BIG 5/GAME DRIVE EXPERIENCE
A place with a soul. That’s what conservation visionary Rob le Sueur was searching for when he serendipitously stumbled on the land that now forms the backbone of Nambiti Private Game Reserve.
But when the reserve was first opened to the public in late 2005, few believed he would be able to pull off such a monumental undertaking.
Not only would it involve consolidating six separate cattle farms into a Big 5 wilderness sanctuary, and populating it with wild animals, but it would also combine the three signature elements that have come to define the Cheetah Ridge Lodge ‘experience’—a bushveld escape second to none, set in an untamed, yet malaria-free, African paradise that was accessible from both Johannesburg and Durban.
Not satisfied with leaving it at that, however, Rob took it one step further – he decided to convert the original, grey-stone manor house on one of the properties into a luxury lodge, where Mother Nature’s bounty could not only be preserved, but enjoyed in luxurious comfort in lodgings sympathetic to the surrounding environment, for generations to come.
And so from such modest beginnings, Cheetah Ridge Lodge was born.
Out of the blue, a friend of his contacted him and said he had seen some land for sale that might be perfect. “I drove up on a Saturday morning; it was midwinter, quite cold, and we rode the area on horseback. Immediately, I could feel that the place had a soul. A place needs a soul to make it work.”
One of Africa’s most exciting conservation initiatives, it took more than seven years to reach fruition at a cost of about R143-million, with the private lodge owners investing more than R246-million.
But in 2000, Nambiti was nothing more than six cattle farms. In the early days of Nambiti the biggest challenge Le Sueur faced was getting potential buyers to visit the site. “Once I got them to Nambiti the place sold itself, but they were busy and the reserve was in Ladysmith, which seemed unlikely.”
His solution was enterprising. He chartered a helicopter, picked up the potential clients from their business premises and flew them the 55 minutes from Durban.
“We would land and while we had breakfast the doors would be taken off the helicopter. We would then fly low-level over the farm, up the gorge and over waterfalls, get back in time for a brunch, put the doors back on and fly home. The guys would say it was the best day of their lives.”
It worked. Today, the 10 independently run lodges, ranging from three-star to five-star, all have full access to the reserve and run at more than 70% occupancy.
Formed from a core nucleus of six farms—of which Woodlands (on which Cheetah Ridge is sited) and Braakfontein constituted the largest—Nambiti was opened to the public in late 2005.
Today, alien vegetation and farm fences have been removed, and with the last of the Big Five introduced in 2007, it’s a conservation and business triumph.
But the effort involved was extraordinary—100km of game fencing had to be erected, conservation research undertaken, stocks of wildlife assembled, and then, out of the blue, having just introduced lion to the area, came a land claim.
For two years the initiative was left hanging, with the potential sale of lodges on the land put on hold. In the end, however, sense prevailed. Instead of fighting the claim, Le Sueur, a passionate conservationist, entered into negotiations with the neighbouring Elandslaagte community, comprising the Zikalala, Mvelase, and Sithole clans who’ve inhabited the land for centuries.
The reserve’s shareholders agreed to sell the land to the community and in 2009, the community took over the ownership of Nambiti. However, instead of turning it back over into farming land, as it was before it was developed into a game reserve, the community opted to keep the reserve fully intact for future generations to enjoy, and benefit from.
In a win-win for both parties, the reserve’s shareholders agreed to lease the land from the local community and enter into a long-term management partnership in exchange for keeping the lodges. The first lodges to open were Elephant Rock, Umzolozolo and Nambiti Hills (originally named Zintulu).
As the park’s custodians, the local community works with Nambiti’s management in running this successful community-owned reserve, and today, with various development and incentive programmes in place, the reserve continues to benefit and enrich 63 families who live on the land adjoining the reserve, while offering guests some of the finest game viewing in Africa and actively making meaningful contributions to conservation.
When King Shaka, founder of the Zulu nation, drank from the Klip River during a visit to the area, he found its water to be sweet compared to the coastal water, describing it as “nambitheka”, meaning “tasty”. Consequently, he named the river “uMnambithi” for its tasty water and today, Ladysmith is called Emnambithi by Zulus.