Day 189: Welcome to Rhulani Safari Lodge!
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 189: Welcome to Rhulani Safari Lodge!
So today is our big day. My last entry in the diary. We are ready. The feeling of getting up in the morning was completely different when you know that guests will be arriving. Now that I am writing these lines, my manager Carla tells me, our guests are already there and are enjoying “High Tea” in the outdoor lounge. They arrived safely from Johannesburg, and relatively early. This gives them a little time before the first safari starts at sunset.
Oh! How nice it would be to sit there on the sofa, having a great view of Madikwe Game Reserve, and have a snack. Who knows, maybe there is an elephant bull or a herd of zebras at the watering hole, which you can watch from there?
At noon I wrote a welcome message to our first guest "post lockdown". I sent the message electronically from Switzerland to the "SuitePad" in the guest room. This is possible today. I expressed my joy that we can finally go back to work, and we are so happy that our guest has decided to visit Rhulani. I offered our guest a good bottle of red wine to embellish today's dinner.
During my phone chat with Carla and Tom-Hendrik, at Rhulani’s office, I felt a "relaxed atmosphere" for the first time in a long time. As if all the pressures of uncertainty and the pandemic are suddenly gone. That’s how it should be. And now getting better and better. Day after day.
The first day is also the last for my diary. Now I turn back to a normal rhythm, where we will deal with the everyday challenges of a functioning hotel. We really missed them!
Welcome to Rhulani Safari Lodge!
Day 188: The penultimate day
Somehow I still can't believe it. On the one hand there is the feeling of still being in seemingly endless deep sleep, and on the other hand tomorrow, October 1st, is the day of the reopening of Rhulani. Then the show starts again. We will welcome guests again, carry out game drives, the kitchen will prepare delicious food, housekeeping will do the daily cleaning work and and and… So, today is the penultimate day, both for the lockdown and for my diary, which I wrote for the time of the lockdown.
Although we could prepare ourselves consciously and intensively for a long time for this day, it somehow comes suddenly.
I follow the preparations in Rhulani for the big day tomorrow from a distance, from my home office chair in Switzerland. After months of being closed, sometimes I have nightmares. Maybe snakes and scorpions have nested in the guest rooms. Or we are not receiving punctual deliveries for our orders. Or we have to close again because of a COVID-19 second wave…
The overall situation is indeed anything but stable or problem-free. We don't know how COVID-19 will develop in the next few weeks, and when we will have normality in the tourism sector.
But my thoughts are of course nonsense. Carla, my manager in charge at the lodge, sounds very relaxed, and above all, with great anticipation for the arrival of the first guest tomorrow. The lodge is clean and shiny. So no snakes in the rooms. The purchases have been made. The staff is delighted to be able to work again. The rangers can hardly wait to finally drive through the bush again, with guests on the vehicle, and to look for the animals.
Today is also the penultimate day in my diary. I have to say that the diary was an excellent tool for me to process my thoughts and to stay focused during the difficult times. When I started with "Day 0" I never thought that I would get to day 189.
Day 187: The smallest enemy
One thought goes through my head today. Many people dream of a safari at least once in their life. The combination of perfect wilderness, tranquility and adventure is tempting. But there is also respect for the possible dangers. How dangerous is it to stand next to an elephant in musth? How risky is it to watch a lion from three meters from an open landcruiser? Well, the view of where dangers lurk and how big they are is very subjective ...
Just yesterday a friend of mine found out that I own a safari lodge. Completely fascinated, he told me that he had wanted to go on safari for a long time, but that he was too afraid of the wild animals. When I told him Rhulani was unfenced, he couldn't even imagine that this was possible and safe enough.
I tried to calm my friend down. Nothing has happened in all these years in connection with wild animals. Lots of adventurous stories, but no incident. It seems that, if you live in a city, your daily life is more dangerous that your walk from the breakfast table to your room at Rhulani.
In insurance, where I work, I know that risk perception is very subjective. People are afraid to get on a plane but drive to the airport with no worries. Statistics show the opposite.
Over the past weeks I've seen several articles about animal death. In Botswana, the mysterious death of hundreds of elephants seems to be caused by a rodent virus known as EMC (encephalomyocarditis) or toxins from algal blooms.
In Switzerland, where I live, a few dogs died in the summer that had bathed in Lake Neuchâtel. Apparently, there were cyanobacteria that are deadly for dogs.
Today I read about a mass fish death in a small lake in the canton of Bern. Toxic pollutants from nearby construction work are probably responsible for the disaster.
At Rhulani, the day after tomorrow we will greet our first safari guest after the lockdown. Here, too, at check-in we will not highlight the possible dangers of elephants or lions at check-in. We will put the rules in the foreground to protect ourselves from one of the smallest enemy we ever had.
The size of SARS-CoV-2 virus is 15-400 nanometers. So, we will not even see him.
Day 186: South Africa? Yes … South Africa!
Today I read an article in the Swiss press about updated travel options for us Swiss citizens. The autumn holidays are just around the corner. Where can you even go? Which countries do require a COVID-19 test? Where do you have to go in quarantine? Where is everything problem-free? It's like a big puzzle. However, there are certain places where you can travel without troubles, mostly in Europe. And then what a surprise. The tour operators are looking hopefully at another destination: South Africa!
Since President Ramaphosa announced that the COVID-19 alert level would be further reduced (to level 1) and that the borders would open to international tourists on October 1, the world has been looking to South Africa with great excitement.
In Switzerland there is another positive aspect as our government has removed South Africa from the list of dangerous countries, which means that when you return from vacation you don't have to be quarantined here. This is astonishing. A few weeks ago South Africa was one of the five global hotspots. Today, however, it seems to be completely problem-free for travelers.
Many of my friends have already asked me, if I am going to take the first plane on October 1st and travel to Rhulani again?
Would be nice, indeed. I am actually monitoring every day to see what the situation looks like exactly.
I am sure that the high expectations of the Swiss tour operators as well as my own hopes will soon be fulfilled. But something very important is still missing. The South African government made an announcement that a list of countries would soon be presented, so you can see if your travel is unproblematic, if you will be quarantined at arrival, or if you are still not allowed to travel.
I find it hard to believe that today, two days before the opening of the border, this list has still not been published. I'm not surprised that nobody books a trip at the moment.
Day 185: Happy Birthday Rhulani!
Today is a great day for Rhulani Safari Lodge. It's our birthday! On September 27, 2003 we welcomed our very first hotel guest. That means we are 17 years old today. In such volatile times with constantly changing regulations, conditions and customer needs, this is definitely a wonderful achievement. We look back to a success story which was marked by a continuous path towards excellence, and above all with a long-term vision.
When I took over Rhulani in March 2013, the lodge was nine and a half years old. It was going “ok”, however, not really good. Fortunately, Madikwe Game Reserve was already known on the international market as an alternative to the Kruger Reserve. And it was in a malaria-free environment. That’s a great selling point, that becomes more and more important, I thought.
I immediately fall in love with Rhulani. It was just beautiful. Love at the first sight. I felt there is a big opportunity to turn this into a fantastic, successful business. With dedication and a long-term vision.
So we started and just let everything run continuously. But we soon formed our own vision for the future. In terms of infrastructure, Rhulani was supposed to retain the flair of an "African bush lodge", but the design was to be modernized and refreshed. In terms of service, we wanted to meet the demands of our guests for 5-star quality, so we started a collaboration with the South African Butler Academy early on, which is still going on today. In terms of marketing, we had to jump on the train of digitization and make our operational procedures more efficient.
Today, we are celebrating our birthday in the midst of the greatest crisis we ever suffered. I am really made aware of the importance of the long-term vision. At Rhulani Safari Lodge, we managed to survive the crisis, because we can count on trustworthy and long-standing employees, and because we have put financial reserves aside in good times.
Today I am proud of our employees and our collective achievements. I congratulate everyone on our birthday. I express the confidence that we will have a great reopening on October 1st, and then experience further successful years and decades together!
Day 184: Climate change
I can hardly believe it. I get up in the morning at my home near Zurich. I look out of the window and it's wet and cold. During the day just 8°C. There has not been such a cold day in September for 16 years. Snow has fallen in all mountain regions. And a few days ago it was still summer. What a sudden change! I look at the weather map in Madikwe with envious eyes. There's only the yellow, round sun and a daytime temperature of 29°C. While I am still looking out the window, I think: Let’s pack the bags and go to South Africa!
I realize that I'm a typical Swiss. I am the most happy person when I can escape the cold season and extend the summer feeling.
On my frequent travels to Rhulani, I often flew out from the Swiss winter and arrived in the South African heat the following morning. It is then a special pleasure for me to take a photo of myself, in shorts and T-shirt, enjoying sundowners in the bush, the sunset in my back, and send the photo to my friends, knowing that they are sitting somewhere in the cold and in the gray fog.
Christmas in the sun, January with a heat of 40 degrees… all of this creates for me and for my Swiss compatriots a feeling of “real holiday”, luxury, life quality. Local South Africans cannot always fully understand that, because this is definitely too hot so you should actually sit at home in the shade and in a room that has been cooled down with air conditioning. This is something that Swiss people never do. We don't even have air conditioners at home. But at Rhulani there are of course air conditioners in every room.
Back to my home. Today we will probably spend the gray day in our four walls. It would be so nice to make travel plans on such a day, but it is well known that this is not so easy at the moment. I am still waiting, for example, for the final list of risk countries from the South African government.
Will Switzerland be on it?
Day 183: One week to go
Looking at my agenda, I note: There is only one week missing and Rhulani Safari Lodge will reopen. By the way, we will welcome our first guest "post lockdown" on the very first day, on October 1st. The first guest after an interruption of exactly 199 days. This is incredible. In today's update call with the lodge I get an overview of the status of the preparations, especially regarding the repairs at the lodge. A lot is happening, and everything is on track.
After the considerable damage caused by the elephants and baboons during lockdown, the repair work is soon completed. Broken windows in the kitchen and doors were replaced. Can you believe that: A baboon managed to split a room door into two parts! Then the thatched roofs damaged by the baboons were repaired. They look very nice and, above all, now that the rainy season is about to start, they are tight again.
We had a visit from the insurance claims expert this week. He looked at all the damage and left us with the feeling there is a good chance that part of the repairs will be reimbursed by the insurance company. That would help us in a time of financial pressure.
During this phase we also called Joseph. He has distinguished himself in the past for his gardening skills. Joseph is currently cleaning up the lodge area with all its plants or what is left from them after the elephants have left quite a disaster in some places.
Speaking of elephants: The window in our new underground hide, which was ripped out of its frame by a wild female elephant, has also been replaced. The hide will be the big new attraction. All is ready now.
I wonder: Did we have elephants at the lodge again lately? Carla says no. The repair of the electrical wire seems to be successful. Oh no, yesterday we had an elephant bull in camp. He came in by just using the main entrance gate. He was chased out immediately without breaking anything.
Well. It's unbelievable what can happen within 199 days, out here in the bush. 199 days ... In the past, I remember, it was a difficult decision to close the lodge for 2-3 weeks for renovation work. The financial loss was considerable. And now we've survived 199 days, and this reasonably well. There is always a solution.
Day 182: Millipede
Today I had to smile. In a somewhat nostalgic phase I pick out photos from my first trip to South Africa, where I set myself the goal of looking at some safari lodges that were for sale. That was in December 2012. So almost eight years ago. It was then that I saw Rhulani for the first time. The photo shows me a little awkwardly with a nice, long, black, round millipede on my arm. Yes, I was a little younger then ...
The millipede is actually the first animal that I met in South Africa. Just arrived in Johannesburg, after a long flight, I rented a car and first drove south, to Nambiti Game Reserve, to the first lodge I wanted to inspect.
On arrival it was already dark, there was a violent thunderstorm. The power in the lodge was out, there was no generator. I went straight to my room, where at least one candle was burning. Quite agitated after such a day, I went to bed and extingished the candle. Shortly after I heard a soft sound next to my ear on the pillow.
I lit my candle and saw one of those millipedes next to me. It must have fallen through the roof into my bed. Welcome in the bush, I thought.
A few days later, in Madikwe, I was allowed to pick up such a millipede on safari with Rhulani. I had no idea that it would be this lodge, which I would buy a few weeks later.
Millipedes don't bother you, they told me. They are completely harmless, unless they pee on you. In contrast to the flat, slightly smaller centipedes. Those are dangerous!
Oh, was the other one in my bed, a few days ago, a centipede or a millipede? Well, I don't know. Maybe better.
Day 181: Last Last Minute Bookings
Time flies by. Soon there will be school holidays again. In Switzerland it's the autumn holidays. With my family we have actually planned to travel somewhere. To a place where you can travel without troubles. In view of the volatile situation due to COVID-19, we have not made a booking yet. We see the same effect with bookings at Rhulani. Everything is last minute, or even “last last minute”. This is totally understandable from the customer's point of view. For us, this means maintaining maximum flexibility and agility in the planning process of staff, logistics and food purchases.
I have my own thoughts. The rules change every day. Countries issue lists for “high risk countries” from one day to the next. Suddenly your country is banned. Or there is a requirement for quarantine, either on entry or on return from vacation. Flights are canceled or rebooked at short notice. Hotels decide to close if the booking status is poor. Certain services that you have been looking forward to are no longer available or only possible to a limited extent.
In contrast, you currently have no problems to find a seat on an airplane and a room in a hotel at short notice, and this on good terms.
In the current situation, my conclusion is: even a traveler who has actually been planning his vacation for a long time will wait until the last minute before making the booking.
Today, Greece is one of the few destinations in Europe that you can visit without any problems, where there is no quarantine, not even for Swiss people. And to my delight, the hotel is still open. They send me a good offer. So, let’s start organizing our holidays.
I discussed the obvious, but special situation about “last last minute bookings” with my Rhulani team today. We have to be able to react to the rapidly changing situation in all of our activities and planning. Fortunately, our employees who are currently at home, in a nearby village, are very flexible and we can call them at short notice if we need them.
In Rhulani’s inbox I just see a booking request for Friday, September 25th. Oh, we are still closed. Our opening is on October 1st. Unfortunately, we have to decline the request. But it is an indicator of what to expect in the upcoming weeks.
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