Sarah Rodrigues takes us inside the Sabi Sabi Private Game Reserve in South Africa
When it comes to living more sustainably, travel is often a thorny issue. There are those who hold that travel, simply by virtue of its impact on environments, single-use products and CO2 emissions, can never be sustainable. Whilst others believe that it provides one of the soundest ways to inform, educate and inspire us about the issues surrounding the protection of the landscapes we visit.
It’s easy enough to suspect that avid wanderlusters would wave the latter flag simply to justify their own adventures, but there’s a lot of truth in travel’s value.
As well as showing us first hand how magnificent, precious and vulnerable the world is, whole economies and communities depend upon the tourist dollar. When done properly, tourism can help to preserve traditional ways of life while ensuring education, medical care, clean water and decent standards of living. It can raise awareness around – and money for – conservation efforts, as well as encouraging engagement, understanding and tolerance between different people and places.
These concerns are at the heart of a Sabi Sabi Private Game Reserve experience: for over forty years, conservation and sustainability, as well as close encounters with wildlife, have been key to the reserve’s avowed offering.
This is, perhaps, not wildly apparent at first – especially as I’ve flown from London to Johannesburg and then hopped on a short internal flight. In terms of CO2, I’ve used up around half of the sustainable maximum that an individual should emit each year. And now I’m in a suite so luxurious and spacious that it makes the average London apartment look even more like a rabbit hutch: meanwhile, more than half of the population of South Africa live below the poverty line.
Cooling off in my private pool at the rear of my lodge, can I really kid myself that this is ‘eco-tourism’ or a ‘sustainable safari’?
If nothing else is immediately apparent, the fact that the animals are incredibly comfortable with the presence of the employees and guests certainly is. As we eat lunch on our first day, we’re joined by a group of mullet-headed warthogs, rooting around on bended front knees. A hippo grunts joyfully in the waterhole located less than a kilometre from my patio. A few minutes into the short drive from the airstrip, we’d pulled over to watch a leopard dozing unconcernedly in the midday sun.
The design of Earth Lodge, one of four in the reserve, is as unobtrusive, from the outside, as it is decadent on the inside. From a distance, it resembles a few mounds of earth, a cluster of termite mounds. Small wonder that animals are so unfazed by it – so much so that guests are not permitted to wander the grounds after dark without a guide: it’s not unheard of to find a pride of lions lounging on the path, or an elephant casually dipping its trunk into your pool.
On each of our twice-daily game drives, we’re accompanied by a field guide and spotter. The astonishing breadth of their knowledge – not only of the animals we see, but of the tracks and scat they leave – plus the vegetation that forms part of their habitat.
Rules about interaction with wildlife are strictly enforced at Sabi Sabi, with restrictions on the number of vehicles that are allowed around a sighting at any one time. There’s a camaraderie and cooperation between rangers, as they radio to alert each other of a spot, but each approaching vehicle hangs back until the one closest to the animal departs.
It’s a far cry from the self-drive experiences elsewhere in Greater Kruger National Park, in which Sabi Sabi is located where, in the absence of guides and restrictions, sometimes as many as forty vehicles surround a big cat and her cub. It’s this kind of stress that’s notably absent here – and something that’s mirrored in the relaxed attitude of the many animals we encounter.
This respect for the landscape and wildlife – without which the safari experience simply can’t exist – is just one aspect of Sabi Sabi’s sustainability efforts.
Sabi Sabi’s philosophy is based on weaving wildlife protection and conservation with sustainable tourism and building local communities.
Resources are directed towards the establishment and maintenance of armed units to patrol the area in the battle against rhino poaching. There is also a determination to conserve vulnerable wildlife area and protect South Africa’s flora and fauna.
Most of the staff we encounter are locals, with a strong system of recognition, reward and promotion – indeed, many staff have been with Sabi Sabi for their entire working lives or are second generation employees. And at all times, we notice a sense of familiarity and family that transcends position or rank. Even seasonal or occasional jobs are outsourced to locals, be it thatching, landscaping or the provision of performance and musical entertainment.
Education is another priority, with investment in bikes, transport, books and equipment for teachers, schools and pupils. There are also outreach initiatives, focusing on pre-schoolers, teacher training, sports activities and a centre for vulnerable youth. In addition, a dedicated Habitat Management team operates all year round, controlling erosion and alien flora, as well as waterhole rotation, controlled burning and waste management.
Quite simply, none of this would be possible without travellers, safari guests and tourist spend – all of which comes with a side order of CO2.
It’s a balancing act that may be more heavily weighted in one direction than another – yet I can’t help but feel that not all emissions are created equal. In 2017, it was reported that the US is the biggest contributor to CO2 in the world. In the same year, it was reported that Americans make less than 0.2 international trips per person each year.
Granted, not every flight to an international destination can be justified on the basis that it’s going to assist local communities and deepen one’s understanding of other places, other people and the magnificence and fragility of our earth – but after just a few short days at Sabi Sabi Private Game Reserve, I’ve come to accept that the one by which I arrived here, was.