Game reserve destination offers a charming hotel and exclusive glamping
To the uninitiated, the Great Karoo looks a little lacklustre, an expanse of rolling flatlands interrupted by weathered koppies and brittle terrain. But to those in the know, it’s a semi-desert tapestry that warrants a deeper delve. Look a little closer and a different scenario emerges, one that thrills to the core. Think fascinating topography, historical gravitas and ancient environments. It’s an adventure loaded with natural assets and every bit as grand as the name suggests.
In its entirety, the Great Karoo covers a staggering 400,000km², equivalent to the size of Germany and overlapping four of South Africa’s nine provinces – the Western, Northern and Eastern Cape, and the Free State. This is ‘big agri’ turf, home to thousands of farms and around 100 towns, villages and informal settlements. For tourists, the sheer magnitude of it can be daunting, so for first-time travellers, one of the best introductions to the region is through Mount Camdeboo, a privately owned game reserve in a malaria-free area above the heritage town of Graaff-Reinet.
Mount Camdeboo, meaning ‘green ponds’ in Khoisan, was purchased in 1996 by the late Logie Buchanan and his wife, Cathy. Forty-five minutes from town on a dirt road gets you there, through wide open Nama Karoo scrubland dotted with acacias, synonymous with these landscapes and relished by giraffe. Sightings of them en route are common, their pretty, velvet faces peering curiously through the treetops as you pass.
Loving the landscape
Camdeboo Manor is one of three beautifully restored gabled houses on the property, managed by Newmark Hotels. As the social hub, this is where guests checkin and where people gather for meals prepared by an outstanding culinary team. Welcomes are warm and effusive, typical of country concierges, and set the tone for a classic home-away-from-home experience. There are four suites in total, good for couples or those travelling solo. French doors open onto lush gardens ringed by tall trees, a playground for vervet monkeys that frolic in the branches in the early hours. The décor throughout is timeless, a stylish conflation of the elegant and the contemporary. The lounge beckons with deep leather couches, and vintage embellishments add to old-world charm. There are loads of books, an honesty bar and writing nooks and, most riveting of all, a sculpture of a rhino calf lying on its side. The backstory to the lifelike artwork is that the pregnant mother was brutally poached and desperate attempts to save her unborn baby were unsuccessful. The sweet creature has been immortalised in bronze, an evocative reminder of the ongoing fight to preserve another species under constant threat.
This empathy runs through the reserve’s DNA, evidenced in the numerous rewilding projects it oversees. Logie’s son Iain Buchanan, together with his mother Cathy, is the driving force behind what happens here. Perpetuating his father’s vision “shared at many a braai with good red wine” laughs Iain, the focus is on land regeneration, reviving endemic grasses, and re-introducing historic species that once freely roamed the Camdeboo Plains. The Buchanans have long championed the conservation and restoration of the fauna and flora they so fiercely protect in thisdomain. The reintroduction of lion in 2019 sealed the reserve’s Big Five status. Personalised safaris are the order of the day and game drives inevitably net multiple sightings. Today, the reserve harbours leopard, white rhino, Cape buffalo, mountain zebra, a host of antelope and 226 species of birds, including rare black eagles that you might spot coasting along the thermals. An ongoing association with The Aspinall Foundation and Ashia Cheetah Conservation saw the exciting release of cheetah last year: a breeding pair with blue-chip genetics. One of the pinnacle excursions is a drive to the camp’s northern side to observe these magnificent big cats in closer proximity.
Top of the world
Manor houses aside, the jewel in the Camdeboo crown has to be the sleep-out pods. It was during numerous COVID-19 campouts, in the exact spots where the sleek cabins are now located, that Iain realised the need for a permanent structure that would be able to contend
with the seasons. “I’ve always loved it up there,” he said, “for the spectacular views and absolute privacy. But temperatures can be extreme; 40 to 50°C in summer and falling below zero in winter. We also wanted something with a light footprint that would complement our existing eco-tourism offering.” Enter Apex Glamping, the construction outfit that oversaw the installation of two identical pods, 2km apart as the crow flies – compact, weather-resilient and fully equipped with state-of-the-art kitchenettes and ablutions, and superb attention to detail.
Eagle’s Flight Pod is 30 minutes up the Sneeuberg hillside from Camdeboo Manor. You’re bundled into a game vehicle and deposited at a sleek cabin on top of the world. Outside, there is a boma and fire pit, a KolKol tub, a table and two chairs and an inviting hammock. Inside, a cosy, minimalist interior is flooded with natural light that streams in through the glass frontage. You’ve decamped into a microcosm of hygge in a Scandinaviainspired sanctum. Come 4pm, a potjie of wholesome lamb stew is delivered and heated up for you over the coals. It’s a hearty feast, and the service is exemplary.
Geographically, the pod rests on a summit overlooking 360° of pristine wilderness and enclosed by an inconspicuous electric fence. This is, after all, predator territory which means no walkabouts, but this doesn’t matter, because you won’t want to leave your lofty sanctuary. Come nightfall, the sky is thick with twinkling stars and it feels like you can touch the constellations. Lions grunt nearby, adding to the stirring nocturnal soundscape. Dawn brings more enchantment as a gossamer mist rolls in, settling softly over the deep gully, leaving only the spikey heads of the tallest aloes visible. As the sun rises, the fog retreats and the valley comes alive with bird song and baboon barks. It’s Africa in all her glory and frankly, it just doesn’t get better than that.
For the discerning explorer who loves nothing more than to journey into the heart of a place, Mount Camdeboo is a joy. Revel in it.