Great Fish Family Fun

Makhanda (Grahamstown) is situated in an area surrounded by natural beauty, and while many residents and nature lovers want to experience the wonders of the Eastern Cape, they are not always aware of what is most affordable or on offer. The Eastern Cape Parks and Tourism Agency (ECPTA), however, is a great place to look for information on Nature and Game Reserves around Makhanda and throughout the province.

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The Black-Backed Jackal is one of many natural predators inside the Great Fish River Nature Reserve. Photo: Stephen Kisbey-Green

The Great Fish River Nature Reserve is one of the many parks run by the ECPTA. The park is packed with engaging and exciting activities and experiences for families, hikers, birders, animal lovers as well as those dying to get out and enjoy the peace and tranquility of nature.

The park offers game drives in a specialised vehicle, as well as luxury overnight accommodation and delicious food for every meal. With one of the park’s entrances located 35km from Makhanda, the reserve is perfect for long holidays, or a weekend getaway.

The reserve prides itself on conserving the biodiversity of its endemic species; meaning that there is plenty of wildlife and flora to see. Some animal species include Kudu, Black-backed Jackals, and plant species like Spekboom and Porkbush. Different bird populations also thrive in the area, from Fish Eagles to Yellow-Billed Ducks.

Birders will enjoy the sheer number of species that can be found within the park, as well as the experience of hiding out inside the Kentucky Bird Hide. The Hide overlooks a watering hole which attracts birds as well as other wildlife. The ECPTA list but a small selection of birds that are endemic to the area, all of which can be seen and photographed inside the reserve. Of the birds listed, Martial eagles, Karoo shrub robins, Black-winged stilts, Acacia pied barbets and the national bird of South Africa, Blue cranes, are some highlights for birders.

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The Great Fish River meanders through the Great Fish River Nature Reserve, providing water to the many different wildlife, fauna and flora species in the park. Photo: Stephen Kisbey-Green

Hikers can enjoy peaceful walks throughout the reserve, with day visitors and over-night guests both able to enjoy unique hiking trails, each with their own merits. In particular, guests can enjoy a walk along the river’s edge, or what some rangers call the “hippo walk”. Be sure to keep quiet on the walk, you never know what could be lurking in the bush (Buffalo, Kudu, Zebra and even Baboons). There are also a number of heritage sights throughout the reserve, including the Double Drift Fort and Keiskamma cemetery. The Adam’s Kraantz Viewpoint also offers breathtaking views of the meandering river.

Day visitors are also encouraged to take part in game drives using their own vehicles. However, it should be noted that roads to both entrances of the reserve are unpaved, and the clearance within the reserve will likely require a high-clearance 2×4 or 4×4 vehicles. A small vehicle might struggle to get around the park, particularly when you have to cross through the Great Fish River; spoiler alert, there isn’t a bridge!

The Mvubu Chalets offer over-night guests spectacular views of the river, sitting just overlooking the river valley. Each chalet sleeps up to four guests, and comes with a fully equipped gas-powered stove and fridge for self catering purposes. Meals are also on offer with prior arrangement.

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A large male Kudu shows off inside the Great Fish River Nature Reserve. Photo: Stephen Kisbey-Green

One thing to keep in mind, is that the chalets do not offer electricity apart from a light in the main room, as well as in the bathroom and kitchen. Guests should not expect to be able to charge or plug-in electronic devices during their stay. No power may not be an issue though, considering phone signal in the reserve is hard to find. Make your calls and send your emails before taking the time to un-plug and un-wind at the reserve.

Another great option for Makhanda residents is the Thomas Baines Nature Reserve. Just 12km outside Makhanda, Thomas Baines offers self-game drives, fishing, and cycling as well as an Interpretation Trail and other activities. Entrance for South African day visitors into the reserve includes a Conservation/Entry fee as well as an activity fee, with a 50 percent reduction in the Conservation/Entry fee for persons living in Salem, Xolani, Hlalani, Extensions 4-10 as well as Vukani.

The ECPTA will be running a special for the month of March that offers up to 50% off all inland reserves. This includes both the Great Fish River and Thomas Baines Nature Reserves. For a wonderful experience filled with family fun and unique wildlife, these local reserves offer residents affordable deals and guaranteed family fun. The full list of inland reserves are as follows: Baviaanskloof, Greaf Fish River, Commando Drift, Groendal, Mpofu-Fort Fordyce, Ongeluksnek, Oviston, Thomas Baines, and Tsolwana.

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A beautiful sun sets over the Great Fish River Nature Reserve. Photo: Stephen Kisbey-Green

The Conservation/Entry Fee for both Thomas Baines and the Great Fish River Nature Reserves is R22 for adults, and R11 for children. Self game drives, hikes, cycle trails, and various other activities will vary in price depending on the reserve, and depending at what time of day. For example, the cost of a self game drive through the Great Fish Reserve can cost either R108 (Adult) or R85 (Adult), as morning and sunset drives are more expensive than day and night drives respectively. All prices are currently valid until the end of March 2019, with full, up-to-date prices available at visiteasterncape.co.za:

Grocott’s Mail was treated to an overnight stay at the Mvubu Chalets, as part of an educational weekend at the Great Fish River Nature Reserve. Included in the weekend was an overnight stay at Mvubu, a heritage drive around the reserve, a trip to the Kentucky Bird Hide, traditional dancing and dinner, an early morning game drive, breakfast and a hike along the river. The package was an experimental package that is not currently priced, but since it has proven to be a successful, the ECPTA will work on formalising the package and pricing it accordingly.

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