When Cabinate Ndlovu arrived at Umlani Bushcamp as a temporary maintenance worker eight years ago, his heart was heavy. He’d spent two years working as an anti-poaching officer in the Manyeleti Game Reserve and had witnessed the horrors that the illegal wildlife trade is wreaking on South Africa’s iconic fauna.
“Umlani restored my faith in humankind,” the soft spoken, gentleman explains. “I didn’t just join a team of staff, I joined a family, and soon I worked my way up through the ranks. Today I am a tracker,” he says, with a wide smile.
Ndlovu’s story is echoed throughout this small, intimate bushcamp in the heart of the Timbavati Private Game Reserve. Thembi Matabula has been working in the camp for 16 years. She began making beds and today is one of the senior staff members at the lodge, along with her sister-in-law, Joana Matabula.
“There’s not really much of a hierarchy here,” says lodge manager Rouxle Jooste, who with her partner Greg McCall-Peat, helps to run Umlani. “We all chip in to do everything, and all of the staff are involved in all decision making, so it’s a real team effort at every level,” she adds.
McCall-Peat has been involved with the Timbavati all of his life. His father was instrumental in the establishment of the game reserve so you could almost say that the place is in his blood.
“It’s a special piece of wilderness,” he says. “And Umlani is an equally special part of it.”
What makes it special? Suzan Mashale is quick to answer that particular question. “We don’t just have jobs here,” the lively, accomplished Mashale says. “We have careers, where we can grow and fulfil our potential, where we are part of a family that cares for us and watches out for us.”
Suzan Mathabula agrees. “We all pull together here. When one of us is down, we help that person get back on their feet.”
Mashale, who oversees the front-of-house at the lodge and supervises mealtimes, is married to Umlani tracker Andrew Khoza. He is learning his trade from guide Amos Nyati, who spent 16 years perfecting his craft in the nearby Sabi Sand Game Reserve before joining the Umlani team nine months ago.
Khoza is a livewire and, together with Nyati, fellow tracker Emphraim Makukule and the rest of the guiding and tracking staff, his passion lies out there beyond Umlani’s borders in this beautifully wild corner of South Africa.
Learning on the job is part and parcel of the safari industry across Africa, but as anyone in the business will tell you, Shangaan trackers and guides like Andrew and Amos are legendary.
“The bush is in our DNA,” jokes Nyati. “We have a special affinity with this environment and our culture is built around this close relationship with the plants and animals here,” he explains.
It’s an affinity which extends even to the housekeeping staff, who consider it a blessing to be working in such wildly beautiful surroundings. “It is wonderful to work here and see such amazing things every day,” says head housekeeper Lindiwe Mathabula with a huge grin as she looks out at buffalo lazing in a waterhole opposite the lounge area. She’s been working at Umlani for six years and considers it her second home. “Every day is different, and every day is a gift,” she sighs.
Her feelings are echoed by the camp’s kitchen staff. “I love it here,” says Dumisile Mdletshe, a student chef from Matubatuba in KwaZulu Natal who has been at Umlani for only a month. “We love what we do here, and love being part of Umlani,” adds kitchen assistant Shirley Mthabini. Mdletshe and Mthanini are being mentored by chef Goodness Manghane who has spent her working life in the Timbavati and the past two years at Umlani.
“I am very happy here,” says Manghane. “We are a very close-knit “family” and we work very well together,” she adds.
Ask any of the staff what underpins this remarkable family atmosphere and they give you the same one-word answer: “Marco”. Umlani’s owner Marco Schiess is something of a legend in these parts and has managed to combine his own, unique sense of responsibility, laid-back style and humility with a forward-thinking approach to custodianship of Umlani and the land it sits upon. “We’re in the business of opening eyes and changing lives through positive experiences,” he says. “A successful safari is just as much about people as it is animals and ambience, and I am blessed to have amazing people working with me at Umlani.”
Student guide Adam Mohr, who left the wilds of Wisconsin in the US to come and forge a career in the African bush through Umlani’s ground-breaking student programme, sums it up nicely as the sun sets over the Timbavati. “It doesn’t get much better than this,” he says. Indeed it doesn’t.
Umlani Bushcamp is certified by Fair Trade Tourism and is one of a variety of certified game lodges, safari camps, guesthouses, hotels and activities throughout South Africa, Madagascar and Mozambique and mutually recognised businesses in Seychelles and Tanzania.