The African bushveld feels like a vast and never-ending space when you’re in the midst of it, but it’s at these times that you feel the most intimate connection to this natural environment and its inhabitants.
At Rhino River Lodge in Zululand, the small team aims to give each guest that uniquely personal nature high.
“We want them to get an intimate look at nature, so that all of our guests leave with a renewed appreciation of the bush, mindful of the importance of conservation and how it can play a role creating a space where people can relax, and hopefully re-awakening that childlike thrill of seeing a special nature moment – be it as simple as examining an intricate leaf or looking up at the stars, or as complex as negotiating a bush walk round an extremely rate and hugely endangered black rhino,” says manager Shona Lawson.
She’s one of a group of just 15 people who total the workforce at this quaint lodge within the 23,000 hectare Zululand Rhino Reserve. The lodge consists of four luxury en-suite rooms plus there are also two rustic family cottages that can accommodate up to four people.
Reserve manager Dale Airton leads the team with Shona, head ranger Isaac Gumede and support rangers Jenine and Jason take on the wildlife and bushveld challenges. In addition there are 3 trackers who also work on the grounds and 7 ladies who run the kitchen and housekeeping services.
“It has been trading in its current form for 6 years, explains Shona, “and recently moved onto an extremely popular full board (3 meals and 2 game drives) basis. The reserve was formed with the direct intent of rhino conservation and rehabilitation of farmland, and has grown into an excellent example of conservation management where often overlooked elements of the “web of life” such as ox-peckers and tortoise are given as much status as the Big 5.”
She admits poaching is one of the challenges faced in their specific area of tourism but says that the Zululand Rhino Reserve is proud to have a 100 percent success rate in the introduction and preservation of rhino species on the reserve. The exact mechanics of their poaching strategy are, of necessity, a closely-guarded secret.
Shona says it takes a different kind of person to work out in the wild.
“You have to have a mix of two worlds which are quite different. On the one hand you need to be a hospitality people’s person,willing to go the extra mile and place the guests’ needs first. On the other hand, you have to be quite self-sufficient, as you will not have a city social life, and you are working in a small team, quite remote from friends and extended family. Everybody on the team needs to have more than one skill, including maintenance and problem-solving, as well as exceedingly good interpersonal skills.”
With so many awesome adventures and wildlife stories, it’s tough to pick favourites, but Shona says that they all love to hear and see their guests recount their incredible encounters first-hand.
“On their way into reception one guest came round the corner right into what, for them (in a small sedan) felt like a forest of elephant legs, as the breeding herd was crossing that same road! Another time a ranger was pointing out a group of playing lions when the game turned serious and the males pounced and killed a warthog right in front of them.
But the best stories are when you can hear the passion in a guest’s voice as they describe a bird, or antelope, or predator and that particular situation they just witnessed. You know that story is going to be shared at dinner tables across the world for ages to come! We love being a part of each of those moments.”