Grootbos Nature Reserve

For many luxury travel spots, phrases like ecotourism and community outreach are simply marketing speak. But when HELEN CLEMSON visited  Grootbos Private Nature Reserve in the Cape’s Overberg, she learnt that these two pillars are fundamental to the success of this landmark destination.

Nestled between mountains, forest and sea, Grootbos is a rare travel experience. It lies on a whopping 2 500ha of pristine wilderness between Stanford and Gansbaai in the Western Cape and what makes it so remarkable is its diversity: milkwood forest meets marine wildlife meets 800 botanical species (six were actually discovered at Grootbos) and that’s not even mentioning the animals. But it’s not just these important – and beautiful – aspects that are reason to visit this striking nature reserve; what Grootbos is doing for the local community means it deserves real bragging rights.

It’s 15 years since the Grootbos Foundation was set up by Michael Lutzeyer and Sean Privett, its conservation director. According to Julie Cheetham, managing director of the Grootbos Foundation and head of sustainability for Grootbos Private Nature Reserve, this year, with the 15-year anniversary upon them, the organisation is “working towards building on the successes of the past and ensuring their impact continues to be amplified and relevant into the future”.

And what have those successes been? For one, the Masakhane Community Garden, says Julie. It was established in response to a 2013 survey which indicated that 75% of the local population was moderately to severely food insecure. “Through the community garden, the Grootbos Foundation has invested in training 112 members of the local community in urban agriculture. And 81 members are actively working their own vegetable allotments to provide for their families,” she says. “The Masakhane Community Garden also anchors our Food4Sport and Dibanisa Environmental Education projects, benefiting 180 local children a year. This site is the only public green space accessible to the community and recently it won the 2018 We are Africa: Engage Africa Award, as voted for by the international tourism community.”

It is noteworthy projects like these that make a stay at Grootbos so much more than just spectacular views out to sea on a luxury eco-­reserve; more even than the fine dining courtesy of executive head chef Benjamin Conradie, who uses many of the ingredients straight from the property’s organic farm. Visiting Grootbos is an opportunity to get seriously involved in a little (or a lot) of ‘eco-warrioring’.

“For example,” explains Sean Ingles, the general manager at Grootbos, “we have two resident entomologists who are researching all insect life on the property and we encourage guests to spend a few hours with them to learn about how necessary insects are to the ecosystem. Our research team is involved in various conservation initiatives in the reserve, including sustainability projects, leopard research and botanical surveys.” And what does he hope visitors take home with them (other than Grootbos’s delicious fynbos honey)? The experience of having connected with nature, been pampered in luxury and gained insight into the importance of conservation and social upliftment, says Sean.

The reserve offers an opportunity not only to explore some of South Africa’s ancient and legendary milkwood forests, but to learn so much about them, too. “By having a dedicated guide, you as a guest will acquire a deeper appreciation of your surroundings,” he adds. “Instead of just taking a walk through the milkwood forest, you are immersed in the complexities of the forest thanks to your guide’s narrative. This may involve he or she picking up a snail shell and telling you about the importance of it or explaining in intricate detail how, over time, the milkwood forest ‘walks’.”

And as the reserve lies next to the sea, guests have an opportunity to visit the spectacular Walker Bay coast, so a marine ‘Big Five’ or coastal safari walk is de rigueur; and, of course, both experiences come with an expert guide in tow. “Just wandering along the beach, as so many of us do, we do not appreciate the abundance of life found between the tidal zones,” says Sean. “Our marine guides give names to the creatures and explain their roles, so guests leave the beach understanding the importance of life on our shores.”

Another aspect of life that the Grootbos Foundation has placed real emphasis on during its journey is the outlook for the youngsters in the community. It has zoned in on a sustainable way to keep those in need engaged and connected. This particular project, the Football Foundation, is a sport for development programme and, says Julie Cheetham, is very close to her heart. She describes it as a real career highlight and when asked why, her face lights up with enthusiasm. “To see it triple in size over the past three years, providing essential social development and integration through sport to more than 9 000 wonderful young children from our surrounding communities,” she enthuses. “These communities have so little going for them and yet the kids are incredibly resourceful and positive.”

Undertakings like these are good news not only for the communities they function in, but for South Africa as a whole, yet guests sometimes feel disconnected from the good works linked to the property which is getting their business. Grootbos has changed all that by making outreach tangible for those staying at the nature reserve.

“We practise a progressive tourism approach so that our annual business planning and budgeting process is done to a balanced scorecard ensuring commerce, conservation, community and culture are driven forward thoughtfully,” explains Julie. “From our guests’ perspective, a favourite activity is our ‘Living the Future Tour’, which takes them to a number of community and conservation projects and gives them ‘behind the scenes’ insight into the running of Grootbos.”

She goes on to explain that the conservation ethos means that, on the sustainability front, Grootbos has made a commitment to be free of single-use plastic (including in the kitchens) by 2020. “Outside the kitchen environment, we have already eliminated all single-use plastic,” she says. “The kitchens remain the last piece of the puzzle. And going forward, we are looking to eliminate the use of palm oil.” In 2017, the property installed a grey-water system at the Garden Lodge, which now recycles 9 000l of usable grey water every day. The Forest Lodge is next up for a grey-water system.

How does the saying go: “Say what you mean and mean what you say”? And isn’t that a beautiful thing. V