Babanango Game Reserve is a beautiful conservation story in the heart of rural KwaZulu-Natal in South Africa. This malaria-free game reserve, which will soon be home to the Big Five, is one of the country's newest reserves and is set on the White Umfolozi River.
Encompassing mistbelt grasslands, thornveld and river frontage, the Babanango Game Reserve is a bush lover's paradise. It harbours abundant game species including giraffe, hyena and zebra and even the elusive aardwolf and aardvark. Rhinos and buffaloes have recently been introduced to the reserve, with the remainder of the Big Five being introduced over the next two years.
The Reserve is the first project to be developed by conservation management company African Habitat Conservancy (AHC), which is headed by German philanthropist Hellmuth Weisser. Under the operational leadership of conservation and safari expert Jeffrey van Staden, AHC focuses on game reserve conservation, the rehabilitation of endemic fauna and flora and the upliftment of local communities.
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So far, AHC has invested $22 million in the reserve, with a further $11 million still anticipated over the next two years. This investment has seen the construction of new infrastructure such as the reserve fence and tourism facilities on the 85-square-mile reserve.
Babanango is a poster child for the South African spirit of ubuntu (an African philosophy that places emphasis on "being self through others." It is a form of humanism which can be expressed in the phrases "I am because of who we all are" or ubuntu ngumuntu ngabantu in Zulu.) Private game farms and land owned by the communities has been brought together to form the reserve, with hundreds of local people benefitting through employment, skills development and community outreach programs.
A room at the Babanango Valley Lodge.
The reserve manager for Babanango, Musa Mbatha, grew up in the communities that surround this game reserve in the making.
"I was born and raised here and fell in love with this area and the African wilderness as a small boy," he said. "I went into the conservation industry in 1998, starting out as a security guard and working hard to get my Field Guides' Association of Southern Africa guide's qualifications in 1999 and then studying for a diploma in wildlife management, which I completed in 2005.
"When I heard that Babanango Game Reserve was being created, I was very keen to be involved," Musa said. "I was amazed that this place where I grew up, which I always daydreamed of being filled with wildlife again, was slowly being transformed into a game reserve and [felt] privileged to be part of that process.
"It's a fulfilment of a long-held dream to be working here, building a game reserve to protect wildlife and at the same time developing neighbouring communities through employment and helping them start their own small businesses," he said. "The game reserve cannot afford to employ everyone, but by encouraging entrepreneurs we can reach more people and change more lives."
Musa added that Babanango has already employed more than 120 locals. He said that means that "more than 1,000 people are being supported by the jobs we have provided here, which is a wonderful achievement."
The Babanango Game Reserve is currently home to three lodges: Zulu Rock Lodge, Babanango Valley Lodge and Matatane Camp. Each lodge has distinct offerings, activities and facilities.
The four-star Babanango Valley Lodge is a great option for the luxury traveler. Overlooking the picturesque Nsubeni River valley with its granite koppies, sandstone cliffs and quartzite ridges stretching into the far distance, the lodge features nine spacious suites. Two rooms have connecting doors to create a comfortable four-bed family unit. The generous honeymoon suite, slightly separate from the lodge, offers the perfect retreat for newly married couples or those looking to indulge in a little alone time.
Situated atop a mountainside on the outer reaches the reserve and overlooking the White Umfolozi Valley, the three-star Zulu Rock Lodge offers an immersive bush experience. The lodge features seven units. Set back from the hillside, the family unit sleeps four people and features a pool and lapa (a roofed outdoor structure) with space for children to play. The lodge's honeymoon suite also has its own pool and private deck.
Finally, the Matatane Camp is geared toward the budget traveler. Matatane accommodations includes two tented villages sleeping six per tent.
The reserve offers a vast range of activities. For the adventurous, there's hiking, game-viewing, birding and mountain biking. Very soon the reserve's Activity Centre will offer high-octane abseiling, zip-lining and rock-jumping. Babanango also features a large diversity of animals, birds, trees and wildflowers to discover, and it contains more than 18 miles of self-guided trails. Morning and evening nature drives are conducted daily while guests can also join guided bird walks.