We pulled into Gondwana Game Reserve, eager and ready for our week at their new tented eco-camp to experience ecotourism in South Africa. We had only done one self-drive safari through Kruger National Park and were more than ready to see more giraffes, buffalo, and (maybe) even the elusive cheetah in South Africa.
We pulled into the main reception area of Gondwana, where a stunning lodge awaited us with a pool and high-speed WiFi. “This can’t be right,” we thought.
Then appeared Brendan, a ranger that completely fit the part of a hardcore South African conservationist. He informed us that we would be out of civilization soon – away from any 3G connection and roaming free with the caracals and antelope. Perfect.
Our group made our way into the South African bush, and within about five minutes drive there was not a soul or signal in sight. We continued driving through the Gondwana Nature Reserve surrounded by rolling hills, high mountains, and colorful singing birds. The sound would become our serenity for the next week in the stunning valleys below.
Gondwana Game Reserve’s Tented Eco Camp
Before we got to the tented eco-camp we were warned that “It wouldn’t exactly be luxurious.” Well, we aren’t the most luxurious of people, so we knew this wouldn’t be a problem for us – and went in with an open mind. However, when we pulled up to eco camp in our 10 seater Range Rover we found the whole area to be quite impressive. Our rooms were large open tents with comfy beds, hot showers equipped with luxury shampoo, body wash, and even conditioner, and topped off with heated blankets for those cold bush nights. Oh, and that was just the personal tents! The main tent where all communal activities happened showcased a stylish rustic bar, large kitchen, and an incredibly comfy lounging area. That I may have fallen asleep in a handful of times. We had been glamping before, but not in the African bush. Stepping into eco camp felt like we had been instantly cast in the next great African documentary. It was hard to believe this reserve was only four hours away from Cape Town and along the beautiful garden route.
The camp is run by two die-hard conservationists, Brendan and Stevie, who work together as an amazing team to give everyone an authentic experience in nature. They truly are making the eco camp one of the most memorable ecotourism lodges in South Africa Each night we would gather around the fire and share stories among the group stargazing at the milky way.
So, I guess I should mention why were so drawn to Gondwana’s Tented Eco Camp in the first place. We had been on a traditional safari in South Africa but longed for more. We wanted to feel more involved, that we were going beyond the traditional tourist role – and that’s what eco camp provides.
It’s apparent that almost everyone involved with Gondwana is passionate about conservation and is a shining example of ecotourism in South Africa. Everyone’s goals are to allow the wildlife to live freely without human intervention. You won’t find mass amounts of elephants, lions, or giraffes at Gondwana. There simply isn’t enough space for all those wild animals and it’s important to slowly introduce new species to an area to see if they flourish naturally. The land is fertile with minimal human impact and is looked after closely by the rangers and environmentalist.
All of this takes work to establish and maintain, and when staying at the eco camp, you actually are involved in the maintenance and upkeep of it all. Whether there are guests there or not, the team operates business as usual. So, we actually had the opportunity to be a part of the conservation, that they are a part of every day. We got to live the life of a ranger.
A Day at Eco Camp
Every day at eco camp is different, yet there are things that can also be expected. We made friends with our wonderful open safari vehicle, which we came to learn could get us out of any sticky, nerve-wrecking situation. Much of the action is seen from the comforts of our reliable vehicle(and that is where I prefer to keep it, don’t want any lions coming to say hello at camp!) Before you go, check out what to wear in Africa!
Each day involved a new conservation project that are a part of the rangers daily duties. Here eco campers got to experience the jobs at hand. There is almost always a wildlife sighting, but from a different point of view than a typical safari. No driving maniacally trying to check off every animal, nor are there any time limits at each stop. When we saw an antelope, cape mountain zebra, or a buffalo we simply observed and enjoyed their presence. Eco campers pretty much have the entire valley to themselves, and that was the beauty of seeing the wildlife from a conservationist perspective rather than a typical safari.
A typical day at eco camp went something like this:
- 7 a.m. Wake up to the sound of Brendan blowing in the Kudu horn followed by hot coffee and a hearty breakfast.
- 8 a.m. Morning game drives activity
- 12 p.m. Another hearty lunch with the group
- 1:30 p.m. Downtime to read, drink coffee, relax in the hammock, or swim in the pool (too cold for us in winter).
- 3 p.m. Afternoon game drive and conservation activity
- 5 p.m. A sundowner in one of the most beautiful valleys in the world
- 6 p.m. – 10 p.m. Dinner, followed by drinks by the fire and stargazing in the African bush
Ecotourism in South Africa
I mention conservation quite a bit when it comes to eco camp and their positive impact on sustainable ecotourism in South Africa. It’s hard to grasp the amount of love and work that goes into protecting a reserve in Africa, but after our week we were able to gain a bit more of insight. Within the first hour of being at eco camp, the group was out and about on our first mission.
Most people get excited about the lions, the rhinos, and the elephants when on safari – but what about the little guys? That’s what I get most excited for. The wild cats, honey badgers, and jackals are so much harder to see, so it is a much more rewarding experience when spotted!
So, we went into the forests and placed four motion sensor infrared cameras in hidden spots in hopes to catch footage of a caracal, leopard, or whatever else we could! After the week was up we would go around and collect the footage in hopes to see something awesome.
We managed to get a plethora of “blowing bush” photos, but among them were also photos of zebra, antelope, and then came the awesome honey badger.
Gondwana Game Reserve has three lions on the property – two lionesses and one male lion. The issue with having only three on an 11,000-hectare property is that they are often hard to locate. It’s important to know where the lions are as I don’t think guests come to Gondwana to become lion meat. That’s where the eco team comes to the rescue. With a radio transmitter, eco campers are able to drive the whole property and pick up the lions signal. After a few hours of searching, we heard a blissful “beep” letting us know the lions were close by and able to alert the rest of Gondwana of the location they were in. Now you may think, “okay but they will just move tomorrow.”
Actually, lions are just like house cats – only big, ferocious, and with sharp teeth. In other words, they are quite lazy creatures and chances are they won’t move far or fast unless they are hungry. This kind of game monitoring and tracking is fundamental in a private reserve like Gondwana so that a balanced ecosystem is maintained and also to help keep track of the wildlife populations and any behavior changes.
There is more to an ecosystem than the animals, and it all starts with the water. Every week the eco camp team travels around to the many bodies of water to conduct a MiniSASS. MiniSASS is a tool used to measure the health of a body of water. By locating and analyzing the different species in the water, we are able to tell how healthy it is. This was my favorite task as I love the little guys, the ones that were around in the prehistoric ages and still provide our world life.
Cameron’s favorite activity at eco camp was actually the next day – as a wattle destroyer. Wattle is an invasive plant species originating from Australia and can completely take over an ecosystem. One morning here was spent acting like lumberjacks cutting down some of the wattles in the valley. This is done daily by teams of men and machines working to ensure a thriving and diverse plant species; however, small the footprint the eco campers actively clear it still does not go unnoticed.
If there is one thing that is more amazing than the African mammals it’s the incredible bird life across the continent. The Western Cape is home to a wide variety of bird species, from the cape sugarbird to the bokmakierie. Each and every bird species has distinct characteristics that make birding so fun. We had never been birding, but after spending an entire day driving around the reserve and searching for the beautifully colored winged animals we have become hooked. Our group fell so in love with searching for and distinguishing birds that we managed to find 40 different birds in one day! Of course, this is not only fun, but it helps Gondwana keep track of the distribution and movement of species that fly free on their land.
Needless to say in between all these activities there was a lot of safari time. Questions poured out of us and onto our guide as we drove through Gondwana every day. Each day it became our task to track and count the game. Eland, zebra, wildebeest, impala – all must be counted. After the counting, we could observe the wildlife at a distance that we had never been able to before. It’s more than just counting numbers too, by monitoring how these species flourish (or sadly fail) at Gondwana we are able to assess the populations of the animals in the reserve. From these population numbers it can be determined who can be introduced, removed, and added. It is a balancing act since the original species make up of the region is relatively unknown, other than some hunting records from the original settlers.
Have You Heard of the Fynbos?
The Western Cape of South Africa is the only place in the world home to the incredible fynbos. If you have been to this area of the globe I’m sure you have heard about it from South Africans. The fynbos is a small region of shrubland vegetation and has a high degree of biodiversity, making it extremely important to the ecosystem here at Gondwana. The fynbos occupies its own floral kingdom and is the smallest of the six floral kingdoms. Getting to know this kingdom that is only located in a small area of the world was incredible and would thrill any naturalist.
Being with the same ranger for the entire week allowed him time explain the colorful, unique, and impressive flora that often gets overlooked on a game drive. From Buchu to Protea, eco campers could smell the fresh vegetation that surrounded us. We even picked the leaves for excellent bush tea every night. Talk about taking out the middleman in the health stores for our tea time!
The Most Peaceful Safari Experience in Africa
No hoards of cars, no constant shutters from the camera, no checking emails. That’s what we loved most about our time at Gondwana’s Tented Eco Camp. The peacefulness and seclusion of staying in the middle of the valley with no one around, but the wildlife is a part of Africa everyone should experience. To wake up every day and know that your work with the rangers actually makes a difference to the life on the reserve is exceptionally rewarding. Don’t get me wrong, we love a safari of any kind, but contributing to the conservation efforts of South Africa makes a small, but important dent in the effort to save our world. Check out what to wear on safari!
The camp may be luxurious and packed with adventure, and alarm bells may be going off that this means expensive. I was pleased to find out that this whole 5-night adventure can be experienced for less than $1000. That’s hearty South African meals, guided and informative game drives, and an Afri-chic room for less than one night on some of the more exclusive lodges in Africa. You can find our more about Gondwana’s tented eco-camp here and how they are one of the top ecotourism destinations in South Africa. Africa Geographic ventured to the tented eco-camp as well, read about their experience.
Plan Your Full Trip to South Africa
We rely on a few trusted websites that help save us money and time when booking hotels, flights, and car rentals. Check out some of our preferred partners below:
Accommodation in South Africa: Booking.com has over 5,000 properties in South Africa including hotels, apartments, and guesthouses. You get free cancellation on certain rooms and a best price guarantee. We have a Genius account and it saves us 10% on eligible bookings. Here are the most popular destinations in South Africa: Cape Town, Johannesburg, Knysna, and Stellenbosch.
Flights to South Africa: Skyscanner is a comparison website that searches millions of flights. Once you find your best deal, book directly through the airline (no extra fees).
Car Rental in South Africa: Auto Europe is a car rental booking service that compares all the major brands like Hertz, Avis, Alamo, and Europcar.
Travel Insurance: We never travel without travel insurance with World Nomads. We ALWAYS travel with travel insurance. Natasha is a bit of a worry wart and would rather stay safe than sorry. World Nomads offers incredible flexible and great plans!
Water: We found the water in South Africa fine to drink, if you want extra assurance then we love traveling with our Lifestraw Go Waterbottle
Guide Book: Sometimes it’s nice just to have a real book in your hands when traveling. We recommend picking up a Lonely Planet to get you through the wireless nights.
Thank you to Gondwana Game Reserve for this experience, as always all opinions are our own.
Have You Been on a Safari Before? What Was Your Favorite Part?
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