Amakhala Game Reserve, set in the Eastern Cape, fell victim to rhino poaching early in what has now become a full blown epidemic for South Africa. The first attack happened one night in late 2010, when two of Amakhala’s white rhinos were lost to poaching. Chippy was a healthy breeding bull and Isipho a younger bull with a bright future for its species, two lives cut short unnecessarily that night.
The second poaching incident was only a few months later and involved Geza, the first born rhino bull from Amakhala that was later sold to establish a new breeding nucleus at a neighbouring reserve. Geza was brutally attacked. He had both his horns hacked off and was later found staggering around still alive! Amakhala’s wildlife vet, Dr William Fowlds, was called out to help and recorded this horrific account in ‘Poached’, a gut wrenching story that still brings me to my knees in floods of tears.
That morning, Dr Fowlds assessed Geza’s injuries and condition and knew there was no way he could save the poor rhino’s life. Together with the owner of the reserve, they made the grim, but crucial decision to record Geza’s suffering on camera for the world to see. This did however mean extending Geza’s pain and agony, while waiting for the cameraman to make his way to the reserve. Hence, it was not only an inconceivably tough decision, but also one that was ethically contentious. I can only start to imagine the pungent and lasting impact this shocking event had on everybody involved. For Dr Fowlds it was enough to commit his life to the survival of rhinos.
Why am I recalling this story? Because this is the kind of commitment and attitude that makes Amakhala special to me. The Eastern Cape is well-known for malaria free, Big 5 private game reserves and many offer very similar good quality safari experiences. However, it is the passion for conservation that sets Amakhala apart. The commitment of the original farmers to give their sheep and cattle farms back to conservation. The commitment to actively restore its flora, create more natural habitats, and re-introduce wildlife that had once roamed the 7,500 ha of Zuurveld.
Amakhala took its commitment even further. Two of the lodges on the reserve, Woodbury and Safari Lodge, are Fair Trade in Tourism (FTT) certified. This requires not only investment in conservation and the environment, but also in its people and the surrounding communities, trading fairly across the whole supply chain, and having all you HR ducks in a row. I understand what is involved to achieve FTT certification, which is no mean feat. Respect to both!
Oh yes, I nearly forgot to mention, Amakhala does offer a great safari experience too. It has the Big 5 (lion, leopard, buffalo, elephant and rhino), a good diversity of other wildlife, and an abundance of plain game. Activities include game drives, nature walks, and river cruises all with knowledgeable and passionate guides. The lodges on the reserve offer accommodation geared up for people in different circumstances (including honeymooners, families, and elderly people) and budgets (ranging from 3-5*), but all are small and personalised.
I am not your archetypal morning person, but an early wake-up call, a quick coffee to then freeze your butt off in the crisp morning air on an open safari vehicle is my kind of fun. The thrill never wears to find your first sighting of the day.
Over time, safari has become so much more to me than spotting the obvious though. I like to watch out for the funny, the striking, and the ugly – the gorgeous long eyelashes of the giraffe, the elegance of the cheetah, or the comical lumps on the warthog’s face. I have learned to observe wildlife from many different perspectives and not always from the obvious (frontal) side. Have you ever noticed how beautiful the stripes on a zebra’s bum finish to make space for its tail? I love taking time to sit and watch a herd of elephants around a waterhole interact and communicate with each other, while the babies fool around and get occasionally told off by their older siblings.
Amakhala and their strong ethos remind me that safari is not about large and lavishly decorated rooms and gourmet 5-course dinners. Safari is about being in the bush, being one with nature, and recharging your soul. Above all, safari at Amakhala reinforces my beliefs that we can all do so much more to actively work safeguarding our precious natural resources, as every act, small as it may be, adds to the greater good. Amakhala fills me with renewed energy and hope that enables me to continue my personal conservation journey.
Words: Louise de Waal