In today’s episode, we’ll be talking to Ingrid Geertsema. Ingrid was Born in the Netherlands and she lived in the Hague until 2000. Her desire to travel was always strong and after high school, she struck a balance between exploring Europe and working in the Netherlands to pay for her travels. In 1996 she decided to go back to school and studied Communication Management at the University of the Hague, where she also joined an exchange program with the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay (USA). Two months after earning her degree in 2000 the travel bug hit home once more, and Ingrid traveled to South Africa on holiday. This time, there was no returning home.
Ingrid worked as a tour guide for Baobab Reizen, a Dutch overland company, for three years. During this time, Ingrid traveled extensively throughout southern Africa. At the end of 2003, Ingrid finally settled down in the town of Hoedspruit, Limpopo, where she joined Transfrontiers Wildlife Walking Safaris. In 2009, Backroads Africa was born as an in-house travel agency, assisting people who had booked a walking safari with the rest of their itinerary. Having worked in the safari and lodge industry for more than 20 years now, Ingrid understands the varying needs of independent travelers that come to Africa on holiday, to work, study, or sometimes fulfill a dream.
Ingrid combines her love and passion for travel and Africa with a personalized approach and a 100% commitment to not just meet but exceed the expectations of her clients. Ingrid is also a certified Life Coach and NLP Practitioner, a Vegan Nutrition Health Coach, and a Health Transformation Coach As a Vegan Travel Specialist Ingrid assists local and international vegans with safe, ethical, affordable, and adventurous itineraries that include vegan guesthouses, lodges, and sanctuaries. Ingrid and I had a wonderful conversation getting to know each other a little more and I loved hearing her perspectives on the best places to visit in South Africa to see the iconic African Animals.
In this episode we discuss:
- How Ingrid’s love affair with Africa started
- Her considerable experience in the travel industry in South Africa and the surrounding countries
- The definition of the Big Five, game reserves vs National Parks
- South Africa as a destination compared with other countries: cost, experience, medical issues
- Different accommodation types
- How it is to travel as a vegan in South Africa
Learn more about what we talk about
- The top places to see the Big five
- Details of these five places and what they have to offer
- The comparison of Ingrid’s favorite top 5 places
- What these places have to offer for vegan travels
- Do these places are overall vegan-friendly?
Other World Vegan Travel content connected with this episode
- 3 National Parks You Must Visit in Botswana
- How to Meaningfully Elevate Your Travels | Claire Burt | Ep 103
- 20 top travel destinations in Africa that Vegans need to visit (Part-2)
Connect with Ingrid
- Ingrid’s Website
- Website/Get the health Coach
- Website/The back road Africa
- Facebook/ Get health Coached
- Linkedin/Get health Coached
Brighde: Hello, Ingrid. Thank you so much for joining me on The World Vegan Travel Podcast.
Ingrid: Thank you so much for having me, Brighde.
Brighde: I am so pleased to have you on the podcast talking about South Africa, such an incredible destination. You were not born and raised in South Africa. You came here a little bit later in life, and I think that’s so interesting. So I wanna really hear all about that too. But before we get into that, maybe you can tell us a little bit about who you are and what you do in the vegan space. What do you do in the travel space? And of course, the intersection of both of those two things.
Ingrid: Yes. You are absolutely right. I am not born and raised in South Africa. I was born and raised in the Netherlands. I was 26 when I graduated from university and decided to go travel. Always wanted to go to Africa and then happened to choose South Africa. So it was quite random, but I completely and utterly fell in love. I went back home for about three months, just got rid of all of my students’ stuff, and went back to South Africa. That’s now over 22 years ago. I worked as an overland guide at first for a couple of years. So I worked for a Dutch company and I traveled with groups of up to 20 Dutch clients in overland trucks through Southern Africa. Mainly the 28-day camping safari through South Africa and Namibia, Botswana, Zimbabwe, and a little bit of Mozambique, what was then called Swaziland Lesotho so that was a lot of fun.
After about three and a half years, I started working for a walking safari company in the Kruger National Park in South Africa. I was there for seven years and then I started my own company called Backroads Africa. So that’s what I do currently. That was in 2009. So in the last 12, or 13 years, I’ve been helping overseas people come to South Africa on adventurous travel itineraries.
So I put everything together for them and they just hop on a plane. When they land, they pick up a rental car and start traveling on their own. I pretty much focus on individual travelers. So singles, couples, small families, and so forth. That’s what I’ve been doing and then in 2018, I transitioned into veganism and simultaneously I got very passionate about wellness and coaching. Ever since Covid, I’ve been trying to integrate the two. I offer wellness coaching and I help vegan travelers travel adventurously through South Africa.
Brighde: Amazing. So cool. So our topic today is talking about, the five destinations that vegans and nonvegans can experience in South Africa in order to see the big five. Maybe we should define what the big five is because people often get confused about this. Maybe you can tell me, and see if I can get it right. Elephants, buffalo, leopard, lion. Oh gosh, I know it. I’m missing one.
Brighde: Rhino, of course. The rhino. Why are these five considered the big five? I think it’s something back from the hunting days if I understand well. Is that right?
Ingrid: Yes. They were considered to be the most dangerous animals to hunt. In terms of the rhino, it was originally the black rhino, which is the smaller one of the two. It’s a browser more than a grazer. The white rhino is more of a grazer, and the black rhino is a browser, which means it lives in denser vegetation. It is notoriously aggressive. I would say grumpy, but it can be quite aggressive. So for hunters, those animals were particularly dangerous to hunt. So they were called the big five.
Brighde: I see. Well, I guess now we just call them the big five that most people would like to see. Hopefully not to hunt them but they’re definitely very interesting to see in the world. We are gonna talk about some destinations that are really great places to see, all of the five in South Africa. I’ve only been to one of these places, so I’m really excited to hear about the other four particularly. Before we get onto those five places, what are your criteria for deciding these top five places? What was your thinking process there?
Ingrid: I specialize in Southern Africa, I should say. I often have clients ask me, we wanna do the safari? I think most people come to Africa to do a safari. Most people, when they think of safari, their mind take them to East Africa. The out-of-Africa experience, the wide open plains, with big herds of wildebeests and zebras and lions all over the place. South Africa, is a little bit different in that sense. But what is really great, and this is what I tell clients all the time, in South Africa safaris are far more affordable. South Africa doesn’t charge in US dollars. For most overseas people with stronger currencies such as euros, dollars, and pounds, their money goes a lot further.
So to go on a safari in South Africa is affordable, and extremely rewarding. We’ve got amazing game reserves and national parks, so I always highly recommend it. In the last 12 years that I’ve put together itineraries, I think everybody has been on a safari in South Africa, even when they just come for a week, they normally always want to include a safari. But in terms of my criteria, my first criterion is always the flagship National Park of South Africa is Kruger National Park and I think the biggest draw to the Kruger National Park would be the fact that it is absolutely pristine. It’s a pristine wilderness area, which means it has never been inhabited by people. It is untouched. It remained untouched for the last 15,000 years. Whereas all the other reserves with the exception of the Hluhluwe-iMfolozi, game reserves, it’s all rehabilitated land. It used to be farmlands and they’ve taken it back and dedicated it to conservation.
So that’s one of my criteria. Is it a natural area or is it rehabilitated land? It’s not a major difference, but I lived in Kruger for 18 years. It is a big difference to me. So that’s one. I always say to people, for instance, if you wanna go to Paris and you can choose, do you wanna stay right at the Eiffel Tower or you’re gonna go and stay on the other side of Paris? So if you have a choice and you can afford it please try and include Kruger if you can.
The second criterion would obviously be the size of the National Park or the Game Reserve. In my mind, the bigger, the better. The simple reason is that Biodiversity will be higher. Animals have got more space to roam. It is more of a natural representation of, what a safari a hundred years would’ve been like. So size definitely matters. My third criterion is actually, what other activities do these game reserves offer? Do they just offer typical game dives or do they also offer fun things like bush walks or sleepouts in hides? Some of the reserves we’re gonna talk about also have conservation programs that people can join, which is a lot of fun. It’s very important. I think it’s very nice for international travelers to get a glimpse, behind the scenes of what it takes to run a reserve and how much work goes into protecting these reserves against poaching. So those are my three criteria.
Brighde: Excellent. I can’t wait to discuss more of these things because when I was in South Africa just recently we talked a lot about conservation with some of the people that were there and it’s such an interesting topic. Before we get into it though, could you maybe explain the difference between a game reserve, a private game reserve, and a national park, I think this really does confuse people and some people might think that if it’s a private game reserve, it’s a business they’re trying to make money, therefore maybe they’re not necessarily so conservation-minded or maybe there’s some sort of element of trophy hunting with that because it’s a private game reserve? Can you break it down for us? Because people do get really confused. They confuse me until I figured it out too.
Ingrid: I think it’s a very good question and it definitely always confuses my clients as well. It’s a really important thing to understand this. First of all, within South Africa, we have an organization called SANParks. SANParks is the government entity that takes care of these conservation areas within South Africa. The biggest part of the Kruger National Park, for instance, falls under SANParks. Then there’s a whole bunch of reserves throughout the country. For instance, Table Mountain National Park forms part of SANParks. So those are all government entities and they are being run by the government. Having said that, it is still a business. So they obviously have to make money in order to keep the camps running and to fund the conservation efforts within these national parks. Then there are nature reserves that are also run sometimes by the government.
For instance, in KwaZulu-Natal, there are nature reserves that are also run by the government within KwaZulu-Natal, which is a province in South Africa. Then you have absolutely private gamers, which are literally privately owned. The best example again is the Kruger National Park. So the entire Kruger National Park consists of the national park that belongs to the government, and then there’s a whole bunch of private game reserves on the western side of this area. There used to fence between these areas about 30 years ago. They took those down, about 20, or 25 years ago, and these areas were integrated into the Krueger National Park in the sense that animals can now migrate freely between these areas, but people can’t. So when people go to the government section of the National Park, they would be allowed to self-drive and they spend a couple of nights in the rest camps.
If people go to the private sections of the national park they enter into the private game reserves and these areas are not publicly accessible as such. Only when you book into one of the private lodges, you’re allowed to go into these areas. Now, typically, if people wanna do a safari, they go into these private game reserves simply because they’re privately run. Your stay typically includes your meals, it includes game drives, bush walks, and things like that. It is a proper safari experience rather than a self-drive experience. In terms of the other game reserves that are spread out through South Africa, some of which we’re going to talk about as well, they’re also privately owned.
As far as I’m aware of the ones, that I’m gonna be talking about, they do not allow any hunting whatsoever, although some of the private game reserves in Kruger do allow hunting. It’s being kept separate completely. It is not like you’re on a safari where you might encounter people busy hunting an elephant or something like that. That never happens. But occasionally it does happen in some of these game reserves, unfortunately. When you’re talking about canned hunting and other hunting, those are private game reserves they typically do not offer safaris in the sense of safaris as we would go on safari, if that makes any sense.
You have game reserves that are only specialized in hunting, and you have game reserves that only specialize in photographic safaris. I’m focusing entirely on photographic safaris and the reserves that I’m gonna be talking about, they don’t have any hunting. They just do photographic safaris.
Brighde: That was excellent. Really well explained. Thank you, Ingrid. So a question I have is, I think I know the answer, but I just wanna check with you. I did know that there were some hunting game reserves close to Kruger National Park. I think that’s a little bit sad, in my opinion, and probably your opinion too, that some animals could roam from Kruger National Park, for example, and end up in one of these hunting game reserves and be hunted in that way. I’m guessing is that right?
Ingrid: Yeah. Correct.
Brighde: Super sad and these private game reserves that are around the country, so they own the land as well or does the land belong to the government and they lease the government? Because that’s how it happens in Botswana that I’m familiar with, is that safari companies or camps, lease the land from the government and they get, for example, a 15-year lease where they get to build a non-permanent structure on the land. Then, of course, they have to do the right thing and follow certain rules and criteria in order to get the lease renewed. That’s how it works over there. How is that different from the private game reserves in South Africa? Do you happen to know?
Ingrid: Yeah, it does work quite differently, especially in the Eastern Cape and the Western Cape. Most private game reserves are completely privately owned by families. The families would’ve owned those properties for generations. Same goes for, a lot of the game reserves in the private areas of Kruger. To make it easier, when I say the private game reserves in Kruger, it’s what we typically call the Greater Kruger National Park. When I say Greater Kruger National Park, in the private game reserves in Kruger, as an example, let’s take the Timbavati Private Nature Reserve, which is the largest of the nature reserves that are open to Kruger. I think the Timbavati is about 65,000 hectares and that will have maybe 20 or 25 different owners. So typically one landowner owns maybe 5,000 hectares, for instance. Again those stretches of land have been in their families for a long, long time before these reserves became part of Kruger.
They typically had them as, holiday places. They would go there with their families to go on holiday and sometimes to hunt, sometimes to just go and relax and spend time in the bush. As time went on and tourism came about they obviously either built a bush camp or a game lodge or something. What happens mostly is that most of these private landowners will lease their properties to the lodges that are there, to what we call traversing rats.
One of the game lodges in the Timbavati, for instance, may be built on a piece of land that is only about 500 hectares, but then they will lease surrounding properties and pay traversing rights to do their game drives onto those properties. That’s how Kruger works. I think the only complicated national park in South Africa, which you will typically find in the Limpopo area. Right against Botswana and the Zimbabwean borders, those are all completely privately owned. So if the area is 10,000 hectares the entire 10,000 hectares belong to a family. To make it even more complicated, you do also get areas in South Africa that is like community-based program.
One of the game reserves I’m going to be talking about is the Madikwe game reserve, right against the Botswana border, which is basically bought out by the government and became a community project. So they returned the land. The land had been completely run down by agriculture. It wasn’t particularly doing very well as agricultural land either. So they decided to make it a tourism destination that would belong to the communities that live there. It’s been an extremely successful project, obviously, cuz Madikwe is one of the best game reserves in South Africa nowadays.
Madikwe belongs to the surrounding communities. The lodges themselves obviously are businesses, but the profits are being shared with the communities as well. There’s a very famous area right in the northern part of Kruger called Makuleke concession. I dunno if you’ve heard of it. There’s a lodge there called Return Africa, which is absolutely stunning. That was a land claim. It was a successful land claim by the communities there and the government allocated that land to the community, and they returned to Africa.
At the time it was actually wilderness safaris that built a camp there. And that was then taken over by the Makuleke people. That’s still in existence now. It’s also very successful. Those are also ways of offering safaris to people, which is brilliant.
Brighde: That’s so interesting. Thank you so much, Ingrid, for explaining all of that because every country will have a different approach to how they manage tourism. Canada has a different approach and BC has a different approach too nationally and all of these different ways and models of doing things. I think people can easily assume if they don’t understand that they’re just out there to make money or game reserve, that sounds like trophy hunting to me. It just becomes really confusing. But it’s really worthwhile asking these really basic questions about this stuff in order to properly understand what’s going on. I actually recorded a podcast that I haven’t quite released yet with Peter Eastwood. He’s actually a New Zealander who lives in South Africa, and he’s doing some very interesting work. He’s got so many projects on the go actually. I’ll link the podcast if it’s released, in the show notes.
But he’s saying how South Africa is starting to do a lot of rewilding, trying to regenerate this land that’s been highly degraded from grazing of sheep and all of these usual culprits. He’s working on projects where he’s looking to create this extremely long corridor, which will involve getting buy-in from farmers who are no longer making as much money as they used to. And encouraging them to hand over this land. Well not give it away, but just allow it to be regenerated and then move it onto tourism through safaris and nature conservation. Which, maybe is ideal, in the bigger scheme of things, but it’s just such a great thing to see in that, wow, animals will actually be able to move large distances because they have this really long corridor and they’re going to get in an environment which becomes more and more like it would’ve been several hundred years ago. It’s just so interesting, the conservation work that’s happening in South Africa.
Ingrid: Absolutely, yes, that’s a hundred percent. And that sounds very interesting what he’s involved in, but that’s definitely happening, particularly in the Cape and in the KwaZulu-Natal regions where they are trying to, allow animals to migrate or to return to their historical migrational roots. Like in Kruger, the Transfrontier Peace Park Foundation, they’ve opened up sections in Mozambique as well, where they allow the animals to move about, which is really interesting. Because we talked about hunting across the border in Mozambique and in Zimbabwe, like rats in a northern section of Kruger where the Makuleke game reserve is. If you hop across the border there into Zimbabwe, elephants particularly have been literally poached there so badly. I was there a couple of years ago and we were driving around and past the riverbed and we saw a herd of elephants, which consists of mostly females. It must have been at least a kilometer away. And the moment they spotted our vehicle, they would come running at us cuz they just wanted to kill us. They just hate people so much. What is really interesting, particularly elephants who obviously have been poached so badly, is that they know exactly which areas are dangerous and which ones aren’t.
What you’re seeing now, with these areas that they’re opening up, is that the moment the fences were taken down, these elephants, started flooding into the Kruger National Park because they felt so much safer there.
So yeah, it is really important I think to open those roots to the animals because it’s beneficial to animals obviously, but also for the vegetation and water availability. We’ve done so much damage, over the last couple of hundreds of years by obviously taking away these lands from animals. To a degree, I think we try to do right and make up for our mistakes, but very often ended up making things worse. It is very complex.
Brighde: It’s very easy to screw things up. It’s really, really hard to fix. Ingrid, we could talk about this topic forever and I’m sure that listeners will have enjoyed, learning a little bit about the intricacies of how these things are set up in South Africa’s approach to safaris and all of that. But let’s get on to our top five destinations for Big Five Safaris in South Africa. We’ve got five in total. Tell us, what’s your first one?
Ingrid: Well, I think I spoke about it mostly, but it is obviously the Greater Kruger National Park. It is by far my favorite. I’m not just biased because I lived there for 18 years. It is truly a magnificent area, and it is, breathtakingly beautiful. It’s massive. The government section and the private section together comprised about 2.2 million hectares. It is really huge and the diversity of landscape is unbelievably gorgeous as well. So that will be my number one choice always. If people can go there, I highly recommend it.
Brighde: It’s in the northeast of the country, whereas most people fly into Johannesburg, which is more in the West, and then, Cape Town, which of course is in the South. It’s a little bit, challenging to get to, in terms of you can’t fly there directly. Correct?
Ingrid: Mm, you can fly directly to Kruger but what most people do is they fly to Johannesburg and then they fly to Hood spread. Hood spread is where I lived. Then from the Hood spread, you can fly directly to Cape Town. So it’s actually not complicated at all. It is just a choice that you make. I think it depends on who you’re talking to. In terms of, where you’re getting your advice from and also how much time you’ve got and possibly even budget. Those flights are not necessarily the cheapest.
They save you a lot of time, but not everybody can afford them. A lot of people drive, they self-drive, from Johannesburg to Kruger. It’s a beautiful route, through the Blyde River Canyon. There are many ways to get there, but again in terms of diversity and in terms of size and in terms of safari experience, I would say nothing really beats the Kruger. As I said, it’s not because I was there for a long time. I’ve been to all these other reserves as well. It still captures the imagination, of people wanting to go on having a safari experience.
Brighde: Does it have water activities and walking safaris as well as the traditional Jeep Safaris?
Ingrid: Yeah. All of the above, burning safaris, just normal game drives. And again, you have areas in the greater Kruger that are more game dense than others. I just referred earlier to a lodge in the Pafuri section, which is right in the northern section of Krueger, which is absolutely mind-blowing when it comes to landscape. It’s an amazing place called Lena Gorge. It’s got a fever tree forests. It’s got huge Baobab trees. It’s an amazing area to spend time with elephants. But it is not, particularly game dance. So it also depends on are you wanting to go on safari for a couple of days because you want to see, as much as you can in terms of animals. Do you wanna see the Big five every day? Then I would always suggest going to other parts of the Kruger National Park, the Timbavati Game Reserve, or Sabi Sands. Those areas are more game dense than other areas. So, you’re more likely to see the big five at least every day.
But yeah, all these areas they will offer walking safaris, bush walks, sleep baths, yeah, all those kinds of things. The only thing they haven’t really adopted yet, the reserves in the Cape, I think have jumped onto that wagon, maybe because they’re competing with the Kruger National Park. To give them a different sort of angle and a different edge to conservation programs, you find those only in the Cape.
So for people who really are interested in conservation, they wanna learn more about it and they wanna see what happens behind the scenes a little bit more, the Western Cape and the Eastern Cape would be better options. So it depends on what you’re looking for as well. As a travel agent, those are the questions I ask. When people say, look, we wanna do the safari, I always ask them, so what are you looking for? What is important to you? Yeah, the size is huge, and the divisions and landscapes are incredibly diverse in Krueger. So whatever you’re looking for it’ll be there. It’s got everything in terms of activities. It’s really awesome.
Ingrid: Number two would be Madikwe Game Reserve, which is about five hours north of Johannesburg, towards the Botswana border. The reason I choose it is that it is huge. It’s about 75,000 hectares. It is a community-driven reserve, which I think gives it a really special angle as well. It also has really beautiful vegetation, and the landscapes are quite diverse as well. It’s got a beautiful mountain range. It’s got Savannah lands, it’s got the great Marico River, which is a beautiful area to drive around, woodlands, seasonal wetlands for birthing and game viewing, it is extremely rewarding, beautiful lodges, game drives, and bush walks. It’s got everything. Madikwe is typically a really good choice for people, it’s also malaria free. So Kruger National Park has got malaria. For people maybe with families with young children or for other reasons, they wanna avoid malaria areas. Madikwe is a really good choice. Again, very easy. You fly into Johannesburg. It’s a chartered flight up to Madikwe. So it’s easily accessible. Also for people who’ve maybe come back for a second or a third time and who’ve been to Kruger once or twice already, it’s a really great option to broaden the horizon a bit and see the big five in a different area. So that would be my second suggestion.
Brighde: I think that’s really interesting. When you’ve been on safari once, if you have the means to, you just wanna keep coming back and back to the same place. The more times you go the more extraordinary experiences you will have. When I think about our travelers, we were just in Botswana, for example, we were there for six nights with each group, and we saw some amazing things. But then when we went back two weeks later with another group and spent six days there. We had a completely different experience. Seb and I were lucky enough, we got to spend 12 days. As a result, we saw so many more amazing things. It’s almost like a bit of a drug. You just wanna keep coming back and seeing what your experience might be next time. So yeah, I’m not surprised that people come back to South Africa.
Ingrid: I’ve got lots of return clients, very loyal clients who come back twice a year, and all they wanna do. I’ve got an Australian client, and he comes back twice a year and he spends almost a month in different camps in Krueger. In different areas, he gets a variety of landscapes and it’s very addictive. As you said, you come back and every day is different. Even if you’re in the same camp, every day is different. Every morning is different. Every morning drive is different. Every afternoon drive is different. Every evening your sunsets are different. So it is extremely, enriching and special. People that I’ve worked with in the Krueger as well, that have been doing this for 30 or 40 years, they just become completely like children, as enthusiastic about things that they encounter, even though, they’ve seen so much already. Nature never disappoints. That’s the way I see it. If you’ve come back a couple of times, is that your eyes open to different things, you’re not necessarily focusing on the big animals only. You might be interested more in birds or in vegetation, in trees, cuz trees can be extremely interesting as well. Insects, amphibians, and snakes. There’s so much to see and so much to experience at different times of the year, whether you’re there in summer or winter. It is never ending really.
Brighde: Absolutely. Alright, number three. This is an interesting name for this one, and it’s spelled in an interesting way.
Ingrid: mFulaWozi It’s a new area. It’s only opened its doors last year in 2022. It’s an area south of the Hluhluweâ iMfolozi game reserves, which are in KwaZulu Natal, which is the oldest game reserve in South Africa. Actually, it’s older than Kruger even. The whole area is about a hundred thousand hectares. It was an area that became quite famous cuz the animals within the mFulaWozi region or game reserves were hunted to extinction almost. They declared a game reserve to preserve it, still for hunting but eventually, it became obvious a photographic reserve.
This particular game reserve itself consists of about 16,000 hectares, just south of it, but they’ve dropped fences and it is a community project as well. So it’s really encouraging. What really nice is that it is, the first private reserve where people can stay in really nice upmarket lodges. I’m very excited about the fact that it’s there and, there was such a void in that sense, in that area. The two reserves, the Hluhluweâ€“iMfolozi game reserves are absolutely gorgeous. But all you had, there were just rest camps, where people, could stay there. They’re quite big rest camps and they were public restaurants where people could eat, not camping. It was still quite luxurious but it’s not a private lodge, where you have all your meals inclusive, you go on game drives with a guide and you get to do bush walks and things like that.
So this is the first time that there’s now an opportunity for clients. Cuz the area is unbelievably beautiful. It’s always been one of my favorite parts of South Africa. It is absolutely gorgeous. It is very hilly and undulating grasslands and it’s obvious, it’s big five. So now people actually have an opportunity to stay at a private lodge and experience these areas with a guide and very in-depth and on foot, which is extremely cool. I put it on number three because the reserve itself is 16,000 hectares, but it’s got access to a hundred thousand hectares. The landscape is unique. It’s unique within South Africa. I highly recommend it. It’s very pretty. They obviously do game drives, and bush walks, not too sure about sleeping out, they’ve just been around for about a year, so I’m sure they will eventually get it. But to be honest, the lodges are so beautiful. I don’t know if you wanna sleep out cuz they are just gorgeous. It is linked to communities. It’s an exceptionally poor area, so in that sense, I’m also very excited about it because that whole area really needed an upliftment and they came around just at the right time, obviously after Covid. So yeah, I’m very excited about that. I put them on number three.
Brighde: Yeah, that sounds really interesting. I definitely wanna check out that place, these are community-owned and maybe partly community-run as good projects.
Brighde: because I think that’s something quite confronting when traveling to South Africa, is just how it’s very evident that there is a lot of poverty and a lot of crime and some of which is quite violent. Of course, there’s some poaching as well and the impacts that have on the animals. of course, it’s a legacy of colonialism as well. There is reason to have hope, of course sometimes can feel a little hopeless. From my perspective when I travel it’s like, oh my goodness, when is life gonna really improve for these people? When are they going to not be living in townships anymore? But when you hear about these programs that are particularly in very poor areas and people getting the land back, when they didn’t have it for hundreds of years. That excites me.
Ingrid: Me too. I totally agree. I think tourism has got the biggest potential. South African tourism in my opinion is really great. It’s professional and, it’s on the right track. There is incredible potential for these kinds of projects, all over South Africa, where a lot of areas are still quite unknown to most people. For a lot of people, as you said, they typically venture to maybe Kruger, maybe Cape Town, and whatever happens in between. Where I’m living here in the garden route, this is quite popular as well. But other than that most people, just don’t know. I think the more these kinds of projects are initiated, the more people will also venture into other parts of South Africa. Cuz South Africa’s got everything, honestly. Obviously, Botswana, Namibia, and Zimbabwe are beautiful, especially Botswana, it’s got incredible wildlife and wilderness areas.
But South Africa has such a variety in terms of winelands, wilderness areas, deserts, and coastal regions. We’ve got beaches, we’ve got desert areas and mountain ranges. So many different areas for people to explore. To me, it is still the most exciting country in Southern Africa.
Brighde: Awesome. Okay. Number four, tell us about this place. Shamwari?
Ingrid: Shamwari is the best-known reserve, I think after Krueger. It is in the Eastern Cape. It is about 25,000 hectares, privately owned. It is extremely well-run. It’s mostly five-star. It is quite exclusive. A lot of people cannot afford it, but it is extremely well run and it is designed to also focus on conservation and rehabilitate a region that suffered greatly, under agriculture. They offer everything. Shamwari’s got six lodges and a private villa. Lodges range from family-friendly to tented camp too, like I said, a private villa. So, whatever you’re looking for, they’ve got it. They offer game drives, and bush walks, and they’ve got an amazing conservation program. So it’s extremely family-friendly. It is malaria-free, so everything in Cape is malaria free. So that often makes it an obvious choice for people with young children. Size 25,000 hectares, it’s a really nice chunk of land. It offers a nice variety also in terms of, landscape. So, yeah, it’s very popular.
Brighde: Sounds lovely. Where is it located? Could you say that again for me, please?
Ingrid: It’s in the Eastern Cape, so it is about 45 minutes to an hour’s drive, east of Port Elizabeth.
Brighde: Okay, so that’s like at the eastern end of the garden route.
Ingrid: Correct. Yes.
Brighde: Haven’t been out there yet. Interesting.
Ingrid: You can fly to Port Elizabeth. That’s what most people do. you can also fly directly to Shamwari, on a private charter. In fact, in most of these, both Kruger, Madikwe and I think even Gondwana also have a private airstrip. So you can also charter to fly indirectly. But the easiest by far is just to fly to Port Elizabeth and have a private transfer to Shamwari. There’s actually a whole bunch of reserves around Shamwari, that are doing very similar things. So the differences would be mainly in prices and size of the reserve. Competition-wise, they’re giving Kruger quite, fierce competition in the sense that they are really catching up on experiences. Although in, my professional opinion as a travel agent, I would still say, you can spend easily a couple of weeks in Kruger, in different camps, different areas, different lodges. Whereas for instance, a game reserve like Shamwari or Gondwana, which would my fifth choice, I would say three to four nights, is enough.
By then you will have seen pretty much the whole reserve. You will have gotten sort of the feel for the landscape, of the reserve as well. So after that, you typically start seeing the same things and the same areas.
Ingrid: So that gets me to my fifth choice, which is in the Western Cape, where you’ve been before, is Gondwana Game Reserve. It is actually my favorite game reserve in the Western Cape. I think it is absolutely stunning. I spent Christmas there actually.
Brighde: We missed each other by a few days, Ingrid.
Ingrid: I believe so. That’s right. Yes, I remember. It is just so beautiful and it’s 10,000 hectares, so it’s not a huge reserve. But it is special in my mind. They focus primarily on fan bulls restoration. Fynbos is a very special type of vegetation that only occurs in South Africa. South Africa’s got a floral kingdom. So it’s the sixth floral kingdom in the world, which is a unique vegetation area. So Gondwana consists primarily of fynbos and Ronostofelt so a lot of their conservation effort is about restoring that area to the original fan balls that it used to be. Besides free roaming Big five, they’ve got a conservation program that focuses on that, which I think is really cool. They’ve got a junior arranger program, which is really nice for families, they entertain your children on game drives and special projects, which is a lot of fun. I think they put in a lot of effort to attract people with an interest in conservation and with an interest in not just the big five.
I like them a lot for putting in that effort and they obviously do. They’ve got a bushwalk, they even have a special overnight walking trail. They’ve got a private game lodge and they’ve got an eco-camp. The eco camp’s actually my favorite. I love it. It is just a beautiful tented camp, in a valley. It is just stunning. So yeah they’re my fifth choice, compared to bigger reserves. But in the Western Cape, they’re my first choice, they are very special.
Brighde: Yeah. That was my experience as well. Just adding to this famous boss environment, it’s very interesting because there are not many trees at all. In fact, if I understand well, the trees that are there are actually black waddle, which are an Australian species and actually quite invasive. They’re trying to get rid of them. This natural fame boss is this incredible biodiversity in terms of plants, which is amazing. Our group was lucky enough to have a small talk with the head of the conservation wing of the park. His name is John o. He was explaining to us just how unique and special the botany is in Gondwana. As a result of this, there are these incredible little insects and little bugs that are either new. They didn’t even know they existed or they haven’t been seen in like a hundred years or something equally incredible. This environment is just so special. If I can try to describe it, it’s just these valleys with a couple of meters high vegetation.
One of the things that stick out in my mind, a lovely experience was when we were on a drive and we were seeing these elephants and Protea, which is a very famous plant, with a beautiful flower. The elephants were just manipulating their trunks and eating these flowers like popcorn. I’m sure you’ve seen that before, but it was just so wonderful to see. We saw tons and tons of rhinos there. They had just got some cheetahs. They were trying to reintroduce cheetahs there.
Ingrid: A boma, a holding pen
Brighde: A holding pen where they get used to the environment that they’re in and learn to get scared of the lions there, which is a very important skill if you want to survive as a cheetah. This environment is really special and when you are driving around it is fenced. So you see the environment on the other side, which is this really degraded vegetation and you could see just how far this area has come. It’s really special to see.
Ingrid: Yes, absolutely. And that’s what makes Gondwana so special because they purchased that land, with that vision in mind to run a successful lodge and everything else. It is all about bringing back that diversity because Fynbos is unique in the world and it’s under a lot of threats. So it is incredibly important what they do to bring that diversity back. Cuz they obviously are trying to keep adding more land, like you were talking about earlier as well, to have surrounding farmers, possibly join and drop their fences and become part of the Gondwana ethos basically. I think fynbos has got about 9,000 different species of plants alone. The floral kingdom of South Africa is the smallest in the world, but it is the most unique one in the sense that it all falls within one country and actually in such a small part of the country. Cuz it’s literally just in the Western Cape.
I think that’s a nice thing because a lot of people when they imagine going on safari, don’t consider going to an area and become all enthusiastic about the shrubbery. To most people, what is special about the shrubbery? The guides are very well educated and they know a lot about fynbos and they really do their best to make people enthusiastic and to help them understand what it is that they’re trying to do. That’s what I love Gowana for because they make a lot of fuss about what a lot of people might seem very unimportant, but in the grand scheme of things and particularly in South Africa, is exceptionally important. It’s not just the hype about the big five. Yes, it’s important, it draws the people in, but while you’re here, we’re going to make you enthusiastic about everything else.
Brighde: I love that. Seb would definitely class himself as somebody who doesn’t really care so much about plants and he was on the edge of his seat listening to what John o had to say in that conservation talk, which we didn’t realize but ended up being very much plants, a big focus of it, but it was literally so interesting. Yeah, it’s an amazing place. Not important, but certainly interesting is that the fynbos, botany finds its way into artisanal gin. If gin is a beverage that you enjoy and something that our travelers loved we had a sundowner at Gondwana that was set up for our group with this most incredible view and we focused on the fynbos gins with this beautiful view over the game reserve with the ocean in the far, far away. That was a real highlight for us, I think.
Ingrid: Yes. I can imagine. The South African gins are really nice. I agree.
Brighde: Alright. So something that I think is really interesting, particularly for travelers at this podcast, a vegan traveled podcast is, just how vegan-friendly they are. We’ve talked a little bit about conservation, which of course is very important to vegans. But also there’s the food aspect of it. Like if you’re going to these camps, how vegan-friendly are they? Also, the furnishings as well, because can be a little bit confronting as well. So why don’t you talk a little bit about South Africa as a destination? Is it vegan-friendly? And how does that translate into the camps? Then maybe talk about the furnishings and the use of animals in that way.
Ingrid: Yeah. South Africa is by far, the most developed country in Africa. I’ve noticed in the last couple of years that veganism is here to stay and it’s only growing and particularly in game lodges in South Africa. Private lodges understand that it is important to be open to the fact if you have a family of which maybe one or two members are vegan, they want to have a safari, they’re gonna look for a lodge that is vegan-friendly. Now obviously vegan friendliness comes in many different ways. As you said, you can be vegan-friendly by having vegan options on your menu or you can be vegan-friendly in the sense that you literally understand what veganism is about and you let that filter through in every experience at your lodge. I think in terms of the five games reserves that I’ve mentioned The Greater Kruger, Madikwe, mFulaWozi, Shamwari, and Gondwana. I know that the Greater Kruger is extremely vegan-friendly. Shamwari and Gondwana, I know are also both very vegan-friendly. Madikwe, there’s actually a beautiful little bush camp called Mosetlha which is extremely basic but the daughter of the owner, she’s also the manager, she’s vegan as well. She obviously can make everything extremely vegan-friendly. Especially the upmarket lodges and camps they understand what it takes to be vegan-friendly. Having said that I think in terms of the overall vegan hospitality side of things, there’s still a lot of room for improvement.
As you said very often because they’re not vegan themselves necessarily, they don’t think about things like animal skins on the floor, the amenities in the bathrooms, a lot of them have got honey in it or they’ll have other animal-derived ingredients. In that sense, there’s still a lot of room for improvement. But in terms of food, it is pretty solid there’s not gonna be a problem, but I would definitely recommend, for any vegan traveler, if you’re traveling on your own or just as a couple to email ahead or ask your travel agents, and to find out exactly to what extent they are vegan friendly. Is it just the food or can they take out the animal skins or the animal heads? I don’t actually know any game lodges that got animal heads in the room.
Brighde: No, I just
Brighde: skins and leather furniture.
Ingrid: Leather furniture and also obviously duvets, pillows, duvet covers, they often are made of down. I prefer not to sleep under it. I think it’s important for vegan travelers to just email ahead or ask the questions and see what the response is.
Brighde: I had a very interesting experience when I was at Gondwana actually. We went there before, we were coming back with a group about 10 days before. We went to Gondwana, where we talked about doing some amazing things but of course, they do have some animal skins there. We had told them that we were vegan, I think, but I guess they weren’t expecting our level of what we would prefer anyway. There were some animal skins as used as rugs and it was just horrible. I find myself like dancing around the rugs cuz just upsetting to know that this was an animal, maybe had died naturally or maybe not, whatever, but still walking on it just feels icky. There were obviously some around the camp, the lodge, in the dining room, and all of these kinds of places and I mentioned it to the lovely camp manager there and I said, do you think it would be okay if we could at least get rid of some of them, the ones out of the rooms from our travelers. They had these horrible, in my opinion, frames that were made out of animal skins as well, can we take those out as well?
Ingrid: Oh gosh.
Brighde: The room could be like vegan at least and they were very cooperative and I actually jumped on a call with their marketing manager there. I said, look, on a purpose in having this call, it’s not because I expect you to just get rid of all of your rugs, and decor and start from scratch. I just think maybe you are interested to hear my perspective on what it makes me feel like to have these in the room. As vegans become a bigger group, you might wanna consider this. She said to me, which I thought was so interesting, in the 12 years that she had worked for Gondwana, she never had anyone express this before, which I just thought was so interesting.
We had a really nice conversation and we hung up. A week later we went there with our group and those rugs had been taken out, which was great. But it’s just so interesting and I think all of us as vegans, this is a small thing that we might choose to do, is to just say, hmm don’t love these rugs. They would’ve purchased these from a shop outside, they weren’t killing them on the property I’m sure, but they just thought, oh, it gives them more sort of Africa safari feel, little knowing that there’s a segment of the population that is just totally repulsed by them.
Ingrid: Yeah, absolutely and I think it is really about having the confidence to ask and that is what’s changing. When I was managing this walking safari company in Krueger many years ago, we had two small bush camps and we did a walking Safari between the two camps. I was obviously not vegan then, and I remember when we got clients that were even vegetarian, I did the catering as well and it was like a panic. It was extremely basic. We mostly cooked on the fire and it was like, oh my God, what am I gonna feed these people?
Then occasionally there would be a vegan and I was like, oh. God, it’s impossible. What do I give these people? You don’t know what you don’t know. For a lot of people, it is difficult to imagine what vegans eat. Never mind the fact that it literally translates into all these different aspects of travel. I think people eventually over time started getting used to the fact that vegans don’t eat anything animal derived. But as the thinking goes to most people that are not vegan, to them it is only about food.
It’s only now that I think people are starting to speak out and say, It actually is not just about food. In fact, it’s only a part of being vegan there’s so much more to it. So I think it’s great. It must have been Caroline that you spoke to.
Brighde: Yes. It was I think.
Ingrid: Caroline is awesome. She’s a lovely lady and it is amazing. As you said, she had this reaction like, oh my God, I’d never thought of this before. I think that it’s great that you started the conversation because it would’ve made her think and it will ultimately help her to be a better host to vegan clients so that next time a vegan couple shows up, lets the reservations team know that they’re vegan. They will link it and say, let’s take out the rugs. Let’s take this out and actually go the extra mile and be vegan-friendly, not just in the kitchen, but also in the rooms and in every other sense. So I think it’s absolutely wonderful.
Brighde: Yeah and maybe if enough people say something they might decide when they’re next doing a refurbishment that they might make some different choices, possibly. Who knows?
Ingrid: It was a villa in Camps Bay in Cape Town and it was being promoted by a South African vegan couple, that is very active on Instagram. It was a beautiful villa and they had all these videos and photos and they were all on Instagram. I was looking at it so I just messaged her, I said, look, I have to ask these skins on the floor. She said, no, they’re fake. They had zebra skin on the floor and it looked so real. And she said, no, it is fake. You can ask yourself why have it in the first place, just have a normal rug. Why do you have a rug that looks like zebra skin? But at the same time, I think it is also sending out a message to say, if you really want it, there are also alternatives that look just like it. We have plant-based burgers and it is also relatable to food.
So I think it was really fun because I wasn’t the only one. There were a lot of people commenting on it. For lodges as well, if you wanna have the safari feel, then as you said, go and have a look around for alternatives that don’t come from animals.
Brighde: I would like to know the company that’s making those and maybe suggest them to the hotels as we go through for when they are replaced. I’m gonna
Ingrid: Exactly, yes. Definitely, they’ll listen.
Brighde: Yeah, it’s exciting stuff. All right, Ingrid. Wow, we’ve had a lot to talk about today. I can’t believe it before we press record, we were talking about how maybe we might be able to meet up when I’m in Plettenberg in just a month from now. It would be so nice.
Ingrid: Yeah, it’ll be so awesome.
Brighde: Before we go would you mind telling us a little bit about where people can find you online and how people might use your services? Like what kind of people would be interested in your services?
Ingrid: Perfect. Yes. Well, my surname is not easy for English-speaking people because it’s a Dutch surname. But yeah, you can find me either on Facebook, the easiest is probably just to go by the original company name Backroads Africa. I’m actually busy getting the domain Vegan Backroads Africa as well but that still needs to be developed, so I think the easiest would be just Backroads Africa on Facebook or the website backroadsafrica.com. You’ll get ahold of me that way. Anything that you might need or you’re traveling on your own or you’re traveling with a family member or a spouse or anything else, I’ll be happy to be of service, whatever I can do.
Brighde: It’s so wonderful. There are some great vegan travel operators and agents now in South Africa. It’s really great. So definitely consider reaching out to Ingrid or some of the others and asking them to help you put together an incredible South Africa experience where vegan ethics are thought about. It’s just really special. Thank you so much, Ingrid, for taking all of this time to talk with me today.
Ingrid: Thank you for having me, Brighde. I really appreciate it. It’s been really lovely chatting with you and I very much look forward to seeing you in March. Hey, next month. Wonderful.
Brighde: Exciting. Thank you.
Ingrid: Fantastic. Thank you very much.