Hotel Review: Mantis Founders Lodge, Eastern Cape in South Africa
“Where it all began,” reads a handwritten logo inscribed at the entrance to the Founders Lodge. For 20 years, this 1940s farmhouse was the home of Adrian Gardiner as he planned the rewilding of the Eastern Cape in South Africa. Today, this lodge is redefining safari, taking the interaction between humans and wildlife to a new level.
Today, this farmhouse is at the heart of a luxurious eco-lodge surrounded by rejuvenated grounds. Fenced farmland has returned to its natural grassy state and visitors arrive to hunt down the Big Five.
Advised by renowned conservationist Dr Ian Player, brother of golfer Gary, Gardiner has brought wildlife back to the Eastern Cape, recreating complex ecosystems ranging from dung beetle to elephant, buffalo to oxpecker birds that feed on buffalo ticks. Even the elusive cheetah can be found.
Next to the entrance, two rhinos sculpted from used oil drums symbolize the next stage of conservation. On certain dates, guests are invited to take an active role in the health of the rhinos.
Located about a 70-minute coastal drive north of Port Elizabeth Airport, Founders Lodge is in a malaria-free area – no mosquito nets or anti-malarial tablets needed here.
The 1940s farmhouse forms the heart of the lodge. In the central courtyard there is a small plunge pool, particularly appreciated by guests after being in the gym or sauna. A larger pool, surrounded by deckchairs and parasols, is more conducive to swimming and relaxation. Adrian Gardiner’s former office is now the library, most of the shelves of which are filled with his vast collection of ornithology books.
The farmhouse houses two traditional suites, while contemporary suites have been built next to them. Lawned gardens lead to an electrified fence that marks the boundary for rhinos such as Rodney and Margaret. As the Eastern Cape experiences its seventh year of drought, extra food is left for the rhinos near the fence.
Recently added, a secluded honeymoon pod features a wrap-around balcony and spectacular views of the Lion King sunrises. Even the shower is positioned so you never miss a dazzling moment of galloping zebras or frolicking monkeys in the trees.
Alternatively, there’s a resplendent cream and red railway carriage – once Adrian Gardiner used it to travel across Africa. Evocative black and white images feature images of South African history and the train has been converted to accommodate five people, for the exclusive use of groups.
Located two miles from Founders Lodge, a private chef cooks in the train kitchen. Although the horse-drawn carriage houses a dining area, most guests choose to eat on a poolside terrace that offers views of the waterhole and valley. Similarly, customers prefer the ticket office, a new bathroom, with a view of the glass-walled veldt, to the train’s small shower.
Food and drink
“I’m here to spoil you,” Bongi said as he brought the lunch menu to a table set on the terrace of our apartment. If only all relationships started like this. It was a secluded and private place with romantics Outside of Africa view of the veld. Other guests also had their own low-key lunch spots.
Lunch and dinner at Founders Lodge tend to be mobile feasts. For another lunch, we got an outdoor spot by the pool where rhinoceros Rodney joined us, devouring vegetation less than 50 yards across the fence.
Remember this is South Africa. One evening, you will be treated to a braii indoors or under the stars of the Southern Cross and the Milky Way. It’s not just a meat feast, there are also vegetarian skewers.
More romantic, with just seven rooms, on select nights The Founders offers private fine dining by candlelight, making the most of the former home’s library, parlors, and formal dining room.
Morning and evening game drives are key to the founders routine. The wildlife is prolific and as we bump along the rutted tracks we tick off the Big Five and even spot the heads of two cheetahs lazing in the tall straw grass.
A game drive includes a visit to feed the Blue-Flowered Plumbago to Munu, a rhino next to the railway carriage. Blindsided in a territorial fight with another rhino, Munu became a celebrity with two staff members and social media accounts. Meanwhile, the founders are looking for a female to mate with. Rhinos are an endangered species and the plan is to return Munu’s offspring to the wild. During this time, Munu nibbles 30 to 40 kg of vegetation per day.
On certain dates, guests can book to help with rhino conservation. To follow the rhino, on foot, in a vehicle or by helicopter, a rhino is sedated and guests help by monitoring the rhino’s pulse and eye movements during medical procedures or by recording data.
In a word
MANTIS stands for Man And Nature Together Is Sustainable. The founders certainly live up to the credo by taking guest involvement in conservation to the next level. But Founders Lodge retains all the luxuries of a safari: sumptuous rooms, gourmet meals and frozen appetizers served on the evening safari.
The cost: Accommodation at Founders Lodge starts from £551 per room, based on two people sharing meals, game drives and most drinks.
Exclusive use of the Founders Railway Carriage starts from £1,060 per night on an all-inclusive basis for an average family of two adults and two children.
Address: Sidbury, 6131, South Africa
Call: +27 (41) 555-0009