By this stage Jurie and I had already cast an eye at Gowrie Camp, where Vuyatela stands today. It was a modest camp comprising six thatched rondawels and an L-shaped main building. They had been built during the 1950s in the old hunting days. The view over the terraced lawns onto Gowrie dam was spectacular. By then the Ludin and Moolman families very seldom visited the Gowrie Camp, and we saw huge potential in the commercialization of another ten beds.

It was mid-1997 when we estimated that there was a niche in the market for a self-catering lodge that would appeal to South Africans. The closest comparative holiday would be like those in the National Parks, where people would drive themselves around while enjoying their surroundings. At the time there was only one other self-catering lodge in the Sabi Sand Wildtuin. South Africans seemed to like the freedom of being able to do their own cooking over a roaring fire, but still have the luxury of a guide and tracker to take them into the bush on drives and walks. An added bonus for our guests would be our night drives, as the Kruger National Park and other state parks at that stage had few night-drive options open to the general public. There was also a stigma attached to the private reserves: it was claimed they were too elite and costly for locals. By running a self-catering establishment with fewer staff we would be able to eliminate this factor. Another advantage would be that we would have an extra vehicle – and extra eyes – to find more game sightings for the guests. It seemed like a good idea to have two different products, at differing price ranges, to attract a wider audience. Last but not least, Jurie, myself (pregnant again), little Zoë and the dogs would move there too. This would allow Pendrae and Campbell to move into the Red House, and free up two more beds for guests at Djuma Bush Lodge. The time had also come for Pendrae and Campbell to spread their wings without our being right there on top of them.
Not long after we moved to Gowrie, we got a phone call one afternoon from Bush Lodge to tell us that the main building had caught fire. The guests had just left on their afternoon safari, when Esther Mkansi popped down to the dining area to set the tables for dinner. There she saw smoke billowing out from under the thatch eves.
As described elsewhere, the main building is split into three levels. Placed centrally on the bottom level in the dining area was a free-standing metal Jetmaster fireplace, its chimney stretching up through the floor of the upper deck and then through the thatch roof. The upper reaches of the chimney had an insulting layer of fibreglass matting between it and an outer sleeve of sheet metal. That was there to prevent people from burning themselves and supposedly to stop the thatch from igniting!
It just so happened that after years without the inner insulation being checked, it had, adjacent to the pitch of the roof all but disintegrated. We guessed that the accumulated heat of fires down below had made the thatch dry and brittle and in turn may have ignited some spider webs, which had then set the interior thatch alight. We were lucky that the steep pitch of the roof and the damp weather conditions at the time, had trapped the flames at the apex along the length of the building.
While the fire raged, Campbell dug up and cut through the main water supply from the borehole. He connected another piece of PVC piping and started pumping water straight onto the roof as well as up to it from the inside. Just as the flames were seemingly being brought under control to a smouldering state, another flare up would occur. Eventually at around midnight we managed to quell the disaster.
The unsuspecting guests were diverted to a ‘surprise’ dinner destination at Gowrie Camp. The first they knew of the blaze was the following morning when they woke up to find the entire contents of the lounge, dining room and kitchen out on the front lawn beside what looked like an intact main building! The sum total of the damage was about a meter square of thatch that needed replacing and two coffee table books that were water damaged.
We got off lucky that time and naturally the fireplace and chimney have been removed and lie rusting in the workshop, reminder of a terrifying experience.

Once more we had to endure some months of builders and artisans performing a facelift on a camp. This time we were far better prepared for them than we had been on our first attempt at Djuma Bush Lodge, and Gowrie Camp was in a slightly better state than the camp on which we had started our first endeavour. At that stage the Gowrie staff, comprising Aubrey Ngubane, Mildred and Liesbeth Mkansi, Old man Philemon’s daughters, lived in a thatch-roof house just up the hill from the lodge. The house had been built, before Piet and Tilman had bought Gowrie, to house a foreman on the property. This house had sufficient potential for Jurie and I to envisage our enlarging family settling into it. Sufficient potential to us meant that anyone else would have just found a new site and started building from foundations up! However, under our guidance a team of builders quickly had walls bashed down, new windows and doors put in, and the thatch roof patched to prevent most of the rain from coming in.
The old kitchen, workshops, and carports close to the camp were converted into new staff quarters. The camp and the staff village were unfenced and game was free to move about at will. Dixon Mkansi was the perfect person to run the show, with Aubrey as his tracker. Joyce Nyathi, Thandi Manike and Maurice Mgiba came with us from Djuma Bush Lodge to help out in the new lodge. Thandi and Maurice had a little son called Anzan (or Matthew in English) who was ten days older than Zoë. The two of them were very good companions and spent most of the day together. We all settled in and watched the steady flow of guests start trickling in.
Excerpt from one of my letters to guests who had stayed at Gowrie Camp:

The game sightings continue to be “wow”, with the arrival of a second pack of wild dogs. The first pack has a very pregnant female, and due to regular sightings on Gowrie, they might den down close to the camp. Lucky for us! Elephants continue to romp through the camp, and even knocked down our brand new fence around the parking lot. Well needless to say, we’ve armed Matthew’s dad with thunder flashes (very loud crackers) to keep them at bay. However, they still managed to sneak up to the boma 2 nights ago and eat both palms that were growing in the pots…. So is life at Gowrie at the moment.

The vibe at Gowrie was completely different from that at the other lodge, perhaps because we had so many memories from holidays there with Jurie’s dad and old friends of ours. It makes such a difference when there is a history to a place, and stories to tell about past experiences there. We remembered when the land was first bought, and Jurie had to shoot feral domestic cats to halt interbreeding with the indigenous African wild cat; the night lions chased a giraffe right through camp in an attempted kill, the thundering sounds of their passage causing the walls to shake; the frequent encounters with snakes, more often than not well-camouflaged puff adders, the time Old man Philemon was taking the garbage to the dump with a wheel barrow and coming, face to face with an angry lioness, had to retreat slowly, using the wheelbarrow as a barrier between himself and the cat until he reached the relative safety of the camp. Then, again, there was the time when the nine nyala ewes that were introduced from northern Natal to start a breeding herd for the three bulls infrequently seen along the dense drainage lines leading to the dam. They had been bought on a game auction, and arrived by truck before we had an enclosure sufficient to hold them and familiarise them with their new home. The older ewes had to be released straight into the wilds, and we kept the smallest one in hut No.1, feeding her on the spiky branches of the Ziziphus tree. During the day we walked her with a collar and lead. One day she managed to escape from the hut by jumping through a cottage-pane window, somehow surviving the leap. We had to set her free and just hope she would link up with the others and survive. Otherwise the new arrivals did well, and to this day there are plenty of these striped antelope, very much at home, not only in and around the lodge, but as far afield as ten kilometres away.
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Our African Way