Michael Lutzeyer: 'The benefits from the World Cup will last for decades'

Peter Bills
Wednesday 26 August 2009 17:56 BST

It started with a simple camping trip to the Cape's Gansbaai region, back in 1991. Heiner Lutzeyer and his son Michael just wanted a few simple days resting and relaxing close to nature...

Eighteen years later, a most extraordinary project, not to mention countless associated activities, has grown out of the kernel of an idea, in the way that native plants flourish and rise in the wake of fire.

Today, Grootbos Private Nature Reserve spanning 4000 hectares, covers the land where Heiner and Michael spied a simple opportunity. Out in the Cape Province past Hermanus and 13 kilometres past the small town of Stanford, the Lutzeyers' dream is a vivid reality.

In the week after South Africa elected a new Government and a new President, to the accompanying sound of warning sirens from around the world and inside this country, it is refreshing to hear great tales of success from this land. Truth to tell, such stories abound if we only look for them. Alas, too often the doomsayers prevail.

What caught the eye of the Lutzeyers back in 1991, and what sparked a unique, multi-purpose facility that has become one of the best in this country, was a basic sign. 'FOR SALE. 125 hectares Fynbos.'

Michael Lutzeyer had been born in South Africa in 1952, little more than a year after his parents had emigrated from Germany. His family had developed a business that produced gluing equipment for industry.

What attracted them to the idea of buying 125 hectares of land way down in the Cape Province on the western edge of the Agulhas Plain, close to Walkers Bay? A love of nature and an inspired idea.

When they first bought the land, they would spend every weekend there, driving down from Cape Town on the Friday. But their friends thought they would eventually return to the city. Little did they know…………

Originally, they built five self catering chalets to try and entice visitors to an area they regarded as one of the finest in all South Africa. As Michael says today "People always talk about the Big 5 when they go to game reserves to look at animals. But we have a big five on the coast here: whales, sharks, seals, penguins and dolphins. And we always sought to be an attraction that targeted people who wanted to come and look at flowers."

They soon realised international guests did not want self catering, so in 1997 they opened a new, 4* facility they called the 'Garden Lodge'. That was quickly extended to contain 11 suites and today, they have another lodge, the 5* Forest Lodge which employs 105 local people. They market it as 'Luxury in harmony with nature'.

There is no doubt that the Grootbos site offers a magnificent destination for visitors from South Africa and around the world. But it was nature that first attracted Lutzeyer and has done so ever since.

They sub-divided the land into 49 plots where they thought they would find different vegetation. In fact, what they unearthed stunned them. "We got to 323 different species of plants, one of which, Erica Magniasilvia, was new to science.

"Today, we boast 756 species of plants. All the plants are categorised and in all, we have discovered five new species for science."

In 1996, Sean Privett, a botanist who had done a Masters at UCT, joined Lutzeyer as a business partner and the development and exploration of the many plants in the Cape Floral Kingdom, really took off. The area is home to over 9,000 species, almost 70 per cent of which are unique to the Cape flora.

Lutzeyer says "Sean inspired me, showing me how interesting plants can be".

In 2000, Grootbos started a conservation programme to preserve the area around them. Fourteen nearby landowners joined them in the project.

Another of Lutzeyer's ambitions was always to involve the local community in his plans and projects. He found it curious that in South Africa, you don't need education to become a landscaper and decided to found a gardening school. With the help of 200,000 Euros funding from the German Government, the school was opened in 2003. Each year, they train 12 previously disadvantaged pupils in a 1-year course covering horticulture and life skills. The students are fed, given pocket money and trained on indigenous plants.

In five years, after tutoring 60 local students, every one has gone on to find employment.

When South Africa was awarded the 2010 Soccer World Cup by FIFA, Michael Lutzeyer spied another chance. "I realised this was a golden opportunity to find funding so we took a decision to try and build a sports facility in Gansbaai. The council gave us the land, 14 hectares, and we raised Rand 6 million from various sources."

So they had the land and the money and soon they built a clubhouse, complete with showers for both boys and girls. But with 22 local clubs in sports such as football, netball and tennis starting to use the facilities, they quickly realised they needed something else. Lutzeyer persuaded a contact in the English Football Association to donate a full size artificial turf pitch. Today, probably the most modern synthetic turf pitch in all South Africa is in Gansbaai and most afternoons anything from 60 up to 100 local children aged from 6 right up to 19 can be seen using the facilities.

"The benefits from this soccer World Cup will last for decades" Lutzeyer believes. "It will give an immense boost to this country."

Some human beings have the knack of turning difficulties into achievements. But when nature intervenes, it is a lot harder for mankind to emerge successfully. In 2006, a devastating fire swept through Grootbos. The new lodge was completely destroyed, burnt to the ground. Fortunately, it was insured but the sense of loss was still immense.

Yet Lutzeyer still spied something positive amidst the ruins. "We were immediately excited by what sort of plants we would find re-emerging after the fire. What happened was, we found species that had not been seen for 40 years, it was amazing. The fire was huge yet within a week, plants started emerging. It was incredible."

In all, they found about 200 plants growing out of the ashes. In his youth, Lutzeyer had not been very interested in fauna and flora. But now, inspired by the botanists around him, he took to his new domain with zeal. To him, the plants came alive in more ways than one.

Now, an entire diverse ecosystem exists at Grootbos. The relationship between insects, birds, mammals and flowering plants of this system is explained to visitors, young and old, by guides. Wild herbs can be smelled, ancient Milkwood forests with 1,000 year old trees walked through and remote sandy beaches along the coast can be strolled along. The wonders of fynbos are brought to reality for the visitor.

You might think that at 57, especially with the new lodge long since re-built and busy with visitors, Michael Lutzeyer would now begin to ease off, his life ambition and devotion, sated. To believe that would be to misunderstand the intrinsic nature of such people.

"I am a driven person, I am always searching for the next venture" he tells me. "I think I have the knack of seeing opportunities and turning them into reality. I am very fortunate because I am able to meet some very interesting, high profile people. I once spent three hours talking with the King of Jordan.

"When I get up in the morning, every day is a different day. I rise at 6am and start my first meetings at 0630. I believe if I haven't done the work by 10am, I am not going to do it. Early in the morning is when you are at your most efficient."

So what on earth does he do with the rest of his day? Don't for a minute believe he is ever idle. He likes to spend a lot of time with his guides; discoursing, receiving their input and exchanging ideas.

When he surveys all he has achieved at Grootbos, the 5* luxury hotel accommodation, the wondrous mix of luxury and nature, the peace, tranquillity and awesome beauty, does he feel a sense of pride, I ask him? Not coincidentally, his face mirrors that of so many other people like him, those who have achieved so much but continue to look forward to the next challenge, not staring backwards and basking in their own glory. "No" he tells me, with a strange, mystified expression on his face. "Today matters, then tomorrow. Not yesterday."

And modern day South Africa? It is as if this remarkable man lights up any topic in any debate at any time, such is his infectious enthusiasm for everyday life.

"I was born in South Africa and there have always been question marks about this country. But we have always got through them with flying colours. People always said, 'this can't last, South Africa can't last'. But people in this country have the knack of pulling together at the right time.

"Yes, this is a trying time. But I hope the soccer World Cup, which I am very positive about, can reunite the people here as a nation. Plus the incredible amount of publicity arising from it all around the world."

Perhaps it's not surprising plants grow so well on Michael Lutzeyer's land. Anyone or anything would surely feel energised in his company.

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