This exclusive cottage accessible only along a rugged 4×4 trail is a passport to the splendid isolation of a hidden corner of Karoo National Park. By Geoff Dalglish
Sitting on the stoep of Embizweni cottage, which stands proudly alone in a remote section of Karoo National Park, it’s easy to daydream and to dream big. How could it be otherwise if you are inspired by vast landscapes beneath even bigger skies? Exhilarated by a total isolation from the sights and sounds of civilisation?
The renovated farmhouse is one of the park’s well-kept secrets, tucked far away from the main tourism routes and more than 30km from the busy N1 highway linking Gauteng and Cape Town. Embizweni (which means “where people gather” in Xhosa) sits on an elevated rise offering views deep into the soul of the Nama Karoo. South Africa’s largest biome is renowned for its aridity and harshness, seeming to be a vast emptiness until you take time to explore it slowly. It is a place to be a pilgrim rather than a mere tourist, recognising the divine in all around you as you drink in the sense of space and timelessness.
Big game sightings
If you were able to step back in time a couple of centuries you’d witness the spectacle of hundreds of thousands of springbok congregating in preparation for their regular migration to the Kalahari Desert, following a route imprinted in their DNA eons before. Those vast herds have long since disappeared, although their descendants remain, sharing the plains beneath the wind-sculpted koppies and peaks of the Nuweveld Mountains with no fewer than 60 other mammal species. Among them gemsbok, kudu, eland, klipspringer, black rhino, the boldly striped Cape mountain zebra and the more familiar Burchell’s zebra.
Cast your eyes heavenwards and you could also be richly rewarded. The park boasts one of the highest densities of Verreaux’s eagles in Africa, with around 20 breeding pairs making this their home. And now, for the first time in nearly 170 years, you have a chance of spotting lion or hearing the roars and calls that are one of the most evocative sounds of the wilds.
In November 2011 two magnificent black-maned males, two females and four of their young offspring were released after being translocated from Addo Elephant National Park. Originally of Kgalagadi stock, they were chosen for their disease-free status and genetic similarity to the lions that would have occurred in the Cape.
For staff such as senior section ranger Johan de Klerk it is the realisation of a long-cherished dream to see a return of species that naturally occurred in the area and to re-establish a healthy predator-prey balance. “We felt proud that an important target had been met after a time of intense activity, which included erecting a 170 km cordon of electrified, predator-proof fencing around the park’s perimeter and visitor areas.”
Park manager Mzwandile Mjadu recalls mixed emotions: “It was a glorious moment when they were released. I got goosebumps as they crossed the line to freedom, becoming the first wild, free-ranging lions in the Great Karoo since the last one was shot at the nearby settlement of Leeu-Gamka in 1842. “It was a thrill but I reminded myself that this would get us out of our comfort zones. We now need to be more careful.”
All four adults are wearing tracking collars which provide a fix on their positions every four hours. For now the two females and four cubs have enjoying the vicinity near the main restcamp, while the males have been establishing their territory and roaming up to 16 km away. At the park’s headquarters there’s a buzz of excitement that wasn’t there before as staff and visitors eagerly follow the progress of the lions, with successful hunts and a number of good sightings.
For the moment Embizweni is beyond their territory although it is possible their domain will eventually extend to all of Karoo National’s nearly 90 000 hectares. By 2012 it is hoped cheetah will also be reintroduced, with these legendary speedsters likely to be at home in the vast, open plains.
Staying at Embizweni cottage
A bonus with the arrival of the lions is that free guided walks are offered three times daily through a landscape littered with ancient reminders of how it was, fossilised remains of plants and creatures dating to around 250-million years ago. Of course, you don’t have to be an ecologist, geologist or historian to appreciate the recently opened Nuweveld Eco Trail or the wonderful vastness it is an entry to.
Use of the 4×4-only trail is free and normally it is a two-day, 100km excursion that starts and ends at the main restcamp. The 4×4 section totals 56km, with 20km the first day and 36 m on the return trip. Of course, if you are so driven, you could do it all in a day but then you’d be missing out on the main event: the overnight cottage.
The main bedroom boasts a double bed and glass doors that open onto big views, while there are bunk beds for four in the second bedroom. There’s also a bed in the lounge area which doubles as seating during the day. Add solar lighting, a gas-heated bath and shower, a well-appointed kitchen, fireplace in the lounge, braai area on the stoep and you have the comforts of home without the intrusion of television or traffic noise.
Although off-roading is a passion for many, it is quiet time at the cottage that will probably be cherished the most. Traditionally Karoo National Park has been an overnight destination, but two nights in the cottage, followed by a stay in the rest camp, would be a perfect tonic for Big City refugees.