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Day 100: Safari!

  • July 04, 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 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.

A lion on a zebra kill

 

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.

The lockdown is not over yet

 

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."

Sean, Head Ranger and Assistant Manager, is back at Rhulani

 

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."

Private Game Drives - one of the advantages in times of COVID-19

 

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.

Since today, lockdown is over. When will we start operating again?

 

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"!

Covered with earth and gravel: our new "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?

Spotted hyena in Madikwe Game Reserve: a cat-like carnivore

 

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.

A photo from my last trip, December 2019

 

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.

Just arrived: COVID-19 Convenience Packs for our guests

 

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.

Elephants having a drink at the dam in Madikwe Game Reserve