A bumper article in which we tickle a Cheetah and get REALLY close to Rhinos
I had been trying to keep it all a secret from Mrs. Chips (and you lot, of course) for the last few days but after some vigorous interrogation by the better half, I yielded and confessed that, as a birthday present, I’d booked a couple of days at a place in the Karoo called Koffylaagte [literally: Coffee Valley or Dale – no, I can’t explain it either].
I’d come across the name on the Interweb while planning the honeymoon last year (yes folks, more Honeymoon Chapters to follow). Koffylaagte is a private game farm, 130km from Port Elizabeth, providing pleasant getaways for couples, families and small groups as well as breeding game, either for hunting or sale to other game farms.
A telephone call to a charming and most personable manageress at the time (Rebecca I think her name was) convinced us that this was going to be a travel destination to remember, and I promised myself that we’d treat ourselves as soon as an auspicious occasion coincided with a client’s payment, thus prompting last weekend’s reservation.
On our arrival, we learned with disappointment that Rebecca and Alistair no longer worked there, but we were determined to enjoy the break anyway. We also learned that, for the most part, we would be the only guests on the farm. Not being your gregarious socialites, we revelled in the idea of comfortable solitude for a few days.
Details on the history of Koffylaagte are scant, but I was able to glean that the main farmhouse belonged to the Hurter family who settled in the area several decades ago. Some family photographs taken circa 1950 adorn the walls and lend a little ‘historical farmstead’ atmosphere to the building. An ancient ox wagon, its sun bleached wooden framework, contrasting with its rusting red ironwork, sees its final years out standing with quiet pride next to the old farmhouse.
For those who wish to know a little more about this particular part of the Karoo (without wasting years trying to read it ALL up); South Africa is divided into seven main biomes (“naturally occurring communities of flora and fauna occupying a major habitat”). Koffielaagte resides in the ‘Albany Thicket Biome” and is identifiable by shrub-land and low forest. Low rainfall and a wide temperature band have caused the plant life to adapt by developing thick, spongy leaves, spines, thorns and hardy root systems. [here endeth the natural history lesson].
The size of the farm in relation to the game population almost guarantees that you will see more than one species of mammal, several species of bird and more flora than you can shake the proverbial stick at. The adverts boast of several animal species living on the farm (including: Gemsbok, Impala, Waterbuck, Eland, Nyala, Giraffe, Rhino, Zebra, Black Wildebeest, Blue wildebeest, Blesbok, Springbuck among several others). We did see most of these – and a few others such as Mountain Reedbuck and Klipspringer during our stay. Serious naturalists will be aware that few of these are endemic to this area (if Burger Cillié is to be believed in his book, “The Mammal Guide of Southern Africa”), and have been imported to achieve commercial ends.
When you have tired of looking at animals, there are always the scorpions and other wee beasties which abound on the farm. In a 100m2 area near our chalet, I counted no less than 40 active scorpion burrows, although I was unsuccessful at actually finding them in the cold evenings. We were assured that a healthy reptile population resided on the farm, but we didn’t see any snakes while we were there – also attributable to the cold.
In summary the getaway was enjoyable as a special treat for people like us, for whom squash courts and card games hold less interest than making good pictures and studying the local creatures. The tariff (R2200 per day for a tented chalet – excluding game drives or other facilities) is definitely on the high side and, comparing Koffylaagte with similar establishments, borders on exorbitant. Mindful of this and the need to stretch the Rand as far as possible, I would probably try many other places before returning.
In an effort to provide the highest quality of review, I feel I’d be doing you, dear reader, a disservice if I did not report on both the good and the not so good aspects of our stay.
Some of the positive aspects of our stay.
- The staff members we met were great. In particular Chisto, our game drive and quad bike guide, who was friendly, polite, knowledgeable and always helpful. Unathi, the accomplished chef, also helped to make our experience an overall positive one.
This comparatively small game farm (just over 1000 hectares) and the strategically placed water holes made for a high concentration of game within a short distance. Although the animals remain wild, they are not as skittish and shy as those where human contact is less. Animal populations on game farms can become a hotly debated topic and I am not qualified to comment. However, two recent additions to Koffylaagte, in the form of a pair of White Rhinos, require manual feeding as the required grass and shrubs are so sparse that the rhinos would need to walk greater distances to feed. This feeding process also keeps such valuable game (a bargain at R2.3m each) close by for monitoring – but a compromise has had to be made in making them dependant on, and familiar with human interaction – another debatable issue.
- Although the accommodation complex lacks shady trees against the Karoo heat, or a cosy atmosphere for the winter chill (both of which we experienced during our stay, we did appreciate the tranquillity of the place. Koffylaagte is far away from any main roads and the nearest farm is several kilometres away.
- Notwithstanding the lack of conventional sporting facilities, we appreciated being able to sit and read or dose off in the sunny lounge area. A few indoor games, including a pool table are available for those bored with looking at the animals.
- The temporary manageress, Banu, was eager to please and we were given the opportunity to have our meals served on the veranda. She also regaled us with interesting tales from her travels and her home country Turkey.
- Bird life is abundant in this region and we easily spotted 10 to 15 species without even trying.
- The tented chalets are not fenced off from the animals and we thoroughly enjoyed having buck, giraffe and other wildlife meander between the chalets.
- Guests for whom a good rest is more important than viewing the wildlife will be pleased to know that the game drive starts after 8am (unless another time is specifically requested). This is different from many other game lodges where the drive is mobile before sunrise.
- The tented chalets were adequately appointed with a king sized double bed. The smell of freshly laundered linen when climbing into bed is always welcome.
Some of the problems we experienced.
- At least three telephone calls went unanswered and without response when I wanted to confirm the reservation. Booking was only confirmed after a further email was sent.
- Just before leaving PE, we received an email advising us, with an apology, that the code-operated entrance gate might not be operational. We were requested to telephone the manageress if this was the case and use the adjacent service gate.
- Upon arrival, our attempt at phoning the manageress was fruitless. We were told that it was because cell phone reception was patchy in the area.
- At supper on our first evening; our request for a lime and soda (not a very unusual drink, I’m sure you’ll agree) was met with another apology – no lime cordial.
On our first morning, there was no water. We were told that is was because some buffaloes had broken the pipe leading from the dam in the nearby hills.
- At breakfast on our first morning, the manageress apologised and said that they were unable to accept any credit card payment as lightning had struck the telephone lines. With the virtually non-existent cell coverage, I was glad I had the cash from the client’s payment earlier.
- Our bedroom was only serviced at about 6pm on the first day. When we asked why this was, we were told it was because we had been in the room and the staff were reluctant to disturb us. Having been out of our room from 07:30am for breakfast and the game drive, and only returned at about 12:00, I was confused – but grateful that the bed had at least been made. Succeeding days saw a more timely attention to the housekeeping.
- Our decision to go on a guided quad bike ride also met with misfortune as Mrs. Chips’ bike overheated about a third of the way into the ride, and she had to complete the trip as a pillion rider on yours writer’s bike – for which we received a discount.
- After being advised by our friendly manageress of the unpleasant taste of the water from the taps in the chalets, we found the water from the pub’s dispenser to have an alarming amount of ‘floaties’ drifting about in the glass. Made us feel a bit like Bear Grylls on a survival course, but this is not something one would expect from a pricey four-star establishment.
- I must take partial responsibility for the following shortfall. At other places we’ve visited over the years, the facilities and activities have been clearly visible and well marketed – sometimes to the point of irritation. Koffylaagte cannot be accused of this practice. However, during our short stay, we thought we’d like to try the archery, sauna and some of the other advertised activities. While walking around the premises, I failed to see any archery butts; and that’s where I went wrong. I omitted to actually ASK to use the activity. Similarly, the sauna eluded us until the last day when I opened an anonymous looking door and found it lurking coldly in a corner. The amount of cobwebs and dust suggested a long period of inactivity. Mindful of the length of time it would take to heat the thing up (if it was actually working), we left it instead of speaking up for ourselves.
I must assert that, while we had the odd problem, the stay was enjoyable and we really didn’t feel like going back to the office and the charts. At the end of our short stay we took our leave of the warm and friendly staff made our way back to Port Elizabeth.
On our way back to, and about 70km from Port Elizabeth (on the R75) we spied a sign on the side of the road that indicated game biltong, droë wors (dried sausage) and other South African delicacies were for sale in the farm stall. However, since the wallet had been severely wounded by the stay at Koffylaagte our attention was drawn to the goings-on on the opposite side of the road. No, don’t go. This bit is much more exciting than biltong, I promise.
It turns out that a spotted cat breeding program is under way here so, instead of buying biltong, we opted to spend our R50 each for a guided tour of the program. See, I knew you’d be pleased.
Now I’m not sure if you know about this (trophy hunters, Donald Trump and his spawn evidently don’t), but many cat species in Africa are on the decline – most are classed as vulnerable but Cheetahs are actually endangered. Apart from filling hours of dramatic TV time with their majestic and lithe feline presence, African cats fill a pivotal role in the natural order of things. But you’re an intelligent lot and don’t have to have it explained.
However, another little known fact is that statistics provided by most African authorities are lamentably incomplete and inadequate; so just because an animal is not on the endangered list, it doesn’t mean it is not under threat. Scratching below Africa’s eco-conscious veneer, you will find alarming and potentially catastrophic indolence on the part of the authorities. For example, most wildlife breeding/rehabilitation and anti-poaching efforts receive little or no assistance from the government and have to rely on the kindness of private individuals and far-thinking corporates.
I am not about to sell you a ticket on a guilt trip; but if you feel you would like to know more about such programs or the assist in some way I have included the contact details of the Daniell Cheetah Breeding Project at the end of this post.
The tour was simply one of the best hours spent on our getaway. Maxie, our very capable and knowledgeable guide explained the necessity for such breeding and rehabilitation programs, as well as giving us an idea of the successes achieved thus far. Although we were able to get ‘up-close-and-personal’ with a few of the animals, most are reared in an environment that will allow for release into the wild at some stage.
The daily costs of this place are enormous. A lion cub will devour between 3 and 5 kg of meat per day so the total meat consumption must be astronomical. Ring up your local butcher and ask for 50kg of meat per day and you’ll get an idea of costs. Veterinary and medicine bills also add to the worries. To get the work done, staff accept lower than average salaries and rely on the largesse of the visitors for gratuities. Mercifully, there are kind and thoughtful people out there and there appear to be one or two benefactors who are assisting with the invaluable construction of exemplary enclosures – exceeding the requirements laid down by international authorities.
Thanks to Maxie’s passion and knowledge, our one-hour tour turned into almost one and a half hours of fascinating and information-packed fulfilment. If you are in the Port Elizabeth/Grahamstown area, do yourself (and them) a favour and pay them a visit. This part of our getaway, at least, was totally worthwhile and comes highly recommended.
If you’re interested in more information or lending a helping hand in the cat breeding programs, here are the details:
- Richard Daniell
- email: email@example.com
Stay chooned for more of the Chipses travels