Rolf's Lockdown Diary: Day 0 to 30
Read how Rhulani Safari Lodge masters the daily challenge in times of the coronavirus and how we prepare ourselves for our future. Thoughts from Rhulani's owner Rolf who lives in Switzerland.
Day 30: Level 4
Saturday. After a week working at home, now weekend at home. Doesn't sound like a big difference. But I have time to watch on YouTube the recent announcement by President Cyril Ramaphosa to ease the lockdown in South Africa, starting 1 May. I didn't expect any news that could affect Rhulani. And so it is. The level will be reduced from 5 to 4.
"How are you and the team doing today?" I carefully ask Carla, my manager at Rhulani. "Anything exciting to report?"
"No, not really," says Carla. "Everything is very quiet here".
I insist a bit more. "Not even an animal roaming around in the camp? I still need a good story for my diary…"
Carla tells me: "No, since we connected the electric fence again, the elephants keep away from us. And as you know, we have set up a scarecrow in the lobby. Since then we have no longer had any problems with the baboons.” I remember. A few days ago, a group of Chacma baboons had made quite a mess in our dining room.
Carla's voice doesn't sound happy. I come to the point: “What do you think of level 4?”
"Level, 5, 4 or 3, what difference does it make?”, Carla says. “A safari Lodge like Rhulani only opens at level 1 anyway. So no changes."
Listening to Ramaphosa, there is no doubt. Hotels will remain closed in Level 4. In addition, traveling between provinces will continue to be impossible. This means, for example, that my employees at Rhulani (North West Province), who live in Johannesburg (Gauteng Province), cannot go home without permission.
But I still wonder if there is some easing in Madikwe Game Reserve. The park is currently closed. Can we visit other lodges, if we follow strict rules? Go shopping to Zeerust, the closest city? Will suppliers be allowed to enter the reserve and do work at the lodge?
Despite some open questions I realize, it is somehow irrelevant. The lockdown continues. As expected.
Day 29: The fire is burning
I recently bought a fire bowl for my balcony in Switzerland. Today I go to the forest with my son to collect some wood. A small fire during dinner, that will give a nice atmosphere. Of course it cannot compare to a boma dinner at Rhulani. There we have a big camp fire and a unique African setting. But the fire is burning.
Yes, the fire is burning. It has been this way all the time since we started Rhulani. A nice picture, especially at this time!
An email from a travel agent makes me think. There are more and more customers who want to book their vacation for the second half of the year. But they are afraid to make a deposit payment. What if the hotel doesn't survive the crisis and the money gets lost?
I try to light a little fire in the bowl. My son is amazed. A fire on the balcony is an attraction for him.
Rhulani bankrupt? I haven't thought about that yet…
But I understand the concern. According to a recent survey in South Africa, 78% of SME’s do not have sufficient cash flow to survive the lockdown period. And in the case of an extended lockdown beyond April 2020 the percentage would be 92%.
When I started my business, a good colleague told me that I will only sleep well when I know my fixed costs and have reserves available to survive a long period without any income. I took the advice to heart. Now, I can't understand that so many companies are suffering existential problems after a month of lockdown.
The theoretical scenario has now arrived. Rhulani has no debt. No loans that we would have to repay. No outstanding bills. The deposit payments of our customers are secured. Reserves are there. I am sleeping peacefully.
By the way, I can't wait to experience the real magic of Africa again in Rhulani’s boma. Ah, this indescribable calm. The sounds of roaring lions, croaking frogs and a crackling fire. The memories of unique wildlife viewing on our safaris. Thousands of stars in the sky.
It's not that quiet here. There is a construction site opposite my balcony. But still a wonderful evening with my family. My son brings a pack of Marshmallows, which we will roast on the fire.
I just noticed that the agent has paid the deposit for his guest. And it is as I said: the fire keeps burning.
Day 28: Springboks
I watch the LIVE stream from Rhulani for the second time, on Facebook. We always try to be authentic, original and informative on Social Media. Our followers should get a real picture about us. But I notice, something is different today. I see Rhulani in all its elegance, class and beautiful colors. Just like before the crisis. Cocktails at sunset, prepared by Sean and Carla. All Five Star. Did you see that too?
Incidentally, it is very instructive for me to see how to prepare a "Springbok". A typical shooter in South Africa, in the national colors: gold (Amarula) and green (Peppermint liqueur). Not easy to prepare!
I am terrified to find that I don't have any peppermint liquor at home. So no Springbok tonight, too bad. I have enough Amarula, of course. Every time I travel to Rhulani I buy a bottle at OR Tambo Int’l Airport in Johannesburg. An absolute "must". You can literally take the sweet taste of a safari home with you, along with the elephant on the label.
I just noticed that every other day I talk in my diary about cocktails, sundowners ... Before you think I'm an alcoholic, let me tell you:
The “Springbok” was a national symbol of South Africa under white minority rule, and it was adopted as a nickname or mascot by a number of South African sports teams, most famously by the national rugby team.
I also remember, from the countless game drives I made, that it is not that easy to find this elegant, slim, beautiful antelope in Madikwe Reserve. I've actually seen more leopards than springboks. Only with luck you find springboks in the north of the reserve, in the plains.
Congratulations to my dream team at the lodge for the super LIVE stream. The peppermint liqueur is on my shopping list.
Day 27: Not a day to worry
It was in December 2012. I was a complete lateral entrant. A bit naive, some say crazy. “But I am a fast learner”, I said. So why not starting my business here? I traveled to South Africa and visited Rhulani for the first time. Two months later, I was the owner. A fantastic journey begun, at a wonderful place, with a great team, characterized by passion, excitement and success. COVID-19 has actually no chance of destroying our goals and values.
These are my thoughts today. I am on the treadmill and have time to wallow in reminiscences. The TV is on. I feel great. It is not the day to worry about Rhulani.
While running, I imagine sitting in the outdoor lounge, watching the sunset and observing elephants at the waterhole, and my barlady Valencia brings me a cool drink. What a wonderful life!
The daily update from the Swiss government is transmitted on TV. Today's topic: The impact of the virus on tourism. Interesting, I think, so let’s listen to it.
The message is: "It is only from September that we expect first people to start traveling again, and only locally. We do expect a gradual recovery only next year. A normalization of international tourism industry, with open borders and without health concerns, will most probably happen from 2022.”
Elephants and the sunset disappear from my fantasies for a moment. To be honest, I hear such a pessimistic forecast for the first time.
Still running, I change the TV channel and watch news. There are new studies from the US and Germany that show, based on extensive testing, that the danger of COVID-19 is far overrated. Not worse than the usual flu. We should go back to normal as quickly as possible.
That’s amazing. Two such opposite messages on the same day. After so many weeks, it seems we know less and less about the virus.
I stick to my initial promise. Today is not the day to worry about Rhulani. We'll be back as soon as we can and stay closed as long as we need to. Even if it is until 2022. As simple as that.
My running program will end soon. I could watch the elephant for hours. How they play with each other, splash with the water. And Valencia’s cocktail, just great!
Day 26: Sunshine
In Switzerland the month of April has a bad reputation. “April, April, does everything he wants,” we say. Cold, sun, snow, rain, heat, storm - just everything is possible. But this year the only thing we see is sunshine. It almost feels like at Rhulani in “sunny South Africa”. There the annual dry season has just started.
Summertime in April? Ok. Today, I will buy a parasol for my balcony. I find a way to pick it up at the shop even during lockdown. Oh God. The base is 55kg. I put it into my car, with all my strength, drag it to the elevator, 4th floor, push it through my apartment. Hard work, but I'll be there soon.
I remember we had rain at Rhulani a week ago. I don't remember when it was the last time in Switzerland. Soils dried up here, rivers are at their lowest levels. According to media reports, a delicate situation.
For us Swiss, however, this now brings beautiful moments. Staying In the park, walking in the forest, relaxing at home on the balcony, barbecues - and now with my new parasol.
Autumn has started in Madikwe. "The rain has stopped here too," Sean tells me. For him, this is the most beautiful of the year. “The nights are getting cooler. During the day, there is sunshine. Plants and grass are still green. Wonderful sunsets. And the wild animals are everywhere.”
Sean tells me that there are impala herds, zebras and the funny warthogs are running around in the lodge and at the waterhole. Large herds of elephants are spread all over the park. Fortunately, the annoying elephant bull “Bob” is no longer in the camp.
Drought, lack of water, this is a big challenge. Everywhere. I think that at Rhulani we are more used to it. We expect seven months with no rain. We are using well-functioning boreholes. The tanks are full.
I have arrived on my balcony. The parasol is installed. Looks just amazing! Let’s turn on the grill. I look at the sky and see clouds are hanging there. Rain is announced. “April, April,….”
Day 25: Hidden talents
The time at home also has many positive sides. I spend a lot more time with my son and realize, without modesty, that I am a fantastic storyteller. The wolf and the 3 pigs becomes a real thriller. In any case, my son enjoys it. I also learn today that we have some hidden talents at Rhulani that are coming to light.
You just need time. A creative break. Then all of a sudden, hidden strengths emerge that you never knew about. Thanks to the lockdown.
I am quite curious when I ask Carla how the team of four at Rhulani is organized these days. She smiles when saying "It's not that easy for me as the only girl.” But Carla is also surprised by the new skills of her colleagues.
"Sean is a fantastic cook," she says. Sean is actually our head ranger, loves animals, the bush, changes wheels on the car, knows all of the more than 400 birds. "We could easily hire him as a chef."
And his ranger colleague Alasdair has discovered a new passion in the kitchen. He loves washing dishes. So Alasdair could help our scullery maid in the future.
And Carla? “I have to say I discovered my love for the swimming pool. I clean it every day, apply the chemicals, and I understand how it works. I know exactly which button to press and what happens next.”
My son is calling me again. "Papa, tell me the story. The one with the wolf and the three pigs…"
Day 24: Step by step
At my home in Switzerland, the plan for the opening after the lockdown was recently presented. In a week I can go to the hairdresser again, but I can't go to a restaurant yet. In South Africa the lockdown will probably be finished at the end of April. So what? What will the way back to normal be like? What does this mean for Rhulani?
Many countries in Europe, not just Switzerland, have a plan that works in stages. Essential services first. Business where you don't have massive customer gatherings, can open. Priority for shops where you can identify your customers and can track them. There is no "Day X", no start with a bang. Where it is easier to adhere to the "best practice recommendations" of hygiene and social distancing, the opening will be earlier.
Makes sense. Step by step.
During a first self-analysis, I come to the conclusion that a safari lodge, especially Rhulani, is an absolutely problem-free place. Absolutely safe for “post-COVID-19”. We should be able to open it again immediately.
Sean, my head ranger, tells me that the only place he can thionk of and where different people are in a confined space is the game drive vehicle. 3 hours on safari. Alone in the bush, but close together.
There are easy ways on how to ensure security. We have only a limited number of guests per vehicle. We have hand sanitizers for sundowners. We can deliver protective masks for game drives. Could this be a reality soon?
Otherwise we are very private and isolated here in the African bush. Rhulani has only 18 guests when fully booked. No group formation is possible. Guests only meet at meal times. But we are not a restaurant with narrow seating. We can separate guests from each other.
What sounds problem-free in the theory is critical in practice. When will the borders open? When can tourists come to South Africa? When do people feel safe to travel? Officially opened, practically closed.
Tomorrow I will call my hairdresser to make an appointment. I think they will ask me to wear a mask there. Completely unusual for me as a Swiss. And where do I get one?
Day 23: A new booking
I call my office at Rhulani every day. As always, Carla answers with a friendly voice. "Hello, Rolf!" When I ask what is new today, she says. "No, nothing, everything is silent". I would like to chat about this and that. But the ideas are missing. So we go through some of the incoming emails. Daily routine. One is special today.
The emails have been the same for days and weeks now. Cancellation or rebooking of reservations. Disappointed guests. There is a lockdown worldwide. Travel is not possible. Nobody knows for how long.
I am satisfied about our customer-friendly solution where we offer to postpone the reservation for free if traveling is not possible due to COVID-19. Many guests make use of it and are grateful. Some will send us a new date soon.
Still, I feel sad every time. A trip to the African bush, a visit to Rhulani, is a highlight for all visitors. We have birthdays, anniversaries, honeymoons, special occasions. A frequent feedback is, Rhulani was a once in a lifetime experience.
To see a lion up close. Giraffes at sunset. To experience a tranquility like nowhere else. Untouched nature. A dinner by the fire. Thousands of stars. An atmosphere of adventure, luxury, relaxation. All anticipation is suddenly destroyed or postponed.
The pain I feel with our guests is great. No family vacation. The long-awaited trip to South Africa has to wait. The sympathy with my guests is actually bigger than the concern of managing the business during this time.
"There are not many inquiries today," says Carla. It is Saturday. The office is quieter than usual. But we discover one email that puts a smile to the face of both of us. A new booking!
It’s for Christmas. A perfect date, and certainly safe to travel, I think. Christmas at Rhulani is even more special. Summer time, warmth, a special evening menu, decorations, singing ...
So yes. The world is not paralyzed. Let’s plan our “Life after” again.
Carla sends an offer, as she used to do it several times a day. It's good to get used to it again!
Day 22: Animal transmissions
You have certainly read the news from the Bronx Zoo in New York a few days ago. It wasn't an April joke. Nadia, a 4-year-old female Malayan tiger, has tested positive for COVID-19. She, her sister Azul, two Amur tigers, and three African lions had developed a dry cough and all are expected to recover. Is the transmission of the virus from human to animal and vice versa possibly an issue for Madikwe and Rhulani?
Since the beginning of the crisis, I have not read any reports from park management on this topic which looks, at first sight, interesting.
I remember our game drives. High Tea is over. We take a seat on the vehicle. Ready to go. The ranger gives a few instructions: "Please be aware that the animals are used to vehicles and humans. Therefore we will be able to get quite close to elephants, lions, wild dogs and buffalos. However, do not forget that these are all wild animals and potentially dangerous. Please remain silent, do not make unnecessary movements, we will always keep the necessary distance.”
Some lions look so peaceful. But still no guest wants to get closer than two meters to them. Distancing rules have automatically been in place for wild animals even before COVID-19.
When reading articles on the subject, there must be a close contact between humans and animals. Perhaps this was the case between the tiger and the animal keeper at the Bronx Zoo. But even then the transmission is not so clear. The danger to infected animals doesn't seem to be an issue either.
My manager Carla says: “When we have animal conservation activities, it has always been known that bacterial transmission can take place. Especially with wild cats. We protect ourselves accordingly. So, not a new topic for us.”
For a change, a topic that I am not worried about today. Better this way!
Day 21: Precise predictions
As you know, I am the owner of Rhulani, which a fulfilling pastime for me. Otherwise I work for an insurance company in Switzerland and lead a team of qualified mathematicians and actuaries. Today, I ask how long the corona crisis will continue. Mathematicians will certainly have a good answer, right?
This question about the duration of the lockdown and - more importantly - the way back to normality is also central for Rhulani. When can we go looking for lions again with guests? What measures have to be taken? When are we back to normal?
Carla, my manager at Rhulani, says she expects we are back to work in June. Sean, Assistant Manager, agrees, but says it could also be July depending on whether the lockdown is extended. Alasdair, Field Guide, notes that it may still take weeks and months before normal operation is possible again.
Pretty clear and understandable, I think. These estimates are in line with my own opinion.
But back to the beginning. What do mathematicians think about this question? They have a university degrees, do modeling. They should know.
The responses are sobering: "How do you define the exact time for the end of the crisis? End of lockdown? When children can go back to school? When all stores are open? When you no longer have to wear masks?”
I say: The end for me is when everything is the same as before.
The team giggles. Then the crisis will never be over. Because it will never be the same as before.
I give up. Anyway, I didn't expect a mathematician to give a binding answer.
Day 20: 1,000 pictures
As I've been expecting for a long time, the opening after the lockdown will be slow. This will significantly influence our planning in Rhulani. This applies for South Africa, where the end date of the lockdown has not yet been confirmed, but also in Switzerland, where there will be a cautious, slow opening after 27 April. Since we are heading towards summer here, I wonder if and how we can enjoy summer time. Go out, go swimming …
From this point of view, I regret that I am not staying at Rhulani. Of course, I know: I would be currently isolated there. Like my team. I couldn’t move around, would stay in Madikwe Reserve for the lockdown.
But I have a look at a photo from our pool deck. What a nice pool! In the middle of the hard Dolomite rocks. It looks tempting. The deck chairs are ready. The sun shaders are open. A cool drink is served. The pool invites you for a refreshing bath.
My son Timo calls me and says: "Did you know that we published our 1,000th post on Instagram today?”
It is quite a milestone. 1,000 times a wonderful insight into Rhulani. 1,000 facets, 1,000 memories. Timo plays an active role in our social media strategy, manages Instagram with great passion. What an achievement. Congratulations!
Social media, including Instagram, are even more valuable in times when we're closed. Our friends and followers remain loyal to us. Everyone can still see us. We can show that we are doing well, that we will be back as soon as we can.
Out of curiosity, I ask Timo to send me the very first Instagram photo he had published. It is one out of the year 2013. It fits perfectly into my thoughts today: It shows Rhulani’s pool deck, with a view of the African bush.
The old photo seems to me so long ago. A kind of short film is running in my mind showing everything we have done over 7 years. Complete emptying of the pool giving it a fresh paint, new deck, new chairs and parasols, putting cozy daybeds... The traditional, rather uniform bush feeling was enriched in color, luxury. A fresh feeling.
With Timo I agree on the following today: the Photo 1'000 is not the end. It is the first photo of the next 1,000, which we will publish.
Please stay connected.
Day 19: Non-smokers
After the long Easter weekend I go to the supermarket today. I want to prepare an aperitif tonight and need a bottle of Campari. In contrast to South Africa, buying alcohol is possible in Switzerland. Lockdown doesn't seem to mean the same everywhere.
I remember when a few days ago an instruction went to the restaurants and hotels in South Africa, which restricted the serving of alcohol. The sale of alcohol is also prohibited in shops. For Rhulani, not so relevant. We are anyway closed and have no guests.
I have to say that I don't understand the reason for this limitation. Perhaps one fears uncontrolled alcohol excesses during the crisis. Here in Switzerland, the sale of alcohol has increased significantly since the lockdown, which would support the theory.
In the meantime I have arrived at the supermarket and I am pleased that this restriction does not exist here.
"And much worse," Carla tells me, "you can't buy cigarettes here either." Let me think. We have four people at Rhulani currently. Carla, smoker. Riaan, smoker. Sean, smoker. Alasdair, smoker. Indeed, that's a tough restriction for my team!
In South Africa cigarettes are often passed around when friends are sitting together. This habit is quite dangerous in times of COVID-19. In addition, smokers have a higher incidence of lung related medical conditions, which means that they could belong to a risk group. So I understand why cigarettes could be problematic.
I tell Carla that this would be the ideal opportunity to quit smoking. I work for a life insurance company and know how harmful smoking is.
Carla ignores my fatherly advice. “Quitting smoking at this particular time would drive me crazy.” And as if she wants to calm me down, she adds: “Don’t worry, we have enough stock here!”
I am now standing in front of the shelf with spirits. It is half empty. Panic buying also here. And worse, no Campari!
I'll have to come up with another aperitif tonight…
Day 18: Testing
Two funny warthogs are running on the road. All around a tranquility, idyll, that’s Madikwe. On a quiet Monday I look at some photos from my last visit to Rhulani. I like the warthogs. That was in December 2019. The world was still in order. No COVIOD-19. Neither in South Africa (where Rhulani is located) nor in Switzerland (where I live). As every day I am following the news about the virus and look at the figures.
In Switzerland 25'389 people were tested positive and 1'103 people have died, But we are proud about recent developments. We are planning to open our lockdown in two weeks as we currently "only" have around 600 new cases per day. This is much less than at peak times. The wave flattens out.
In South Africa, 25 fatalities were registered since the beginning. Only 25 new cases were detected yesterday. The trend is also decreasing. This is just impressive, I think, even more compared to my home country. The lockdown reaches its goal.
I have a chat with Carla at the lodge. My impression is confirmed. Rigorous containment measures are essential. There is limited access to medicine, lack of resources, poor hygiene in remote areas. If the virus breaks out in the communities, this would be a complete disaster. COVID-19 should stay away.
"They go to the most remote areas, also here in the Northwest Province. They do testing. One after the other.”, says Carla, "and we have just heard that everyone staying in Madikwe during lockdown, will also be tested."
I look at my photo with the warthogs. This calm, this solitude, untouched nature. How could that virus get there? My team has been isolated for almost three weeks now. No human contact. Everyone is healthy, no symptoms. What sense does a test make here?
The park is – hopefully – reopening soon. So, maybe it is still a good thing if we can send the message: “Madikwe is absolutely virus free, so don’t worry, come to visit us".
I find it astonishing that the crisis in each country started at such different times, but that the path to normalization is almost synchronized globally. That’s my impression. If I was right, it would mean that international travel will be possible again faster than expected.
In any case, we remain positive. Like the little warthogs. They always seem to be happy. I can't wait to see them again!
Day 17: Easter bunny
Our little son is an early bird. That's why I hid the Easter nest last night already. It has all sorts of sweets, chocolate eggs, and as it is common in Switzerland, a big beautiful rabbit with long ears, made of chocolate. At Rhulani a special Easter breakfast is prepared in the courtyard.
I am happy that my team at Rhulani – Carla, Riaan, Dean and Alasdair – is showing us via LIVE transmission a beautiful breakfast buffet. I remember how nice it is to be served such a breakfast, as we do it at Rhulani, after the morning safari. Everything is perfectly presented. The setting couldn’t be better. Wonderful morning sun, in the shade of a big marula tree, and with a view of the watering hole. It would be so nice to join them! .
As expected, my son is up early. He starts looking for the Easter bunny. In every corner. While I'm giving him some hints where to look, in my imagination I am still somewhere in the African Bush:
Night is falling in Madikwe. An indescribable silence around us. The ranger connects the spotlight. While driving, he is screening the landscape, the bushes. So we still have a chance to spot the animals. Nocturnal animals. I quietly hope that a Scrub Hare jumps onto the road and then runs as fast as lightning in front of our vehicle. This funny moment happens quite often. If you have done a safari before, you know what I am telling you, right?
So, we are actually looking for the rabbit at Rhulani every day. Not only on an Easter Sunday.
"Here he is!" says my son happily. He found his Easter basket. The long chocolate ears will be the first to be eaten.
Our breakfast also begins. Happy Easter to my team at Rhulani, Happy Easter to everyone!
Day 16: Supermoon
Wonderful Easter weather. Mild evenings. In South Africa, these are ideal conditions for a braai. At my home in Switzerland I put a good steak on the grill. I look into the night sky. It's full moon! I remember unforgettable nights in Rhulani's boma. Sitting at the camp fire, with excellent food and thousands of stars. Can this wonderful moon also be seen in Madikwe Reserve tonight?
I am sure you think that this was a stupid question. Of course you can see it! Madikwe is more than 10,000 kilometers from here. Doesn’t matter. It is the same time and you can see the same full moon.
Every time I visit Rhulani, I am amazed by the clear starry sky. A stop in the middle of the bush. We switch off the engine and lights and look to the sky. Just magical. Here is Venus, there Jupiter, then the Southern Cross, Orion ... and the clear view of the Milky Way is almost unbelievable.
I turn the meat on the grill. I don't see many stars here from my balcony. But I am happy to see the full moon. I regret that I have not yet invested more time to learn about astronomy.
Sean, my Head Ranger at Rhulani, surprises me with a WhatsApp message. A perfect photo of tonight's full moon in Madikwe. "It's a supermoon", he writes. The moon is closer than usual and therefore bigger.
Some Madikwe lodges spend the whole night outdoors. There are no guests, and you can observe nocturnal animals without having to take a lamp with you. It’s a unique opportunity for animal lovers.
I remember a recent article saying that the risk of rhino poaching is quite big right now. There is good light. Because of the lockdown, poachers may think that there are fewer security measures in the reserve. Furthermore, the lack of work, income and food in the villages could increase the poaching risk in general.
I know that Madikwe has even reinforced the anti-poaching measures. And the lodge rangers assist. I hope that people understand that tourism and the existence of rhinos are important for everyone's survival. Madikwe gives a lot back to the communities.
The meat is now ready. I swith off the grill. I take another look at the supermoon. I shouldn't be worried again. Isn't it just a beautiful night?
Day 15: Back to field 1
Good Friday, Easter. The sun's rays wake me up early in the morning. A long weekend is ahead. It's a shame that I cannot do too much during the lockdown. But I feel happy. In a good mood I call Rhulani and wish happy Easter to all. "Easter, when is Easter?" Carla asks me.
In the current isolation at Rhulani every day is exactly the same. I can well imagine that one can easily overlook the beginning of the Easter weekend.
In Switzerland, everyone knows that today is Good Friday. Four days off. A lot op Swiss citizens usually drive south, through the Gotthard tunnel to Ticino, to where the COVID-19 problem is quite significant. Hopefully people follow the instructions from the government and stay at home. Despite the wonderful weather.
I immediately notice that my good mood doesn't meet the taste today. My Rhulani-team had anticipated 21 days of lockdown in South Africa. A period during which one could neither go out of the reserve nor meet friends from another lodge.
There is not even a contact or a little chat with the suppliers that deliver food. Deliveries are deposited at the gate of the reserve and then picked up. No contact. Alasdair and Sean had cut their hair to mark the start of the lockdown. 21 days to go. The countdown is on.
But now the lockdown was extended by another two weeks. That means – again - 21 days from today. "We are back to field one", Carla tells me. Her voice sounds a bit depressed.
I still try to spread a positive mood. The virus situation seems to be slowly coming under control in many countries. South Africa seems to be successful thanks to the strict measures. Two more weeks give additional security against a possible second wave. We already see the light at the end of the tunnel. Maybe we'll be back to normal operation faster than we think.
The duration of the lockdown is not relevant to us anyway. We know that global tourism and the hotel industry will need a lot of time to get back to normal. I expect many weeks to months. We need to be prepared.
Paradoxically, after today's news about lockdown extension, I have a feeling that going back to normal will be faster. Fingers crossed.
Day 14: Ambassadors
It's been 18 days. Almost all of our employees were sent home. They are living on farms, in villages and mostly in the surrounding communities. My day starts. Another home office day with video meetings. Following the updates on COVID-19. But my thoughts are elsewhere. In South Africa. What is life like in the communities? How are my employees doing out there? How well are they informed about what’s going on?
A few days ago I sent an email to Pauline, Rhulani's Spa Therapist. She lives in Supingstad, a village with a few thousand inhabitants, just 17 km from Rhulani.
No Answer. I'm a little worried.
A bit later I speak to Carla, my manager. She is at Rhulani’s office. Every now and then she reaches some of our employees by phone. Cell-phone reception is unfortunately not very good everywhere, and the costs are also expensive. Many people in the villages cannot communicate at all.
But Carla calms me down. All our employees seem to be fine and healthy. She also managed to speak to Pauline somehow. There are very strict rules there. The army patrols through the communities, ensuring that the rules of lockdown are followed. That people stay at home, that shops and non-essential services remain closed.
18 days at home. Pauline is already bored. She would love to do her daily work at Rhulani again. Hopefully, it will be soon.
Is it possible for the virus to make its way to Supingstad? The spread is certainly less likely than in the large centers. But in Supingstad many people work in tourism, in lodges, have contact with other people, go shopping in larger cities. Like Pauline, for example. So, of course there is a risk.
I silently hope that all the measures taken at Rhulani since the very beginning of the crises, which was long before the lockdown, have strengthened awareness and knowledge of our staff, so that they can act as ambassadors in their villages. Knowledge and understanding are more powerful for applying correct behavior than strict enforcement by the army.
I wish my staff all the best, hope to see you soon. And let's see when Pauline responds my message?
Day 13: Fools day
Sean tells me on the phone: "Hey Rolf, this year you forgot to post a joke on our social media on April 1st." Sean is right. April 1st was Fool's Day. We are making jokes, both here in Switzerland and in South Africa. At Rhulani, we always come up with something funny. I ask myself: Is humor allowed at all in the current era of lockdown?
Fun also is part of day and our team work. It contributes to a good atmosphere. We exchange one or two jokes via WhatsApp. Even now, in this difficult time. But to present this on social media? From Rhulani? Now? A delicate topic.
Last April 1, in the middle of the lockdown, I lacked creativity and didn't find the moment appropriate.
But I remember our earlier April 1st jokes. For example, we published a photo of a mountain gorilla at our waterhole and wanted to look for this animal in the reserve. Or we presented the first herbivorous lion - called Herbie - to give our antelope a more peaceful life. Or we offered businesses to put a colorful logo onto our zebras, as an advertisement opportunity.
Two years ago we announced an upgrade from Madikwe to a "Big6" reserve, through the introduction of a tiger. And last year we presented a pilot project from “McDonalds” with the opening of a snack stand for animals, the so-called "McBush".
This year, none. Kind of a shame.
I think that humor is a beneficial retreat, especially in difficult times. It must be a humor with respect, without making fun of those who are suffering. Bringing a little bit of sunshine into the monotonous isolation should be allowed. Don’t you agree?
I was happy when I saw a video yesterday of our ranger Alasdair taking a shower and drinking a beer in the watering hole that is actually meant for the elephants. I was laughing loudly when, on our live transmission yesterday, I saw a self-made scarecrow that should keep the baboons away from the lodge.
As you may know, Alasdair, also known as “Captain Redbeard” is one of the funniest rangers in South Africa. A real buffoon. This is very valuable in these times. Good job Alasdair!
Back to Sean's observation. I promise: We'll be back next year with a funny April 1st joke. Suggestions welcome
Day 12: Animals are taking over
What a wonderful day in Switzerland. Sunshine, spring time. I go for a walk with my son. Other people are out with their dogs. We are coming by a little stream. A big heron is slowly wading through the water, looking for something to eat. Just wonderful watching the animals. Almost like at Rhulani!
While enjoying this moment, I remember the beautiful pictures from our yesterday’s Live-Stream of the huge herds of elephants, at the waterhole in the sunlight. Or the buffalo that suddenly stood in the middle of the lodge. Have you seen that?
A duck family is chattering and swimming past me. The heron is further away now. I open the Rhulani group on What's App. Oh God! What a mess! I see an absolute disaster in Rhulani's dining room. Broken dishes, overturned chairs. The grass from the thatched roofs, scattered all over the lodge.
What happened? I call the lodge. "The animals are slowly taking over here," Carla tells me. “We had just prepared our breakfast. These baboons were quite on a mission.”
I avoided persuading Carla to lock the doors and see how we can keep the animals away from our camp. The baboons weren't just raging in the dining room. "They overturned everything in the outside lounge,” says Carla, “and even took a bath in our freshly painted fish pond at reception.”
We are in the bush and call ourselves an "unfenced lodge". There is always a residual risk. It is part of the game, part of the attraction for our guests as well. But especially now that we have no guests, the animals seem to be more curious, come closer.
"Ah, and I haven't told you," says Carla, "we have a honey badger near the kitchen. It has opened the fridge and loves our avocados." This is a very dangerous animal, I know. The most dangerous after the “Big5”. So please be careful, I say to myself.
“And in our Staff Canteen we have some hyenas hanging around lately. They knocked over our cleaning trollies.”
"Thank you for the update, Carla," I say, as if I don't want to hear any more stories at the moment. Everyone is healthy in Rhulani and the damage is not too big. That's the most important.
I rather want to enjoy the last moments here with the ducks on the banks of the stream.
Aren't animals just fascinating?
Day 11: Half-time
As I told you yesterday, running on the treadmill contributes to my general well-being. Also this Monday. I set the 30 minutes program. While running, the 15-minute mark is like a milestone for me: "Now comes the second, easier half," I tell myself. Today we have day 11 of a total of 21 of the lockdown in South Africa. Half-time. The second half should go quickly. Really?
After completing my daily exercise, I chat with Carla. As always, she is sitting in the office at Rhulani. Answering emails, taking phone calls.
Does Carla know that we officially have half-time today? Quie relaxed she tells me that life is going on quite well there. I am glad to hear. Rhulani is her second home. Of course, she would like to have a normal business running. With guests. Even so, the situation is acceptable.
By chance I come across a study by Boston Consulting Group. It shows a forecast of major countries regarding the spread of the coronavirus. South Africa has started the lockdown on March 26. According to the study, the "peak for new cases" is expected to occur in the first week of June. In an optimistic scenario, the lockdown will end in the last week of June, pessimistically at the end of August.
The BCG report doesn't surprise me and doesn't scare me either. Our team is prepared for such a scenario since the beginning of the crisis. We have patience and we are going through it. We survive and the virus will finally disappear.
Tomorrow, on my treadmill, after 15 minutes I will maybe say: Just keep on running. A whole marathon, why not? I would do that, too!
Day 10: Stay healthy
The new COVID-19 infections are still increasing. In Switzerland, in South Africa, everywhere. Yesterday, the recommendation from the federal Swiss government was: Keep staying at home, keep your distance to others, wash your hands. To my regret, I haven't heard much about how to deal with the damage to health from prolonged isolation. How does my small lonely team at Rhulani deal with this situation?
When I call the lodge, I'm talking to Riaan. The team of four is is coping very well with the situation, he says. The wonderful nature, the animals, sunsets. That may help. These guys are used to it.
There are other lodges in Madikwe Game Reserve which are experiencing the same. But mutual visits are forbidden. No group formation, no unnecessary risk. An evening beer with a colleague from a neighboring lodge? Not possible. Understandable.
Riaan also tells me that a bumble drive for wildlife watching has also been prohibited, unless it is explicitly part of the security measures to protect the animals and agreed with park management.
We follow the rules, of course. But It is difficult for me to understand. There is no better place to stay away from others than going to the African bush. Why can we not drive around? A little bit of air change would be beneficial for psychological health of my team, I think.
Riaan tells me that the days are not boring. Better this way. He tries to give a structure to the day. He makes his tours and checks of the lodge. He plans certain maintenance work, makes a schedule. I feel like Riaan does not tell me because he needs to give me a report about what he is doing. Getting the day structured is his solution to stay mentally healthy. I totally agree.
I don't have a lodge to look after at my home, nothing to repair, and no elephants to look at at the waterhole. I also try to set a daily program. Luckily, we managed to set up our hobby room just in time for the days at home. A treadmill, a yoga mat, and a photo wallpaper, which gives us the flair of Rhulani. Do you like it?
Half an hour of running is part of my daily routine. While I start today, I think we should actually build a fitness room for our guests at Rhulani. Sport strengthens the body and the mind.
It's great to think about new plans for the future.
Day 9: One team
Done. Another week of work, isolated in my four walls, is over. As you know, I work for an insurance company in Switzerland. Despite feeling alone, I am amazed at how well our team works together in these difficult times. It seems to me that solidarity and understanding become even better in Corona times.
Having a look at our seven fantastic years with Rhulani. The challenge of forming a great team across a complex puzzle of cultures, skin colors, languages and history was. We took up the challenge. And I think we were successful.
I remember one of the first Rhulani parties. It was before Christmas. We were celebrating. Black and white. Just all together. One team. Our house-keeping ladies, Evonciah, grabbed my arm and took me to the dance floor. I still remember these dance moves. I felt we were doing a great job. Breaking down all borders. One team.
We have found a funny way of dealing with this sensitive topic. Once we went out on safari with our staff. Suddenly a zebra was standing in front of us and nodded his head. “The zebra is our friend and is greeting us," said our ranger. "And you know why?" Our employees had no idea. The ranger said:" It is black and white like we are.
Today I read a an article in the Swiss press with a worrying title. COVID-19 is considered to be the "virus of the whites" for some of the South African population.
The xenophobia is now aimed at a social group that is considered wealthy and privileged. Eusebius McKaiser, black author from South Africa, points out that many now feel “malicious joy”. Some Africans believe that the north of this world would now receive its punishment for colonialism and racism.
It is thought-provoking. That cannot be for real!
Deep down in my heart, I hope that this crisis will continue to bind us together as a team and not separate us. I hope this for South Africa, but also for Rhulani.
Day 8: Come celebrate nature, celebrate life
It's a wonderful day at my home in Switzerland today. Sun, spring time with around 14°C. I go for a walk this morning, through the forest. More than ever, I enjoy the peace. I pay attention to the little details around me. Just here and now. Isn't it great to hear the trees blowing in the wind? Smelling the fresh grass? Listening to the birds?
It makes me think. How many times have I been here and did not notice the little miracles around me because of a busy agenda, the stress, the thoughts in my head? It's strange that I needed a lockdown to make this wonderful experience.
I tell Carla, my manager in Rhulani, that I had a little "Rhulani experience" in the forest today. With no elephants, no rock monitors and no sundowners, of course. But with silence and birds. Carla was surprised to hear that we can actually go for a walk in Switzerland, despite the lockdown. This is not possible in South Africa.
Today's experience clearly shows me how important deceleration is in our daily, hectic life. And I got reminded that it was one of the reasons why in 2012, my wife and I started the "Rhulani project”. There are no better words to describe this then the ones we have written down in our most stressful times:
“Rhulani takes great care in creating the perfect balance of stimuli, a unique ‘Rhulani feeling’. It is only when you are here and observe the incredible wildlife that you truly appreciate how perfectly all the elements of nature interact – as they always have. Rhulani set out to transform the ordinary into the extraordinary, an oasis of calm, a place to nourish the soul and lift the spirit. You are invited to experience the serenity and harmony of this special place. Come celebrate nature, celebrate life.”
Day 7: Memories
Today, I feel something like routine in my new reality. 10 meter morning walk from breakfast table to home office, daily chat with my small dream team at Rhulani, sharing daily news. Despite the concern for the future, I have quite quickly accepted my "new everyday life". A life with concerns and hopes. Do you feel the same?
I have a look at Tripadvisor. I am suddenly torn from my thoughts. I cannot believe it. We have three new guest comments! It becomes clear to me: we have a challenging present and an uncertain future, but above all: we have a fantastic past behind us. And that was not long ago.
In one of the comments, "ericocb" writes us: “We have been to more than 100 Game Lodges all over the world and Rhulani is among top 5.” In another comment, “Jacque” says: “Our stay at Rhulani met all my expectations and more.” And finally, “RachelB” tells about her recent honeymoon: “This was one of the best experiences my husband and I have ever had. I highly recommend and we can not wait to go back!”
Forgive me for getting a little nostalgic. We were just great! What enormous effort our team has given every day to offer all our guests a "once in a lifetime experience".
With a bit of self-criticism, I notice that we were mainly concentrating on the little things that needed to be improved. We wanted to make sure that we are getting better and better, every day.
For our "After Corona Time" I have definitely identified one personal goal: Celebrating successes, rewarding achievements, and saying “Thank You”.
Day 6: Fishes in the bathtub
I am standing a bit helpless in the basement at my house today. What a mess! I have always wanted to tidy up here and waited for the "ideal day", which of course never came. The current lockdown, however, would be perfect time. But my motivation is rather limited. I go back to my home office and have a cup of coffee first.
While I drink my coffee, I click through some photos that reach me today from Rhulani.
A bathtub filled with water and fishes. What’s that about?
A call to my office brings clarification. Sean and Alasdair, the two bald rangers, stuck at Rhulani during lockdown, decided to clean the little pond at our entrance.
This pond is actually a very nice spot in front of our office. Very decorative. It welcomes our arriving guests. I don't even know when we did last time a general maintenance there.
That means: fishes out and temporarily relocate into a bathtub. Drain water, dry, clean, fresh paint, dry … and finally put the fish back in. Quite a project.
The entrance area looks like new again. Ready to restart when the COVID-19 nightmare is over.
I am impressed with the initiative and the energy of my team to do such work. I'm even a little jealous when I think of my basement ... I plan to fix it on the weekend. Promised!
Day 5: A buffalo - LIVE!
Today, I have an idea. I want to give my loyal team at Rhulani the certainty that we are financially secure and will survive this challenging period. And even if it went on for several months, which is actually possible, it wouldn't kill us. My message will be perfect to lift the mood of the day. At least, that's what I think.
Everyone connected via Skype, we go through all budget positions together. We are able to agree quickly on what costs will still be incurred during this time without income. Insurance, internet, car leasing, electricity, necessary maintenance work ...
As a team, we also raise awareness that even small measures can have a big impact. For example, whether you switch off the lights, where necessary, plan your grocery purchases, turn off air conditioners, etc. My staff says, they are doing that anyway.
In the end, we have a plan. I give the certainty that if Rhulani runs at minimum costs we would definitely survive the corona virus. Without any problem.
However, I do not achieve my goal. The discussion does not contribute to a good mood today. I feel disappointment. The thought of having to wait weeks and months – terrible! With the uncertainty, without guests, not so much fun…
Only in the evening the mood changes. LIVE stream from Rhulani on Facebook. What? A big buffalo bull stands in the middle of the lodge. And our funny ranger Alasdair, with a beer in hand, sneaks up on this Big 5. Makes funny comments. Rhulani is an unfenced lodge, so there is always an adventure.
Wow! This is certainly more exciting than the budget discussion we had this morning!
Day 4: Rhulani means “Relax”
Lockdown, silence, isolation - time for reflections. Starting this morning I watch Rhulani’s "promotional video", which is playing on our website. Produced in busy times. Our Head Ranger Sean says: “At Rhulani you can sit back and enjoy the quiet moments of sitting in the bush, and there is nothing better than actually listening to nothing.” Who would have thought what special meaning these words will have one day?
Rhulani means "Relax".
Whenever I embarked on a trip to South Africa to visit Rhulani in the past, I looked forward to experiencing this indescribable feeling of calm. The “Rhulani feeling”. Lying in my bed at night, not hearing a single car, only occasionally from afar, out in the bush, the laughter of a hyena, the screeching of a baboon, the roar of a lion.
And much more, I admire my employees at Rhulani, who experience and appreciate this kind of calm as part of their lives every day. In the meantime, I'm glad to be able to return to the busy world after some days of tranquility.
I have a coffee and check my WhatsApp messages. I see a photo of Carla, my manager, also with a coffee cup in hand. She writes:
“The quietness overwhelms you. All you hear is a bird in the distance, the light breeze with drizzle of rain. No animals as they are hiding away from the cold. Here us four sitting having a coffee. Thinking of the world outside, our families, friends. Yes, this is the best place to be for the lockdown. We can still come outside and enjoy fresh air and not be confined between four walls. But somehow we miss people. It’s our job to entertain and talk wanting things to be normal again.”
Day 3: Do the animals miss us?
This Sunday I come across an article. The gorillas in the “Zurich Zoo”, which my family visits frequently, have behaved very differently since there are no more visitors. They have become more attached to each other. I wonder: what does the lockout mean for the wild animals of Madikwe Game Reserve? Do they miss our safari vehicles? Or do they enjoy the quiet time?
I can hardly imagine that the animals of Madikwe miss our presence. They are used to the fact that every now and then a vehicle approaches. But they don't need us. These are still wild animals.
Today I'm talking to Riaan, my manager at the lodge. He tells me: "I just saw a beautiful, large rock monitor, outside at the courtyard. This reptile slowly walked over to the pool deck, drank water there, and then disappeared into the bushes.”
A rock monitor! How nice! It is an impressive animal. It is the second-longest lizard found on the continent, and the heaviest-bodied. They love protected spots at the lodge, and the proximity to water.
I remember: once in the past, I used the outside shower in my chalet. Unexpectedly, I discovered a large reptile over my head. It was sitting on the crossbar. Back then, I was rather inexperienced in the bush. My heart almost stopped. They told me, that was a rock monitor.
Riaan says: "It is fascinating that as soon as things get quiet here in the lodge, the animals come closer. They are no longer afraid. They start to take over here...”
Hopefully in the next few days and weeks I will hear more from the animals in the lodge.
And for the gorillas in the Zurich Zoo, I wish that they enjoy this unique time of peace. The storm of people will start again soon!
Day 2: Cut your hair!
Saturday morning. I wake up. Actually weekend, but somehow a day like any other. Suddenly I think: where could I cut my hair? All hair salons are closed here in Switzerland. Same as in South Africa. I have a new message on our Rhulani WhatsApp Group. I see the photos and I am bent over with laughter. No doubt, it would resolve my problem…
On the photos I see my head ranger Sean and his buddy Alasdair. Both without hair. Bald shaved. Wow!
Breakfast is ready at home. We all sit at the table. I tell my wife: "I have an idea. I will shave my hair today."
"What? Are you crazy about?" My idea gets little understanding.
I tell my wife about the great initiative at Rhulani and show her the photos on the WhatsApp group. "This marks the beginning of the lockdown for all of us!"
"You work for an insurance company and have video meetings every day. Forget it."
A new photo appears on WhatsApp. Tom-Hendrik, our Front of House employee, also has no hair. “Do you see?” I tell my wife. “It is a sign of solidarity.”
She says: "If you do it, I'll divorce you."¨
I answer defiantly: "This is a great idea."
The conversation and breakfast is over. Finally, I agree with my wife.
But the question still remains: where can I get my hair cut?
Day 1: A small Team
Since midnight it is a fact. Lockdown in South Africa. I am deeply convinced: This is an imperative measure to prevent the rapid spread of the virus. But what about Rhulani? We are also in a lockdown. Sounds worrying, but I am counting on a small, unbeatable “dream team”. This is how we do it!
A hotel like Rhulani cannot be left alone. Not even during a lockdown period. A minimum of daily checks, for safety and maintenance, is essential any time. We are slowly going into the dry winter time. What if a bush fire hits the lodge and nobody is there? All kinds of horror scenarios come to my mind.
Before I forget: we have our office in the lodge. There are inquiries every day. Re-bookings, cancellations, even new requests for the second half of the year are coming in. Nice to think that some day, all will be back to normal. How can we keep the office running?
Once again I have no need to worry.
Carla and Riaan, my management couple, have decided to stay. Rhulani is their second home. Their passion and dedication are exemplary. My wife told me to ask Riaan to not let snakes or spiders in, while we are closed.
Sean, my Head Ranger and Assistant Manager, also decided to stay. He is known by our guests as “Mr. Perfect”. Same for our funny ranger Alasdair, “Captain Redbeard”. The two guides will play an important role to keep the lodge safe and maintained, but also help to keep the park safe. Rhino poaching could be a challenge in these times.
Alasdair, please keep your unsurpassable sense of humor - it will help us!
I am proud of my small “dream team” that looks after Rhulani. I would love to be with you. Listening to the birds and watching the elephants at our waterhole sounds more appealing than staring at my four walls in the home office.
Take care of you, and tell me your stories!
Day 0: Time for a reset
South Africa officially starts the lockdown tonight. “What does this mean for us?” I ask myself. The tourism sector – which includes Rhulani – will be heavily affected by this damn virus. Is this the end? I sit down and have a drink. Ironically, I feel: “It’s definitely not the end. It’s ‘Day Zero’, which sounds like a start. A chance to shape our future”.
I have enough reason to be optimistic. Over the years we have created with Rhulani a matchless product and an unbeatable team. Let me be proud: we have written one of the most fantastic success stories in our sector.
My wife Marisa and I, the owners of Rhulani, have been lucky enough to build over the last seven years human and financial resources which allow us to survive a crisis. Even this one.
Carla, my manager, tells me that for her and Riaan, Rhulani will be their home during this time. I am a bit jealous. Rhulani is indeed not a bad place to stay, I think. Far away from everything, even from this, I say it again, “damn virus”.
I live in Switzerland. This is more than 10’000 km away. It’s another world, but we are fighting the same battle. We also have a lockdown here. I am working in my home office. 4 white walls around me. No trees, no elephants.
The last guest had checked-out some days ago. Our employees were sent home to their families. Our frenzied journey was suddenly stopped. I am happy that Carla tells me, that this hard stop worked well and that everyone is healthy.
There is no reason to mope. Let’s focus on the good things, a good atmosphere and our solidarity. Let’s open the eyes to see the beautiful nature and friends around us. Give value to the tranquility and - above all – the time, which was always missing in our busy days. Time is the greatest value of all.
Time for a reset.
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