With the 48-hour storm finally moving on the next day, we set out to visit La Residence’s sister property, Birkenhead House, located about 90 minutes away in the coastal town of Hermanus, billed as the whale-watching capital of South Africa. Birkenhead shares the same commitment to style and luxury, but with a more relaxed seaside ambiance, set on cliffs just above the pounding surf.
With a whitewashed exterior, it’s a fine place to relax and look for cetaceans from the terrace, and to enjoy a glass of wine and a nice meal while catching the sunset over the ocean. As an added bonus, it’s possible to walk from the property along a pretty coastal path all the way into the main part of town (about an hour to an hour and a half), where the hotel will pick you up by private car. Unfortunately, due to the heavy rains and associated runoff, it was not an ideal time to look for the famous southern right whales, though we did catch a glimpse or two.
After our sybaritic interlude, it was time to get back out into the wild. A four-hour drive east to Mossel Bay (the start of the famous Garden Route) on the N2 highway brought us to Gondwana Game Reserve, a place that enjoys a unique place among the plethora (more than 2,000 at last count) private game reserves in South Africa. With claim to being the only reserve where you can view the Big Five amidst the native fynbos vegetation—a floral kingdom that exists only in coastal South Africa—the reserve is a worthwhile stop if you’re planning on driving the Garden Route.
While Gondwana is relatively new, and thus still building up the number and diversity of species in the 11,000 hectare property, it’s also experimenting with a new model for conservation and tourism. Alongside wild-roaming game, safari guests will see vacation homes and homesites (with water and electrical) waiting to be built upon.
The landscape does indeed offer spectacular scenery, with rolling hills of reclaimed fynbos set in front of distant mountains, though some visitors may feel the experience a bit less “wild” than they’d like with the hybrid model of home development/nature reserve. Though, given the cost and difficulties of managing a pure nature reserve for tourism, it’s possible that housing development is what makes it possible.
For whatever reason, other reserves don’t seem to make the same tradeoff, and as a result feel like a more authentic experience. However, if you’re on the Garden Route and in search of the Big Five and a comfortable 4-star experience, Gondwana definitely is worth a day or two. The buffalo may be quite tame and inside a fenced area, the cheetah may have GPS collars on them, but they are still real animals in a part of the world where free-roaming species have long since been exterminated from their native range.
And, since Gondwana is only a half-hour from the town of Mossel Bay on the coast, it’s easy to break up the safari experience with something else; indeed, during the midday break we drove into town and hiked part of the Cape Saint Blaze trail along the rugged coast, and then enjoyed some fish & chips on the waterfront before returning to Gondwana for our evening game drive.