The returning champion
Cape Town, South Africa


“Welcome to Cape Town, or should I say, welcome home,” greets our host, just stopping short of an embracing hug and instead offering up a great big smile. We’ve just arrived at the front door of the gorgeous Camissa House, a luxurious, boutique, design hotel at the base of the iconic Table Mountain, a serene haven among the fynbos shrubland. The owner’s signature friendly informality is a delightful part of the property’s DNA: staying here is like coming home.

Camissa House is no one-hit wonder either, as just up the road is its sister property, MannaBay, which has a similarly special atmosphere. The native Capetonian behind them both is none other than hospitality entrepreneur, safari swami and sustainable-travel role model, David Ryan.

“What you see and touch is only really 30 per cent of any travel or hospitality experience,” he says. “The rest is culture and an energetic delivery of it by people. Add to that authenticity, innovation and creativity and that’s what makes us truly different from others and gives us a unique essence.”

Although David is actually referring to his own two properties – along with a third he owns, Silvan Safari, an intimate lodge in Sabi Sands Game Reserve – he could so easily mean Cape Town as a whole. And if anyone should know what they are talking about, it’s him. Born and bred within the city limits, he grew up in the little seaside town of Fish Hoek, surrounded by rugged mountains, in the southern suburbs of the Cape Peninsula. He currently resides in Higgovale, right below the cable car station, on the slopes of Table Mountain. His favourite thing about living there is that he can go right out of his back door and mountain-bike down the city’s most iconic natural feature.

This story first appeared in The Captivating Cape Town Issue, available in print and digital.

This story first appeared in The Captivating Cape Town Issue, available in print and digital.

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“Cape Town is unique like that,” he says. “From the Central Business District, you are never more than 10 minutes away from the mountain or the best beaches. More than that, living in the city means you don’t have to contend with the traffic coming in or going out to the suburbs. And, let’s be honest, 80 per cent of Cape Town’s gay population lives in City Bowl, so there is a strong sense of community.”

For many years, David called chic De Waterkant home, but with the addition of children and pets to his life, he opted out of the gaybourhood.

“Cape Town is undoubtedly the gay capital of Africa and I was lucky enough to come to terms with my sexuality and be at the heart of the action at the same time as South Africa was developing her new constitution, an important milestone that sought to protect the rights of all minority groups, including gay and lesbian people.

“This is a very cosmopolitan city and, coming from a liberal family, being gay was never a problem – externally, at least. Like many people of my generation, there was an internal challenge that I had to contend with. I have, however, been fortunate enough to acquire many great friends and mentors throughout all the phases of my life journey. And once I had gained the courage to live my truth, I knew that there are very few challenges in life that I cannot overcome.”

I joke that one of the challenges must have been bringing up two young sons. He laughs.

“I’m not sure whether or not fatherhood has changed my priorities, but I’ve certainly stopped stressing about the small things. Kids are such a blessing. They teach you about yourself and life, but equally, they challenge you too. They also ground you. Life is not as carefree and it comes with a great sense of responsibility, but that is offset by a love, bond and companionship that you cannot experience through any other relationship.

“My children are also my biggest influences, as they remind me of the innocence and simplicity of the human soul before it gets muddled and complicated by life. I’m also fortunate enough to be surrounded by an incredible support system of family and friends. Balance is something I strive for in my life. My businesses, just like my children, need my attention at different times and in different amounts. Oh, and then there are my animals.”

David has always loved animals. In fact, there is a distinct hint of Doctor Dolittle about him. Rumour even reports that he sometimes turns up for work meetings with his African grey parrot by his side.

It all started back at the turn of the millennium when he was sent to Madagascar to set up an office for a company he was working for at the time. The country was just opening up to tourism and he became involved part-time with the conservation of the indri lemur. He came to understand how sustainable tourism can uplift communities and, in the process, not only protect endangered wildlife but ensure they both prosper.

It was the realisation of this greater purpose that has become his life’s work and led to the foundation of Rhino Africa, a company that since 2004 has become one of the continent’s leading tour operators. With the combination of a love of nature and a passion for travel (a passion for African travel, in particular), he spearheads responsible tourism initiatives to uplift communities and protect endangered wildlife by bringing guests to Africa.

“Rhino Africa was the culmination of a perfect storm, brought about my fascination with marketing, the advent of the internet and my love for this continent. But, mostly, I’d say it reflects my curiosity for disruption. As someone who values experience, I recognised that by treating the internet as a conduit and using expert destination and product knowledge for the first time, we could build tailor-made experiences rather than brochure holidays.

“By matching the guest’s requirements and expectations to an African product, we can create something unique. A guest can speak to an African expert with first-hand knowledge, rather than an agent who buys product through a chain of intermediaries.”

Back in 2004, the internet was just emerging as an e-commerce platform in Africa and was still largely seen in global tourism as a place for information gathering. South Africa was just a few years into its new democracy, and tourism, particularly wildlife tourism, was reawakening.

“It was an exciting time, because we were part of the birth and growth of the travel and tourism industry we know today. But it’s our people and the culture we’ve built that have driven the success of the company, and it is them that form the heart and soul of the business. Together, we have created a credo of 33 statements that prescribe how we act, how we work alongside each other and what is important to us. My job is to ensure we all remain true to our purpose and our promise. I make sure that, even though technology advances and grows, we stay focused on the guest experience, making sure that we take care of all things, big and small.

“For me, luxury is in the detail. I am also a firm believer in first principles, so part of our success is that, on balance, we employ more generalists than specialists, ensuring there are more people able to pick up the slack if things go wrong.”

The bigger-picture Rhino Africa philosophy seems a simple one: that the world can and will be a better place if everyone gets an opportunity to experience Africa, if everyone can feel the African soil under their feet and the sun on their faces, if everyone can be moved by the size and peacefulness of an elephant or the grace of a big cat, if everyone can discover for themselves the warm-heartedness of the African people.

And when they say everyone, they include everybody alive now and every person still to be born. For this to be possible, conservation is key.

“I’ve always believed that travel has the potential to change the world and now more than ever the planet needs the kind of travel that gives back. Beyond wildlife conservation is social responsibility. For every seven guests we bring in, one tourism job is created. If you consider that one job can support up to 10 family members, bringing 16,000 people here in good times makes our business key to social upliftment.

“There is a growing consciousness among travellers that travel needs to shift from a space of taking to giving back. Creating a lasting legacy for communities and wildlife is appealing to such guests, many of whom want to become actively involved.”

I’m heartened that, for David, business is not only about showing clients beautiful places. It’s also vital that local communities and conservation projects benefit from it. A major driving force behind his enterprise is the desire to help others. He is involved in the Good Work Foundation, which brings English, maths and digital literacy to children living in rural areas. Similarly, he supports The Click Foundation, which deploys online literacy and numeracy programmes in underprivileged primary schools.

But some of David’s most impassioned work is closer to home. He helped fund the construction of a three-storey property at Khumbulani, a centre that provides shelter and support for families and children affected by HIV and AIDS in Khayelitsha township, to the southeast of Cape Town.

He reflects: “While I’m passionate about helping more of my country and Africa at large, ensuring that communities in Cape Town are looked after is among my top priorities – it is, after all, my home.

“The city has an incredible natural beauty that few in the world can compete with and, when she is on display, particularly through what I like to call the ‘secret season’ of March, April and May, it is hard to resist her natural beauty and that of her people.

“What I adore most is how the city never stays still, continuing to evolve and change for the better. It’s a place that inspires and challenges me to make a difference. It implores me to be disruptive and go against the norm. I ultimately feel fulfilled here in Cape Town. Life is good. I love what I do and do what I love, so how can I not be fulfilled? That said, a husband at some point would be nice!”  |

Photography courtesy of Rhino Africa