Welgevonden, the aptly named - Trends-Tendances sur PC

Welgevonden, the aptly named – Trends-Tendances sur PC

A three-hour drive from Johannesburg nestles an animal reserve of 40,000 hectares with a somewhat unusual operation. As in other private reserves in South Africa, we come across the “big five” and many wild species. But in Welgevonden, it is the owners and “guests” of the luxury lodges scattered around its grounds who finance it. One of these lodges belongs to a Belgian family.

The adventure begins at the gates of Welgevonden, in the district of Waterberg. We leave the minibus that came to pick us up at Tambo airport in Johannesburg for a 10-seater all-terrain vehicle. He alone is authorized to survey the red dirt roads which slalom between the plains, the hills, the bush, the streams. Here and there, zebras or giraffes take malicious pleasure in borrowing the same road as our 4×4… Immediate change of scenery. After 30 minutes, the large gate of Laluka Safari Lodge comes into view.

The adventure begins at the gates of Welgevonden, in the district of Waterberg. We leave the minibus that came to pick us up at Tambo airport in Johannesburg for a 10-seater all-terrain vehicle. He alone is authorized to survey the red dirt roads which slalom between the plains, the hills, the bush, the streams. Here and there, zebras or giraffes take malicious pleasure in borrowing the same road as our 4×4… Immediate change of scenery. After 30 minutes, the large gate of Laluka Safari Lodge comes into view. With their thatched roofs and discreetly colored walls, all the buildings, including the guest pavilion suites, literally blend into the landscape. Seen from above, only the azure blue of the swimming pools betrays a human presence. During the stay, the customer can enjoy the calm of his suite with swimming pool and panoramic view of the reserve, take advantage of the spa, the bar, taste high quality dishes (the Flemish chef Piet Huyzentruyt has trained the cooks) and, according to the seasons, have breakfast in the bush, enjoy a braai (South African barbecue) or share a meal with the staff around a crackling fire. Above all, he can participate in two game drives (safaris) per day. Punctuated by the cries of baboons or the passage of animals at the water point located at the foot of the lodge, this stay will prove to be a permanent sensory experience. This reserve owes its existence to the vision of one man, Pienkes Du Plessis. It all started in the 1980s. Lover of the fauna and flora of his country, this farmer owns a farm called Welgevonden (“well found” in Afrikaans). He dreams of removing all traces of human activity in this landscape dedicated to agriculture since the 19th century, and of reintroducing the wild animals that had been hunted there. Little by little, with the support of a local bank, he convinced his neighbors to sell their farms to him or to tear down their fences to create a large estate. In 1993, the farmers officially gathered their land in a large joint ownership and asked the State to be recognized as a game reserve (animal reserve), which took the generic name of Welgevonden. At the time, it occupied 26,000 hectares. Each year, properties (with or without buildings) will be added to reach the 40,000 ha of today. Some owners operate tourist-oriented lodges there (there are about 25) but there are also private or company-owned lodges. From the beginning, the owners had to commit to a strict charter: if they were able to keep part of their land for private use, they are prohibited from owning pets or more than one personal vehicle, in order to preserve the authenticity of the place. And for tourist accommodation: maximum 10 clients, only one safari jeep, one private car and limited staff. In addition to the spontaneous return of many animal and plant species to the game reserve as soon as the fences were removed, a vast reintroduction program was carried out. Welgevonden today, for example, serves as a sanctuary for 0.7% of the world’s white rhino population. In total, there are nearly 130 races of mammals, 350 types of birds, 2,000 plants, etc. A nod to recent history, Welgevonden is also home to pangolins! We should also add that this game reserve is now part of the Waterberg Biosphere Reserve (654,033 hectares) protected by UNESCO since 2001 and, a significant asset for tourism, it is a malaria-free zone. Unlike the country’s public parks , such as the famous Kruger, passing tourists cannot visit Welgevonden. To ensure the salaries of its 116 employees, the active monitoring of fauna and flora, the fight against poaching and the maintenance of its infrastructures, the reserve therefore finances itself differently. “Each year, the budget is proposed to the members of the ‘co-ownership’ for approval (2.16 million euros in 2022, Editor’s note), explains Martin Heyneke, COO of Welgevonden. Sixty-five percent of it is divided in equal shares between the owners then in 12 to determine the monthly fee (a base rate of 1,880 euros this year, to which the lodges must add various supplements, Editor’s note).The remaining 35% comes from overnight stays invoiced to the lodges in the form of tourist taxes (12 euros per guest and per night, editor’s note).” This year, 1.58 million euros of the budget was devoted to operations and 270,000 euros to the purchase of animals (mainly impalas for game hunting…). Welgevonden is also recognized internationally thanks to the scientific programs carried out there, in particular with the University of Antwerp. But it is not only this last partnership which gives the reserve a slight accent of our regions. Welgevonden also has a Belgian family among the lodge owners. At 58, Didier Eeman could have quietly ended his career as director of a Belfius agency in Aalst. But his regular visits to his son Simon, ranger then lodge manager with his Italian wife Giulia, convinced him to settle down in Africa for good. Their research led them to Welgevonden where a 500 ha property with a dingy lodge was for sale. To make their dream come true, the future ex-banker did not want to call on the banks, nor the fools, family and friends. Just a fool, Didier, who collected his savings and what Simon and Giulia could bring. Then began, not without difficulty, the renovation of what was to become the Laluka Safari Lodge (laluka, Zulu word meaning “to grow in wisdom”). “I had to throw out my first business plan, confides Didier Eeman. We are in the bush and the cost of the work has doubled. Architects and contractors, for example, misjudged the initial state of the lodge and the complexity Then, we changed our plans a bit by deciding to acquire land and a farm located very close to the entrance to Welgevonden, while giving Simon and Giulia the possibility of having their own living space and to start their organic farming project to feed the lodge, buying the farm allowed us to double our rights and increase to 10 rooms, two safari cars and two passenger cars, resulting in a more profitable business model Even if ours is not yet because the covid got involved just when we were going to welcome the first customers.” “We were counting on 80% foreign visitors and 20% locals, adds Didier Eeman. With the lockdown, we only had a market made up of 95% South African customers that all the tourist accommodation in the country was competing for. big promotions. We had to cut our prices in half…” While continuing to pay a double fee each month to the reserve, which still represents 15% of Laluka’s operating budget. From the outset of the project, the Laluka Family, as the Belgian-Italian trio call themselves, wanted to create accommodation that was certainly five-star, but above all to have the lightest possible imprint on the surrounding nature. This is reflected in the materials chosen for the renovation of the lodge, its decoration, its water management and the banishment of single-use plastic. But also in what is served at the guest table. Vegetables, meat, aromatic herbs, etc. come mainly from Simon and Giulia’s farm. This activity has developed to such an extent that the farm already supplies seven other lodges. But at the Laluka Safari Lodge, as in the neighboring accommodations, the highlight of the stay is undoubtedly the game drive, which is included in the accommodation. Twice a day, before sunrise and in the afternoon, the rangers belonging to the staff of the lodge take you to the heart of the reserve. Aboard the 4×4, the ride of a few hours each time reserves its share of beautiful surprises, including the big five (lion, buffalo, elephant, leopard and rhinoceros) but these wildlife experts also seize every opportunity to explain to you why. the cemetery of the elephants is a myth, to which beast belongs such footprint or the spiritual virtues of the buffalo thorn, the sacred tree of the Zulus. The Laluka rangers also offer walks in the bush. And there, we are no longer laughing: we must follow the instructions to the letter, in particular those of Brian who, that day, led the march with his “walking stick” (a rifle with cartridges of an impressive caliber). Do not wear flashy colors; to be silent, to step aside or to stop short at his sign; follow each other in single file in front of Christian (who was in the rear with a knife in his belt, just in case)… And above all, don’t run! But the experience is worth it to smell the scents of the bush, admire up close this enormous burrow dug the previous night by an aardvark (aardvark) or this “spa” for elephants. At that time, we say to ourselves that Welgevonden really lives up to its name. At the end of the second game drive of the day, when the sky darkens after a flamboyant sunset, when the southern cross and its neighbors take over to animate the celestial vault, all your senses are on alert. And there, it will not be only the growl of a leopard to make you jump. You won’t soon forget the rattle of an impala or the chilling howls of a jackal. Above all, don’t run…

.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published.