Sustainable and Responsible Tourism in South Africa – Safari Plus in KwaZulu-Natal
By Rupert Parker
South Africa has long been the Brit’s favourite place for safari, but now it’s not only offering top of the market products, but also focusing on responsible and sustainable tourism. It’s the first destination in the world to offer “Fair Trade for Tourism”.
It’s a long flight from Heathrow and requires a change at Jo’burg but, eventually, I get my first glimpse of the sun and sea in Durban. My hotel is right on the front and I can’t resist the urge to take a dip in the Indian Ocean. Far from some of the images we’ve seen of South Africa, the newly developed esplanade is home to joggers, surfers and truly is home to a rainbow nation of families enjoying ice cream.
Hluhluwe Umfoluzi Game Reserve
I travel three hours North, and finally the fields of sugarcane and forests of eucalyptus give way to native bush. Hluhluwe is the oldest game reserve in Africa and, after a quick lunch at Hluhluwe River Lodge I’m soon at the gates. Right in the medium distance is a huge herd of elephants going at quite a pace along the river bed. They’re moving too fast to get any closer but they’ve blown away my scepticism that I may come all the way here and see nothing. Soon there’s an even better treat – 2 white rhino are in the grass and gradually move on to the road to block my path. Now I’m worrying they’re too close but the ranger tells me not to worry. Still, one of them does rear its head and give our vehicle a long stare, before ambling back into the bush. And as the sun begins to set, a few zebra pass on their way to a water hole.
Genet at the Bar
Back at the Lodge, a curious genet, a cross between a cat and a mongoose, pokes its head into the bar, trailing its long banded tail. It doesn’t seem interested in sharing a drink, but it’s a reminder that this is a place where wild animals can wander freely, and I make sure I lock my door. Next day I’m taken to Phumlani primary school, which is supported by donations from the Lodge. It’s break time and the kids are running round the playground – the vice principal tells me that when it rains the earth turns to mud and what they need most of all are more toilets. I’m happy to know that a proportion of my hotel bill will be used to help alleviate some of the poverty in this area.
Phinda Private Game Reserve
Next stop is the Phinda Game Reserve, around an hour away from Hluhluwe. Until 1992 this area was a wasteland of derelict cattle, pineapple and cotton farms. After the fall of apartheid the land was redistributed to the local community who, in turn, decided to lease it to the &Beyond organisation. Leopard and hyena were already here but the rest of the game including cheetah, lion, leopard, elephant, buffalo and white and black rhino was reintroduced. The result is 25,000 hectares of wilderness with top end luxury lodges where you can see all the big five in a morning – that’s if you are very lucky.
It’s around 45 minutes from the gate to the Phinda Mountain Lodge, and, on the way, I spot warthogs, kudu and a couple of giraffe. The rooms are the ultimate in luxury and all have their own outdoor plunge pool where you can enjoy a soak, keeping an eye out for oncoming wildlife. In fact there are no keys, just in case you have to quickly get out of the way of hungry lion, and at night you have to be escorted to and from the main lodge, for fear of meeting the unexpected. I run into a couple of impala and a nyala on the path to the car park but they pay me no attention and soon I’m safely on the safari vehicle.
Game drives here are a two person operation. There’s the usual ranger driver, but sitting on a seat, exposed out front, is a tracker who’s there to look for traces of the animals. Soon there’s some excitement as we pick up the trail of a lion and her two cubs. We follow the tracks to a waterhole but, it appears that she’s already left, and suddenly we see her, far away on the ridge, looking down on us. I’m told that the animals here are used to vehicles, so we make our way noisily, blundering through the bush, with a dazzling display of serious off-roading by Brett, our ranger. He gets as close as he can, but the lions are resting under a tree at the edge of a precipice and, although I can see them, it’s too dangerous to take the vehicle any further.
Back at the waterhole, there are a number of hippos soaking in the water, grunting loudly as we approach. A feature of Phinda game drives is an obligatory refreshment stop and I enjoy a couple of gin and tonics, watching these marvellous animals. Although they’re one of the most dangerous beasts in the jungle, I’m assured they won’t get out of the water until the sun has set. At dusk we make our excuses and leave, and on the way back to the lodge in the pitch black, we almost bump into white rhino crossing the road. It’s a mother and her two babies and the tracker ensures that he doesn’t shine his spotlight directly into her eyes, just in case she panics and gives us trouble.
Rhinos in Danger
Rhino poaching is a serious problem in South Africa, fuelled by demand in Asia for their precious horn. 448 were killed last year and this year’s tally is over 200. So far in Phinda they’ve been lucky but neighbouring reserves, including Hluhluwe, have all had their casualties. There are a number of anti-poaching initiatives in KwaZulu-Natal including a dedicated aircraft, but with the price of a horn running to $80,000 on the black market it seems they are fighting a losing battle. Indeed, the black rhino faces a serious threat of extinction if the rate of killing continues to increase. Ironically I never see these animals during the day at Phinda, but have to content myself with night sightings – it seems they are taking their own precautions to avoid the poachers.
Makhasa Zulu Village
As well as offering wildlife safaris Phinda is keen to show its involvement in the local community. Of course the rent money for the reserve goes to the villagers but, in addition, they’ve built classrooms for one of the village schools and also contributed to the cost of the clinic. I take a cultural tour with one of the Zulu workers from Phinda, and see what they’ve been doing for myself. The villagers are keen to show visitors around and even Prince Charles, when he was here last year, decided to donate money.
As well as the schools, clinic and local market, I get to visit a Sangoma, a traditional healer and diviner. My guide translates and I get to watch a ceremony but I feel slightly more comfortable when I visit a Zulu grandmother who tells me all about her culture. 13,000 people live in the area and it’s good to know that some of the revenue from tourism is going back into the community. In addition, Phinda regularly brings children and adults into the reserve and puts them in empty rooms so they can understand why conservation of wildlife is so important.
The Big 5
My big worry in coming all the way to Africa was that I would see very little – “You should have been here yesterday” would be all I heard. During my time in Phinda, however, I get to see lion, elephant, buffalo and rhino, 4 of the Big 5, and I’m only missing leopard, notoriously difficult to spot, although I’m told the population is on the increase. It’s more than made up by tracking a cheetah and her 2 cubs of 15 months as they hunt their dinner. I watch mum patiently keeping her eye out for predators as the cubs lag behind, one trying to climb a tree, the other taking a long drink of water. Finally they settle for an afternoon nap and as soon as we’ve left them we stumble on a lioness and her 4 cubs, also indulging in a quiet afternoon snooze.
It’s easy to get blasé when there’s such an abundance of wildlife in front of you. After a while, you begin to regard giraffe, zebra, impala, nyala, kudu, and warthog as commonplace as you track their traditional predators. But this is an extraordinary experience and the trailing and tracking and occasional disappointments make an essential part of the adventure. There are plans to link up the various reserves in the area, both public and private, to create one huge reserve and so long as the local community is involved and benefits this can only be a good thing. As one of the rangers observed “Our job is to track and observe and leave without the animal knowing you are there.” I would add that our job as tourists is to ensure that our travels are sustainable and responsible at every point.
South African Airways flies daily from London to Durban via Johannesburg.
South Africa Tourism can help you plan your trip.
Southern Sun Elangeni Hotel is in a prime spot overlooking the ocean in Durban.
Hluhluwe River Lodge makes a great base for visiting Hluhluwe Umfoluzi Game Reserve.
Phinda Mountain Lodge is a deluxe oasis in Phinda Game Reserve.