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16 Oct

Lapalala: The Restoration of a Wilderness

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.

A School in the Wild

Clive Walker’s dream of creating a wilderness school at Lapalala was realised in 1985.

Starting with a tiny hut in the wilderness, the school blossomed into a massive program that took people of every background into the wilderness to learn about nature.

For Clive, it was important that all South Africans have access to the school, and programs were implemented to bring kids in from even the poorest townships around Johannesburg—kids who would not otherwise have the chance to visit a wilderness area.

To date, over 100,000 children have passed through the reserve and learned from the various programs on offer. More recently, the school offers training to teachers and headmasters so that the lessons can be ongoing.

A History of Human Occupation

While the focus of Lapalala was on conservation, it turned out that the area was rich in human history too. In fact, the land has perhaps one of the oldest histories of human occupation anywhere in the world.

After exploring the many hills and cliffs, archeologists found evidence of hunter-gatherers dating back to Africa’s oldest peoples—the San. Their mysterious and beautiful artworks were found painted in the caves and overhangs of the mountains; images of animals like rhino on the cliff walls showed the wildlife that roamed the land before gun-wielding hunters arrived.

In the nearby Makapan Valley—a UNESCO World Heritage Site—early hominid remains have been found showing occupation of the area some two million years ago.

More recently, the Ndebele People occupied the area in the 16th and 17th centuries, and numerous artefacts have been found on Lapalala which show their mixed use of the land for farming, hunting, and economic trade with regions as far off as East Africa.

When the first Afrikaans trekboers arrived here, they encountered what seemed like an impenetrable mountain range with harsh arid plateau, and so little modern impact has been made in the Waterberg.

While conservation is one of the key reasons for the creation of Lapalala, it turns out that the area hosts wonders of our combined human past that need to be preserved too.

A Safari Paradise

When one looks at what has been achieved at Lapalala in the last 30 years, it’s easy to sit back and relax and appreciate one of the great success stories in restoration and conservation in Africa.

But there is still more to do!

In order to ensure the long-term conservation and survival of the land and its animals, Lapalala must grow and evolve with the times.

As the new custodians of the reserve, Dale Parker’s son Duncan and Gianni Ravazzotti made the decision to open up Lapalala to other like-minded custodians interested in preserving the future of the reserve, the Lapalala Wilderness School and the various Community Projects.

Only 300 kilometers from Johannesburg, Lapalala is now one of South Africa’s undiscovered safari wonders—and it’s time that more people had the chance to experience the area in a sustainable way and provide support for its future.

Tintswalo at Lapalala

In a new and exciting partnership, Tintswalo Lodges have taken ownership of the main lodge in the reserve. Renowned for their successful approach to ecotourism, Tintswalo is improving the main camp at Lapalala, adding a unique style and design flair which has made their other lodges famous.

Perched on the lush mountainside, the main deck of the lodge looks out over this beautiful wilderness; and it is with this image in mind the Tintswalo Family have made a firm commitment to doing their part in the sustainable future of Lapalala. They look forward to welcoming visitors from around the world.

Plans are also in place to introduce various new species and wildlife: new elephant herds and lion will soon be prowling the land as they did once before. Major research projects are also underway, including a leopard census to count how many of these elusive predators lurk in the thick mountain valleys. The teams have also removed over 40km of overhead electricity lines making this the first private protected area of its size that is off the grid.

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