Meet the Morukuru Family
Interview by Yvan Vermeesch

There are few things more precious than a sense of belonging, two of these precious notions are experiencing a deep connection to a place, and to one another. This is what struck Ed and Anka Zeeman when they first started the Morukuru Family and the Morukuru Family’s three exclusive-use houses in Madikwe Game Reserve: Morukuru Ocean House and AtholPlace House & Villa. The XO Private Founder, Yvan Vermeesch, sits down for the exclusive interview series with Ed and Anka Zeeman, the masterminds behind these unique properties

When did you start your hotel adventure? What lies at the base of it? What motivated you?

We first bought the land for Morukuru in Madikwe Game Reserve in 2004, when we came back thereafter we had visited Madikwe for the first time in 2003 with our complete family. During 2005 we built Morukuru River & Owner’s House, which opened in October 2005. That means this year we are celebrating our 15th anniversary as Morukuru Family!

Shortly after both houses were finished, we realized that we needed to go commercial as it would be much better for the property and for our staff. But the full commitment to becoming a world-class, high-end exclusive-use safari specialist only happened in 2007. Our concept is based on how we felt the ideal safari experience should be. More flexible, more personalized. And still with an emphasis on the nature experience, including regular bush meals and safari outings.

Why South Africa? How did you get started?

My wife and I loved going to Africa, quickly becoming safari addicts. Our first trip to Africa (in 1991) was to Kenya, followed by South Africa the year after. We visited a lot of countries in Southern and Eastern Africa and especially loving the safaris. With the years our budget increased and we visited the most beautiful and prestigious lodges. And even then we felt we missed something. We missed flexibility – the rhythm of safari life is quite rigid in most lodges. I remember the day that a manager of a top-end lodge told me that I had to go on safari (it was raining) because otherwise, I was ruining his logistics.

At that time we knew that South Africa would be the only country to invest serious money, in a lot of other countries it was not possible to buy land and property as a foreigner or we would have had to work with a local partner. We were also looking for a place that enabled us to be back home (at that time we were also still working in the Netherlands) within 24 hours. We also wanted to be in a spot that didn’t require any specific medical precautions (like malaria, yellow fever etc). And finally, we wanted to be able to reach a reasonably equipped e hospital within 2 hours. That combination brought us to Madikwe Game Reserve.

How long did it take to get that first property up and running? What were the major challenges and hurdles you came across?

We build the first two houses within 9 months. The biggest challenge then was to become known in the industry, it takes a while to get decent occupancy. And as always finding the right staff and management was a challenge as well.
The amazing team at Morukuru Family Madikwe
Was starting a hospitality business a natural development/evolution for you? What did you do before getting into the hotel business?

My wife Anka and I were both working in the real estate industry in The Netherlands. I had my own company in property management services, primarily working for institutional investors. Anka worked for a listed real estate investment company, in the board from 2001 till 2009 and from 2004 till 2008 as CEO.

I sold my company in 2007 and from that moment onwards we had time to dedicate more time and attention to our African venture. It also allowed us to see how life in the hospitality industry works. We soon realised that having only two exclusive-use houses was too little for a viable operation and we extended the group with Farm House in 2010.

Through the seller of the Madikwe land, we got involved in the De Hoop Nature Reserve (3 hours from Cape Town along the Garden Route) where we realised Morukuru Ocean House in 2014 and Morukuru Beach Lodge in 2018.

In 2014 the opportunity to acquire AtholPlace Hotel in Johannesburg presented itself. This is the only property we didn’t develop ourselves, but we added the next-door house as a 4-bedroom exclusive-use and re-opened in 2015 as AtholPlace House & Villa (now AtholPlace House & Villa).

What does the name Morukuru Family mean? How did you come up with the name?

When we bought our land in Madikwe Game Reserve, we had to find a spot for our house. After walking the Marico River up and down a few times, we decided to build the house at an open clearing overlooking the river, next to a huge ancient Tamboti tree. In the local Tswana language, the name for the Tamboti tree is Morukuru. So the house was named ‘Morukuru’. As we added more properties to the collection, we decided on the name Morukuru Family, as we are family owned and we very much focus on families going on safari.

How would you best define the DNA of Morukuru Family? What differentiates your company from the competition?

Our DNA is all about making our guests happy. We do this with truly personalized service in high-end surroundings and properties.

Many other hotels and lodges add a family unit as part of their room inventory. At Morukuru Family the exclusive-use product is our core business. It is not an add on.
Today, your portfolio of properties in South Africa has significantly increased. How did that happen? Was it more opportunity or a carefully designed strategy?

It happened more or less spontaneous and it certainly wasn’t a carefully designed strategy. Through the seller of our Madikwe property, we got involved in the De Hoop Nature Reserve.

If you would have to define each of your properties with one sentence, what would they be?

AtholPlace – peace, tranquillity and stylish design in the middle of the city

De Hoop – a pure unspoiled beach destination for lovers of nature, outdoor life and luxury

Madikwe - a slice of paradise, your home away from home in the African bush

What are your plans for the future? How do you see your business developing over the next five to ten years?

Especially now with COVID-19 going on it will be interesting to see what will happen. I think tourism to Africa will get a serious kick in the next years. We all will have to develop a new strategy. We don’t have a fixed plan to let the group grow – it will also depend on so many external factors, including on how South Africa as a country will develop. 

Which markets are your most important markets today? Which markets will you focus on more into the future?

Morukuru Family De Hoop is visited mostly by German-speaking countries, (Germany, Switzerland) and other European countries including The Netherlands and the UK.

For AtholPlace and Madikwe Family Madikwe, the main markets are the UK and the USA, followed by European countries such as Germany, The Netherlands and France.
Morukuru Owners House
AtholPlace House & Villa
Ed and Anka Zeeman
Morukuru Family De Hoop
Morukuru Family Madikwe
The industry has changed significantly over the years since you started your adventure. Which element, trend or similar has impacted your business most?

Without a doubt the fact that multigeneration travel has become so popular. The majority of our guests, especially at Morukuru Family Madikwe, are extended, multi-generation families. Grandparents taking their children and grandchildren on a safari to Africa.

What does the word ‘experiential’ mean to you and does it play a role of importance in your business?

It is our aim to make each and every guest happy. This process starts with our website already and continues during the booking process. Our reservations team assists with any enquiries or questions and guests will receive a ‘Wish List’ prior to arrival, which enables them to share information with us on any special occasions they want to celebrate, or any specific preferences.

That information enables our teams to make sure that each stay is totally tailor-made. Coupled with the famous ‘Morukuru Freedom Concept’ (which means guests can do whatever they want, whenever they want), we are offering a unique product.

Combined with the option of being actively involved in nature conservation and local community support through our ‘Safaris with a Purpose’ package means we are very much offering an ‘experiential’ product.

Could you share a most inspiring or hilarious anecdote that happened at one of your fine properties?

For me, that must be the first time we took part in conservation work. Running through the bush with jerry cans of water to cool off the animal. Taking blood samples. It was so special to feel part of a national geographic documentary. Because of this experience we founded the ‘Morukuru Goodwill Foundation’ so we could make a difference to conservation as well as for the local communities.

What would be your most important piece of advice to give to someone wishing to start a similar adventure?

Don’t expect any financial return. The possibility to stay over in your own properties with families and friends is the return on investment. So only finance an enterprise like this with equity. And for Africa, you need patience, a lot of patience. But in the end, it is all worth it!
Yvan Vermeesch
A Belgian by birth, Yvan Vermeesch grew up across Africa before heading to the Caribbean followed by the stunning city of Prague before calling the Mediterranean island of Mallorca home. Always looking to innovate across the board and with a clear penchant for everything experiential in travel, Yvan Vermeesch takes great pride in connecting the finest players in bespoke travel around the globe.