Eco and humanitarian tourism are fairly new phenomena in the world of travel, and whether you choose to take a couple of hours out of your vacation to contribute to environmental sustainability, or dedicate an entire trip to working for a charitable cause to improve an impoverished nation, there’s a certain sense of accomplishment that comes with ‘doing your bit’ while globe-trotting. Let alone all them bonus karma points.
If there’s one continent where such contributions are practically mandatory, it’s Africa, where poverty is a major issue, and eco ideas important to some communities that are just starting out in the field of primary production and sustainability. Already on this visit to South Africa, we journalists had the pleasure of helping out with the vaccinating of game animals otherwise at risk of disease. But it is at the Grootbos Private Nature Reserve where genuine eco-friendly contributions can be made.
Grootbos is a 1750-hectare reserve and five-star eco-tourism business that specialises in the terrestrial and marine biodiversity of the Cape region of South Africa. The Cape floral kingdom itself is home to some 9000 species of plants, 69% of which are indigenous to the region. As part of the a Future Trees Project, travellers are offered the opportunity to plant their very own tree. In 2006, a devastating fire damaged the ancient Milkwood forests of the area, and the foundation’s primary aim is to restore this rich, natural life-source.
A guide or one of the foundation’s staff will accompany you to physically plant your own tree in a suitable position of your choice; take a GPS reading of its coordinates; then note these on a certificate for you to keep. Then, thanks to Google Earth, you can keep an eye on your tree’s growth years down the line, and feel good about restoring forestry abroad.
Helping locals do their bit for sustainability, Grootbos runs a Green Futures Horticulture & Life Skills College: a year-long practical training program for local unemployed people in the fields of landscaping and horticulture. There is also the Growing The Futures Project: a practical training program for unemployed women that equips them with necessary skills and practise in small-scale farming. With a grassroots domino effect, these people can then go and plant trees and farm animals in their own smaller villages.
We were fortunate enough to be given a tour of the very college where locals are taught the above skills. It’s like a village itself, complete with pigs, chickens, and other birds, and row upon row of vegetation. Here, the proof really is in the pudding, and you can witness primary production in positive progress.
Green ethos aside, Grootbos doesn’t sacrifice the glamour aspect of travel. The reserve itself sits amid some amazingly beautiful bushveld and flora, on fynbos-clad hills that overlook the whale-watching haven that is Walker Bay. Luxury designed lodges and an exclusive villa offer breathtaking views of the Atlantic Ocean, ancient forests and one of the world’s most spectacular sunsets.
The Garden Lodge, for example, is paired back in design – made of stone, thatch and fine timber – but abundant in comfort. A queen-size canopy bed overlooks majestic mountains as a backdrop to sweeping fynbos forestry. Separate lounge complete with fireplace complements the cosy setting, while a spacious en-suite bathroom invites you to soothe a hard day’s trekking away with a rose-petal bath.
Dining here is a decadent experience with a menu that boasts old-school dishes with a modern twist. A lot of the produce is sourced from the aforementioned Growing The Futures project and you can taste the organic nature and freshness of every mouthful. With dinner included in the Grootbos overnight rate, you can enjoy an entrée of something like Poached Prawn with Avocado Salsa and Red Pepper Coulis, followed by a main of Smoked Beef Fillet, Cider Fondant and Tomato Relish (pictured). And you’d be mad to go past dessert, a menu of which includes the delicious-sounding Vanilla & Caramel Compilation.
During the day, there’s plenty of activity in the surrounding area, to keep you occupied. You can enjoy anything from a ‘flower safari’ to discover some glorious flora and birdlife. Or you can go whale-watching off the rocks in De Kelders, via boat, or by plane flying over Walker Bay. No prior arrangement or bookings need to be made as these activities are all part of the Grootbos experience.
For a risqué adventure, our group decided to go shark cage diving. A company called Marine Dynamics offers shark viewing and cage diving activities on an impressive two-deck, 11-metre catamaran, allowing for closeup footage of Great Whites and other incredible marine mammals. I must admit, when I was first being manoeuvred down in a cage, with six others, all of us dressed in wetsuits and looking seals for prey, I panicked. But by my second go, and immersing in the water with just two others – hence more room to move – the claustrophobia subsided and I found it to be an adrenaline-pumping experience. To see those sharks come so close to you is a thrill. The crew onboard consists of experienced skippers, friendly guides, and even a camera guy who’ll take footage of your experience for you to keep for posterity on DVD.
After a day of activity, it’s great to get back to the lodge and lounge by the people. And if you’re fortunate enough to have booked your own villa, a dip in the warm outside pool at night is magical. All up, if you’re looking for a holiday adventure in a place that’s doing some good for the environment and its local people, while never sacrificing luxury, Grootbos Nature Reserve should be at the top of your wish list.
Grootbos Nature Reserve nightly rates start at 1650 rand twin-share (around AUD$275) and include accommodation in a freestanding luxury suite, welcome drinks on arrival, fresh fruit daily in your suite, breakfast buffet, light lunch, five-course dinner and activities such as horse-riding and guided walks. Now that’s great value; great of course being ‘groot’ in Afrikaans. For more information, visit www.grootbos.com.
Shark cage dives with Marine Dynamics start at 1350 rand per person (around AUD$225). For more information visit www.sharkwatchsa.com.