Rolf's Lockdown Diary: Day 91 to 120
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 120: Animal footprints
My little son always takes two of his small toy animals with him to the breakfast table. Today it is a dromedary and a crocodile. He also brings a bale of modeling clay, which he got as a present yesterday. He rolls out the plasticine and says to me: "Daddy, close your eyes, you have to guess which animal ran over the plasticine." I close my eyes.
I would now love to be an experienced ranger and have the knowledge about animal footprints. Reading them seems to be one of the favorite sciences for our experienced guides.
On a safari with Rhulani I am very impressed when my ranger suddenly stops the vehicle, looks at the sopil and says: "A lion recently passed by here".
And it’s much more than that: he knows whether it was a male or a female, whether young or old. He knows exactly how long ago the print was made and in which direction the animal was walking.
Just because of the footprints, the guide is able to tell fascinating wildlife story and predicts where the lion will be found.
The he takes a stick and says goodbye to us: "I'll be back in 10 minutes". He disappears into the bushes of the savannah. Everyone on the vehicle is waiting eagerly, in silence. Just a show?
A little later, the ranger returns, gets into the car, starts the engine and says: "I found the lion, do you want to see him?". So, it is not a show. We are all impressed, once again.
“Open your eyes”, says my son. I see a couple of indefinable holes in the plasticine. "What animal passed by?" I think about it and say: "It was a crocodile." My son laughs. "No, it was the dromedary."
I still have to practice...
Day 119: A very well-known number…
When I decided to write my personal diary at the start of the South African lockdown, I never thought that I would get it to day 119. 119! This number rings a bell for me. I remember that when I was a bit younger this number was very significant and I hoped that the 119 days would be over as soon as possible. But when was that?
I was about 20 years old. Like every young Swiss man, I had to complete the mandatory military service, the so-called recruit school. Back then, it lasted exactly 17 weeks. In other words, 119 days.
Nobody was looking forward to these 119 days. All recruits hoped that the time would be over as quickly as possible, and then life would go on normally. I remember that on the first day we hung a string of 119 candies on the door of our bedroom and ate one of them every day. So we saw figuratively how the string got shorter and shorter and the military service was slowly coming to an end.
There is a parallel to the lockdown. A difficult time that everyone hopes will be over as soon as possible. The difference is that after 119 days we still don't know when the last day will be, and how many candies we have to hang on the string. When normal everyday life prevails again.
Although military service is a time to forget, I remember that I made a lot of friends and that I built up a lot of trust with many comrades. This is simply because we have successfully managed to “survive” a difficult time together, side by side. I have a lot of memories from my military life that I will not forget and that I can still tell about today.
I am sure that this will also be the case after the lockdown. Rhulani will come back as a new, strengthened team which has unique memories that connect us.
Day 118: Delayed and still grateful
With great concern I look into our bank account every day. But not because I'm worried about the shrinking account balance or about the future of Rhulani. We have our finances under control, we have no debts and no open bills. But we have been waiting for a long time to receive payment from the unemployment fund so that we can finally pay our employees a wage in this difficult time. Today is a lucky day, in two ways.
I was not optimistic today when I opened my e-banking to check the movements on Rhulani’s accounts. I have seen from a survey in South Africa that almost 90% of all companies have not yet received payments for June wages.
But what joy. The money is here! Thanks to my efficient team in the office, we managed to split the total amount between our 30 employees and transfer the June wages within just three hours.
Since the start of the lockdown, I have neither seen nor heard most of my employees, nor do I know how they are doing. But I am sure that you will notice the receipt of payment and will be happy about it.
It annoys me a bit that this payment is so late for June. But at least, this process known as "TERS", works. For the third month already.
Most employees receive between 80% and 90% of their gross wages, tax-free. At first glance, this seems to be quite good. But I am aware that the reality is much more difficult. Employees with higher salaries suffer a fairly large wage cut due to a degressive scale. Due to the lack of guests, they miss the tips which in this industry is not insignificant. And lastly, they have higher costs for the food at home which they get during the working days at Rhulani for free.
Nevertheless, I am sure that everyone is grateful for the help that the state provides.
And then there is a second excellent message today. The TERS program, which was only planned for three months, was extended by two more months. So, the July and August wages also seem to be secured. Fingers crossed.
Day 117: Frequent visitors
During the lockdown, two animals in particular visited us regularly at Rhulani and caused quite a lot of damage. The Chacma Baboon, which can open door handles and refrigerators and creates a big mess in the rooms. Then the elephants, which trample, knock over or eat the plants in the lodge area and in the gardens of our staff. However, there has been silence for a few days. Almost…
Tom Hendrik is in the office today. I ask him why we finally were successful to keep the annoying intruders away. He tells me that the scarecrow at the entrance, or rather the "scaremonkey", was a good remedy to keep the Chacma Baboons at a distance.
The recently installed cord around the lodge, with bottles and cans that make noise in the wind, doesn't seem to please the elephants. An old remedy that works very well.
As a result of our cost-saving measures, we pump less water into the water hole in front of the lodge. This means that fewer animals come to visit us. They are looking for water elsewhere.
So is it now quieter than usual? No guests, no animals? TH laughs on the phone: "Far from it!"
He tells me that there are even some permanent residents at Rhulani. A lot of Warthogs, that live in families, and a lot more Banded Mongoose. "These are currently everywhere," says TH.
Furthermore, they have even seen a rather rare, nocturnal animal several times: a Genet.
Recently a pack of wild dogs ran through the lodge. The dogs from our rangers Alasdair (Pixie) and Sean (Dexter) barked when they noticed their relatives. It would be interesting for me to know how a domestic dog and a wild dog would behave if they met.
But let's leave this experiment as a thought experiment. Wild dogs, as the name suggests, are wild, and they catch prey every day with an intelligent hunting strategy in the group. A single domestic dog would be an easy catch.
“We need to keep our dogs protected anyway”, says TH, “we also have Leopards, Lions and Hyenas…”
Day 116: An irrelevant question
116 days in lockdown. 116 days without guests. 116 days on which our employees are at home. In my diary I tell every day how we manage this special time, what happens at Rhulani, and what thoughts I deal with. Everything revolves around the central question: when and how will we resume operations at Rhulani Safari Lodge? This question comes up today again.
The travel business in Europe is slowly picking up. I'm currently on vacation with my family. Summer holidays at the sea. Few guests, extensive safety measures. But still a very good experience.
Every day I read in forums that South African President Ramaphosa should remove the restrictions for the travel sector. People who work in tourism and make a living from it should be allowed to go back to work. Jobs and life existences are in danger.
A few days ago, however, it was clarified that in “Alert Level 3 amended” leisure hotels, and thus Rhulani, must remain closed. There is no outlook. No date when that will change. The travel lobby is frustrated.
Thinking about my Rhulani business, I don't dream so much of a quick opening. More of a life as it used to be. Carefree. Relaxed. Back to normal as soon as possible.
Reading newspaper today, South Africa is mentioned in a group of countries with the highest COVID-19 new infection rate. These are not good conditions for easing.
In Switzerland, where I live, people returning from South Africa have to go into a 2-week quarantine. So they cannot go back to work and run the risk of losing their jobs. Therefore, whether open or not, nobody travels to South Africa for a holiday.
Thinking about the question of whether hotels should open or not in the current situation, the answer is clear, at least in my case. Most of our guests are coming from overseas. It is a totally irrelevant question.
The problem is not solved by a government regulation, but by successfully combating COVID-19. The virus has to go. Away from our world, or at least from our minds.
Day 115: The “Little Five”
Now that my son has known the "Big 5" for a long time and a few days ago he got to know the "Ugly Five" of the African, I actually expected the question. "Papa, is there also the "Little Five"? Yes, of course, I say. I don't remember exactly these five animals, but let's look it up on the Internet.
We drive past a tortoise quite often on our game drives. Quite strange, I think. A tortoise in the middle of the savannah? This is a "Leopard tortoise," the ranger told me, when I saw this the first time. This makes sense. This reptile's house has a pattern like a leopard's skin. But I did not realize that it was a representative of the "Little Five".
I only became aware of this when we found a beetle in the lodge that had a head with a horn. It looked like a rhino, just a lot smaller. That was the “Rhino Beetle”. A Rhino Beetle? Funny. Then, I was told the story of the five small animals which have the same name as the five large ones.
I had already met the Buffalo Weaver on my Game Drives in Madikwe. a dark little bird with a bright red beak. But the other two were completely new to me. There is the Ant Lion and the Elephant Shrew. They also occur in Madikwe Game Reserve, but no guest has ever specifically asked for them, nor have we looked for them.
While I patiently look up the "Little Five" and explain them to my son, I notice that he doesn't pay attention. He just likes the "Big 5". Me too.
Day 114: SuitePad
In my holiday hotel in Greece I notice that due to the COVID-19 measures, there is no more information on paper. So there is no information folder in the room and no printed menu in the dining room. This would be difficult to disinfect before moving from one person to another. When I think of Rhulani, we have an advantage. Some time ago we eliminated the information on paper already.
It was at the time when we had to replace the old leather folders in the guest rooms. After many years, they no longer looked good. I already had some offers of elegant and expensive folders on the table, but I doubted. The idea no longer convinced me. I had no concept of what information we wanted to provide to our guests and how we could efficiently keep it up to date.
Just in time I became aware of a completely new, innovative solution: “SuitePad”. A product from a company from Germany. They are specializing in hotel room binders on a tablet. The information can therefore be called up digitally.
I soon met the SuitePad representative for lunch in Zurich. The offer convinced me. I felt we were also an interesting customer for them because we were the first hotel in Africa. And the first safari lodge.
The setup was developed in the following months. We put together information about the hotel, Madikwe reserve, the animals. I programmed an encyclopedia of the over 400 birds in the park and I almost went crazy. Then the wine list, the massage & treatment program, where you can place an order from your room. And everything available in six languages.
All guests love their SuitePad. They can also read newspapers and play games. For me, living in Switzerland, it is possible to send a special greeting to a guest's SuitePad. “Welcome to Rhulani”! Really cool!
Nice that we have implemented one measure of the many security requirements for a long time!
Day 113: Ugly Five
For our vacation I bought a new animal book for my little son. It is about the so-called "Ugly Five" of the African bush. Our holiday reading. My son loves animals more than anything and he will be happy to learn about this new group of animals. He already knows the “Big 5”. Those are quite famous, and all of our guests know them too. But the Ugly Five? Do you know them?
Before reading the book with my son, however, I want to make sure that we have all of the "Ugly 5" in Madikwe Reserve. And yes, they are all here!
On the first page there is a gray, wrinkled wildebeest with crooked horns, walking in the savannah. My son knows this animal already and says that's not an “Ugly 5” because he knows that is an antelope. It takes me some time to explain to him that "Ugly 5" is just a name and has nothing to do with the animal species.
Then comes a spotted hyena that eats rotten bones and stands with a strange posture and a crooked back. Strange body shape. This is one of my son's favorite animals. He doesn't understand why this animal is considered "ugly".
There is already more understanding when looking at the vulture, which has an ugly crooked beak, and in the booklet it is featured with frayed feathers. Next page we find the the Marabou stork, which has a huge bill, a pink gular sac at its throat, and we see that the Marabou is looking for food in a nasty trash can. Disgusting!
Finally, a funny animal that we all know. A small, nimble warthog, burrowing in the dirt, with a few nasty-looking warts on its long nose.
My son says all animals are actually beautiful, but from now on he correctly classifies them them as the "Ugly 5". He asks me if I have seen all of these animals already?. I say "yes", except for the Marabou stork. Let’s see if I find one next time.
Day 112: It works!
While I am put up with a long-term closure of Rhulani, I departed with my family on a summer vacation to the Greek island of Crete. Here in Europe it is possible to travel in compliance with protective measures. For me, these vacations are primarily relaxation, but I can also get an impression of how a hotel business could work during Corona times. And I must say: it actually works.
At the airport upon arrival I was chosen at random and had to do a corona test. At first I thought what bad luck. But the test went efficiently, and it helps not get the virus into the country from tourists entering the island.
In the hotel I had to go through a thorough registering process. Fever was measured. Everything in our room is clinically clean. There is no information on paper. Everything appears on a menu on the TV screen. Remote controls are packed in plastic bags.
At meal times there are no tablecloths, no decoration on the table, no salt and pepper. But it can be ordered. The employees work with protective masks and gloves. Everything that you use or touch is disinfected immediately: Beach chairs, the ballpoint pen with which you sign a receipt, the toilet you use in the common are…
In my diary I am constantly worried about whether a hotel can function under such conditions. After my first experiences I have to say: it actually works!
Of course, guests would like to pass their holidays in a more relaxed way. But everyone appreciates the professionalism of the staff and the attention to safety and hygiene. The peace and privacy with only a few guests is even a unique experience during the holiday season.
At Rhulani we will definitely be ready should we be able to start operations under similar conditions. I have now received many good ideas for a first-class implementation of the COVID-19 measures. The only question is whether and when this will be possible and how many guests will book for a safari in this way.
Day 111: Clever pachyderms
If you read my diary regularly, you will have noticed that the topic of the elephants in the lodge accompanies us during the lockdown almost every day. Seen from a distance, this gives an exciting story to tell from the bush. But there is also some concern. As the owner, I don't want the elephants to endanger my few employees and not to break our lodge infrastructure. Today, I see Sean and Alasdair with a couple of beer bottles in hand. That could solve the problem…
We consider Rhulani to be an "unfenced lodge". Animals can go in and out, or rather, they can just walk through the lodge, if they want to. The animals are usually shy. Especially during the day, when the lodge is busy and people are around, animals stay at a distance. But our guests always have to look around a bit.
The only thing we have is an electrical wire around the lodge, which should at least keep the elephants away. Elephants could cause the biggest damage. They could knock over trees, drink water from the pools, break the decks, damage water pipes ...
It is all the more inexplicable that elephants always find a way into the lodge. In the dry winter time they are probably attracted by the water. Maybe they also like to be around us. Clever pachyderms!
In today's live stream, Sean, our head ranger, presents a good way of how to keep the elephants away. Glass bottles and cans are hung on a string. These large mammals don't seem to like the sound of the wind!
According to the first results, it seems to work!
Day 110: Addo Boys
Sean is sending me more photos from yesterday's drive to Tlou Dam. It was an incredible coincidence that one of the two relatively new lions in Madikwe was there. It was one of the so-called "Addo Boys". He presented himself in the best light. Look at this lion. Isn't that an incredible animal?
If you look at the proud posture and the flawless, strong body, you understand why this animal is called "King of the African bush".
Sean tells me that the "Addo Boys" are a bit of an exception even for him, who has seen practically all of the lions on the reserve. These lions are incredibly tall and strong.
On my safaris in Madikwe I have also often encountered lions, especially those that have their territory near Rhulani. When I look at this photo, I immediately notice that this one I have never seen. He looks really beautiful and different from the others. The mane appears to be lighter.
Sean looked at this lion in detail. He was alone. His buddy was nowhere to be found. He has a visible scratch on the eye. Maybe from a recent fight.
Madikwe is a closed animal reserve. Although there are many lions, the gene pool needs to be renewed from time to time. This is how these lions came to Madikwe from Addo Park some months ago. They seem to have settled in themselves perfectly.
I can't wait to get to know the Addo Boys.
Day 109: Tlou Dam
There are currently only three employees at Rhulani: Alasdair, our funny guide known as "Captain Redbeard". Sean, Assistant manager and Head ranger. And then Tom-Hendrik, also called "TH", who keeps the office running during lockdown. Sean sends me a WhatsApp message today saying that he will take TH out to show him an area that he has never seen before. A few hours later I get a fantastic photo of one of my favorite places in Madikwe: "Tlou Dam".
Guests of Rhulani will remember the impressions from Tlou Dam for a lifetime. It is the largest water point in the entire reserve. The chance of encountering wild animals is high, especially in the dry winter time. The photos you take there with the blue water, the wild landscape, the sunset - simply indescribable.
I have spent many hours there. The engine of the vehicle switched off. Just sitting there. Wait for the sun to set and let yourself be surprised by the animals that suddenly appear out of nowhere.
By the way, "Tlou" is a word in the local language Setswana and means "elephant". I am not surprised when I see Sean's photo of a large herd of elephants enjoying themselves at Tlou Dam.
TH tells me on the phone that it was a fantastic experience for him. I am happy that we are still creating moments of joy in this tense time.
Looking again at the photo, I notice that I have overlooked a mighty lion. He is sleeping in front of the elephants. He has the same color as the earthy ground on which he lies. This lion is incredibly big and impressive. Sean tells me, it is only a year ago that this lion came to Madikwe. It is one of the “Addo boys”.
I am so jealous that I wasn't there.
Day 108: Mysterious elephant deaths
Have you read the news that hundreds of elephants have been found dead in Botswana in the past few weeks? I read this message in the Swiss newspapers. To this day, it seems there is no answer to these mysterious deaths. We also have a lot of elephants in Madikwe Game Reserve. This largest land mammal is a big attraction for a safari. So what's going on there? I ask my experienced rangers what they think of it.
Botswana is not far from our place. From Rhulani's terrace we can actually see our neighboring country. At night, the lights of Gaborone, Botswana's capital, light up.
My rangers at the lodge are keeping a very close eye on the developments on the other side of the border. However, when I express my concern that the problem could also splash over to Madikwe, the view is that this will not be the case. The sad occurrences take place in the north of Botswana, which is quite far away. No other country is effected.
My rangers are also overwhelmed. There seems to be no indication that the fatal losses were caused by human hands. No signs of ivory poaching.
Madikwe and Botswana have one thing in common. The population of elephants is growing. Otherwise this is not the case in Africa. Botswana is home to one third of the world's elephant population. During my time in Rhulani, the stock in Madikwe almost doubled and is now over 1,700.
The elephants in Madikwe are doing well. As you may see on our daily live stream, from time to time there is one in the middle of the lodge. Big herds are visiting our waterhole almost daily.
Sean, our head ranger, believes it could be a terrible virus. I hope the mystery will be resolved soon.
Day 107: Opposing trends
At home in Switzerland, life has stabilized somewhat. Everything works again. The virus is still there. Around 100 new cases every day. But under certain rules everyday life takes place normally. But when I look at South Africa, and at my business at Rhulani, the world looks different. I see two strong trends. They are going in the opposite direction.
On the one hand, I see the strong will in South African population to go back to normal life. There must be a way to live with this virus. The pressure from the economy requesting that businesses can resume operations is increasing every day. The severity of the lockdown level was relaxed from “5” to “4”, then “3” and recently to "3 amended". So everyone is waiting for the next announcement from Mr. President to further relax at Level 2.
Accordingly, the tourism industry is preparing for welcoming soon the first guests again. Preparations are being made. COVID-19 protocols are put in place. At Rhulani we are also preparing ourselves for a soon opening.
On the other hand, the number of newly infected people with the virus is increasing every day. Yesterday there was a record value of over 13,000. Despite the lockdown, the expected flattening of the curve has not been in sight for 107 days.
In the midst of these diametrically opposed trends, I notice that the management of Madikwe Game Reserve, in which we are located, has not said anything about a possible plan or outlook.
Today there is the first message after almost two months. It is relatively short. Everyone is reminded that the reserve remains closed and strict rules apply to the people in the park. Guests are not admitted to enter the reserve. Game drives are only allowed in the form of a security check for animal protection.
Later I receive a request from a family who would like to go on a safari in 2 weeks. They ask if we can make a special offer. Unfortunately we have to reject the request.
Day 106: Bob and his buddies
After a stressful week, I just want to end the Friday evening with a few nice impressions from Rhulani. I therefore connect to our everyday live stream on Facebook from the lodge, where I can watch a beautiful sunset over Madikwe at this time. But what do I see? A herd of elephants. In the middle of the lodge. Bob has brought some of his buddies.
As always, there is this ambiguous feeling me when I see elephants in our area. Apparently, they have just crossed our electrical wire. Mo problem.
On the one hand, there is an admiration and fascination for this big mammal. This is exactly what you would expect from a safari lodge, right? You will remember this moment for a lifetime.
On the other hand, there is this the thrill, and also a bit of concern about safety and about our infrastructure. Elephants can cause a lot of damage in a short time.
As expected, our well-known friend Bob is there. He keeps coming back, almost every day. He has brought some buddies with him today. We recognize Bob by his half-broken tail. Even so, he is walking proudly through the herd. He is clearly the boss.
Suddenly I think hopefully Bob isn't standing on the roof of our brand new observation hide. He is right next to it now. But the worry is unfounded. Our constructor promised me a herd of elephants could stand on it and nothing will break.
With a calm voice I hear Tom-Hendrik say: "Isn't it wonderful? A herd of elephants is coming to greet us on Friday evening, with the most beautiful sunset."
He's right. Nothing to worry about. The elephants walk carefully and quietly through the lodge area. Unbelievable how sensitive these giant animals are.
Day 105: A great year!
Today passes without any special occurrences. I have a normal working day in my home office. At Rhulani there are no particular challenges. So we talk about the weather and notice that we are both sitting at the table in shorts. It's a wonderful summer here in Switzerland, and today's winter in Madikwe is far too warm. But suddenly I notice something that makes me happy today.
However, it took a bit of time before I really realize the good news.
It all started with a booking request from a large group for August. At first I don’t know what to say. Are we open at all in August? How should we handle this request under current circumstances? The second time I read the mail I realize it’s for August 2021. Aha, so no problem.
Then an email from a travel agent from Australia. The guests are booked for the end of September. This is still uncertain but still seems feasible. But the agent says that Qantas has just canceled all flights to South Africa until the end of September. So the guests cannot travel. They are now postponing the trip to September 2021. No problem.
Another new booking comes in. Quite standard, a Luxury Private Chalet for a honeymoon couple for July 2021. But I see, we are fully booked that day. That’s strange! A year in advance fully booked? This in a month that really isn't part of the high season.
Now I'm getting curious and have a look at our booking list for 2021. It's still a long way off. But I realize that we have never had so many bookings so far in advance in the entire history of Rhulani.
Everything indicates that people around the globe finally want to go on vacation again, and are planning to do so early enough. The world is optimistic that the COVID-19 will be under control in 2021.
2021 – it will be a great year!
Day 104: Power cut
Today I have a tough working day. Many meetings via "Teams" from my home office. At the same time, I have electricians at home, who are fixing a few things for me. The double attention is pretty stressful, and even worse, they temporarily turn off the electricity in the apartment. So, no wi-fi from time to time. I know this feeling from the African bush.
If you visit a safari lodge, the general reputation is that you have to be prepared for unstable internet, if there is one. Bad weather, or some other power cut, and the wi-fi is gone.
Quite annoying, when the father has to work in the bush during holiday time and the son wants to hang on the WhatsApp with friends.
In the early days of Rhulani, we “lived up” to this bad reputation. The internet was slow, very unstable. At the same time, the expectations of our guests rose, and the office located in the lodge also needed a good connection.
I'm so glad this time is over. We have had no problems for two years now. Guests have access to a well-functioning wi-fi connection in the room, in public areas, unlimited and free. The technology has also made progress in the meantime.
Even now, during the lockdown, internet is always running smoothly. This way my team at the lodge can do all office work and we can speak between Switzerland and South Africa every day.
The electrician turns the fuse back on. The work is completed. The lights are switched on everywhere at my home. It reminds me a bit of the moment when the electricity at Rhulani is briefly gone and comes back thanks to the generator.
Back to work.
Day 103: COVID-19 safety protocols
On a wonderful summer day at home, I am sitting amidst countless documents. All guidelines, regulations and directives which prescribe how a hotel in South Africa should behave after the reopening in times of the corona virus. Deep in my inner being, I feel resistance reading all of this paperwork and developing a concept for Rhulani. But it is necessary. And that's how I do it.
What I am looking forward today is a planned dinner with my sister in a beautiful restaurant at the Lake Constance sister. I haven't seen her in a long time. So I plan to write down our Rhulani COVID-19 concept quickly and then enjoy the evening.
Many points such as washing hands, keeping your distance, general hygiene in the kitchen, special attention to cleaning practices in house-keeping etc. are already well known. The personal behavior should now be known to everyone. Whether for our employees or for our guests.
With a mixture of incomprehension and humor, I note that we have to measure fever for every arriving guest and record it. The temperature of all employees is also measured every morning.
The luggage of arriving guests must be disinfected. Our staff needs a special protective suit, rubber shoes.
At meal times, there is an obligation to wear face masks. Both for employees and guests. In the lodge, we have to remove all items, objects, decorative material, cushions which is not essential.
I am happy and also a little proud when I finally finish my five-page concept.
Quite happy about my work I now drive to Lake Constance. The sunset is lovely. It seems that everyone is outside and enjoys the evening at the lake. People are taking a swim. There are a lot of people in the restaurant where my sister has made a reservation. The atmosphere is very relaxed. I don't see any face masks.
By the way, there is also the corona virus in Switzerland. How different the worlds are!
Day 102: Dangerous big cats
I'm still shocked today. Last Saturday in the Zurich Zoo, a tiger attacked an animal keeper and killed her before the eyes of some visitors. Apparently, animal and human were in the same enclosure at the same time. Reason is not known. Just terrible. As the owner of a safari lodge, I ask myself one of the basic questions: How dangerous is to be close to a big cat? Our lodge is not fenced, and we also organize bush walks.
I have a discussion with my experienced rangers Sean and Alasdair. They haven’t heard of the incident in Zurich. As I know them, they are definitely not afraid of the big cats, but in all these years they have not lost the respect for them.
"These are wild animals! They are following their instinct. If they feel threatened, we can get into troubles. We have to be alert on the warning signals and behave accordingly”, says Alasdair. On a bushwalk, there are a lot of safety rules to follow, and a rifle is part of the equipment.
In Madikwe, there are no tigers. But I ask: “Is a Siberian tiger more dangerous than a lion?”
Alasdair and Sean answer at the same time, with a respectful voice: “Oh yes!”
A tiger is even bigger and stronger than a lion. Especially the Siberian tiger. In contrast to lions, which live in a pride, tigers are loners. They defend themselves as soon as they sense danger. Sean says: “That's why leopards are more dangerous for us than lions. Leopards also walk alone.”
Sean asks me: "Rolf, did this tiger arrive at the zoo recently?"
Interesting that Sean asks this. And it’s actually true. This tiger lady only came to the Zurich Zoo a few months ago.
Sean says: "When we get new cats here in Madikwe we put them in a boma to get them used to their new home. In the beginning they are noticeably more aggressive. The changed air, the smell, the new environment, the journey… All of this puts a lot of stress to the animal and creates a defensive mode that can be very dangerous.”
We all remember that the safety of our guests and respect for animals is always our top priority.
Day 101: An Eland
Almost casually, Sean told me yesterday that he saw two Eland antelopes on game drive. I thought how nice it would be to sit on Sean's vehicle. Usually you get to see this impressive kind of antelope with a lot of luck on a safari. But otherwise you will definitely see this animal on two other occasions at Rhulani.
I am curious. I take a look at how many eland antelopes were registered in the last official animal count in Madikwe Game Reserve. That was in 2018. It says: "Eland: 1".
One eland? Of course, you cannot take the results of such a count at face value. Otherwise Sean would have found yesterday the double number of the entire eland stock.... Jokes aside: There are indeed only a few of these majestic antelopes in the park. Almost impossible to find them.
As a safari-beginner, you will learn that Eland is the largest antelope species. Even bigger than the Kudu, of which there are a lot to see in Madikwe. In addition to the size, the twisted horns and a kind of shoulder bulge are striking.
In October 2018, it was the last time that I got a beautiful photo of an Eland from Riaan. I am still waiting to see one.
But as I said, our guests still have two opportunities to see Eland when they visit us: First, Eland is the animal of our company logo. It's not very obvious, but I was told that this running antelope comes from an ancient bushman painting and shows an eland.
Second, the Eland steak is one of the most delicious meat dishes in South Africa. It is also on our menu. Don't miss that!
Day 100: Safari!
I can hardly believe that we have been in this apocalypse for 100 days. And the end is still not in sight. I call Rhulani via skype. As every day, I just want to know how my small team copes with the situation. But today I feel different. We have external suppliers who currently are at the lodge and I know they went on safari this morning with Sean. What did they see?
I feel a bit like in the good old days. Although I have the usual things to discuss, I have not lost my curiosity about what fantastic animal sightings were made today. Despite the daily concerns about business, I have always kept my fascination with the wild animals. After all, this was the main motivation to invest in a safari lodge.
"It was just fantastic to get up and start my day by starting the engine and go out for a game drive," says Sean, who took our suppliers on the morning safari.
As he tells me, there was countless so-called "general game" to see, which included impala, zebra, wildebeest and kudu. He also saw two white rhinos, giraffes and a lonely buffalo bull. Interestingly, he did not find any elephants, of which there are so many in Madikwe.
"I actually felt a bit strange," says Sean, who is a very experienced ranger. "It was like taking guests out into the bush for the very first time."
After such a long time without the daily game drives, the feeling of where certain animals were or where they could go was a bit lost. Sean was suddenly no longer part of this ecosystem he knew about. He just drove in. His vehicle was probably the only one that was out that morning. No radio contact with other rangers.
"The highlight was that we found lions on a kill. And then we discovered two beautiful eland antelopes!"
I listen to Sean. Just magical. What a nice way to start the day.
Day 99: Is the lockdown really over?
My confusion about the end of the lockdown has not diminished today. Actually, it has gotten even bigger. I have a conversation with my advisor from The Employers' Union. He tells me that there are different interpretations of the recent Gazette from the Government. It is not at all clear whether holiday hotels like Rhulani are actually allowed to open.
My advisor sends me a link to an interesting article. The title: “Can hotels open for leisure travellers? Depends on who you ask.”
In summary: While the Tourism Business Council of SA believes hotels can now open for leisure stayovers, this is denied by the tourism ministry. There is some confusion about new government regulations and following a previous announcement by President Cyril Ramaphosa. Tourism minister Mmamoloko Kubayi-Ngubane warned that no leisure stayovers are allowed, and that South Africans have to stick to self-drive day trips within their resident provinces. She said hotels, lodges and guest houses are still only permitted to host business travellers. But this goes counter to new government regulations, as well as what President Ramaphosa announced earlier.
After the phone call, I am more confused than ever. But the longer I think about it, I realize that the discussion is irrelevant.
Rhulani mostly receives international guests. The other visitors come either from the Johannesburg area or from nearby Gaborone, Botswana.
As long as airports and national borders are closed for entry, and as long as not even South African residents can travel between provinces, we will have no guests. No matter if we are allowed to be open or not.
Nevertheless, I am curious to what extent this situation will be resolved in the coming days.
Day 98: Training Day
Sean, our assistant manager and head ranger, is back at Rhulani after a one-month break. As he tells me, he has to take care of his garden first. An elephant had destroyed the beautiful garden area with the various, special plants during his absence. Sean's return also coincides with the recent announcement of the end of the lockdown. He says: "Good to know something is going on here again!"
I inform Sean right at the beginning that we there will be a virtual training session today and tomorrow to train our office staff on the administration system. For the operational processing at Rhulani Safari Lodge we use a system specially developed for safari lodges, called “Panstrat”.
As I remember, Panstart has a guest reservation function which was already used before I took over Rhulani in 2013. Over time I learned that Panstrat can do much more, such as guest accounts, stock controls, GRV's, ... The benefits of an integrated system to improve our controls, were so convincing that we immediately decided to use the system fully.
Today we have not only Sean, but also Sanmari and Tom-Hendrik from the Front of House at Rhulani. Ideal to use the quiet time for a virtual Panstrat training. This morning everyone is connected via Skype in front of our large screen in the Leisure Room.
I ask Sean about his garden. He invested so much time in it. "Don't worry Rolf," he tells me. "I have set everything up nicely, and plants are growing again anyway."
Day 97: A totally private safari
After yesterday's surprise message about the end of the lockdown, I'm still a little puzzled today. How is that supposed to work? I am all the more curious to see what reactions I will receive about it today. For example, more details, when the Madikwe Reserve opens and we can call back our employees, etc. Meanwhile, I'm also taking the first step towards our reopening.
In the long period of rest, I have given a lot of thought to the details of our future operation and have already prepared a lot for it.
First of all, I have now opened a new chapter on our website landing page called "COVID-19", so that our future guests can imagine what a safari at times of corona will look like.
There is of course some information about the necessary safety precautions. But when I look at it, I got the impression that a safari is better than ever. Each guest will go on safari with the ranger alone with family or accompanying persons, totally in private.
At mealtimes we are setting-up the tables for guests at a private place with enough distance to other visitors, and you can even have your dinner in your own chalet. A unique experience!
So all that's missing is a schedule and a little more detail around the opening process.
I often check my mailbox today. No comments to yesterday's message. Not a single travel agent asks what date we are going to open. No new booking.
I ask Sean at the lodge if he would have heard when the Madikwe Game Reserve would open again. I think that should now happen immediately. Sean says he has no idea but heard that it wouldn't be until mid-July.
I call my advisor from the Employers Union. Maybe they know what the new regulations mean and how we should proceed. But here too I am put on hold. "Rolf, we must first read he gazette carefully and understand it correctly."
Day 96: Lockdown is over …
After a busy day, I'm enjoying the evening. I have had no contact with Rhulani Lodge today, nor have there been any special reports. Should I just end my day without a diary entry and better enjoy the wonderful summer evening here on my balcony? I have no ideas anyway. And there comes rather unexpectedly a message saying that the lockdown has just ended for us. I am horrified!
Like every official communication from the South African government, it appears in a so-called “Gazette”, this one in the "Government Gazette 29 June 2020, No. 43487".
I am not completely surprised. There were voices behind the curtain saying that local travel within South Africa will soon be allowed. I know about some lodges that have developed specific offers for local tourism.
Now there is a long list of directions mentioned in this Gazette under which hotels and lodges (which includes Rhulani) are allowed to open. These regulations are in addition to the obligations issued by the Department of Employment and Labour and to the guidelines by the Department of Health in the event of a Covid-19 infection or suspected Covid-19 infection in the workplace.
So far so good. But at the end of the Gazette it says that the regulation becomes valid on the date of publication. Today? Really?
How do they imagine that? Do they think that we have already implemented all measures tomorrow morning? Do they believe we have guests from one day to the next? Do they imagine that we can just press the button and all the employees are back and everything is running normally? And what about the opening of the borders, the airports, on which tourism in South Africa and thus also our business essentially depends?
The government would have better given us a certain lead time to organize us. I find it irresponsible to give back the responsibility for the business and the staff salaries to the employer without ensuring the basis for an income.
I'm speechless. But as I said earlier in my diary, the hardest time comes when the lockdown is over, and that's how it will be.
Day 95: The hidden hide
It is the most ambitious project we have accomplished with Rhulani in our 7 year history. The underground hide, right next to the waterhole. Today we can definitely say that the project has ended successfully. At home, I open a bottle of wine. Time to party. Now we only have to have guests who open this great building with us.
I look back. Exactly one year ago, we said "yes" to this somewhat crazy project. Everyone in the team was excited about the idea. But is this technically possible at all? We took the risk.
We started planning with our suppliers who already knew us very well. Trust is important. Ohm Lieb for the construction, Heather Grobler from Flipswitch for the interior decoration. And of course, Rhulani's team as support on site.
There were many obstacles. Construction work often had to be interrupted when we had many guests. The construction noise in the bush would otherwise have disturbed.
Then it turned out that the floor for the access tunnel is shaped by hard Dolomite rocks. The tunnel took a different direction.
Then the machine, the so-called "TLB", broke down and there was a long pause. And finally, in the last phase, COVID-19. Lockdown. Work stopped completely, just on the finish line.
Today Sanmari is sending me a photo after the last piece of work has just been completed. The rocks were taken away, the tunnel was covered with gravel and earth. From the outside nothing is noted anymore except a slight curvature of the terrain.
So now we have a "hidden hide"!
Day 94: Dog or cat?
As a member of the Zoo Society in Zurich, I receive the latest issue of the magazine. On the cover picture is a portrait of one of the newest animals that zoo has to offer: the spotted hyena. A fascinating animal. It is described as "the true queen of the savannah". The article surprisingly answers a question for me … or creates confusion again.
I ask you: Take a look at the head of this predator. What would you say: is this a dog or a cat?
When I think back to my safaris and the many sightings with the spotted hyenas, I noticed that this animal differs in behavior and appearance from anything else that I knew from the African bush. A special kind of animal.
They live in a complex social and hierarchical structure. With the stooped walk, and because they eat the remains of dead animals, one thinks that they are rather shy and vulnerable. But they are very dangerous. They also hunt themselves and have few enemies. I also learned that the hyena droppings are white. Because they also eat the bones. Not like the other predators.
At Rhulani we have “Madikwe Mammal Lists”. Our guests can tick off the boxes of those animals they find. In the first edition, I remember that the spotted hyena fell under the category "cat-like carnivores", together with lion, wildcat, cheetah, caracal and leopard. I wrinkled my nose. A hyena really doesn't look like the others.
I was promptly corrected by my rangers and soon the list was adjusted. Spotted hyenas were moved to the category of “dog-like carnivores”. This is the group of aardwolf, black-backed jackal, bat-eared fox and the wild dog. Yes, this makes more sense.
In today's article I read: “Hyenas are not dog-like, as one often thinks, but cat-like. They are most closely related to creep-cats.”
I read it with a smile. What do you think? Dog or a cat?
Day 93: False promises
Today Saturday I read an article in the newspaper entitled: "Swiss sells flights that can’t be done." It says that the airline sells tickets, even though it knows at the time of sale that the flight will never take place. Since I myself would like to travel to Rhulani again, I have to be careful with my booking.
When was my last trip to Rhulani? That was in mid-December 2019. So it's been half a year without I being able to visit my lodge in South Africa. I've never had such a long break. I go at least every three months.
I always travel with Swiss from Zurich to Johannesburg. This flight takes place every day. Through the night, direct, just ideal for me.
The newspaper article surprises me. Ok, I understand that one has to make an assumption without knowing when travel is possible again. I have a similar problem at Rhulani. From what date should we accept new bookings? And above all, what conditions apply if travel is not possible after all?
We offer a free rebooking to a later date if travel is not possible. I understand that many airlines (including Swiss) have promised to refund the full amount in the event of flight cancellation - but they don't pay. That is not good. I couldn't afford that with Rhulani.
I am curious and check when my Swiss flight can be booked. Aha. From September 1st operation resumes. The price is very cheap. But I think it is better to wait a bit. Much can change in the meantime.
Day 92: Convenience Pack
Today I receive COVID-19 news from South Africa. The recent announcement by President Ramaphosa to open more industrial sectors is becoming more concrete. This is of particular relevance to us, because in addition to casinos, conferences and restaurants, "accommodation" was also mentioned. Rhulani, as a safari lodge, also will fall under “accommodation”. So, do we now know when Rhulani will open?
Out of caution, we have not yet communicated a date to anyone. We have also not published any special offers. We do not want to attract customers and raise expectations at a time when we don't even know what will happen. Don't rush anything.
Sanmari is at Rhulani’s office today and sends me photos of the so-called "COVID-19 Convenience Packs". This is a gift for our future guests we have ordered a while ago. A toiletry bag with hand sanitizer, face mask, soap and gloves. The mask has a zebra design. Perfect for the bush. Very nice and practical.
I am glad that the numerous boxes have reached us despite production bottlenecks and delivery problems.
I feel that the day of the opening is definitely coming closer. And we are getting ready. We will follow all best practices and protocols. We have enough space to comply with distancing rules. There will be a new chapter on COVID-19 on our website. Special offers will be published as soon as the opening date is known.
If you take a closer look, today’s news doesn't bring anything new. Hotels are not mentioned in the specifications. Only private accommodations. A date is also not mentioned. Critical voices say that as long as there is no instruction about the requirements, you cannot open at all.
So, keep waiting.
Day 91: Fish diet for elephants
Summer holidays in Switzerland are approaching. I will travel soon too. That is why I have installed an intelligent irrigation system for my plants on the balcony in the last few days. Some plants need a lot of water every day. I didn't want my neighbors to do it. Now everything is connected and programmed via the computer. I have a good chance that the plants will survive my absence. That would be different at Rhulani…
Martin has spent over three weeks at Rhulani. He helped to protect and maintain the lodge. "What was your biggest challenge so far?" I ask him.
He says: "Generally speaking, I had to make sure that the wild animals did not declare Rhulani as their natural habitat. And then in the first few days I had to repair my little garden, which Bob (the elephant bull) broke during my absence.
I ask Martin: "What exactly did Bob do?"
He tells me: “He broke the fence, ate my beautiful plants, trampled around. I also have a little pond with fishes. Bob drank it up.”
“And the fishes? Did you find them?”
"They are definitely dead," says Martin, "I couldn't find them anymore. They were probably sucked up by the trunk and then washed down. Bob is maybe on a fish diet.”
What a disaster I think. But somehow that sounds funny too.
Martin says: “Sean will be back at the lodge soon. He will not be happy. His garden looked much nicer than mine. And Bob left a total disaster.”
I'm glad Martin takes the episode with humor. I'm also glad that I don't have any elephants on my balcony. But I'm still not sure if my plants survive here. I have to test the programming of the water delivery for a few more days and see how it works.
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