SHAMWARI CELEBRATES 30 YEARS OF CONSERVATION
Now on Netflix & Shamwari TV on YouTube
From overworked Eastern Cape farmlands to one of South Africa’s best known Big Five safari destinations - it’s extraordinary what Shamwari Private Game Reserve has achieved in 30 years. I went along to celebrate their anniversary after a gap of 15 years. I loved it then, but I’m totally enamoured now!
To honour their 30th birthday, the Shamwari Untamed Netflix series has been re-released to give you every thrill of safari and a whole gambit of emotions. It’s in this series that you get to meet Shamwari’s own Vet Johan Joubert, his partner in wildlife management the resident Ecologist John O’Brien, and a tenacious anti-poaching team of men and dogs, amongst others. If, like me, you are hooked on safari, then Shamwari TV on YouTube keeps the thrill going.
Johan treats wild animals in the field if he deems it necessary or appropriate, or brought to his surgery mainly from elsewhere, with the intention of releasing them back into the wild after recovering in the Wildlife Rehabilitation Centre. Watch the series to understand just how out-of-the-ordinary and positively dangerous his work can be. John described part of his job as, “keeping Johan alive,” citing a narrow escape when they were about to open transport crates containing two apparently anesthetised lions. John suggested doing a final check, at which point they found the lions very much awake and not in a good mood!
The transportation of wild animals to or from Shamwari is for population control, gene pool diversity, or the introduction of new animals; they hope to secure more land than their existing 250 sq km, to bring in hyena and wild dog who need large territories. Johan told me that white rhinos are easy to work with, “as long as you avoid the pointy end”, but shakes his head with a wistful memory when he says, “black rhinos are the most aggressive animal on earth.” They have a good number of both on Shamwari and I wouldn’t like to be in Johan’s shoes on the day one needs his attention.
Lisa, the Supervisor of the Rehabilitation Centre, showed me the inmates – a tour available to guests and educational groups. Her biggest problem are the meerkats. Not only are they escape artists, but she needs to release an established gang of at least eight, because an individual would be attacked by a wild mob. Gang and mob, both are used to aptly describe a group of meerkats whose social structure is ruled by the alpha female, who Lisa says, “brings all the drama!” They are insanely cute but feisty little critters and Lisa has the scars to prove it.
Another conservation initiative in Shamwari is their partnership with the Born Free Foundation, with an education centre and land to house big cats rescued from circuses, zoos and homes. These humanized animals can never be released into the wild and are lovingly looked after by jovial, big-hearted Animal Care Manager, Glen Vena. He takes groups to see and hear more about the charges in his care and giggles, “I’ve been trying to speak lion for the past 22 years and I’m not sure I’ve mastered it yet.”
Visiting Eagle’s Crag lodge, I called out to two waitresses with long plaited tresses, “ladies, would you mind being in my picture?” Upon turning around, one said, “I’m not a lady, but I don’t mind in the least as I’m not altogether a man either.” They told me they love their job and this sentiment was a constant with all the staff I met.
I get tired of safari guides repeating the same old information in a teacher-pupil scenario that doesn’t engage me. None of that here. Shamwari guides are brilliant and regularly receive awards for excellence from FGHASA - the Field Guides Association, who set qualifications and standards in the nature guiding industry. I sensed a corporate culture across the board of nurture, praise and advancement, with in-house and external training to better their skills and qualifications. Ranger Manager Andrew Kearney picks his people for their promise, passion and desire to learn and clearly, a clearly, a wicked sense of humour.
“It’s #shamazing,” shouts Jan, one of the longstanding Shamwari guides, who fits the personality profile of highly knowledgeable, super-enthusiastic, rather hyperactive and irreverently funny. He made me wanted to jump onto his bandwagon and get high on whatever he was on, which was pure passion for the daily delights of being in the bush with a bunch of nature lovers. Jan, along with most of the other guides, see Shamwari as their long-term home for work and family and stay much longer in their jobs (around nine years on average) than the norm.
In my opinion, Shamwari offers the perfect, malaria-free South African safari in combination with a Cape Town and Garden Route trip. It has seven different accommodation options and my favourites, at either end of Shamwari’s budget spectrum are:
Sindile Lodge, with hillside position to view the waterhole below and gorgeous décor, with enormous suites and own plunge pool and tantalising food and wine.
It’s here that I ate the dish I want as my last meal, which Head Chef Richard Boehmke says, “is as close to perfection as I can manage.” A mouth-melting fillet of beef is the simple part. The rest is sublime; an encrusted little domed pie, whose base was layered with pancetta & truffle potato dauphinoise and pulled wagyu beef on top. Then there’s a bite-sized braised oxtail parcelled in spinach, and a satisfying crunch from the deep-fried panko-crumbed bone marrow. Top all this with a rich juniper jus that takes three days to make. There may have been some vegetables but I didn’t notice them. Vegans and vegetarians need not despair, with char-grilled gem lettuce scattered with sesame seed, miso dressing and kewpie mayo a regular on the tapas-style lunch menu. Chef Richard manages a team of about 88 chefs and says his exquisite food offering is down to, “a holy trinity of; ingredients, menu and chefs.”
Explorer Camp offers down-to-earth walking safaris, with rustic walk-in tents and en-suite facilities, a dining and lounge area and outdoor fire pit, where all food is cooked. What comes off that fire are delicious breads, desserts and rich stews from the potjie pot (which my English chef friend calls a witch’s cauldron). There are few homely comforts apart from a decent bed, so it’s not exactly Glamping, but there is a plunge pool nestling in the rocks. Nestling is a word I teach other travel writers never to use – ever! It’s my pet hate, so why have I broken my own rule? Because I’ve never seen anything nestle more than this pool! I hate myself for conceding to this.
Explorer Camp is all about walking in Big Five country, getting as close as is safe to animals like elephant and rhino, with guides that really know their stuff. Personally, I would treat myself to a lodge stay afterwards within Shamwari, for some contrast and comfort in a giant king-size bed, soft sofas and general pampering. Don’t get me wrong, I love the earthy stuff; getting down on my knees to look at spoor and dung and beetles and tiny flower heads, but I do like returning to a place of beauty and comfort too.
With the hindsight of visiting 250+ safari lodges in hundreds of private and public game reserves (I know, how did that happen to a gal from London?), I’m not easily impressed, but Shamwari, with its commendable ethos towards people and animals, managed it. Shamwari made me laugh, cry, honour, respect and admire the people, the place, the work they do and the animals they keep safe.