Wednesday, August 17, 2005

PORT ELIZABETH, South Africa — Go on a game drive. See the springboks. Enjoy the elephants. Indulge in sumptuous dinners. And do it all without violating one iota of Islamic law.

That’s the concept behind Kwantu — a five-star game lodge located 55 miles northeast of Port Elizabeth, in South Africa’s vast Eastern Cape province.

Kwantu, which means “special place of gathering” in the local Xhosa language, has welcomed visitors of all faiths since its opening last year. Yet with dozens of private game parks springing up throughout South Africa, Kwantu has been able to distinguish itself by being the only one that’s 100 percent Islamic-compliant.

That means a lavish cuisine featuring halal meat, and a variety of local delicacies, served in an alcohol-free environment. An on-site musallah, or small mosque, is available for prayer. All this is a strong draw when marketing to the country’s sizable Muslim population, as well as to wealthy tourists from throughout the Arab world.

“As a game reserve, we cater to all nationalities,” said Yusuf Jeeva, the Port Elizabeth businessman who started Kwantu. “For the moment, our largest markets are England, Germany, Sweden and, of course, the Middle East. This is a newly established place, and people are coming mainly through word-of-mouth.”

Mr. Jeeva, 46, is a soft-spoken and deeply religious Muslim whose grandfather emigrated from India’s Gujurat state to South Africa in 1902. He made his fortune in the food-distribution business and still runs Kash ‘n Karry, a local supermarket chain.

“My father always told me, you’re not selling food, you’re putting affordable food on the table,” said Mr. Jeeva. He said that growing up, he was always around cattle, sheep and other animals. “When I was very young, I had to learn how to drive a tractor because all us kids were involved in farming.” Yet under South Africa’s old apartheid regime, nonwhites like Mr. Jeeva were prohibited from owning land, and a black- or colored-owned game reserve was out of the question.

Things changed in 1994, with the election of Nelson Mandela and the dismantling of South Africa’s apartheid laws. With the country no longer off-limits to foreigners, game parks have proliferated throughout the Eastern Cape as eager tourists flock to South Africa for a glimpse of the “big five” — elephant, leopard, lion, buffalo and rhinoceros.

Sensing an opportunity, Mr. Jeeva two years ago invested about $4.5 million to start Kwantu. He spent half that amount to buy nearly 15,000 acres of farmland around the historic town of Sidbury, which sits along a gravel road six miles off the main highway between Port Elizabeth and Grahamstown.

Mr. Jeeva spent his remaining money on the animals themselves — bought at local game auctions — as well as on building the infrastructure and hiring qualified personnel.

“There were many challenges here. It wasn’t all smooth sailing. Initially, we had some loss of game, and we had to bring our bricks, our building materials, everything from outside. It was trying at times.”

One thing that has helped distinguish Kwantu is its status as South Africa’s first game reserve owned by nonwhites.

“In South Africa, if you’re not white, you’re considered black. People of Indian or Chinese descent have always been referred to as black South Africans,” he explained, noting that it is “vitally important” that the tourism industry — and especially game reserves — be opened up to black entrepreneurs.

Kwantu is very much a family affair. Mr. Jeeva’s wife, Faieza, oversees the kitchen and cuisine, while sons Nadir, 23; Munir, 21; and Shakir, 16, are also involved in the business. His 20-year-old daughter, Nooshin, is certified by the Field Guides Association of South Africa, and acts as Kwantu’s unofficial spokeswoman.

“Our family has always been involved with wildlife, and we enjoy entertaining people,” said Nooshin. “When an opportunity came up to buy a few farms, we did and removed all the internal fencing and other evidence of farms, like dams and troughs.

“Fortunately, the land hadn’t been cultivated very much, so there’s a lot of bush veld left.”

Nooshin — who, like her mother, covers her hair with a scarf but doesn’t wear a veil — leads safaris for strictly Muslim women for whom being in the company of a male ranger would constitute a violation of their religious beliefs.

At the moment, 60 percent of Kwantu’s guests are South Africans and 40 percent foreigners.

Broken down by religion, 30 percent are Muslims and 70 percent are non-Muslims.

At the entrance to Kwantu’s main lodge is a large glass panel engraved with the first verse of the Koran, in both Arabic and English. It’s the only visible evidence of Kwantu’s orientation, other than the small mosque on the premises.

“The village of Sidbury has the second-oldest Anglican church in South Africa. It also has a Methodist church, and a musallah,” said Nooshin. “We cater to vegetarians and all dietary requirements. We’re wheelchair-friendly as well. We don’t want to restrict anybody from enjoying what Kwantu has to offer.”

She added: “We want to provide a place where people can come as families, but also have a complete holistic experience. Kwantu is for the mind, body and soul.” Mr. Jeeva has made the pilgrimage to Mecca several times, the most recent being 10 years ago. He’s also pitched Kwantu for two consecutive years at the Arabian Travel Market in Dubai, and has hosted visitors from Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Yemen, Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates.

“Most of these people found out about Kwantu only after coming to South Africa,” he said. “In fact, one family from Kuwait came to visit Port Elizabeth for only two nights, and ended up staying here at Kwantu for 17 days.” Yet Mr. Jeeva, noting that he’s also hosted Israeli visitors, said, “We don’t think in terms of Jewish and Muslim or black and white. We take you at face value, and we give you service.”

A visit to Kwantu is prohibitively expensive for most South Africans, but quite reasonable by international standards. Mr. Jeeva charges about $220 per person per night, including luxury accommodation, two game drives, an optional night drive and all meals and beverages.

For tourists on tighter budgets or little time to spare, Kwantu offers day visits that include either lunch or dinner plus a three-hour game drive and visit to Sidbury village, the educational center and a cultural exhibition. Cost: $73.50 per person, plus an extra $14.70 for round-trip transportation between Port Elizabeth and Kwantu.

The lodge comprises 25 rooms, which will be expanded to 35 by year’s end. A conference center can accommodate up to 80 guests. Kwantu has already hosted events for the National Ports Authority and Volkswagen South Africa. In time, Mr. Jeeva also intends to add a sauna, steam room and aromatherapy, as well as workshops on alternative healing.

Mr. Jeeva said he isn’t sure how long it will take for him to break even on all these investments and start making a profit.

“It all depends on what our occupancy rate is,” he said, “but we feel quite confident that, with the grace of the Almighty, business will be good.”

Mr. Jeeva said he’s encouraged by the fact that Emirates and Qatar Airways already offer direct service from the Middle East to Johannesburg. Gulf Air is expected to follow suit. And in July, South African Airways began direct service to Johannesburg from Washington. SAA already flew direct from New York and Atlanta.

Competition from nearby game parks such as Makhala and the very upscale Shamwari doesn’t faze Mr. Jeeva.

“I think the more game reserves there are in an area, the better it is for everyone.

“Besides setting your standards quite high, there are so many people traveling,” he said.

“The time will come when people will spend two nights at Kwantu and two nights at Makhala, for example. When we promote Kwantu, we promote the Eastern Cape. Even if it’s just getting tourists to come to South Africa, that’s good enough for us.”

The fantastic region aside, visitors come to Kwantu for the luxury and the wildlife, and with a concentration of hippos, rhinos, giraffes, warthogs, zebras and antelope, they’re unlikely to leave disappointed.

Asked what his favorite wild animal is, Mr. Jeeva didn’t hesitate.

“By far, it is the springbok,” he said. “They’re so light and elegant, it’s like music when you see them galloping around.”

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