Feel-good Founders Lodge

The man who dreamed up Mantis and Shamwari opens his home to Louise Liebenberg and guests It is hard not to feel privileged when visiting five-star Founders Lodge, the newest jewel in the Mantis Collection crown. That is because, luxurious and lovely as it is, this impressive lodge right next door to world-famous Shamwari Game Reserve is so much more than just another fancy pad in the Eastern Cape bushveld. Founders Lodge, you see, was previously the private retreat of Mantis Collection and Shamwari founder Adrian Gardiner and his wife, Shirleyanne. It is where the high-flying Port Elizabeth couple stayed whenever they needed to be close to the nerve centre of Shamwari, and it is where they hosted scores of famous and influential friends over the years. It is also where Gardiner dreamed up many of his visionary plans, first for Shamwari and then, after the reserve was sold to Dubai World in a mega-million rand deal eight years ago, to plot the expansion of his Mantis Collection empire to every corner of the globe. Plans to open the home up to paying guests by expanding it into a luxury commercial lodge began in earnest last year. Founders Lodge opened quietly this winter and discerning guests have already come calling. They will find, as we did, an unparalleled hideaway from headspinning city life; a place where every plush comfort awaits and where you are made to feel, both by the staff and the Gardiners themselves, if you are lucky enough to bump into them there, that they are the ones privileged to have you and not the other way around. The man who gets it right with establishments all over the world made sure that, when it comes to a place with his own legacy so intimately attached to it, every minute detail is taken care of. Yes, it is wonderful to see the lions and elephants, and take in the arrestingly beautiful surroundings, but often it is the little touches, from the fluffiest bathrobes and quality linen, to mouthwatering high tea treats (boy, that cheesecake was good - ) and brilliant meals that come together to elevate a great stay to an unforgettable one. Big five territory And then there is the fact that you are right by iconic Shamwari, which means you are almost guaranteed to see fantastic wildlife. Built around a tranquil landscaped courtyard, Founders Lodge is situated on its own 400 hectare private reserve which has direct access to Shamwari as part of an agreement between Gardiner and the current owners. You literally drive out of the lodge gate and you are in Big Five territory. We went on two game drives with ranger Phillip Gouza, who is also the assistant manager, and each delivered incredible experiences. Those elephants and rhinos, giraffes and wildebeest, and who knows how many species of buck, were just waiting for us. We even came across a lion family of five, complete with two fat cubs totally stuffing their faces on a fresh kill. It has been years since I have been this close to lions in the wild and at one point I did feel a little jittery, though Phillip was incredibly professional and reassuring. And to think the rangers always tell you that, when it comes to nature, you really are not “guaranteed” to see anything.

Phillip and his wife, Suzie, who is responsible for guest relations, are very ably joined on the lodge management side by Wayne Nel and his GM wife, the turbo-charged Vicky, whose energy levels easily match Gardiner’s. The Gouzas are from Paterson, and many of the staff (including the chef, Phillip’s sister Louise) come from the surrounding community. The Nels, on the other hand, came down to the Eastern Cape having run Gardiner’s Zambezi Queen “floating hotel” on Botswana’s Chobe River for some years. and she was the one who saw potential in Louise, giving her the opportunity to embrace her burgeoning passion for cooking. The results are impressive: every meal we had was a feast and the plating, too, was perfection. Dinners here are an engaging affair: you are in the “founder’s” home and you become part of the family for the duration of your stay. We joined our fellow guests at one huge table and ended up getting to know the loveliest bunch of people. Bookings for Founders Lodge are on 072-611-4189 or e-mail: founders.lodge@mantiscollection.com Gardiner busier than ever He has spent nearly a quarter of a century building a hospitality industry empire and putting the Eastern Cape on the global map for tourism and conservation. At 73, Mantis Collection chairman Adrian Gardiner is showing no sign of slowing down. The visionary businessman and conservationist who established Shamwari Game Reserve in 1992 before going on to sell it to Dubai World in 2008, is busier than ever. His wife, Shirleyanne, the sounding board for many of Gardiner’s pioneering plans, says he is up at the crack of dawn, usually works a seven-day week and will probably never stop. “I think he’s afraid to,” she says candidly. The couple fly here, there and everywhere; London this week, China the next, to check out potential new hospitality partners. The Mantis Collection manages and markets some of the world’s most exclusive boutique hotels, reserves, luxury boats and private homes across the globe. And Mantis is not his only business interest – far from it. The father of three has an exceptional work ethic and expects exactly the same from his staff. He is simply unstoppable and keeping up with him is no joke. I mentioned I rather fancied a little walk in the veld some time over the weekend (there are no predators on the 400ha reserve on which the lodge is situated, so we’d be safe). He promptly arranged for our party to venture down into the pristine valley below Founders Lodge, streaking ahead with his walking stick and leaving the rest of us in his dust. By the end of it we’d covered some 5km on foot – a walk in the park for the tireless septuagenarian! Though he can get crotchety if his standards aren’t met, Gardiner’s discipline, drive and passion for what he does are hugely inspiring. Our weekend party included several of his and Shirleyanne’s friends and business associates of many years. It was clear all looked up to him and would practically go to the ends of the earth for him. The couple have made extraordinary friendships over the years. Gary Player is one; Ernie Els and his parents are others. Gardiner adored the late Dr Ian Player, Gary’s brother and a world legend in conservation. Other friendships were built on his love for rugby and cricket. Adrian and Shirleyanne have rubbed shoulders with everyone from royalty to sports heroes, political greats to rock stars. There’s a legacy room at the lodge in which special items from their Shamwari and Mantis journeys are kept. There’s even a copy of the Freedom Charter – they had one of the few originals still in existence, but donated it to the government. Famous faces they’ve known and often hosted personally adorn the walls. John Travolta; Tiger Woods; Margaret and Dennis Thatcher and their son, Mark; the duke and duchess of Gloucester . . . the list goes on. Others may not be household names in South Africa, but in Gardiner’s personal story they loom large. One is the late billionaire John Aspinall, “a renowned British zoo owner who achieved great success in breeding gorillas in captivity and releasing them into the wild”, Gardiner said, remembering his friend with a twinkle in his eye.