The Royal Madikwe is a small but exclusive game lodge set in arid bush land just an hour’s flight from Johannesburg but a million miles away in terms of life style. Three times winner of the World Luxury Hotels award in the game lodge category, they cater to just twelve guests at a time, offering individual attention that is hard to rival even in the competitive luxury safari market that is now one of South Africa’s major tourist draw cards, all this, after being shunned by the world for decades, due to its apartheid stance.
Naturally tourists visiting southern Africa associate that part of the world with big game and the safari industry has done a great deal to promote the image of the new South Africa to those living outside the country. Places like Royal Madikwe are able to appeal to an elite tourist niche attracted by the big five and all that the African bush has to offer but a clientele like that carries with it, expectations of luxury that are difficult to live up to. To make life more complicated, the owners of the Royal Madikwe were determined to use the lodge to help uplift the local community in ways that were essential to Nelson Mandela’s vision of South Africa. There was to be no quick importation of a chef from France or a Maitre d’ from Switzerland. The management team made a decision that they were going to hire locally, not just from within the country’s borders but from the small village neighboring the reserve.
Head of marketing for the lodge, Chantelle Tereblanche, is keen to point out that all the workers from cleaners to safari guides for the Royal Madikwe have been recruited and trained from within the local community. Management is keen to promote close and open relationships and staff and management eat together at least once a week. When the lodge is not full the staff is taken into the reserve on safaris of their own to gain a deeper understanding of the wildlife that the clients come from far and wide to enjoy. Their staff is encouraged to develop their skills and is assisted with training programs if they wish to go further in either the safari or catering side of the industry. In addition the lodge funds several community events in the village including football matches. At the moment they are awaiting delivery of a vehicle that will enable them to provide excursions into the reserve for children from the village school and expose these less privileged youngsters to the animals and fauna that they may not otherwise have discovered even though they live right alongside a reserve so rich in these resources. The owners have committed themselves to investing twenty percent of the profits into local community projects so that visitors to the lodge are helping locals simply by enjoying a safari.
The Royal Madikwe has taken a slightly different approach to that of many other game lodges. Of course the main attraction will always be the game, the big five, the wild dogs and the cheetah but they have deliberately aimed at the family market and so are particularly child friendly where most safaris tend to be more adult affairs. Whilst children are welcome they are not encouraged to stay glued to the television screen or a games consol. Instead they are offered a variety of not quite so “every day” activities such as tracking, conservation awareness or survival skills. A small lodge such as this one is also able to offer game drives for individual families tailored to times that best suit their individual needs.
The game reserve is a brave new concept in nature conservation, combining private sector, the state and local communities. The 75,000 hectare park is now South Africa’s fifth largest reserve offering numerous options in terms of accommodation, ranging from bush camps to the top end luxury such as that offered by the Royal Madikwe. Although visitors talk in glowing terms of the tasteful rooms with their private viewing decks and plunge pools and mention is always made of the fine food, it is the waterhole that draws the most compliments. There is something very special about sitting in your own private space, quietly sipping from a glass of wine whilst watching wild animals go about the business of taking their drink with total disregard to your presence.
South Africa still has many hurdles to cross before it can truly say it has overcome its past. It is a nation with many problems some of which boil up to make the press from time to time but it is a nation that slowly, sometimes clumsily, is moving toward a better future. The big racial debate that continued to rage for years after the end of apartheid has now moved on only to be replaced by debate about the rich poor divide. That is a problem that needs addressing but it is not a problem exclusive to South Africa as people in even the richest countries are now beginning to discover. Although the legacy of the apartheid years is still fresh in the South African psyche one needs to remember that many of the nations who so loudly condemned that policy had policies of their own that were not that dissimilar in the not too distant past. This is a country that is very aware of the problems it bears but it is also a country where many people, like those at the Royal Madikwe, are doing something to address them for the future and that is where hope lies.