Tourism Is Magic

9th June 2010

Tony Blignaut noticed two things when he took people on southern African overland safaris back in the eighties, something which was reinforced in intervening years when he was involved with a private game reserve in Mpumalanga.


The first was that different people react differently to different wildlife experiences. Some are enthralled by a lion kill (mainly men), and others are disgusted by the stench of buffalo entrails (mainly women). But just about everybody is fascinated by primates – they can watch monkeys cavorting for hours. The second thing he noticed was that primates were disappearing from southern and central Africa rapidly.


Having spent happy holidays in Plettenberg Bay as a youth, when the Lookout Deck (now The Plettenberg hotel rimflow pool) was still a favourite place for young people to gather, Tony realised that a piece of forest in Plettenberg Bay area would be ideal for a primate sanctuary.


Years later a young advertising student called Lara Mostert decided she had had enough of the city and wanted to move to the bush. Through a friend of Tony’s she ended up joining him at Inyati Game Reserve (Sabi Sands). She too had a fascination for primates and had made a study of them – hence the match which has lasted ever since.  Lara also noticed how much her guests enjoyed the baboons and vervet monkeys at the reserve, and so, between them, the idea of a sanctuary for primates took root. After much research – including toying with the idea of an overseas sanctuary or one in Mpumalanga - and plenty of red tape, the Monkeyland idea was adopted and developed, and the forest site in Plettenberg Bay was eventually identified and purchased.


Tony had seen enough to know that for a sanctuary to be financially successful, it had to be near a tourist route, it had to be properly funded and it had to be properly built.


He and Lara pulled out all the stops and worked day and night to get the project off the ground – up before dawn to make and deliver food for the still-sleeping monkeys, and then working till late at night to get everything finished around the sanctuary.


Monkeyland made money from day one. With aggressive marketing and a genuinely hands-on approach to management it went from strength to strength and is today World renowned.


When their next project, Birds of Eden, got underway on the property next door, its progress was linked to Monkeyland’s performance and it was paid for in record time. Now, between the two, about 1000 visitors pass through the gates on a busy day in December season.


Birds of Eden covers more than two hectares of forest. Masts of up to 34m high support the giant network of cables which support the wire bird mesh enclosing it. As with Monkeyland, it is the forest which gives it character and authenticity. The large variety of birds were all previously caged, many donated by owners who simply wanted a better life for their pets. The sanctuary is the biggest single free flight aviary in the world, cost R9 million to construct and took four and a half years to complete, using local expertise and labour.


There is nothing that happens at the two sanctuaries that Tony is unaware of or has not authorised himself. But that alone is not enough to create such a success.


“There must be at least one or two unique features for an enterprise to go automatically to the top of the tourism ladder,” he says.


And he continues to find new features that enhance and promote his business. Among the 55 permanent and 23 temporary staff are often tourism students. They not only work in the business, but are exposed to all the area’s tourism products, including whale watching and other attractions, all to their advantage. They are asked to report on the various enterprises, and Tony grades their work. When they leave he gives them a pack of his brochures to hand out wherever they go.


Concludes Lara, turning to the animals: “From the beginning the primates were happy here. The babies grew up free of any abuse or trauma. They are now in their fifth generation. Of course, they have learnt a lot from the local Vervets, like how to kill scorpions! We are happy to be giving freedom back to these animals and birds.”


And, of course, compared to ordinary Vervets out there in the bush, these local monkeys live a life of comfort, with delicious food delivered every day.


Herein lies the success: It’s a win-win-win situation.


witten 2008