“Welcome! Just give your car keys to Jabu, he will park the car and take care of your luggage”. These were the first words we heard as we pulled up outside Sabi Sabi Earth Lodge in the renowned Sabi Sands private game reserve. I had to pinch myself! Honestly, I only though this happened to celebrities at larny New York establishments. As we walked into the reception area, an amazing minimalistic space where you can’t tell where the building ends and nature begins, we were handed refreshingly cool towels to wipe the road-dust off our faces and an ice-cold drink. I declared then and there that I had probably died and gone to heaven.
Sabi Sabi Earth Lodge symbolises a new era in African safari lodges; an understated yet sumptuous luxury lodge that exists in symbiosis with the surrounding bushveld. Nature is allowed to play the leading role with sights, smells and sounds entering into the space through open structures. The art and stylish décor is made from natural material, where their original shape has been allowed to dictate the direction of the artists. The service is professional to the fingertips without being austere. In fact, most of the staff hugged me as I was about to leave after my 3-day indulgence; now can you imagine ever seeing that at a larny New York establishment?
Some of you may wonder what this luxury has to do with responsible tourism? I have met many an eco-warrior who thinks that the two are on opposing sides of good, and some even go as far as branding luxury consumption as downright evil. But I beg to differ! Hear me out about what Sabi Sabi is doing, not just for the environment but also for their staff and the surrounding communities before you cast your judgment.
Sabi Sabi’s aim is to manage their vast tracts of pristine bushveld in an ecologically sound manner. This includes alien eradication, sustainable fire management and a wetlands management project that has won them an Imvelo Award for Best Practice in Conservation. Sabi Sabi’s environmental management system is a holistic one, where the ecological needs are balanced with the needs of people and their communities.
Sabi Sabi is one of the biggest employers in the Sabi Sands area, and over 85% of their 200 staff members come from the nearby communities. With a dependency ratio of 1:7, this means that Sabi Sabi supports around 1,200 people. The fact that many of their staff members have been working here for over 20 years, and call themselves family, should indicate that they are also a good employer. Many middle and senior managers at the lodge have started their careers in entry-level jobs such a gardening and housekeeping, and have been given ample assistance to develop their potential and achieve their goals.
Take Lawrence Mkansi as a shining example: he started as a waiter in 1995, straight after Matric, and is now the Group Head Ranger and Assistant Lodge Manager. He told me: “I always wanted to be a ranger but it is difficult if you do not have money to do so. I showed a lot of interest in this particular field and the company recognised this and through time helped me to become a ranger not only by teaching me the skills to do so, but also by paying for all of the courses I had to attend”.
Sabi Sabi supports projects in the local communities ranging from education (child and adult), healthcare, sport, culture and conservation. Through their Community Tour, developed and run by former employee Shadrack Sihlangu, they give their guests an insight into daily life in the area. All proceeds from the tour go directly back to the communities through salaries, fees for performances and contribution to various projects.
As the sun was setting over the bushveld, I sat under the stars in the gentle glow from hundreds of paraffin lamps hung in the trees around the tables, carefully laid with white linen cloth and silver cutlery, and felt utterly and totally fulfilled. I had experienced 5-star hospitality and had the most amazing wildlife encounters, and all the while mine very being there was contributing to the livelihoods of thousands of people, and conservation of one of the last pieces of wilderness left in Africa. Responsible tourism and luxury can go hand-in-hand. In fact, I would go as far as saying that luxury lodges can have a far wider and deeper impact on conservation and communities than many small-scale budget establishments can. It’s simple math’s really: the staff to guest ratio is much higher at luxury establishments (leading to more employment opportunities) and bigger budgets allow for bigger projects. So don’t feel guilty for spoiling yourself rotten once in a while, if that is what you want. Just make sure you chose an establishment with a genuine and transparent way of giving back.
Sabi Sabi provide ample information about their conservation ad community projects on their website, and also have a third-party approval of their responsible tourism practices through Fair Trade Tourism.
Words and Pictures: Katarina Mancama