Tent Travels: Closer to home

Lake Eland is a hit with even the youngest nature lovers.

WHILE we love to travel to far-flung corners of southern Africa with our tent, Bill and I try to make the most of those special places closest to home, visiting them for short breaks and long weekends as often as possible.

Since returning from our three-week September road trip, we’ve managed to fit in some thoroughly enjoyable mini-adventures, spending a night or two in a few of KwaZulu-Natal’s easily accessible beauty spots. Like KwaZulu-Natal, all our provinces are richly endowed with eco-destinations so South Africans really need to take advantage of the numerous opportunities to escape the rat race, even just for a couple of days. In fact, often a simple day outing to one of the many pretty places near your home is enough to recharge your batteries.

Baby blesbok with Mum.

Of course, if you and your family are not allergic to canvas, tent travelling makes a weekend away so much more affordable. And with all the amazing camping stuff available today, South Africans can really camp in comfort. It takes a bit of time, some experimenting and some financial outlay to accumulate the good, practical, not necessarily expensive camping equipment that would suit your family and style of camping, but it really is worth the effort.

Bill and I are now packing for a Kruger trip and I will use my Tent Travels blog to offer my impressions on this wonderful place when we return. In the meantime I’d like to chat a bit about our recent short breaks as they really have been loads of fun and well worth the effort. I will start, though, with a couple of day visits to a delightful little spot, a private game reserve called Lake Eland that is not even an hour away from our home.

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What has made our two recent outing there so special is that we were accompanied by two grandchildren, five-year-old Angelica and two-year-old Callum. Their immense enjoyment of the Lake Eland visits proves that children are never too young to be introduced to the wonders of nature.

Lake Eland in the Oribi Gorge area, is one of our favourite local green spots and whenever we visit it we are pleased to see that many people share our favourable opinion of it.

The reserve offers a wide range of activities, catering not only for nature lovers but for adventure seekers as well. Its attractive scenery, floral diversity, good selection of large mammals and the impressive birding make it a great place for leisurely game drives, horse rides, hikes or single track mountain bike trail riding.

Giraffe on the move. 

Its 80m suspension bridge over a section of the gorge has long been a magnet for thrill seekers but the bridge has now been superseded in the adrenaline stakes by Lake Eland’s famous (or infamous) zip line tour.

The reserve also offers assorted accommodation including camping, a San cave exhibit, fishing, paint ball, some interesting 4X4 tracks, restaurant facilities, a rustic chapel, wedding facilities and a well-appointed children’s playground.

Mostly, though, it is the tranquility and natural beauty that has earned Lake Eland the public support it now enjoys.

The reserve really has come a long, long way since brothers Eric and Trevor Dunstone started it in 2003. It is hard to believe that when we first visited it soon after they had acquired the land for conservation purposes it was little more than a concept. Even then Bill and I sensed the commitment, enthusiasm, energy and vision that would make this rather unique tourist attraction such an eco-adventure tourism hit.

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Places like Lake Eland don’t just happen and watching its development over the years has been inspiring. So much hard work and unstinting dedication has gone into this conservation project. It took a special sort of love of the land for Eric and Trevor to commit to something so ambitious.

On our first visit, they had consolidated a section of their property with land bordering Oribi Gorge acquired for the project. The newly established Lake Eland was an almost pristine slice of rugged gorges, sweeping grassland, wetlands, undulating valley bushveld and forest. It had only been used for grazing and had never been ploughed.

Check! The Lake Eland chess board is a popular attraction.

Roads were just starting to be built, expensive game fencing was going up and the dam – Lake Eland – was under construction. The initial skirmishes in the ongoing war against wattle and other alien invaders had been successful and indigenous saplings were starting to take root. Best of all, the establishment of the reserve had plugged up a hole. It had created a buffer of protected land alongside a previously vulnerable section of the gorge.

Once the Dunstone brothers had laid out a good road network, constructed basic visitor facilities and begun to stock their fledgling reserve with game, they actively set about encouraging South Coasters to come and see what they were doing there. For a long time, they didn’t even charge an entrance fee. They also kept people living around the reserve in the loop, setting up dialogue to explain their vision. They have even `adopted’ a rural school next to the reserve and have achieved wonders there.

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After that early first visit, we became regular Lake Eland visitors and were gratified to notice that there always seemed to be is something new and exciting to see and do every time we returned. The idea of course, was to offer imaginative attractions to lure even the most luke-warm nature lovers out of their vehicles and into close contact with the natural world.

The Dunstone brothers have always been interested in conservation, particularly in the conservation of the scenic and biodiverse Oribi Gorge area and the endangered oribi antelope that occurs naturally there.

For them, Lake Eland is a fulfilment of a conservation dream.

When we visit the reserve, Bill and I usually make it a full day’s outing, exploring the extensive game viewing road network, doing a suspension bridge crossing and picnicking in the lovely picnic area.

Sleepy blesbok among the flowers.

However, with two tiny tots in tow, we restricted our most recent visits to a couple of hours and only took a short game drive to the Butterfly Bush Picnic Site. It was perfect for the children as it didn’t tax their attention span too much and there was plenty of game to see en route. After all the summer rain, Lake Eland was looking fabulous, the lush, emerald grass liberally sprinkled with a confetti shower of colourful wild flowers.

It was baby season, too, much to the delight of our two mini wildlife enthusiasts who were particularly smitten by the cute baby zebras.

We stopped for a break and a snack at Butterfly Bush where the children enjoyed discharging some energy. They were overjoyed to see that the picnic spot lived up to its name, producing a number of butterfly sightings. Refreshed, they hopped back in the car, anxious to “look for some more animals”. Up until then the giraffe had eluded us so the children were delighted to find a big group of these graceful creatures near the road on our drive back to the reception.

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The delightful children’s playground, where we had a picnic lunch, was a huge hit with the youngsters, as were the ‘walk-on’ chess board and the koi fish pond. It was with great reluctance that they were eventually persuaded to say goodbye to Lake Eland but all the excitement had worn them out and we soon had two little soundly-sleeping passengers on the way home.

I always love visiting Lake Eland but it was a very special experience seeing a place I love through the eyes of two excited tiny tots who loved every minute of both their visits.


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Judi Davis

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