Situated within the Greater Pilanesberg Region, Finfoot Lake Reserve lies just a short drive from Johannesburg and Pretoria. Although known as a haven for local holidays, the 3500-hectare reserve has slowly transformed into a sanctuary for South Africa’s wild animals. 

At the helm of the rewilding project are Sarel and Melani van der Westhuizen, who have co-managed the Reserve since April 2016 as Estate Custodian and Lodge Manager, respectively.

“When we first arrived in 2016, the lodge had been closed for eight years prior to Dream Hotels & Resorts purchasing it in 2015,” Sarel explains. “There was no maintenance, so we had a mammoth task ahead of us, especially since we also had only six months to get it operational.”

With 23 years under his belt as a game ranger at various well-known properties in the country with dangerous game, Sarel further admits that his experience in the field has proved integral to their efforts at Finfoot. 

“Although we officially opened on the 30th of September 2016, it’s been non-stop ever since, and we continue to work from sunrise to sunset, which is common in this industry,” he adds. “Our time here has taken a lot of blood, sweat and tears, but our life here is not something we would easily trade.”

Due to their passion and dedication to establishing the Finfoot name, their team has enjoyed multiple successes, including an ERO Green Award and a Leadership award in 2022. Of course, their most impressive triumph is transforming Finfoot into a wilderness wonderland through their ongoing conservation efforts. 

A welcoming haven for wildlife

“As part of our goal to lead with purpose and accountability, we have opened our doors to a wide spectrum of animals in need of rehabilitation and a safe respite to roam freely,” Sarel explains. “What we do here ties in heavily with the mission and vision of Dream Hotels & Resorts, which continues to oversee our operations here at Finfoot.” 

Having recognised that most of its properties are located in eco-sensitive areas, the Group has taken strategic steps to minimise its environmental impact across its portfolio of mixed-use properties.

“Our collective mission is to co-create memorable travel experiences which connect people for a brighter future,” he adds. “In doing so, we have come to understand that ensuring the survival of our most precious resources, such as our wildlife, depends on the actions and choices we make right now. This is why our work at Finfoot is so important.”

Having remained hard at work over the last 16 years, Sarel continues to liaise closely with local non-profit initiatives such as the Owl Rescue Centre in Hartbeespoort. 

“Last year, we welcomed one serval, three genets, three porcupines, five spotted eagle owls, a mother and baby caracal and a flittering of bird species into our wildlife family. We also now have 15 leopard tortoises, two of whom are incredibly large and friendly and will even follow you into the kitchen!” he adds. 

Other safari favourites recorded within Finfoot currently include giraffe, kudu, nyala, blue wildebeest, red hartebeest, waterbuck, zebra, impala, nyala, warthog, civet, aardvark, and more.

Not without its challenges 

“Ecosystem protection and wildlife conservation remain a core challenge across the country, particularly in this region where we have a large farming community and human-wildlife conflict is rife,” Sarel explains. 

The rewilding project of introducing new animals into the reserve is not without its challenges. “It takes a lot of resources to rehabilitate, release and monitor animals on the reserve, but we are fortunate to receive support from Dream Hotels & Resorts and the farmers located around the Finfoot boundary.”

As he further highlights: “Farming is all about relationship building and helping each other work towards a common goal. This ethos is very much the same when it comes to wildlife conservation. We are fortunate that over the years, we have nurtured solid relationships with our community whereby they are so willing to work with us and support our ambitions.” In 2022, the Finfoot team welcomed a young male leopard rescued from an illegal gin trap near the Botswanan border. Unfortunately, after roaming too far beyond the property boundary, he succumbed to a snaring fatality.

“This tragic event provides a glimpse at how heartbreaking it can be as a custodian of a reserve and its wild animals,” Sarel explains. “Unlike domesticated creatures and livestock, they are so much harder to track and control. It is a huge responsibility, particularly when it comes to wildlife considered ‘problem animals’ or DCA (Damage-Causing Animals).” 

He further highlights how these terms, which are the result of cases of livestock depredation, can be quite misleading. “Often, the culprit, often misidentified on an individual or even species basis, is just simply a wild animal doing what it is programmed to do – survive.”

Looking ahead

As for the future of Finfoot? Sarel, Melani and their team are firmly committed to conserving endangered species and further transforming Finfoot into a fully-fledged wilderness wonderland. 

“The purchase of the neighbouring farm provides enough space to accommodate our long-term plan of introducing other big game whilst still maintaining areas on the reserve for guests to roam safely without guided supervision,” Sarel explains.

With the North West Province being home to numerous world-renowned game reserves, such as Madikwe Game Reserve, the Pilanesberg National Park, and many other nature conservation areas, their ultimate goal is to ensure Finfoot remains a part of a legacy for future generations to enjoy. 

“Finfoot is part and parcel of a greater conservation vision,” he adds. “The work we do and want to do is not purely for the delight of guests but for the good of the Greater Pilanesberg community. 

“This region is filled with beauty and a strong sense of belonging and togetherness, which makes it an absolute joy to visit. To all those looking to reconnect to nature and feel part of something bigger, there’s really no better place to be!” he concludes. 

Words – Chelsey Hale, Pics – supplied