Safaris with soul: Big game brings big benefits to local communities

There’s something very special about the word “safari”.

It tends to evoke images of very proper Edwardian ladies and gentlemen of the “stiff upper lip” variety immaculately, if not appropriately, dressed in tweeds and pith helmets as they traverse the sweeping plains of East Africa, followed by a long line of bearers carrying an assortment of trunks on their heads. It’s not exactly a pukka image for post-colonial Africa, but its romantic, nonetheless, thanks to the efforts of Meryl Streep and the movie Out of Africa.

Romantic, and extremely outdated, because today’s safari experience is about as far removed from the exploits of Karen Blixen and Denys Finch-Hatton as can be, even if a large proportion of modern safari lodges and camps are fond of harking back to the decor of that era. Today’s safari (the word means “journey” in kiSwahili, the lingua franca of East Africa) is significantly more than a jolly jaunt for the rich and fabulous wazungus (white people) of yesteryear.

In Kenya and Tanzania, groundbreaking community- based safari operators are blazing a trail forward by using low-volume, largely high-end safari camps to generate funds for community empowerment, education and conservation. Blixen, who was committed to the upliftment of the Kikuyu people in the Ngong Hills area of Nairobi, would be proud.

Here in South Africa the safari industry has become the backbone of a steadily growing tourism economy that annually draws millions of tourists in search of the celebrated big five—elephant, rhino, buffalo, lion and leopard.

A South African safari is about big game and even bigger bush experiences but also, increasingly, about people helping to spearhead real and lasting change in the villages and communities that surround our game reserves. It’s heartening to learn that entire communities are now benefiting from the South African safari industry, levelling a playing field that historically was exclusively used by wealthy white people.

This steady process of transformation has been assisted by both government and the likes of Fair Trade in Tourism South Africa (FTTSA), whose certification process has encouraged safari operators, big and small, to solidify their commitment to community upliftment and the environment. As a result, 14 of the 64 certified FTTSA products are safari operations. Some of these are entirely community-owned and run, others contribute significantly to the communities on their doorstep with special projects and programmes being part and parcel of their daily operations.

All are demonstrating that South Africa’s safari industry can be a powerful tool for empowerment, education and change, protecting people—as well as animals—and dispelling the myth that safaris do nothing but pander to the idle rich and make pots of money for absentee landlords. More importantly, community-based tourism, once the domain of backpackers, has now broadened to include super-luxury safari lodges and bush camps, giving it considerable appeal in a whole new market. Here, then, is a rundown of FTTSA’s certified safari lodges:

Sabi Sabi
Sabi Sabi in Mpumalanga’s famed Sabi Sands private game reserve is renowned as one of South Africa’s leading exclusive safari lodges and was one of the first products to be certified when FTTSA launched in 2002. With three five-star luxury lodges—Selati Lodge, Bush Lodge and the award-winning Earth Lodge—Sabi Sabi pulls no punches when it comes to pampering guests and giving them the safari of a lifetime. With up-close-and-personal photo opps at every turn, this is a perfect place for budding photographers looking to boost their wildlife portfolios.

Sabi Sabi is also dedicated to the local communities that surround the Sabi Sands, with groundbreaking outreach initiatives making a real difference to people’s lives. Sabi Sabi takes its responsibilities to its workforce seriously, providing adult literacy, English proficiency, business orientation and HIV/Aids awareness programmes for its staff. In addition, Sabi Sabi supports local and emerging service providers through outsourcing and procurement and its environmental record is legendary, helping to protect and conserve the biomes of the Greater Kruger National Park where it is located.

Djuma
The northern area of the Sabi Sands is home to another leading private game reserve—Djuma. With its luxury Vuyatela Lodge and exclusive self-catering facility at Galago Camp, Djuma has become a byword for superb game-viewing, outstanding cuisine and eyecatching decor. Owned by Jurie and Pippa Moolman, who keep a weather eye on the running of the lodges, Djuma’s Vuyatela is one of the most distinctive and welcoming safari lodges in South Africa, with a unique flavour, thanks to Pippa’s flair and skill with the art of mosaic. Its offbeat, zany style, vibrant colours and amazing artwork is matched by superb game-viewing (six different leopard sightings in three days is outstanding by any measure), invigorating spa treatments and first-class service.

Djuma’s big heart extends to its commitment to championing socioeconomic development in local communities, especially involving the Buffelshoek Education Trust for which it has built two primary schools and a media training centre. Other projects, such as the N’wa Tumberi Day Care Centre, highlight Djuma’s hand-in-hand relationship with the Shangaan communities. In the workplace the Moolmans have created a culture of mutual respect and recognition of individual initiative and excellence, demonstrating that fairness, ethical business practice and environmental respect are what responsible tourism is all about.

Madikwe
North West province’s Madikwe Game Reserve is home to four FTTSA-certified safari operators: Buffalo Ridge Safari Lodge, Tuningi Safari Lodge, Royal Madikwe Luxury Safari Residence and Thakadu River Camp.

Buffalo Ridge Safari Lodge is one of the first wholly owned community-based safari lodges to be developed in South Africa and represents an eco-tourism partnership between North West Parks and Tourism, the Balete Ba Lekgophung community and tour operator the Madikwe Collection. Staffed by people from the local village, the lodge operates a rigorous training programme designed to ensure that they will have the skills required to run the lodge within a 15- year time frame. The lodge itself is exquisite, with eight thatched suites overlooking the beautiful inselbergs of the western section of this big-five reserve.

Tuningi Safari Lodge specialises in children’s safaris, which in itself sets it apart from many lodges that accept children only over the age of 12. With an African “colonial chic” theme, Tuningi offers four luxury bedrooms and two two-bedroom family suites that blend beautifully with the surrounding landscape. When it comes to ethics and its commitment to the community it serves, Tuningi specialises in the development of personal and life skills, as well as job-related training for its staff, particularly for people from the local community and women. Its procurement policy is noteworthy, giving preference to local suppliers. With this and its waste-management objectives, Tuningi supports the Mmasedbudule recycling project and purchases indigenous plants for the lodge from a local farm.

Royal Madikwe Luxury Safari Residence offers a unique and completely exclusive safari experience with a grand safari house in the heart of Madikwe game reserve. It can accommodate a maximum of 10 guests on an exclusive basis in its spacious suites, which celebrate a fusion of contemporary and traditional African design. Each safari at Royal Madikwe is personally tailored to suit its guests’ preferences. The lodge is run by a close-knit team, that operates a workplace culture based on participation and democratic decision-making. It embodies the FTTSA principles of democracy and transparency. Royal Madikwe is involved in various philanthropic activities, emphasising community health and education, with projects underlining this ethos, such as the provision of playground equipment to a local primary school.

Thakadu River Camp is a wholly owned community-based tented camp on the banks of the Marico River. There are 12 spacious luxury tents offering guests complete privacy with individual viewing decks. The camp is a partnership between North West Parks and Tourism, the Madikwe Collection and the local Molatedi community, which has a 45-year lease to operate Thakadu with traversing rights across the entire 75 000-hectare reserve. The community owns the assets and outsources operational aspects with skills transfer a clear objective.

Umlani
Umlani Bush Camp in the Timbavati private game reserve, which is part of the Greater Kruger National Park, offers cosy, rustic thatch-and-reed rondavels with a quiet, understated and simple level of luxury. The ethic here is one of authenticity—you won’t find air conditioning or enormous Victorian-style bathtubs. What you will find are outstanding levels of service and a brilliant team of staff, all of whom go out of their way to make a stay at Umlani a life-changing safari experience. Umlani is about changing lives for the better all round, with a youth leadership programme in Welverdiend Village, where the majority of its staff are based, opening doors for local youth to enter the hospitality industry.

Linked to the Wildlife College, this programme entices disadvantaged learners to visit the camp to gain insight into environmental issues and to find out about eco-tourism career opportunities. Umlani has an exemplary staff HIV/Aids programme and the provision of medical care to staff, which includes the right to visit traditional healers, embodying the FTTSA principle of respect for human and cultural rights.

Motswari
Timbavati neighbour Motswari takes huge pride in its people, whether they be guests or staff. This wonderfully relaxed lodge is on 150km2 of private game reserve within the Timbavati, and offers superb game-viewing, luxurious thatched accommodation and some of the most sumptuous meals to be had under African skies. Kitchen staff cook up a storm, whether it be fresh muffins and cookies to go with coffee and tea before an early morning game drive, a lavish buffet breakfast/brunch on your return, a superb spread for late lunch/high tea before departing for afternoon activities and delicious three-course dinners in the boma each evening.

Motswari has a deep commitment to its staff and neighbouring communities, giving rise to a number of groundbreaking programmes and investments, particularly in health and education. Its staff village is family-friendly, which is an important strategy in combating HIV/Aids.

Tswalu
Deep in the heart of the Northern Cape, at the foot of the Korannaberg some 300km north of Kimberley, lies Tswalu Kalahari Reserve, which, at 100 000 hectares (1 000km2) is one of the largest private game reserves in Africa. Located as it is on the edge of the vast Kalahari Desert, Tswalu offers guests the chance to explore a unique ecosystem full of rare and endemic fauna and flora. With two lodges—the Motse and the exclusive Tarkuni—Tswalu has won major international awards for its beautiful contemporary African design and its dedication to conservation initiatives such as the reintroduction and breeding of the rare and endangered desert black rhino and the rehabilitation of farming land, giving the Kalahari back its fragile but beautiful ecosystems.

Tswalu is equally committed to its community of staff and their families, most of whom grew up on the farms from which the reserve was originally formed. With a new environmentally friendly and fully “green” staff village, sports facilities, registered preschool and fully equipped primary healthcare clinic, Tswalu also offers adult literacy programmes and skills development for the entire community.

Kololo
In the heart of Limpopo’s beautiful Waterberg biosphere on the border of the renowned Welgevonden big-five reserve lies Kololo Game Reserve. With a range of 12 upmarket and wonderfully welcoming chalets in beautiful, pristine bush, Kololo caters for couples and families alike. Although relatively small in size, at 3 000 hectares, Kololo has a big heart and has won considerable acclaim for its dedication to capacity-building and social development for both its team of employees and the local community.

Initiatives such as supporting school bursaries, educational programmes and an orphans’ assistance programme operated by the local Waterberg Welfare Society ensure that Kololo’s “people” are well cared for.It is equally committed to conservation, being an active participant in the Waterberg Conservancy advocating communication and collaboration among land owners towards sound environmental management. In addition, Kololo has launched a “Friends of Kololo Plant a Tree” programme that encourages guests to buy an indigenous tree. For every tree purchased by guests, Kololo contributes one free of charge, helping to regenerate denuded areas of bush.

Amakhala
The Eastern Cape is home to Amakhala Amakhala Game Reserve, which is home to four FTTSA-certified lodges. Located between the Greater Addo and Frontier Country regions, the lodges range from traditional luxury tented camps to restored settler farmhouses. All are independently owned and run.

Leeuwenbosch Country House, for example, is a nod to the grand colonial era with its covered stoep and traditional zinc roof. This beautifully restored manor house, which was built in 1908, has five en-suite bedrooms, including two suites and a family room. It is the epitome of country living in a bygone era, with a beautiful “olde-world” atmosphere and simple elegance.

Safari Lodge is a more traditional, intimate thatched affair, with luxury safari huts inspired by local tribal designs. This is a comfortable retreat, designed for unwinding, pampering, relaxation and the contemplation of nature’s bounties.

Reed Valley has two distinctive accommodation options—Reed Valley Inn and Reed Valley Bush Lodge. The inn is, as its name implies, a grand old colonial inn, which used to service the mail wagon in times of old. Now it’s a four-star lodge. The bush lodge is a new five-star tented camp, offering a first-class bush experience in beautifully appointed luxury tents.

Woodbury Lodge has six thatch and stone chalets set against a cliff above the Bushman’s River valley. As a result, the chalets and communal areas of the lodge enjoy sweeping views of the river and the fantastic landscape beyond. Each air-conditioned chalet has its own secluded private viewing deck and outdoor relaxation areas. Each of these lodges contributes to a collective fund for education and uplifts staff through ongoing training initiatives and skills-development programmes. The collective also focuses on HIV/Aids awareness, supporting an orphanage and offering voluntary counselling and testing. The lodges support community-based suppliers, including a local sewing and candle-making business.

For more information on FTTSAcertified safari lodges and other accommodation options, visit www.fairtourismsa.org.za

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