The resort born to be wild

One man’s dream to nurture nature alongside luxury is reaching fruition in South Africa, writes Fiona Sims

THE bushbuck was staring back at me. I had disturbed her lunch of juicy leaves as we drove past to view the most expensive plot. Perched dramatically on the cliff edge and costing some 17 million rands, it is the most expensive slice of real estate in South Africa.

Where am I? On the Pezula Estate in Knysna, five hours’ drive up the Garden Route from Cape Town. Why am I here? The final phase of the residential development is now up for sale. The R3 billion (more than £250 million) project includes the private estate of 255 homes, the Pezula Club, with its 18-hole championship golf course, the swanky five-star Pezula Resort Hotel & Spa (now on Condé Nast Traveller’s Gold List), and the Field of Dreams, an ambitious sporting facility with an international cricket oval and tennis courts galore.

It is a breathtaking spot, high up on the Knysna Heads, with sweeping views over the Indian Ocean to one side and the lagoon, with its oyster beds and moored ocean-going yachts, on the other. No wonder Pezula’s chairman, Keith Stewart, snapped up the undeveloped 2,500-acre estate and golf course five years ago. The Zimbabwe-born billionaire felt that this was the perfect place to see out his dream of creating the ultimate country estate.

Stewart is passionate about the bush and its inhabitants, and has initiated the largest private removal of “alien” plants yet seen in South Africa – mainly clearing land of commercial pine and blue gum forests. About 1,000 acres have already been tackled; indigenous vegetation is now springing up and wildlife is returning – even leopards have been spotted.

“That’s Keith’s place over there,” says the sales director, Gary Muller, pointing to the large house hugging the cliff top with some of the best views and a 350-step path running down to the sea.

Muller’s own plot is on the other side of the hill. The former South African tennis star, who has since coached a number of professional players (including Jonas Bjorkman, who won three Wimbledon doubles titles), doubles up as Pezula’s tennis coach and is the brains behind the Field of Dreams.

So it’s no surprise, then, to hear that he has persuaded some of his sporting mates to buy in to the development. The tennis world No 1, Roger Federer, is probably its most famous resident, while the golfer Nick Price and the South African cricket captain Graeme Smith have bought plots here.

And before you ask how you can compete with billionaires and sport stars, take note that the cheapest plot, including a finished house, costs £300,000, rising to £2 million for a large house with the best sea views. And yes, the Brits are buying here. Half of Pezula’s owners are European, with 70 per cent of those from the UK, while the rest are predominantly South African.

There is a long list of what owners can and can’t do, which ensures that all activities are environmentally sound. Although you can choose your own architect and builder, you must submit plans to the Pezula Group for approval. Pezula even employs a fulltime environment manager, Jessica Hayes, who oversees all building work, as was well as managing the rehabilitation of the estate. “I’ve become an honorary civil engineer – the easy bit is getting the plants to grow,” she laughs.

Hayes is a conservationist with a degree in forestry and has been working on the project from the start. With some areas already returned to native vegetation and others to forest, she has recorded 129 bird species, rare blue duiker, bushbuck, grysbok, caracal, mongoose, porcupine and bushpig on the estate, plus various snakes.

Owners are encouraged to use natural materials from “green” sources and environmentally sensitive building practices when constructing their homes, with each project carefully monitored by Hayes and her team. The list is endless, from rainwater tanks and solar panels to a strict recycling programme – including all waste water, which irrigates the estate. My favourite, though, is Pezula’s sewage system, which works rather like a “green” septic tank – using earthworms to munch up waste material. “It’s so simple and effective,” enthuses Hayes.

There is a common perception that South Africa is crime-ridden. Muller, though, is bullish about Pezula. “Security is very discreet here. If you forget to close a door, don’t worry – you don’t have to alarm here,” he claims. That said, unfenced sections of the estate are monitored by video surveillance and there are horse patrols – just in case.

Only a handful of houses has been finished, with 30 currently being built; lollipop poles mark out other plots waiting to be developed. They are spaced surprisingly far apart. “Space is another big draw here,” Muller says.

While other developments cram up to 1,500 properties on to a similar stretch of land; Pezula has only 255, with each one averaging almost 20,000 sq ft, making it one of the lowest-density projects in South Africa. Only 15 per cent of the estate will be developed, Stewart promises, with the rest left to native vegetation, which stretches down to the beaches below the cliffs.

Now that phases 1 to 3 are nearly sold out (19 remaining), 32 plots on the final phase 4 are being offered for sale from £170,000 to £250,000, with architectural designs included in the price. “We want to get all the building finished in five years to minimise disruption,” Muller says as we drive past one nearly completed property sporting a new thatched roof and a grand (if rather incongruous) Malaysian stone mason-carved entrance. Muller tells me there is no restriction on style – within reason.

That night, thanks to the “dark sky” philosophy (street lighting is limited to low-level lighting at intersections), I’m sure I spotted Mars from my balcony at the Pezula Hotel.

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