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GweGwe Beach Lodge in Eastern Cape opening soon



In 1920, the rolling grasslands, deep gorges with lush thickets and pristine rivers – with waterfalls tumbling into the Indian Ocean – were taken by the state.

Just over two months ago, luxury lodge operators Natural Selection let it be known via Facebook and printed fliers in Pondoland that the company was looking for about 50 experienced staff for a new property on the Eastern Cape’s Wild Coast.

“We were looking,” says cofounder Colin Bell, “for English and Mpondo-speaking people who had previously worked in high-end lodges and hotels … people who can also act as mentors when we expand operations in the future.

“There were more than 5 000 enquiries. The level of unemployment in this area is staggering. There are few people in Pondoland who have been working in tourism, so we’ve adopted the approach that we will ‘hire for attitude and train for skills’,” he says.

“Consequently, we’re recruiting the amaMpondo with the biggest smiles and greatest willingness to learn.”

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Hiddem gem GweGwe Beach Lodge

GweGwe Beach Lodge is located in the 5 000-hectare Mkambati Nature Reserve between Port Edward and Port St Johns in the former Transkei and is the first provincial reserve in South Africa owned by a local community. Ownership follows more than a century of displacement from ancestral lands.

In 1920, the rolling grasslands, deep gorges with lush thickets and pristine rivers – with waterfalls tumbling into the Indian Ocean – were taken by the state. When leprosy was eradicated, the property was given over to treatment of tuberculosis.

In 1977 the area was proclaimed a provincial nature reserve. The Mkambati community neither forgot nor forgave the injustice and, after establishing a trust to represent the rights of 40 000 residents of seven villages, instituted a land restoration claim in 2000. The landmark claim was adjudicated in the trust’s favour four years later.

“Working with communities was the last thing on anybody’s radar until we started getting involved in Botswana in the 1990s,” recalls Bell. “Through trial and error, we put together some fantastically successful community ecotourism projects and it was on the basis of these that we were invited to Mkambati in 2002.”

All sorts of problems arose, mainly because no precedents had been set and the legislation necessary to launch such an initiative had not yet been promulgated. Twenty-two years later, the luxury lodge is scheduled to open around Easter.

It will initially comprise nine-rooms (seven twin and two family). “It’s a momentous occasion for the community.” Not least of the sticking points in the concessoning process, says Bell, were the impoverished community’s employment and income expectations.

“Till now, facilities comprised a few rustic rondavels on the beach, the old doctor’s house (now the lodge) and a couple of wonderful stone cottages. These were used by self-drive tourists … and the only jobs created were for a handful of cleaners. This was not the return they anticipated.”

The initial request from the community was for a 300-bed lodge at GweGwe. “We told them we could accommodate this but a lodge of that size and nature worked on economies of scale to be profitable. It would probably employ only between 30 and 40 people.

“We, on the other hand, work on a low-volume high-revenue model. Our typical Botswana lodge might only feature around 12 rooms or tents. but we employ over 100 people.”

* The Mkambati Land Trust has agreed to increase the size of the reserve by around 40% and committed its use to conservation in perpetuity in return for the financial benefits and jobs that accrue. Conservation management will be provided by the Eastern Cape Parks and Tourism Authority. * The community will also receive nine percent of gross turnover as lease fee.

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