Johannesburg - Travel west from Bela Bela (the old Warmbaths) and you pass them one after the other: Shingwedzi, Mabalingwe, Engweni, Matholo, Ngululu, Zebula, Mabula and many more. About 40 of them in that part of the Waterberg.
Half of them are struggling, and half of those have crashed and burnt. Bank owned. Times are tough, terribly tough.
In boom times, before 2008’s global crisis, turning a cattle farm into a tourist attraction with wild game and upmarket chalets overlooking a swimming pool seemed a good way to make cash. The weather was good and the World Cup 2010 was coming.
There hasn’t been a drought, so the game are doing fine, thank you, but tourists are staying away in droves. Giraffe, elephants and warthogs line the road begging for tourists, and Zimbabweans selling the ironwood sculptures are turning to look back wistfully to Harare in their hopelessness.
Yet some reserves not only survive; they thrive. Mabula and Zebula are among them. Zebula, with its golf course and big mining connections, does very well.
So why Mabula?
This 12 000-hectare resort (about a fifth of the Pilanesberg’s size) was virtually full over Easter and the Gauteng July holidays, and can cram in 1 000 people when packed.
“Balance,” says genial general manager Hennie Nel. “And we saw the Far East was our market about five years ago. We are also a well-established brand. And our investors keep investing and keep reinventing the place.”
As a first-time visitor, I’d have to add good service, excellent maintenance, a can-do attitude from staff, good wildlife conservation and a deliberate focus on helping birdlife.
Probably high up as a survival mechanism is its proximity to Joburg (two-and-a-half hours) and Pretoria (an hour) on good roads.
It is a peculiar mixture, Mabula. As readers will note, there are many things Mabula does right. Many “ands” make Mabula work. And they do do many things.
There is a spa. There are a lot of swimming pools. There is a children’s games room (where I spent much time playing table tennis on Wii). There are tennis courts, and the reception gives you racquets for free, a nice touch. There is a reptile enclosure with big and small and deadly snakes, plus four crocodiles.
There is a Ground Hornbill Project, where two wonderful women hand-rear the threatened species, write up scientific studies on hornbills’ genetic code, examine every aspect of hornbill life and breeding, before feeding the birds and feeding their data into the scientific grid.
This is a story in itself, as Ground Hornbills live about as long as we do, breed about as much as we do, but are millions of years older than homo sapiens.
There is infanticide, rivalry, social ostracisation, orphans, adoptions, kidnappings – all the drama of a soapie at the Ground Hornbill artificial nest.
Then there is the reserve’s wild game, on the surface much the same as other reserves. But Mabula has a lion part of the reserve, 2 000ha kept separate, where the lions are wild and hunt their own food, and you consider yourself lucky to see them. It’s different from other places.
Another thing: Mabula has never lost a rhino to poaching. For good reason: when it’s full Mabula has 20 to 25 game vehicles traversing the place, not too many to disturb guests but too many for poachers to earn an indecent living.
I took two boys with me aged eight and 12, both veterans of Kruger and several other reserves. Were child labour not illegal, they would be my paid family travel consultants, so highly critical are they. The hot chocolate was too hot, the games room not open late enough at night. Other than that, not a criticism to be had.
Another peculiar thing about Mabula is the reservation system. At the lodge all bookings include all game drives, breakfast, lunch and dinner.
Food is good, venison is on the menu at every meal, yet nothing is shot in the reserve. It comes from a Bela Bela butchery. The large buffet choice at lunch and dinner includes fish, steak, curry, special Indian menu items, vegetarian, big salad bar – a three- to four-star buffet.
Another “balance” in play is the timeshare component, with Mabula’s 77 units carrying among the highest timeshare levies in the country – but everyone I asked seemed happy with their timeshare, as the levy includes “Mabula points”, which entitle you, for instance, to 24 game drives with one week’s timeshare in a two-bedroom chalet.
Oh, one other criticism from the children is that there are no self-drives, which in theory makes bird watching more difficult. But then Mabula dedicates a vehicle to birding almost every day, which helps sort out that niggle.
There’s a little shop, a bar, restaurant, game walks, reptile shows, Ground Hornbill visits, bush picnics, dinner in the boma, and the mandatory local dance troupe, which foreigners seem to enjoy.
And there are many, many foreigners. Not the usual Germans, French and Americans, but Chinese and Indians by the busload, with a sprinkling of other Far Eastern people from Singapore, Malaysia or Korea. No doubt the Russians will be next, then the Brazilians… Brics at work.
The place is owned by India’s Kingfisher Group, who are not shy to spend money on new vehicles, ideas or technology.
We identified 59 birds, alphabetically from African Darter to Yellow-fronted Canary on the Sasol iPhone app. We saw Meyer’s Parrot, a Pearl-spotted Owlet, striking Crimson-breasted Shrike, a Spoonbill, Bearded Woodpecker and a Lizard Buzzard, among others.
In two days we saw great sightings of a caracal licking itself nonchalantly in the sun for five minutes, about 10 rhinos, including two with babies, three lions, buffalo, warthog families, wildebeest, hippos, several eland herds (my favourite antelope), steenbok, impala, red hartebeest, blesbok and waterbuck.
Missed the elephants – not too sorry about that, as they are remnants of a Kruger cull. The matriarch killed another mother’s baby last year, possibly out of jealousy or just spite, nobody really knows why and she ain’t giving interviews.
Mabula is busy going green, Nel says, with all waste separated on site and again at the dump before being taken for recycling. Electricity-saving measures are being put in place, but solar is still a while away, and it probably doesn’t blend in well with the thatch anyway.
An interesting observation is that Chinese guests eat everything they are offered, but Indian guests want the food not only from India but from their own region, north or south.
“So we ask guests before they arrive what cuisine they prefer,” says La Rochell van der Heever, the reservations manager. And then? She giggles. “Then we give them what they want, of course,” as if it was that obvious. Somehow at Mabula it is obvious. Guests are treated as if they were a king or a mandarin or a maharajah.
I needed new batteries for my camera – they were supplied. The boys wanted a horse ride – it happened. Internet please? You got it! I even reluctantly succumbed to a full-body massage, at Van der Heever’s insistence, and loved it.
I prefer snakes to spas but the Mabula Spa is professional, delight-ful, has cheerful staff and such a relaxing atmosphere I fell asleep during the massage.
“Balance,” says Nel. I think he is right: a balance of hotel lodge and timeshare, of day visitors and overnight stays, of game drives, birders, pools, games room, horses, snakes, Hornbills, stargazing, balloon safaris – just everything.
Mabula has created an extraordinary mixture, given it great balance, worked hard at the essentials, and it is paying off.
Good for them, and let us hope what they have created helps show the way for other struggling lodges to survive.