SOME OF THE BEST kept holiday secrets of the Eastern Cape are right under our noses.
But maybe I am just like one of the many of the ostrich we encountered -- with my head firmly buried in the sand -- and perhaps everybody else knows about it.
I'm referring to the East Cape Tourism Board-run Double Drift Game Reserve wedged between the Great Fish and Keiskamma rivers just south of Alice.
The reserve has been recently linked to the adjoining Andries Vosloo Kudu Reserve and the Sam Knott Nature Reserve to form the scenically magnificent Great Fish River Reserve Complex according to the Eastern Cape Tourism Board's brochure.
There's nothing quite like a midweek break in the bundu to recharge sluggish batteries.
We stayed in the thatched Mvubu Lodges perched high on a cliff overlooking the Fish River and enveloped by dense valley bushveld vegetation which is home to many species of large game animals and the famous hippos which have been successfully reintroduced to the river following their near extermination last century.
Anticipating the heat, and aware that there is no air-conditioning, we took our own fan only to discover solar and gas heating ruled out the necessity for any electricity plug points.
For a townie used to those little luxuries, this was the only setback and the beauty of the bush and the animals more than compensated for this minor inconvenience.
I never thought I was a game kind of gal. I've been to a couple of game reserves before but was disappointed to see only specks of this and that on distant horizons, if at all.
Entering Double Drift we were met by three sentinels at the fence: giraffe who were as disdainful of us as we were fascinated by them.
It was still hot (easily in the 40s) at 16h30 when we went on our 90-minute game drive. The drive I thought would be just long enough before boredom set in.
Ninety minutes stretched into two-and-a-half rivetting hours, viewing an abundance of game under the expert and informed gaze of game ranger and driver Sakkie Kuma.
A local who hails from the Middledrift area, Sakkie did a one-year diploma at Fort Cox Agricultural College before joining the staff of Double Drift last April.
His love of the area is evident in his wealth of knowledge of the animals, their habitat and the history of the reserve.
It was his input that made the trip all the more fascinating and fulfilling.
The only game we did not see of the extensive stock was the reserve's three elephant and eland.
We saw eight white rhino including a baby, lots of prettily coloured Burchell's zebra, many skittish red hartebees, herds of blue wildebees, water buck, amabokaboka (I expected James Small to make an appearance), bontebok which Sakkie referred to as painted statues, ostrich, plentiful Pumbaa's and their babies -- which, don't tell the children, occasionally end up on the spit.
The reserve is also home to puffadders and deadly Cape Cobra, which I am also pleased to report, did not put in an appearance, and after Sakkie's warning that they like to lie on footpaths soaking up the heat at night, made me tread very warily.
I also learnt, pardon the ignorance, that leopard are indigenous to this region but Sakkie said he had not seen any in the flesh. Evidence of their presence, however, is sometimes seen when staff find carcasses of left over meals hanging from trees.
When we left at 05h00 the following morning, when the sky was still pink and the air cool, the feast continued with zebra and wildebeest and hartebees running directly in front of our car.
What a difference to the expensive disappointment that was a long-awaited trip to London zoo eight months ago where, despite staff dedication, animals stand sadly and forlornly far from their natural environment.
There's no hunting allowed where we were so the animals live in peace and harmony.
Unlike elsewhere, international tourists are not charged exhorbitant prices and this therefore does not make the reserve out of reach of the local market.
It is well worth the hour and 45 minute drive (you can go either via Peddie as we did turning off shortly before getting there, or via Alice where the gravel road portion of the drive is shorter).
Don't expect luxury accommodation, it's simple and comfortable and although self-catering, meals are available. But take lots of juice and cooldrink as you'll invariably need more than you think and there's no nearby shops.
Staff made a braai for us for dinner on our deck with food sufficient for an army.
That night, when our son was asleep and the moon high in the sky we dragged duvets and pillows onto the deck and lay there soaking up the darkness and peace with the river below providing the only music.
Thoroughly therapeutic for a mid-week break from the hurly-burly, stress-inducing concrete jungle that is city life.
A VISIT to the Double Drift Game Reserve with a group of friends was one of the highlights of the Chiel holiday recently. We saw plenty of game and came home with some of a pretty wild and itchy kind too.
We stayed overnight in the Nottingham Lodge -- a comfortable and homely old farmhouse tastefully furnished, well-equipped and that sleeps 12. It is one of several on the 40000 ha complex.
We decided to leave East London early on Saturday morning so that we could have two full days there and save the cost of an extra night. It worked out at just over R200 a couple for the single night and being about 11/2 hours drive from the city with the turnoff just before Peddie onto a well-kept dirt road, is in easy reach.
After checking in, ordering a game drive for the afternoon and settling ourselves in the house, we decided to take a short walk through open veld in front to see what we could see. Kudu, warthog on their knees and grazing on green shoots beside a dam, distant impala and several bird species were watched.
But it was the afternoon drive in an open vehicle with a trained game guide that brought most rewards. Sipho knew just where to find them and was first to spot animals we might never have seen ourselves. Besides, he took us on tracks and roads where cars could not venture.
It was interesting, too, how game in the various camps reacted. In one they were shy and skittish and could only be seen from a distance before bolting for cover; in the second we could approach quite close.
My question whether hunting was to blame in the first camp was denied by Sipho but he did say poaching was a problem in some areas so perhaps that was it. Nevertheless we saw about nine white rhinos in the two camps, red hartebeest, bontebok, waterbuck, kudu, ostrich, wildebeest, warthog, impala, giraffe at close quarters, duiker, zebra and more.
At R30 a head and for a three hour drive it was excellent value.
That evening we lit a huge fire and braaied under the stars until the generator ran out of juice, sending us to bed in the dark after 11. A jackal howling at 3 am reminded those awake at that time that it wasn't suburbia but the still of a night in the wild.
After Sunday breakfast we decided to pack up and tour the main roads of the reserve in our cars, visiting the spectacular view site atop a cliff overlooking the Fish River below, the popular Mvubu Lodge in its beautiful setting of dense bush and euphorbia trees beside the river, and finishing off with a picnic lunch beside the water at the Double Drift river crossing.
We all agreed this is a jewel that few East Londoners seem to enjoy, in easy reach of the city and just the place to take overseas or out of town visitors for a taste of the wilds.
But that wasn't the end of our memories. Back home on Sunday night ankles began to itch. Mrs Chiel thought it must have been something in the lodge. By Tuesday legs were on fire with itches and watery bumps all over. What could it have been?
Then on Thursday Keith Rohland phoned. He'd solved the mystery. After a chat to pharmacist George Schlachter the night before, who suggested we might have picked up ticks, he and Iris found pinhead-size specimens. The word spun around to the rest of us and we all had close checks.
Sure enough that night I found one with teeth bedded into a particularly sensitive part of my anatomy -- a tiny specimen and clearly picked up on our stroll through the veld the first morning we were there.
Mystery solved ... and nothing to do with the lodge I'm happy to say.
No-one got tickbite fever (up to yesterday anyway) and what a relief it was to find the responsible critters. Big game or little ... Double Drift has it all.
Wipe your legs with methylated spirits after walking in the veld if you suspect you've been in tick territory, is one bit of advice received. They're so small you can't see them. We'll remember next time.