Fair and Away
Why Grootbos reserve is an ecotourism star
“Unlike others, the mimetes protea doesn’t die when there’s a fire – it gets burnt, but its roots are protected by a corky layer just below the surface, so a few weeks after the fire it’s able to resprout, then takes about a year to produce its first flower. If you were to dig down you’d find an ancient woody stem that could be hundreds of years old because it's survived so many fires.”
Sean Privett’s bio-knowledge goes as deep as a protea root. He is conservation director at Grootbos, a glorious nature reserve near Gansbaai, where Nature calls the shots, and where back in 2006 a fire very nearly wiped out the reserve. But like the tenacious mimetes, it bounced back.
To take you back to the start of Grootbos Private Nature Reserve, it all began in 1991 when, in need of a break, businessman Michael Lutzeyer and his dad Heiner took a camping holiday near Gansbaai.
Michael had always dreamt of having a farm and, when he stumbled on Grootbos – 123 hectares of neglected, overgrazed, alieninvaded, agricultural land – he persuaded the family to help him buy it. By 1994 he’d sold up his city business, built five self-catering cottages, and Grootbos was launched as a guest destination.
Fast forward to 2018. The reserve has grown to about 2 500 hectares of pristine wilderness, is cleared of alien vegetation, can sleep more than 60 in two five-star, sophisticated lodges and a suite of private villas, and employs about 150 people.
We’re sitting in the restaurant of the wallto-wall windowed Forest Lodge, looking out at a landscape that hundreds of fynbos species, birds, bugs, and a variety of buck and small beasts call home. It’s a honeypot for international eco-tourists. And they’re spoilt for choice.
Over an elegant lunch I can’t help but eavesdrop on a neighbouring table where guests are being offered “horse riding, quad biking, hiking, birdwatching, a flip in a small plane, a coastal trip to the archaeological cave or a fynbos tour in a 4x4.” I’m so not feeling sorry for them.
But in my view, you don’t turn down the opportunity to take a tour with a man as knowledgeable as Sean. So, for an information dense hour we ride with him on the winding fynbos-fringed tracks of Grootbos as it is today, slowing and stopping to learn about damaging Argentine ants, pollination by arcbeaked sunbirds, the immense seed-carrying capacity of the cone protea, the joy of the
Erica magnisylvae (the reserve’s signature species), still moments in South Africa’s largest milkwood forest, and the invisible presence of a host of scuttling wildlife. How precious, how fragile is this.
“Aside from developers, the biggest threat is fire,” says Sean. “But destructive as it is, it’s a natural part of the eco-system.” Managing
what’s natural is another story.
Botanists apparently mark out single square metres of land in which to research the minutiae of wonders and it’s easy to see how you can while away hours here, exploring every square centimetre. But the critical ethos at Grootbos is how best to be part of the bigger picture. Michael Lutzeyer’s maxim is to look after the natural environment and its people in equal measure – each dependent on the other.
Sean describes him as a visionary whose ideals are infectious. He also talks with reverence of Michael's father Heiner and his contribution of recording and photographing a database of all the 800-odd fynbos species here. “He died a year after it was published.”
Subsequently they founded a Walker Bay Fynbos Conservancy that stretches over 20 000 hectares to Cape Agulhas and currently has 17 members. Among other things, this ensures the sustainable harvesting of flowers.
But to cement their commitment to a socialnatural balance, in 2003 Michael and Sean established the Grootbos Foundation, an NPO comprising a series of projects that build, grow, nurture and respect the people working here and the community from which they come.
It’s no surprise to hear that Grootbos is fully Fair Trade Tourism certified for its responsible approach, and that it’s also a member of
The Long Run, an international organisation committed to the four Cs – conservation, community, culture and commerce.
Next on our list of reserve experiences is the Living the Future Tour, and we hop into foundation communication manager, Ruth Crichton’s car. First stop, Siyakhula, the organic Growing the Future garden. We’re greeted by a cacophony of clucking chicks comfortably slurping, burping pigs (processing kilos of kitchen waste), fruiting trees, potted potatoes, tunnelled herbs and olive, honey and cordial bottling in the new experimental kitchen.
Pontsho Chiloane, head gardener originally from Limpopo, shows us round. From here come most of the eggs and a large portion of the food used by executive chef Benjamin Conradie and his team up at the Forest Lodge. Respect for our elegant lunch rockets.
We drive down to the Green Futures complex, a multi-purpose engine room in a forest clearing, where project plans are made and tracked, an indigenous plant nursery is open for business and, in a classroom full of this year’s intake at the Green Futures College vocational and occupational training, heads are down writing a test.
The curriculum, explains lecturer Sharlene de Villiers, covers a range of skills including computer literacy, adult basic education, and hospitality training as the newest module. With room for only 12 on the annual course, no matric required and no charge, places here are highly sought after.
To spread the growth net further, a community farm has been established in Masakhane township, just outside Gansbaai. Here people come to work on the rows of doorsized garden beds as and when they can on a voluntary basis – for some the training is an upskilling stepping stone.
Project manager and fundraiser, Lily Upton meets us at the entrance where clumps of crisp and crinkly soutslaai are growing at random.
She offers us a nibble. “It’s one of many traditional, indigenous plants we have here. There’s also dune spinach and sea pumpkin,
and the lodge chefs are getting very creative with them.” Despite the seemingly casual nature of the Masakhane garden, they produce an impressive 50 to 60 kilos of food a month.
In a shade-cloth enclosure, supervisor and facilitator Zokhanyo (Zozo) Bekani is busy tending to rows of oyster-mushroom pots. She gives me a quick lesson and describes their flavour in evangelical terms. Zozo herself was a Green Futures student some years back. The ‘putting back’ system clearly works.
Finally, spreading a net of a different kind, there’s the soccer story. Ten years ago, Grootbos started a Football Foundation. Lily takes us to see the full-size, FIFA-standard pitch situated on the edge of Gansbaai.
It was sponsored by the English Premier League, and every week about 2 000 kids from all communities arrive for multi-discipline sports sessions, as well as a full programme of other training – life skills, leadership, nutrition, health, etc. In terms of energising the future, this is probably the jewel in the crown.
Back at Forest Lodge, we spend a blissful night in a secluded suite inside a milkwood spinney, with a dinner to remember. To be sure of the whole ‘fair and responsible’ story, next morning we secure a moment with sustainability officer Rebecca Dames, whose role it is to measure the Grootbos carbon footprint. No small task, given that every last unit of energy and fuel used in the running of the reserve has to be counted.
“Per guest per night on average it was 76 kilograms for the 2016/17 year – roughly half of that used by many other reserves, but we still have a way to go,” explains Rebecca. “Two solar plants reduce our dependence on Eskom’s grid, but water is where our energy is focused right now.
“We have 26 water metres, we’ve started recycling thousands of litres of black water for use in the nursery, and we purify and bottle our own water from our six boreholes, which means we don’t bring in plastic bottles any more. The foundation offices run exclusively on harvested rainwater and we have storage tanks all over the place for rain, in case of fire.”
When the fire of 2006 raged through Grootbos, taking out the new Forest Lodge and several chalets, miraculously they were rebuilt and reopened within a year.
Given the water shortage and natural cycle, who knows when it might strike again – but this is one destination where they have made every effort not only to fireproof themselves but, as far and fairly as they are able, to futureproof as well.
Map reference G2 see inside back cover
ABOVE: Laying as many eggs as are required for guest breakfasts is thirsty work for the noisy chickens at Siyakhula. ABOVE RIGHT: The farm pigs make short work of processing the kitchen waste to produce firstclass manure for the vegetable beds.LEFT: All materials used to rebuild the ForestLodge after the fire are as natural as possible. RIGHT: Volunteers Heather Andrews and Helen Charlotte bottle olives in the new experimental kitchen.
LEFT: Asvelo Nombanbela (left) and Sabelo Lindani tend to the bonny indigenous plants for sale at the Green Futures complex. BELOW: A camera in the forest captures all sorts of usually shy passing creatures great and small.
ABOVE: The Foundation’s Ruth Crichton inside the greenhouse where the achievements of all the projects are on display. RIGHT: The Masakhane garden is a training ground, a playground, a green lung and a haven, as well as a food source in the community. BELOW RIGHT: Zozo Bekani, former student at Green Futures college, is now supervisor and oystermushroom queen.