It does not take a lot – a hint of an opportunity will do – for me to pack a bag and travel 420km from Stellenbosch to the Wilderness
Lakes area of the Garden Route.In this, says Tim Carr, I am not alone in my periodic migrations. He has a pair of western osprey that travel from Scotland to Rondevlei every year, while hordes of tiny Amur falcons fly more than 20 000km from China to the same part of South Africa to gorge on grasshoppers each summer.
Tim and his wife, Angelique, are owners of Reflections Eco-Reserve at Rondevlei on the back road between Wilderness and Sedgefield. Comprising 80 hectares of reclaimed pine plantation (he says it was a jungle when he bought the place) it is making a name as a bird-watcher’s paradise.
“Everyone talks about the ‘great Knysna fire of 2017’,” recalls Tim as we sit on the deck outside my tent, looking over the water while waiting for braai coals to reach cooking heat, “but few know it was the fire of 1869 that made the Garden Route what it is today”.
The five Garden Route lakes – Eilandvlei, Langvlei, Rondevlei, Swartvlei and Groenvlei – lie in depressions between two parallel bridges, one just behind the Atlantic coastline and the other several kilometres inland.
“The area was densely wooded and, consequently, sparsely populated when fire burned it clean. All the original local title deeds date from the 1870s; the land was divvied up as a result of fire making settlement possible.
“This was the market garden for the George community until the 1920s but the land isn’t suitable for intensive cultivation and farms failed when George and Knysna grew. That’s when timber came in; huge tracts were given over to pine and eucalyptus.”
Fast-forward to the 1980s and forestry companies relinquished the lakeside plantations to consolidate their operations on the more fertile slopes of the nearby Outeniqua Mountains, at Karatara and Bergplaas.
“This place was forgotten and became completely overgrown. You couldn’t even drive a vehicle onto property but had to thread your way through dense undergrowth on foot.” Pine and wattle had turned the area into a wasteland where nothing else could either grow or live.
“When we bought our first 27 hectares in 2007, we had a birdcount of just three species: dusky flycatcher, fork-tailed drongo and African fish eagle. We’re now on 216 species and that is entirely due to our alien-eradication and land rehabilitation programmes.
“In all, we’ve cleared 42 hectares and planted in excess of 3 500 indigenous trees. Each new season produces new plant highlights and furthers our goal of greater plant diversity … hopefully to the extent of restoring the land, as much as possible, to a wild state.”
The Carrs have been on a 20- year joint working journey that began when they met at a five-star private reserve in Mpumalanga. It encompassed working at exclusive sites in Botswana and running mobile safaris through Namibia before they moved to Kwandwe in the Eastern Cape in 2001.
“Both our children were born while we were at Kwandwe,” recalls Tim, “but, when our oldest turned five, we had to start thinking about where he would go to school.
“I was born and brought up in Cape Town and used to come regularly up to this section of the Garden Route. I’ve always regarded it as something like the Lakes District in England… a national treasure that has to be preserved for – and made available to – every South African.”
Years spent on private reserves and luxury lodges gave the couple an understanding that few locals can afford an authentic bush experience. They decided that whatever project they undertook would have to be accessible to more than a privileged few, without compromising on the quality of experience.
“You’ll find that the Garden Route, if you step off the N2, hasn’t changed much in 20 years.
“People who return after many years find their childhood memories still intact. They can come and do with their kids exactly what they did when they were children.”
With most of the past decade spent rehabilitating the land, tourism and hospitality operations at Reflections Eco-Reserve (www. reflectionsreserve.com) have remained fairly low-key.
Accommodation is self-catering and comprises four family chalets sleeping a maximum of four adults in two bedrooms and two children in an upstairs loft and a pair of luxury two-person tents. All are well appointed and amply equipped (because Reflections is off-grid, there are few electrical appliances; just a fridge, some interior lights and cellphone recharging points).
“The accommodation is on a single section of the property to minimise human impact on the veld. However, the houses and tents are far enough apart that the presence of other people does not detract from your privacy.”
The off-season nightly rates for the chalets and tents are R2 000 and R1 000, increasing to R3 000 and R1 800 respectively in peak season.
Reflections Eco-Reserve is almost surrounded by the Wilderness section of SANParks’ Garden Route National Park. Langvlei and Rondevlei are conservation areas and swimming, boating and fishing are prohibited.
No such prohibitions exist for most of the other waterways and one of the most spectacular childhood “throwback experiences” is to explore the Wilderness lagoon, the Serpentine (a narrow channel linking Wilderness and Eilandvlei), Eilandvlei and the Kaaimans, Touw, Wolwe and Barrington Rivers by canoe.
Contact Chris Leggatt of Eden Adventures at firstname.lastname@example.org for more information about adventure activities and affordable canoes for hire.
Reflections makes the perfect base from which to explore that lesser-known part of the Garden Route that comprises Wilderness, Sedgefield and Buffalo Bay on the coast, the inland gem of Hoekwil as well as the famed Seven Passes and Rheenendal Ramble routes.
One of the highlights of my visits to the area is an almost-inevitable excursion to Pomodoro restaurant (www.pomodoro.co.za) in Wilderness for spaghetti Bolognese. Owner Claudio Nespola is a first-generation South African who adheres to his Sicilian ancestors’ belief that slow-cooking improves flavours immeasurably.
There are any number of delightful culinary discoveries to be made in the area, one of which is the Hoekwil Country Café.
I’d accompanied Tim on a narina trogon-hunting expedition (largely unsuccessful) to the nearby forests one morning and, after a lively tromp, felt more than a little peckish.
Despite it being lunchtime, I ordered a toasted bacon, egg and cheese … a generously filled sandwich that was too big at only R50!
Tim told me to save space for a slice of the locally made cheesecake but I was glad I asked if we could share. There was no way I could have eaten a whole slice of the café’s scrumptious Belgian Chocolate showpiece (they also do a Turkish Delight cheesecake) but I know plenty of people who can!
Another recent and good addition to the local small eateries listings is the Heritage Bakery between Wilderness and Sedgefield.
At least one evening at Reflections, however, must be enjoyed around the braai fire.
I arrived on the Monday afternoon on a new BMW F900XR motorcycle and, less than 30m onto the Reflections property, got hopelessly bogged down in soft, clinging sand.
I might be there yet if it hadn’t been for the timely arrival of Tim’s strapping teenage son.
In any case, with nearly another kilometer of tricky riding until I reached my tent, I realised that any after-dark arrivals following alcohol consumption would be courting disaster.
Stop in at the Two Smoked Okes butchery and buy your quality (though nicely priced) meats and stock up with beer and wine before heading home. Tim supplies wood and dried fynbos makes perfect kindling.
If the wind is right, you can hear the rumble of the sea to one side and the croaks of various aquatic birds on the other. You might be momentarily distressed by the distant sound of heavy trucks on the N2, but then the fiery-necked nightjars kick in and soon all is good again with the world. A couple of nights of this and you’ll understand why the ospreys and falcons come back year after year