Monkey business: Enjoying epic wildlife experiences in South Africa

A multi-centre trip to the destination provides memories to last a lifetime

He’s giving us the stink eye,” our game ranger Jacques whispers as we come across one of the rarest sights in the bush, a black rhino. One of only 3,000 left in the wild, he’s standing still and silent, appearing a little cantankerous with one eye set firmly on us and the other on his curious calf. The youngster seems as interested in us as we are in him.

At this point, sitting among the plains of the Shamwari Private Game Reserve on my first-ever safari experience, I realise I’ve been bitten by the safari bug and there is no stopping the itch. And I’m not the only one hooked on South Africa – the destination is quite rightly attracting visitors back in their droves post-pandemic and being the backdrop to reality shows such as I’m a Celebrity… South Africa, Love Island and Married at First Sight has only helped propel its appeal among travellers. It’s no surprise that visitor numbers for this year are already up on 2022, with the value of the pound against the rand adding to South Africa’s pulling power.

The perfect combination

I’m visiting South Africa on a fam trip with a group of first-timers from a range of UK tour operators. Arriving in Johannesburg a few days earlier, we head straight to the coast. After an internal flight to Gqeb erha (previously Port Elizabeth) and a two-hour drive through the Eastern Cape, we arrive at the five-star, all-suite Oceana Beach & Wildlife Reserve. We’re greeted by breathtaking views of an unspoilt beach that hugs the reserve and stretches as far as our tired eyes can see. We get a quick, teasing glimpse of a group of giraffes in the bush before being whisked to our suites.

This boutique property, with just nine suites and a three-bedroom private house, is uniquely positioned both on the coast and within arms reach of the bush. My Ocean Suite gives me a 180-degree view – I’m spoilt by vistas of the Indian Ocean and the wildlife too. After kicking off my shoes and running around the suite opening draws, cupboards and doors like an excited child, I step into the freestanding bathtub in one of my two bathrooms.

Floor-to-ceiling windows offer stunning views as I soak away the aches of travelling with luscious bath salts working their magic. Next, I take up residence in my king-sized four-poster bed with a hidden surprise – a heated blanket to take the chill out of the night.

Close encounters

Waking up in a pool of sweat (I forgot to turn off the heated blanket), I take in the room with fresh eyes. Its thatched ceiling and timber beams support an enormous wooden chandelier, which hangs from the centre of the suite and is so grand that it looks like a work of art. There are two large, inviting sofas with plush pillows and a coffee table full of enticing reads, but the wraparound deck with two comfy sun loungers is the ideal spot for my morning coffee. Here I’m also greeted by a new friend, a very bold vervet monkey sitting on the deck scratching. Inching closer to my open door, he darts in, steals the sugar from my coffee station and makes a swift exit.

There’s no doubt in my mind that he’s done this before, a seasoned sugar-snatching pro. My brush with wildlife was far from over and as the group gathers to embark on a two-hour walking safari all sorts of questions start racing through my mind: will I keep up with the group’s pace? Is it safe? Could I die? And the answer to all of these is ‘yes’.

Despite my fears, it’s such an incredible experience following in the footprints of the wildlife in the African bush, filling your lungs with the freshest air you will ever breathe. Our ranger is like a young David Attenborough, eager to share his bush knowledge, including the fact that you can eat springbok poo, which he keenly demonstrates. As our trek continues, we pass families of giraffes, zebras and spiders the size of my fist.

Safari bug

We swap the glorious South African coast for a wilderness experience in the heart of the Eastern Cape. Malaria-free Shamwari Private Game Reserve has six five-star lodges spread across 25,000 hectares and my home from home is a feast for the eyes. The opulent Long Lee Manor, which underwent extensive renovations in 2019, resembles a magnificent Edwardian-style manor standing white and majestic in the middle of the natural hues of the African bush. It boasts 15 twin-bedded rooms and 10 suites. The attention to detail in the design is unmatched, with handcrafted furniture and artwork that boast elegance from a bygone era.

My Plains Suite is enormous, clean and bug free, which is usually my main concern when so close to nature. I open the patio doors to the amazing sight of Shamwari’s plains and watch giraffes, families of elephants and antelope stroll by. Suddenly déjà vu strikes and a cheeky vervet monkey jumps onto the outdoor sofa, clearly waiting for the opportunity to raid my room – not this time, mate.

The true beauty of this place extends far beyond the visual appeal. The food is nothing short of amazing and the chefs have a true talent for creating dishes that are both delicious and look stunning. From the freshest seafood and succulent game meats to exquisite desserts, the cuisine is simply incredible. Everything is made with local produce, ensuring you get a true taste of the region’s culinary delights.

Unique experiences

A quick change into safari attire and we head off on our first mission in Shamwari – to find the aforementioned black rhino. Easy, right? Wrong. It’s like trying to find a needle in a haystack. We bounce around in our four-wheel drive, going deeper into the reserve when suddenly we spot the illusive black rhino. We sit silently watching this majestic animal, proud to have ticked it off our ‘seen-it list’.

Next, we set our sights on lions. Now, I’m not exactly sure why anyone in their right mind would want to find lions, unless your idea of a good time is being a chew toy for the king of the jungle, but I guess no adventure is complete without a little bit of danger. We finally spot them, two magnificent beasts, basking in the sun like a pair of models in a Calvin Klein ad.

We sit and watch in awe, clicking away with our cameras and wiping away tears of joy at this once-in-a-lifetime experience. Feeling parched after a long day in the bush, the word ‘sundowners’ brings a smile to everyone’s faces. We watch the sun dip slowly over the African savannah; the sky painted with vibrant streaks of orange, pink and red like the most perfect watercolour.

The stillness is only broken by the chirping of crickets, the rustling of the wind blowing through trees and the roar of lions in the near distance. As the sky shifts colours, there is nothing more peaceful than sipping a gin and tonic and savouring the last rays of sunlight. It’s moments of pure bliss like this that make all of life’s stresses melt away. However, with every awe-inspiring moment on safari comes the possibility of danger, and needing a wee in the bush is one of them. The thought of lions roaming nearby means squatting behind a tree has never been so stressful. My visit to Shamwari was something I’ll never forget.

I conquered my fear of spiders and insects, faced wild animals head on and even managed to take a wee in the bush…a true accomplishment. I’ve certainly been bitten by the safari bug, and I can’t wait to return to the plains of Africa again.

Expert advice: Jordan Torrilla, product and purchasing manager for Africa, Asia, Middle East, Maldives and Sri Lanka, Classic Collection

“As an agent, when a client says ‘we’d like to go on safari’ it can be as intimidating as it is exciting. When crafting any safari holiday it is important to understand what the customers’ expectations are and what has motivated them to choose Africa. To help you build their perfect safari holiday, ask if there is a particular animal they would like to see or an activity they would like to do.

You could also ask them, ‘what would your ideal day look like?’. Thanks to the Land Cruisers and experienced guides at Shamwari Long Lee Manor, you can explore every corner of the 25,000-hectare reserve. Highlights include the big five, with both black and white rhinos, but also smaller wildlife such as warthogs and the indigenous rock kestrels. With no malaria in Shamwari, the reserve is perfect for families, but equally as well suited to honeymooners. Guests can enjoy access to the Born Free Cat Sanctuary and the Shamwari Rehabilitation Centre.”

Book it: Classic Package Holidays offers 10 nights in South Africa from £6,159 per person, based on two adults sharing, flying from Heathrow with BA on May 26, 2024. The itinerary includes four nights at Oceana Beach & Wildlife Reserve and four nights at Shamwari Bayethe Safari Lodge, both fully inclusive.

Flora Ioannou

As the art editor and production editor of all Travel Weekly Group products, Flora is responsible for the visual style and images in our print publications. She also creates the overall design and supervises others working on the production desk. She has more than 30 years in the travel industry and has built up a great knowledge of the luxury travel sector.

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