Wild Beauty

by Rona Berg

A visit to Tswalu Reserve is the stuff that dreams are made of.

In a remote stretch of the southern Kalahari, where loamy red earth and grassy savannah meet a cobalt-blue sky, a fortunate few get to rise before the sun, pile into a Defender safari jeep and, led by an expert guide and skilled tracker, spend the next five hours thrilling to prides of lions, journeys of giraffe, dazzles of zebra, a forkl of kudu, a crash of rhinos, a coalition of cheetahs, and more.

Tswalu is the largest privately protected conservation area in South Africa, and there is magic here. With accommodations for 28 guests at the Motse camp and just five rooms at the private Tarkuni homestead, Tswalu has the lowest guest footprint in South Africa. (A new luxury tented camp is being created now.) It is so remote that guests riding on horseback through the savannah may be photo-bombed by giraffe. To add to the dreaminess, South Africa’s first Michelin-star chef, Jan Hendrik van der Westhuizen, opened the extraordinary Klein JAN, an experience more than a restaurant, on a remote corner of Tswalu, where he showcases wine, cheese, produce and meats from fourth-generation Kalahari farmers and artisans to conjure the most memorable meal of your life.

But beyond its wild beauty and enchanting surprises, at its core, the heart and soul of Tswalu is conservation. The Tswalu Foundation was created to support the Kalahari Endangered Ecosystem Project (KEEP), a leader in environmental research in the Kalahari, housed on the Reserve. Lead researchers Dylan Smith and Wendy Panaino—who have a passion for pangolin, nocturnal creatures covered in armored scales, a species that is threatened, though not endangered—work with a rotating team from around the globe to study the effects of climate change in the field. Guests can spend time visiting the Dedeben Research Centre, a repurposed police station, and learn about the work.

The owners, the Oppenheimer family, support the cost of operations, while 100 percent of guest contributions go to research. An additional source of funding is the South African Artists-in-Residence program (AIR), in partnership with the Everard Read Gallery in Johannesburg. Artists spend four months living and working in a light, airy studio on the Reserve, and the gallery contributes 10 percent from the sales of their work to Tswalu.

“What we see as a wild natural environment is a far cry from what it was 50 years ago,” says Smith. “It’s important for us to be doing research to see where these species should be from an ecological point of view, for long-term conservation,” he continues. “What we’re studying now is a remnant of what was once here and what should be here.”

Top: A rare rhino spotting. Above: Researchers in the field; Tswalu is the first game reserve in Africa to use hi-res drone technology and light spectronomy.

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