A woman is sitting comfortably on a sofa wearing light brown shirt with shoulder cut hair and looking cheerfully at the camera ;The Timbavati, Game Reserve in South Africa - A Vegan Paradise Hayley Cooper Ep 114

The Timbavati, Game Reserve in South Africa – A Vegan Paradise | Hayley Cooper | Ep 114

Introducing Hayley

We’re thrilled to introduce our special guest for today’s episode: Hayley! With 25 years of experience in the hospitality sector, Hayley brings a wealth of knowledge and expertise in various areas such as bush camps, restaurants, golf clubs, movie and concert catering, and commercial catering. Currently, the Assistant Manager of Kings Camp, a prestigious 5-star luxury lodge in Timbavati, Hayley stays updated with the latest trends in hospitality and tourism. 

Her passion for veganism and sustainable tourism is reflected in her role as the first certified vegan hospitality consultant in Africa and the COO of the global company veganhospitality.com. Hayley’s dedication and enthusiasm shine through in her accomplishments, including founding Wild Dreams and offering personalized career coaching through the vegan jobs section.  We’re thrilled to have Hayley share her insights and experiences with our audience today.

In this episode, we discuss:

  • How Hayley’s first safari experience transformed her entire life.
  • The comprehensive consulting and training services offered by her.
  • An extraordinary vegan safari experience offered by King’s Camp.
  • Situated in the heart of South Africa, Timbavati boasts a unique geographical location and a diverse climate.
  • The dedication of King’s Camp, to providing a vegan-focused experience, catering to the needs and preferences of vegan guests.

Learn more about what we talk about

  • The extensive vegan menu options, offering a wide variety of delicious plant-based dishes.
  • The unique opportunity of experiencing Rhino notching.
  • The once-in-a-lifetime anti-poaching flight experience.
  • Exceptional attention to detail, which the King’s Camp demonstrates when it comes to accommodating vegan guests.
  • The exciting marathon event organized by King’s Camp in July and the fascinating history that surrounds it

Other World Vegan Travel content connected with this episode

Connect with Hayley


Brighde: I am thrilled to have Hayley Cooper on The World Vegan Travel Podcast today. 

Hi, Hayley. Thanks so much for joining us.

Hayley: Hi. Thanks for having me. Great to be here.

Brighde: Yes. I’m really pleased that you are joining us because you’re gonna be talking about, an area within a country that I think is amazing, and love so much. That is South Africa. You’re gonna be talking about the Timbavati region of South Africa and why this area of South Africa is like a vegan paradise. Before we get into that, why don’t you tell us a little bit about what it is that you do in the vegan travel space?

Hayley: Absolutely. So, I always struggle to tell people what I do because I kind of do a little bit of everything. But my day job is working as a lodge manager. That’s why I’m lucky enough to live in Timbavati. In addition to that, I have a company called Wild Dreams. So we specialize mostly in hospitality and tourism recruitment and consulting services. In addition to this, I also work with a company called Vegan Hospitality and I am their COO. We offer vegan consulting and training within the hospitality and tourism space as well. So it’s a little bit of everything but I’m very privileged to live in this beautiful area, around animals. Obviously, I love nature, I love wildlife. Honestly, to me, it’s the best place in the world.

Brighde: But you are not originally from South Africa, right?

Hayley: That is correct. Yeah. So I am British, which you could probably tell by my accent cuz people always say to me, where are you from? Then I say England and they’re like, no, we know that but where in England? So I actually have lived here for 15 years and the reason I moved here was that I came on safari. So I do what many tourists do. I was only on Safari for three days in Kruger National Park, quite close to where I actually live. Over those three days I just absolutely fell in love with everything about the country, in particular being in nature and around the animals. That’s when I decided to move out here officially.

Brighde: Wow. And that was 14 years ago. Did you say?

Hayley: Yeah. 14, 15 years ago. So it’s funny because when we have guests visit us at the lodge, and often we have people where it’s their first safari and they ask me questions and I tell them how it literally could change your life because that’s what happened for me.

Brighde: Wonderful. All right, so I have not been to the Timbavati region of South Africa yet. I’ve really only been to the garden route, which is also very beautiful, but it’s very different to this area. So before we get into that, why don’t you talk a little bit about, where it’s located? What the climate’s like? The geography, this kind of like orientation information.

Hayley: Absolutely. So, we are quite far from the garden route. We are in the northern section of the country. We are actually very close. We border Zimbabwe, and Botswana, we even have Mozambique as well on our neighboring border too. We are in Greater Kruger National Park, so it can be slightly confusing for people because Kruger Park, in effect is open to us, so there are no fences. However, Kruger Park is a public park owned by the government, whereby the private section, which is what I’m in, Greater Kruger, is all completely privately owned.

It is a very different experience and with regard to temperature, it is a very, very hot region. We are currently coming into our winter now but I think it was around 29 degrees centigrade today. I’m not sure that is in Fahrenheit, unfortunately, but it’s pretty warm. We have a vast variety of different vegetation here. It’s quite dry and arid in some areas, but it’s also quite tropical and humid. So it’s just very diverse.

Brighde: Yeah, I’m guessing some of the main differences in the field between these private game reserves and the national park. Kruger National Park is a national park. It’s What most people wouldn’t know is that the National Park owned and managed by the government. But I’m imagining that there are quite a few visitors to that, whereas in the private game reserves, maybe there are a small number of accommodations and lodgings, and they have exclusive access to that. Do I understand that 

Hayley: Yes, exactly. So yeah, with Kruger, anyone can go in. You obviously still have to pay an entrance fee at the gate and a conservation levy. But it’s open to anybody and you drive around in your own vehicle and it’s also very set sort of dedicated roads for that. Whereas in the private sector, it’s all privately owned properties, which is a mixture of private houses and commercial lodges. Then you have certain sections of the reserve that you can drive on, either by agreement, sort of a traverse agreement as they call it. You can drive off-road as well in the private sector. So for example, if there is a pride of lions, that is quite far off the road, you are actually able to drive relatively close to them, to get a better viewing. So that’s one of the main differences.

Brighde: Hmm. So, is the land also owned by the people that have the lodges as well, or do the lodges just lease the land from the government? Because that’s how it works in Botswana. The lodges lease this land for 15 years and they have to follow certain rules and regulations in order to have that, lease renewed. Is it similar to that? I really do feel like there are quite a lot of differences in the way these things have been managed. The approach is different in Botswana versus South Africa. So how is it in South Africa?

Hayley: Yeah, it is different here. So here it is completely privately owned, so it’s owned by families and often it’ll go down in the generations. So, it’s very rare that these properties actually come onto the market because typically it goes to their son, daughter, et cetera, and stay within the family. There are some regions in the far north of Kruger Park, which are leased, but they are community-owned, so they are leased to community, which is a great initiative cuz it obviously gives back and ensures that they’re actually working in these sectors as well. But yeah, it is quite different in comparison to Botswana.

Brighde: Hmm. Alright, so let’s talk about our topic, which is how the Timbavati Game Reserve is very vegan-friendly. You call it a vegan paradise. So why don’t you tell us about that?

Hayley: Yeah, absolutely. Well, the first thing that I want to talk about is the vegan safari experience that we offer here at the lodge where I’m based, which is called King’s Camp. The main difference to me, in comparison to what other lodges would offer, is, if you contact a lodge as a potential guest, you will obviously inform them that you are vegan and you’ll probably just make sure that they are able to cater to your needs. The vast majority of lodges will say, yes, yes, no problem. But obviously what the guest is not necessarily realizing is behind the scenes. That lodge is now like, oh, okay, we’ve got a vegan guest coming in. We better scramble and Google some vegan menus and that sort of thing. And they don’t really know much about it.

 Unfortunately, that does mean that mistakes can be made and you may not have, as great of an experience as some of the other guests would have. Whereas, at King’s Camp, because I am one of the managers, I’m like a manager / in-house consultant, in effect full of things vegan. I ensure that our guests have exactly the same experience as our other guests. The attention to detail is, honestly, I think very mind-blowing to guests. They’re always really surprised by it and, it is really from everything. From the drinks lists, we have vegan wines labeled throughout the entire check-in process. On arrival, we completely veganize as I call it, our rooms as well.

 So for example, we would remove any animal products that may be in the rooms. Luckily, a lot of our products anyway are like fake leather. So it’s not too much of an issue to do that. But, we go to the attention to detail. For example, there won’t be any feathers on the pillows. All of the amenities are vegan and cruelty-free and we make sure like the cookies in the room, they’re obviously vegan-friendly. You’ve got the plant-based milk selection. If you’re going to get chocolate as your turn down in the evening, that’s going to be vegan. We also just make sure that with the food there is enough variety because another thing which, as vegans, we all know that often we’ll get a menu and we are told, oh, here’s the vegan option but to me that doesn’t really make sense because having only one option, kind of defeats the point. It’s not an option at all.

So here, our vegan guests will get a separate menu for all of the meals, which is breakfast, lunch, and dinner and it includes multiple snacks throughout the day as well, including out on the safari because they stop for a cup of coffee in the bush with a cookie or a muffin. And then they stop in the afternoon for a gin and tonic and have some snacks then as well. We just make sure they have the exact same experience, but that it’s also still a traditional African experience. So, there are certain snacks here that are traditional to the area and certain dishes. I can give you some examples. There’s a dish in South Africa called a Potjie and it’s basically like a stew that is cooked for a very long time on a fire and it comes in this cast iron pot and we do a vegan version made with jackfruit. And it still has all the same flavors and everything that you would expect. But yes, obviously just a vegan version of that. We even have a vegan field guide here. So when you are out on Safari, he is fully aware and can relate to everybody so that conversations can flow in the right direction. All of our staff are trained as well, so we do training with all of the departments.

Brighde: It’s interesting. I’ve certainly come across these issues, particularly in South Africa. I talked about this at length with Ingrid, your friend, when she was on the podcast a few weeks ago, and sadly, in South Africa, they use a lot of animal products. Skins, for example, are usually the most confronting, let’s say, of all of the things to decorate. The common areas, decorate in the rooms, and we try on our trips to get as many of those removed from the room as much as possible. Sometimes they forget and I just feel so frustrated cuz like, we talked about this. Obviously, we can’t necessarily have that much sway over the animal skins and other things like that in the common areas because we might not be taking over the whole camp or the whole place. Of course, I don’t feel like we can be that demanding, but it’s really nice that you guys are doing that over, at King’s Camp and we do something similar in Botswana. Normally we’ll be taking over the camp. So we try to do similar kinds of things and it makes for such a nice experience. Because the reality is the normal thing is not so good. There are animal skins everywhere and the food is not great. Certainly, you don’t have the same experience, so that’s really awesome that you are doing that. I think that’s one really great reason for vegans to head to King’s camp and the Timbavati. Are there any other reasons why vegans might be drawn to this reserve rather than others?

Hayley: Yeah, we actually offer some very unique experiences that directly help animals. I’m sure most of the listeners are familiar with the situation around rhino poaching, and it’s a very real reality for us, unfortunately, because we do have rhinos in the reserve and there are a few activities that you can do. You can do this at any lodge that you stay at within the reserve. So that includes King’s Camp, and one of these is a rhino notching and chipping experience. It’s something incredibly special and really a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. But basically what it entails is the guests would follow in a Land Rover, in one of the Safari vehicles, they would follow a helicopter while the helicopter is scouting the air for rhinos. Once the helicopter finds a rhino, they will have a vet with them and they will dart the rhino from the air. So then the vehicle will get called in. Once the rhino is sedated and it’s obviously safe for them to exit the vehicle, they will have the opportunity to actually go up and to even assist the vet.

 Sometimes that might entail helping to move the rhino if it’s sort of gone down in a bit of a funny position. It may be to help keep the animal cool. They can even help with the actual notching because what they do is they notch the ears as an identification method, and then they put chips in certain areas such as the shoulder and also the two horns as well. Every single guest we have had that has done this has been absolutely blown away by the experience. And how it directly helps is because if, hopefully, it doesn’t happen, but if a rhino was to be poached and it came from our reserve, then that animal can be proved to be a poached animal.

So for example, if they can scan the horn and they can find the chip and they know what animal that was, then that will lead to prosecution of those people, much easier and quicker. So you really do need these initiatives and obviously, the word gets out there so people will say, oh, well in the Timbavati, they are notching and chipping the rhinos. So actually it’s better that we leave them alone and we don’t try and poach the rhinos from that region. So it really does help and if you love animals just to be that close to these majestic unique animals is really an amazing experience. 

Brighde: This sounds like it would be quite a premium experience. I’m guessing most of the money goes to conservation. Correct? 

Hayley: Yeah. So it’s completely nonprofit. So the lodges and the reserve don’t make any money from it at all. The money goes directly towards paying for those resources, such as the vet and the fuel for the helicopter and the pilot and the medication and all of that kind of thing.

Brighde: Hhmm, yeah. So I’m actually reading a book at the moment, recommended to me by my friend Colleen, and it’s called Poached and the subtitle is Inside the Dark World of Wildlife Trafficking by Rachel Love Nuwer, in the seventh chapter or something like that. And of course, they’d spend quite a bit of time talking about the rhino situation, like where the demand comes from, how the rhinos are killed, and how the trafficking happens. In recent years, it has become really quite terrible. It’s really increased. So these initiatives, are really beneficial, funding these programs. Also, I think as well, like having helicopters and activities in these areas as well might deter poaches in some way too. Is that fair to say?

Hayley: Yes, absolutely and we also offer an anti-poaching flight experience where our guests can join the anti-poaching team on one of these flights and then the guests are paying for that, which helps again, the reserve because it obviously means that they’re able to put a helicopter up in the air. And it’s really informative because someone from the reserve who works both with the rhino notching and also with the anti-poaching flight, they will actually sit and discuss with them first why we are doing this, why it’s so important, and give them some statistics and information on rhino poaching.

So they really have a good understanding of the impact that this is having and the anti-poaching flight is a lot of fun as well, because you’re up in the helicopter, you are in the air, and you’re obviously seeing lots of different animals. It’s not only about checking on the rhino, but you can see giraffes and zebra and elephants and just see a different perspective on the reserve. So it’s really a great thing to do.

Brighde: Well, I haven’t done a helicopter ride in the Timbavati, but when I was in Botswana just a couple of weeks ago, for listeners, those that don’t know, you take bush planes from camp to camp in this particular case and we were flying back from second camp, the last camp to Maun, which is where the flight back to Cape Town goes, and seven of our travelers including myself given the opportunity to go by helicopter back to Maun and this was extremely exciting because when you are in a helicopter, it’s, you are flying a lot lower than you are in a bush plane and you get to see the most incredible stuff. We even saw a leopard in the air. It was just the coolest thing.

Hayley: Yeah, that’s very, very lucky. Amazing! 

Brighde: Yeah. It’s kind of one of these things, isn’t it? While tourism can have a lot of negative impacts in an area, there are also a lot of positives that come from it too. And raising revenue to help fight issues; poaching, which is, a very expensive problem to combat. It’s really exciting to see that they’re getting really creative with ways that they can leverage tourism to support anti-poaching methods. That’s really cool. Are there any other really cool experiences that vegans might really be interested in the Timbavati?

Hayley: Yes. Actually which kind of follows on nicely from what you were just saying. I’m on the committee for an event that takes place here called the Timbavati Traverse. So it’s a relatively new event and it started when my partner, who is our head guide at King’s Camp as well. He is an avid ultramarathon runner and during the pandemic, he was training for an ultramarathon, which unfortunately couldn’t take place. So he had done all of this training and he didn’t want it to go to waste, so he ended up running 92 kilometers in the reserve. He raised money for the anti-poaching team, and it was just so well received. We had so many people saying, wow, that’s amazing. I would love to run in the bush with the animals. Like, how do I get involved?

I wanna do this. So we quickly realized that it was actually a great way that we could get some funding for the reserve and we started off very small because it was still during the end of the pandemic and we have managed to grow it into an annual event that takes place in July. So it’s coming up in just a couple of months now and it is an ultramarathon of 45 kilometers. Also, a half marathon of 21, and we also offer walking of 21 kilometers as well for those who are not perhaps runners or running fit or whatever, and they still want to have a unique experience. The funding for this all goes towards conservation and community because one thing that we all know is if you don’t give back to the local community, they obviously not going to want to protect our wildlife, so that is something that’s really important as well.

 So yeah, I’m looking forward to the event that’s coming up in a couple of months. There are still a few spots available, so if any of your listeners are marathon runners and are interested in running in the bush with all the animals and maybe you’ll bump into a lion or a leopard or an elephant or whatever then it’s definitely something to look into.

Brighde: Oh wow, Hayley, that sounds amazing, but also a little scary. Is it safe to be running when there are apex predators around?

Hayley: Well, it could be scary. It could potentially be dangerous, but we obviously take safety into consideration and that is the most important thing. So we actually have armed rangers with everybody. So with the people who are running, they are on bikes with their rifles just in case. And yeah, we also have people walking as well. But everyone is very trained. They know what they’re doing. They know how to react if we do see an animal out in the bush.

 We also have vehicles that are following the runners or walkers not too closely, so they don’t kind of ruin the experience of being out in nature, but close enough that if there was an issue they could just jump on. Or even if they need a little rest or something like that, then they can do that because it’s not a race, it is just an event. So, not about who crosses the finish line first. It’s just about the taking part and the experience.

Brighde: That does sound like a lot of fun. On the walking safaris that we’ve been on in Botswana, I think particularly vegans, they’re very, very worried because the guides carry guns also. They’re worried like, oh my goodness. I would feel terrible if an animal was shot and killed because I was like walking around the place, a place that I didn’t need to be. But the reality is, they never need to use them. For example, it really is there just for safety precautions. Like our guides who take us, we have to follow very strict rules. He’s in the front. There’s another guide at the back. We have to be quiet. We are walking in a single file. There’s a very special protocol, if you need to get someone’s attention and they have to train every year on their firearms training. The reason is, they never need to use it. Like every single guide I’ve spoken to, they say, I trained in 2004. I’ve never needed to use my gun and I’ve been taking groups hundreds, hundreds of times out into the bush. So it really is there on the very, very small chance that something would happen. If there was really any real danger. Then these types of activities wouldn’t be offered.

Hayley: Yeah, absolutely. It’s more just like having it because you have to legally. But like I say, everyone’s trained, they all know what they’re doing and actually my partner, who like I mentioned, is the one that started this initiative off. He does all his training in the bush here, and he is such a highly qualified field guide. He’s been doing it for so many years and has all his qualifications that he just does all his training running on his own. He obviously doesn’t carry a rifle when it’s just himself when he doesn’t have guests to worry about or anything like that. So, he has lots of stories where he has run into different sorts of animals, but he has never had to worry about it because he understands animal behavior really well.

Brighde: Alright. I absolutely know that. I really wanna check out the Timbavati area and I would love to experience the Vegan Safari camps at King’s Camp. How is it that people get to King’s camp?

Hayley: Yeah, so there’s a few different ways but the most common is to fly into our local airport, which is Hoedspruit. So it’s called Eastgate Airport, but Hoedspruit is our closest town, and then we arrange a transfer vehicle to come and collect people. It’s only about a 45-minute drive. And what’s nice is that it’s a drive through the reserve anyway, so often when guests get to us. They’ve already seen some animals on the way, which is really nice. But you can also get a Charter flight. So you would fly into our main airport in the city of Johannesburg, and then you can get onto a charter flight and you go into one of those small planes similar to the ones you were talking about in Botswana.

Then you would land just a short 10-minute drive from our lodge and then our field guides would collect you from the airstrip and drive you straight to the lodge. Or alternatively, if you want to fly into Johannesburg Airport and get a transfer or hire a car yourself and drive up to the area, that is possible. It is about a six-hour drive. But there are some really nice sites to see on the way, like waterfalls and viewpoints and stuff. So that’s another option for people that are maybe a bit more adventurous.

Brighde: Amazing. That just sounds like so much fun. Hayley, thank you so much for sharing all of these really interesting activities and experiences that people can have when they’re heading to South Africa. I’m sure people are definitely gonna consider it. If they are interested in finding out more about what it is that you do like with Vegan hospitality coaching and also maybe you can share the URL for the camp as well so that people will be able to look those up.

Hayley: Absolutely. Well, my company page is wild dreams.co.za and we can be found on social media under Wild Dreams Hospitality and Wild Dreams Vegan, both on Facebook and on Instagram. Then the other company that I’m the COO for is veganhospitality.com and we can be found under social media as Vegan hospitality and then the lodge is kingscamp.com. So you can go and find us as well. My direct email address is there under our Vegan Safari page. So if you have any questions about what to expect or you want to tell me, Hey, I’ve just booked a safari. I’m coming to see you soon, then you can get in touch with me directly. 

Brighde: I love it. Hayley, thank you so much for taking the time to be on the podcast. I really appreciate it.

Hayley: Thanks for having me. It’s been great to chat with you and hopefully, you’ll get to the Timbavati yourself soon. 

Brighde: I can’t wait. Thank you.

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