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Say, for example, you have – or are thinking of buying – a big, beautiful piece of land along the coast, in the bush, or in the mountains with lots of fynbos. If money is no issue, you can leave it as it is for the birds and the bees and the bokkies, but most of us need to get some kind of return on our investment. So what are the options – mining it, farming it, building a hotel or cutting it up into thousands of residential and/or commercial plots? 

Some 30–40 years ago, most developers would have looked only at the (single) bottom line, but as we start to realise the effects of climate change, the necessity of conserving water catchment areas, and the importance of biodiversity, priorities have changed.

By carefully planning land use you can cluster all the housing in one corner – or a few discreet corners – and that way offer all residents a level of proximity to communal services like restaurants and sports facilities. But, in costing each unit, you would take into account the land that is not – and never will be – developed. And also, of course, the cost of maintaining it. And, while it is a cost, it’s also a very big asset because that “undeveloped” land is likely to be one of the main selling points of the estate – and it will become more valuable as time goes by. And, of course, just like when buying a suburban house, who the neighbours are and what is on your doorstep also make a big difference.

There are lots of advantages to living in a residential estate, with economies of scale being one of the most important. And that does not just refer to the financial savings in buying and building in bulk - it also extends to land use. And that's where it gets exciting.

Take, for example, Marloth Park. Dating back to way in the previous century, this affordable bushveld estate’s main attraction is its position on the banks of the Crocodile River and its view into the Kruger National Park. While there are many permanent residents, many homeowners stay only for holidays, and there is a wide range of tourist accommodation as well – from backpackers and caravan parks to rental units. As well as offering a good view into Kruger, and close access to Crocodile Bridge and Malelane gates, Marloth has a large population of antelope, zebras and other small animals that roam freely through the estate, and a fenced reserve – Lionspruit – with lions, buffalo and other big game. Except for Lionspruit, residents and guests can walk, cycle or drive throughout the estate, and watch the animals in Kruger across the river (www.marlothpark.com).

image credit CMAI image credit CMAI Image Chris Daly Image Chris Daly Image Chris Daly

Not far from Marloth – but at the other end of the price spectrum – is the still-in-development Elephant Point. On the banks of the Sabie River, this estate has two residential cores, and a luxury hotel is planned. Again, it’s all about the bush, the views into Kruger across the Sabie, and the animals and birds (www.elephantpoint.co.za).

Still on the wildlife and bush theme, Gondwana Game Reserve and Wildlife Estate is far from the bushveld – way down on the Garden Route in the Western Cape. Being in a fynbos area, botanical biodiversity is a given, but it’s also a free-roaming Big Five reserve with some really interesting endemics like bontebok and Cape mountain zebra. Like Marloth and Elephant Point, it offers homeowners the option of living there or holidaying there, and there is also a significant tourist component with a tented camp and a game lodge. And, of course, it’s on the Garden Route, so it’s malaria-free and the sea is close by (www.gondwanagr.co.za).

Not far from Gondwana, on the sea cliffs to the east of Knysna, Pezula Private Estate commands high prices based almost exclusively on its low density, biodiversity and incredible views. Once a commercial eucalyptus and pine plantation, the natural fynbos has been re-established, and the land rehabilitated. The views across the Noetzie River, to Noetzie Beach and into the rugged Indian Ocean, are unparalleled. There are animals like small antelope, caracal and – of course – lots of birds including bright, colourful sunbirds. The views don’t extend to the Knysna Lagoon, which you can see from the adjacent but separate Pezula Golf Estate, but the fact that this spectacular lagoon and natural harbour is just a short drive away is an added bonus (www.pezulaprivateestate.co.za).

The astonishingly beautiful and environmentally fragile Knysna Lagoon, which forms part of the Garden Route National Park, is one of the biggest estuaries in South Africa. Once an important harbour, mainly for the export of timber, the lagoon has had a slightly grubby industrial history – particularly Thesen Island, which was a lumber mill for the better part of the 20th century. In the 1990s, the island was earmarked for development and rehabilitation, and one of the first things the developers did was to enlist the aid of local divers to capture and relocate as many as possible of the weird, cute, endemic and very endangered Knysna seahorses before dredging and resculpting the area into 19 linked artificial islands to create Thesen Islands residential estate. Almost all homes have waterfront access, and extensive areas have been left as wetland where birds, otters, fish and other animals thrive. The opportunity to “muck about in boats” is a big part of the attraction of living here, and residents have jetties and/or moorings from which they can explore the lagoon in anything from a canoe to an ocean-going yacht. As well as the huge but relatively placid lagoon, skilled skippers with ocean-worthy craft can head out into the ocean through the beautiful but somewhat tricky Knysna Heads. Close by, and also part of the Garden Route National Park, the deep, green, tangled Knysna Forest, with its spectacular hikes and mountain-bike trails from mild to flipping hectic, is an added attraction (www.thesenislands.co.za).

And, just across the lagoon from Thesen Islands, are the two Brenton settlements: Brenton-on-Lake and Brenton-on-Sea. In the 1990s, a small development was planned on an expanse of beautiful sea-view land – until it was pointed out that this pretty spot was the last remaining habitat of one of the rarest butterflies on earth. It wasn’t all plain sailing, but the butterfly prevailed, and the area is now a small and very low-key, but very beautiful special nature reserve called the Brenton Blue Butterfly Reserve.

It works both ways, see. As developers realise the value of biodiversity and nature in their marketing initiatives, they also have to realise that sometimes it means they have to change their plans. And it’s a smart developer who can gracefully forego a commercial opportunity to preserve … a butterfly, a frog, a seahorse. It’s all about attitude and values, and it may well pay off in the long term.