By Carrie Hampton
Photos courtesy of Sibuya
ibuya has one rather unusual feature that’s unique in South Africa; the only way you can get to camp is by boat. At top speed, it will take 15 minutes to whizz up the Kariega River Estuary from Kenton-on-Sea to Sibuya’s luxurious River Camp or its more rustic Forest Camp. But the flat-bottom boat cruises up the winding river at the same slow pace you are expected to adopt for rest of your trip. After half an hour I find a sense of peace and tranquillity in the swish of the river. Not quite the enlightenment Siddhartha attained after his stint beside a river, but an enduring calm, nevertheless. After 40 minutes, we arrive at a jetty leading nowhere visible, except into the jungle.
The two or three nights most people stay at Sibuya Private Game Reserve is not long enough to achieve nirvana. With only intermittent cellphone signal, you are encouraged to switch off and seek peace in more ways than one. And it’s not difficult, as this Eastern Cape landscape fulfils my idea of the Garden of Eden. So fertile is this land that it supports one of the highest densities of wildlife in South Africa, and is bursting with birdlife, including rarities such as Narina trogon and Knysna turaco.
All the big game is here, but while Sibuya can claim the Big Five, this is not Kruger. It is 3 000 hectares of varied terrain, which feels very wild. The riverine forest is full of spikey euphorbia, indigenous plants and chattering vervet monkeys. Vast tracts of former farmland provide grazing for game such as impala, zebra, eland, kudu and other buck. Look out for buffalo, too. There are nine elephant—including a two-year old—and leopard who are so elusive you’ll be lucky to see any. A small pride of lion is segregated into a 50-hectare patch of bush and even though you know they are there, you can’t always find them. They cannot roam completely free as yet, because they could feasibly swim the river and visit the neighbours. This would lead to Sibuya undoubtedly losing their rather-too-visible white buffalo, which may as well wear a sign saying, “Eat me!”
There’s fecundity in the river, too, with otters and fish, crabs and prawns. The murky river also doubles as the camp’s swimming pool, although I find it a little too warm to be refreshing. And if you like to see your feet, it won’t work for you.
There is no dangerous game in the guest areas; to view them you have to jump in a boat to the opposite riverbank from where the morning and evening game drives depart. You can rely on nature’s alarm clocks to get you up. Red-billed wood hoopoe and hornbills cackle and squawk, boubou won’t cease their insistent whistle, and vervet monkeys dance on the roof. It’s a jungle out there.
‘With only intermittent cellphone signal, you are encouraged to switch off and seek peace in more ways than one. And it’s not difficult’
A ranger standing on the jetty, pleased with the fish he’d just landed, directs us to continue along the walkway into the dark forest interior. Everything has been quite unexpected thus far, and so is the sophistication of the four tented-rooms of River Camp, which juxtapose wildly with their forest surroundings. The tented bedroom design is what I consider a flawless blueprint for a safari camp; canvas walls and ceiling with a roof of saplings, glass doors onto a wooden deck with a hammock swaying in the breeze. A freestanding wall in the middle of the room forms a headboard for the king-size bed, and divider for the full bathroom behind, with enclosed lavatory. Simple but effective—especially when combined with the aqua blue décor reflecting the sky peeking through the forest canopy. River Camp’s open plan lounge and dining area is welcoming and comfortable with a roaring fire, even in summer against the light chill from summer rain. This camp is particularly suitable for families, with sleeper couches, camp beds and cots, plus a playroom tent and ground-level pathways. And it’s malaria-free.
Walking from River Camp to Forest Camp involves a steady uphill hike and is worth every sweltering step. Standing at the elevated viewpoint and seeing the hairpin-bend river looping its way downstream towards the Indian Ocean is one of my most memorable visions of untamed Africa.
Sibuya’s dedication to green and responsible tourism is manifest in their restoration of commercial farmland back to its natural state, and also in its low-impact tourism model of limited bed space relative to the reserve’s size of 3 000 hectares. Other green initiatives such as low-energy usage, solar, minimal use of plastics and buying locally produced food are high priority.
Sibuya’s feel-good factors all add up to getting a high level of satisfaction from a stay here. And if, like me, you spend enough time in the hammock beside the river, you may just find ways to put life back into perspective.
Eastern Cape Animal Rarities
Once one of the richest wildlife areas in Africa, the Eastern Cape was hunted out of big game by the end of the 19th century with land put down to farming. That’s all changed. There’s now a proliferation of game reserves, with fences coming down between them for greater animal movement. The Eastern Cape now proclaims itself as Big Seven country: with great white sharks and southern right whales added to a list that includes lion, leopard, rhino, buffalo and elephant. But there are a number of other animal rarities you are more likely to see in the Eastern Cape than elsewhere in South Africa: aardvark, brown hyena, meerkat, honey badger, porcupine, tortoise, serval, caracal, bat-eared fox and cheetah.