Enforced eco-lodges in South Africa

Enforced eco-lodges in South Africa

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With electricity supply from the national grid becoming a problem, accommodation businesses in South Africa are discovering some eco-sensitive souls who have decided they do not need to be held hostage by power cuts and rising prices. We stayed in loads of different types of tourist accommodation, ranging from backpackers’ bughouses and tiny campsites to five star hotels and luxury game lodges, and the one thing all the good ones have in common is a sincere desire to offer guests a good experience. The basics of that good experience usually constitute a warm, comfortable place to sleep, hot showers, good food, tea and coffee on demand, and drinks that are cold.

Most imagine that providing these things would necessitate being firmly attached to the national electricity grid. That’s not necessarily the case, as more and more tourist destinations are eschewing a relationship with coal-burning, carbon-belching, blackout-prone national provider. In fact, the establishments described here were never on the grid, and decided to go it alone long before Eskom-bashing became fashionable.

OUDRIF is in one of the most beautiful settings you could wish for, close to a permanent spring in the Doring River in the northern Cederberg. Owner Bill Mitchell built the lodge specifically to demonstrate that you can live very comfortably, bordering on luxuriously, without consuming vast resources. The rooms, each in its own building, are constructed from local stone and straw bales, and the roofs are made from straw bales, chicken wire, cement and a waterproof bonding agent. I’ve heard they’re pretty warm in winter, and I can vouch for the fact that they’re reasonably cool in summer it was 45C when I was there. Granted, I spent most of the day up to my nostrils in the deep natural rock pool. Each room has a solar generator for lights and a small fan. I did not try the gas geyser for a hot shower, but I know from previous experience that they work pretty well. Bill and his wife, Jeanine, are working on a hyperefficient wood-burning donkey geyser to replace the gas, but they’ll probably continue using gas for refrigeration and most of the cooking. Laundry is done by hand, but sometimes they feel the need to use a washing machine and power up a generator for an hour or so every two weeks. There are five rooms, sleeping a maximum of 10 guests. The lodge employs four cleaners and Jeanine functions as manager and chef. She also guides informative rock art and botanical walks. Rates are R600 per person per night, all inclusive. www.oudrif.co.za, 027 482 2397 CLOSE to Montagu on Route 62 is the out-of-the-way Simonskloof Mountain Retreat. When Jurgen Wohlfarter started the lodge in 1999, he was confronted with a few rundown buildings, no electricity, and a budget that would make a shoestring look fat. Doing everything himself, he opted for the most cost-efficient solutions at every turn. Initially, his motivation for steering clear of an Eskom connection was financial, but he started to like the quiet, and decided it was rather romantic. He used a petrol generator for power tools while building and, for a while, powered his laptop with the generator too. He’s since moved almost completely to solar for electricity, and cooks on an open fire, in a wood-burning Dover stove or on gas. Refrigeration is gas-powered, and lights are solar or paraffin.

It’s a low-key place and he has no staff. For years, he did all the laundry by hand, but he now has a washing machine that he fills by hand and runs on the generator. To ease up on laundry, rates are quoted without bedding and towels in the hope that guests will bring their own, but they are available for a reasonable fee. Water is heated by gas geysers, but he is working on diverting excess heat from the Dover to the showers. I was there in midwinter and it gets pretty cold in the mountains, but I had a great hot shower, and a wonderful meal cooked on an open fire, washed down with a fire-brewed jug-style espresso.

Simonskloof prides itself on having no TV, no cellphone reception and no Eskom. It’s the kind of place you go to get away from those things. You could take a walk, an overnight hike or kloofing trip, or just chill. There are two self-catering cottages, three rooms in the farmhouse, and a campsite. Rates range from R125 to R180 per person per night, bed only, and camping is about R50 a night. Meals and escorted trails are extra. www.simonskloof.com, 023 614 1895 MADIKWE Game Reserve in North West is renowned for its numerous exclusive, luxurious lodges, with all mod cons and hot and cold running water. But tucked among the five star pamper fests is Mosethla Bush Camp, which was one of only three lodges when I was there a few years ago. I’d spent two nights at the rather fancy and very expensive Madikwe River Lodge (which I loved, don’t get me wrong), and then spent a couple of nights at Mosethla. And I loved that too.

The rooms are simple wooden structures, and the ablutions are communal with odour-free composting long-drop toilets and showers heated by a donkey boiler. Cooking is on an open fire, with a gas stove as back-up, and the fridge is gas powered. A small solar generator powers the electric fence and, if you bring a 12-volt car-battery charger, you can charge camera batteries. The thinking behind Mosethla is to give guests a real bush experience, so the mod cons are kept to a minimum while allowing the necessary luxuries hot showers, cold drinks, good food and good company. The emphasis is on walking, but there are game drives as well. Rates for South Africans are R1100-R1200 per person per night all inclusive. www.thebushcamp.co.za, 011 444 9345 TUCKED away in a beautiful bay on the Wild Coast, Bulungula is very different. While the lodge is far from the madding city, it’s not isolated in the mountains or the bush. It’s part of the local village, so getting away from the city means getting to grips with village life spending time with rural people, seeing how they live, chatting to them, and sharing a drink or a meal. Which kind of makes sense. These people have been living off the grid all their lives.

Before he even started the lodge, Dave Martin decided the major problems facing the world were poverty, inequality, environmental degradation and global climate change. So he designed Bulungula to address these issues. The lodge is 40% owned by the villagers, who are totally integrated with the operation spending time at the lodge, guiding cultural and adventure trips for guests, and supplying the lodge with a good percentage of its food.

Lights, music, laptops and satellite phones are powered mostly by solar, with a 5% contribution from wind. Cooking and refrigeration is powered by gas, and rainwater is collected in huge tanks. The rooms are traditional rondawels built from easily available local materials. All kitchen waste is composted and used in the gardens, while the compost from the odour-free composting toilets is buried in the forest to regenerate the soil. All ablutions are communal, and piping hot showers are a bit of an adventure as guests have to master the efficient paraffin-fuelled rocket burners. Ten rooms can be doubles or dorms, so they sleep a maximum of 40 guests, and there is also camping.

Bulungula has 20 employees and procures whatever services it can directly from the village. Rates range from R90-R115 per person per night, accommodation only. Meals and excursions are extra. www.bulungula. com 047 577 8900 STANFORD Valley Farm was already locked into the Eskom grid when it was bought by a syndicate of environmentally savvy people in 2005. The new owners started by reorganising water usage and sewage treatment.

Cooking is all done on methane produced from sewerage by a biodigester, and water both black (toilet water) and grey (waste water from washing, laundry and bathing) is fed into a wetland system where reeds and other plants clean and oxygenate the water before it is used in the vegetable gardens. Plans are afoot to build a 1MW solar and/or wind-powered generator, and they are also looking at the possibility of a micro-hydro generator running off one of the two rivers on the farm. The syndicate is investigating finance from European carbon- trading companies. So while they’re still on the grid, they’ve moved away from liquefied petroleum gas, which is a big step, and their electricity generating plans are sufficient to supply all their needs, with a huge excess. There is a 30-seater conference venue and 19 en-suite rooms, five of which are self-catering. There are about 15 employees, some of whom work on the farm, some in the lodge, and some both. Bed-only rates are R250-R400 per person per night. www.stanfordvalley.co.za 028 341 0574 The bottom line is that you don’t have to lock yourself into the existing power structures to offer your guests a comfortable stay. And who knows perhaps we’ll soon see some urban establishments following suit. It’s the way of the future.

For more information, visit www.solarenergysouthafrica.com, www.siliconsolar.com/south-africa-solar-energy-diy and www.capstonerenewables.co.za.

Mosethla Bush Camp, clockwise from top: showers are heated by a donkey boiler, being filled here by Caroline Lucas; oil lamps provide further energy efficiency; the camp provides a wildlife experience where mod cons are kept to a minimum.

The Oudrif rooms, each a separate building, are constructed from local stone and straw bales and the roofs are made from straw bales, chicken wire, cement and a waterproof bonding agent.

Bulungula lodge is 40% owned by local villagers who act as guides for cultural and adventure trips like canoeing.