Gone are the days that the Garden Route was considered too remote and obscure for locals to make it big. South is proud to profile some of the increasing number of internationally outstanding individuals who call the region ‘home’.

PHOTOGRAPHS Vanessa van Vreden, Melanie Maré and supplied

Bianca Buitendag
Professional surfer Bianca Buitendag, aged 23, hails from Victoria Bay and is among the top women surfers in the world. She reached the number four spot in 2015 and continues to lure international sponsors with her talents and charm.

As a professional surfer, Bianca travels the world and finds herself in a different time zone at least every two weeks. At the time of interviewing, Bianca was on the southwest coast of France preparing for a World Tour event.

Although she has surfed professionally since the age of 17, her surfing-related travelling started at 14. Growing up in this unorthodox way encouraged her to become open-minded towards other cultures and opinions, and she regards it a privilege that few others get to experience.

She sees the ocean as her escape. “My heart thrives when I find myself under water, lost in the freedom of the ocean and its movements.”

Becoming one of the world’s top surfers required hard work and dedication. Bianca spends long hours in the water practicing and follows a physical exercise regime focusing on core strength, cardio and stretching. 
To qualify for the World Championships Tour, which sees the 17 best surfers in the world competing for the crown, she has to surf heats during various events in the Qualifying Series. Her favourite surfing spot in the world remains Victoria Bay, where she grew up next to the ocean. She matriculated from Outeniqua High.

“All my memories of the Garden Route are fond; I had the joy and privilege to grow up in an untouched and uncorrupted environment. I would love to settle down in this area one day and pass these memories on.” For now she is focused on her sport but in future would like to become involved in business. “We will have to see where the opportunities might arise.”

Elroy Gelant
Born and raised in Pacaltsdorp in George, Elroy Gelant, 30, qualified for the 5000m Olympic Games finals in Rio de Janeiro and finished 11th despite an injury. A few months earlier he had spectacularly broken the South African record at an event in The Netherlands in a time of 13:04:88 – just a few milliseconds slower than the Olympic bronze time. “I worked for that record, but it still came as a bit of a surprise. During my preparation, the time trials showed I was capable of running the 5000m within 13:10.  My previous personal best was 13:15. I’m really humbled and honoured.”

Elroy says the Olympics were a tremendous experience from which he took away a lot of skill and self-confidence that he will use to his advantage in preparing for his next goal – a top-five position in the IAAF World Championships in London in August 2017. He also has his eye on top positions in the 2018 Common Wealth Games in Australia and the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo, Japan.

But, just participating and doing well is not where his dream ends. “The holy grail of running the 5000m is a time of under 13 minutes. I’m going to try my best to achieve this over the next two years,” says Elroy.

He wants to take his athletics career as far as possible and intends running professionally for at least the next 15 years. “When I’m over my peak for the track events, I want to switch to road races and marathons. Running is what I love to do and it is a God-given talent.”

Schooled at Pacaltsdorp Primary and Outeniqua High School, Elroy’s outstanding talent surfaced when he won the bronze medal as an eight-year-old at the South African schools championship that year. “I remember it well. I stepped in at least two thorns while running, and cried and cried, but pushed through. In some aspects that 
is still my motivation – despite thorns and other setbacks, one has to keep going.”

He loves the Garden Route deeply and returns from his training grounds in Potchefstroom at least twice a year. “Nothing beats running in the Outeniqua Mountains. The whole landscape unfolding beneath, the fog, the sea, 
the vegetation … it’s awe-inspiring.”
Social media: @elroygelant and Facebook

Meyer von Wielligh
The unique furniture of Norman Meyer and Abrie von Wielligh has been attracting international attention for some time, but it was the $30 820 (± R400 000) sale of one of their pieces at world-renowned auctioneering company Christie’s that led to real recognition.

“It was the best moment of our 12 years in business. We could follow the auction live on the Internet. Works of some of the best designers in the world were sold just before and after our piece. It is very encouraging and we take it as a sign that we are on the right track with our business,” says Abrie.

The story behind the top-selling piece, the Battleship Table, is just as intriguing. It was made from the wood of a giant oak tree, which used to tower in York Street in George, and made headlines in the local paper when it crushed a car when it fell. The slab of wood they fashioned the table from resembled the shape of a battleship, hence the name.

The Southern Guild Design Foundation, an independent organisation that acts as a platform for local designers to showcase once-off creations, approached Meyer von Wielligh to create an item for an exhibition in Cape Town. They submitted the Battleship Table, which was eventually included in the foundation’s select exhibition in London.

Abrie and Norman first met as students at Furntech training academy in George before going into business together. They are enchanted by the Garden Route lifestyle and draw inspiration for their exceptional designs from the region’s breath-taking nature.

They have several international clients who have bought properties in the Garden Route and export some of their products to the Czech Republic and the United States. In addition, they have won several business awards, attracted attention at Design Indaba 2012 and took part in numerous international exhibitions in association with Southern Guild.

They are currently involved in a five-year export marketing programme in collaboration with the Dutch government agency CBI, a centre for the promotion of imports from developing countries. “We are definitely looking at the global market for future growth,” says Abrie.

Mark and John Collins
International adventure racing legends Mark and John Collins, aged 48 and 43 respectively, were on the team that beat 50 others from 18 countries in this year’s Expedition Africa race. Their three-hour win secured them a spot in the Adventure World Championships and the respect of significantly younger competitors.

The Knysna-based brothers, who are also behind the highly successful sports events company Magnetic South, will be part of the Sanlam Team Painted Wolf, derived from the Latin name of the endangered African Wild Dog – Lycaon pictus – which literally means painted wolf. “Wild dogs hunt in packs, which involves efficient team work, so we fully 
identify with that characteristic. In adventure racing success depends on working together as a team. It’s also our way of raising awareness of the plight of the African Wild Dog,” says Mark. The brothers made headlines almost immediately after starting to compete in the endurance sphere and have participated as competitors or organising teams in nearly 50 international events worldwide.

In 1998, at the age of 24 and 29, they represented South Africa at the legendary Camel Trophy competition in South America, surprising veterans by coming second. Four years later they became the first rookies in the top five, taking fourth place in the 2002 Eco Challenge in Fiji, a race in which only 10 out of 89 teams managed to finish.

They wouldn’t trade their Garden Route lifestyle for anywhere else in the world. “We have a good life in Knysna and everything we want and need is right here.”

Their efforts for the World Championships were well supported by the whole community.  “Many businesses joined in with sponsorships, which we truly appreciate.”

The adventurous duo wants to participate in the adrenaline-filled world of adventure racing for at least another three years, defending their Expedition Africa title amongst others, before they start thinking about slowing down.

Duran de Villiers
Selected in 2015 as one of the 30 Most Promising Young Entrepreneurs in Africa by internationally renowned Forbes magazine, Knysna’s ‘drone man’, Duran de Villiers, has a can-do attitude and passion for everything he undertakes.

Duran attracted tremendous international attention after launching his revolutionary unmanned aerial camera support system in 2012, which he designed and built himself.  At the time he was a sports photographer and saw the need for filming race participants in inaccessible areas.

The SteadiDrone transformed especially the filmmaking world and has subsequently found many other applications, and earned revenue of more than US$1.2 million in 2014, according to Forbes.

“For me it’s all or nothing. I believe in hard work, finding passion and joy in everything I do and being progressive, moving forward all the time. And then of course the support and hard work of my wife and team – they are 
all a massive part of our success,” says Duran.

Born in Johannesburg, but in Knysna since the age of 10, Duran matriculated at Knysna High and after school, when his parents emigrated to New Zealand, joined them there for a while.

“My romantic interest was here, however, and I decided to come back. Alexa and I got married and started up a media production company, which sowed the seed for the creation of SteadiDrone.”

Duran and his team are currently taking the company to the next level by building a new brand identity where their latest invention, the Alti Transition UAS, is the star of the show.

“The Alti is a world first in many aspects. It is a next-generation, fixed-wing unmanned aerial aircraft, which we’ve developed from the ground up. It has the ability to take off and land vertically, anywhere.”

Future plans involve going bigger and improving their products.