I asked the Meesers about how they came to be the much-loved hosts at nDzuti, and I uncovered tales about hand-built reed huts, horseback in the bush, rhino monitoring programmes, and the initiation of some well-known safari establishments.
Bruce and Judy Meeser have been heading up safari operations in South Africa for the last 30 years before coming to settle at their beautiful ‘place in the shade,’ nDzuti Safari Camp. Their expertise comes from practice and passion, and they have got a lot of both!
Read some of our questions and answers and learn how truly serious Bruce and Judy are about Africa and the wild world they call home.
Tell us about the various safari operations you have established and run since the 1980s after you guys got married and ventured into the safari business
We met and married at Tanda Tula and soon we were running a squad of 30 workers in a veld reclamation programme, selective bush clearing and erosion work, rerouting misplaced roads, an impala culling programme and general management.
We left Tanda Tula and lived in a camp that we built from hessian and a mix of salt and cement on the banks of the Machaton River, with no running water or power, but we had incredible experiences. On one occasion, our camp was destroyed by fire and we were left standing in the clothes we wore; a liberating experience and surprisingly easy to start again in a reed hut we built. Our salary was meagre and work was hard, but we were very happy.
We dreamed of doing walking safaris and offering a genuine, unpretentious bush experience. We took over a small camp of four wooden huts in the Manyeleti – Khoka Moya – and started walking safaris in 1988. The next year we built a tented camp on the Nwasitsonsto River, called Honeyguide, and it attracted a lot of attention as a low-impact, luxury safari camp from where we did a combination of walks and drives.
Guiding in that period was rather different, built around colourful characters. Field guide books were somewhat limited so sometimes we resorted to trial-and-error to learn, but we all managed!
In the 90s along came some big changes, including the arrival of our two children, Troy and Sabre. There was talk of fences being dropped between Kruger and the private game reserves – Sabi Sand, Timbavati, Klaserie, to name a few. This was an enormous breakthrough for conservation in the Lowveld.
Along with the opening of the fences, there was an increase in rhino poaching. We rose to the challenge and started a volunteer programme. The authorities were suspicious of this multi-pronged, proactive approach that contributed to research, tourism and management all in one! So after many frustrations, the project was closed, but not before some meaningful data was collected and some poaching put to a stop.
On the game farm we had purchased, we built a traditional Shangaan Tribal Village along with our colleague and good friend, Axon Khosa. Many tours to the Kruger area used to use the village as an overnight stop and an introduction to the traditions and lives of the local tribe of the area.
We teamed up with The Backpack Cape Town and The Backpack Knysna, and built The Backpack Kruger, operating many tours in the area. We also started a walking safari company called Transfrontiers Wildlife Walking Safaris, running trails from many different camps in the Greater Kruger simultaneously.
Over time, backpacking seemed to be replaced by volunteering and we had less business for the walking safaris. We had secured a lodge in Mozambique on the Macanetta peninsula and ran that for five years, but later realised that we are bush and not beach people!
Meanwhile we had sold Transfrontiers and hoped to spend more time with our kids. We gathered a herd of 13 horses and took international guests on horseback safaris on our game farm – a very special experience.
So we had downsized to be at home, but as the kids grew up we ached to be back in the bush, guiding and hosting and creating memories. And so it was in 2011 when Sabre was in her second last year at school and Troy had returned from an epic sea journey that we came to guide and host our guests at nDzuti. The floods in January 2012 were a curse and a blessing; the good being we were able to build a new nDzuti from scratch.
What stands out as one of the most memorable experiences during this time? You must have had a close run-in with a lion on foot, or witnessed something truly breath-taking for you personally. Do tell!
Bruce has had some very close encounters, but he is reluctant to talk about them. Suffice to say that he believes the mark of a good ranger is that he will avoid situations that will endanger both the animals and the guests. The ten years in Manyeleti saw Bruce and colleagues physically tracking lions almost every day, and things do go wrong, but to this day no animal has lost its life so that tourists may view it.
What is your vision for nDzuti compared to previous adventures you’ve embarked on in your career in the bushveld?
We have operated the concession for about 12 years, not always from nDzuti Camp but also from Tusker Tented camp when we did full time walking safaris. It is a privilege to operate on such a beautiful section of the Klaserie Game Reserve with access to both sides of the Klaserie River and the wide oxbow it has carved into the landscape. nDzuti is special, having only four rooms, and the structure of the camp (all under one roof) lends itself to the convivial and homely atmosphere we try to create. Having like-minded guests from all over the world around the fire or the dinner table, interacting and sharing experiences, is gratifying. Having international guests return regularly tells us we are getting it right!
Does this love for the wild run in your family? Have you passed down your bush-wise skills to your kids?
Troy Courtney is 22 and works as a fishing and safari guide on the lower Zambezi in Zambia. His nickname has always been TC Zambezi! Sabre Rayne is about to start work in the Dubai Desert Conservation Reserve as a safari guide; also doing horseback desert rides on Arabian horses, and falconry. Both of our kids are FGASA qualified guides.
In the last 30 years, what changes have you seen in the environment and in our wildlife populations?
The wood component of the environment has increased, to the detriment of the grasses. Wildebeest and other animals favouring open plains have declined. Sable antelope, which are particularly selective grazers, have visibly reduced in numbers, tssessbe and eland, too. Most of these changes are attributed to the fences of the past and appear not to have corrected themselves since the removal of fences. Thirty years ago there were very few buffalo after a major drought, and lions specialised in killing giraffe. Lion prides used to be bigger, it seems. Certainly wild dog numbers have dwindled. Species diversity seems to be on the decline. We used to see more bushbuck, tssessebe, and sable, and much fewer impala.
Some areas on the margins of these reserves that were fairly recently cattle farms have now been converted for conservation. The number of safari lodges has also increased, as well as the introduction of ‘wildlife estates’ – housing developments within a reserve.
Poaching by snares is non-selective, so has not affected any one species in particular; however, the rhino poaching is an enormous challenge, as is the emerging use of lion bones, pangolin scales and the resurge in ivory poaching. The demand for poached animals has grown exponentially and needs to be seen in a different light altogether from the subsistence poaching of the past.
Where do you see yourselves retiring… if ever?
We have not even thought about that. We would never want to leave the bush, and guiding guests is a way to keep learning and imparting knowledge and experiences.