We believe in the potential of South Africa and feel privileged to be able to create, conserve, and sustain something so rare. It is our absolute pleasure to offer others this incredible opportunity of living in a vast, spectacular game reserve among herds of wildlife.” Mark & Wendy Rutherfoord
It all began in the Kalahari Desert
Mark Rutherfoord was managing the wildlife for Tswalu Kalahari Reserve, the Oppenheimer’s 100,000 hectare property after a degree in environmental science from WITS University and a tenure in the Sabi Sands. I, Wendy Trees a New York advertising executive at J. Walter Thompson, was flown to South Africa by my client De Beers as a reward for a great year in USA diamond sales with 10 co-workers. Our group visited the De Beers’ mines and Cape Town, but the real draw card was to spend a few nights at the Oppenheimer’s/De beers’ game reserve, Tswalu.
Mark wasn’t guiding at the time but he was asked to help due to the large group. Mark always jokes that he didn’t protest too much when he heard it was a group of New Yorkers, mostly women. A few game drives later and an amazing bush dinner under the stars seeing the Southern Cross for the first time – Mark had certainly caught my attention. It was the true Khaki fever cliché. Mark suggested I move to the Kalahari, which of course at the time seemed absolutely unfathomable but also enticing. We had met for only 48 hours in a group dynamic, but I duly took his advice and after four months of e-mails and phone calls, I flew to the Kalahari with two overweight duffle bags on a three month visa. When I set foot on the plane, which I almost missed, I knew I would marry Mark and likely never reside in America again.
We spent eight exhilarating months living in the wild Kalahari Desert together. I call it my New York detox only using my wallet, kept in Mark’s gun safe, every 6 weeks to buy groceries. Groceries were found two hours away on a bumpy road to Kuruman; we commuted in Mark’s 1974 Land Rover appropriately named Mr. Giggles. As an American it was amazing to me that we lived in a simple home with hardly any furniture but had a gardener and a maid every day, even on Saturday! We had horses and buffalo in our back yard, a veggie garden of note (which Mark promptly planted after I saw the selection in the Kuruman Spar) and 100,000 hectares of awe inspiring beauty surrounding us with loads of wildlife adventures. But Mark had a dream of starting his own game reserve and I knew my sabbatical in the Kalahari couldn’t last forever!
Fine tuning Mark’s dream . .
Mark was initially looking to remote Africa for his piece of ground – Zambia, Malawi, etc but after a quick visit to the States an idea took hold that made starting a South African game reserve more viable. Mark was inspired by a non-profit organization called “Open Lands” which my father was involved in outside of Chicago. The organization preserves tracts of land (prairie and wetlands) on the suburban fringe funded through residential sales on a small portion of the open land. Mark felt the concept could be applied on a larger scale to the establishment of a South African game reserve where the selling of land for holiday homes on a portion of the ground would capitalize the majority of the development of the game reserve. A bush estate was not unique to South Africa but it was to the Western Cape and very few properties, even in areas like Limpopo, had created a bush home estate independent of a larger game reserve such as Kruger Park on their border to drop fences with. We were inspired by our time living in the Kalahari and wanted to provide that nature experience to others, not just as a visitor but as a resident.
Mossel Bay and the Garden Route – A Big Surprise!
We set our sights on the Western Cape of South Africa rather than Zambia and the like for its stability, accessibility and booming second home and tourism market particularly in the Garden Route. There was little western cape game reserve competition in the area. It was vital for Mark that the ground be big enough to support a free roaming Big 5 wildlife population. He did not want to be feeding any animals for tourists – it had to be a natural system and as unmanaged as possible within a fenced boundary. After exploring the Klein Karoo, we were told to go to see a piece of ground near Mossel Bay. Our immediate reaction was we can’t afford 15 000 hectares on the sea! But once we travelled inland we couldn’t believe this beautiful piece of land existed with its spectacular mountain landscape and amazing variety of Fynbos, not to mention good grazing and rainfall. It felt quite “farmy” and over grazed particularly for Mark and his pristine bushveld background, but it was a viable piece of ground even at only 6,500 hectares given the good carrying capacity compared to the Karoo, as well as ample water supply for human and wildlife consumption. I promptly sold my Tribeca loft which paid for the main farm and we developed a business plan and raised private funding through a small group of US and SA investors to secure the rest of the ground and start the development. From there we went through quite a painstaking two year process to get all of the rights including an environmental impact assessment, subdivisions, removing the remnants of livestock farming, and endless legal, financial and marketing meetings with an amazing team of generous people in Mossel Bay.
The challenge initially was creating the perception of what it would be like to live on the garden route game reserve as there were no homes, no animals – nothing other than the dramatic and rugged landscape with its deep gorges carved out from ice ages and continental shifts of yesteryear and lovely green rolling hills blanketed in colourful Fynbos, an indigenous vegetation to the Southern Cape. Our name derives itself from Gondwana Land, the land mass that existed one hundred and twenty million years ago. The Outeniqua and Swartberg Mountains that wrap around the northern boundary of the property are the last visible evidence of the former Gondwana Land after the continent split to how we know it today. In paleogeography, Gondwana, originally Gondwanaland, is the name given to the more southerly of two supercontinents which were part of the Pangaea supercontinent that existed from approximately 510 to 180 million years ago. (Wikipedia)
Mark and I brought the concept to life through architectural models of bush homes and clever photography utilizing small decks built on the property to act like a home’s view. We built a small section of the game fence at the entrance for a kilometre both directions to make it feel as though you were entering a game reserve even though the property was not game fenced yet. The site layout was unprecedented – the homesites were spaced so no one saw or heard their neighbours and game corridors were considered in the planning on what has to be the lowest density development in South Africa (.007% development footprint). Mark called it the palm and finger approach, restricting the five housing nodes to the outside edges of the property leaving large open central areas for game movement and pristine game viewing – we did not want houses dotted throughout the landscape. Each home site had to be sited in previously disturbed lands, North facing, and have spectacular views -we pegged everyone ourselves. If we wouldn’t buy it, we didn’t peg it. Underground electricity and water was installed to far reaches of the property – we certainly did not do the site planning as a traditional developer would have, but we felt that was one of the unique selling points – that you were living in nature and not clustered next to your neighbour. After three years, we finally broke ground and then didn’t stop building for another three years – 2 lodges and 30 bush homes later we were able to open our doors to guests.
I always like to say we fenced in the people and let the animals roam free. If Mark had his way there would be no internal fences, but I said there would be no international buyers! After 60 kilometres of game fencing was erected around the now 11,000 hectare or 27,000 acre game reserve, the wildlife introductions commenced. The first species we introduced was the Cape Mountain Zebra in 2007, which is indigenous to the Western Cape and endangered. They are slow to settle and breed and known to take up to 7 years to drop their first young after introduction. We are very pleased to now have several offspring from this original group introduced. We sourced the game from all over South Africa as there was and is very little supply in the Western Cape. Mark did his best to source from areas with similar climates and vegetation to Gondwana’s, but that was not always possible. We introduced over 20 species of game including – hippo, cheetah, kudu, Eland, Elephant, Red Hartebeest, lion, giraffe and the rare and endangered Black Rhinoceros (Bicornus Bicornus) – the first Black Rhino back in the Western Cape in over a century!
There were some indigenous animals already on the property when we arrived which have thrived over the years including Grey Rhebok, Bush Buck and smaller animals like Aardvark, Bush Pig, African Wild Cat, Caracal, and Greysbok. The majority of the animals we relocated had a “hard release” which means they come off the truck directly onto the veld and not held in a boma for a transition or settling period. There were a few species however that required some extra attention to make a successful transition. Black Rhino are incredibly difficult to source so we were able to get only 2 males from Tswalu Kalahari Reserve. The relocation process was extensive given the dramatic change in environment and the fact that they are browsers. The rhino were first held in Kimberly in a boma to be transitioned onto a Lucerne diet which we could then utilize as we adapted them onto Gondwana’s browse vegetation. After a month they travelled down to the Southern Cape and were put into Gondwanas’ bomas. For 6 weeks a rhino specialist lived in a tent next to them to assist with their transition, during this time we would feed them a buffet of different vegetation found on Gondwana to try to wet their appetite. It took some time but eventually they were eating enough natural vegetation to survive successfully on the reserve. If we could source a female in time and start a breeding population in the Western Cape it would be a significant contribution to the species in the Western Cape.
Due to Gondwana’s unique location it is home to numerous critically endangered and rare fauna and flora species such as the Cape Mountain Zebra, Black Rhinoceros, Black Harrier, Bontebok, Cheetah, and leopard among others. Gondwana has and continues to set formal research and protection programs for these species to provide sound founding populations within the Western Cape and South Africa. Gondwana’s Cape Leopard monitoring project utilizes stealth cameras strategically situated around the reserve to try to identifying the number and sex ratios of the leopard population in the area. Tragically there are estimated to be only thirty-five leopard left in the Garden Route likely from only one gene pool. It is believed that there are approximately 350 leopard left in the Western and Eastern Cape combine. We conducted a study on Gondwanas’ elephants utilizing GPS collars which provided important and new information about how these giant herbivores utilized and impacted the Fynbos vegetation.
Over the years Gondwana has experienced many highs and some lows in our wildlife population. We are very proud to have been the home to the first wild lion cubs and elephant calves born in the Southern Cape in the last one hundred and fifty years. We are privileged to be able to see breeding pairs of Black Harriers daily on the reserve when there are only 1000 left worldwide. It is quite spectacular to take in a landscape that was once overgrazed and dotted with sheep and cattle that has now been transformed to its former wild self with herds of antelope creating game paths to water holes and indigenous birdlife such as the Orange Breasted Sunbird and Cape Sugar Bird now having a safe passage between the mountains and the sea.
A Fynbos Wonderland like no other . . .
Gondwana’s landscape is one of its greatest treasures surrounded by the Outeniqua and Langeberg Mountains wherever you look and gorgeous deep valleys dotted with colourful Fynbos vegetation. I always joke with Mark, we don’t even need animals, you can just drive around and enjoy the abundant Fynbos and spectacular mountain scenery. Gondwana’s guests enjoy a Cape Fynbos safari which is unlike any other. The indigenous Fynbos vegetation on the reserve is found nowhere else in the world and gets equal billing to The Big 5 game on game drives with expert field guides. It provides a tapestry of colour year round, with species changing every month.
Gondwana is situated within the Cape Floristic Kingdom, a world-renowned biodiversity hotspot. It is the smallest Floral Kingdom in the world yet the most diverse in terms of plant species and is endemic to South Africa. The Cape Floristic Kingdom comprises less than 0.04% of the earth’s land surface, yet harbors 3-4% of the worlds’ species. As a comparison, all of tropical Africa contains some 30,000 plant species in almost 20 million square kilometers. This is only 3.5 times more species than those found in the Fynbos biome, but in an area 235 times as large! Almost three-quarters of all the species in South Africa’s IUCN Red Data book of threatened or endangered species are currently growing in the Cape Floral Kingdom, which means that hundreds of species are facing extinction. Gondwana is the largest privately owned piece of land situated within the Cape Floristic Kingdom
The dominant biome within the Cape Floristic Kingdom is the Fynbos Biome. The Fynbos covers only about 6.7% of South Africa (about 85 000 km2) but has the largest number of plant species of any biome in the country (about 7500). The intrinsic value of conserving this unique Biome is undoubtedly its high levels of biodiversity and endemism. 80% of Gondwana’s vegetation is made of the Fynbos Biome. Gondwana has the opportunity to join in the progression of the world-renowned Eden to Addo Corridor. Gondwana would be the largest privately owned piece of land the has the endangered Fynbos as a predominant species within the corridor. Gondwana is currently under huge threat from the invasion of alien plant species with particular reference to Acacia Mimosa – Black wattle, Acacia cyclops – port Jackson and Hakea. Alien vegetation causes a rapid decrease in botanical diversity and water runoff and seepage which negatively impacts on wetlands. Gondwana has an ongoing alien removal management plan where budgets and resource allow with the focus on reducing spread and the eradication of single standing mature trees. This is an area of great focus for Gondwana going forward to sustainably remove the alien vegetation which occupies 5% of the total reserve.
Looking Ahead . . .
We are passionate about environmental education and have partnered with local municipalities to coordinate numerous day programs with underprivileged schools within the district to expose them to the incredible natural heritage they have inherited. Our goal is to establish an overnight bush camp to bring children from all walks of life together to better understand and appreciate nature. We believe as humans on this earth we must continue to learn and further our understanding of nature. We have initiated an adult based conservation tourism program whereby critical veld and wildlife research at Gondwana is being implemented at the post graduate level. On a more local level Gondwana has a commitment to the surrounding community where we seek to make a difference through employment, upliftment, training and education.