I don’t really consider myself a girly girl. I grew up with two older brothers and I was forever trying to keep up, jumping over fences, climbing trees and playing rugby (poorly but with commitment). When I visited the Gondwana Tented Eco Camp I realised for the first time that my recent years in the fashion and beauty industry has made me very soft to the comforts in life. And at the same time I rediscovered my inner bush baby.
We were a group of three writers travelling to Gondwana for a three night stay at their new Luxury Eco Camp that opened a couple of months ago. Gondwana is situated close to Mossel Bay and we arrived late afternoon. I was thrilled when I saw the hut-shaped luxury chalets loom into view. This, however, wouldn’t be our home for the next few days; we had to travel a little deeper into the bush.
Now before I say anything else I need to admit that I’ve never been to an eco camp and I had done no research whatsoever about this new offering from Gondwana. I know the reserve by reputation so my mind was filled with images of lazy game drives, perhaps a spa session, gourmet dinners, and some time to catch up on my book.
All those thoughts had to be left behind at reception. Our bags were loaded onto a 4×4 and we were driven over rocky roads, river beds and up a steep incline or two, until the only thing around us were rolling hills covered in fynbos.
Our bags were loaded onto a 4×4 and we were driven over rocky roads, river beds and up a steep incline or two, until the only thing around us were rolling hills covered in fynbos
The Eco Camp is run by conservationist husband and wife team, Brendan and Stevie, who both have more than a decade experience on game reserves. The camp lies in a gorge, with five tent rooms each able to house two people, and with an en-suite bathroom. There is also one large communal tent where guests get together for meals and if they want to relax.
Once our bags had been offloaded we were asked to gather in the main tent for a quick safety briefing. Um, say what now? Brendan pointed out our head lights, which we could use if the pathway lights weren’t sufficient, a bright yellow whistle in case of emergencies (I instantly pictured myself all Life of Pi, screeching away at a baboon in my tent). We were also informed, very casually, that we could expect one or two rain spiders in our tents at some point. “Please don’t kill them,” Brendan asked seriously. “We are happy to come and catch them for you.”
You can imagine my face. Look, while I was growing up our home frequently hosted those hairy arachnids and while I know they are harmless, I also know they love wiggling into your shoes or waiting behind your towel to give you a nasty surprise when you dry your hair after a shower.
Now by this point I had two options. I could either feed this very prissy personality who was more worried about the effect the heat would have on her Vitamin C serum than anything else, or I could call up that wild child from my youth and make the most of this trip. I am glad I went for the second option.
The Eco Camp is really for those travellers who want to rough it a little (though still sleep in quality sheets) and who are keen for a more hands-on approach.
The Eco Camp is really for those travellers who want to rough it a little (though still sleep in quality sheets) and who are keen for a more hands-on approach
A bit later that first afternoon we set out into the valley to plant a couple of cameras, armed with some seriously stinky chicken that would help to lure small predators. The cameras snap everytime they sense motion, and you can get some brilliant images of animals drinking water or skulking past in the dead of night. We would collect the cameras on our final day to review our handiwork.
Each day is filled with similar activities. After breakfast you set out to help count animals and jot down their location so that the team can see where they like to graze and what they are eating – important info for the sustainability of the reserve. You’ll also track some lions or look for the elephants, and definitely learn a thing or two about plant life and animal tracks.
In the afternoons we squelched around ponds to catch frogs and bugs in order to assess the health of the ecosystem, or we would hack away at baby black wattle, an alien tree that loves to take over and suck up all the water.
You need to be fine with getting your hands dirty, sweating under the African sun and peeing in the bush every now and then. I also recommend taking proper hiking or combat boots that cover your ankles because you wander around quite a bit and we saw three pofadders slithering over the road on our morning drives.
There are also some proper perks. The 4×4 driving was a treat and I got a new level of respect for these hardy vehicles that could drive up 45 degree angled slopes. Honestly, there were times I was sure we would simply roll backwards, but we got to the top every time.
You also have the chance to get right up close to the animals, which include giraffe, elephants, rhino, zebra, impala, lions and a few more. Their male lion is an absolute beauty, with a mane that looks like it gets conditioned and combed on daily basis, and he gave us such a good show, lazing away in the grass, yawning every now and then and turning his giant head this way and that, causing us to snap away frantically to get all the epic pictures.
The accommodation was comfortable but it’s not exactly glamping. Even though the rooms have been kitted out with high-end finishes, it’s also quite simplistic. The nights get seriously chilly, which is fine when you are in bed covered with your duvet and blankets, but getting out for a midnight wee or the next morning when Brendan blows the Kudu Horn alarm, that’s another story.
The first night I also managed to convince myself that my warm tent would be a very attractive option for the local snakes, which could easily sneak in through little gaps. So in paranoia I zipped up the main entrance and bathroom, checked under my bed and all the shelves, shook out all my bedding and then tucked myself in, determined to stay put till the next morning. The next day I raised my reptile concerns but Brendan simply laughed and explained that the evenings were way too cold and the snakes wouldn’t move. Right, noted.
The spider did come, however, catching me off guard one afternoon while I was on the loo. What can you do but finish, wipe and then call for some assistance?
Despite being totally out of my comfort zone I ended up having a really good time. There are, however, some things I think they could refine. While the lunch and dinner was yummy, humble bos kos, the breakfasts were just too basic, with cornflakes, sugary muesli or an egg with cheddar and ham on some plain white bread. And while there were fruits put out as snacks, the sweltering afternoon heat did those apples no favours and they were slightly too mealy for my taste. These are all small things which can be easily tweaked and I am sure they will.
I know they are getting some covered vehicles soon, which will help shade you against those afternoon rays, and hopefully they have a plan up their sleeve to cool the tents down in the afternoons, which can become like saunas baking in the midday sun. Since they are trying to be as eco-friendly as possible, aircon isn’t exactly an option.
If this was simply a budget lodge in the Kruger I could overlook these points, but since you pay a pretty penny for your trip they will need to iron out those creases.
Would I recommend it? I think if you go as a group of friends it can be a lot of fun. Otherwise, get ready to bond with strangers. Not that this is necessarily a bad thing! I was actually really sad to leave in the end. On our last night myself, my fellow writer Louise and our one manager, Stevie drove up to the top of a hill and watched the sun set, sipping some wine and sharing stories about husbands, family and life in general. In moments like these you make new friends.
It was finally time to pack up again, so I shook out all my clothes to avoid taking any wildlife home with me, zipped up my tent and loaded myself in the 4×4 one last time. Then as we got into our shuttle to make our way back to civilization, as cellphone signal slowly returned, and as our tires hit a smooth tar road, I knew I would miss the quiet simplicity of the bush.
If this sounds like your cup of tea I recommend your read my fellow traveller Louise’s article. I think she did a brilliant job giving more perspective on the Eco Camp.
You can get more info about the Gondwana Tented Eco Camp here: gondwanagr.co.za/eco-camp