Communities reap the bounties of fynbos conservation at Grootbos
Driving past the Overberg town of Stanford towards Gansbaai, it’s easy to miss the Grootbos Private Nature Reserve. There are no grand pillars or a fancy arch to mark the turnoff to one of the world’s most responsible eco-tourism destinations, only a small, unassuming sign.
The dusty turnoff leads to a short drive up a gentle fynbos-covered slope to one of the reserve’s two five-star lodges that have views across Walker Bay. Grootbos integrates understated luxury accommodation with a long list of environmentally sustainable and socially empowering practices.
SA’s largest milkwood forest is on the reserve, as is Elim fynbos, which only grows on the unique soils between Walker Bay and Cape Agulhas.
From the reserve there are uninterrupted views of the bay where dolphins play and southern right whales mate and calve. The coastline below the reserve offers some of the world’s best land-based whale watching.
Owner Michael Lutzeyer and his family moved from Cape Town to the 2,500ha property 24 years ago to start a bed and breakfast business. His project has since developed into an internationally acclaimed destination involving the immediate community and a vigorous conservation exercise.
With 28 other privately owned farms, Grootbos makes up the Walker Bay Conservancy — 17,800ha of conservation area that its members hope will eventually connect to the Agulhas National Park 80km away, creating a 55,000ha conservation corridor.
The conservation team at Grootbos helps locate areas that have undisturbed fynbos and works with farmers to preserve them. For these and other efforts, the reserve has won international environmental awards, including the accommodation category of the WTM Responsible Tourism Awards in 2017.
In 2015 it became a Long Run Global Ecospheres Resort. Jochen Zeitz’s The Long Run programme accredits tourism destinations committed to conservation, community, culture, and commerce and which contribute "meaningfully to the biodiversity and the people of their local region".
After I checked into my room, conservationist Jono Durham took me on a walk through a dense, cool and very quiet milkwood forest. I didn’t spot any of the Big Five, but what I did see was impressive.
Durham showed me the tiny kidney snails that are endemic to milkwood forests and explained that the carpenter bee, an important pollinator, lays her eggs in the snails’ discarded shells where they incubate.
Later that day we went on a 4x4 fynbos jaunt driving across the reserve. Durham explained how extraordinarily diverse fynbos is, with more than 9,500 recognised species on the southwestern tip of Africa, an area no larger than Portugal.
The Grootbos Reserve is home to 1,106 plant species with six newly discovered ones, some of which only occur in Grootbos. But humans have taken their toll: about 90% of local fynbos has been ploughed under by farmers.
"It will never return to its former glory as ploughing disturbs the whole ecosystem and a lot of rare bulbous plants and the seed bank in the soil gets damaged," Durham says.
Those who think that mountains of wattle trees look great should remember what biodiversity means to Earth and why protecting fynbos is important.
The small organic farm on the reserve is run as a social enterprise and helps develop entrepreneurs who focus on food security. There are fat chickens in the new, five-star pens: A-frame brick structures with new wooden boxes for each chicken
US biologist Edward Wilson writes in his book The Diversity of Life that diversity is what maintains the resilience and flexibility of the environment, so that life can weather the inevitable storms. The wider the range of genes, the better humans and other species can protect themselves from environmental changes, disease and invasive species.
Grootbos also works very closely with the communities of Stanford and Gansbaai. A non-profit organisation, the Grootbos Foundation, was set up 15 years ago to work alongside the nature reserve to develop sustainable livelihoods through eco-tourism, enterprise, sports development and education.
Just below the Garden Lodge is the foundation’s nursery, which doubles as a horticulture and life skills college.
Every year 12 students join the programme and are taught how to propagate, seed, grow and identify plants.
They leave the college with basic business knowledge and a driving licence.
The small organic farm on the reserve is run as a social enterprise and helps develop entrepreneurs who focus on food security. There are fat chickens in the new, five-star pens: A-frame brick structures with new wooden boxes for each chicken.
The chickens have open access to a large area for roaming. Their freshly laid eggs are sold to the Grootbos kitchens.
The programme also supports honey production, on-site water bottling, vegetable farming and a piggery.
The lodges don’t allow single-use plastic. Grey water is used extensively and solar panels provide much of the reserve’s electricity.
Rebecca Dames, a research botanist and sustainability officer who has been tracking the reserve’s carbon footprint for four years, says it has reduced its footprint by 10% each year.
They also monitor water usage, waste management as well as diesel and petrol usage. Dames credits Lutzeyer’s passion for the reserve’s success. "It comes from the top," she says.
In nearby Gansbaai, Grootbos has invested in a football foundation for 7,000 children and a community garden for families to grow their own vegetables, which are sold to the lodge.
For lunch I tried the indigenous garden salad, which was fresh, crisp and tasty. The dinner menu included cheeses from Stanford, fish from Walker Bay, pork from the farm and Grootbos fynbos honey ice cream.
For breakfast I had the signature breakfast dish, Eggs Benedict, made with eggs and spinach from the farm. It felt good eating produce grown by people I had met.
The rooms are spacious and comfortable. It is very tempting to spend an entire day happily lounging on the private verandah looking across the reserve over Walker Bay to the grey-blue mountains far beyond.
For guests with energy, there are countless activities. Besides visiting projects on the reserve, I went for a morning horse ride and on a trip to Die Plaat, the white, sandy beach below Grootbos that is in Cape Nature’s Walker Bay Nature Reserve. The Klipgat Caves, once home to Middle Stone Age and Late Stone Age humans, can be explored. The more adventurous can book a responsible shark diving trip.
Susan Snyman, who studies the impact of luxury eco-tourism on communities, says that lodges have a huge economic effect and wages help to build human capital in rural areas where there aren’t many other economic opportunities. Grootbos employs 180 people, who reach more than 10,000 beneficiaries a year.
The reserve is "really committed to conservation and community upliftment and empowerment", Snyman says.
• May was a guest at Grootbos Private Nature Reserve.