Rolf's Lockdown Diary: Day 151 to 180
Read how Rhulani Safari Lodge masters the daily challenge in times of the coronavirus and how we prepare ourselves for the future. Thoughts from Rhulani's owner Rolf who lives in Switzerland.
Day 180: World Rhino Day
Today is September 22nd. For a long time I have known which topic I will choose for my diary entry. In my home country Switzerland, nobody knows what the significance of today is. But in South Africa, and especially in Madikwe Game Reserve, they know. Today is "World Rhino Day". We commemorate this unique, prehistoric looking mammal that we can fortunately see in Madikwe Game Reserve in all its beauty and in its natural habitat.
But before I write a hymn of praise for this animal, I give Rhulani a quick call. I talk to my Head Ranger Sean and ask him about the news from the bush.
Sean tells me: "Rolf, I've heard that we have to be careful about the publication of photos of rhinos on social media. The reason is the same as always. Poachers should not get any indication of where rhinos are roaming around. Maybe they are a bit less protected in the now where there is less activity in the park due to the pandemic."
Oh dear. Today of all days, Sean informs me about this. I know that we are not allowed to broadcast live streams with rhinos, for example. No webcam at our waterhole where rhinos might come for a drink. No information on where and when rhinos were spotted. That is clear. But what's the problem with posting an old photo of a Rhino?
Madikwe is a "Big 5 Reserve". So it is common knowledge that Madikwe also has rhinos, and that we have both white and black rhinos. So both species that occur in Africa. But it is also well known that Madikwe is well prepared to protect our animals, with a militarily organized and equipped ant-poaching unit.
After my chat with Sean, I decided not to post a picture of a rhino for my thoughts on the World Rhino Day. But I have an idea. I remember a picture I took a year ago of a rhinoceros beetle. They are fortunately not critically endangered. So no problem. You like it?
Day 179: Risk assessment
What are the most important risks that our business is exposed to? As every year, we evaluate the risk map at the Swiss life insurance company I am working for. How does extreme longevity affect the annuities? What is the impact of the persistent phase of low interest rates on the high guaranteed interests? How does rapid digitization influence the future of the traditional insurance model? I take a break in the middle of the assessment. I look a few years back. For Rhulani, too, I thought about a risk landscape.
On my first trip to South Africa, before buying Rhulani, I asked the agent who showed me around, and who is now a good friend of mine: “What are the most important risks a safari lodge is exposed to?”
There seems to be an agreements in the industry. The most important thing is access to water and electricity. I have always remembered this wise advice. We have invested a lot of money to ensure water supply. We resisted the drought. We have drilled for new water sources and purchased additional storage tanks.
To keep electricity up we bought a new, powerful, huge generator as a back-up to normal electricity supply. And a smaller generator to back up the backup.
A bush fire is also seen as a huge danger especially in the dry months. By the way, it happened before my time when our conference room burned down. We have good fire fighting equipment, trained employees and a mobile fire trailer, filled with water.
Since I run my own business, I actually see risks everywhere. Guests could suffer an accident. Employees can go on strike. An incident with a wild animal at the lodge could happen. Political instabilities could endanger the continued existence of the business. The list is endless…
Back to my office desk, and the Excel list of annual insurance risks. This list seems endless to me, too, but somehow I struggle forward.
Lo and behold, a pandemic is also mentioned here. It is not really a surprise. It is actually a typical risk for an insurance company!
I must admit that I had never thought about it when I put together my personal risk list for Rhulani. Of course we have business interruption insurance and have financial reserves set aside to withstand longer crises. But other than that, what could we have done to mitigate this specific risk?
Day 178: Mosaic Tiles
Sunday evening. The weekend was similar to the last one. Wonderful summer weather in Zurich, no contact with my office in Rhulani, no emergencies ... so everything was very relaxing. And we had visitors at our home. Before dinner, our guest goes to the bathroom. When she comes back, she says: "I love your special tiles on the shower wall!" Thanks for the compliment, I say, remembering that we were definitely inspired by a project at Rhulani.
Our apartment is in a new building. When we decided to invest here, we were still able to define many details. For example, the design of the bathroom.
At the same time we started a major renovation project for all bathrooms at Rhulani. After 15 years, these were still okay, but we thought it was time for a refresher. Eventually we decided to do a complete renovation.
Everything should be new. Toilet, washbasin, bathtub ... Above all I was fascinated by the idea of having a uniform, flowing floor where you can walk barefoot, and you can go the outside terrace or into the shower area without crossing a threshold or step. The shower should only have a partition glass. No door.
Then we saw some pictures of bathrooms, where the tiles in the shower area were much smaller than on the other walls, and laid like a mosaic. So, the shower area was visually distinguished from the rest. It just looked fantastic. That’s how we wanted it!
So, during our dinner at home, we have an interesting story to tell. We definitely love our mosaic tiles. It actually looks quite similar to what we did at Rhulani. At Rhulani it took us a year and a half to renovate all the bathrooms. And our guests love it there too.
Day 177: High risk country
I was very happy to hear the announcement about the opening of the national borders in South Africa and thus the resumption of international tourism. It gives Rhulani a better perspective on our way back to normal, and for me personally, too, this could mean that I could soon travel to South Africa. But, oh dear, only two days after the good news, the list of "banned countries" appears. Those are considered as “high-risk” regarding COVID-19.
As the owner with residence in Switzerland, I visit Rhulani around four, maybe five times a year. When was my last trip? December 2019? A long time. Definitely too long!
I had already looked around for flights to Johannesburg and really wanted to be one of the first to travel to South Africa. My goal is to just see my team again, spend time with them, feel the magical atmosphere of Madikwe, get an impression of the situation in the lodge, and see our fantastic underground hide at the waterhole, for the first time.
To my disappointment, today I read the following: “The high-risk countries, from which travellers are not welcome in South Africa, are: China, France, Germany, Italy, Iran, South Korea, Spain, United Kingdom, the United States of America … and Switzerland.” I swallow hard. Yes …Switzerland.
I don't know what criteria were used to create this list. I ask myself: Why isn't our neighboring country Austria on it? They have currently more new infections than we do. Or what about the hotspots in Latin America like Brazil? And what about India?
Nevertheless, I can understand that Switzerland is seen internationally as a "high risk". The number of new infections is rising again, one has respect for a second wave.
In Switzerland, too, we have a list of countries that we consider "dangerous". If I remember correctly, the measure is defined in such a way that if more than 60 new infections are reported per 100,000 inhabitants over 7 days, the country is classified as "high risk".
Ironically, last week we passed that mark ourselves in Switzerland. With a bit of humor one can argue that all Swiss would have to be in self-quarantine right now…
But back to my travel plans. They have to wait a bit. I am an optimist. The list is likely to change again very quickly. And if I can then travel and return home, at least I don't have to go into quarantine. Because South Africa is not on the Swiss list anymore.
Day 176: Hello Munye!
The preparations for the reopening of Rhulani are in progress. Countless thoughts revolve in my head about the safety measures that we have to implement, our marketing strategy, renewal of our the insurance policy, booking inquiries from agents, employment of our staff with new employment contracts, repairing defects at the lodge and and and ... When I call the office at Rhulani, I want to talk about pretty much everything, but before I start, Carla says to me: "Rolf, did you know? Munye is currently very close to the lodge. We saw him yesterday."
Carla caught me on the wrong foot with this opening note. Since the day I decided to buy Rhulani, I wanted to stay true to my motto and be fascinated by the incredible beauty of nature and wildlife, every day. Rhulani should not be reduced to a normal business with its problems, opportunities and challenges. I have enough of these already with the insurance company I work in Switzerland.
I find that after more than seven years with Rhulani, I still feel the same fascination. But especially in the last few weeks, due to the impossibility to travel and the special challenges due to the lockdown, I lost touch with the daily miracles in Madikwe. What a shame!
Munye is a beautiful male leopard who has shown up quite often in the past few years. But we have not heard or seen him for months now.
Carla tells me: "I could hardly believe it myself. Before the lockdown we had seen Munye for the last time. And now he was lying there. It was just a few hundred meters from the lodge. As always, he was relaxed, resting comfortably in a drainage line along the road.”
I think to myself, with a bit of humor, that Munye must have heard the announcement of the president about tourism opening in South Africa and now wants to see how many people are looking for him already…
"The animals all seem to be with us right now”, says Carla. “Yesterday the wild dogs were running around behind our rooms, and two cheetahs made a kill nearby.”
Wonderful to just listen. I almost forgot what I wanted to discuss with Carla today.
Day 175: Level 1 – Opening the borders
The rumors that I have heard from various sources came true yesterday with President Ramaphosa's speech to the nation. South Africa has further reduced the COVID-19 alert level and is now on "Level 1". In particular, this has a positive effect on tourism and thus on Rhulani. From October 1st, the borders will be reopened for international tourism. This is exactly the date of the reopening of Rhulani.
A few weeks ago, I personally didn't expect such a development at all. Our decision to open Rhulani on October 1st was based on a cautious assumption of a few local guests. The pressure from the tourism sector, which contributes almost 9% to the country’s GDP, was definitely successful.
Ramaphosa's announcement opens up further prospects for us. Hopefully, some travelers from Europe will spend their Christmas break or winter holidays in the warm summer of South Africa. With a fantastic safari. That would be great!
On my call with Carla, manager of Rhulani, the news is the most important topic. Carla tells me a few more details. Visitors will be subject to containment and mitigation measures. South Africa will limit travel to and from certain high-risk countries and only one land border post and three airports will be open to international travellers. Fortunately, the most important, if not the only airport that our guests use, OR Tambo in Johannesburg, is one of them. From Johannesburg it's a four-hour drive to Rhulani.
Travellers must present a negative Covid-19 test on arrival that was conducted within 72 hours of departure. Those that don’t have a Covid-19 test must enter quarantine at their own cost. All health- and social distancing requirements remain in place. For us, this means that all safety measures and protocols are implemented as originally planned.
Day 174: TV in the room
The furnishing of our new bedroom at home is slowly taking shape. After the new bed we selected recently, the other equipment and furniture is added. It will be wonderful! When I look at the plans, I think it would be cool to hang a TV on the wall. When discussing with my wife it soon becomes clear that this is an absolute no-go. So, no TV in our bedroom. Exactly the same as at Rhulani.
The discussions with our Rhulani-team regarding TV’s in the guest rooms have been a bit longer than the one I just had at home.
Rhulani is a hotel. It is one at five star level. Isn't it common for guests to expect a TV in their room? Isn't it even a standard feature for hotels of this level?
Good question. When I took over Rhulani in 2013, there were no TV's. There wasn't even a TV connection possibility in the rooms, and no internet to connect TV channels.
Of course we would have the financial means to buy TVs. But our general concept of tranquility and relax, the possibility of completely switching off from stressful life, the unique experience to feel, smell and hear the African bush… all of this confirmed us: A TV is entirely inappropriate here. The magic of the place should not be destroyed by modern technology.
The requirements for hotel rating, which would give us additional points for TV's in the room, did not change our conviction. Our guests should hear the roaring lion in the evening and not the sound of a cheap TV soap.
Nevertheless, we thought about what we could offer guests who, for example, want to see a rugby game or something else. In our Leisure Room we have a cozy lounge with a huge screen.
Our guests simply have to walk from their room to the Leisure Room. It's a short way. And at my home I will go from the bedroom to the living room.
Day 173: Quality
The day of the reopening of Rhulani is fast approaching. The tension is now increasing as to whether and how local tourism will find the way to us in this first phase. Today I'm inundated with recommendations on how to get the attention of the local market. It is all about one thing: Special offers and price discounts.
When I take a look at what prices you can book a travel to a beautiful safari lodge in South Africa this year, I almost feel dizzy. I can't believe my eyes when I see that certain lodges reduce their prices by more than 60% compared to their usual rates.
I ask myself: Can these lodges run their business profitably at such a low price? And this after five months of lockdown? And above all, can they meet the level of services expected by the guest, the quality and, above all, the safety requirements relating to COVID-19?
On the other hand, from a client’s perspective, this is of course a very unique and attractive opportunity to go on a nice safari stay at an affordable price. In that sense, I feel a bit bad that we at Rhulani have not followed this trend, that we are not getting into the fight, and that we are requiring a price with which we can cover our costs. Our reopening special offers a discount of 20%, our 14-days last minute rates a further 20%.
As Rhulani is a 5 Star lodge, I've actually dealt more with how we can offer our guests an absolutely great and unique experience. We have invested a lot, have constructed an underground hide during the crisis ... in other words, the focus is on quality. I am sure there is also a market for it.
And I am happy to see, the booking inquiries are steadily increasing.
Day 172: A Rhulani bench
What a wonderful Monday here in Switzerland. It's actually autumn, the days should be gray and cooler but summer continues. I take advantage, call a colleague and go to play tennis over lunch. When I arrive at the club, I notice that there are new, wonderful wooden benches on the courts on which the players can rest when changing sides. I remember that some weeks ago, when the club was discussing about new benches, I promised the that I would sponsor one on behalf of Rhulani. I am curious, and indeed. On one of the benches there is a silver "Rhulani plaque". My colleague hasn’t arrived yet, so I sit on “my” bench.
I expect that the effect of this sponsorship will only be marginal. Maye one or the other club member will wonder what the name of a safari lodge in South Africa is doing on a bench on a tennis court in Switzerland? Usually it's the local companies and the club members with a business here in town who do this kind of sponsorship.
Perhaps it will then become known that one of the club members runs a lodge in South Africa. Swiss citizens love to travel to South Africa. Many colleagues and friends of mine have already got to know Rhulani in recent years, and they have made fantastic experiences.
Waiting on my bench, I check the WhatsApp messages. A friend tells me that because of the excellent COVID-19 developments in South Africa the Swiss government has just removed this country from the so-called “quarantine list”. This means that after returning from South Africa, Swiss citizens no longer have to go into a ten-days-quarantine at home. My friend writes that this will hopefully bring a lot of Swiss tourists to Rhulani, and he wishes me the best of luck.
I thank my friend for the wishes, but tell him that this news is not of much use right now. It is still not possible to travel to South Africa because the country keeps its borders closed.
My tennis colleague is now here. I enjoy the last moment on my Rhulani bench. A great feeling! A bench is actually ideal for Rhulani. As you know, Rhulani means “Relax”.
Day 171: Milky Way
As late as today I have never been with my diary entry. Wondering why? Hmmm. It was an extremely beautiful, long, active Sunday with fantastic weather. Presumably the last one this year with high summer temperatures. And then we said goodbye to our visit just now and now cleaned up the kitchen. Now I'm standing on the balcony, looking at the night sky. Despite the air pollution at my home in Switzerland, I am lucky enough to see tonight some stars. There is the bright light of Jupiter. How often have I watched the starry sky in Rhulani before going to bed!
I'm not an astronomer, but with the help of an App on my i-phone I notice that Saturn must be at the same height to the left of Jupiter.
Although my wife confirms what I am seeing, she points out that this second very bright light is not Mercury, but a light from the driver's cab of a construction crane in front of us site. Shame. The magic and the beautiful memories of the absolutely clear night sky in South Africa all of a sudden are shattered.
In the sky over Madikwe you can not only see some stars. You see thousands. All seems simply infinite. About two years ago I was fascinated to see the "big five planets" all together on one line. Saturn, Jupiter, Venus, Mars and Mercury. It almost never happens.
And then I was fascinated when once in the past I was on a night drive with Sean. He suddenly stopped the car, turned off the lights and said: “Look up, can you see? This is a fantastic view of the Milky Way.”
Wow. I saw it clearly and distinctly. I knew the Milky Way from school, but had no idea that you can actually see it with your eyes.
But not from my home. At least I see Jupiter. And finally, I am able to discover Saturn just behind the crane. Yes, it’s there.
But now I'm going to sleep. A new week starts tomorrow.
Day 170: A day without Rhulani. Or almost…
Today belongs entirely to my family. Once a day without Rhulani. No check of e-mails, no management meetings, not even the daily call to my office takes place today. Just switch off once. Today is ideal. It’s Saturday, week-end, there's not much going on at the lodge, and everything is well under control. Ending the day, I can say I have achieved the goal of a my “Rhulani-free” day. Or almost…
As planned, we visit a bedding store this morning and get advice on buying a new bed. The consultation takes more than two hours to test different mattresses, including high-tech scanning of or spines.
In the afternoon we have an invitation in Zurich to the opening of the Chocolate Museum from the Swiss chocolate factory "Lindt". We are very excited about this tour, which shows the history of chocolate production in Switzerland and the story of “Lindt” with all kinds of multimedia effects. And you can eat chocolate without end. This also makes my son completely happy.
At the end of the museum visit, there is an aperitif. With a glass of champagne in hand, I think what a nice a day that was without a single thought about Rhulani. Suddenly, my wife calls me. Believe it or not, at the aperitif she recognized a couple who also owns a safari lodge in South Africa, and who had an exhibition stand next to ours at the last Indaba Travel Fair in Durban. The world is small!
I join. We business cards. We talk about the difficult situation in South Africa. While we're reopening Rhulani on October 1st, they don't feel like fighting for the few local tourists and they are leaving their lodge closed.
But I learn that due to the very good COVID-19 developments, there are rumors that international tourism may be possible in November or December at the latest. That would excellent.
So, at the end of the day, still some thoughts about Rhulani ...
Day 169: A little misunderstanding…
Today I notice that our young couple, Sanmari and Martin, are back at Rhulani. I discuss office-related issues with Sanmari in the morning, and see ranger Martin on our live stream this afternoon. I am glad that both are doing well after a very difficult time. Later, I have dinner at home. My wife says to me: “Do you know that Sanmari got married?" Pardon? That’s impossible. Why didn't she tell me?
I usually know well when my employees at Rhulani get married. I am irritated that I had no idea this time. Sanmari and Martin have been a couple for a long time and know each other from school. That’s what they told me. But still they are very young for getting married, I think.
"How did you find out about it?" I ask my wife.
"Sanmari posted a photo on Facebook," she says. "With a rifle in one hand and an Impala in the other.”
I have to laugh out loud. Not a very conventional photo for a wedding, I think. But, South Africans love nature, wildlife and hunting. So, why not?
“Why are you laughing?” my wife asks me.
"I think that is funny!" I say. My wife looks at me without understanding. “And when was the wedding?” I ask.
Even more puzzled, my wife says: "What wedding?"
The confusion is perfect. But all of a sudden, we notice what the misunderstanding was. My wife and I speak Spanish together. The word for "hunting" is "cazar", the word for “marrying” is "casar". The two words are pronounced exactly the same…
My wife doesn't understand that with this photo I could have thought that Sanmari got married. Oh yes, how could I ...
Day 168: A very exclusive experience
The reactions to the way Rhulani plans to reopening on October 1st have been overwhelming. From the large amount of feedback I have received, I can feel how much everyone wants to find a way back to normal, and how many South Africans after many months stuck at home want to experience something spectacular again. Despite the ongoing corona crisis, we do not want to position the reopening in an atmosphere of caution and protective rules. These are simple basic requirements. We focus on the unique opportunity to experience the African bush in a very exclusive way.
Some reactions I get are a result of the fact that I sent our most important partners a personal video message with our news. Now that the travel industry is moving, it's time to say hello again. I can feel how much strong our connection is despite (or because of?) the distance and isolation.
Our new, fantastic underground observation hide at the waterhole has been very well received. I have to answer many questions. Yes, this hide can be visited by any guest at any time of the day. No extra costs. Our hide is even open to those who want to wait for unusual, nocturnal animals at night.
Some of our partners find the decision to temporarily run the daily safaris privately astonishing. That means no other guests on the vehicle. Only your own family or friends, with the ranger. When will it ever happen again?
Agents who read the message carefully are asking whether a solo traveler will go on the vehicle alone. Yes, of course. Other agents immediately notice that it should also be possible to take a child under six on the vehicle, as there are no other guests who could be disturbed by the child. Yes, also this is correct.
Since international tourism will not be possible in the coming months, it is to be expected that the quiet Madikwe Reserve will be even quieter. Fewer vehicles, fewer guests in the lodge.
What an unique, exclusive experience this will be!
Day 167: Sleeping deeply
Today my wife is sending me an appointment into my calendar. We have to go to a bedding store on Saturday. We need a new bed. Our current bed is a little too small and after many years it is no longer in good condition. The goal is to finally sleep deeply and soundly and again. Kind of like you can do that at Rhulani.
The bed at Rhulani is actually a bit wider than the one we have at home. And the mattress, the pillows of different hardness, the bed linen - everything is a little better there, which probably all contributes to a unique sleeping experience.
I remember that we bought our bed for a relatively cheap price many years ago when we were living in the USA. Many years ago we bought our bed quite cheaply when we lived in the USA. It's not much more than an underground structure and a thick mattress on top. However, this arches down on the sides, so that you run the risk of falling out to the side while sleeping.
Still, I don't have the ambition to sleep at home as well in the future as I usually do at Rhulani. This absolute silence and darkness, without the sound of an engine, without artificial light penetrating through the shutters, is only possible in the African bush.
I also love lying in bed after an eventful day on safari, happy with what I've seen and listening to the various noises from the bush. Sometimes you can hear the wind. Maybe a marula fruit falls down on the outside deck. And best of all: from a distance you can hear a lion roaring or a hyena laughing. Magical!
It's still summer time in Switzerland. Last night the mosquitos bite me too. Too bad. That doesn't happen to me at Rhulani either, because there we have a wonderful mosquito curtain around the bed. Just for decoration and additional protection, as there is no risk of malaria in Madikwe. A mosquito net? We don't have that in Switzerland.
I'm glad my wife took the initiative. I accept the appointment. Our bed has to go!
Day 166: A cow in the reserve
My four year old son loves his innumerable, small toy animals more than anything. Last night, however, I had to have a word with him. The animals were scattered all over the apartment and it took a long time to collect and put them back in the box before bed. Today is a new day. As always, it starts with a routine call to Rhulani. Carla has nothing new to report, except that in Madikwe the animals are currently being counted.
This is interesting. How has the animal population in Madikwe changed over the almost six months of lockdown? Did the elephant and lion population continue to grow? Have animals been lost to poachers?
However, the reason why the count is taking place right now is not because of a measurement of the “Corona effect”. The animals were monitored at all times, everything is well under control, and luckily no poaching activity was recorded.
The time for a census is now ideal. There are hardly any visitors in the reserve, so there is no problem with the helicopter noise that Carla tells me about, and which she can hear from the office she works.
I remember an animal count, which was about 3 years ago. According to the final report, 1,723 elephants were reported, which is a very large number given the size of the park. Now this is number is probably even bigger. There were also 79 lions, 343 buffaloes, 364 giraffes, 2’004 zebras, 519 wildebeests … These are interesting numbers if you want to get a feeling about the chances to find these animals on safari.
As a mathematician, I would love to get more insight about the methodology used for the census. I actually had to smile at some of the numbers. In the register, there were 800 birds (how do you count birds?), 1 Eland (how can it reproduce?), 1 Bat (I say already 2 bats at Rhulani), 148 Humans excluding research team, 1 Springbok (they live in herds in the north) 148 humans (excluding the research team…), and 2 cows (poor animals…).
I don't know how many toy animals my son has in his collection. After my experience last night, there are many ... but I know one thing: There is exactly one of each species.
Day 165: 15’000 Volts
Today I am studying the documents for the next popular referendum in Switzerland. We will soon be voting on a large credit for the procurement of new combat aircrafts. In the middle of reading, I get a call from my manager Carla at Rhulani. With joy in her voice, she tells me that the electric wire is finally working again. It has been broken for a long time. Now, all is perfect. No more interruptions, no more defects. And we haven't seen an elephant inside the lodge since then, she says.
Shortly after, my sister calls me and fervently asks me to please vote "no". She is not a friend of the army. It is way too much money which we could use otherwise and Switzerland would be powerless anyway if someone attacks us. New planes are useless, she says.
With this mindset I could have saved some money to repair the fence at Rhulani, I think. In fact, we have already invested a lot over the last years to have a functioning electrical wire that will protect us from damages by the elephants.
For some reason the elephants were still finding a way through and every now and then caused a real disaster. Sometimes the wire fence didn't work because it was defective somewhere. As repairs on the wire lead to a significant loss of power every, I am sure that for the elephants the electric shock of initially 15’000 went down to a nice tickling on their skin.
Elephants are intelligent animals. In dry winter they smell the water of the swimming pools, and there is nothing to stop them. Once I watched from the lounge a big bull how he skillfully wandered over the wires, almost like a circus acrobat, without touching them. Elephants sometimes push other animals against the fence to destroy it or to check whether it is under tension or not. Incredible.
I hope this time it is worth the investment. Let’s keep the elephants away from us. Fingers crossed. And regarding the question about the fighter planes. Sorry, my beloved sister, but I will vote a "yes".
Day 164: Nichgtcap
Sunday evening. An active weekend comes to an end. The little one is sleeping. Actually, now is the time to go to bed or watch some TV. But I need a drink. We have a small bar counter with bar stools at home. So, I invite my wife for a nightcap. Memories come back to the evenings at Rhulani's bar. It’s the place to process fantastic experiences of the day and to hear exciting bush stories from the rangers.
I especially remember that evening. I sat at the bar in dim light, heard the night sounds of the African bush. I haven't been Rhulani's owner for a long time back then, so I was still in the middle of the learning process. Two of my rangers were there too. We all had a beer.
We were just about to discuss how dangerous it really is to meet a lion on foot in the bush. Every ranger has experienced and practiced this several times. I was amazed to learn that a lion isn't considered as too dangerous. He is predictable. Gives warning signs. This is different with a leopard, buffalo or black rhinoceros.
Then the door opened and Adam, the manager of our neighboring lodge, came to visit. His guests were already asleep. We invited him for a beer. He said: "Rolf, when you are on foot, do you know which is the safest way to get away from a lion?"
Of course I had no idea. Adam, with the beer glass in his hand, stood in the middle of the bar. We all looked curiously. He took a sideways step to the left. Then one step back. The next sideways to the right, then back again, then to the left, back, right, back etc.
The bar was dead quiet as Adam performed this zigzag course backward, almost like a dancer. Everyone seemed a bit puzzled. I asked: "Is it possible to confuse the lion in this way?"
"No," said Adam, "it is just that you don't step into your own shit when you move away from the lion.”
Loud laughter. It was certainly a well-known joke among rangers. I did not know it. But I will remember it forever.
A nightcap at the bar is a great way to end the day. It's a shame that my wife and I don't do this more often. Let's take a look at tomorrow's agenda. At 8 a.m. I have a team meeting, my wife is taking the little one to kindergarten. The week starts again. Oh dear!
Day 163: One more claim
As part of our maintenance work, we want to get an overview of all damage that the wild animals have caused us in the almost six months of the lockdown, and for which we will need external help to repair. The list is quite long, and the photos look like a bomb had exploded here. And then, to make things worse, there is another damage that happens today.
We are, of course, well insured at Rhulani, and so I call my insurance advisor to ask whether there is a cover for such type damage, mainly caused by elephants and baboons, and how the claim should be reported.
The good news is, yes, we have cover. Baboons are specifically mentioned in the property damage section of our insurance policy and there is even a specific coverage limit for baboon claims.
The bad news is, reporting gets complicated. You can't just put together a summary of all damages during lockdown. Every damage is an event in itself. It has a date, requires a description of what happened and the completion of a claim form with appropriate photos.
One day, some baboons were doing gymnastics at the kitchen, broke a window and a wooden door. Another day an elephant bull damaged a pathway and lights that lead to the guest chalets. On several occasions, baboons plucked blades of grass from the thatched roofs.
Today I'm talking to Riaan, who is responsible for maintenance. It is a very good thing that he documented everything precisely over the last six months. He will now prepare everything nicely in the way the insurance company requires it.
And as we are talking about it, another damage happens. Riaan wanted to shoot our daily live stream with Sean this evening. They were in our new hide, at the waterhole, there was a nice sunlight, the window open, and outside a lady elephant. An ideal subject for a perfect live stream. Everything was ready.
But somehow the elephant got nervous. Probably she heard a noise in the hide. All of a sudden she approached, came to the window, grabbed the window with her trunk and smashed it. What a shock.
Well, this will now be one more claim form.
Day 162: Crossing curves
For me as a mathematician, living in Switzerland and with a safari lodge in South Africa, today is a special day. The sharply decreasing curve of new infections with COVID-19 in South Africa crosses today with the slowly rising curve because of a supposed second wave in Switzerland. This means that since today there have been more new infections in Switzerland than in South Africa, based on the population. Does this now have an impact on the opening of international tourism in South Africa? Unfortunately, no...
A look at today's figures shows: 4.2 out of 100,000 inhabitants in South Africa have contracted the virus today, and 4.8 in Switzerland. The level is very similar.
Since infection rates have fallen after the first wave, International travel has been possible again in Europe for some time now. One can say, when people are traveling between countries of similar risk of infection, the infection risk in the respective countries should not change. In case of differences, countries issue dynamically adapting entry regulations. You either have to present a negative COVID-19 test, you are tested on arrival, or you have to be quarantined for a certain time after arrival. I admit, it is a bit complicated and a burden for travelers, but more importantly: traveling is possible, safety is considered.
I wonder whether a similar regime and management would be possible now for South Africa due to the fantastic recent developments. For the South African economy, my understanding is that international tourism is even more important than for many European countries. So there should also be an economic interest.
But at exactly the same time, namely today, I read a speech from the Tourism Minister Mmamoloko Kubayi-Ngubane held at the at the National Press Club, Tshwane. Sure, it is said, within the general blah-blah, that the situation is reassessed every day, there are ongoing discussions, etc. But it is even more evident that one should only talk about tourism in lockdown level 1 (we are only in level 2 now), and that the tourism facilities should prepare themselves to attend the local market.
In our preparations to open Rhulani on October 1st, we will follow this principle. Incomprehensible to me, but that's the way it is.
Day 161: A theory about happiness
Today I remember a speech I heard years ago at an event from a knwon philosopher. The level of happiness living in a misery with no hope and in luxury without desires is roughly comparable, while the healthiest and best way of living is in a world where a lot is lacking, but a plan for improvements exists, which we are all working on, with the aim that tomorrow will be better than today. That’s the mode which we are in now. I am reading today Carla and Riaan's work plans, which describe in stages what we will do at Rhulani in September. Just great!
Having a whole month to prepare our opening sounds like a lot. But when I look at the detailed work plan in front of me, and the strict schedule, it seems that time is short.
Riaan, who will take care of the maintenance work, has planned for the first week until September 7th, first of all, to repair the electric wire around the camp, which the elephants have damaged. In addition, we have to cut a fire break at various points for safety reasons. A couple of water pipes must be buried. The elephants have left quite a disaster in the whole lodge, on the trees, bushes and on the pathways, so everything must be cleaned. And then we should empty and clean the main pool.
Carla will take care of the work in the office as well as the general cleaning of the lodge and house-keeping duties. The first priority is to check all rooms and their inventory. Everything must be taken out and washed. Then the outside lounge, the dining room, the bar, the courtyard and the swimming pool deck are cleaned.
Furthermore, Carla has already created an order list with all the utensils in connection with the COVID-19 safety measures, which we are currently missing. For example, we still need new temperature meters as well as protective cloth masks and gloves for our staff.
In the meantime the appropriate employees have been called in, and the work of this first week is already in full swing.
After many months of siting around twiddling our thumbs, it's so good for all of us to finally have a goal, a vision, a confident panorama for the future. The positive energy is currently spilling over.
The theory about happiness seems to be right.
Day 160: An exciting competition
We have been dealing with this question since the day we had the fascinating idea of building an underground hide at the waterhole. How should this special place be called? You can linger here for hours, have a drink and watch the wild animals up close. This is magic. We want a special name for it - but which one? After unsuccessful internal discussions, today we are launching a competition on Instagram and Facebook. Take part!
My older son Timo, a real "millennial" in a positive sense, has social media in his blood. I am fascinated by the concept that he comes up with for a competition.
The competition has been activated since today. Now we are eagerly awaiting ideas, for a whole month until the end of September. Then we will choose the winner from the group of the most promising proposals.
I am a little disappointed that all of my own suggestions have been rejected by my colleagues. I thought I had a brilliant idea to associate the hide with COVID-19 or coronavirus. It should be a memorial that shows that we are ushering in a new era with this hide after the corona hide pandemic. The "Corona-Hide" would forever remind us of this difficult time.
My idea was received with horror. Apparently it is a simple marketing principle that with such beautiful things one should under no circumstances make an association with something as negative as COVID-19. Ok, I accepted.
As a little revenge, I didn't give my approval to suggestions like "Elephant Hide" or "Kudu Hide" ... These seem too boring to me.
So we are now solving the dilemma through competition.
At the end of the day, I take a look at the first suggestions. In fact, the ideas from our followers are much better than our own!
Day 159: How Anansi Became a Spider
Tonight I'm bringing my little son to bed. At the moment he likes to hear stories of the African boy "Fanyana" who speaks to the animals. Today, Miss Hippopotamus is wiggling a front tooth and Fanyana needs to help her. How will he do that? I remember: African Bush Tales are also very popular at Rhulani as our "bedtime stories". Most of the time ...
Many years ago, my manager at the time suggested that we could place an "African Bush Tale" on the guests' pillows with the evening turn down. As a little attentiveness. These stories are very famous and nice. I found it a great idea. In fact, we get great feedback from our guests, and we continue to do so to this day.
My son is impressed by the great picture of Miss Hippopotamus and shows me which tooth is wobbling in her big mouth. While I am reading him the story, I suddenly remember a situation where our well-intentioned bedtime story at Rhulani unintentionally caused problems.
It was the evening when we had a young honeymoon couple at Rhulani, who didn't speak a word of English. After dinner they were escorted to their room by the ranger. On the bed our guests found a rolled up sheet of paper, our bed time story. Oh, that must be an important message from the management, they thought.
They opened the message which that evening told the story of "How Anansi became a Spider". The couple didn't understand a word. And since we didn't have phones in the room at the time, they couldn't ask anyone. However, they saw the picture of a large, black spider on the paper, which was meant to illustrate the story. This must be a warning!
In a panic, they slipped under the bedcover, closed the mosquito net curtain and looked for dangerous spiders in the room. They didn't sleep all night until they could finally ask our management for an explanation early in the morning.
Oh God. That wasn't funny! It shows that anything you do can somehow go wrong.
Hopefully I'll soon be able to take my son to Rhulani and read him the African Bush Tales before he sleeps.
And by the way: Fanyana glued the tooth on Miss Hippopotamus with dental cement.
Day 158: New wifi and a broken tree
We are slowly starting to take care of the preparatory work for the reopening of Rhulani. The energy in the team and the will to get back to normal is enormous. I am personally looking forward to an interesting month of September with lots of success stories. But today my balance sheet is a little clouded. There is good news and bad news.
First the good news: I noticed that our daily live stream yesterday, which showed elephants drinking water up close, was broadcast from our new observation hide. How is that possible?
Carla tells me that our internet supplier has just visited us, checked the internet signal, patched a few minor defects, and most importantly, in the cozy lounge of the new observation hide an additional wifi hotspot was set up. This means that our guests can now make spectacular animal observations and share them on Social Media with friends using their mobile phones. This is cool!
But then there is also bad news, and ironically it is because of the elephants, which I was just so happy about.
One of the "naughty boys" we already know has approached our "old boma" and destroyed one of the two trees that has been there for over 20 years. We mainly use the old boma in the evening for dinners, so the fact that there is now less shade is not a drama. But the tree gave the boma a beautiful look.
The discussions about whether we should take bigger and more expensive measures to keep the animals away from the lodge will certainly come up again. Although the broken tree hurts in my heart, I still love Rhulani very much as an unfenced camp. This is actually safari for me!
Riann assures me the tree will grow again. I tell him to start giving water there and tell me as soon as the first green leaf comes out again.
Day 157: Learning from the rhinos
It’s Sunday. Despite the persistent rain in Zurich, we're going to the zoo today. Because of the bad weather there are only few people. Our four-year-old son is so excited that he runs around almost uncontrollably and you almost lose sight of him. My wife and I are discussing how to best control the little one. Now we're standing under a canopy and are watching the white rhinos. How do they take care of their little ones? Maybe we can learn something there?
My wife says that you permanently have to keep an eye on your child. That is why the child has to walk in front of the parents so you never lose sight of it. You always see where your child is running and can step in quickly, when necessary.
I have a different opinion. Parents must show the child where to go and define a safe path. The child needs to follow. So, parents need to walk ahead and the child behind.
So two completely opposite theories, and both contain a certain truth.
We are still watching the white rhinos. The mother with a calf. I am delighted to see that my theory is correct. The rhinoceros mother is walking ahead, the little one behind. I say: "You see? I'm right. The white rhinos do exactly what I say."
My wife, however, always pays attention when she is on safari with our rangers of Rhulani. She tells me that it is exactly the opposite with the black rhinos. There the calf walks ahead, the mother behind. So, she is right.
I feel, we cannot solve the problem.
We continue our tour. I start walking. A few meters behind I hear my son's footsteps. My wife is walking five meters behind us 5. A good compromise solution, right?
Day 156: Renewed energy
Summer in Switzerland seems to be over. Suddenly everything is gray outside, the temperature drops by 15 degrees and it rains non-stop. Ideal to just spend the weekend at home and do nothing. After two grueling days at Rhulani, the weather reflects the mood pretty well. I'll skip my daily call to Rhulani. We all deserve this break.
When I look out of the window and think of Rhulani, I feel a deep calm and contentment. I remember those days that I spent at Rhulani with gray skies and rain. In general those days are not very much liked by our guests. Guests want to see as much of the African bush as possible. Enjoy “sunny South Africa”. Fortunately there are very few of those rainy days during the year.
But there are. The daily safaris then take place only on the very easily passable roads or in extreme cases not at all. The animals hide, you can hardly see them. They are under the protection of trees, or somewhere deep in the bushes.
However, I definitely enjoy this special atmosphere. The rain exudes a unique calm. You seem to have more time than usual. A fire crackles in the dining room. You can hear the rain falling on the thatched roofs. Suddenly you start to read a book. You have a cup of tea in the lounge and look out at nature. With relaxed thoughts. Have you ever experienced it that way?
Of course, the climate in Switzerland today has nothing to do with that of the Madikwe Game Reserve. There the sun will rise again tomorrow morning with a cloudless sky. A new day will begin, and we will start planning for the future with renewed energy.
Day 155: Agreement
Today is not much different than yesterday in terms of emotions. We are still sitting at the table and negotiating with our staff members. However, there are two changes today. First of all, we are all tired, but much more important than that: we reach a solution that everyone agrees to and which, taking into account the difficult circumstances, lays a solid foundation for our future.
At the end of the day, I talk to Carla, my manager, on the phone. Her voice sounds exhausted, a little agitated. I can understand that well. In the midst of the two days discussions, on the one hand she was affected herself, on the other hand she had to take a leading role in this process.
I tell Carla, we can be proud that we have defined a solud basis for how to start this next, challenging phase towards the end of the year. We wanted to present our employees a plan for the future, help them as much as we could financially, and on the other hand we wanted to be ensure the gradual opening of Rhulani on October 1st, regardless of further developments around COVID-19.
We achieved all of that. I am grateful how my team handled it.
The only downer from me is that I had no personal contact with the staff. I know all of them personally. In times of crisis one would like to be closer together.
On the one hand, this is due to the distance. I live in Switzerland and can't go to South Africa. On the other hand, my workforce joined a trade union a few years ago that represents since then their interests towards us as the owners. I remember it was a tough blow for me and my wife back then and it was difficult not to interpret this as a sign of distrust.
But we have come to terms with it over time. Today, however, I am realizing once again how much formalism and distance the talks via the union create. It's a shame that we didn't have a more personal, direct line during this difficult time.
But back to the most important thing: we have an agreement.
Day 154: An emotional day
I'm at the end of an emotional day. I have mentioned it several times in my diary: the hardest part is not the lockdown. It is the day when the lockdown comes to an end and there is no business. Today is the day. We meet with our employees. After over five months, they have returned to Rhulani for the first time. Everybody, no exception. The goal is to find a solution: what’s next?
The day requires my full attention. The only distraction is a message from my sister, who asks me to sign a petition for transparency, evidence and humanity for an independent investigation of the corona crisis in Switzerland. The petition says: "Billions of taxpayers' money are being spent without the consent of the people. People's health, social life and economic livelihoods are being destroyed."
But back to Rhulani. It is difficult to describe my feelings when I contact the lodge at 10 am and see all my staff via camera. I see they are sitting there, bit out of focus, everyone with a protective mask, the chairs at a distance from each other. On my last visit in December 2019, I never thought that the next time I see my employees would be in such a setting.
During the COVID-19 crisis, I often wished to have my next staff meeting and I can give a happy message: "Welcome to all, finally we are back!" Unfortunately this is not the case. The crisis is not over yet.
In my speech my intention is to create trust for everyone despite the difficult situation. I tell that we are running Rhulani with a long-term vision, that we have the company financially under control, and that we are willing to bring the same, unbeatable Rhulani team back together as soon as we can.
Anything can happen over the next weeks and months. We have only limited control over it. We have almost no bookings yet looking forward. But we will try to open Rhulani to local guests on October 1st. Slowly, carefully, and being aware of the risks. That gives a certain perspective.
I end up having mixed feelings. In such a situation there are no winners. The situation of my employees is extremely difficult. I can't improve it much.
I take another look at my sister's request. After what I have seen today, I am asking myself more than ever: Is our approach to COVID-19 really the right one? Aren't the measures taken to fight the virus worse than the virus itself?
I will sign the petition.
Day 153: A drink from the pool
Once again I realize how many problems the elephants are currently causing us at Rhulani. These large animals use the lockdown time to scout out the lodge. As cool as a cucumber. In our live stream yesterday we could watch two big bulls drinking water from the swimming pool. I watched this with a mixture of excitement and concern. But what type of damage can these animals actually cause?
The fact that the elephants come so close to the lodge to drink water has to do with the fact that we are currently not pumping water into the watering hole in front of the lodge, and our wire fence is currently not working either. In addition, it is now the dry season. The elephants are looking for water. They smell it from our swimming pool.
Years ago we used to have an elephant at Rhulani quite often. We called him “Bob”. He broke flowerpots, knocked down trees in the lodge, left his brown "elephant muffins" on the walk-ways ...
Everything was still ok until that evening. We were full camp. The guests were happy and were just having dinner. My manager came to me, stressed. "Rolf, we don't have a drop of water left, neither for us nor for the guests".
What happened? In his search for water, Bob found one of the underground water pipes, stood on it, and broke it. Within minutes, all our water ran out into the ground somewhere.
We brought the "bad news" to our guests. They took it with humor. Going to sleep without taking a shower was okay for once. The next morning the defective water pipe was replaced. But it was clear. We don't want elephants in the lodge. Not even Bob, as much as we love him.
My management couple, Carla and Riaan, calm me down this morning. "After the live stream we chased these naughty boys out of the lodge," Carla assures me. And, as Riaan already mentioned in the live stream, these animals, which weigh tons, have extremely sensitive sensors. They avoid standing on a terrace deck or swimming in the pool.
I am glad that just now we are bringing everything up to date again!
Day 152: A business trip?
Today go for lunch with my friend Luca in the center of Winterthur, the city where I live. He wanted to invite me for a long time as a thanks for the wonderful trip to Rhulani he made with his girlfriend in February. This was just before the corona lockdown. Luca tells me that he felt like in paradise there. He asks me: "Rolf, when are you going to Rhulani again?" That’s actually a good question.
My last trip to Rhulani was almost eight months ago. Hard to believe. Normally I fly the long distance between Zurich and Johannesburg every two to three months to visit the lodge for a long weekend.
At that time we were still discussing the last details of the construction of our new hide at the waterhole. "Oh yes”, Luca tells me, “when I was there, the construction work was in full swing and I got an idea of the size of the hide. It must be great!"
Luca also knows that the hide is now finished. He mentions that he would like to see it, one day in the future. We could maybe travel together, for a short week-end. But when will that be?
Actually, I've come to terms with the fact that I won't see Rhulani again until South Africa lifts the entry ban for international travelers. According to rumors, this might not be the case until next year.
However, I read somewhere that an entry for "business purposes" is possible. As the owner of Rhulani, my travel could actually be a business trip, right? I surf in the Internet and find quite a few flight options from Zurich to Johannesburg. With British Airways or Qatar Airways, for example.
In the evening, however, I read the Government Regulation, word for word. My hopes are dashed. I'll have to wait a long time!
It was great to meet Luca today. And it would be great to see the new Hide with him. One day!
Day 151: Unstably stable
In the time of preparation to reopen, I take a daily look at the new infection rates of COVID-19. Although this number does not say everything about the situation, it is one of the most important parameters for assessing how stable the reopening plan for a hotel in South Africa like Rhulani is. Every day can change everything, that's clear. The situation is unstable. But there is something that radiates stability. The situation is therefore “unstably stable”.
Switzerland, where I live, was a prime example of how COVID-19 can be controlled. However, there are now around 300 new infections per day, and the trend is rising. There is concern of a second wave.
In contrast, South Africa was only recently one of the five corona hot spots in the world. But the top of the wave appears to have passed and 2,728 new cases were reported yesterday. Measured against the population, this is now comparable to Switzerland. The trend is downward.
The rules in every country change on a daily base. Stricter conditions for wearing masks, alcohol bans, reduced shop opening times, maximum limits for people gatherings, quarantine requirements when returning from abroad ... Do you have an overview of what applies where?
Seen in this light, at Rhulani are very brave that we are preparing an opening on October 1st in such volatile times, that we are bringing the lodge up to date again, making investments for the security concepts, etc. etc.
But there is something that I find stable and on which we can build a strategy and plan on.
Despite the fluctuating numbers, we now know much more about the virus and how to protect ourselves. After months of lockdown, it is becoming difficult for the government to enforce a second lockdown, and the population is getting tired of isolation and wants to live with the virus … and travel.
In other words, there is a local movement that cannot be stopped anymore. The future reaction to the virus will not be a "lockdown", but rather an "increased safety concept".
At Rhulani we hope that travel restrictions will be lifted and our international guests…Read more