Jacques Smit is the Director of Marketing of Sabi Sabi Private Game Reserve in South Africa. Sabi Sabi is part of the 65,000-hectare Sabi Sand Wildtuin, in the southwestern corner of Kruger National Park. The Finer Things talks to Jacques about what makes Sabi Sabi so special.
How long have you been in the travel industry?
I started as a Safari Guide back in 1996 – so going on 25 years now.
When did you get the travel bug?
I grew up in a family where we travelled throughout South Africa on holidays. Camping anywhere from the beaches of the Garden Route to the bushveld up in Kruger. We spent a lot of time exploring South Africa as a family.
What inspired you to go into the travel business?
My brother was guiding at the time and we worked together for a short while and I basically took over from him in a sense and he moved on to travelling abroad. We made a conscious effort to explore Southern Africa as much as we could when all our school friends were heading off to the UK on working holiday visas. I am so grateful for our decision as we really got experience amazing places during some very challenging times. Europe and overseas travel would always come later – but I really wanted to explore Southern Africa as much as I could. Later in my career I got the opportunity to venture up into East Africa and expand on my base of knowledge built up as a guide.
When did you go to Sabi Sabi?
I first went as a guest back in 2002 when I was living and working in Australia, selling Africa to Australians… I really admired Sabi Sabi’s style of guiding and the professionalism in which they brought conservation to life through tourism. I was hooked and when I had the opportunity to head back to South Africa in 2006 – I immediately contacted the directors at Sabi Sabi to see if there was any chance I could join their legendary family… I got very lucky and soon started my career with them now being my family and Sabi Sabi being very much our home in the bush.
How do safaris work at Sabi Sabi?
We are an integral part of the greater Kruger National Park, which allows for a unique experience with close encounters. We operate two safaris daily to take maximum advantage of being able to view animal behaviour (3 hours early morning and 3 hours late afternoon/evening). Our safaris take place in open vehicles, allowing for off-road traversing to navigate the bush terrain in the instance of high-profile sightings. There is no restriction to guests’ line of sight, regardless of where they are situated on the vehicle, leaving guests to understand, and not just identify, what they have seen and experienced. Our incredible and highly skilled Field Guides and Shangaan Tracker teams are an integral part of providing this experience – their role is an interpretive one where they lead daily safaris in open vehicles and the experience evolves organically to interpret what is happening in the African bush, with respect and passion, explaining to guests the role we play in the natural environment and how it all fits into conservation and ultimately a bigger picture. Our safari etiquette and respect to both the environment and wildlife allows us to provide that once-in-a-lifetime safari experience.
Sabi Sabi has more than one accommodation offering. What are the choices?
Our “luxury homes in the bush” offer 4 exclusive 5-star lodges in the design styles of Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow. Selati Camp – 7 suites – represents a classic safari style with actual historical ties to the Selati railroad built by President Paul Kruger in the late 1800s.
Bush Lodge is our family-friendly lodge with 25 suites. More traditional and inspired by our owners’ travels all over Africa. This resembles their home and the vibrancy that they see in Africa.
Little Bush Camp is traditional with a flare of contemporary design inspired by the basket weaving of Africa and is a transition from the Today to the Tomorrow of Earth Lodge. The camp has 6 suites, each with a private jacuzzi and exclusive views of a dry riverbed that is filled with amazing birdlife.
Earth Lodge represents the way we see Eco Tourism and hospitality going forward. All luxury suites underwent a full refurbishment toward the last half of 2019, with the intention of bringing the bush inside and allowing for a connectedness to nature.
What is the guest experience like at each of them?
For years we have maintained different lodges that cater for the different tastes out there. Each of our lodges are luxury and rated as minimum 5 star however our focus remains the holistic safari experience. Our lodges all resemble the hospitality seen at a “luxury home in the bush” and we aim to have guests feel at home.
While the styles of each lodge differ – which as mentioned, cater to different tastes – the experience remains.
What are your favourite animals to see on safari?
Tough question as I really enjoy just being out in the bush. I love walking, we love birding and often my favourite drives are those with close friends and family where just being outside together is a treat. I think because of that slower-paced attitude we tend to get see amazing sightings and if you had to push for an answer – I would have to say that there is something very majestic about a leopard and I always love seeing these solitary predators thrive in a very competitive environment.
Have you had any scary or special encounters?
The heart pumps a lot faster quite often when out on safari and I think that this what is so attractive about a safari. Seeing animals in their natural environment is something nobody can imagine before they get to experience it. The heart pumps a lot faster quite often when out on safari and I think that this what is so attractive about a safari. Seeing animals in their natural environment is something nobody can imagine before they get to experience it. It is always special seeing guests burst into tears of joy as they witness a herd of elephants only feet away from them. Watching them act as a family unit right there in the open in front of you – natural and in open spaces. I love seeing how even our experienced guides tear up when this emotional connection happens to guests. The bush takes you on a journey that honestly offers life-changing experiences every single time… It NEVER gets old and that is what makes it so special.
I think encountering wildlife in camp is always very special and can be seen as maybe a little scary, but probably only because of the respect one has for wildlife in their own environment. Our camps often get wildlife moving through it and every time you are privileged to get to experience this – the heart beats faster and you respect the distance required between us and them.
The food and wine at Sabi Sabi are excellent. Tell us a bit about that
Sabi Sabi’s food philosophy is ‘simple done well’. Our Chefs each have a unique character and they individually present distinctive touches to locally sourced and freshly prepared cuisine. Our menus change according to season and availability of produce, which we try and source locally. Flavour is key and whilst we keep up with international trends, we remain true to our South African heritage and bring guests a true representation of exquisite dishes, which also incorporate our philosophy of generosity.
We very proudly stock a diverse range of South African wines. South Africa produces some of the best wines in the world, which a huge variety of wine that it almost caters for every palate. Secondly, we would obviously like to promote our wonderful SA wines and introduce our foreign clientele to what we have to offer. We go through a very detailed selection process when stocking our cellar to ensure that we have the best of the best in house. Our wine cellar is stocked with the following in mind. Sabi Sabi offers our guests a unique once in a lifetime experience. Their whole trip is made up of unique sightings and especially unique stories and experiences shared by their rangers and trackers. From a food and beverage point of view we try to incorporate the same experience, therefore over and above the one or two well know names stocked in our cellar we also incorporate smaller “off the beaten track” boutiques style wineries.
As food is such an integral part of our guests’ enjoyment, we launched our very own bespoke cookbook – “Bringing the Bush Home” – in 2019. The book was conceptualised by including an eclectic array of recipes from each of our Chefs – past and present – as well as from our management team (some of them being passed down from generation to generation) and reinforces “simple done well”. The rhythm of the cookbook takes the reader on the daily rituals that are followed each day by interpreting what one experiences at Sabi Sabi from early morning, to the time when the day is done, and capturing all the moments in between.
What other things can guests do at Sabi Sabi when not on safari?
Apart from the pure relaxation there are a number of activities that are on offer:
Amani African Spa – situation at Bush Lodge and Earth Lodge (and also available to guests from Little Bush Camp and Selati Camp) Amani Spa incorporates natural elements, a sense of peace, space and timeless beauty combine effortlessly with holistic body, skin and beauty rituals.
Boutique exercise centres at Earth Lodge and Bush Lodge offer a workout space that is safe and air-conditioned. Kitted out with a range of cardio and resistance equipment while still capturing the beautiful views out towards the bush, the gyms are ideal for daily exercise regimes.
Mornings at the lodges can be spent grounded in nature on an environmental awareness walking safari where you are part of a small group that sets out on foot after breakfast. The walk is an opportunity to feel closer to the African bushveld and the focus is on what is “missed” from vehicle height – the small insects and their purpose. These walks are always led by an armed ranger as well as a backup ranger – all our guides have their Trails Guide accreditations.
For a spot of retail therapy, each lodge has a boutique that houses a range of clothing, souvenirs and reading material amongst other items.
Do you welcome families?
Being a family-owned private reserve, this is one of the areas where we believe it vital for creating a space where families can re-group and bond. Bush Lodge is our family friend lodge, and we accept children of all ages. We also have the renowned EleFun Children’s Centre, which caters for our “conservationists of the future” (ages between 4 – 12 years). This centre is a safe haven for kids and the philosophy here is to instil a love of the environment and the natural world, but at the same time do this in a fun manner. In fact, it is such a great “family bonding” experience that often we find that parents join their children at the centre and participate in the games and activities, which we love.
What sets Sabi Sabi apart from other lodges?
Over the past four decades we have established ourselves not just as a safari destination but as a conservation leader. By caring for our environment and the people who work and live in and around our reserve we have managed to turn our dream of conserving Africa for future generations into a successful business with ethics and morals at its core. I cannot tell you what sets our beds apart from other beds or our food or service, but I can tell you that Sabi Sabi is a company with soul and spirit and our guests very quickly realise and feel this for themselves.
We have four very different lodge experiences, which cater to different clients’ needs. We have amazing close-encounter, life-changing safari experiences and have a remarkable reputation for the quality of our guiding. We live the mantra of integrating Conservation, Tourism and Community and have always believed that they are interdependent.
But there is one thing that sets us apart – an amazing team of passionate people. Some of our staff have been with Sabi Sabi for as long as Sabi Sabi has been in existence. We are a family-owned business, and that family culture exists in every single individual which rings true that Sabi Sabi is your “luxury home in the bush”.
What makes Sabi Sabi so special?
Our safari experience, the way we approach safaris, our training, vehicle etiquette in sightings and the way we place conservation first. OUR PEOPLE, our culture and the individuals who bring safari, luxury, food, wine and service all together. The fact that we have so many long service staff and culture of caring and a culture of family… You cannot beat warmth in hospitality and for us this is the heartbeat of our operations.
What are your favourite places to visit in South Africa when you are not at Sabi Sabi?
As a family we love camping and the great outdoors. We love going hiking in the Drakensberg Mountains, riding mountain bike trails all over South Africa, but Decembers would see us settle on the coast of the Garden Route where we spend two weeks on the beach or the river or on a trail somewhere. South Africa has SO much to offer in variety. I grew up in the Cape and still, we would often go be tourists in our own home cities and see how things keep changing to enhance the natural beauty and its exposure to guests from all over!
Is there anywhere in the world you haven’t been, but would love to?
Absolutely!!! The list is probably too long to even consider starting to list… I am fortunate and very privileged to travel the world, but often I don’t get to see what is outside of the cities and major areas. There is only so much you can do on weekends while doing a sales trip. As much as I love Africa and enjoy exploring South Africa – I am very aware of the beauty nature has to offer globally… Let’s just say, that after this pandemic and its restrictions are over, I will be making the most of every minute I get to experience this amazing planet of ours…
What is one unusual fact that people don’t know about South Africa?
At 850 kilometres, Route 62 in South Africa is considered to be the longest wine route in the world. It is the historic inland route between Cape Town and Port Elizabeth, connecting the east and west coasts of the country.
What do you think is the ‘finest thing’ about Sabi Sabi?
It is less about the 5-star accommodation, thread count, good food and wine. Yes, these elements combine to give a fantastic experience. It is a living, breathing organism made up of a collective multitude of personalities that have different skill sets to make this over 40-year brand maintain its legacy. The people are Sabi Sabi. We are the custodians of this wilderness and we have been tasked to protect and ensure the progress of this vital protected area, not only for future generations but for the wildlife, who are the rightful inhabitants. It is indefinable but it is the pure commitment to this environment of each individual who strive to keep it this way.
How has Sabi Sabi adapted operations to protect guests in the time of COVID-19?
Every guest is a part of the greater Sabi Sabi family so we operate a strict code of conduct for the health and wellbeing of our staff and guests, but with as little impact on their stay as possible.
We have taken every aspect of the guest experience into account, from pre-arrival to departure – even the paperwork for outbound travel, in order to create a safe space.
To promote social distancing, communal interaction within the lodge, dining experiences, room services and all activities have been adjusted accordingly.
All suites are used on a rotational basis – once a guest checks out, the suite is fully sanitised and left unoccupied for 48 hours.
The overall environment at Sabi Sabi is one of wide-open spaces, which naturally promotes social distancing, but we have implemented various other measures to further promote the enjoyment of our open spaces. With our on-site clinician, we have the facilities to do internationally accredited PCR Tests and also rapid COVID antigen tests. This undertaking not only covers the health and wellbeing of our guests while staying at Sabi Sabi, but also that of the staff who reside and work at the lodge.