Connection with nature, with a strong focus on conservation and sustainability, is key at Rhino Sands – a small, intimate camp in Zululand’s Manyoni Private Game Reserve, writes Katrine Anker-Nilssen.
Shannon and Dale Airton are both passionate conservationists. While Dale, with a Nature Conservation degree, has worked in conservation management doing everything from rhino and lion monitoring to trail guiding, Shannon’s background is more research-oriented. “I did an undergraduate and graduate degree based in the US and spent time in South Africa researching rhinos, wild dogs and leopards,” she says.
The couple met while working and living in Hluhluwe-Imfolozi Game Reserve 20 years ago. “We were fortunate to receive an ecotourism opportunity via a business venture with Dale’s family,” says Shannon, adding that they are today kept on their toes running two lodges in Manyoni – Rhino River Lodge and Rhino Sands – on top of raising their eight-year-old son.
“I split my time between the reserve and Ballito, where our son is enrolled in school. The school has been extremely flexible, allowing us to spend a portion of each term on the reserve – distance learning with Wyatt. In that way life on the game reserve is an integral part of his childhood and learning, but he still gets to participate in the classroom and school environment when we are in Ballito. We get to enjoy a wonderful balance of the two incredible lifestyles that KZN has to offer… beach and bush,” says Shannon.
The Airtons initially learned about Manyoni Private Game Reserve via the WWF’s Black Rhino Range Expansion Project. “Dale was working for the project, conducting research and providing training for the monitors who would be tracking and caring for new populations. So at the reserve’s inception, we were present and in attendance for the release of the vast majority of black rhinos,” says Shannon. “It struck us as such a beautiful reserve, right in the heart of Zululand, and it was an exciting project where landowners were joining their properties together – all towards a common conservation goal. We could see the potential in the project and the area and when the opportunity to invest and make a living in the reserve came up, we both jumped in feet first.”
Rhino Sands is an incredible piece of bush heaven – and it’s Zululand at its very best. “We wanted the camp to be eco-friendly, reflecting our passion for conservation. And we wanted it to be tented, as there is just something about how people experience nature when staying in canvas as opposed to behind four walls with windows shut and air-conditioners on,” explains Shannon. “Part of what we love about safari is the romance – the throwback to a simpler, slower time. We love how a classical style facilitates that.” The camp is small and intimate, where guests feel like family. “They get to know our team, the reserve and the area well. Large camps often lose this sense of connection,” says Shannon.
The Rhino Sands ethos is definitely one of connection. “Our aim is to connect our guests with nature, our beautiful reserve, and our beautiful country. We also aim to facilitate a connection with people – not just our team, but also for guests to connect with one another,” says Shannon. “It’s all about making lifelong memories together, setting aside the stresses and challenges of day-to-day life. This is the true luxury of a safari experience – connecting with the environment and the people we love. “
What sets Rhino Sands apart from other lodges came into sharp relief during the pandemic. “We are a small family-run company,” says Shannon. “While many of the corporations in our industry laid off large numbers of staff, refused to issue refunds to guests, and drastically cut salaries, we took the opposite approach – applying empathy and understanding with every decision we took, and standing by our team and guests to the very best of our ability.” This sort of ethos infuses everything at Rhino Sands, and is reflected in the guest experience.
Because the camp is small, the team is small. “While we look for good experience and training, we hire largely based on personality and passion for creating a stellar guest experience. The small size of our camp allows us to tailor the guest experience to the individual, and this extends to our kitchen. We find that it keeps our chefs stimulated and creative, and the quality of the food always reflects that.”
The Airtons are not about chasing awards or accolades, but feel guest feedback and experience are the true measures of success in the safari industry. “While we would like to potentially add one additional tent to the camp, bringing the total number of tents up to five, we will not be expanding beyond that. Our future goals are to continue striving to be the best five-star safari experience in KZN while staying true to our ethos, making gentle improvements, and focusing more and more on our sustainability efforts.”
Shannon says there is just a certain magic about Zululand. “I am convinced that once a person spends time in the bush in Zululand, nothing else will ever compare. The landscape is dramatic and varying, the area is wild and untamed,” she says. “With a high human population and many truly unique wild areas and animals, conflict and conservation are endemic and in a precarious balance. The challenge and coexistence makes it all the more exciting and meaningful.” *
FOR MORE INFO: www.rhinosands.com