Pandemic travel: Tala Game Reserve embarks on a turnaround

Just an hour’s drive from Durban in KwaZulu-Natal (KZN), near Camperdown, lies Tala Game Reserve — a 3000-hectare piece of land that is lush with vegetation; tranquil yet alive with game that is constantly frolicking about. 

When I made the trip there from Johannesburg in late February, I had to adhere to the Covid-19 health regulations — mask-wearing, social distancing and sanitising at entry points — to prevent the spread of the virus. 

These measures — which have varied in intensity since they were instituted about a year ago — were put in place to protect lives. But they have left the tourism industry battered. 

I travelled during lockdown alert level one, in which almost every economic activity was allowed. But there were still restrictions on the number of people allowed to gather in one venue and, of course, adhering to health protocols was mandatory. 

From the entrance of the game reserve, until the lodges —  Paperbark, Leawood, Fisherman’s Cottage and Figtree House — you are ushered in by different animals. Zebras, various kinds of birds, and springboks freely roam the area.

Although it’s now a game reserve, Tala has undergone various changes. According to the general manager, Greg Allan, the area used to be a farm, but its previous owner, Stuart Hilcove, turned it into a game reserve and slowly began populating the area with wild animals. 

It also ran as a conference and a wedding venue. But after the Nkhubuleni community won its land claim in 2011, the lodge, which was positioned to take off, did not quite get there. After the land claim, Hilcove was paid more than R60-million for the land. However, the management who operated it on behalf of the community nearly ran the place into the ground.

Some of Tala Game Reserve’s lodges are being refurbished while business is quiet. (Photos: Christopher Allan)

The M&G was staying at the Paperbark lodge — closer to the kitchen where breakfast and dinner were served in a buffet style, by bubbly employees. 

I was staying at the Paperbark lodge — close to the kitchen  where breakfast and dinner were served in a buffet style, by bubbly employees. 

Although the Paperbark lodge was still in good condition — with brown walls, white linen, and black and white paintings of insects against the walls — I could tell that the general maintenance could do with an overhaul. 

Aware of the condition of the lodge I was staying in, Allan said that the management was planning to refurbish the Paperbark lodge. He said that,while business was relatively quiet, they were taking the opportunity to fix some of the lodges. 

Other lodges, which were in better condition than Paperbark, were positioned kilometres away from each other, making them perfect for social distancing. 

The reserve has a variety of outdoor activities, so there’s no need to stay in your rooms for long. These include game drives, fishing, Segway safaris, spa treatments, pools, and hot-air ballooning. One of my favourite activities was going on a hot-air balloon ride: one could see, in panoramic view, the breathtaking green landscape of KwaZulu-Natal. 

A game drive in progress. (Christopher Allan)

Nelisiwe Khanyile, a housekeeping manager, who spoke on behalf of the community, explained that, in about 2017, the community had to approach the National Empowerment Fund for funding, which it received, setting in motion a process of business rescue.

After completing the process, the community introduced new management, which owns 49% of the business, with the remainder shared between the fund and the community. 

Khanyile said the community needed to partner with a company that could help them to meet the standards of the hospitality industry. 

As well as the game reserve, the community of 250 families has a sugarcane farm and they lease land to five farmers. The money goes into the Nkhubuleni Trust. Tala also ensures that it hires people from the community, thus playing a role in tackling unemployment in the area. 

“The target is for the community to work here and manage — not just housekeeping,” said Khanyile. 

Although Tala does not yet make a profit, as soon as it does, that money will be ploughed back to the community as well.  

These past issues do hang over the reserve, but knowing its history warms the heart and provides an incentive to support such a business. 

The area used to be a farm, but its previous owner turned it into a game reserve and slowly began populating the area with wild animals. (Photo: Christopher Allen)

Allan said that when the country went into full lockdown about a year ago, everything shut down, “but as we got to level three [and] President Cyril Ramaphosa announced day visits to game parks and things like that, [although] people could not go to the beach, they could go to Tala.” 

After that, the reserve had a flood of locals visiting on the weekends, which saved the business. Still, a lot of Tala’s visitors in the past have been international guests, which the pandemic put paid to.  

Another part of the business that was affected is big weddings and functions. “Year-end functions and conferences [were] where we made the bulk of our money,” Allan said. “That is where we are hurting at the moment. The one room or two that we are getting is great, but we are looking for the bigger groups to come back.”

Tshifhiwa Tshivhengwa, the chief executive of the Tourism Business Council of South Africa said that the restrictions on travel, such as banning international and interprovincial movement, have heavily affected the industry. 

He said that, for the sector to improve, hard restrictions need to be kept to a minimum. 

“We cannot have the beach closures and those other types of things. If there are too many restrictions, people feel like they should not go anywhere”, Tshivhengwa said. 

He emphasised that the leisure domestic travel the sector is experiencing is not enough — it needs international travellers, domestic government travel and corporate to start up again. He added that events such as conferences and exhibitions also help to boost the tourism sector. 

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Tshegofatso Mathe
Tshegofatso Mathe
Tshegofatso Mathe is a financial trainee journalist at the Mail & Guardian.

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