AS it the dunes and the strangely dimpled sand, the jackal buzzard drifting over the forest canopy at dawn, the wild sea stretched beyond – or watching Nat Geo Wild from our personal bar on a giant pop-up rotating plasma TV?
It’s hard to say what the best thing is at Oceana, because there’s a whole lot of wonderful stuff.
Situated just east of Port Alfred on the East London coastal road, this luxurious beach and wildlife reserve comprises 900ha of indigenous forest, and patches of open grassland, stretching down to a wide tract of coastline. The lodge is perched on of a hill above this vista, and a wonderful beach deck has been constructed down below where the forest meets the dunes.
Oceana is thought to be the only reserve of this kind in the country, where forest and beach is combined in this way, and one of only a few in the world.
On our first morning there we got up early and field guide Trevor Wentzel drove us down to the beach (it’s only about a kilometre through the forest, but walking is not advised, as there are potentially dangerous buffalo and rhino in the reserve).
Trevor had thoughtfully packed a cricket set and it was low tide, making for perfect cricket conditions. We played on the hard sand, with the seabirds spectating, before running in for a swim.
The beach was vast and empty of people except for one other couple from the lodge. Yet life was visible all around us: the gulls and terns wheeling overhead and fiddling along the shoreline; the sea snails skating slowly across the wet sand and clumping together to feed on a stranded bluebottle. Back at the edge of the forest, a little sandy- coloured frog hopped across our path.
It had not rained for many days as far as we knew, but the sand was delicately pocked with indentations, which no one could explain. Sometimes nature works in mysterious ways.
Trevor had also provided fishing rods and a dune board, but playing around in the soft steeples of sand was most fun. My kids’ lengthy game of dune transformers involved scampering, ambushing (driftwood sticks make great laser guns), climbing up – and throwing each other down again.
The marvelously appointed beach deck includes a braai, a large swinging bed and a pair of unusual African-weave loungers to recline on.
We enjoyed a delicious packed lunch and (for me) cold beers. There couldn’t have been a better preparation for the afternoon.
At the eyrie-like lodge, there’s a swimming pool and waterfall feature in the courtyard, a spa and gym, a telescope in the sitting room – to scan the waves for whales and the forest for game and birds – and shuffleboard in the games room.
Large glass sliding doors provide maximum views and seal off cosily when the wind blows. On sunny spring mornings, like when we were there, they are opened wide for breakfast on the deck.
I got talking to Michael Mbutuma, 46, the barman. He worked at Mpekweni Sun for 23 years and then the Port Elizabeth casino before joining Oceana nine months ago to be closer to his family in Peddie. His quiet affable presence does great service to this amazing place.
A raised boarded pathway lined with flowering orange clivias led to our accommodation, a double-storey three- bedroom house with plunge pool, Africa-styled chandeliers and a jacuzzi in each room.
Late that afternoon, golden full moon waiting in the wings, we enjoyed a game drive. Besides the extraordinary sight of rhinos framed against the ocean (poachers look out because the Port Alfred air school is watching all the time) one of the most interesting things was hearing about the swollen white acacia thorns.
An ant uses the hollow thorns for shelter and lays its eggs there. It releases a pheromone which convinces the tree to allow the thorn to keep growing, ensuring food for its emerging antlings. In return, it repels herbivores and acacia pests.
After two nights, we had to leave Oceana: surfacing through the forest, the milkwood trees bent in a Tolkienesque bower above us, back to the R72, and the real world. The wind has probably already blown away our footprints on the beach. But we took our memories with us.