do you love the Eastern Cape?

Over the last 9 years, the Eastern Cape has really become home to me, and the open vistas, rolling valleys and spectacular beaches are real factors which contribute to my love for this province. Also, the natural hospitality and warmth of the people who live and work here, is something which exceeds anything I’ve experienced in other parts of the country. Mix all these factors with the fascinating wildlife which occurs here, and you have your answer.

Kwandwe Private Game Reserve

Where would you like to see Kwandwe in 5 years’ time?

Kwandwe has been on a very positive upward trend over the past 2 years in terms of the quality of our product as a whole, as well occupancy, social and environmental responsibility and wildlife sightings. Quite simply, in 5 years’ time, I would like Kwandwe to still be progressing on this upward trend. We strongly believe that what Kwandwe has to offer, competes with the biggest names in the Safari industry, and we intend to remain amongst the best in class. There is no reason why Kwandwe cannot be the most sought after safari destination in Africa in 5 years’ time.

What is the most satisfying part of being involved with a lodge like Kwandwe?

For me, one of the most satisfying parts of being involved with Kwandwe is the ability of the Kwandwe team to consistently exceed our guests’ expectations. Passion, commitment and the love of Kwandwe as a whole is something which runs strongly in the veins of the whole team, and the dedication to creating unforgettable experiences is what makes this place tick. At Kwandwe, everyone who works here, lives here, so we are not just employees. We are friends and families as well as staff members. I strongly believe that this culture makes Kwandwe more than just a company of employees as we all feel a sense of ownership of Kwandwe. Because of this we are able to be unashamedly passionate about our Reserve which is also our home.

Comments / additional insights:

It is worth mentioning that Kwandwe sees itself not only as having a responsibility towards conserving our wildlife and empowering our staff, but that we in fact have a larger role to play in terms of improving the reputation and economy of the Eastern Cape as a whole. We actively work with other tourism products to raise the profile of the Eastern Cape, so as to provide opportunity for a greater segment of the Eastern Cape population. Combined with this philosophy, it is critical to recognise the work done by the Angus Gillis Foundation who is Kwandwe’s community development partner. By empowering communities in an ever increasing radius around Kwandwe, we feel that the quality of life of thousands of people is improving, and our commitment to this is unyielding.

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