In the internet age, where people become famous for doing very little, it’s rather refreshing to find a man who is media shy, yet is one of the most influential individuals out there. This man is Singita founder and CEO Luke Bailes. He is difficult to pin down for comment, and when I do he’s not indulging any silly attempts at prying personal questions, shifting swiftly to the more pressing issue at hand: Earth.
He is also quick to shift any glory from himself to his extended family of team players, such as long-time friend and Singita chief operating officer and conservation director, Mark Witney. From an early age he’s observed nature at play, as well as the devastating effects of man playing with nature.
The story of Singita began in 1926 when Bailes’ grandfather purchased land in what would later become part of the Sabi Sands Game Reserve. The reserve evolved from its early days as a hunting concession to become a conservation area exclusively. Bailes decided to build on his grandfather’s legacy by restoring it to its original condition with the assistance of environmentalist Dave Wright.
When Bailes and Witney met as teenagers at Kearsney College in the ’70s, their world was a vastly different place. “The reserve was remote and wild,” Bailes recalls. “One hardly saw anyone and the Sand River flowed strongly all year round.”
Bailes cuts a fine figure and looks every bit the gentleman ranger. He recalls an early experience on his first safari. He was eight years old and spent the night in a tree house in Sabi Sands, seeing lions roaming around when he woke in the morning. A charmed life indeed, but he has never lost sight of this great privilege or of the youthful excitement of “going into the unknown, discovering new territories”. Nor has he neglected the important role he plays on his mission to preserve pristine wilderness for future generations.
“The Sand River started changing course as a result of poor agricultural practices in the catchment area. The river became brown and topsoil would be deposited whenever heavy rain fell,” Bailes tells me, recalling the first issue that brought conservation to his attention as a young man. “I began to realise that we are interdependent, that the need for conservation extended way beyond one’s immediate boundary, and that education was critical.”
Singita Ebony Lodge came first. It was opened in 1993 with the help of Witney, and “challenged existing ideas of excellence within the safari industry, and set new standards of luxury”, Bailes says.
“I’ve always been interested in conservation-related issues. During my travels through Africa I began to realise that similar challenges existed in many countries. Invariably extremely impoverished communities lived near wildlife areas and were forced to poach in order to live, he says. “It occurred to me that tourism was an effective way of stopping this practice. If communities protect animals, tourism would flourish, jobs and business linkages would be formed, and a sound interdependent relationship would result. Of course, today we do significantly more than this — we focus on education, small and medium business development and are making a profound difference in many countries.”
While Bailes may want to save our natural world, he is not self-denying. After all, this is a business with material rewards. His mansion on Cape Town’s elite Nettleton Road is one of the largest on the Atlantic Seaboard. From there he can enjoy a good red wine, his favorite tipple for sundowners. But as splendid as this home is, it must be difficult to choose a favourite place to roost.
“All of our properties are exceptional and very different. I love the remoteness and mountainous nature of our Singita Lebombo concession in the Eastern Kruger National Park. For someone who is used to the Southern African bushveld, Singita Grumeti in the Serengeti is a must-see — almost 400 000 acres of huge open plains,” Bailes says. “Today it is acknowledged to have the very best consistent game viewing in all of Africa — thousands of animals everywhere. And it is exclusive to our guests, unlike the Serengeti National Park. Recently, guests counted 110 different lion there in one game drive.”
I’ve been fortunate to visit many of the luxurious Singita properties, including the spectacularly contemporary Lebombo, however, those in the Grumeti reserves are still high on my bucket list. We agree that luxury is about the privilege of having exclusive access to these pristine areas of land, rather than high thread counts.
With a new wave of more conscientious tourists, Singita is witnessing a noticeable shift away from expectations of finery as part of the package. “Our guests are high-net-worth individuals. There is nothing unique about luxury for them, but what is unique is the experience of Africa,” Witney says. “The raw beauty of the bushveld, the people, watching animals in their natural environment doing what they have done for millions of years. Today’s guest is very conscious of the impact their visit has on conservation and communities and they want to know that they are making a positive difference.”
Tourism counts for about 10% of gross domestic product in sub-Saharan Africa, which highlights its importance to both governments and private operators such as Singita. Without the beautiful environment and animals, there is no business. Conservation, however, comes at a huge financial cost, and the company has recognised the need to emphasise its message as it seeks donor- partner funding for the first time. “It is more relevant now than ever before,” Witney says. “We believe tourism has an important role to play in creating awareness of this conservation challenge.
“We believe the only way to truly make an impact is to do bold and audacious projects. This costs an inordinate amount of money, which until recently has been mostly funded by ourselves. To manage serious conservation and community initiatives across large areas of land — we now manage over 1-million acres — equates to many millions of dollars per year. For the first time, we are now seeking donor partner funding to help us achieve even more. Furthermore, we are being approached by donors who recognise us for our track record and expertise,” Witney says.
“There is a new type of philanthropist these days, who is greatly concerned about the future of the earth. Because of Singita’s core purpose to protect and preserve we are seen as the catalyst, and, therefore, coming together, with some very influential multibillionaire philanthropists and ourselves has been a natural shift,” he says.