Mount Camdeboo Private Game Reserve, Eastern Cape
Mount Camdeboo Private Reserve lies nestled between vast plains and endless skies, at the foot of the Sneeuberg mountain range– South Africa’s second-highest with altitudes of up to 2 438 metres.
Watching the sun set at the top of the escarpment overlooking the plains of Camdeboo, I suddenly remembered Eve Palmer’s words and, although I’ve thought so many times prior to this, only here did I finally understand the full meaning of what she wrote when she said; “At first encounter the Karoo may seem arid, desolate and unforgiving, but to those who know it, it is a land of secret beauty and infinite variety.”
I imagined the lives and stories that have played out here; a landscape where 240-million-year-old fossils and dinosaur remains have been uncovered, and where big game once roamed freely. Its early Khoisan dwellers, who first peopled this place and called it Camdeboo, or ‘place of green hills or pools’, to the Dutch settlers, and the Afrikaner farmers later on.
The original property, that would later become only part of the 14 000 hectares that is Mount Camdeboo today, was purchased by the late Logie Buchanan and his wife, Cathy in 1996. Their son, Iain and the Buchanan family have since then poured an enormous amount of love and dedication into developing this property over the years. Once agricultural farm land, they’ve successfully turned it into a pristine game reserve in line with the vision to conserve the land and provide a natural habitat where wildlife, including endangered species, are able to roam freely.
Now, a Big Five Reserve, Mount Camdeboo offers an incredible mix of wildlife viewing and high-end hospitality in a malaria-free area, where humans are dwarfed by those exceptional semi-arid landscapes.
Accommodation is split between four beautifully restored original farm houses, collectively known as The Manors. Three with their own spacious gardens, communal kitchen, communal lounge and sparkling swimming pool.
I stayed in the Courtyard Manor of which the basic structure is believed to be over 200 years old. With four tastefully decorated en-suite bedrooms (3x double and 1x twin), all featuring air-conditioning, under-floor heating, a mini bar with tea/ coffee making facilities and French doors opening on to the gardens. Bathrooms feature double vanities, a shower, bath and WC. The Courtyard Manor is favoured by groups and families with a more relaxed approach, thanks to its self-contained nature, the open, communal kitchen and an enormous veranda overlooking the lush gardens.
The Camdeboo Manor is similar to Courtyard, in the sense that there are 4 luxuriously appointed en-suite bedrooms, but perhaps with a bit more of a Zanzibari twist. The wide Oregon pine floorboards, thick walls, beautifully landscaped gardens and swimming pool was everything I never wanted to leave.
Both the Courtyard and the Camdeboo Manors can be rented exclusively or per suite.
Hillside Manor is a 3-bedroom sole-use villa with an elevated position against the lower slope of Sneeuberg Mountain, providing broad valley views. Available for exclusive-use only, it is an ideal family option offering spacious living spaces, three double en-suite bedrooms, a swimming pool and a private safari vehicle with a ranger.
For the perfect romantic getaway, you’ll want to consider the Peppertree Cottage, situated in a secluded part of Camdeboo Manor’s gardens, Peppertree Cottage offers a romantic setting for honeymooners or couples seeking a private experience. The spacious cottage boasts a king-size bed, fireplace, kitchenette and a private garden. The bathroom features a double vanity, shower, bath and WC.
The food can’t be faulted in any way, and they cater to suit every taste and diet preference. Highlights included a traditional braai in the boma, prepared by the exceptional kitchen team and enjoyed under the stars. We also stopped for sundowners and snacks at different points within the park every evening (if you ever do go, ask them to take you up to the 360, it was my favourite ).
Mount Camdeboo’s commitment to the continued restoration and preservation of this important region through sustainable eco-tourism, is exactly why I jumped at the opportunity to showcase their beautiful property. They’ve reached massive milestones within the field of conservation over the years. One of which is the cheetah re-wilding project.
Two of the cheetahs on the reserve, Saba & Nairo, were born in captivity – two brothers hand-reared in Britain. They arrived in South Africa in the February of 2020, from a zoo in England, making them the first cheetahs born in Britain to return to their African roots.
The team at Camdeboo achieved a world first in conservation for then sending this pair of UK-born cheetah back to the wild.
It didn’t take long for the pair to bring down their first prey after being released into their current home, a 300ha “rewilding camp” that has been stocked with small antelope. The camp is devoid of other predators and currently closed to Mount Camdeboo visitors.
“I recently watched them pull down a fully grown kudu bull – something even wild-born cheetah would never normally attempt – in a classic two-animal kill. “Hunting is definitely in their genes.” says the project manager, Leslie Slabbert.
Saba and Nairo, he adds, are also quickly losing the dependence they developed in England on humans for companionship.
Cheetahs are listed as vulnerable by the ICUN, with less than 7,000 individuals remaining in the wild. Habitat loss, conflict with humans and increasing pressure from the illegal pet trade means that cheetah only inhabits around 10% of their historic range. Saba and Nairo’s rewilding and participation in a breeding programme will bring vital new genetics to the South African population.
Iain Buchanan, owner of Mount Camdeboo says, “It is an incredible privilege to be part of this landmark conservation project. To see these magnificent cheetah roaming free on Mount Camdeboo in the coming months will be one of the greatest moments in my life. I am confident that this project will pave the way for many more zoo animals to be ‘wilded’ and in so doing, contribute to the greater conservation effort which aims to increase the genetic diversity of these and many other species.”
Alongside the cheetah project, Mount Camdeboo is at the frontlines of fighting rhino poaching. This after the reserve lost five of its rhinos to poachers in 2014/2015, including a full term mother and her unborn calf.
But what began as a tragedy has grown into a glimmer of hope, because out of the horror of the event came a powerful idea. An idea that sparked the me to have this conversation with Iain in the first place. On the coffee table in the lounge of the Camdeboo manor, a perfect replica of the male rhino fetus immortalised in bronze.
“This event completely changed my life as well as the lives of the entire team on our game reserve in the Eastern Cape. We couldn’t help but see the parallel between the loss of life of this unborn baby with the feeling that we were all losing the war on poaching, and losing future generations of this iconic species as well. The message could not be more clearly represented by this unborn baby, only days from stepping into this world.
We decided on that day that our personal response to the event would be to make sure we created an opportunity for this rhino to be ‘born’, through this bronze replica. This new form would be indestructible but yet still emphasise the intense fragility of this species’ current state.”
This lead to their project, Fragile Rhino. Through Fragile rhino, they seek to raise funds for anti-poaching by way of selling artwork that captures the current “fragile” state of this species. All funds will go into the much-needed anti-poaching efforts on the ground at Mount Camdeboo and other game reserves.
Since then, they’ve also made the hard decision to dehorn all of the rhinos within the reserve. While it is heartbreaking for them to remove the horns, knowing the consequences, it does deter poachers from killing rhino and helps with broader conservation practices. Iain noted: “Rhino poaching is one of the most pressing conservation issues we’re facing. Dehorning is a sad intervention but poaching is a reality, and, we need to make every effort as part of a multi-faceted wildlife management approach to save the much-loved and iconic rhino.”
The selective dehorning of the rhinos entailed a highly specialised operation lead by veterinarian, Dr William Fowlds. After the successful dehorning operation, he comments, “The rhinos at Mount Camdeboo have been hit hard by poachers in 2014/2015 and it made them very vulnerable to further attacks. Despite the reserve’s remote location, poachers are still placing these animals under severe threat. Whilst its heartbreaking for us to remove the horns, knowing the full consequences, it does deter and disincentivise the poachers from wanting to take their lives and helps with our broader conservation practices. During the dehorning procedure, every effort was taken to ensure minimal distress and discomfort to the rhinos, who were, while immobilised, also tagged with new tracking devices to monitor them. DNA and blood samples were also taken to assist us with our research. As a team, together with the reserve owners and employees, we’ve shared the pain and loss of poaching incidents – it’s a life-changing conservation disaster that we don’t want to feel again.”
Mount Camdeboo is playing a pivotal role for conservation in the region by creating a sanctuary for endangered species and by restoring the land to its original pristine state of wilderness. The team on the ground, now under the guidance of a newly appointed conservation manager, Ulrich Schutte, are truly passionate about these causes and I already know to continually expect big things being done in terms of conservation.
Whether you’re after some needed rest, with just the right amount of old-world grace and style balanced by modern creature comforts, or if you’re keen on visiting for the animals and to learn more about the amazing work being done on the ground, I can’t recommend visiting Mount Camdeboo enough.