• In this age of extreme choice among luxurious safari lodges, how do you differentiate one from another? Ecca Lodge, in the Eastern Cape’s Kwandwe Private Game Reserve, not only fits the bill, but breaks the mould with its funky, modern design and superb dining


    You’ll find Ecca Lodge (named for the dark shale seen lying in abundance in the area) an hour’s drive inland from Grahamstown in Kwandwe Private Game Reserve. The surrounding bush is scrubby and treeless. Water is scarce. Giant cacti, taller than a man, give it an air of the prehistoric.

    A curiosity is the thick lichenous growth, in shades of grey or sage green, found on rocks and the woody stems of most plants. The air carries the same perfume of sage, plus something mineral, and is clean and fresh – almost tangy – when plants are exorcised of their perfume in the heat of the day. Ecca Lodge is already set apart by being in the Eastern Cape, where the vegetation (and climate, we were to discover) is totally unlike that of the Lowveld, home to most lodges. Perhaps what also sets Ecca apart is space – not only 21 000-odd hectares of raw bush that are yours to explore, but also on a smaller scale, closer to home.

    You sleep in the very heart of this beautiful place. Your accommodation is in the equivalent of a small cottage, constructed of corrugated iron, brick and wood, where detail and colouring make the interior thoroughly modern. The vast bedroom is square and wide, with nothing but windows and sliding doors to peel back and reveal acre upon acre of lichen-frilled greenery and aloes. Flanking this is a living area where the couch converts to a bed for children. It’s impossible, arms outstretched, to reach all four walls of the shower.

    Nature is never far away. You can reach out and touch it from beyond the sliding doors of your bathroom, or from the fringes of the plunge pool, standard with every room. Nights are peaceful here, dark as can be, and in the morning, bird calls and rattling tea trays wake you up.

    The five-star Ecca Lodge experience is almost certainly found in the details. You’ll find it in the churros (long tubes of pastry, deep-fried and served with molten dark chocolate) which comprise part of your breakfast; the Earl Grey tea, which is the real McCoy, and reaches your bedside table still hot; and the staff, whose training clearly included long courses on politeness, enthusiasm and affability – everyone wants to know how you slept.

    If you took it upon yourself to demand a palm tree and the moon, the staff would probably take it upon themselves to make it happen. Your wish is their command. As one of a maximum of 15 guests, you’re cosseted. They remember your name and whether you had jasmine green tea or decaf coffee at breakfast the previous morning. Any princely aspirations you might have are pandered to here. You have a ranger, tracker and game drive vehicle entirely at your personal disposal. You don’t have to share with anyone and you can call the shots: when you would like to go out and when you would like to return.

    Timetables are yours to make up: rise when you would like, eat when you would like, don’t do anything at all but lounge beside your plunge pool with a book or have a massage, or simply stare out into the vast openness. No matter what you choose, it’s highly likely that your stay here will leave you feeling at peace. The weather was kind to us in an unusual way during our stay.

    We had persistent and freakish, solidly English drizzle, which provided a welcome respite from the searing heat of previous days. It did mean though that, much as I wanted to stay and flop by the pool, the weather prevented me from doing so. So I jumped into our roofless, windowless, windscreen-less Land Rover in a raincoat to go exploring (and I’m so glad we did, not only for the three magnificent cheetahs we saw, but also for the warm welcome of glühwein and roaring fire when we got back).

    Dry as it (normally) is, the plants of the intriguing Eastern Cape bush, so different to the Lowveld, are succulent and nutritious and able to support a number of browsing foliage lovers: elephant, rhino, beautifully coloured antelope, the odd tortoise and, of course, their predators: jackals (who sing you to sleep at night), lion and the more difficult to spot cheetah and leopard, are common. To see a fully grown cheetah, as we did, sniffing the air, is nothing short of exquisite.

    Foodwise, your escape from the bland and commercial continues. Richard Bain is the chef, a former pupil of the International Hotel School in Johannesburg. His menus are exciting and constantly changing. He knows how to get breakfast right. It’s possibly the easiest meal of the lot, but also one of the most predictable. At Ecca, it is different each day and well worth getting out of bed for. On our menu were delicious, tender sweetcorn crumpets with Parma ham; poached egg and hollandaise sauce; a breakfast BLT (bacon, lettuce and tomato sandwich) splashed with Richard’s homemade mayonnaise; chocolatestudded breakfast scones; coffee with a shot of Amarula; tall glasses of ice-cold Milo, and waffles with fresh fruit and honeyed mascarpone.

    Lunch is a leisurely affair, comprising a big platter with a bit of everything on it to pick and choose from and nibble at, followed by a little dessert. Children will love it here. They have an entire (very chic) playroom, complete with boxes of toys, to themselves. There is also the Planet Manager Pack, so enticing that adults can become engrossed in it. In this little bag comes the Eco- Guide, a games/colouring-in booklet through which the eco-challenged (like me) can learn a lot about what is immediately in front of them, such as which animals come out at day, night or twilight (with loads of new words such as crepuscular, diurnal and leveret) plus a box of coloured pencils with which to colour them in. Most intriguingly, there is a small jar whose screw-top lid is equipped with a magnifying glass. Children can capture insects like spiders or grasshoppers and then examine them at close range in the jar, before setting them free again.

    Ecca Lodge is one of three lodges in Kwandwe Private Game Reserve. It is run by CC Africa (Conservation Corporation Africa) and has Relais & Châteaux accreditation. Your nearest airport is Port Elizabeth, from which follows a two-hour drive to Kwandwe. Kwandwe also has an airstrip suitable for most chartered aircraft. Food & Home Entertaining flew courtesy of Nationwide Airlines to Port Elizabeth. Nationwide operates daily services from Johannesburg, Cape Town and Durban to Port Elizabeth. For reservations, call 0861 737 737 or visit www.nationwide.co.za