A craving for adventure and a need to escape the rat race were at the core of a Johannesburg executive couple’s spur-of-the moment decision to buy an upstart game farm outside Albertinia. Fourteen years later the Garden Route Game Lodge has developed a family-oriented experience, which includes the Big Five and attracts visitors from around the world.

WORDS Athane Scholtz PHOTOGRAPHS Desmond Scholtz

“If we really knew what we were getting into, we may not have done it – the first few years were very difficult – but we have no regrets,” says Garden Route Game Lodge managing director Anthony Doherty during a game drive with South.

The safari is the third of the weekend and we continue to be thrilled by quality close-up game viewing of four of the big five (leopard occur naturally in the area but are nocturnal and shy) as well as cheetah, hippo, giraffe, zebra, wildebeest, hartebeest and large buck species such eland, kudu and gemsbok. Impala and springbok also abound, the latter being a prime target for the cheetah.

Our children have been particularly charmed, not only by the wildlife but also by the obvious regard for their needs. Our personal guide for the weekend, Kalvin Jacobson, greets Emma and Nathan by name upon our arrival and gives them activity packs and caps.

Children’s DVDs, toy boxes and kiddies size gowns in the rooms, a kiddies menu and colouring in pictures in the restaurant keep children busy and parents grateful.

On game drives, the ever-patient and knowledgeable Kalvin answered non-stop questions. On a bush walk he convinced fussy eater Nathan to chew a termite. Daily scheduled junior ranger activities include nature walks, sand art, a tour of the skull garden or reptile encounters, special children’s game drives, fishing in the nearby dam and cheetah tracking.

Our generally slow to rise pre-teens were up and ready to ride before 7am every day, their diligence rewarded by a sighting of a female cheetah eating a freshly killed springbok. Anthony speculates hopefully that her increased hunting is a sign that she may be pregnant again.

Cuddled up in ponchos against the early evening chill, our game drive with the Dohertys is a gem. A showdown between a male and female rhino with a calf takes place right in front of us – to everyone’s great excitement. “For us it never gets old. We love seeing free-roaming wildlife reintroduced on reclaimed farmland, returning to where they would have occurred naturally before domestic farming pushed them out. We still get excited when new animals are introduced or even seeing them exploring new places in the park,” says Anthony.

In 2002, when the Dohertys and their financial partners and friends, the Apteker family, bought the farm, the lodge had very little game, almost no guests and, unbeknownst to them, a dodgy reputation inherited from a previous owner. The couple thought they had done their homework and their first visit to the lodge had gone brilliantly.

Natasha Doherty says she and Anthony were fed-up when both their cars were stolen in Johannesburg and realised their conversation revolved around their jobs as a stockbroker and sales executive at a labour brokerage respectively. “In search of excitement, we were making plans to go to New York when 9/11 happened – we had no back-up plan and needed out.”

Natasha’s mom, Linda Oberholzer, saw the game lodge for sale advertisement in an in-flight magazine and proposed the couple buy the lodge. While it seemed crazy, the Dohertys none-the-less drove through the night and arrived for breakfast – the first time either of them had been in Mossel Bay. “We spent the night at the lodge and our chalet had a magnificent view. The lodge appeared very busy and we had a fantastic time enjoying delicious food in the open-air boma – only later we learned the previous owner had invited the entire town of Albertinia for a complimentary dinner,” says Natasha.

Anthony had done some research around the tourism sector and felt it was on an upward trend. “In retrospect we were a soft sell… we really wanted the dream and could see ourselves living surrounded by wildlife with the ocean nearby.” The dream nearly crashed when an investor pulled out but a chance dinner with friends connected them with Alon Apteker, one of the founders of Internet Solutions, who remains a friend and financial partner in the lodge.

The couple’s arrival in winter was a hard wake-up call with few guests, rainy weather and nowhere to stay other than one of the lodge rooms. Game rangers doubled as farmworkers and waiters in the boma.

Anthony ran the reserve and lodge, initially with the help of Game Ranch Management by J du P Bothma, which he read cover to cover. Local conservation authority Ken Coetzee, with input from CapeNature conservation services manager Rhett Hiseman, developed a management plan for the reserve to determine wildlife carrying capacity, stocking rates as well as veld rehabilitation and management.

Natasha focused on marketing and brand reputation management, eventually convincing the understandably sceptical tourism industry to give them another chance as things had changed.

Their determination, hard work and passion paid off. The original 150ha farm has been extended to just under 3000ha, with plans to expand as neighbouring farms become available. Rooms have been upgraded and facilities improved to include a large lounge, bush pub, Serengeti’s restaurant, a spa and outdoor boma. Five new luxury chalets are currently under construction and more large game is expected to be introduced later this year. Staff numbers have grown from 13 to more than 110.

The couple eventually moved off the premises and when they started a family realised the need for a child-friendly game reserve in a malaria-free area. “At the time most game lodges did not allow children under 12 years, so we decided to focus on the family market. Our own kids, Gemma and Roman, had different needs as they grew older, for which we could then provide at the lodge,” says Natasha. The choice was smart, with local and international families making the quick trip from Cape Town or Port Elizabeth for a safari experience. “Because of the reserve’s long existence, the animals are very relaxed around game viewers, so up close sightings are not uncommon.”

Natasha says the lodge has had many memorable moments, such as searching for a missing lion cub with a sniffer dog and pursuing a darted white rhino with a helicopter. “The saddest time was when our baby elephant, Lunar, died and the happiest remains every time a new animal is born. My proudest moment was in 2008 when I watched Anthony on eTV news showing the first free-roaming cheetah cubs born in the Southern Cape in over 100 years,” says Natasha. “We are also proud that some of our guests have been coming back every year since the reserve opened.”

We stop at the elephant boma where Selati and Moya overnight. We feed the gentle giants specially formulated pellets and touch their inquisitive trunks as they reach for more food.

As we leave, Natasha says she remains grateful for being able to live on the Garden Route, with so many wonderful experiences on their doorstep every day. “I still think ‘wow’ and appreciate how blessed we are to have been able to make a life here.”

Garden Route Game Lodge at a glance
Game drives for day visitors depart daily at 11am and 2pm, and take between two and three hours (cost R425 per person, kids under 12 half price). Entry to the reserve, access to the reptile centre (guided tour at 10.30am) and the skull garden is free of charge. Lunch at Serengeti’s restaurant is an optional extra.

WINTER SPECIAL (2016): Bed and breakfast and one game drive for R925pp. Sunday special game drive for R195 pp at 11am and 2pm.

Accommodation includes two- and four-sleeper lodge rooms and two-sleeper chalets with a view of the waterhole or Langeberg valley. Luxury four-sleeper chalets are currently under construction.

Breakfast and dinner at Serengeti’s is an interactive buffet, with chefs preparing game meat on the grill in front of guests. An a la carte menu is available for lunch and dinner. Meals and functions are also hosted at the Chef’s Boma, the outdoor African Boma and pool terrace.

Other activities include reptile encounters, bird walks and the skull garden.

Facilities include a bush spa, two communal lounges, two bars, a curio shop, swimming pool as well as conference, events and wedding venues and services.

Child minding available to sleep over guests.

The Garden Route Game Lodge is situated on the N2, 7km outside Albertinia and 40km outside Mossel Bay.
028 735 1200 grgamelodge.co.za