‘You’ve been living in the bush for a long time; you must know how to tell when a zebra is sick.’ Lazarus, our Makweti ranger, is taunting me. I have to admit that I don’t – but this is what is so refreshing about the lodges of the Welgevonden Private Game Reserve. The rangers and staff are firmly in tune with the game and therefore full of fascinating snippets. Sylvester at Mhondoro later tells me that a fork-tailed drongo can imitate as many as two hundred different bird calls. I hadn’t known that either.
The 36 000 hectare reserve was established only seventeen years ago, on the Waterberg plateau north-west of Johannesburg, and its nearest town, Vaalwater, a once-obscure dorpie, now finds itself firmly on the map due to its proximity to Welgevonden and the reserve’s neighbour, the Marakele National Park.
The reserve covers a broad range of different habitats from rocky ravines, studded with low trees, through almost miombo-like woodland to the plains in the south. It is home to more than 50 species of mammal including some more unusual ones: brown hyena, aardvark and aardwolf. There are also fifteen species of antelope due to the fact that the reserve broaches both bushveld and drier biomes, allowing eland, gemsbok and hartebeest to exist alongside the more common impala, klipspringer and duiker.
But one picks up on numerous more subtle differences. All the operators have traversing rights over the entire reserve, for example, rather than by negotiation with other owners, as is the case in some similar set-ups.
There are no road-signs pointing out the lodges and homes that are hidden away in the mountains and, although there are 53 owners, you could be forgiven for thinking that you have the place to yourself. The lodges, only 13 of which are commercial, are limited to 10 guests and seven staff on site and no private vehicles are allowed in. Instead visitors are picked up from the gate by lodge vehicles.
When, in 1993, these 18 farms were all cobbled together to form the reserve, every building and structure that fell into it was flattened and buried in a deep hole, covering up the evidence that there had ever been any cattle on this sourveld.
Speaking to Hennie Roets, an Oom Schalk Lourens type who farmed here for many years before he sold up to the new owners but stayed on as Operations Manager of the reserve, you get a strong impression of the essential pride the former owners have in what has become of their land.
The sections were divided off using helicopters to survey the land and plan the roads but Hennie was on the ground planting crosses to mark the internal boundaries and plotting the 450 kilometres of tracks he would later construct over the hills. ‘Ek het die hele plaas met my voete deurgeloop,’ he says in his matter-of-fact way. (I have covered this entire farm on foot). ‘We used to farm cattle, now we farm elephants. It’s basically the same idea.’
This concept is precisely what makes Welgevonden so interesting. The management of the reserve makes no bones about the fact that this is a form of farming whereby game numbers are controlled just as they are in any such reserve. Here, though, the ongoing revitalisation is more proactive and there’s a refreshing honesty about the difficulties they have faced.
For example, explains conservation manager André Burger, they bring in a klomp of wildebeest that are unaccustomed to living in a reserve with predators. The lions take full advantage of the antelopes’ naivety, often killing more than one at a time. At least lions are gutsy and eat until the plate is clean.
So do lions kill for fun? No – but they make hay while the sun shines, pure opportunists that they are. The wildebeest have to learn quickly and those that don’t become part of the food chain. But predator-aware wildebeest are expensive and hard to come by so it is inevitable that some will be sacrificed during the learning experience.
Welgevonden is well-known for its excellent rhino-viewing but the reserve can support only a carefully-calculated number of the creatures, so they dart a couple of young males and send them off to new homes in the Kgalagadi. With the proceeds of the sale, they can buy more and savvier plains game for the two prides of lion to feed on with rather less ease and abandon. (We watched the rhino-darting and I touched the animal’s mouth, which was as soft as a baby’s cheek – in that second, my entire image of a rhino changed forever.)
This reserve, just like any other, can only cope with a limited elephant population, so they contracept (as they call it, although I am sure it is not a word) the females every year. However, to prevent a breakdown in herd structure, they have recently skipped an identified cow from each herd to allow some young to be born. Last year they gave contraception to one female who, unbeknown to the vet, was already pregnant. The calf was born unaffected. So contraception works and poses no risks to the elephant and once again Welgevonden is at the forefront of the research.
Sourveld, for obvious reasons, supports far fewer animals than the sweet grasses of the Lowveld so the reserve is carrying out ground-breaking work in what they called the Plains Project, whereby areas of open grassland are actively fertilised and mown to stimulate grass growth and change the mineral content and sweetness. This attracts the game to the chosen areas, which are easily accessible for game viewing. The animals keep the grass short, defecate and urinate – a form of bush fertilisation that will ultimately result in these areas becoming self-perpetuating grazing lawns.
And where something is out of kilter in the natural infrastructure, the reserve management is quick to put it right by the most natural means, such as the planned reintroduction of oxpeckers 13 years ago, to counter the residual cattle ticks which were infesting the kudu.
They were busy planning the oxpecker reintroduction, André explains, and awaiting the birds, when the they started to return of their own accord. He feels that this was an indication that the system was starting to function more naturally and that there were no oxpecker-unfriendly pesticides being used in the area. The birds have done extremely well on Welgevonden and the tick numbers have also consequently reduced radically.
Likewise, buffalo were temporarily removed a few years back after an outbreak of corridor disease. Healthy bulls have now been reintroduced to act as sentinel animals to determine whether the disease remains on the reserve after a quarantine period. Fortunately no further indications of its presence have emerged and recently a herd of buffalo has been re-introduced.
In a way, it seems somewhat artificial but in fact it couldn’t be further from that. It is a perfectly-managed microcosm of how the entire planet ought to be run and it is a privilege to be a part of the process, as was explained to me by Sibusiso Vilane, veteran climber of Everest and a renowned motivational speaker, as we looked out over the sweeping views to the west from Nungubane Lodge’s vast deck.
Sibusiso is now deeply involved in the rhino project, keeping tabs on these beasts by sketching them and monitoring their movements. The man is as inspired as he is inspiring and he’s also heavily committed to community work in Vaalwater. The reserve maintains strong ties with the townspeople and such is the enthusiasm for conservation and education here that everybody in Welgevonden seems to be on something of a high.
Including the zebra who, evidently, aren’t sick. How can you tell? Because the mane lies flat when a zebra is in poor health. Thanks, Lazarus. No need to raise them from the dead, then!