Where big five protection meets the bottom line
Spun off from Shamwari’s sale, Founders Lodge is a model of antipoaching security and conservation education
Adrian Gardiner always dreamt of owning a piece of Africa one day while he was growing up in Zimbabwe. His dream came true when, with his heart set on restoring overgrazed Eastern Cape land, he opened Shamwari Game Reserve in 1992.
"I was able to share the joy of SA’s incredible wildlife with local and foreign tourists alike," he says. "And soon it became a profitable conservation project, giving back to the earth so dear to me."
As Shamwari became more popular, Gardiner kept part of it separate for family getaways. This 400ha section of the farm was also used as a game-breeding facility and for antipoaching training.
Equipped with a useful checklist, spotting the animals can be more enjoyable than Pokémon Go
He and his wife would drive the 75km from Port Elizabeth to meet their children, then studying in Grahamstown, on this piece of land at weekends. After he sold Shamwari in 2008, he kept it.
"The character-filled old farmhouse on this distinct piece of land is a link to something my team and I created," he says of the home originally built in the late 1940s. "I love the breath-taking views across the cliffs, valleys, and sprawling natural bushveld," he adds.
It underwent extensive renovations ahead of its official opening as Founders Lodge. The property features two swimming pools, a gym with steam room, and a "collection room" with an impressive assortment of Xhosa beads. There is also memorabilia from Gardiner’s business and projects, which led to meetings with Thabo Mbeki, Margaret Thatcher, Richard Branson, John Travolta, and Ernie Els.
Because the property’s six suites accommodate only 12 guests, the service is personable. There are many places to escape for solitary peace and quiet: unwind on a private veranda, reading one of the 700 books in a library, or in a lounge built for a large billiard table that Gardiner had won in a bet.
Limiting guests also means that meals can accommodate personal tastes. Start with a healthy bush breakfast under a tree, have a casual lunch in the enclosed terrace, sundowners on the elevated viewing deck, a formal supper in the stately manor house dining room, and end the day with drinks at the bar or around the boma’s fire.
Founders Lodge maintains full traversing rights on the adjacent Shamwari, giving guests easy access to game drives.
Because the reserve is home to five of SA’s seven biomes, there is a diversity of wildlife. Equipped with a useful checklist, spotting the animals can be a game more enjoyable than Pokémon Go.
Besides the big five (rhino, elephant, lion, buffalo and leopard) there are giraffes staring into the distance, camera-shy vervet monkeys, hippos as immovable as rocks, Egyptian geese sailing on the Bushman’s River, guinea fowl scampering in pairs, warthogs red from a mud bath, impala in a boys’ club and a yellow mongoose digging in the sand for dear life.
There are more animals to discover on the Founders Lodge property, none of them dangerous. This makes it ideal for peaceful nature walks on bright mornings, with the sound of a gentle wind whispering in your ears and a cool breeze waking up your tired face.
The hike begins with a walk to a bench where Gardiner paused during his daily treks. There is a rocky descent into a valley, guarded by armies of prickly pears that could soon be used as biofuel. Refreshing borehole water is available, brought to the surface by a solar-powered pump.
"Founders Lodge is part of Mantis Owners Collection," Gardiner says.
"The name came from my dear friend Dr Ian Player at the Wilderness Foundation.
"He said that because our products are small, we should call it Mantis Collection.
"We took that further and created the [slogan]: man and nature together is sustainable."
Since its beginning in 2000, the group has expanded its hotels, eco-escapes, and lifestyle resorts to all seven continents. But while it has been praised for environmental practices, with each property sensitive to its surroundings, that did not stop Gardiner from focusing on the bottom line.
"We have our own version of the big five: development, hospitality, sales and marketing, education, and conservation," he explains. "But the two things most important are education and conservation."
Gardiner cites several examples of lives changed through their work. In one instance, he recognised potential in a cleaner from a block of flats he managed. Gardiner helped him get a driver’s licence, taught him how to use a computer, and secured him a job at a game reserve.
"He didn’t want to go," Gardiner says. "But he became the head ranger and, a few months ago, one of our clients flew him to America to spend a week in his hotel.
"That guy’s life is changed forever. And that’s what I call profit out of tourism. It benefits the bottom line in the long run."
Gardiner is a founder of Stenden University SA in Port Alfred. It is the only place in the world in which BCom Hospitality Management students can do a semester course in wildlife management. By educating people closest to the environments that need protection, Gardiner believes that responsible tourism will grow.
"The unique selling point of Africa is our wildlife and our people," he says. "If we don’t look after both, the tourists won’t come. If we don’t tell people what we’re doing in Africa, and give some of the profit back to the people who are helping us, it’s a no-win situation."
Through his friendship with Player and during his time as chairman of the Wilderness Foundation, Gardiner was introduced to leading conservationists across the globe. Guests at Founders Lodge can contribute to the efforts by "adopting" an orphaned rhino toy, placed in each suite on the final night.
"We’ve got a war on our hands," Gardiner says. "Our wildlife is being decimated; hence my time and effort trying to protect one of our unique selling propositions.
"I just hope we’re going to win this war; it’s one helluva battle. But I’m a positive guy; I believe we can make it work."
The rhino population at Shamwari is thriving, with the first and last poaching incident recorded in 2009. During our nature walk, we spotted an antipoaching plane buzzing overhead, and our game drive came upon white rhinos twice: a quasi-family of four and a pair of gentle giants napping in the springtime sun.
"Our ethic with regard to responsible tourism focuses on enhancement of our people, protection of the environment, and our partner associations," Gardiner says. "When you look after those, the profit will grow."
• Yiga was a guest of Founders Lodge