The story of Lapalala begins—like all great stories—with a dream.
In the reserve, if you stand at the iconic viewpoint high up on a golden-brown cliff, looking down on the Palala River flowing through lush kranses and valleys, there’s a good chance you will see a herd of elephants ambling across the savannah below.
For a moment, you cannot escape an immense feeling of awe and gratitude that a massive wilderness like this still exists just 300 kilometers from Johannesburg.
It’s easy to presume that it was always this way.
But turn the clock back over 50 years, and the Waterberg Mountain range was an unused patch of South Africa made up of a few cattle farms in a wild and rugged terrain. Locals had named the mountainous wonderland “Water Mountain” because of the many rivers flowing down from its highlands. Despite all the water, the terrain was semi-arid and not much suited to large scale farming or mining. And where remarkable animals once roamed the land, few were left because of hunting and habitat loss.
Luckily, the land still retained it’s lush beauty. And it wasn’t until two visionary men stumbled on this place, when Lapalala’s true potential began to take shape.
It all began with a friendship.
Clive Walker—an artist, writer, and renowned African conservationist—had a lifelong dream to find a place in the wilderness where he could take young children and open their eyes to the wonders of nature. He believed that the future of Africa’s wild animals lay in the hands of the youth. Someone needed to take the conservation legacy forward, and educating children— exposing them to real wilderness—would preserve a spirit that would last for generations.
At this point, a school was just an idea, a dream, but where would he find such a place?
It was during a walking safari with Dale Parker, a South African farmer and businessman with an equal passion for wild places, when Clive’s dream of Lapalala first began to take shape.
Clive hosted Dale and his wife on a walking safari in the Okavango Delta, and here they formed a strong friendship. It has been said that ‘a wilderness trail is like an indelible ink, one experienced, never erased’. And so began a journey together that would last over 20 years.
In 1981, Clive happened upon a beautiful farm for sale in the Waterberg mountains that lay just 300 kilometers from Johannesburg. During his visit, he stood up on one of the cliffs looking over the Palala River, marvelling at the river flowing down through the lush green valley below. This was a true oasis; a paradise, and he made the decision that this would be the location of his school, and a place where people from all over the world could come and feel the same connection he had felt.
But how would he acquire this farm? He wasn’t sure, but he had faith that it would happen.
Shortly after visiting the farm, Clive and Dale embarked on an elephant census in the Knysna forest. Sitting by the fire one evening, Clive could hardly contain his excitement about a paradise he had found in the mountains of the Waterberg. He spoke of spectacular kranses, valleys, open plains, and great rivers flowing through the middle of it.
Dale listened carefully to Clive’s stories, and quietly considered buying the land. But it took a trip to the Waterberg, and a short hike up to the same spot where Clive had stood, looking down over the Palala River, for him to make the decision. As they stood there, Clive could see the sparkle in Dale’s eye and he knew it was the beginning of something special.
Soon after purchasing the farm, Dale asked Clive if he could move there and be its first manager.
Clive was ecstatic; he now had a location for his dream of a wilderness school. But the work was only just beginning. He did not realise it at the time, but this was the opening lines of a story that would span decades, and result in one of the biggest restoration projects in South Africa—and in a conservation area the size of the Okavango Delta.
When Lapalala was purchased in 1981, the farm was a mere 5000 hectares. All that remained of the wildlife that once proliferated were 3 sable, 35 zebra and a few ostriches.
And like all great ideas, work was needed for the vision to be realised.
It took a full 20 years of effort. By the time they were done, having purchased new farms with the help of businessman Gianni Ravazzotti’s, collaborated with many like-minded people, NGO’s and community members, and brought in numerous species of animal, Lapalala had grown into a 45 000 hectare wilderness full of life.
During this time, iconic species such as white and black rhino were introduced to the reserve—the first private reserve in South Africa to acquire black rhino. The teams brought in giraffe, hippo, roan antelope, African wild dog, buffalo, sable and many other species that had once proliferated.
With the introduction of wildlife, plant life recovered and thrived in the reserve and over 504 species of tree have now been recorded. The spectacular kloofs and kranses came alive with birds, the crocodiles and hippos returned to the deep pools, leopards could be heard grunting in the riverine bush, and the jackals once again called into the night. In 2001, the IUCN proclaimed the Waterberg a Biosphere Reserve, which is part of an area that encapsulates many surrounding farms and reserves and making up over 1 million hectares of conservation land.
Sadly, Dale Parker had an untimely death in 2001, but he lived long enough to see the dream of Lapalala fully realised.
That’s quite something to be born out of one idea and a friendship.
FOR THE REST OF THE STORY; READ PART 2 HERE