TZANEEN COUNTRY LODGE is an oasis run with impeccable warmth and precision.
You can either use it as a base to explore Mopani’s varied attractions — it’s only 45 minutes from the Kruger National Park and the second biggest Baobab tree in SA, 30 minutes to Magoebaskloof, not to mention nearby elephant rides, etc, etc — or just relax and be pampered at the Lodge.
Exquisite dining, a very friendly pub, great bass fishing & bird watching, a range of hiking trails, horse riding, quadbikes, cycling, canoeing, the spa or just relaxing next to the pool should keep boredom at bay. There’s the Mangela tea garden, local produce & curio store next door, with an Animal Farm and spectacular party place for kids.
So why is it that 65% of all their business is corporate? It’s a pattern I seem to be coming across frequently in Limpopo — if you don’t offer game viewing, you’re peripheral to the tourism mainstream.
Something Elaine Hurford said at the start of these travels stuck in my mind and will become something of a benchmark. “Capetonians will happily travel 5–6 hours to Knysna and Plettenberg bay for weekends, so why won’t they travel 3½ hours to Prince Albert?” she asked.
Tzaneen Country Lodge is 4½ hours drive from Johannesburg, less from Pretoria. It’s winter climate is superb, already attracting “swallows” (the human variety) from Cape Town and even Klerksdorp who spend their winters there. So why not more weekenders from Gauteng? It seems that provincial tourism marketing initiatives need to attend to this.
I get up early to take photographs before the light gets too harsh. And these walks reinforced the experience of unbelievable warmth. Judith is mentioned above, but just before I saw her I walked past a worker’s cottage. As I approached, a worker came out. “Good morning, how are you?” (Not the usual “Good morning, how are you, I’m fine thank you” that comes out with meaningless clockwork that I experience elsewhere.) But then he went on to tell me that if I take a path to the left, I will cross a wooden footbridge that leads to an interesting walk. Now that is what makes for great tourism experiences!
The early mornings were also filled by a sense of activity — sweeping, raking, cleaning, preparing — all to make Tzaneen Country Lodge look better than best. An old TV ad for Australia Tourism stuck in my head as I saw all the activity and thought, “so where the hell are you?”
I’m sure many will be aghast that I show a foreign tourism ad while writing about SA destinations, especially one that was so controversial (banned in the UK). Does the fact that it was successful count, that it became a viral ad hyperlinked by millions, including Travels with Akela now? But the fact is, right here we have a world-class attraction many more South Africans could be visiting.
Tzaneen Country Lodge has about 50 suites and the rack rate starts at about R385 per night.
I spent the best part of Saturday with an amazing man.
He arrived on his mountain bike and apologised for being late. “It’s like having your own municipality here,” he says. And he’s not far wrong. His mini-empire includes the farm where it all started, the Lodge, the Convention Centre, a service station, a Friendly Grocer and bakery, a liquor store, the Mangela Tea Garden with local produce and curios, animal farm…
Faan Kruger became a mango farmer in 1990. He had pioneered black housing with his company, SA Home Construction Co, in the 1980’s when legislation changed to allow black home ownership and banks were able to grant bonds. He entered the tourism industry “by mistake” — he bought adjacent properties with existing buildings in a pre-emptive move to avoid undesirable development.
So what to do with it? As so often happens, a guest house seemed a good idea. But Faan was better placed than most to do it — he is a stickler for detail, he describes himself as “a plodder, (wife) Adri is the dreamer.” Throughout the day, he was either on his cellphone or jotting down notes when something caught his attention.
He says he is a recluse and anti-social, but that’s not true. He is enthusiastic, passionate, a very warm host and fascinating in discussion. He does, however, live for his projects. But, approaching 64, he says he’s winding down to spend more time with his grandchildren who obviously mean the world to him.
Two things influenced him greatly — his mother, who was “green” before the phrase became commonplace, and working in Europe as a labourer after school. In Switzerland, he only got to bath once a week at the railway station, and used dirty clothes as extra padding in his sleeping back to keep warm. “That experience made me appreciate the lot of labourers, and I always make sure that they are properly looked after,” he says.
He returned to SA at the age of 24 to study development economics at Wits. “I started off wanting to change the world, then the country, and now I’m happy with my immediate family and maybe 5km around me,” he says. He treats staff exceptionally well and they have all grown immensely as a result. Guest interactions with staff demonstrate that.
His construction company was headed by the late David Skosana, long before the days of Black Economic Empowerment, who had started as a bricklayer. “Everyone here has come up through the trenches, everyone started with a pick or shovel — even people who are today the site electrician or plumber” he notes. Faan cannot praise David enough: “he was the man I model myself on; I would have nominated him to run the country any day. He had absolute authority without ever raising his voice. He had an aura about him.
“This hotel is his legacy.” In quiet times, the construction company was used to build the hotel.
If Faan learnt about energy conservation and minimum tilling of the soil from his mother, he has taken it to new levels. “Wil jy die Here help? Het die son hulp nodig?” he asks a labourer as we inspect the refurbished staff quarters. (Do you want to help the Lord? Does the sun need help?) An external light bulb had been left on.
Tzaneen Country Lodge was one of the first establishments to use solar water heating. Evaporative coolers are used wherever possible. There are no septic tanks — water is recycled to SABS standards for return to rivers. Sixty percent of the agricultural land has been returned to indigenous forest, where over 3,000 indigenous species of flora and fauna have been re-established.
But his biggest joy comes from the fact that virtually all buildings were recycled — not that you could tell. It’s only when he shows the before and after pictures of sheds, kilns and out-buildings that now form part of a four-star hotel or what must be a five-star conference venue, that one is truly amazed.
He claims that it’s the greenest hotel in Limpopo, if not South Africa.
He was scoffed at when he started, but he and Adri have made what some thought a crazy vision, a world-class attraction.
“Around us is fine scenery of vast contrast, highland and lowland, forest and savannah, cool and moist, hot and dry, all within a radius of 50 kilometres. The elevation ranges from 500–2000 metres. We are on the doorstep of major fruit farms and the biggest concentration of game ranches in southern Africa.
“Jurassic Park is on our doorstep. The Modjadji Cycad Reserve is the largest concentration of a single cycad species in the world. We have the second largest baobab in our country, the largest remnant of indigenous forest in our country, mountain grasslands and spectacular views.”
Inviting, isn’t it?
And Adri tells me that if you have a 4×4, the sea is only three hours away. Now that’s worth investigating too!