SA-Venues.com talk to Cecillie Nel, owner of Emdoneni Lodge & Game Farm, in Hluhluwe.
Q: How long have you been running Emdoneni Lodge and how did it all come about?
Emdoneni has been a family run business since 1993. In 2000, Louis and I bought out the family shares of which was then a 7 bedroom Lodge. Being logistically situated ideally close to the Game Reserves and the St Lucia Wetland Park we decided that expansion to the Lodge was necessary. We have expanded over the last 7 years and we finished off 2007 with 40 rooms. Many international and local guests have fallen in love with Emdoneni due to the home away from home feeling. Emdoneni has become our pride and joy! Our famous cat project has also contributed to the main success factor as we have a heart for nature and wildlife. Emdoneni is a special place with special people!
Q: Tell us a bit about the Cat Rehabilitation Centre – how did that start, are you and Louis cat lovers or did something else start this off?
The Cat Project started in 1994 when a man by the name of Graham Steward moved to the Hluhluwe area from Eshowe in Zululand and needed a home for his 3 cheetah that he cared for. We had the space for them and being passionate about wildlife, we offered to facilitate them at Emdoneni Lodge. The KZN Wildlife Services assisted in the moving of the 3 cheetah to their new home which was prepared for them in good natural surroundings.
Q: How do the orphaned and injured cats come to Emdoneni?
The original cheetah arrived at Emdoneni as mentioned above. Unfortunately the cats do not live forever, the first 3 cheetah have all now passed away, with the last female passing away in February 2008, at the age of 18 years. The cheetah were then replaced by other young cheetah which were born at breeding centres in South Africa, so that the project can continue.
In 1997 we got the first serval cats from a pineapple farmer and hand reared the two kittens. As they got bigger they had to move out of the house, so they joined the cheetahs in an adjacent camp. This is how the project started and continued to grow with lots of love and care for the cats and spending so much time with them, that we developed a personal relationship with each of them.
Other cats like the servals are mostly brought to us by pineapple farmers in the area. Pineapple farmers rotate their land when planting and can leave an area for about 2 to 3 years before replanting. During this time animals and small creatures of nature relocate themselves back into those grasslands. Then come the big tractors and plough the lands for the next crop to be planted and with that many little homes are destroyed and it happens that the mother serval has her nest with youngsters in there. Most of the time the young don’t make it, but sometimes the drivers find them and the farmers bring them to us.
Q: Which of the wild cat species do you care for at the Rehabilitation Centre? (In southern Africa there are 7 cat species).
We now have 4 of the 7 species, i.e. Cheetah, Serval, Caracal and the African Wildcat.
Q: I know you offer educational tours at the Centre – can you tell us a bit about this? What can visitors expect and is anybody able to come and see the cats?
As with anything today, there are always costs involved in running a project like this, such as food, veterinary bills, milk powders, vitamin supplements, camps and maintenance, licensing and permit fees, etc. The project is not sponsored like some of the bigger centres in South Africa, so to cover costs, we allow the public to come and view the cats and we include an educational tour at feeding time and, where possible, visitors can interact with the animals. So yes, everybody is welcome – we feed every day at 16:30. At the end the tour, the guest should leave here with a good understanding of what these cats look like, their habits and habitats and hunting methods.
Q: Emdoneni Lodge offers accommodation in both chalets and rondavels. Could you give our readers an idea of what to expect in the chalets vs. rondavels?
They are both spacious and intimate with décor providing a true African ambiance. The rondavels are typical of a round thatched roof resembling the traditional shape of building of the Zulus with interleading doors (ideal for families). The chalets are a bit more modern, square in architecture. All the units are twin bedded with en-suite bathrooms, fully air-conditioned and have outside decks.
Q: And that very important question about food! Could you tell us what to expect in the Restaurant?
We offer a 5 course buffet with traditional home cooked cuisine. Boerekos, for example traditional soups, butternut served with home baked bread, traditional braais (barbecue) in the outside boma. For desert we serve traditional milktart, koeksisters and malva pudding.
Q: I see from your website that you have hosted weddings at Emdoneni. A wedding in the bush sounds like a romantic fantasy for many – could you tell us a little about the weddings you host at Emdoneni?
A wedding at Emdoneni is close to nature, normally open air weddings out in the grasslands with antelope grazing in the background … very romantic.
Q: How many guests can you host for a wedding?
We host a maximum of 80 guests for weddings.
Q: And the flowers and decor etc? Are you able to help or do you recommend service providers that know the venue?
Yes, I work with excellent local service providers.
Flowers from a local florist – excellent. All according to the brides requirements.
Photographer from Richards Bay – excellent.
From red carpets, crystal glasses to the smallest item – Rental companies through out SA.
Music – whatever their requirements are we source it.
Liquor – according to her needs, we order and they deliver.
Hair and make-up – from Richards Bay.
I normally suggest they phone the florist and photographer themselves to arrange all finer details etc with them. I get a very good idea very quickly of what type of wedding she dreams about and then I do the planning, send my ideas/plan via e-mail, she agrees and make a few suggestions or changes – all done electronically!! I send photos, drawings, samples etc all via mail. I act as a wedding co-ordinater all included in the price! But I love it!
Q: What about the wedding photos?
The wedding photographs are taken at special places at Emdoneni. For example, in the cheetah camps and under the Umdoni trees. The wedding guests are treated to a cat feeding tour while the bride and groom are out in the bush having their photos taken. The Bride and Groom are driven around in an open game drive vehicle to the different photo shoot locations and spoilt with a picnic in the bush.
Q: Do you offer a Honeymoon Suite?
Yes, our Honeymoon Suite is in a lovely secluded setting under Marula trees. The Suite includes a lounge, bar area, bedroom, romantic bathroom and outside shower.
Q: You have more than quadrupled the number of rooms you offer over the past few years – Was it difficult to find good staff to help with the running of Emdoneni Lodge, where do you find them and what is your selection process?
To find the right staff is not always easy but we try to employ families (brother and sister or people related to each other). We mainly employ Zulu people from nearby villages and we train them in-house. We do make use of external training consultants as well. They all have to speak and understand English which makes it easier for the guests to communicate with them. I think the two most important criteria are English speaking and personality.
Zulu people can sing and dance beautifully – we introduce the singing and dancing after dinner which they get tipped for most of the time. They love to entertain and the extra money is a bonus. All other monies (i.e. porterage and tips) are put away and paid out twice a month. They work hard to keep the guests happy!!
Our staff is our biggest asset, they are reminded of that daily. Louis and I have driven many times to the hospital (early in the morning or late at night) with pregnant staff, sick babies, they know they can rely on us. We do Christmas parties, dinners at fancy places and then they are our guests! They are all a happy team and it shows …
Q: How do you balance being a Mom (Cecillie & Louis have 3 children ages 14, 5 and 3) and managing the day to day running of Emdoneni Lodge & Game Farm?
This is a tough one but I love being a committed mom and love to spend quality time with my husband and kids. Amone started boarding (she is 14) this year in Durban, she swims competitively for a club in Durban, but she loves coming back home. Louis Jnr. (5 years) and Jacques (3 years) love being on the farm and to be with Louis and I in between our daily commitments. They understand that we all have to make time for each other in between the Lodge activities. The kids love the interaction with the cats and the reason behind raising they babies and release them back into the wild. Unfortunately always with lots of tears…
Q: What gives you the most job satisfaction?
When my guests leave happy!
… and the interaction with the cats.
Q: Your favourite part of the day …
My days are very full but I love the sunset and the smell of the bush.
It is different and very special!