“When one tugs at a single thing in nature, he finds it attached to the rest of the world.”
These words from conservationist, botanist, and zoologist, John Muir, really resonated on my second visit to Babanango Game Reserve in Zululand. The reserve is essentially the result of one man”s desire to leave a conservation legacy, and another’s deep love and understanding of rural Zululand and the communities that live there.
I spent some time with Jeff van Staden and Kudzai Mqingwana to get to grips with the stories behind the story of establishing this new game reserve.
The four important components of Babanango Game Reserve.
1. An overseas funder with a passion for conservation, who prefers to remain in the background.
2. African Habitat Conservancy, a conservation management company focusing on game reserve conservation and the rehabilitation of flora and fauna endemic to the areas in which the company operates. AHC was founded by the funder together with Jeff van Staden, owner of a tour operating compan at the timey, and a born and bred local who grew up in Zululand.
3. African Habitat Conservancy Foundation, an NPO headed by Kudzai Mqingwana and formed to look after the needs of the community.
4. The Emcakwini, KwaNgono and Esibongweni communities, and the families that live on the periphery of the reserve.
Tug at nature & follow the connections.
Babanango Game Reserve and its 22 000 hectares of the best of Zululand is the result of a strong community & visionaries working together.
Mountains and valleys steeped in the history of Kings, scarred by battles, stained with bloodshed, celebrated by stories of the lives of the men and women who love of this landscape and have called it home.
Community and conservation.
What makes Babanango unusual is their visionary approach to inclusivity. In the early stages of planning a new reserve that first tug at nature revealed the deep connection between the community and the land.
As Jeff van Staden, COO of African Habitat Conservancy says, “Community involvement is paramount, if the community does not thrive, we cannot thrive. It must be a symbiotic relationship, where we have their support and in turn, they benefit directly from employment opportunities and more broadly from community projects.”
African Habitat Conservancy created the African Habitat Conservancy Foundation for this purpose, and to date under the leadership of Kudzai Mqingwana strong relationships have been formed.
She explains “We are partners with the family trusts who own the land. They understand the value of conservation and the value of the land as an investment that can grow and create a legacy for future generations. The reserve rents the land from the trusts, forming a blueprint for how land reclamation in South Africa can genuinely benefit local communities”
The Foundation also looks after the people who work for the reserve and the families that live on the periphery of its boundaries. By meeting with the communities and listening to them, AHCF have been able to start projects that the community needs and can take ownership of. They believe in pioneering with purpose, evident in their projects to date. Drilling a borehole, powered by solar panels and training two local young men how to maintain and repair them has had a huge impact on the local community.
Creating a sports field for soccer and netball, partnering with others for poverty alleviation, skills development, creches, education and feeding projects, have improved the lives of many families.
The Foundations latest partnership with the Department of Health to facilitate vaccine registration, education and roll out is a huge stride towards improving the overall health and wellbeing of the communities.
Mentorship programs around computer skills connects the community to the world via the internet, and assistance with small businesses has already resulted in a local chicken farmer and a vegetable grower each expanding, as they now supply the kitchens at both lodges with their produce.
Many of the staff members at Babanango Game Reserve are from the immediate area and their work on the reserve is the first job they have ever had. Skills development is ongoing and Rob, manager of Zulu Rock Lodge, tells me that when new training is offered, the places are taken within hours, such is the enthusiasm to progress in their careers in hospitality.
Why is this back story so important?
Travel has changed. The last two years have taught us many valuable lessons, the most important one being the negative impact of mass tourism on local inhabitants and the natural environment. People want to travel more mindfully and know that their choice of destination leaves a positive impression and makes the world a slightly better place for all.
The guest experience at Babanango Game Reserve.
Beach and bush.
The White Umfolozi River travels for 24 kilometers through this reserve. Generally a shallow slow flowing river winding its way prettily around flat white rocks, it tends to flood during the winter rains. This flooding churns up the sand and results in gorgeous beaches between the vegetation and the river course, many of these stunning sites are still being discovered as the staff explore this vast reserve.
These beach spots provide a peaceful setting for lazy days wading in the river, rock hopping, sunbathing, and enjoying a picnic or sundowners, the only sounds are the bird calls and the music that is water flowing over rocks.
Aloes and antelope.
Babanango is not a Big 5 Reserve yet, but it will be by 2022. This means the antelope are abundant and not too skittish. The biodiversity on this reserve is phenomenal with the plant life being as much of an attraction as the game. Aloes grow prolifically here, some species endemic to the area and highly prized by botanists. These hardy succulents animate the landscape especially in winter when they are flowering. They grow on the top of the highest peaks, the grassy plains and out of cracks in the rock faces.
At Valley Lodge the delicate bush buck were regular visitors, coming into the courtyard to drink from the water feature or to eat the sweet berries under the trees below the pool.
Horses and a helicopter.
The Boerperd horses at Babanango are settling in nicely and getting to know the reserve. Multi day horse safaris will soon be offered as a unique and exciting way to connect with the bush.
A flight in the four seater helicopter is a great way to see the extent and diversity of the reserve, from the air. We spotted giraffe, buffalo, springbok, and rhino on our flight, and loved the thrilling, extremely low flying along the White Umfolozi River. Book a flip, take your camera, and note that the doors have been taken off to add an extra thrill. That first banking turn will get even the most adventurous of pulses racing.
Hippos and hot chocolate.
Hippos are more dangerous on land than they are in the water. This knowledge adds a frisson of excitement to sitting at the edge of the hippo pool on a crisp morning drinking hot chocolate, the ultimate winter comfort drink. We gauged the distance from hippo to water’s edge to vehicle, then sat down to observe these strange creatures. Cameras ready for the yawning money shot, we stayed for an hour, but they did not oblige.
There was much grunting, splashing, and submerging, that had us nervously looking to see where they would break the surface, but no yawns or displays of pink throats and fearsome teeth. This is something they do when threatened or as a show of strength. Obviously, we did not feature on their radar.
Game drives and gin bars.
Nothing says African Bush quite like a Gin and Tonic and the rangers at Babanango have a host of wild locations where a gin bar is set up and guests are invited to relax, enjoy the views, the drinks, and the nibbles. In a tree shaded clearing with views that sweep down the valley for miles, a low mud brick wall is all that is left of the ruins a homestead.
Whimsical conversations ensue over who lived here, why did they leave, what was life like in their day? Such are the musings as the drinks flow and the sun sinks lower and lower casting a rosy glow over both landscape and thoughts.
Babanango Game Reserve might be new, but the landscape and stories are timeless, and the connection is forever.
Babanango Valley Lodge sleeps 18 people in 9 luxurious suites including a honeymoon suite set slightly apart from the rest of the lodge for extra privacy. Booked on a full board basis, the food is inspiring, the indoor and outdoor spaces are for easy living, and the pool surrounded by the most magnificent aloe and indigenous garden is sublime. This lodge is ideal for families or groups of friends.
Zulu Rock Lodge
Sleeping up to 16 people in seven beautiful, rock-clad cottages, Zulu Rock Lodge is set high on a hill with endless views of the river, valley, and mountains. Stone is the building material of choice; the décor is edgy with a distinctive Zulu influence. A stay at Zulu Rock Lodge includes three meals each day, served in a variety of venues from the lovely restaurant, on the deck or under the stars in the boma. This is the ultimate escape for couples, romance is definitely in the air here. Families are also welcome and there is one family unit available.
For bookings and enquiries: https://babanango.co.za/
Disclosure. My stay at Babanango was hosted, opinions as always, are my own.