Rolf's Lockdown Diary: Day 31 to 60
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 60: A day full of action
In Switzerland, things are going back to normal, and people resuming their usual activities again. Nevertheless, I look back on a quiet Sunday at home, with no special occurrences. At Rhulani the opposite is the case today. While the whole country of South Africa is still in the lockdown and there is absolute calm in Madikwe, we had an action-packed day.
As they tell me, an elephant (I think it was "Bob") kept our team busy. Right next to guest chalet N ° 7, the capricious bull managed to demolish our electrical wire and break into the lodge.
While the rangers at the lodge immediately went to resolve the problem and fix the wire, a loud, shrill screech of an animal penetrated the silence of this Sunday. A wild dog pack was hanging around in the immediate vicinity of Rhulani and had just successfully killed an impala. That was safari experience that you rarely see.
During our sundowner live stream, two elephant bulls came to our waterhole for a drink. From the new hide we could observe them up close. We could even look them in the eyes! Sean's voice which commented the scene was only a whisper. Amazing!
As I listen to these stories, I realize how much I like this aspect of Rhulani. It's not just privacy, luxury, tranquility in the bush. It's adventure too. Alltogether.
Day 59: A massage on the outdoor deck
This morning I wake up with a slightly tense back and shoulders. I notice that playing tennis yesterday was maybe a little too much after a break of almost two months. No matter, it's Sunday morning. I can stay in bed a little longer. I read a message on Rhulani’s chat. “If you need me, please whatsapp me, as I am busy oiling the deck of Room 9.”
The main reason why we have employees at Rhulani during the lockdown is the necessary every day maintenance work. As I have learned over time as an owner without specialist knowledge, the maintenance of wooden decks is one of the most important tasks in a safari lodge. I'm glad this work is done.
When I visited Rhulani for the first time, I fell in love with our beautiful decks. So do all our guests. Decks at the pool, decks in the lounge, decks with a pool in every single guest chalet. Decks made of dark, hard, expensive teak wood. Best quality.
But soon after taking over Rhulani, the decks gave me a headache which hurt far more than my back pain this morning.
While the wood of the slates was of the best quality, money was saved on the underlying supporting structure. The wood became damp, musty. The screws became loose, and could no longer be fastened. We had problems with the insurance. What if a guest walking barefoot on the deck stands on a loose screw? Not acceptable.
With an enormous investment we renewed all decks. It was our first priority. It was the best thing to do. The new decks look even more beautiful. The slats are now held together with underneath clips. No more screws. Fantastic!
I slowly turn out of my bed. Unfortunately I don't get any younger. It would be so nice to be in a private chalet of Rhulani this Sunday and enjoy a full body massage on the outside deck. Maybe seeing some animals, listening to the wind in the leaves of the tree.
Day 58: With a positive mindset
It's a rainy Saturday at my home in Switzerland. It is quiet at Rhulani, so I want to leave my employees alone for once. I use the day to read the document "COVID-19 Protocols for Tourism Industry Operations". It is published by the Tourism Business Council of South Africa (TBCSA). Maybe I will get some exciting ideas for the reopening of Rhulani?
The document looks like the bible for hotels after the lockdown. It starts with a quote from President Ramaphosa: “To emerge from this COVID-19 crisis, will require an extraordinary effort.”
I open a beer and start to drag myself through the 28 pages.
All guests will have to complete a Medical and Travel Declaration at check-in. Temperature will be taken during every day of stay. Guests will need extensive briefings on COVID-19 protocols. All guests are required to wear masks except when they are in their room or while eating…
I take a sip of my beer. You may notice it. I am not very enthusiastic about what I read.
I ask myself: Do they really think that this way the tourism industry will get going again? It rather intimidates all employees and travelers. Better stay at home. People go on holiday to spend a carefree time, and not because they hope to survive it.
My view is: When we return to normal life, we all should do it with a positive mindset. With a smile. Get out of the isolation! Fully enjoy what you can do again and which was forbidden before! Just consider the basic rules: keep your distance to others, wash your hands, wear a mask if you are too close to other people for a long time.
An astonishing finding from a study is that the curve of new infections flattened in many countries even before the lockdown. This is because keeping a safe distance and hygiene were the most effective protective measures. They were applied before the lockdown.
So here is my positive message for all our future guests: your safari will be more exciting than ever. Enjoy the privacy and tranquility in the bush, away from the big centers, immerse yourselves into nature and wildlife, eat under the stars …
When staying with us, you will definitely recover from the COVID-19 nightmare.
Day 57: Banded Mongoose
Saturday. I'm cleaning up a bit. A flyer falls into my hands, which we have created many years ago for our Rhulani guests. It shows all types of mammals that can be found in Madikwe, with tick boxes, translated into six languages. What a great job that was! Our guests love it. Do you know how many mammal species there are?
Safari guests primarily want to see mammals. Big mammals! In Madikwe you can see carnivores, thick skinned mammals, primates, antelopes, pigs, rabbits and hares, … actually everything.
As every day, I call the lodge office. There is Tom Hendrik. He is in the middle of SABA's Virtual Butler Course by SABA.
"It was so funny today”, Tom-Hendrik says. “We were all connected via video. Suddenly I heard a loud screeching from outside. There was a group of mongoose in front of the door that was just about to rush into my room.”
Mongoose? I remember. These little animals are also registered on our Madikwe mammal list. I find five different types: Banded Mongoose, Dwarf Mongoose, Selous’ Mongoose, Slender Mongoose and Yellow Mongoose.
Tom-Hendrik continues: "The course was briefly interrupted and I was given time to control the problem. The little animals ran away. I counted around 30 of them. They ran across our entry circle and disappeared.”
When I ask him what kind of mongoose it was, he says: "I think it was a family of Banded Mongoose. They seem to live in the lodge. A few days ago they ate the parsley in my garden."
I have never seen 30 mongoose at once. That must be impressive. A group is also called a "mob" or a "gang". Only once I could at least take a picture of one.
Ah, here is the answer to a question at the beginning: There are officially 66 species of mammals to be seen in Madikwe. Mongoose included.
Day 56: A female tree
It is only "Thursday" today, but it is a public holiday, at least for me in Switzerland. Ascension. Many people make the bridge for the weekend. Reason enough for me to prepare a rich breakfast. I open the fridge and Rhulani's chef Mavis smiles at me. Her face is on the label of a delicious marula jam. The perfect day to try it.
Like many of our guests, I took a glass of the homemade marula jam home last time. In addition to the good taste, the marula brings countless memories.
There is the rich Rhulani breakfast after the morning drive, with marukla jam, and of course the marula liqueur, called "Amarula", which accompanies you on every safari.
I had my first encounter with this fruit during an outdoor dinner at Rhulani, in the courtyard. All of a sudden, a pretty hard, yellow fruit fell on my head. It came from a huge, beautiful tree, which provides shade in our courtyard. A marula tree.
Incidentally, the courtyard is the place from where Riaan and Ralf broadcast a live stream two days ago, telling about the versatility of this valuable tree. It is the luxurious sofa bed for leopards and an attraction for elephants, which, by the way, have already eaten our marulas here as well.
Everyone laughed at the table when I held my head. "As you see, it is a female marula tree," I was told and I didn't even know at the time that there were different genders in trees. Only female trees produce fruit. Therefore, if the fruit falls, we cannot use the courtyard for dinners.
But at some point we had the idea to collect the fruits and that Mavis could make our own jam. For me, this is a must every time. It is the "taste of South Africa".
It’s wonderful to have the taste of South Africa on my breakfast table today!
Day 55: Homework "yoga"
Today I get a photo from Rhulani. It shows our Front of House employee Tom-Hendrik (short: “TH”). He sits at the table in the “Leisure Room”, concentrated. Aha! the “Virtual Butler Course” organized by our partner “SABA”, has started. I am curious to know how that works.
But before I call TH, I pause for a moment. It's nice to be reminded of our "Leisure Room" again. A beautiful building, next to the entrance area. Quite special for a safari lodge!
When we took over Rhulani in 2013, there was a "Conference Room". Inside, a combination of wooden tables arranged in a "U". 25 leather chairs with wheels. An ideal space to hold a conference. Quite “old-fashioned”. Not bad, I thought.
Most of the time, however, we just held our staff meetings there. Otherwise the room was hardly used. Rhulani has only nine guest rooms. Why should a conference for 25 people take place here? It took us a long time before we came up with a new, better concept.
Now I call TH. He is very excited about this training opportunity: “Most of what I hear is new to me. Today we learnt about proper table setting. We were also taught the history of the butler profession. The morning starts with yoga exercises, in front of the screen. Everything very entertaining and educational from the coaches, Mr. Cross and Mr. West.”
Students from all over the world are taking part, from Mauritius, Bangladesh, Mexico, Paris… Despite different backgrounds, there is one thing in common. All participants want to learn the etiquette and standards that must be applied in 5 star hotels. Just like we do at Rhulani.
I'm glad TH can do this two weeks course in our "Leisure Room". Not a Conference Room any more. With high-speed internet, a table with all possible plug-ins and power connections, a large TV screen if necessary, comfortable sofa chairs for taking a break.
On the photo you can see what this multifunctional room looks like. Our guests can book it for a private event, a cocktail, for watching a rugby game…
TH has to do some homework for tomorrow. "I have to do yoga exercises, film them and then upload the video to our classroom." It confirms my impression about SABA. Learning and fun go well together.
Day 54: Two sunsets
The day comes to an end. I am sitting on my balcony at home. I enjoy a beautiful sunset, which is quite a privilege in Switzerland. Ah, there are actually two sunsets. I am watching the Rhulani Live Stream on my i-phone. There we have a wonderful sunset, too. Like every day. I notice that I feel much better than yesterday. There is a good reason for it: I solved a difficult question today that has occupied me for a long time today.
In the past weeks we have mostly been trying to find a solution for our guests who have to postpone their trip because of COVID-19. Traveling is just impossible. A postponement is inevitable.
But recently we receive more and more requests from guests, who want to postpone their trip even though we don't even know whether traveling will be possible or not. For example, a booking in October? How should we handle that? How can we distinguish guests who cannot travel (because of a travel ban) from those who do not want to travel (because of uncertainty or fear)?
Now the rule is on paper. Final version. Without being humble, it is a good and fair solution. First feedbacks from travel agents are excellent.
Hard to believe. There are 12,000 kilometers between the “Bush Sunset” of Madikwe and my “Balcony Sunset”. It is the same sun that shines for us. We even have the same time. Here in Switzerland, however, sunset takes place 3.5 hours later. We are going to summer and have long evenings, Rhulani goes to winter.
Fortunately, once we have weathered the Corona crisis, these unique sunsets will still be there for us.
Day 53: A day to forget
I'm actually amazed at how well we manage this lockdown period at Rhulani. There have been no guests for almost 60 days. Every day waiting for news, for an improvement. Try to stay optimistic. Nevertheless, we keep the good mood. But today this is a bit difficult.
Perhaps it is because it is Monday morning and another week starts without big goals.
Riaan tells me there were 1’160 new COVID-19 cases in South Africa in the last 24 hours. This is a record after 53 days of strict lockdown. How can that be?
A message circulates on our Rhulani Whatsapp-group. At first I thought this was funny: “President Ramaphosa just announced that an announcement will be forthcoming about more announcements which will be announced some time. He also said he is terribly sorry that government has to date been too vague about their announcements.”
I soon realize that this isn’t funny at all. We are in a lockdown without a plan, without a perspective, without an end in sight, that gets on one’s nerves. Even on the nerves of my team at the lodge.
The bad mood is maybe also influenced because of the ban on selling cigarettes in South Africa. I never understood this, but they tell me the stock at the lodge is now exhausted. No more cigarettes, and all of my team members are smokers.
A look at my emails today does not help to improve my mood. Everything is complicated. The Travel Show “Indaba”, which we were looking forward to, has now been postponed to next year.
A day to forget. I will show you a photo of the good days, and I am sure tomorrow the sun will rise again.
Day 52: Chacma baboons
While our day-to-day operations are normalizing step by step in Switzerland, there is still nothing happening in South Africa and therefore also nothing at Rhulani Safari Lodge. We have to be patient. Even little stories from the lodge or news from the reserve are rare. The days go by. It’s pretty much always the same. If it weren't for the chacma baboons.
"They keep us busy. Or, more precisely, they're actually terrible”. This is what Carla, my manager, tells me today in our daily chat.
Chacma baboons. This is the only baboon species that visitors of Madikwe Reserve will be able to see. Fantastic animals, and quite different to all other mammals. They have an interesting social structure, live in a “troop”. And how cute when a young one sits on its mother's back and is transported in this way.
"We have to close all doors and windows and also lock them," says Carla. These intelligent animals know exactly how to open doors, and they also know where to find food. They know exactly that we offer “free minibar” in the guest room.
When I was just starting my business with Rhulani, a wild troop of baboons costed me a fair amount of money. They pulled the grass out from the thatched roofs. What a mess! We had to completely renovate the roofs. Since then we have installed "bird wires", which is a wire mesh that is laid over the roof. Since then, we are protected.
Carla calms me down. "Don't worry, Rolf, we have them under control. No damage so far.”
I realize. My unrestricted love for animals shows certain limits when I think of the chacma baboons…
Day 51: Elephant muffins
It's weekend again. Time flies fast. A sunny day here in Switzerland. I go to the playground with my little son. He goes straight to the slide. Slides down and lands ... just next to a cat's excrement that is lying in the grass. How disgusting I think. Local residents should take better care of their animals. I am a little angry, even though I have a good relationship with animal droppings, after my many safaris.
Yes, animal excrements mean a lot of fun during game drives. When the bush is quiet and you don’t see so many animals as usual, a school lesson about elephant dung is very entertaining.
Maybe you have seen our ranger Ralf on the live stream a few days ago? There, too, he explains the many useful aspects of an "elephant muffin". The grass in it is hardly digested and so dry that you can actually smoke it. Inhaling is also a cure for sinusitis.
After my many safaris, and as I paid attention, I can now tell from a rhino dropping whether it comes from a white or black rhino.
I also remember a sundowner years ago when we played a game, like children do in South Africa. We picked up hard, round dry balls from the ground which were droppings from the kudu. The winner was who could spit them the furthest.
We laughed so much! And I learned that everything, really everything, is interesting in the African bush.
I am not laughing today. I pick up the cat's excrement and dispose it. My son goes back on the slide.
Day 50: A name for our hide
I've never told you about it. We actually wanted to keep this secret as long as possible. Keep it as a surprise. But it is already known to some of you. In a huge project, that took a few months, we built a so-called «hide». An underground lounge, right at the water hole, where wild animals come by regularly. You can now observe them from a very close distance. When Rhulani opens again, it will be a start with a bang!
We planned this project last year. I have not seen the result yet. I can't go to South Africa. I must wait like everyone else.
My staff at the lodge kept me informed of the progress. I got photos of the construction work. Impressive. Sean is in the ditch, which will be the access tunnel. Riaan at the construction site of the lounge, with a view of elephants. Just next to him.
This will be a stunning place for our guests to spend time during the day. Our employees are all excited too. They gave 100% support to the project. Riaan once said to me: "Rolf, when the hide is finished, I will take my camera and spend the whole night there." I know, my staff never gets tired of the animals.
Construction started in November last year. A 40 meter long tunnel had to be dug. The rocks of the dolomite underground were harder than expected. The TLB machine broke. Then came Christmas, New Year, construction freeze. We took our time, did not rush. The result should be perfect. No “quick and dirty”. Just “wow”.
And now it is finished. In the middle of the corona crisis. Our hide is ready to open. Guests are advised to access the lounge quietly through the tunnel. And then marvel at the animals from the windows at ground level. Take a refreshing drink. The elephant foot will be right in front of your nose. Take photos from the frog’s perspective.
The hide will always remind us of the corona crisis. It is like a memorial. Oh, now that i think about it: we still need a name for our hide. Any idea?
Day 49: Indaba
I take a look at the calendar this morning. I see an entry "Save The Date: INDABA". Indeed. The biggest travel show for Africa - called “Indaba”- should have taken place this week. For three days, in Durban. This event is the most important marketing activities for Rhulani. I have wonderful memories.
I can not believe that not long ago we thought that Indaba will take place, as planned. We reserved our stand in the main building of the ICC Durban. 3 by 3 meters. The logistics, the stand design, everything was well prepared. We ordered gifts for visitors of our stand. Every year, same procedure.
For me and my wife, this travel show is a unique opportunity to meet with travel partners: Agents, tour operators and DMC's. They come from all over the world. They are all interested in learning more about Rhulani. They ensure that our name is known around the globe.
We have almost 100 meetings spread over three days. We sit at the coffee table with our partners and have a chat. Around us a beautiful stand design, which gives the feeling of being at Rhulani. We offer a delicious Nespresso coffee. Just as our Rhulani guests will enjoy it. There is a Nespresso machine in every room.
In the evening we drop into bed. Exhausted, satisfied and inspired. So many new contacts! So many positive feedbacks! And over time, we get a mix of guests from all over the world. From Switzerland, where we live, from Germany, Holland, UK, Italy, France, but also from the USA, Australia, and especially from Brazil or Argentina, where we used to live. All this in addition to our local guests, who come mostly from Johannesburg and Gaborone.
I look at the photo of our stand last year. What a pity. Indaba informs they will try to hold the event in September. Let’s see. We would definitely be there!
Day 48: Open borders
There is some movement in the travel industry. After the recent first openings in Switzerland, there is a plan to open the borders to the neighboring countries and make international tourism attractive again. This is very quick and contrary to all forecasts. The tourism industry is also an important economic sector for South Africa. Will there be a quick solution, too?
If I am lucky, my summer vacation in Greece could take place in July. My heart exults, my soul rejoices.
And also important, given that I manage my business in South Africa: On the flight booking portal I see that I could buy a direct flight from Zurich to Johannesburg on June 1!
Will I be able travel to South Africa and visit Rhulani in less than three weeks? See my employees? Experience the magical nature of Madikwe with all its animals and scenic beauties? Will guests come back soon?
My skype call to the lodge brings me back to reality. "Hello Carla. How are you? Any news?"
Carla says: “No, in fact, everything is the same as always.”
I ask: “No news regarding the opening plan after the lockdown?”
Carla: "What opening plan? We are still at level 4. And we don't know when there will be a next step and whether it will be level 3 or back to level 5."
I realize that I was too optimistic. "But what does Mr. President say?"
Carla says, "Oh, I don't know, I think Mr. Ramaphosa disappeared. I haven't actually heard from him in a long time."
Later, I do some research and find at an updated statement from Mr. President. “We must be prepared for a new reality in which the fight against Covid-19 becomes part of our daily exercise. We will need to adapt to new ways of worshipping, socializing, exercising and meeting that minimize opportunities for the virus to spread.
At least, there are thoughts of adopting the plans of other countries. Back to normal life. Back to making holiday plans and go on a safari.
Day 47: Born in the wild
I am still so excited about the recent birth of young wild dogs in Madikwe Game Reserve. Somewhere, in the middle of the bush, not too far from our lodge, their den was discovered. I already told about it in my diary, a few days ago. I would love to be there! At least my insistence to get a photo was successful. Here it is.
But before I can marvel at the photos, I read fantastic news in the Swiss newspaper today.
A white rhinoceros has just been born in the Zurich Zoo, near where I live. It is incredible. An African savannah was built in this zoo in a project that lasted several years. The savannah has a size of 5.6 hectares. Very big for a city zoo. It is for giraffes, antelopes, spotted hyenas and rhinos. All have just moved in. That means the rhino mother was already pregnant when she arrived in Zurich.
Now the savannah is open for the public. I can hardly wait for my first visit. But we have to be patient. Zoo visits are still not possible in Switzerland due to COVID-19. The new animals in the zoo are enjoying the calm before the rush in the new environment. No visitors.
The baby rhino must feel like "born in the wild". Hopefully it will cope with the new situation when the first visitors come in a few weeks. Including me.
You see, I try to make a link here to the recently born wild dogs in Madikwe. They too are currently enjoying the silence in the reserve. Undisturbed. "All 10 puppies were out when we were there," Riaan tells me. "They played around, and their mother growled at us."
I congratulate Riaan for the fantastic photos. He is a great photographer. The little wild dogs are so cute … do you agree?
Day 46: “May I?”
Today I get an email from our partner SABA. We have been working with the "South African Butler Academy" for six years. This is our commitment to excellent service at a 5-star level. Unfortunately, most probably no SABA training will take place at Rhulani this year. But need is the mother of invention: we are invited to participate at the "Virtual Butler School".
I immediately think of Tom-Hendrik (we call him “TH”), our latest team member at the front of house. He is currently at the lodge. TH has never had the opportunity to learn about the standards and signature services introduced by SABA. The ideal training, at the right time.
In Switzerland, where I live, many people do courses right now. Make use of your time during lockdown. So, we can do this at Rhulani, too!
My memories of the SABA trainings are special. I was also a participant. For example, I still remember how to fold a toilet paper on five-star level.
Most importantly, of course, we had to learn a lot. We introduced clear standards on how to properly clean a guest room. We mixed new cocktails, learnt how to talk to a guest, how to set up a dinner table correctly. We always ask “May I?” before taking away an empty plate. The “ballet of service” became a real highlight during dinner.
But above all, we always have a lot of fun. I remember when we learnt how important it is to give different options to the guest and to confirm the order with a smile by saying "excellent choice".
The following morning, at breakfast, Evonciah, our waitress, came to my table and asked me elegantly if I would like white or brown bread with my omelet. I replied that I would like to have no bread today. Evonciah smiled and said: "Excellent choice!" We both laughed so much!
I call Rhulani and speak to TH. I don't need to explain and convince him of the course. It is such a great idea. TH will register today.
Day 45: “Relax”
Carla, Riaan, Sean, Tom-Hendrik and Ralf. This is the team that lives in Rhulani in this second phase of the lockdown and keeps the lodge in order. I know that the team has organized itself through a work schedule. The work has to be done every day, but everyone also has their days off. I'm wondering what one can do at Rhulani on a day off?
In South Africa it’s Mother's Day today. Also at my home in Switzerland. It is a wonderful Sunday. A day off. There are memories of earlier Mother's Days, where we did a lot of activities, and we took the mother out to a nice restaurant for lunch.
This is not possible today. But still there is a lot you can do here, if you follow the recommendations for social distancing and hygiene. And tomorrow all the shops and restaurants will open here again.
Today we went for a walk, with our son to the playground, met neighbors for a drink ... yes, the day passed very quickly. We almost forgot that we are actually living in a special period.
I feel a bit bad today when I call Carla with the intention to ask what she was doing during the day off. I know that she is not allowed to go out of Madikwe Game Reserve, and certainly not to go on an excursion, meet friends from another lodge or have a drink anywhere. I can understand, however, the need for a "day off". But I wonder if she didn’t get bored or are is jealous that I can do so much and she is just stuck at the lodge?
Still, I ask: "Carla, what did you do on your day off?"
Carla only says one word: “Relax”.
Sounds simple. But more importantly, it sounded joyful, relieved, happy. I'm relieved. So the day off has reached its goal. But I still want to know more: "What do you mean by relax?
She says: “Relax…, no TV, no news, no worries. Just relax.”
I no longer insist. Such an easy answer. And yes, I admire Carla today for the ability to really relax. Without feeling bored, bad or guilty of not having done something which was intended to do.
Maybe, the lockdown will also help me to rediscover the real meaning of relax.
Day 44: Tswene Tswene
I thought I had everything under control during this lockdown period. Finances secured. A small team at the lodge does daily checks. Rhulani is maintained and protected. All bills are paid. All emails answered. This has been going on for over 40 days now. All fine. And still: it's like a shock, when I realize today: What if our internet goes down?
I have already asked myself this question here in Switzerland, where our lockdown was rather "soft". There will be a solution, I thought. I just had confidence.
But in Madikwe Game Reserve? The entrance gates are closed. The people who in the reserve stay there. No one can go in or out. External workers or suppliers are not allowed in.
We don't have any guests right now. So you might think that the wifi isn't that important. But it is. Rhulani is one of the very few safari lodges that runs the reservation office and all administration out of the lodge. Without internet, customers and travel agents would no longer get an answer from us. That would be a disaster.
The tower that gives us the signal is located in the middle of the reserve. On the highest point, a mountain called Tswene Tswene.
Despite my concern, I have wonderful memories of Tswene Tswene. It is a special place. You can go up there on an adventurous, steep road. From the top you have a breathtaking view of the entire reserve and much more.
Sean drove me up. On the vehicle, a cooler box with ice and a selection of aperitifs. I never forget the time up there with the sunset and a glass of wine. What a silence!
A bit nervous I call Daleen from my internet provider. She calms me down: "We have been in the park a few days ago and were doing repairs on the Tswene Tswene Tower. Don’t worry."
I have learned today that Internet repairs are part of "essential services" in South Afrioca and are therefore allowed to work at level 5. Thank God.
In my mind I am still with this breathtaking view. We should offer a Tswene Tswene trip as an additional excursion option for our guests. They will love it!
Day 43: Wild dog puppies
It seems like this Friday is a day like any other. The Rhulani "Lockdown Team" is doing routine work at the lodge. Occasional e-mails from travel agents, who have to cancel or postpone bookings. The end of COVID-19 is not in sight. Requests for refunds or deposit transfers to a future date. And then, out of nowhere: there are new born wild dogs in Madikwe!
Wow, the circle of life continues! In the rather dreary everyday life, this news suddenly brings sunshine into my home office.
It reminds me of why I was so fascinated back then, 7 years ago, to invest in Rhulani and get active here. Madikwe's wild animals don't care about the virus. Their life goes on.
Sean, our head ranger, tells me: "Carla and Riaan have already seen the puppies yesterday. There are ten of them, maybe two or three weeks old. They live in a so-called "teardrop den". It is relatively easily accessible. and it has like a circle around it.
About five years ago I had the opportunity to see newborn wild dogs myself. We just sat there, very calm, and waited. We hoped that one of the little ones would come out at some point. And indeed. Two puppies suddenly jumped out and played with each other until the mother picked them up again and brought them back to the protected place. The moment is unforgettable.
Sean tells me that the mother animal is somewhat suspicious. She growled at the car. She protects the little ones and is not so used to the presence of people.
I imagine how nice it will be when we can experience such moments in the bush again every day. Together with our guests.
But back to my everyday life. I still have to answer a few emails.
Day 42: The life of a lion
My visits to Rhulani are always a highlight. I do that five times per year, But it also means a lot of stress. I work 100% for an insurance company in Switzerland. Rhulani is a hobby. I have to organize my time well. Every minute counts. But then, I arrive at the lodge. The magic is there. I go on safari, see endless wideness, feel a unique calm, and I forget all the stress. I could watch a sleeping lion pride for hours.
They are just lying there. All day long. In the shade of a bush. The little ones jump around on the parent animals. They are grabbing the father's wagging tail.
From time to time the cats are licking each other. Lots of love and cuddling. The female picks herself up when she hears something. Sometimes one of the lions tries to catch an insect that bothers.
My thoughts today are all about the right balance between stress and relaxation.
On the one hand, I am a little jealous of the king of the bush. One should have such a beautiful life! No agenda, no alarm clock, no deadlines, no crowded train, no stress at work, no bills to be paid ...
On the other hand, after a few days of relaxation, I have some doubts: how can they just be so satisfied? Isn't that boring for them? Every day the same? I would definitely miss my evening beer with friends. My vacation by the sea. My iphone. My hobbies. Doing sports. I would even miss my work!
Over the past six weeks, my life has been involuntarily changed so that it actually resembles that of a lion. A lot of time with the family, a lot of rest. I go out when I need to eat. I don't roar in the bush, but I call friends from time to time. So it is comparable.
And do you know what? The days go by as quickly as before. It's late in the evening right now and I didn't even have time to write my diary in time.
So live like a lion? Definitely, no problem!
Day 41: Beautiful flora
It is spring in Switzerland. The flowers start to bloom. I have gone to the garden center two days ago. Luckily, it was open. Since then, there is a feeling of nature on my balcony. Not as much as when I am sitting in the lounge at Rhulani. But it’s a good start. And I like my new, beautiful hydrangeas!
There are no hydrangeas in Madikwe. But I remember when Alasdair showed me a beautiful purple rock orchid during my last visit. It was near the road, in the middle of the bush. It was fantastic!
The dry season has now started in the reserve. Sunny days, cold nights, and probably no raindrops for the next six months. This is what the animals and plants of Madikwe will expect in the next months.
Accordingly, the animals will pass by the waterholes known to them more frequently. The color of nature will change from green to brown and finally yellow.
I am sitting on my balcony. My hydrangeas brutally show me that I'm not a plant expert. The leaves are hanging down, the blossoms seem to dry out. Oh god! These delicate flowers should not stand in the sun for too long and need a large amount of water. They wouldn’t survive a single day in Madikwe!
I often traveled to Madikwe in winter, the dry period. I always get the feeling that all plants are about to die. Like my hydrangeas. But then, maybe in November, the first rain comes. Only a little bit of water, and the whole nature starts to bloom again. How do they do that? I am standing there with my mouth open.
This sudden change from yellow to green, this resurrection of nature, fascinates even those of our guests who visit us often. It's like traveling to a different place.
I water my hydrangeas intensively, and an hour later they look fresh again. This time, I was lucky. Maybe I should put a sickle bush from Madikwe on my balcony...
Day 40: Safety measures
I waited a long time for this moment. I'm sitting at the hairdresser. I look in the mirror in front of me. My face with a protective mask on, for the first time in my life. Strange feeling. The girl somehow tries to find a way through my hair which is way too long. I think: what will it be like if, under certain conditions, Rhulani is allowed to operate again?
I close my eyes. I see new guests arriving at Rhulani Safari Lodge. Happy faces. Finally arrived in a sort of paradise! The staff is singing, our barman has prepared a Welcome Cocktail.
Rhulani’s manager Carla greets our guests in the outside lounge. From the sofa there is a perfect view of the water hole. Elephants and zebras frolic around. Sunshine, light breeze. The high tea buffet is prepared.
"Welcome to Rhulani Safari Lodge. Just relax and enjoy the beauty of the African bush!
I open my eyes. There is already an impressive mountain of gray hair on the ground. The girl says: "The introduction of the protective measures, with all the utensils that it needs, costed us almost USD 4,000.”
After many weeks without business, this is an expensive way to start. And the number of customers remains limited. I watch around. There are only five people in the room, which is the maximum allowed. How is this supposed to work?
The girl does not know that I own a safari lodge in South Africa and was thinking about our opening plans. A protective concept would cost us a lot more than USD 4,000.
I close my eyes again. Guests arrive. The vehicle is stops at a safe distance in front of the entrance. Only a minimum of staff is there to welcome our guests. No singing, as it is not COVID-19 best practice. Everyone has a protective mask on. Carla greets our guests from a distance, without shaking hands.
In the outside lounge, all rules of conduct and precautionary measures must be discussed. The fact that guests are not allowed to walk alone to the room at night because of dangerous animals suddenly seems to be a minor problem. The priority is: no infection with COVID-19.
Do people want to have an experience like this?
I open my eyes again. I am finished. I like my new short hair! Thank you! I pay and go to the door. I get a second, new face mask as a present. Quite useful, it is my first one!
Day 39: Welcome back Tom-Hendrik!
When I call the Rhulani office via skype today, a male voice answers which sounds new to me. This is Tom-Hendrik! Long time no see. “I have just arrived”, he says. Our latest front-of-house employee used the narrow time window that South Africa opened for "staff rotations" to travel to Rhulani. Welcome back!
I hear a great joy from Tom Hendrik's voice to breathe in the air of Rhulani again. To do something else than sitting in the lockdown at home.
I don't want to kill the enthusiasm. But I still want to point out to Tom Hendrik that there is not much work for us at the moment. We have no guests at the lodge to look after and it is not certain when he will be able to travel home again. Level 4 still means a complete lockdown for Madikwe Game Reserve. He smiles: "I know, and I don’t mind."
I understand Tom-Hendrik. Long-term isolation at home is not easy. The insurance company I work for in Switzerland has now allowed 25% of employees to go back to the office. Not because they want people to go back to the office. It is a solution for everyone who feels shut in.
I ask Tom-Hendrik how was the trip? He tells me: “There were only two road controls on the way to Madikwe. Luckily, I had a mask on while driving, as otherwise the police would have given me a fine.” I think: What? A mask when you are alone in your car? That doesn't make any sense. But it is true…
Along the way, they wanted to sell him homemade masks and disinfectants. Meanwhile, I'm still unsuccessfully looking for it here in Switzerland….
So, Tom-Hendrik. I am glad that you are here and refresh our "lockdown team". According to the strict park rules for people coming from outside, you will now remain isolated for 14 days, measure your temperature every day and report your health status.
Looking forward to working with you in this new period!
Day 38: Honey badgers
I find it astonishing that the wild animals don't come closer to the empty Rhulani Lodge during lockdown. Even the elephants, of which there are over 1,700 in the reserve, are currently staying away from us. But today Sean tells me he was woken up by an animal noise in the middle of the night. There was a little party going on just in front of his window. He got up and checked.
Sean stuck his head out the window. “There were two honey badgers having fun”.
Honey badgers! Doesn't seem like an animal that is typically associated with a safari. And yet, in the seven years in which I have been leading Rhulani, this animal has gained special meaning for me.
It was pretty much at the beginning, In 2014. One of my first trips as the owner of the lodge. I still had to get used to everything.
The day was over. We were at the bar drinking one last beer. We were joking, had a great time. Around us the night and the sounds of the mystical bush.
I wanted to go sleeping, went to the door. There was this little animal in the door frame and looked at me. I had never seen this. It had a black fur, white back. After a few seconds, it ran away.
I heard the voices from the bar counter. "Rolf, you just got to know the most dangerous mammal after the Big 5".
I turned around and went back to the bar. This little, cute, innocent animal ... dangerous? This needed an explanation.
Honey badgers are super intelligent animals. They work in groups. They overcome obstacles, open doors, are fearless. They know how to defend themselves, even against the Big 5. They bite a buffalo right in the testicles. Some do not survive the attack.
From that moment on I wanted to find this fascinating, nocturnal animal on safari. I've had countless game drives. The ranger with the lamp, screening the landscape, and I hoped to finally see a honey badger in the wild.
It happened once in seven years. I look in my photo archive. It was in February 2019. It was dark. The animal ran on the road. The photo is miserable. But it has a special place in my memories.
Sean says, "When they saw me, they ran away and I was able to sleep again."
Day 37: Signs of change
The restaurants will reopen here in Switzerland from May 11th. Today I make an early reservation for dinner at our favorite restaurant. What a joy! Finally. I feel that things are moving forward. Back to normal life. Meanwhile, South Africa and Rhulani are still in the lockdown. But today I also feel signs of change there.
Switzerland is very brave with its opening strategy. We have far more COVID-19 cases and more deaths than South Africa. But the number of new infections has drastically decreased, the curve becomes flat. About 100 new infections per day. In South Africa this number is increasing, now around 300 a day. Caution is still top priority.
"Rolf, after more than 30 days I want to see my family again," says Alasdair, our captain redbeard. And Riaan adds: "We feel something like lockdown fatigue.”
Indeed, the restrictions hit South Africans hard. Many people are caught at the workplace. Also at Rhulani. Madikwe Game Reserve is closed. You can't go in, but you also can't go out. Traveling on the road is not possible without a permit. For us Swiss, this is an unimaginable situation.
Our followers write us that they would love to stay at Rhulani right now. You are safe, have a lot of comfort. You hear the birds, see fantastic sunsets, have all the wildlife around you. But it is also a type of prison, or more precisely, a “Big Brother” exercise. Riaan: “We need a change of scenery. New faces around us.”
Alasdair knows: "There is a short window of time until May 7th, where we can take a single drive. So you can go home, in case you were stuck at work. Parks Management will allow lodges to make a “staff rotation". Certain safety measures need to be considered, of course. The goal is: The park will remain virus-free.
Signs of change. Let’s make a plan.
I close my thoughts with a wish: Hopefully we will everywhere not only ways to fight the virus, but a balanced solution to live with it.
Day 36: Payment day
Exactly six weeks ago we said goodbye to our last guest. Since then, Rhulani has been empty. A small team does the necessary daily work. The way is long, the end is not in sight. During this time, positive news is rare. And yet: today there is one that is just fantastic.
Like every day, I take a look at our company bank account. In the last weeks there have only been debits. Fix costs continue. No mercy. On the other hand, no new bookings, no income. Nevertheless, as you know, everything goes according to plan and it does not worry me.
And what do I see today? A credit! It’s a significant amount, paid by UIF, the national unemployment fund. Our request for wage replacement was accepted. Quite quickly, and all electronically.
I take a deep breath. I didn't think that was possible. Wow!
In Switzerland, we pride ourselves to have a well working public system and financial help for those who are suffering right now. Many small businesses, however, are still waiting for support.
At the same time, we are concerned about developing countries, which are not in conditions to help their citizens. A Swiss minister said, the consequences of the lockdown there will be worse than the virus.
The process for wage replacement in South Africa is called “TERS”. It has no good reputation. Unclear processes, unstable systems, long waiting times… Still, Carla, my manager, and Debbie, my accountant, did all the necessary steps, somehow. Uploaded all documents. We applied, with little hope.
Today South Africa removed all my prejudices. I am deeply impressed. Grateful.
I immediately call Carla, my manager at the lodge. With lightning speed she works out a breakdown with the values for each employee. Debbie promptly loads the payment order. Done.
Rhulani has 30 employees. They are at home. They live in villages, in remote areas. Income is essential for survival. Many do not have a phone or cell-phone reception. So it is difficult to let them know. But I am sure the good news will spread quickly – from door to door.
And everyone has a bank account. The money is now there. What a day!
Day 35: Get to know your own country
"Don’t go far this year. Discover the beauties of our country and postpone international travels until next year." That was the Swiss government’s answer to a question asked by a journalist. My first reaction is: They must be crazy! What will happen with my vacation in Greece in July? And: what impact does this have on Rhulani this year?
Lockdown in South Africa means that traveling is not possible at all. The airports are closed. Local travels between provinces is also prohibited. Down to level 4 from 5 doesn’t change anything. Someday, I expect president Ramaphosa to ease the rules for local travels first. Like in my home country Switzerland.
The key question: Does it make sense to advertise a special offer for local visitors? Is this a successful strategy in a transition phase?
Rhulani Safari Lodge is known worldwide. Our guests come from everywhere. Europe, America, Australia or Latin America. Nicely distributed. We have wonderful contacts with agents, tour operators and returning guests from all over the world.
But when we actually also have a lot of South African guests. They come by car from Johannesburg, Pretoria. A short weekend for two or family vacations during school holidays.
I met many “local travelers” on my trips to Rhulani. For me as a European it is just impressive how everyone is connected to nature, wildlife. Even small children know every single bird, know the behavior of the animals, how the ecosystem "game reserve" works.
South Africans love their own natural treasures so much that they spend every free minute enjoying them. Go camping, fishing, on safari, with their off-road vehicle. There is a tent on the roof to protect them from leopards when sleeping in the bush. Sometimes, an escape to a beautiful lodge, like Rhulani. Enjoy the luxury in the bush!
But will safari lovers want to travel as soon as they are allowed to, while the viru is still around? Will they accept a large number of protective measures that accompany the trip?
Many pros and cons. The idea needs to mature in my brain in the next few days.
Back to yesterday’s outlook on the topic. I'm actually not so pessimistic. I still think I will go to Greece in July.
By the way, today the government had to apologize. The statement was a personal opinion and not appropriate.
Day 34: Rainy day
I take a break and get a cup of tea. I look from the far window. Gray sky, no one outside, it is pouring with rain. A perfect day for home office in Switzerland. I take a sip. It strikes me that yesterday I received pictures of an unusually gray day from Rhulani. Sunny South Africa far away.
"Yes, it's pretty cold here," says Carla. She does some office work this morning. "We were woken up in the night by a heavy storm, had 15ml of rain.”
Such weather is quite normal in Switzerland this time of year. But in Madikwe Reserve? The dry winter time has actually just started.
We do not have many rainy days at Rhulani. And I feel bad to see guests visiting us and then the experience is impacted due to rain. On the other hand, as a lodge owner, I know that every drop counts and is good for nature. So, I am actually happy when it rains. Water is one of the greatest challenges for humans and animals.
Safaris in the rain. I actually have a lot of good memories. I take another sip. The rain gives me a feeling of unique calm.
We drive through the muddy earth. The park seems to be extinct. I hide under the protective poncho. Where are all the animals? The hot chocolate with Amarula tastes twice as good as usual. Here close to each other, two zebras leaning against a bush. just open your eyes.
Our ranger skillfully drives around a muddy puddle. Just don't get stuck here. What an experience.
Drops are hanging on the nets of the Golden orb web spiders. There are thousands of them but I see them for the first time.
Suddenly, a huge elephant bull. Walks calmly on the road, as always. Rain doesn't matter to him. The lion looks a little bored at the empty savannah. A raindrop hangs on his nose.
Back at the lodge, a rich breakfast awaits us in the dining room. A warm fire is burning. I'm going to read a book today.
Beautiful memories. I am still at the window at home. My tea is finished. The rain continues. Back to work.
Day 33: Spirit of optimism
New infection rate with COVID-19 is decreasing. The problem is slowly coming under control. At least, it seems so. South Africa's President Ramaphosa will give more details tomorrow on the first opening step on May 1st. People should now feel a sense of optimism. First step back to a normal life. How much of it has already arrived at Rhulani?
At my home in Switzerland today is the first day of opening. Some businesses are open again. People can finally go to the hairdresser, the nail salon, the hardware store ... and I am driving to a nearby garden center. It's spring here. I finally want to buy plants for my balcony.
I know that the opening at this stage is irrelevant for Rhulani. On May 1st there will be no guests who will see our fascinating nature. No elephant trumpeting next to the vehicle. No pack of wild dog running through the savannah. No giraffe that reaches the leaves of the tree crown with its long tongue, in front of our camera.
Nevertheless, I call Rhulani’s office with the idea to convey some positive mood.
Carla picks up the phone. "It is not easy to get up every day and say: Yeah, today is a new day. Today is a day like any other", she says. A spirit of optimism sounds different.
Impressions of happy Swiss people are shown in the local media. First haircut. Shopping at the hardware store. Smiling faces. Waiting is not of a problem today. There is a beautiful sunshine. Finally something going on. Almost back to normal life.
I have arrived at the garden center. Oh gosh, what a long queue. People with shopping carts waiting to enter. I see the many rules, controls, protective measures, face masks. I feel anything but a liberating feeling.
The desire to shop has already passed. Carla is right. A spirit of optimism sounds different.
Day 32: A ghost in the room
Monday morning. Another working week begins. Coffee, computer, telephone - let's go. As I can see, it will be a short week. In Switzerland, we will have Friday off (Worker's day), and today is a public holiday in South Africa (Freedom day). Let's see if anyone is in Rhulani's office.
My call is answered only on the third attempt. But it is not because of the public holiday. The local team that is staying at the lodge during lockdown is busy with the daily work.
“Hello Rolf!" I recognize the male voice immediately. It is Alasdair, “Captain Redbeard”, one of our field guides. I haven't heard him in a long time.
"Are you doing office work today?" I ask and hope he will says “no”. Alasdair is an outdoorsman, always funny, a bit crazy. This passionate ranger shouldn't spend a day at the computer, I think. He says: “Carla is cleaning the pool and we are all busy with the daily checks. So nobody is in the office. I just heard the phone ring.”
“So what's new since the weekend?” I ask.
Alasdair tells me: “I am just doing the daily room checks. And do you know what? Since a few days we have a ghost in one of our chalets."
I knew that Alasdair would come up with something funny. We are in the bush, have currently no guests. I expected to hear stories about snakes, spiders or scorpions. But about a ghost?
“The window of the bathroom opens every night because of the wind, although I close it in the evening,” says Alasdair, “and the water in the bathtub is turned on, even though the window does not reach the tap.”
It's good to start the week with a bit of fun. But we agree on an action plan. To solve the mystery, we will install a camera.
Day 31: Face masks
A new offer catches my attention: face mask, gloves, hand sanitizer and soap. This is all beautifully presented in a toiletry bag. A nice gift for hotel guests at times of COVID-19, called the “Convenience Pack”. Could this be part of Rhulani’s opening plan in the near future?
I stand in line to enter the supermarket. Two meters from the person in front of me. My only goal: to buy a pack of face masks. Tomorrow the lockdown opens here in Switzerland.
Time for a quick chat with Carla at the lodge: “Have you seen the offer of the Convenience Pack? What do you think?”
Carla sounds very positive: “Oh yes, it is very beautiful and also useful. I like it. It could be a nice gift when we open again.”
I'm actually not that enthusiastic. In Switzerland, where I live, the opinion on protective masks is divided. Are they useful at all? Experts argue about this question.
So, my shopping plans today seem to me a waste of time. But I need a mask, whether I want it or not. I don't know if I can keep the appointment with the hairdresser next week if I don't have a mask.
Carla tries to convince me: "We will need to present an opening plan with specific protective measures. A convenience pack could be part of it. And did you seen the mask with the zebra design? Our guests would like it. Very original."
I am not really convinced. Masks in everyday life, ok. You will need it. But do you imagine wearing a mask during your holiday? At Rhulani we offer a once-in-a-lifetime experience. However, this should become reality through a breathtaking experience with the African bush, and not through a mask on your face.
Finally, I am now in the supermarket. I tell Carla to order some Convenience Packs. Either way, I think, hygiene is important for a safari lodge, and we can use the utensils well, with or without COVID-19.
My shopping tour is a complete failure. The masks are already sold out. I will come back another time.