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South Africa Insider: Interview with Karl Langdon

It was during an epic, unsupported walk across the African Continent in aid of polio that Karl (now General Manager, Ulusaba Game Reserve) decided to live for his passion and pursue a career in the bush. 

Aerial shot
Stories for... The Heart

After leaving the Aviation industry to pursue adventure and a Guinness Book of World Records title, Karl - along with two friends - walked for 22 months and 11,000 km, reaching the South Sudanese border. Unfortunately, this is where the South African government pulled them back due to the risk of them being mistaken for mercenaries amongst the Horn of Africa's unrest.

The long walk provided Karl with plenty of time for soul-searching - undeterred by the disappointment of the walk, Karl's search for adventure continued and he enrolled in the Conservation Corporation Africa Field Guide's course and passed the tough selection process. Karl met his wife Llané in 1995 in a pub in their home town, Nelspruit. They started working together at Tau Private Game Reserve on the border of Botswana in 1998, staying here for a little over two years before joining the Virgin Limited Edition family at Ulusaba Private Game Reserve in 2000.

Karl started his career at Ulusaba as Game Ranger and was quickly promoted to Head Ranger, a role which he filled for about seven years. Along with his wife, he was promoted to General Manager of Ulusaba in 2008. They are responsible for the overall management of the property, including operations and guest services, as well as management of the land and all conservation and community aspects.

Carrier caught up with Karl to find out what more about Ulusaba and what makes him tick.

Describe Ulusaba in three words.

Magical, family, unpretentious

Why does Ulusaba remain so popular?

Ulusaba Private Game Reserve is the ultimate destination for spotting the 'Big Five'. We have a huge amount of repeat guests who return each time to create more memories at a place that they call a home from home. Ulusaba brings the thrill, adventure and safari traditions of Africa to life in an exclusive and luxurious setting. Our staff are very passionate and happy; Virgin's outlook on business allows us to think outside the box. We encourage each and every staff member to bring their personality to work and in doing so we have formed lasting friendships with many of our guests.

In your opinion, what has Ulusaba achieved over the years and what do you foresee for the future?

Ulusaba has had some great achievements, especially with the community development through our charitable arm 'Pride n Purpose' and creating a home from home feeling for all of our guests.

What is the difference between the Rock, Cliff and Safari lodges? Who are each of the three lodges, suited to and why?

The only difference is location - our guests get the same experience and warm friendly service at any of our lodges.

Which suite/room is your favourite and why?

It is difficult to pick a favourite - each room is unique and has its own special charm. I recommend for guests to split their stay between the Rock and Safari lodge to get the true sense of Ulusaba.

What is your favourite element of Ulusaba?

If you had to keep just one of Ulusaba's facilities, which would it be? It has to be the people. We have an amazing product with spectacular lodges but it is the heartbeat, our people, who provide an exceptional experience not only for our guests but for all of us who call Ulusaba our home.

What are some of your top must-sees or dos whilst staying at Ulusaba?

My top six recommendations are:

  1. A visit to the local community with David from Pride n Purpose
  2. Spot the Big Five on game drives and get a truly holistic understanding of what nature has to offer
  3. Take a bush picnic
  4. Visit the Observatory
  5. Go on a bush walk
  6. Relax at the tree house viewing deck with binoculars, a good book and a glass of wine

What has been your most memorable game drive/safari experience during your career?

I have been fortunate to have many amazing bush experiences, from witnessing lions hunting buffalo to a fish eagle hunting along the river at sunset, but if I have to name one, it would be being surrounded by a herd of 30 plus elephants whilst sitting four feet above them in a marula tree. I was walking alone and could hear elephants close by, I decided to climb the tree to get a better vantage point to view them - the next thing I knew they changed direction and all gathered under the tree to take a nap. I had no other option but to get as comfortable as I could and take a nap with them. They eventually moved off two hours later, oblivious of my presence. Priceless!!

Tell us a secret about Ulusaba or something you wouldn't know about the hotel unless you have been.

Ulusaba has a true sense of family, love and passion - not only for our environment but for our people, guests and communities. We truly do go the extra mile and strive to continue to exceed our guests' expectations.

What are some of the most crazy/unusual ideas that Sir Richard Branson has come up with for Ulusaba? Which have you implemented and which have you had to abandon and why?

Richard's ideas are maybe off the wall at times, but his involvement in all details of the lodges and land is truly inspiring. He treats it like his African home. For example, I approached him about a walkway from the Safari lodge to our large dam 2km away. He immediately embraced the idea and six months later an elevated walkway was built through the tree canopies from the Safari lodge to a spectacular viewing deck and a guest suite right on the dam. Unfortunately, I was turned down for an idea for a zip line from the Rock to the Safari lodge, a drop of 600 feet over a kilometre. But you never know…

Describe yourself in three words.

Passionate, inquisitive and adventurous.

What did you want to be when you were growing up? Who inspired you?

I have always wanted to be a conservationist. I wanted to raise my family in the wilderness and to make positive change on the planet and people. I have been extremely blessed to have achieved all of this but still have a long journey to go. There was never one person that inspired me - I get inspiration from all sorts of people, from all walks of life. If I had to name a few it would be Dr Ian Player (a conservationist), my mum, Nelson Mandela, Prince Silaule (a young boy in our neighbouring community, that inspired me to start and continue with the work we do with Pride n Purpose, our charitable arm) and more recently my kids and Llane. Most importantly, life inspires me, in all of its forms.

Tell us a little about how you came to be the General Manager at Ulusaba.

I started off as a Ranger then was promoted to Head Ranger and finally offered the challenge to run Ulusaba. Llane and I have a great balance for a management couple in the bush as Llane has extensive hospitality experience and I have the bush/conservation angle. We absolutely love our jobs!

Tell us a secret about yourself.

I was a General's body guard for two years during my military service. When I get the chance I love a round of golf -I was a 0 handicap golfer at the age of 16. I also talk to elephants and trees. Sshhh don't tell anyone, it's a secret!

What do you like to do when you're not at work?

I enjoy spending time with my family, walking with elephants, spending quality time on my own in the bush and riding my enduro motorbike.