One man’s dream of creating a game reserve to boost conservation and satisfy his love of the wild has created a showcase for luxury hospitality and animal viewing second to none.
Chatting with the director, 54-year old Dale Howarth, on the Pumba Game Reserve’s stylish lodge patio overlooking a host of small and large game drinking at the edges of the abundant and quietly beautiful Lake Cariega, one senses a man who has been on a long mission, steadfastly and surely approaching his target.
‘Since I was a child, I’ve had a passion for conservation, collecting crickets, lizards, rats, frogs – you name it. At one time I had the biggest snake collection in the Eastern Cape and frequently sold some of them to the Port Elizabeth Snake Park for pocket money. I collect in a much bigger way now and even have a 10-month old lioness living with my wife Paula and me at the house, as well as two caraculs and Melvin, a three-year old giraffe, who kicks up a fuss when anyone comes near me,’ he laughs.
Pumba stands on 7 000 hectares of lush thicket encompassing five of the seven biomes in Southern Africa and possesses the largest lake in the area – Lake Cariega. Apart from being the major watering hole, it is home to the hippo on the reserve and Howarth says Pumba is the only lodge in the Eastern Cape where hippo can be viewed right in front of a guest’s chalet deck. I confirmed the experience one evening while sitting on my deck and watching hippo come out of the lake to graze a mere 20 metres away. The edgy reader will be pleased to learn that the decks are high off the ground and offer a splendid view of the lake and its frequent, thirsty visitors.
The two lodges on the reserve, known popularly as the water lodge and bush lodge, are distinct in style and landscape although both incorporate the five-star luxury expected in lodges of this calibre and, from both, game is constantly in sight. The view from the water lodge is expansive because it overlooks Lake Cariega and the rising plains beyond, while the bush lodge is situated literally in the heart of the African veld and instils a feeling of being ‘right in it’. Howarth is proud of the Pumba ‘product’ and what it provides for the game viewer:
‘Apart from the luxurious comfort of our lodges, I believe our game experience is the best in the Eastern Cape because our high carrying capacity and game population density frequently make game visible. Another major advantage is that the reserve owner manages the operation, giving it the personal attention it needs. I think it is testimony to the appeal and popularity of Pumba that many of our visitors return for a second and third time.’
‘Our conservation and environmental standards extend to even using bio-degradable and environmentally friendly soaps and shampoos, and water going back into the system is not contaminated but goes through a series of soak away filters and septic tanks, after which it feeds into the veld where it is reabsorbed.’
Howarth hopes that his dedicated and untiring efforts in the field of conservation are bearing fruit for the people in his area and the industry as a whole:
‘We employ 145 people and, where possible, promote from within. We have eight dedicated rangers and five apprentices at the moment. We also have a training academy providing official accreditation for overseas and local rangers.’
One of Pumba’s singular attractions, and a key biodiversity project, is the white lion rehabilitation and breeding programme introduced in 2006. It is one of only two known programmes in the world where the white lion has been reintroduced to roam freely and to hunt by itself. At the inception of his white lion project, Howarth was ridiculed and told he would never accomplish a successful rehabilitation and breeding programme, let alone get the lions to hunt by themselves and become self-sustaining.
‘We acquired one pure white male and two split females, which are tawny in colour for successful hunting but which carry the white gene. The day we released them they targeted a warthog but didn’t know how to catch it. In fact, they just played with it. The second day they caught a warthog – and ate it – and I’ve never had to feed them since. We call them Temba, which means vision and hope; Tombi, a young girl and Vela, which means to reappear.’
‘Although seen only once before in the wild, in 1976, the white lion is found often in African myth and folklore and the well-known, traditional African medicine men, or sangoma, are sometimes called “white lions”.’
These superb specimens have reached iconic status in Southern Africa. The indigenous African people see the mysterious white colour of the lions as purity and enlightenment in a spiritual sense and representing pure sunlight – beyond all colour, creed, gender or race.
The fascinating, engrossing and exciting game drives and bush-walk experiences at Pumba are made possible by a team of dedicated and knowledgeable rangers, who appear very passionate and protective of their reserve’s bounty in flora, birdlife and animal species. Not least of these is the reserve’s conservation manager, and senior ranger, Richard Pearse, whose gentle, unobtrusive demeanour hides a wealth of knowledge.
‘Pumba is unique in its flora and fauna system. It possesses five of South Africa’s seven biomes: the fynbos, thicket, grassland, savannah and forest biomes. Biomes have unique plant species growing within them and the preservation of these biomes is vital to ensure that animal life feeding off them is sustained.’
Dale Howarth’s passion for animal and plant conservation is matched by the quiet intensity of his conservation manager to achieve a perfect wildlife balance at Pumba:
‘This part of our country has remarkably beautiful areas that often go unnoticed,’ says Pearse. ‘There is a world unknown here. We have such floral diversity! And game viewing on this reserve is plentiful because of our good carrying capacity. We’re also in the process of eliminating all the alien-invasive vegetation, which will provide more water, allow more indigenous flora to flourish and further increase the carrying capacity, thus providing more food and a likely increase in game.’
I asked Pearse why visitors enjoy a wildlife experience of the kind Pumba offers and if they show any extensive interest in the surroundings.
‘It is interesting to note that although visitors come to our reserve to enjoy a five-star sophisticated lifestyle experience, and to see the Big Five, they are also extremely curious about the environment in which these animals are sustained and how plants, insects, birds and animals interact to survive. Birds, for example, aren’t just birds; they are vital indicators of changing environmental conditions in the same way mammals and insects are. There is also a growing interest in the medicinal value of the flora and fauna and why the African medicine man, or sangoma, uses them.’
The reserve has its share of colourful animal characters. One of them is 56-year old Hapoor junior, son of the famous elephant, Hapoor, legendary leader of the Addo Elephant National Park herd for 24 years. Pumba’s bush lodge manageress, Leandi Pretorious, told me about this sociable character.
‘Hapoor is very noticeable because he has a slice out of his ear, genetically acquired from his parents. Despite all our efforts to get him to use the watering hole, he insists on using the lodge’s swimming pool to drink from. For some reason he loves that pool and guests have become used to him being there. There is also a particular tree in front of one of the rooms which he loves eating from and, at the water lodge, he will walk right up to the glass windows to see what’s going on inside. He is a calm and lovely animal.’
Another character is Houdini the hippo. Aptly named, this wayward young bull had escaped several times from the Rondevlei nature reserve in Cape Town and made his way into a residential area, which resulted in Cape Nature issuing a destroy permit against him On discovering this, Howarth obtained an eight-day grace period to arrange a rescue team. After a long and painstaking search he was found (at the end of the eighth day), captured and sent to his new home at Pumba, where he basks now in five-star luxury in the idyllic and blissful Lake Cariega.
Howarth’s conservation ardour extends even beyond the magnificent Pumba reserve. In association with the World Bank and Addo Elephant National Park, he runs a biodiversity project that is currently involved in the expansion of the Addo Elephant Park from its original 70 000 hectares to 265 000 hectares terrestrial and 120 000 hectares marine. The project will also assist the struggle against global warming.
Pumba, together with Indalo, the Association of Eastern Cape Private Game Reserves, is also currently waging a battle against the construction of wind farms in the surrounding area which, Howarth says, ‘are a visual pollution and dangerous to bats and birdlife’.
I asked Howarth what the highlight of his Pumba experience had been, thinking he would probably say the white lion breeding project.
‘The highlight for me was, and always will be, the visit from former South African President Nelson Mandela. What an incredibly humble man! He insisted on meeting every staff member. We had to line them up and, when he came to breakfast, he made a point of shaking hands with everyone in the lounge. You can imagine how surprised and delighted the guests were!’
Pumba is an immensely appealing luxury reserve in which floral, bird and animal species flourish and where guests are treated to a solicitous personal service that never stops. Howarth’s capable wife, Paula, is general manager of the two beautiful lodges.
Sitting on my deck overlooking Lake Cariega and a herd of zebra and antelope in the distance, I wondered what had touched me about the experience – for something had. I thought of several things: Dale Howarth’s inspiring and stimulating passion for conservation, the subtle and attentive hospitality of Paula and her staff, the delectable cuisine, the exquisite comfort of the stylishly decorated lodges, a bush picnic with the eloquent, erudite and quietly intense Richard Pearse. And finally I realised that Pumba, for me at any rate, had more than just a relaxing five-star lifestyle and game viewing; it is a marvellous interactive experience with the people who live there and who love and care for the environment and its people. It brought knowledge, wonder and not a little self-understanding.
First published in 2011
Photographs courtesy of Dale Howarth and the African Pride Pumba Private Game Reserve