Field guide Eugene Jansen van Rensburg crouches down and hands my daughter Charlotte (who is four) a perfect ball of poo. She promptly puts it in her pocket as ‘treasure’, then about five seconds later, it’s back out of the pocket and on the ground as apparently it’s messing with exoskeletons and feathers, more precious finds. We’re on a walk around a 1 000ha protected area that’s part of the 11 000ha Gondwana Game Reserve, located on the Garden Route just 30 minutes inland from Mossel Bay.
Gondwana is home to the Big Five, but the section we’re walking through is a fenced-off breeding ground for bontebok, Cape mountain zebra and sable. There is, however, a cheetah on the loose here that has eluded the rangers and refuses to be caged in. We don’t see it, but Eugene, a passionate eco-warrior, chats us through the devastating decline of the wild cat.
Charlotte is a bit too young to be interested in this, though. She knows cheetah run very fast, but they’re not immediately present and therefore, are removed. She’s far more fascinated by the almost 2m-high termite mounds, thriving mini-cities that are connected through intricate underground passageways.
On the way back to Ulubisi House, the privately staffed lodge in Gondwana Game Reserve where we are spending the weekend, we watch a small bird of prey circling – it’s getting ready to fly north for the winter, says Eugene. It’s enchanting to watch it swoop and lift on the currents.
Whether driving or hiking, I find it somewhat incongruous to be having a game experience in a fynbos landscape. For me, ‘the bush’ is dry and flat, with spots of acacia trees – and I expected red dust. And yet here we are, and Gondwana Game Reserve is a notable exception to those usual ‘rules’. The largest private game reserve on the Garden Route, it’s an easy stop for those travelling from Cape Town to Port Elizabeth (or vice versa).
When we first arrive, we spot two handsome rhino and there’s an elephant family, too – two bulls, with females and three babies. Later, friends join us and they have an especially interesting interaction with the herd as one of the cows comes up to their car and lays her trunk on the bonnet. Perhaps it has something to do with the purr or warmth of the engine, but whatever it is, it’s an extraordinary experience.
While it may give an initial impression that game on the reserve is tame, when we later drive for two hours through deep craters and rutted paths in a fruitless search for lion, we realise that the animals really do go their own way and that it’s (happily, really) not always possible to have a ‘Disneyland’ experience of wildlife with every creature available to view on demand.
We drive down an unmarked track road through a coded gate on our return to Ulubisi House, which is the luxurious new addition to the Gondwana Game Reserve offering, having been completed last year. Arriving back from the long outing rather tired and cold, we are delighted to be greeted by our friendly private butler Douglas Mutingwende, who hands us steaming mugs of hot chocolate.
It’s early autumn, the fires are lit and the house has the sort of intimate warmth that you might not initially expect from a villa built to open up onto a sweeping vista of the Outeniqua Mountains. The building’s classic thatched roof keeps out the evening cold (and the daytime heat), and along with the oversized dome-like beaten-copper lampshades, the material adds a cosy dimension to the double-height ceilings and clean, contemporary finishes.
Ulubisi House is very much created with families in mind. The villa accommodates either six adults or four adults and four children (the main upstairs bedroom cleverly transforms into a double and two singles), and there’s a cupboard packed full of family-friendly games. The entire house feels spacious and luxurious, with the ground-floor en suite bathrooms featuring outdoor showers and every design detail taken care of as a matter of course – from big, fluffy towels to huge picture windows that showcase the lodge’s gorgeous surrounds.
However, what’s most spectacular at Ulubisi House is the heated outdoor pool. There’s something absolutely glorious about floating beneath a vast spray of stars, especially on a cool autumn evening when the steam rises up into the deep, dark night and there’s not another sound to be heard. Equally, the kids love it during the day, spending quality time slithering over the low wall from the Jacuzzi to the pool and practising their water-ballet moves. The deck that runs around the pool allows for easy lounging and, while we don’t see any, droppings give evidence that impala and springbok like this area, too, passing close by in the depths of the night.
Ulubisi House runs on the concept of no time – you eat when you please, drink when you like and partake in game-viewing as and when you prefer. Eugene is on hand at any time of the day for game drives and walks, and Douglas hovers attentively, offering drinks and tidying up. There’s even a good cellar and fully stocked bar that runs on an honesty system without the tab, with everything included apart from French champagne and premium wines.
It’s a bit like staying at a rich friend’s holiday house in the middle of a tranquil bush landscape, making Ulubisi House at Gondwana Game Reserve the perfect, ultra-easy family weekend escape.