If you were born in the decades immediately after the Second World War, it’s likely your parents were looking forward to a brave new world where the huge advances made in transport, health, communications and other technologies would create a much better world for us. Unfortunately most of those advances were made at the expense of the natural world. Just about everything with regard to the natural environment has changed for the worse. The human population has skyrocketed from about 2.5 billion to 7 billion. During precisely the same period the world’s lion population has plummeted from some 450,000 to around just 20,000; tigers from 45,000 to 3,000; cheetahs from 50,000 to 12,000, elephants from 1.3 million in 1989 to 600,000 or so now – and all this has happened within our own lifetimes. If we all lived at the material level of the USA we’d need five planets to sustain us, or three if we all lived like Western Europeans. But of course we have only this one, so what is to be done about it, without stirring up that hornets’ nest of denial still so prevalent in people the likes of whom still yearn for the excesses of “the American Dream”? In one sense it is ironic that the only force likely to be able to slow or halt the rape of our natural resources is business, including big business. In Africa that business is tourism, more specifically, the safari business, whose own health is directly affected by the heath of the natural systems and wild animals that it sells to people wanting to get a look at how the world was before we humans stuffed it up so badly elsewhere. Allied to this is the growth of alternative technologies, specifically solar power, which is now within the grasp of just about everyone on the planet
AFRICA. The word is loaded with magic, mystery, symbolism and the imminent sense of adventure. Even for those of us lucky enough to have been born here and who live here, every time we speak of Africa we experience a deep, thrilling sense of the fascination of this truly wild and complex continent. Africa is steeped in symbols, many derived from the time when our ancestors lived in the ancient wilderness – a time when they had lived by their wits and unschooled intelligence, taking from nature only what they needed for food and for protection from the elements. Fortunately, much of sub-Saharan Africa has a mild climate and for the most part what they needed to survive was relatively little and their impact on our natural environment was negligible. In the grasslands they moved with the rains and the herds. In the woodlands, where water and food were more abundant, they stayed for longer. It was a world where they did not want for much. And now it still calls to us, rousing our collective consciousness – this is where we all came from and belong in our deepest beings. It is also a mnemonic – a memory recall device – to remind us of how things were when the earth and all humankind lived in a cyclical balance of seasons and resources. Which is not the same as saying there was not birth, battle, often defeat and death at every turn, for that is the essence of life on our planet.
This is why the wild places of Africa are now so magnetically attractive to us: they show us the world far beyond the paved, hermetically sealed, air-conditioned, sanitised life that is the universe of most urban dwellers today. It is a place where large, wild animals still teem in their multitudes; some will rip us apart and eat us given half a chance. Africa, more than any other place, shows us nature at its rawest – red in tooth and claw.* The strong live to procreate while the weak make food for lions, hyenas, maggots and bacteria.
But Africa is changing fast. Our population is increasing at an unsustainable rate and natural resources are being harvested, exploited and in some places plundered in record quantities. Africa’s wilderness areas and wildlife sanctuaries are being pressurised by human encroachment and the inevitable activities that follow. Most of us want to travel on safari in Africa at least once in our lives, to explore these wild places and to connect with our collective human experience. But how, and where should we go? Africa’s Finest is a gateway to the lodges, camps and resorts that exist primarily to preserve the balance of human impact and nature, and which are best located to show Africa at its wild, primeval best. It is a showcase of places that are run by people with heart and soul, rather than those marching mercenary-like to the “ka-ching” of the tourism cash machine.
The still-vast wild parts of Africa are the last places on Earth where you can still see that tableau we often refer to as the Garden of Eden: a place where wild animals and ancient cultures do in places live in a semblance of balance. This is what the great American politician and adventurer Theodore Roosevelt referred to as Pleistocene Africa – a place little changed since before the last great Ice Age (or the “great flood”). Sad then that some of the iconic and the most “prehistoric” of creatures, such as our elephants, lions and rhinos, in many areas are now hanging on for survival. But heartening that there are safari operators and conservationists working selflessly to protect them and other species, often through the enterprise of ecotourism. It has also been eye-opening for us to uncover the unscrupulous and uncaring practices of those tourism companies who bandy about empty awards and achievements. So it has been with much satisfaction that we are able to recognise and celebrate those who talk the responsible talk and who walk the sustainable walk. It is a road that leads not to the dominion over nature that has left it gasping for survival, but to a stewardship that will, if managed well, ensure the integrity of the remaining wild places far into the future.
We are living in precarious times. Scientists tell us that we have, by means of our own intelligence, shrugged off the bounds of evolution by natural selection. That is an astonishing thought to contemplate, because the consequences for ourselves and our planet are mind-blowing.
The other side of the scenario is that, while we have caused many of our problems, we also have the ability – if not always the will – to reverse the process. That is principally what Africa’s Finest project and book are about. As a group of environmentalists, we care deeply about the natural environment; each member of the Africa’s Finest team is a dedicated nature devotee and most of us are qualified environmental specialists. Tourism often operates at the interface between nature and civilisation. Unmanaged, insensitive tourism has the ability to impact negatively and relentlessly on our environment. Yet if safari tourism is carefully structured and managed, it can become the prime industry that ensures the preservation of the planet’s remaining wildernesses. Our principal aim has been to ferret out the top 50 lodges in Africa that are the catalysts for positive change and to showcase their work. Some of them were located in the most remote, unexpected places, others well-established industry leaders. In doing so our aim was to help set a reliable and measurable benchmark in the safari industry for responsible and sustainable tourism that others will strive to emulate and improve on. Already, during the course of this project, we have seen some make moves in that direction. One important by-product of the Africa’s Finest project is to positively profile like-minded tourism operators in this book and on our website so that they might enjoy wider recognition, and also benefit from better occupancies as a result of their commendable work. A secondary aim of the project is to nudge the environmental fence-sitters into making a move by providing them with the information and motivation needed to lead them into a better, greener future. Green technology is now sufficiently advanced and cost effective for all safari lodges to embrace. The days of lodges continuing to spew out carbon pollution to create electricity should be long over. And of course the third aim is to subtly expose the green-washers who pose under the umbrella of “ecotourism” and tourism awards in order to blind or bleed the industry.
Our website www.africasfinest.co.za will in time become the engine room behind this book, where we plan to put together a much more detailed list of the sustainable and responsible tourism systems, tools, equipment and practices that we could not detail in this book for space reasons. In due time anyone will be able to dig deep into how to plan, build and run a really green ecotourism business. When the term “ecotourism” was first coined back in the 1980s it had real substance: it meant a tourism operator had a strong conservation and education ethic; that they looked after their neck of the woods and used part of the proceeds from their business to help benefit local neighbouring communities. Too many irresponsible tourism companies have since soiled that word to the extent that it has become its own antonym for non-ecotourism: real ecotourism operators rather speak of responsible and sustainable tourism, and sometimes conservation tourism.
Beyond the designer-chic dining rooms and sumptuous bedrooms of the wildlife lodges is a back-of-house area few guests ever see – although they should. This is where their staff live, where food is stored and prepared, where energy is created and waste is processed. More often than not, this is where greasy and oily game-drive vehicles are fixed. What it looks like back there differs vastly from place to place and this, more than just about any other factor, reveals the real character of that lodge, whether it has a black heart or a green one. We found some lodge owners were still stuck in the old colonial ways of doing things with a discernible “master and servant” mentality. Conversely, others had embraced modern standards and treated staff as partners. To get to the very core of an enterprise, we found the best place to look was around the staff quarters: were they hidden away;
did they have the necessary comforts and modern facilities; was it in fact a decent place to live? Given that many lodges have a staff-to-guest ratio of up to three or even four staff per guest, the staff have a bigger environmental impact than do the guests. A famous camp in South Luangwa in Zambia had, among numerous negative impacts, an unfenced open food and garbage pit behind the camp, where wild animals could forage at will among the refuse. We also found they were allowing untreated waste water to flow directly into a natural wetland nearby. Our team member noted: “It is quite evident that this operator does not have much of an environmental conscience. Not only that, but there is very little respect for their staff or their immediate environment.” And this of a place that proudly displays a Responsible Tourism Award! Need we say more about green-washing? At a tented camp in Mozambique we asked what assistance they offered to the neighbouring village. “Well,” responded the general manager, “if we see someone from the village walking down the road, we’ll stop and offer them a lift.” That was pretty much the sum of their direct community involvement. You will not find any of these places in this book.
At the other end of the spectrum were the places like a family-run lodge in southern Kenya, where there was no discernible separation between front and back. The workshop area could have passed for the service centre of a German car manufacturer. Then there was the case of a private game reserve with a lodge located in one of the poorest areas of Zimbabwe. It is not shy to advertise that it offers the very highest levels of luxury imaginable on safari. No carbon molecule has been spared to make sure its visitors never have to experience a moment of discomfort while on safari. You might think it would be among the first to be dumped by us, until you look at its conservation and community footprints, which are among the largest of any operation in Africa. These places you will find in this book. Some places did not tick all the boxes of our 102-item site survey evaluation: we hope that what they learned during the “green safari” process will spur them on to greater sustainability. Some of them we placed in a specially created category we called Other Green Places in each country as they featured. In all, only a handful of lodge operators simply did not respond to our many approaches. Either they had something to hide, or they made a wrong call and will possibly rue their decision. The next category is places we were unable to visit but which, in the fullness of time and future editions, might well be included: these are the “Places to Watch”. Among them are places that were not yet open for business, for one reason or another, during our two-year window of site visits. It includes some really super, green places such as Wilderness Safaris’ Odzala Lodge in the rainforest of the French Congo, Singita and Nomad’s camps in the northern Lamai area of the Serengeti, and some new community initiatives and camps in the Northern Rangelands of Kenya. And the last few – some of which you will also find under Places to Watch – were not yet open long enough for business by our cut-off date for site visits of mid-2012 and therefore did not have a proven track record to measure. What did we look for? Towards the back of the book we have a chapter titled The Ultimate Green Lodge. That chapter sums up what we consider to be the core ingredients of a superb green camp or lodge. As technology improves and evolves, we would like to invite further discussion on this via our website. All places featured in this book are those that scored the highest in our study, so you won’t find any green-washers among them; you will know those by their absence. Although our “science” was sound, bear in mind the final selection of places featured was based on our own considered, collective opinions. Africa is now at its tipping point in terms of wilderness preservation. The next decade or two will determine whether we take the high road or the low road. A thriving green safari industry that expands the amount of land under formal conservation protection, coupled with an industry that meaningfully brings local communities into the tourism business, will help ensure we keep to the high road and do not end in the drink, or loch, as the old song goes. To any genuinely great green lodge we might have missed, we apologise. However, we will rectify any inadvertent omission on our website, which will become a live document where we strive to make all the necessary updates as we and the camps and lodges out there evolve.
The future is man-made – make it green (seen stencilled on the side of a safari vehicle in the Maasai Mara).
David Bristow and Colin Bell, Cape Town, February 2013