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Rolf's Lockdown Diary: Day 61 to 90

  • June 24, 2020 | 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 90: Five Star Premier?

Today I get a message from the Tourism Grading Council of South Africa (TGCSA). Due to the COVID-19 situation, the grading experts were unable to visit us and conduct the annual evaluation of Rhulani. We are now getting an extension of our 5-star grading for another six months. This time we actually had prepared ourselves especially for the visit.

Rhulani has always been a 5-star lodge. Through our constant investments and improvements, we have steadily improved the score over the years, so that we are now clearly positioned in the 5-star segment.

Last year we scored 96 out of 100 points. 75 points would be enough for 5 stars.

When I studied the catalogue of requirements for the first time, I smiled. I read that we could increase the score if we installed TV’s and even better with satellite programs in the guest rooms. Ceiling lights with dimmers would also give additional points.

But we don't do that. Switching off in the bush, disconnecting from technology, and enjoying a warm, yellow rather weak light in the evening contribute to an unforgettable experience in the African bush. This is a question of style, not of luxury.

Over time, the point system was revised and adapted better and better to the safari segment.

From the evaluation last year, I remember that the TGCSA was planning to introduce a new, even more exclusive "5 Star Premier" category. That would be an aspiration for us! But: What are we missing?

"Nothing really," we were told. Everything is perfect. But we would need a certain "wow" factor that distinguishes us.

I our team we discussed a birding platform and then a telescope in the lounge. But finally everyone was enthusiastic about the idea of building an observation hide at the water hole with an access tunnel from the lounge. It is now ready, after 6 months of construction. And there is really only one word that describes it: "Wow".

I secretly hope that this will also blow away the experts. 5 Star Premier?

The underground lounge to observe the animals at the waterhole


Day 89: The greatest transformation

I find that I'm not worried when I call Rhulani this morning to ask how it goes. Since yesterday our managers have left for a well-deserved vacation. However, I am sure that Rhulani is well looked after and that daily work is done according to our routines. I have an excellent team. And that’s the way it is.

I hear Sanmari's smiling on the phone from Rhulani’s office. "Yes, it was pretty strange this morning when we met and there wasn't a formal meeting with Carla," she says. 

When I ask how the team organizes the day, she says: "We have a lot to do, and we have our daily routine. Checks in the rooms, oiling the decks, keeping the pathways clean, cleaning the pools, repairing the electric fence... "

One of the greatest transformations we've accomplished over the past seven years of Rhulani is the way we work together. In March 2013, I was quite shocked when I stood in front of the assembled staff as a new owner and presented myself. I was full of energy, curiosity and plans. But I looked into indifferent faces, noticed boredom, maybe also fear?

Nobody dared to speak. Apparently, general employees were not allowed to look the owner in the eye, let alone make a suggestion. Only senior staff was permitted to talk to the owner. I knew that a lot needs to change!

It took quite a while to understand that everyone in the team is of equal value. Everyone takes responsibility for their work, acts for the purpose of the whole. Don't wait for a boss to tell you what to do. Most of the time you already know that.

The transformation became visible. I remember situations from the past where our senior staff dropped out. Our employees mastered all tasks so easily. This is great team-work! Today, all employees proudly serve and speak to our guests from all over the world. They are at work with a smile.

Sanmari tells me that some heavy rocks have just been removed from the hide construction with the TLB and the tunnel is now covered with earth. Everything will look perfect for the day we will be open again!

Valencia and Pauline - smiling faces in Rhulani's office


Day 88: A well deserved break

I hear so much relief and joy in Carla's voice when she tells me that she and Riaan will to take a break. For well over 3 months, without interruption, they both looked after the "empty Rhulani", did all the necessary daily work, maintenance and the administration in the office. The break is well deserved. Finally out again!

At the beginning of the lockdown, I remember that Carla was very happy to spend this uncertain time at Rhulani. Far away from the virus. 

So, I found Carla at the lodge every day and spoke to her. I was calling from my home office in Switzerland. A call “from office to office”, which became routine. “Hi Carla, how is it going?” I often thought how wonderful it would be for me to spend the lockdown period in the beauty of Madikwe Reserve as well. With all the animals, the sunsets, the peace…

But after many weeks, speaking to Carla, I felt that the isolation and the distance to friends and family left their mark. Spending the time with a small number of colleagues at work for weeks. Every day, as beautiful as it is, somehow passes the same way. To date, there is no concrete perspective on the future. The date of Rhulani’s reopening is not known. Frustrating.

I don't have any elephants, lions or zebras around me in Switzerland, but I could always see my friends and family. I could go out, walk, even go to the restaurant or the zoo. Carla couldn't do all of this.

I like to give Carla and Riaan a break. Enjoy this time!

Tomorrow will be the first day my skeleton-staff at Rhulani starts the day without their managers. I will call tomorrow to see how that goes.

A picture illustrating the peace and beauty of Madikwe Game Reserve


Day 87: Five types of rhinos

After our little discussion a few days ago, my little 4-year-old son perfectly understands now that there are two types of rhinos, the white and a black rhino. He knows that at the Zurich Zoo we see the white rhinos, and from his playing cards he knows that both types occur in Madikwe. But then, when we visit the exhibition space in the zoo, I get surprised.

The exhibition is about the threat to the rhinos. The knowledge that these animals have to be protected is conveyed in a great, animated film. My son is watching attentively.

With Rhulani, too, we are helping to ensure that poachers in the reserve have no chance and that "our" rhinos can live a peaceful life. Guests pay a "Conservation Levy" and contribute to a fund that has been specially set up to protect these endangered mammals. Unfortunately, we too have lost a few rhinos in the past. Terrible.

My son looks at the rhinos on display. They look like toys. Meanwhile, I read briefly what is written here regarding the rhino protection measures.

I do not see anything regarding the technique of "Rhino Notching", in which the rhino's ears are notched and microchips are implanted in the horn in order to identify the animals at any time. With our guests at Rhulani, from time to time we have carried out and financed this important conservation activity. An experience that will last a lifetime.

My son calls me. He has now found his favorite rhino. "Is this a white or black rhino?" I ask him. He says. "I don’t know". I am a bit disappointed. He should know the difference now!

I go to him. The rhino looks a bit strange indeed. There is a sign below: “Sumatran rhinoceros”. What? 

Today I learn that besides the white and black rhinoceros there is the Sumatran rhino, the Java rhino and Indian rhino. Of the latter three, there are fewer than 100 animals left.

My son wants to get cards from all the rhinos. I explain that his card game contains African animals and that the other rhinos occur in Asia.

A black rhino in Madikwe Game Reserve


Day 86: Spekboom

It's been a few days now since our interior designer Heather did the last decoration work in our new hide. It looks so great! Access to this "observation lounge" is via a narrow, long, underground tunnel. The entrance door is right next to the outdoor lounge. Heather sends me a greeting today with a photo of the entrance door. She gave us a little splash of color. A so-called "Spekboom". Thank you so much, Heather!

Since I equipped my balcony with new plants at home this spring, I understand a little more about it. Which plants need which care, how much water, etc. Not so easy. Since I equipped my balcony at home with new plants this spring, I understand a little more about this topic. Which plants need care, how much water, etc. 

Not so easy. After reading a lot, I still have the feeling that certain plants are rather delicate. They get too much or too little water from me. Compared to Rhulani, at least I have no elephants on my balcony that breaks my plants.

I have never heard of the "Spekboom". Heather writes me: “Spekboom is a proudly South African succulent. It requires very little water and also fights climate change. I think if Carla or Riaan could find a nice pot to plant it in it will look great and it could also provide an interesting topic of conversation for guests.”

In an article, I read: “This incredible plant with its bright green, circular leaves should be planted in every South African garden and maybe even every garden around the world. It improves the quality of the air we breathe and helps fight climate change. It’s water wise. Suitable for all seasons and weather conditions. It’s easy to grow.

Wow, what a wonderful present, Heather!

When I think about it: A spekboom would be just right for my balcony in Switzerland. I need a plant that will survive our terrible climate, and one that forgives my mistakes

A Spekboom at the entrance of Rhulani's new hode.


Day 85: Level 3 amended

The day before yesterday evening I listened to President Ramaphosa's speech to the nation on the COVID-19 situation. Thanks to Youtube, I was able to follow this from my home in Switzerland. Like all South Africans, I was curious if the opening plan would continue? Will he announce a lower level 2? Or will the level be tightened again, like in nearby Botswana, because of the increasing new infection numbers? What does the president say about the prospect in the tourism industry?

At the end of the speech I was a bit confused. I wasn't sure if I understood what was being announced.

I particularly remember the long introduction to what has already been done in the last three months. I remember the detailed section on "gender based violence". Sure, an important topic. But given the title of the speech, I would have expected more about the further steps towards economic opening.

Nothing has been said about a new COVID-19 “Level” of which there are five in South Africa. The press talks about a "Level 3 amended". That means: Level 3 will continue, just a bit more is possible. I was not really listening carefully when Mr. Ramaphosa mentioned restaurants for sit down meals, conferences and meeting venues, cinemas and theaters, casinos, personal care services, some type of sports, accommodation…. 

Did he say accommodation? Did he mean safari lodges as well? What about the tourism sector which would be far more than just accommodation?

In my discussions with local tourism agents I heard that behind the scenes there are discussions about a full opening of internal tourism from September 1st. International tourism, which would require the opening of borders and the availability of flights, remains remains open. 

The date on which these sectors will be allowed to commence operations, as well as under which conditions, will be announced in due course.

Conclusion for me: Not enough to do something specific now. However, we are still waiting for the specific information.

Will Rhulani be allowed to open in "Level 3 amended"?


Day 84: Wrapped in a woolen blanket

In Switzerland we are approaching the longest day of the year. Sunset is at 9:26 pm today. On the other side of the world, where Rhulani Safari Lodge is located, the opposite is the case. Sunset is 5:36 pm and it is winter. The news say it is bitterly cold at the moment. Let’s make a call and see how it goes.

First I call Debbie, my accountant, who lives in Johannesburg. "I'm sitting here at home with my heater on. It's bitterly cold. I didn’t even go for my daily morning walk," she says.

The weather forecasts say that there could even be snowfall in parts of Johannesburg. This is rather unusual.

I watch the Rhulani live stream from yesterday. I see a sunset, as beautiful as ever. But the voice of our ranger Martin says: "It will be a cold night. Probably with temperatures below zero. After a mild last winter it will hit us hard this year."

As a Swiss citizen, I'm used to long, cold winters and snow. But I've never really experienced this at Rhulani. I was told, however, that it had snowed in Madikwe Reserve many years ago.

I remember the morning safari in winter. It starts at 6:30 am. Straight from the warm bed onto the open vehicle. The temperature is just above zero and the wind blows through your skin, when you are cruising through the bush.

You probably think: that’s not fun. But I assure you: it's fun! You have made yourself comfortable, well wrapped in a warm woolen blanket, on your seat. You even have a heated hot water bottle on your knees that keeps you warm.

And a short time later: The upper edge of the sun peeps out on the horizon. You stop and watch the sunrise. It's becoming daytime. The life energy is coming back. Sun rays fall on your face. You can feel the temperatures rising every minute.

We will soon stretch our legs and enjoy a coffee or a hot chocolate in the bush. In a sunny spot. With a shot of Amarula, if you want. At the end of the morning safari you will probably only have a T-shirt on. Time for breakfast.

Winter means not only cool nights in Madikwe, but above all a lot of sunshine.

Morning coffee in the bush with a shot of Amarula


Day 83: Animal cards

Today I play with my four year old son with quartet cards. I brought them back from my last trip to South Africa. All our little guests at Rhulani receive a "Children Kit" with colored pencils, a coloring book with animals from Madikwe ... and with cards. My son already knows all the animals, but today a discussion is sparking about the white rhinoceros.

My son has laid out all 36 animal cards on the table and asks me: "Which animal do you want?"

“Give me the white rhino.” I say.

I think this is an easy task. Before that, my son has already given me a red hartebeest, a waterbuck and a honey badger. That was difficult for a young Swiss boy. In comparison, a white rhino should be relatively easy.

He holds up two cards. Both with rhinos. I see there is one with the white and the other with the black rhino. Both types are found in Madikwe. "Papa," my son says, "neither is white, both are gray."

I take the card with the rhino, which has its head on the ground and eats grass. Like a vacuum cleaner. "That's it!" I say.

"It's not white," says my son. He seems frustrated. When I explain to him that it is a bit lighter than the other, he does not listen to me.

Oh God. How should I explain this now? From my Rhulani Rangers I know that the name "White Rhino" probably came about through a radio transmission error when such a rhino was found for the first time. One spoke of a rhino with "wide lips". The "wide lip rhinoceros". Instead of "wide" one understood "white".

My son speaks Swiss German. He doesn’t speak English. So, this story is far too complicated. Instead, I ask him to give me the Kudu. My son looks and finds the card immediately. The game continues.

White Rhino in Madikwe eating grass


Day 82: Voting poll

In my inbox I find an email from the “Haute Grandeur Global Awards”. This year, once again, we qualified for the final round. Today begins the phase where people who know us can register their vote. Guests, Friends, Travel agents, everyone. At a time when the lodge is closed and we are basically paying bills and rebooking reservations, it is nice to get a reminder of our glorious times – in the past and in the future.

We regularly win a trophy at the most important award ceremonies in the luxury hotel industry. This gives us excellent publicity, exchange with other hotel owners, and above all: an appreciation for all our efforts, investments, and the great work that our employees are doing every day.

Now, that I think about it. Recently, we have had little reason to celebrate successes. This is a pity. But that will come again, for sure!

Haute Grandeur’s message stands out today, like a shining star, in my mailbox. We are a really a great hotel!

Last year we were extremely successful and won three awards: “Best Game Lodge in South Africa”, “Best Bush Lodge in South Africa”, “Best General Manager - Carla Baasden”.

I remember well when my manager's couple - Carla and Riaan - traveled to Malaysia last year to personally receive the trophies at a gala ceremony. That was last November. If I am not mistaken, they haven’t traveled that far before. Quite an adventure.

Nobody would have guessed what would happen to us only 4 months later…

Carla & Riaan are at Rhulani for over 80 days now without guests. One day like the other. I hope they will be happy to see my diary photo today. A picture of good days!

And before I forget: Please give us your vote this year. The link to the voting poll is here:


Carla and Riaan last November at the Gala Ceremony of the Haute Grandeur Awards Ceremony in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia


Day 81: Burchell’s Zebra

Yesterday's visit to the “Lewa Savannah” in the Zurich zoo is still reverberating in our family. My 4-year-old son is very excited this morning. He wants to go again today. I think he does not realize yet that his parents own a safari lodge in South Africa, and one day he will see all the animals in their natural environment. Above all, my son speaks of the zebras that he likes best.

We stood on the viewing platform of the Lewa savannah for quite a while and just watched the animals. There were ostriches, sable antelopes, giraffes, three white rhinos…. and zebras. All together. Nice and peaceful. Like in Madikwe.

The zebra is a striking animal with its black and white “piyama”. Every child knows it and loves it. Like my son.

Yesterday I tried to somehow dive into the very special feeling when you experience such moments on a safari with Rhulani. Of course, this was not really possible. A zpp is not a game reserve. But seeing the animals after such a long time, was still very good for me.

The white rhinos actually looked almost like the ones we have in Madikwe. But I was a little puzzled by the zebras. They looked very different. It was like a different animal.

Zebras can be seen in Madikwe very frequently. As a guest you learn: this is a Burchell's zebra. Named after the British explorer. For me, the typical characteristic of these zebras is that they have relatively wide stripes, black and white, and that there is a clearly visible, additional gray stripe in the white area. It looks like a shadow.

The zebras we saw yesterday had a lot more and thinner stripes. The body shape was also different. I checked the zoo's animal list, and indeed. These were so called “Grévy's zebras”. They occur mainly in Kenya.

In my mind I realized that for my son the world is not so complex and a zebra is just a zebra. I will show him some pictures of the Burchell’s zebra tonight, which I took on my last trip. I am sure he will see the difference.

Burchell's Zebra in Madikwe Game Reserve


Day 80: Tree of Life

Attention, the photo of my diary entry today is not from Madikwe Game Reserve! This Sunday I go with my family to the Zurich Zoo for the first time after lockdown. the highlight: the "Lewa Savannah", which has just opened. Beautiful! And everywhere impressive buildings from the typical tree of Africa., the baobab tree. Also called "tree of life". But wait – do we have them also in Madikwe?

I'm not sure. The tree is a symbol for the continent. But I don't remember ever driving past the "Tree of Life" in Madikwe.

I ask the question to our all-knowing rangers in the Rhulani chat. The answer comes promptly: "Rolf, there is one. It was planted by one of our neighboring lodges."

But, it is as I suspected. Alasdair writes: “There are no naturally grown ones here, as far as I know.”

Nevertheless, this incredibly beautiful tree has a special meaning for Rhulani. As an absolute novelty in Africa, we offer the "Tree of Life Massage" in our spa menu, with the “Pilani Oil”, our “Special”. Experience the natural healing power of Africa with a Swiss quality seal.

The baobab tree is a symbol of wisdom in Africa and is one of the oldest trees on the planet. It can provide shelter, food and health benefits to humans and animals living in the African savanna. Baobab oil is obtained from the baobab fruit seeds and represents a vegetable oil of exceptional cosmetic quality.

I stand on the viewing platform for quite a while today. I deeply enjoy seeing the African animals again. It’s almost like a safari. I am impressed about the whole facility in this zoo, with the replica of the baobab trees. Simply incredible.

The new "Lewa Savannah" in the Zurich zoo.


Day 79: Customer first…

When I look back on my working week, I remember many ideas of how to meet customer’s expectations in this difficult time. I work for a life insurance company. We try to retain customers as good as we can. Premium holidays, reminder stops, policy loans etc. But also at Rhulani this week the wishes of our guests were the focus.

Customer wishes with regard to an existing life insurance cannot be compared with those relating to a safari in South Africa. I am currently dealing with both situations and one thing is certain: in both cases we try to keep existing customers and to find a satisfactory solution. Customers first!

Regarding customers who have booked at Rhulani and do not know whether they will be able to travel at all, I have to say that luckily I have made mostly positive experiences. Despite the very difficult situation for all.

I am very touched when guests ask how Rhulani is doing, as they know we are not generating any income, and that our employees are probably in existential difficulties. There are guests who expressly leave their deposit with us to help us and want to postpone the trip until later.

There are travel agencies that thank us for offering special solutions in these special times and to accommodate their guests in a good and fair way.

We are very grateful for all this positive feedback and understanding.

Today, however, I am upset by the message of a large travel agency in the UK. They let me know about their rules with which they plan to satisfy the needs of their customers in times of COVID-19. Among other things, they require us that all cancellations during the current lockdown in South Africa must be fully refunded, regardless of when the travel date is. Even for travels of next year. I am further informed that Rhulani will no longer be considered for new business if we do not accept this rule. So, it’s extortion.

I don't know what you think when you read this. I really hope that everyone has a little understanding that everyone is currently living in very difficult times, and we have to find a solution together. Talk to each other.

I am also sure that all of our efforts and investments at Rhulani in a fantastic product will be appreciated by visitors. We will have a great reopening! With or without this agent.

We look forward to a fanmtastik reopening. Some day in the future.


Day 78: Wow!

Day 78 in my diary means that apart from a small team, our "Skeleton Staff" during lockdown, no human being has entered Rhulani Safari Lodge for over 78 days. But today it is different. Heather, our interior designer from “Flipswitch”, arrives this morning. The goal: final touches in the decoration of our new observation hide at the waterhole.

I am very happy to see some movements in South Africa and at the lodge. Get out of the state of shock. Finally! Madikwe Reserve now allows, in Level 3, workers and suppliers to enter the park. Heather could finally visit us, with a special permit though. She drove 400 km from Johannesburg, arrived at the lodge entrance this morning. 

I am also glad that the first external people visiting us are not because of an emergency, an accident or a costly repair. It’s because of our beautiful new hide. We are all so happy about it. This will be the highlight after the reopening.

We have been working with Heather for many years. She had to solve the delicate task of how to renovate a very traditional Bush Lodge from the style of the 80s in such a way that everything looks fresh, new and modern without, however, eliminating the basic appearance, the "Rhulani feeling".

Heather brings the missing decoration material in her car. Plants, stools that were still missing, and then the most important thing: The incredibly beautiful pictures showing animals from this region had to be hung up to the precise centimeter.

I looked at my Whatsapp messages several times today, and I have just received the first photos. My first reaction: wow! You can clearly see the handwriting of Heather and that this room is part of Rhulani.

Do you like it too?

Decoration of Rhulani's new observation hide


Day 77: Wine fridges

The doorbell rings. The postman brings two boxes labeled "Cape Diamond Pinotage Reserve". Aha, my wife must have ordered South African wine. Excellent! I carry the boxes down to the basement. I look around and think it would be good to have a wine fridge here. Just like we have it at Rhulani.

In 2013, when we took over Rhulani, I was surprised that the wine bottles were simply stored in a rack at the bar. All excellent South African wines. Pinot Noir, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Shiraz ... and Pinotage. This is a red wine grape that is South Africa's signature variety. A cross between Pinot noir and Cinsaut.

At Rhulani we have a wonderful wine list. The "Beyerskloof Pinotage" is the one that our guests love more than anything. But as a wine lover, it hurt when thinking that these good suffer the freezing cold in winter and the heat of around 40 degrees Celsius in summer. Unacceptable.

It was clear that we had to solve this immediately. So we ordered two large wine fridges. One for red wines, and one for white and sparkling wines, which require an even cooler storage temperature.

The day of delivery was pretty adventurous. The fridges came from Cape Town. The supplier, however, only delivered them to the park entrance. The glass doors could break on the rough Madikwe roads, so he refused to go further. So we carefully transported them ourselves over the 5 kilometers to the lodge. Luckily, all went well.

Now our guests enjoy excellent wines of perfect quality, thanks to the stability of storage and the right temperature when ordered.

I'm still standing here in the basement of my home, with the two boxes. It would be nice to have a wine fridges here, too. But there are no such fluctuations in temperature. I will probably don't need it. 

High quality wines in Rhulani's wine fridges


Day 76: I had his butt right in my face

The day starts with good news. On our Rhulani bank account I see that the South African government has just paid us the May wages for our staff. Finally! We have been waiting eagerly for it. I want to make sure our employees get the wages right away and call Carla, my manager at the lodge. However, her voice does not sound happy.

"What happened?" I ask Carla a little worried.

“Oh gosh, Rolf. Elephant Bob causes us problems every day. In the middle of the night I heard him. This time he was with a buddy. I opened my door and had his butt right in my face.”

I remember this elephant bull very well, since my first day at Rhulani. That’s why we gave him a name. Bob. I try to cheer Carla up a bit: "Hopefully you gave him a kick in the ass?"

My comment is not funny. "Rolf, like every day, Bob broke our fence and caused a huge disaster in the garden. Sanmari came from her room to help me and we tried to chase him away.”

I ask: “And our strong men? Didn't they get up to help as well?

"No," Carla says, "they said don't worry, it's just an elephant."

After this horror, we discuss the good news. The current time without income is very difficult for our employees. The money came about 15 days late, but as I can see, Rhulani is still one of the first companies to get May wages.

So yes. A very good day!

Bob at night, in front of Carla's door


Day 75: On TV

Today, at my home in Switzerland, I still have to answer yesterday's TV request. While I am still trying to form an opinion, I receive a recent broadcast on South African television eNCA, Channel 403 on DStv, about the recent "Virtual Butler Program" in which our Front of House employee Tom Hendrik had participated. 

“Working professionals are using the time to learn new tricks of the trade”, is the opening headline.

So great! Looking for suitable training opportunities in the midst of the corona crisis was certainly the best we could do. We could keep the contact with our partner SABA, the South African Butler Academy. And Tom-Hendrik, still quite new at Rhulani, had access to all information around our best practice principles.

In the post I see the instructor, Mr. Newton Cross. He is such a character. I smile when I see how he checks the cleanliness of a wine glass with white gloves.

The moderator says: “The first students have just graduated”. Wow, congratulations Tom-Hendrik!

I see the picture of all the course participants virtually connected. It puts a smile on my face when I recognize Tom-Hendrik somewhere in the middle. Everyone is seems happy and is dressed elegantly. Where did you, Tom-Hendrik, in your isolation at Rhulani, get your tie from?

He says: “I felt it would be a good opportunity for me to enrich my guest service skills, and also for me to be better serve our guests once all of this is done and over with”.

Well done! Hopefully we will get more such TV requests. This is the best publicity for Rhulani.

Now I have decided: the private TV request, I cancel it today.

Tom-Hendrik on TV, fisrt graduate at SABA's virtual butler program


Day 74: A wooden house

I am receiving a media request today from Swiss TV. I thought they are interested to know from an owner of a small safari lodge in South Africa about managing the challenges of a lockdown. That would indeed be interesting for me. Unfortunately, wrong. Swiss television reports on innovative housing developments in Switzerland. I seem to live in one of those. They are asking for an interview.

When I bought this apartment on the 4th floor of a huge residential complex, I knew that it was a bit special, because of the “Minergie” concept. Minergie is the Swiss standard for comfort, efficiency and value preservation. The construction I am living in is the biggest wooden building in Switzerland. You actually don’t even see it from outside. And I didn’t even knew it.  

But I DO have an experience with wooden houses! Some time ago we had to decide in Rhulani how to expand our employees' accommodations. The idea of so-called "Wendy houses" - made of wood - came up.

Wendy Houses are prefabricated huts made of wooden elements, in different sizes. They look very inviting. Are available In different sizes. The interior can also be complemented very well: air conditioning, electricity, bathroom with shower, kitchen – nothing is missing.

Finally, we decided on the Wendy Houses. We have built many of them in our backyard over the last years. Not only for our employees. We also have now two pilot rooms which we use for drives, pilots or interns. 

As I just notice today, my managers - Riaan and Carla - have one thing in common with me: we both live in a wooden house!

Back to the media request: To be honest, I am not very enthusiastic about having Swiss TV in my home. And I am not a Minergie expert. I'll think about it until tomorrow.

One of the pilot rooms at Rhulani Safari Lodge


Day 73: Just nonsense

Yesterday I wrote in my diary about how everything starts to live again after the shock. For Rhulani too. We are making ourselves ready for our future guests. The upswing of my mood faded somewhat this Sunday. I'm reading an article about South Africa's tourism forecast. As the saying goes: Easy come, easy go.

The article appears on the "Travel + Leisure" website under the title: "South Africa Will Remain Closed to Tourists Until February 2021.”

No doubt, this headline attracts attention. In a negative way. I ask myself: How can that be? Efforts to get South Africa back on track are in full swing. This applies also to the tourism industry, which is very important for the country. 

Be a little more patient at Rhulani? Ok. Wait until next year? Doesn't make sense! That’s my view.

The article says: “Domestic tourists will be able to move around the country in December and foreign travelers will be welcomed back to the country a few months later. ‘Based on the COVID-19 epidemic expected trajectory, the first phase of the recovery for the sector will be driven by domestic tourism, followed by regional tourism and international tourism next year,’ Tourism Minister Mmamoloko Kubayi-Ngubane announced last week.”

After a relaxing weekend at Ticino, I'm traveling back home today. As I drive through the Gotthard tunnel, the longest tunnel in the world, a lot of thoughts are going through my mind.

If you don't even know what the virus will look like next week, how are you supposed to know when you can travel again? Are they aware of how quickly the tourism situation elsewhere has improved unexpectedly?

I remember the day when the tourism responsible in Switzerland announced that traveling abroad would not be possible this year. For this he had to apologize a few days later.

After 17 km I come out on the other side of the Gotthard tunnel. There is light again at the end of the tunnel. It’s an old rule. I feel better now. Because I know: That article is just nonsense.

There is always light at the end of the tunnel


Day 72: Waking up from a deep slumber

For the first time since many weeks, I decide to spend the week-end in a nice hotel, away from home. I drive south towards the canton of Ticino. I am so happy! At the same time, I notice positive changes at Rhulani. They come somewhat out of the blue. Level 3 in South Africa means that we as a safari lodge still need to remain closed. For how long no one knows. Maybe my feeling is a little premature. But something tells me that we are about to wake up from a deep slumber.

Ticino is the canton in Switzerland which is close to the north of Italy. It is actually the most affected region of COVID-19 in our country. I was very pessimistic when I called the hotel to ask whether they were open at all. They just laughed on the phone. The hotel was actually fully booked. I got the very last room. Fear of travelers, all imagination?

This change is interesting and comes as a surprise to me. Travelers may not be as scared as I fear.

In Rhulani’s booking system I see a growing number of inquiries from guests who want to know if they can actually travel. The tone is not fear of the virus nor the wish to postpone. It is the tone of anticipation of a soon safari vacation and the hope of getting confirmation.

I see a lot of new training opportunities where we can prepare for the opening day. Training for our staff on the COVID-19 protocols. We have just signed up for such a program. 

I hear from some of our suppliers that will come to Rhulani next week to finish some work. Especially for our new observation hide, the last adjustments will now be made in the next few days. 

Everything is going in the right direction. I feel good about that.

I have now arrived in Ticino and at my hotel. I know that there are a lot of rules for hotels to follow here, too. There is an acrylic glass pane at the reception. At check-in I get a form and tick the box to say that I feel healthy. That’s all. 

Nobody wears a mask, nowhere do you feel that you have to follow special rules. Wonderful!

Getting ready again for a soon opening


Day 71: First female

My call to Rhulani today has no special reason. Daily routine. A day like any other. Just want to know how everything is going. "Hello Rolf!" The voice of Carla, my lodge manager, sounds much happier today than in the previous days. What is going on? "Hello Rolf," sounds a second laughing woman's voice in the background. It's Sanmari, our Front of House employee and receptionist. What a surprise!

Carla spent all of the lockdown at Rhulani. More than 70 days. She has never left Madikwe Game Reserve, had no contact with the outside world. Isolation has been bothering her lately. I noticed it.

Carla says: "Rolf, it's the first female I see in over two months. Yeah!"

Yes, that's right. Carla was part of a men's group all the time. With her was her partner Riaan. In addition, in a first phase, Sean and Alasdair and later Ralf and Tom-Hendrik stayed at Rhulani. That was certainly not easy for Carla.

"Congratulations! You two girls must be very happy to see each other" I feel the same joy. 

Sanmari has just arrived with Martin. I welcome her back and ask how she spent the last two months. We had absolutely no contact.

Sanmari tells me: "I was at my father's farm and worked there every day. He said to me, if you want to stay here, you will work.” She smiles, but she also says that working on a farm is pretty exhausting. “Now that I am back at Rhulani, it gets quite difficult for my dad!”

It is good to feel a fresh breeze. Staff rotation is a welcome medicine for all of us in the otherwise rather monotonous everyday life.

Sanmari is back at Rhulani Safari Lodge


Day 70: A good Nespresso coffee

Life is quite normal again in Switzerland. However, my employer recommends that we continue to work from home, if possible. Of course it is possible. Nevertheless, I feel like going to the office today. I do not know why. A kind of resurrection, which is good for the soul. That is exactly what we are all still waiting for at Rhulani.

When I arrive at the office it feels a bit strange. A big open plan office, empty workplaces. Silence. COVID-19 warning signs, Unusual. 

And yet it is great to be here. I am pleased that I will sit on a comfortable chair today and have two large screens to work with. Not just the small one of my laptop.

But first my way leads me directly to the coffee machine. Oh how funny! There is the exact same Nespresso coffee machine that we have also at Rhulani. Every guest room has its own machine, and there is a big one at the bar. Our visitors know that.

And in my office there is also a similar selection of capsules. Today I choose a "Leggero Lungo". The coffee has to last a bit. When I press the button, it is good to smell the fine taste of a first-class coffee and even be reminded of Rhulani.

On my first safari visits I didn’t like the black filter coffee which was served for breakfast. The one distributed in the large jugs. Maybe you think I am a little choosy, or just too Swiss. Anyway. I wanted to have a good coffee in the lodge. One that international guests also know and like.

Nespresso has a branch in South Africa. So, soon after we made a large order for coffee machines, capsules and descaling agents. Today we can no longer imagine how it was before. Our guests love the complementary Nespresso coffee in their room.

I carry my coffee to the workplace. Before I start working, I think how nice it will be to enjoy this Nespresso coffee at Rhulani again soon.

Each guest room has its own Nespresso coffee machine


Day 69: Nervous buffaloes

Early this morning, I am sitting in the car, I am listening to Swiss radio. There is a talk with a zoo director from Bern. What a joy! The zoos are open again. Finally. The talk is about how the animals are reacting to the rush of visitors. An interesting topic. Will that also be something that becomes relevant for Madikwe Game Reserve, at the time we will open again?

Suddenly, hundreds of people. I learn that there are animals in the zoo, such as the musk ox, which are now more fearful and defend themselves. Other animals are hiding. And some are very happy that people are back. For example the monkeys.

I call Riaan at Rhulani: "Hey, Riaan, what do you think, how will the animals react if suddenly safari vehicles drive around again?”

My question seems to surprise him. Probably it is not an issue. The animals live here in their natural environment. They have hardly any contact with people, and certainly not in large numbers. Every now and then maybe a vehicle that comes close and finds them.

I tell Riaan what I have just learned from the animals in the Swiss zoo. Riaan says: “Well, our lions and elephants don't care whether there are people or not. They are the bosses here.”

Based on what I just heard about the musk ox, I ask: "And the buffalo? Are they becoming more aggressive?" Riaan tells me: “Our buffaloes are always a bit nervous anyway.” Indeed. I remember many sightings where large herds formed a line of defense, to protect themselves.

And the desire for conviviality, which is typical for monkeys, also seems to be true in Rhulani currently. Unfortunately. The chacma baboons are constantly around the lodge. They break the doorknobs, make a mess everywhere.

Today I make up my mind that if I can't travel to South Africa at least I will go to the zoo the next weekend. I want to see the newborn rhino.

Buffalo defense line


Day 68: The most critical phase is approaching

I am neither a virologist, nor an economist, nor a prophet. But long ago I dared to guess from my gut feeling, that the toughest time for Rhulani Safari Lodge is not now, during lockdown, it will be the time just after lockdown. Sounds strange, right? But that’s what I feel. If I am actually right, this crucial phase is just around the corner.

In Level 3 of South Africa, I don't have the feeling that hotels or safari lodges, like Rhulani, will open soon. But a call from a colleague in South Africa, who also owns a Safari Lodge, was like a wake-up call for me today. Opening could now happen quite quickly, he says. Maybe still this month.

I have my doubts. But, I have to admit, this scenario would be in line with what I have just experienced at my home in Switzerland. After tentative opening steps from the government, things went extremely fast afterwards.

So I should be happy, excited. Everybody wants to go back to work. Let’s prepare a super boma dinner for our guests, let’s go out and find that beautiful picture from the leopard on a tree.

But as I said, my inner voice says: Be careful! Now we have to stay strong, patient, keep a cool head.

With the end of the lockdown, all responsibilities fall back on the employer. Fix costs rise. But income stays at low level. Safari visitors don't come at the push of a button, and certainly not immediately. On the contrary, we are receiving currently requests from guests who want to postpone their booking from August, September, even December to next year.

But my concern doesn't even concern our finances in the first place. We will master that, too. I worry about our employees sitting at home currently and just waiting until they can go back to work. At the moment of euphoria, how will they understand that Rhulani may still be closed for a few weeks or even months?

For our business we do not need a national level 1 or a permit to open doors again. Above all, we need security that the virus has disappeared from our heads, we need open airports, international traveling, simple travel conditions. And we need guests.

Let's find the leopard on the tree


Day 67: Different worlds

It is late in the evening. An active day comes to an end. The visitors at my home have just said goodbye. I have never been so late with my diary entry. Was too busy. I notice that, during the time of COVIOD-19, the difference between my world here in Switzerland and the world in South Africa has never been as big as it is today.

In the past 66 days I have often found it amazing how synchronously our worlds behave. Lockdown everywhere. Awareness of hand washing, hygiene, social distancing. Despite a distance of more than 10,000, we actually always spoke the same language. Understood each other. Were united.

But now everything feels different. In Switzerland, the return to normal life proceeds very quickly. People laugh, go out, meet each other again. The football championship is playing again. Cinemas, theaters, zoo visits are open. Events for up to 300 people are allowed. My planned vacation in July in Greece is confirmed.

In South Africa, level 3 means some progress, but it still it feels like a lockdown. Especially for Rhulani and the tourism industry, nothing is going to happen yet.

All in all: after two months in the lockdown, South Africa shows record numbers for new infections. How is that possible?

On the other hand, the numbers remain very low in Switzerland despite massive openings. 10 new cases today, and the newspaper writes, "Where has the virus gone? Experts and politicians have no explanation for it."

It seems that the virus has a life of its own. It decides when the wave comes and when it disappears. Humans cannot influence it. A lockdown does not have an influence.

I notice this huge difference between the worlds we live in when I briefly talk to Carla, my manager at Rhulani. I am full of energy and joy after an eventful day. Carla, still isolated, frustrated, and even worse, with no prospect of what the future will bring.

I have a positive feeling: It seems that the virus will suddenly disappear. Faster than it came. Also in South Africa. Just like that.

A swim in Rhulani's outddor pool


Day 66: News from the snake man

Tomorrow is June 1st. In South Africa, the COVID-9 measures are eased somewhat. “Level 3”. Maybe we can do a staff rotation at Rhulani. Just like we did it a month ago, and provided you can travel and cross provincial boarders. I think of Martin, our ranger and “snake man”, and Sanmari, his girlfriend, from our Front of House.

Since we have been in the lockdown, I have had little or no contact with the employees who are at home. Talking to each other is more difficult in South Africa than in Switzerland, where I live. Here everyone has a phone and constant reception. In the South African villages or on the farms there is often no signal.

And so I just leave a voice message on Martin's WhatsApp, with not much hope of getting a response. I would like the young ranger and Sanmari to come to Rhulani for the net cycle.

A few hours later I am pleasantly surprised. I have a voice message from Martin. So nice to hear his voice again after so long. He tells me:

“Unfortunately the signal is very bad here, and in fact, there is only one spot on the farm where I have reception. Every time I pass there I stop to pick up new messages.

It’s good to hear your voice, Rolf. luckily we are all doing well here. I am working on the farm, learning new skills every day. It’s a different kind of world, getting tough here. Luckily, I have managed to survive financially and emotionally.

And yes, Rolf, if we can, Sanmari and I would like to go to the lodge again, for a month or so. They told me the elephants have smashed my garden, so I definitely can do some repairs and work there.” 

Martin laughs, while talking. It seems he is takin everything lightly. He ends his message with: “Thank you so much for still paying our salaries. Even if it is just a bit, it helps a lot. I hope this pandemic does not go on too long, otherwise things would get a bit weird now. But we can not complain so far. Thanks Rolf, enjoy your week-end.”

Thanks, Martin. I stay with the hope that we can plan the rotation soon!

News from our snake man Martin


Day 65: Do you know that bird?

Last Thursday, I was following Rhulani’s daily LIVE Stream on Facebook very carefully. Sean, our head ranger, is sitting comfortably in the lounge. With book, binoculars. Like a professor. "Hello, welcome to our Bird's day on Thursday," he says. When I started my safari business, it was because of lions, elephants, ... certainly not because of birds. But …

… I have to say, birds are getting more and more interesting for me. There are more than 400 species to see in Madikwe. A real paradise for birders!

Sean's LIVE Stream is educational. I like that. You don't just learn which birds are in the park. Sean talks about their behavior, appearance, and you can even hear their calls. Well presented and entertaining.

On one of my first trips to Rhulani, the manager at that time showed me a photo on his phone and asked: “Do you know this bird?”

He probably knew that coming from Switzerland I knew little about the African bush, and certainly not about the birds of Madikwe. He wanted to test me. I said: “Sorry, no idea”.

My manager said in a slightly disappointed voice: “This is a lilac-breasted roller”. 

I had never heard that name before. My manager was was quite disappointed. Today I understand why. I didn't even know the most colorful and beautiful bird of Africa!

On my next trip he gave me a book with the title: "Birds". Despite my miserable knowledge, I can say that I started to get interested in the subject since then. On safaris, however, I am still more interested in the large mammals. But I also take pictures of the birds and listen to the stories my ranger tell about them.

You really should watch Sean's LIVE stream, too. I have just learned that my favorite bird, the lilac-breasted roller, has the most horrible sound. What a disappointment!

Lilac-breasted roller - the most colorful bird in Africa


Day 64: Final touches

My employees at Rhulani must hate me. In my euphoria after constructing a wonderful observation hide at the waterhole, in the middle of the crisis, I asked them to furnish and decorate the interior. Couch, carpets, chairs, minibar, chest of drawers, floor lamp … Without guests, all this actually makes little sense. And yet, I thought, everyone should see what fantastic experience our future guests will have.

The delivery for the interior was made long before the crisis. Since then, it is in a storage room. Well packed.

Riaan expresses his concerns. All furniture is brand new. The hide is a place which no guests will be able to see for the moment. Everything will get dusty if we leave the windows open. My idea is a bit stupid.

Riaan is actually right. And yet I think that there is a value if we "make ourselves beautiful for the future”. Right now.

My team was not very enthusiastic when they had to carry everything through the long, narrow tunnel. But they did it. Thank you so much for that J

I even get a photo. My first impression: It looks as planned, nice, but the effect is still a bit cold. Something is missing.

I call Heather, my interior designer from Flipswitch. She lives in Johannesburg. “Rolf”, she says, “when can I come to Rhulani? I still have a lot of stuff here with me for the hide. Quite a few artworks for the walls, two stools and a huge plant. This will give the hide a warm feeling. It will look beautiful!”

Yes, exactly these final touches are still missing. 

Heather cannot yet cross the provincial border from Gauteng to North West by car. She will ask the government for a travel permit. And we will then make a request to let her into the Madikwe Reserve. 

Hopefully soon!

Almost finished: Rhulani's new hide


Day 63: Admin day

In my diary I decided to always write a little story from the African bush and its beauty. Despite the fact that I live in Switzerland, I am far away, and at Rhulani not much is happening during lockdown. However, today it is difficult. A typical admin day. But this is also part of my duties. The main question today: how do I solve the problem of my employees' May salaries?

We are in the lockdown. Rhulani’s employees are at home. "No work, no pay" is the rule. So, we as the employer claim wages from the unemployment fund in South Africa and pass them on to our employees immediately. That’s the theory.

In April, when everything began, this was quite a mess. Unclear process, incomprehensible rules, a new system…. But we struggled through. Carla, my manager, did a great job. She entered all data manually. Many times. And we got the money. I was so proud when we were able to pay April wages almost on time.

Now in May, the second month, everything should be easier and automatic. But nothing. System not open. Then system problems. Today is May 28th. No money. We couldn't even make an application. So frustrating! Hopefully our employees don't think we at Rhulani haven't done our job. That would be a disaster.

I am sitting in my home office and cannot do anything. I turn to further admin work. The usual requests for postponements of travels. Cancellations. Refunds.

An update from our insurance company. We claimed for Business Interruption benefits due to Coronavirus. Will that be covered in a way? I am not so optimistic. You know, I work with an insurer as well. An epidemic is covered, but a lockdown is not. You have to understand that first.

Then an urgent problem: an electricity cable, along a road in Madikwe Reserve, came to the surface. The road was washed out. Not really well maintained. A quick solution is needed.

My day is over. I just want to shutdown my computer, but there is one last email. Title: “TERS-FUNDING: MAY CLAIMS ARE OPEN”. A good ending. Tomorrow morning the first we do is requesting our salaries. Dear Rhulani staff, there is hope. Please be patient for a few days more.

Waiting today for some ecitement at Rhulani Safari Lodge


Day 62: The mystery of the Oryx

Today I was happy to find Ralf's voice message on my phone. The experienced ranger tells me about a great animal sighting he had. I can feel Ralf's passion and fascination for the African bush. It was about a pride of lions, which had killed an Oryx, also called a Gemsbok.

Oryx. A beautiful antelope. Striking colors, black, white, beige. And then the long, thin, straight horns. Look like spears. The Oryx’ trademark. Wonderful.

“I found the lions just south of the airstrip. There was a female with the three cubs, and the big male Monomogolo was also around”, tells Ralf, “they had pulled down the gemsbok yesterday and were busy feeding. Still there was much food left.”

I know that Gemsbok can be seen in the Madikwe Reserve. It is one of the animals on our mammal list. But I have to admit to my shame: I haven't seen any in over a hundred game drives. Can you believe it? I saw other antelopes like Impala, Wildebeest, Bushbuck, Waterbuck, Mountain Reedbuck, Red Hartebeest, Klipspringer, Steenbok, Sprinbok... But no Oryx.

It has happened that safari guests on our vehicle were looking for a leopard while I was surveying the savannah hoping to see a Gemsbok somewhere.

I remember once in the past my son went on safari and I stayed behind in the lodge. He came back and said, "Daddy, do you know what I saw today? An Oryx!" As he did not show me a photo, I thought he was trying to tease me. But the ranger confirmed the sighting.

On my last trip, in November, Martin, the ranger, stopped the vehicle and pointed his finger in the distance. "There, a Gemsbok! Can you see?" “Ah”, the guests said, “yes there it is!" I nodded my head, not wanting to admit that I couldn't see far enough with my glasses.

Ralf tells me today: "I took a picture for you.” And indeed. The animal next to the lion, or rather what is left of it, is undoubtedly an Oryx. Black and white head, long, thin horns.

According to the last animal count, there are almost 40 Oryx in Madikwe. Ok, there is now one down. So I close my diary with the hope of seeing at least one of them net time I am there. And alive.

The lions have pulled down an Oryx


Day 61: A window into the future

I'm looking at a new photo that Tom-Hendrik has just sent me from Rhulani, from our new hide. a look out of the window. No guest has seen this yet. The hide was just completed, in the middle of the corona crisis. There is a giraffe on the other side of the window. How nice! It’s our look into the future!

But in addition to this idyllic picture, I'm excited to hear President Ramaphosa's announcement today. I listen to this live on Youtube, with my headphones on, while I water the flowers on my balcony.

The speech is long and detailed. From level 4 down to level 3, from June 1. In other words: the next step of the openings will happen in a few days. Slowly back to a normal life in South Africa. Millions of people can go back to work. The President is pleased to announce this.

However, I notice that the words leave me with a gloomy mood. Despite the beautiful evening and the beautiful flowers around me. Why is that?

Is it because of the many safeguards and protection measures that still have to be applied? Does level 3 not go sufficiently far? No, I think, you could expect that. 

Or is it because hotels and restaurants are not mentioned in level 3? No. Everybody knows that we will be the last to open. At Rhulani we are prepared. Level 3 means lockdown for us.

My work on the balcony has ended. The president’s speech has ended, too. When I hear the news on Swiss television, I realize what left me with a bad mood. The beaches in Spain and Italy will be open again from July and international travel will be possible, right for the European summer holidays.

Mr. Ramaphosa didn’t say a word about how and when the next steps will be. Level 3 comes next and then wait. The tourism industry is essential for the South African economy. Everyone understands that one has to be careful and that this industry will be the last. But there should be a plan! Like in Italy or Spain. Travelers need to plan their holidays in advance. Staff needs to stay motivated, with a date on which they can stick to. 

What is missing: a window into the future. Like the one we have in our new hide, from where you will see the giraffe.

View through the window of Rhulani's new hide