“Are you interested in being guinea pigs for a safari during lockdown?” This was the question we put to two families who have been in our ‘lockdown social bubble’ in recent months.
The families, comprising three doctors and a nurse, had been immersed in the daily-changing coronavirus medical research, so were the perfect people to take with us to advise on COVID19 compliancy. Their answers were unanimously, “Yes please”! So, a few weekends ago, we went to Rhino River Lodge in Zululand’s Manyoni Private Game Reserve.
Rhino River Lodge is one of WildWeb’s longest-standing clients, it’s close to home, and we’ve spent numerous happy times there over the years with family and friends. For most of my family, who live overseas, Rhino River Lodge has been the setting for their first experience of the bush, game drives, the Big Five, and all the delights an African safari holiday offers. So it goes without saying that it holds a special place in our hearts.
This time we arrived to find a very different lodge. The lodge was not yet officially open and as ‘guinea pigs’, we were there to see if a self-catered holiday could be a feasible option for Dale Airton and his dedicated team to offer to guests in the coming months. For insurance purposes, the use of indoor kitchens was precluded, but this was no problem as we could use the braai, in a picturesque setting beneath a shady sausage tree. Our food, quite incongruously, was stored in the bar fridge and we ate in the dining room terrace overlooking magnificent fever trees. In the evening, tables were set around the boma and lit by hurricane lamps.
There was a skeleton staff comprising Kyle, the head ranger, the night watchman, and two ladies who looked after the kitchen and sleeping quarters. In truth, that was all we needed. As safari stalwarts, we came prepared for the morning game drive with hot chocolates, coffees, and rusks. The evening safari entailed perhaps a few more alcoholic sundowners than normal, packed by us, as well as the statutory biltong and nibbles – our favourite part of any game drive. The children (six teenagers, two ‘tweens’ and a toddler) loved sitting around the fire at night, singing and playing games, and we all shared the usual chat about what we’d seen on that day.
Kyle was very keen to share the reserve with us, having been away from the bush on furlough leave for so long. With Paul’s trusty cruiser and a member of our group’s capable vehicle, Kyle was able to point us in the right direction. As a regular visitor, Paul is familiar with the reserve and we remained on the Rhino River Lodge property.
To be back in the bush after so many months at home in what has been, at times, a draconian lockdown, was nothing short of heavenly. Animals, thankfully, know nothing of the nonsense we humans have inflicted on the world in 2020 and the game viewing was as wonderful as ever – perhaps even better. Highlights of the safaris include a magnificent lazy lion, rhinos at the dam at sunset, and a herd of elephants complacently munching their way along the banks of the sandy river. Sundowners on the last night were in the riverbed, surrounded by magnificent lichen-clad cliffs.
One night we met Dale and Shannon for ‘socially distanced’ sundowners on the hilltop overlooking the vast Manyoni plain. Dale runs Rhino River Lodge and he and his wife, Shannon, own and run Rhino Sands Safari Camp, a luxury tented camp on Manyoni. Their experience of the lockdown and attempts to reopen was not reassuring. On the day we arrived, it had been gazetted that safari lodges would be allowed to open. A day later, the story from the Ministry had changed, and although casinos and cinemas were now permissible, not so safari lodges.
CHANGING REGULATIONS AND RESTRICTIONS
A month later, as I write this, the trading situation has changed twice. The safari industry was given the go-ahead two weeks ago to trade as ‘normal’, subject to the necessary COVID19 precautions. People were understandably keen to visit and Rhino River Lodge had many bookings. Dale and his team, released from furlough leave, spent many hours preparing the lodge and gardens meticulously for visitors. This included the additional tasks of erecting COVID19 signage and installing hand sanitizers etc., to ensuring the lodge was completely COVID-proof. The chef was back in his fully stocked kitchen and all stations were ‘go’. This week, with Paul back at the lodge, the status quo has once again changed. The lodge is not allowed to open, the staff has been sent home, the lodge stands empty, and thousands of rand worth of food has had to be given away. In addition, the team has had to issue refunds for cancelled bookings and constantly update the website and social media to reflect the endless, conflicting messages we are getting about what is and is not permitted.
This is the story of just one small lodge in Zululand. According to the Tourism Business Council of South Africa (TBCSA), since lockdown started, the country has lost R68 billion-worth of revenue that would have been generated through tourism. This sector makes up 8.6% of the nation’s GDP, whilst giving employment to over 1.5 million people. As well as being a source of employment, many lodges throughout southern Africa are the lifeblood of the community; charitable donations of overseas guests fund local schools and improvement opportunities to the local community as a whole.
South Africa holds the unenviable title of being the country with the greatest disparity between rich and poor and Cyril Ramaphosa’s job is a thankless one. However, it is difficult to reconcile the reasoning behind 100% occupancy in taxis, the reopening of casinos, cinemas, beauty parlors etc., all of which seem to contravene social distancing, whilst safari lodges and game reserves, surely the jewel in the crown of southern Africa’s tourism sector, stand empty. The bush is the perfect place for social distancing, for enjoying wide, open spaces, for appreciating the beauty of our planet, and for restoring our belief and wonder in the world in which we live.
Although the road ahead is fraught with hurdles, the safari industry is teeming with industrious, forward-thinking, imaginative, and creative people. Knowing so many and being fortunate to call them our friends, we have no doubt that they will endeavour and succeed in opening up South Africa’s crowning glory to the world once again.