River runs through Sibuya Game Reserve

The Sibuya Game Reserve can only be accessed by boat.

I feel as if I’m in an Indiana Jones movie,” muttered my beloved companion from the depths of her bulky (and much appreciated) parka as our small craft nosed up the euphorbia lined Kariega River.

As for myself, I was imagining Captain Willard heading up the river into Cambodia in search of Colonel Kurtz in Apocalypse Now to “terminate him with extreme prejudice”.

For many years I’ve looked down on the Kariega from the verandah of Stanley’s – the pub-restaurant I believe has the best view in South Africa, let alone the Eastern Cape – and hungered to be on its surface.

Picture: Jim Freeman
Picture: Jim Freeman

Unique river experience

This desire grew immeasurably in 2020 when I heard about Sibuya Game Reserve. Sibuya, I was told, has more navigable river than any other game reserve in the country and, as far as I know, is the only reserve in South Africa that guests can only access by boat.

It was the third September (a day I’ll always remember since it is the anniversary of when I met my girlfriend) that I realised my dream to meet “Susie”, the queen of the river. “Susie” is a slab of rock on the western bank of the Kariega River near the estuary that has been painted to resemble a regal African woman.

Her “make-up” is touched up every year by students from Rhodes University. Local lore is that all those who travel up the river must pay homage by blowing her a kiss on their return.

The morning was cold and grey when Rose-mariè and I presented ourselves at 8.30am at the Sibuya reception in Kenton-on-Sea for a day trip, which would include a game drive followed by lunch, to the reserve.

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Picture: Jim Freeman
Picture: Jim Freeman

Wildlife and natural beauty

The entire trip takes between six and eight hours. We were met by Mashudu Tshikovhele, holder of a nature conservation diploma from the University of SA, who was to be our skipper-guide.

He moved to the Eastern Cape from up north a few years back and has taken to the area like a white-breasted cormorant to water. Salt water from the Indian Ocean pushes up the Kariega for more than a dozen kilometres and the river is rich in the fish species that make the Sunshine Coast an angling heaven.

Mashudu points out a rocky berm and adds that this is where local fishermen traditionally cleaned their catch but had to stop because they were attracting too many ragged-tooth sharks. This is about two kilometres upstream. The river is quite exposed at its mouth and the water was quite choppy when we set out.

Pass under the bridge bearing the R72 arterial road that links Kenton and Port Alfred, however, and steep cliffs on both sides of the twisty Kariega provide shelter from the wind to turn it into the proverbial millpond. The birdlife is spectacular: three species of cormorant, darters, egrets, whimbrels, coots, herons, and several kingfishers (including a half-collared and preening giant), numerous fish eagles and a western osprey to name just a few.

There are a handful of properties on the banks, reached either by boat or vehicle (from the dirt road to Southwell, the so-called “poor man’s game drive”) including the home of the healthcare Adcock family as well as the holiday season-only Horns Up bush pub. The road is popular with mountain bike riders and, where it splits two sections of Sibuya, is a sign that urges them to pass in silence in order not to attract the attention of lions. I suspect they traverse that stretch pretty quickly.

Picture: Jim Freeman
Picture: Jim Freeman

How Sibuya Game Reserve came to be

We docked at Sibuya’s Forest Camp just over an hour after embarking at Kenton – the journey usually takes about 45 minutes but I’m a sucker for gawking at and photographing birds – with the sun beginning to show its face and the threat of showers diminishing by the minute*.

After transferring our gear (my cameras and the ubiquitous bundu-bashers’ hamper of snacks and drinks) to a game-viewing vehicle, we began to explore as much of the 3 000ha Big Five reserve as we could before our scheduled lunch date with Sibuya co-owner Nick Fox.

The Sibuya story goes back to 1995 when Fox, a Gauteng property developer, purchased a parcel of farmland overlooking the Kariega with the intention of building a wildlife estate. To do so, however, would have entailed fencing of the river itself.

He began buying up farms on the opposite bank and in 2003 put a fence around the whole lot. The concept of a housing development was shelved and his subsequent idea of creating a private game reserve started to take shape.

The first accommodation facility, now known as River Camp, did not take long to get up and running because it was an existing “fly camp” but getting the nature conservation and forestry approvals for building additional camps was a tortuous process.

“One day a police helicopter flew over and spotted something suspicious. Unknown to the previous owner of the land, his workers had cleared the undergrowth and planted dagga under the trees.”

Picture: Jim Freeman
Picture: Jim Freeman

Blend of nature and luxury

With the plant life de facto cleared, all Fox had to do was ensure the river wasn’t contaminated by sewage or grey water and that indigenous trees milkwood, wild olive and sneeze wood for the most part weren’t harmed.

That took another few years and Forest Camp opened on 16 December, 2006. Today, the camp comprises a large thatched dining area/bar lounge linked to eight secluded tents by an elevated walkway. All tents are en suite, feature kingsize beds and luxury trappings.

Forest Camp carries a four-star Tourism Grading Council rating and is designed for couples. Children over the age of 12 are welcome. River Camp, on the other hand, is more intimate with only four tents and is popular among families with younger children and groups who want an exclusive-use facility.

According to Sibuya, “The purpose of a getaway is to relax! River Camp offers ample opportunity for guests to do this and few pastimes can be more conducive to relaxing than lying on a hammock with a book and listening to the birdsong in the trees. “At night, the soft glow of lanterns, distant roar of the ocean and the iconic African night sounds are the only distractions from the crackling outdoor fire.”

Sibuya Game Reserve is a very recent addition to the Cape Country Routes collection of more than 20 privately owned and managed hotels, lodges and guest houses located on scenic and historic routes in the Western and Eastern Cape.

*The chill of the river was held at bay by the fortified hot chocolate in my trusty Stanley thermos.

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