Combining Adventure and Conservation: How Sean Privett is Preserving South Africa’s Floral Kingdom

To the very southwest of South Africa lies one of the world’s six Floral Kingdoms. Over a million hectares of national parks, nature reserves, state forests and mountain catchment areas make up the Cape Floral Region, and it is this area that Sean Privett calls home.

Although the Region was only listed as a World Heritage Site in 2004, Privett was involved with the conservation of one of the world’s most biodiverse areas of vegetation since 1997, when he first became involved with Grootbos. “Michael offered me a job as the first reserve manager and conservationist at Grootbos which was a real dream opportunity for me,” says Privett after meeting Grootbos’ founder Michael Lutzeyer during his studies at the University of Cape Town.

Having grown up in Cape Town’s suburbs, Privett realized his passion for nature after swimming, sailing, hiking and camping around the region, which led to his desire to study and protect the Cape Floral Region. Once Privett became directly involved with Grootbos, he remained at the organization until 2002, only leaving for less than a year before returning yet again to start the non-profit branch of the Grootbos Foundation with Lutzeyer.

Heavily involved with one of the significant endemic species called fynbos, Privett uses his background in botany to preserve this fine-leaved plant, or shrubland, while also implementing education around preservation of the region’s wildlife, and positive impact for the surrounding communities.

Privett’s unique outlook on South Africa’s landscapes stems from his appreciation of experiencing its nature through sport and adventure. He has been involved in a variety of extreme competitions, such as the Freedom Challenge Extreme Triathlon, for which he became the ninth ever finisher, and attributes the natural motivation in the encompassing wildlife he passed throughout the race. His passion for adventure with a side of conservation has also involved Privett in the Eden Project in Cornwall, UK, the Walker Bay Fynbos Conservancy, and as an ambassador for PUREWILD Adventures. Through this position, Privett is able to encourage visitors to experience his home, and his passion projects that have turned into work, in the most responsible, yet memorable, way possible.

We had the chance to catch up with Privett to learn more about what it was like to grow up in South Africa, his more rewarding moments with the Foundation and his adventurous-competitive side that has him partaking in some of the most extreme challenges in the world.


 

 

 

Tell me a little bit about growing up in South Africa. How did that inspire you to study botany?

 
I was very fortunate to grow up in the southern suburbs of Cape Town in a village called Muizenberg. I spent most of my spare time swimming in the sea, hiking the mountains and sailing and paddling on the Zandvlei estuary–all within a few minutes of my home. My parents would take us on camping trips once a month to beautiful places along the coast or in the mountains and we did a lot of family hiking. From this, my appreciation and love for nature and the amazing fynbos vegetation of the region grew.

 

How did you get involved with the Grootbos Foundation?

I met the founder of Grootbos, Michael Lutzeyer, by chance in 1996 while studying for my MSc in botany at UCT. Michael offered me a job as the first reserve manager and conservationist at Grootbos which was a real dream opportunity for me. I started at Grootbos in January 1997 and worked there in this role until I got married in 2002 and spent a year at the Eden Project in Cornwall as a fynbos specialist. It was at Eden that I was exposed to the Eden Foundation and how it was so closely married to the Eden project commercial business. When I returned to Grootbos in 2003, I started the non-profit Grootbos Foundation together with Michael Lutzeyer and have been proudly involved with its growth and development ever since.

 

 

What is one of the most rewarding experiences you’ve had with the Foundation? What about a rewarding experience in general for the line of work you’re in?

There are so many. Hardly a day goes by without some rewarding experience. I think the most exciting projects I am involved in at the moment are completely different but equally rewarding and worthwhile. Eighteen months ago we started a canoeing development project which brings together kids from different communities and social backgrounds into a sport which is difficult to master and usually out of reach of the poor.

To see how these kids have been so dedicated and enthusiastic and how their performance improves week and week is so exciting. We have called this project “Rocking The Boat” and that’s what we’re doing!  The other project that’s really exciting me at the moment is the signing of conservation easements or servitudes with private landowners to secure highly threatened natural landscapes for conservation in perpetuity. We recently signed up a 580 hectare site of critically endangered vegetation which now is safe from ploughing and development.

 

 

How did you get involved with PUREWILD Adventures?

I met Stefan Moosleitner [of PUREWILD Adventures] at Grootbos and we connected around our love for nature, endurance sport and adventure. I have spent the last two decades running, trekking, mountain biking and paddling in the wilderness areas around Grootbos. I am super excited to share these beautiful places with visitors from around the World.

 

Can you tell me about the trip you host for PUREWILD? How has partnering with the company affected you?

Well we will be spending four nights at Grootbos, which will be an absolute highlight for participants. We will explore the region by bike, riding over some beautiful fynbos-clad hills to the southern tip of Africa, we will also run the spectacular Walker Bay beach trail at low tide and play in the mountains on an adventure/orienteering race which includes kayak, MTB and trail running. Throw in a boat trip to view the Great White Sharks off Dyer Island, the Grootbos Foundation social and conservation projects and some awesome meals and hospitality and I am sure we are all going to have lots of fun.  

 

What would you encourage a first time visitor to do on a trip to South Africa? What about something you would discourage them from doing?

South Africa is such a diverse country with so much to see and do. I think one needs to get off the major tourism routes and explore the amazing, natural countryside and meet real, authentic local people. The PUREWILD adventure itinerary will do just this.

 

 

What is the most meaningful spot in South Africa for you personally? Why?

Grootbos and Walker Bay because I have put so much of my life into this area. I live there and love waking up every morning on my farm to the sounds of nature and to be surrounded by such diversity and beauty is really a privilege.

 

You have partaken in some seriously extreme competitions like the Freedom Challenge Extreme Triathlon and canoe marathons, what attracted you to these kinds of races? Do you have a favorite race?

I love the Freedom Challenge – 2300 km of mountain biking in a non-stop race through some of the most remote and beautiful parts of South Africa in a relaxed and very uncommercialized race. You come back a completely different person and the scenery is simply spectacular.

 


 

What keeps you motivated in competitions of such length and difficulty?

I don’t think it’s something you are necessarily born with but you can teach your mind and your body to embrace the bodily pain and take in the beauty of the places you visit. Just this last weekend, I ran my first 100km Skyrun in the Drakensberg Mountains. It was an amazing 27 hours of high altitude mountain running/trekking. Seeing two sunrises in  an absolutely spectacular wilderness area in one race–hey that did not need any motivation!

Do you have a role model or someone who inspires you?

I have a number of role models. Without realizing it we are continually influenced by people we meet through our life but some really stand out and influence who one is. For me, my professor of botany, Richard Cowling had an immense impact on my life, not only inspiring me to learn about fynbos but also to share my passion with others and make a real and lasting difference through my career. Michael Lutzeyer of Grootbos has been another big influence on my life and is someone I really look up to for his positivity, passion for people and the planet, and big way of living each day.

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