How one family-owned private game reserve in South Africa competes in a market already awash with choices by being ethical, sustainable and community minded.
‘Tourism is conservation,’ insists Jacques Smit, Marketing Director of Sabi Sabi, one of southern Africa’s most popular game reserves. If it sounds like a simple foundation stone upon which to build a successful business, it’s far from it. It has taken the Loon family, which owns Sabi Sabi, 40 years to build it into a viable business, given that in recent years Africa has capitalised on the growing popularity of safaris.
It’s a congested market and tourists’ need to identify the right safari has thrown up a glut of high-end experts to navigate through the bewildering and often overwhelming choices between game reserves, national parks or concessions. Rural South Africa is rich in natural beauty and low on population so it has built an international reputation for having some of the most untouched wilderness in the world. The issue is how to choose between all the game reserves, many that have sprung up recently, in the southern part of the continent.
The name Sabi Sabi derives from the word ‘tsave’, meaning fear or danger in the Tsonga dialect. This stems from the large numbers of crocodile and hippo in the Sabie River. Sabi Sabi is ecologically and geographically integrated with Kruger National Park and situated within Sabi Sand Wildtuin, one of the oldest and largest private reserves in Africa. The diverse and pristine habitat is home to wildlife including the mandatory ‘Big Five’ for healthy tourism – lion, leopard, rhino, buffalo and elephant – as well as cheetah, wild dog and some 200 other indigenous species. It’s also home to 350 species of birds.
Prince Alfonso of Hohenlohe- Langenburg, who founded the iconic Marbella Club in Spain in the 1950s, once described luxury as ‘privacy in a garden’. Though he coined the phrase over 50 years ago, it’s refreshingly apt today as luxury becomes less about accumulating objects and more about experiencing nature with a clear conscience and finding room to breathe. Surrounded by 6,500 hectares of game reserve, Sabi Sabi is arguably the ultimate luxury offering. It comprises four lodges, each with its own unique design and feel: Earth Lodge, Selati Camp, Bush Lodge and Little Bush Camp, which are all members of the National Geographic Unique Lodges of the World programme. The lodges are audited every year to ensure their ongoing commitment to sustainability. All are unfenced, meaning the wildlife are left free to roam. Nevertheless, there are plenty of other game reserves in southern Africa that boast plentiful wildlife and beautiful lodges.
So what is Sabi Sabi’s USP? It’s a question Jacques Smit relishes answering. ‘What makes Sabi Sabi really different and what I really respected about it from the start is the quality of the guiding,’ he says. ‘It’s nice and slow – there’s no rushing around from sighting to sighting
or ticking off the Big Five.’
I am talking to Jacques in the sleek, marbled lobby of a Mayfair hotel in London into which he brings an outdoor energy, suggesting sun, colour and wide-open spaces. The muted, monochrome elegance that surrounds us feels a constrained setting for Jacques’ vivacious accounts of the African bush. He clearly enjoys his job and believes Sabi Sabi’s success is underpinned by the stability that is only ever achieved when a business is owned, managed and staffed by people who, like him, love what they do. ‘I’m a terrible salesman,’ he laughs,‘but if I believe in something, then I love talking about it. And I’m passionate about Sabi Sabi.’ He tells me respect for the animals and concern for the environment is at the core of Sabi Sabi’s ethos and he is adamant about how the guided safaris are run at Sabi Sabi. ‘We only ever have about 22 vehicles out at any one time over a big area and we never have more than three at a sighting,’ he says. ‘If we’re watching elephant or rhino, we only allow two vehicles and when there are cubs, we’ll only bring in one – and then only when the guides are certain the mothers and cubs are comfortable. Animals never associate our vehicles with stress or fear and people comment on how relaxed the animals look.
The animals are still very wild but there’s mutual respect. We never forget, although we might own and manage the land, we don’t own the animals.’ Jacques has now been with Sabi Sabi for 12 years. He was born and raised in Stellenbosch. His father was a refrigeration engineer dealing in deciduous fruit exports and his mother took on small tourism ventures. Jacques started studying Sport Science at Stellenbosch University in the hope of becoming a psychologist with the Springboks. In 1996 he took a holiday to join his brother in Zimbabwe. It was a trip that changed his life. ‘My brother was a safari guide and as soon as I went on safari with him I knew I’d found exactly what I wanted to do.’
Jacques began working in Zimbabwe and then later moved to Australia to promote Africa as a tourism destination. He explains how this came naturally to him because he was so passionate about it and had a good grasp and knowledge of geography. ‘I had a pretty good idea of which lodges were good and I was very persuasive,’ he says. ‘People worried about safety in Africa at that time but I was confident about insisting it was a safe place.’
In 2006 Jacques went back home to South Africa. ‘I started feeling South Africa was moving forward without me and wanted to be part of it,’ he says. He started working for Sabi Sabi, inspired by the fact that it was still in the hands of Hilton and Jacqui Loon, who had bought it in 1979. Hilton was in finance and Jacqui was a designer and artist. ‘I still get goose bumps talking about this,’ says Jacques, ‘but conservation is really all about conserving what you have for the next generation. I’ve watched the Loons build Sabi Sabi up and then hand it on to their two sons.
When they took it on as a small concern in 1979 their philosophy was, ‘This is our home in the bush – open to guests from all over the world,’ and it remains that way. The staff feel at home, too, and have been with them for 30 or 35 years. By the time guests leave, they feel they’re really part of the family. I hugely admire what they’ve achieved.’
Rael Loon was just seven when his parents bought Sabi Sabi. He’s a successful writer and has recently published a book on Sabi Sabi. The older son, Mark, runs a private school in Johannesburg. Both are now part of Sabi Sabi’s management structure while their parents step back more and more to go travelling. ‘So much has happened,’ laughs Jacques. ‘When I arrived, the Loons had only just bought Little Bush Camp. Ten years down the line in 2016 we closed it down and refurbished it starting all over again. All four lodges have had big facelifts recently but the design philosophy remains the same.’ The lodges are inspired by Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow. Jacques explains, ‘Little Bush and Earth Lodge are about tomorrow because they’re so eco and have the kind of back-to-basics ethos that’s very forward looking. Selati Camp is classic and beautifully furnished with yesterday’s antiques while Bush Lodge is spacious, thatched, great for kids and firmly rooted in the present.’
Earth Lodge is sculpted into a slope of earth and almost invisible in the landscape. It has 13 suites with a private plunge pool and butler service. Little Bush lies under trees on the bank of the Msuthlu River and has six thatched suites, decorated in contemporary African design, with private viewing decks overlooking the riverbed. Selati Camp is named after the abandoned railroad that runs through the eastern section of Sabi Sabi and its eight thatched suites, decorated with railway memorabilia from the 1900s and vintage finds, are redolent of colonial opulence.
Bush Lodge is the biggest component of Sabi Sabi, comprising 25 air-conditioned thatched suites with huge viewing decks overlooking the plain and waterhole. It’s also home to the Elefun Centre, a kids’ club where children learn about crafts, tracking, map-reading and bushveld games. Nelson Mandela visited Bush Lodge in 1999 and during his safari with the operations manager of that time, he had a stand-off with an elephant. Photographs of that visit hang in the lodge to this day. Luxury seems a curiously inappropriate subject to move onto during a conversation about wild animals, the environment and one of the twentieth century’s most significant historical figures.
Jacques, however, is delighted to discuss it. ‘It goes without saying that we have the best of the best,’ he starts and then lists all Sabi Sabi’s luxury attributes – the unerring eye for detail in the décor throughout, the Amani Spas, the beautifully serene meditation garden, the secluded library, the recently renovated Lourenco Marques
Honeymoon Suite at Selati Camp, the above-and-beyond facilities for children, the cellar containing 6,000 bottles of rare wine and of course the exquisite food and the themed dinners (Under African Skies, Elegant Indulgence and Starlight Bush Dinner). ‘Of course, luxury is crucial but at the end of the day people come for the safari and our three main achievements are that our habitat is superbly managed, the animals respected and our guides are sensitive and able to interpret the animals. Beyond that guests like to feel they’re part of something. That’s what we offer and why guests come back again and again. They make lifelong friendships with staff. A couple who came here on honeymoon 20 years ago will come back with their kids and go out on safari with the same ranger. Another woman who was here last week had been here in the 1980s with her husband. Her husband had since passed away and she chose to come back to Sabi Sabi to feel close to him again. It’s the sense of belonging and being part of a family guests really love.
‘Ultimately what people really want is a life-changing experience,’ Jacques continues. ‘It’s taking people out of their comfort zones and into an area where they’re learning and contributing to its upkeep. Sabi Sabi does so much for the community – and for the right reasons. It isn’t just window dressing, it’s conservation and community really working together. People arrive all hyped up but on day two when they see clearly that what we’re doing benefits the earth and the communities around us, they surrender and start to relax. Also, you don’t need to see a wallet for days – everything’s taken care of so it’s like being at home. People start to let go. People cry when they see an elephant and I’ve seen overworked and stressed parents really reconnecting with their kids and relearning how to play with them. I’ve seen millionaires buy a book on birds and treasure it. A luxury safari is finding out that your five-year-old knows much more about the bush than you do.’
By the time our conversation draws to a close, I want to go to Sabi Sabi. Jacques’ powers of persuasion lie not in any carefully chosen words but in his certainty that Sabi Sabi is doing the right thing, meaning guests can abandon themselves with a clear conscience to all it has to offer. Ask Jacques to define luxury in a sentence and he answers without hesitation, ‘an experience you can’t buy or put a price on.’ As brands increasingly scrabble to seek out that elusive ‘experiential’ luxury for their consumers, Sabi Sabi has mastered it already and is confident about its future as an ethical trendsetter, putting sustainability and respect for nature at the heart of its offering. As Jacques says, ‘tourism is conservation.’