A story of loss, hope, and healing
“There is a bonus in tragedies of such magnitude. You realise that there is no further to go down, and that you have two choices: You can stay at the bottom and get used to the agonising paralysis of those depths or you can decide to rise to the surface again, and begin living once more. ― Kuki Gallmann, I Dreamed of Africa
While most kids dream of being firefighters, doctors or even movie stars, Gemma Linforth grew up with a yearning to live in a little house surrounded by wildlife, with a trusty old Landrover and her family close at her side.
“It may seem idealistic, but basically, I wanted to be Kuki Gallmann from I Dreamed of Africa, who abandons her jet-set lifestyle for the rigours and rewards of rural Africa,” she says.
Although the couple had racked up enough experience in safari hospitality, in 2017, that dream became a close reality when she, her partner Ryan and their son, Tylo, moved to Nibela Lake Lodge. Holding its quiet corner of iSimangaliso Wetlands Park in KwaZulu-Natal, the property stands as the only privately-owned lodge on the northern banks of St Lucia, its seclusion often prompting a comparison to Botswana’s Okavango Delta.
“As South Africa’s first UNESCO World Heritage Site, iSimangaliso is something to behold. Being situated right at the heart of this untamed wilderness wonderland really makes our lodge quite special,” she adds.
Upon their arrival, however, the couple encountered a situation far exceeding their expectations. “We weren’t naive to the fact that Nibela was going to need a lot of work, but once we took stock of everything, that pit-of-the-stomach feeling crossed over us,” Gemma explains.
Yielding little rainfall, the region surrounding Lake St. Lucia has long experienced drought conditions, resulting in the closure of the river mouth in 2002 for four years.
“When we first stepped foot at Nibela, the lake resembled a desert, which made things quite difficult, as back then, boat transfer was the only way to reach the lodge. The seemingly never-ending list of things to fix didn’t help, and admittedly, there were plenty of times when Ryan and I would need to duck off into the forest barefoot to try and recentre ourselves.”
Despite being the youngest managers within the Dream Hotels & Resorts Group, they decided to stay their course of building a home and breathing life back into Nibela.
“With the support and reassurance from Andre, Brent, and Chris, our operations manager at the time, we embraced our management roles, setting to work almost immediately,” Gemma adds.
Creating a place to call home
After a few weeks on-site, Gemma and Ryan soon realised their challenges extended beyond new fixtures and furnishings. Their next and most crucial task was integrating into the surrounding Nibela community.
“Things are done very differently out here,” Ryan explains. “Being outsiders, we quickly realised that it was going to be an uphill battle establishing a clear line of communication and achieve a level of understanding with the community, tribal authority, indunas and royal family, including the chief.”
Adding to that, Gemma highlights the ongoing severity of the water crisis, which continues to decimate the area, affecting lives and livelihoods.
“We are so grateful to receive enough to sustain the lodge, but the situation is beyond dire elsewhere. To offer some perspective, each drop is prayed for, treasured, used sparingly and recycled again and again until the barrels are empty. Once a week, if the local community is lucky, a tanker contracted by the government will pass through to provide municipal water. When someone dies in the community, we don’t follow the tradition of offering money. We give water because, for the people here, it’s more valuable.”
Adding to the list of mounting challenges – a global pandemic in 2020.
“We had no blueprint on how to move forward when South Africa entered hard lockdown,” Ryan explains. “We had to temporarily shut down the lodge and tell the staff to go home, which was difficult to explain as it was something we didn’t quite understand it ourselves.”
Despite the isolation brought on by Covid-19, the duo suffered another blow that same year: a devastating fire which destroyed their eight-sleeper chalet. Adding to that, the arrival of Cyclone Eloise in 2021. Fortunately, no lives were lost as the Nibela staff banded together from one crisis to the next.
“At that point, our friends and family members kept asking us to leave, and while that would have been the easy choice, we somehow found the courage to stay,” says Gemma. “What most don’t understand is that Nibela is not just timber and thatch. It’s our home. And yes, there are times when it feels too hard or painful, but until we lose all hope and our will to keep going, we’re here to stay.”
She further highlights the support of Ryan, who she describes as a masterful problem-solver. “He has this ability to look at a problem 300 ways until he finds a solution. It hasn’t always been smooth sailing between us, but he has remained my sword and shield and someone I know I can lean on.”
Life at Nibela today
Despite the hardships over the last five years, including recent flood damage due to Cyclone Isa in April 2022, the couple has been instrumental in restoring Nibela’s legacy as the wilderness wonderland it was always destined to be.
Today, Nibela stands as a beacon of hope and healing, and with some recent refurbishments, she has taken on a new lease on life. The recent introduction of a ferry service (a nod to her past) provides an idyllic island experience, elevating that feeling of remoteness and adventure for guests and visitors.
“While nothing is easy and each day brings a new set of challenges, be it staying up all night with a sick child, or struggling with the local language barrier, ultimately, we wouldn’t trade in what we have,” Gemma explains.
“Sitting on the deck at sunrise, watching our guests discover the joys of nature, or hearing my son laughing and playing outdoors with Vincent, our guide and friend, always fills my heart with gratitude. It’s a feeling that reminds me that there is still so much good to be experienced here.”
Considering their life at Nibela over the last five years and the arrival of Emary-Quinn – their resilient baby boy – the couple has much to feel joyful for, insisting that their team have played a significant part in their journey.
“I can honestly say that without the help of our team, we would not be where we are today, ” Ryan says. “Most of us have been together from the beginning, and we’ve become a small family. As Gemma will tell you, family means everything to us.”
“From Sebeh, our Reservations and Admin Manager, to Maxwell, our Front of House, they all put so much care into their work. In a world where we are strangers, we have found a place amongst people who don’t have much but are always willing to help. They’ve never thought twice about putting their lives on the line to ensure the safety of our guests and the lodge.”
Despite deep-rooted cultural differences with the local people, Gemma and Ryan have realised the power of their shared struggles as they’ve forged a life in this remote corner of the country.
“We have learnt that an experience of collective pain and grief reminds us that we are not alone in our darkness. No matter how separated we are by what we think and believe, we are part of the same spiritual story,” Gemma explains.
“Here at Nibela, we’ve endured personal loss and heartbreak, isolation, community tension, drought, fire and flooding. However, through it all, I can truthfully say that even in the most devastating moments where all hope seems lost, it can be found again.”
“This is a place as difficult as it is breathtaking, as sought after as it is bereft. But it is also a place where you can find true belonging, which, as Kuki Gallmann states in her book, is ultimately the most sacred place you could ever hope to stand.”