January 4, 2012

A Life in the Bush Managing a Game Lodge

Having gone on several safaris since living in Africa, I have always wondered what it would be like to manage a game lodge. Is it exhausting? Do you get lonely? Do you ever tire of the animals?

So when we found ourselves at yet another game lodge over New Year’s, I decided to interview our hosts. We were travelling with my brother and his kids, and the ten of us were the only guests at Kitara Lodge, a lovely place deep in Klaserie Nature Reserve, which abuts Kruger Park on its Western boundary. It is approximately a seven hour’s drive from Johannesburg.

Our hosts at Kitara were Donovan and Lee-Anne Detert. Donovan has lived in the bush for twenty years, and Lee-Anne for ten – some of it single, and most of it married to each other. From the minute we arrived they absolutely spoiled us, serving drinks, inquiring about our preferred meal times, and just making us feel entirely at home. If you’ve ever wondered what it might feel like to travel through Africa a la Hemingway, this is the closest you’ll get to it. Minus the hunting. Or the adultery and bad language, for that matter. So rather not anything like it at all, if I’m completely honest. But it felt the way I IMAGINE it was like back then, with my romanticized glasses on. Except they probably didn’t have a pool, so I think we got the better deal, imagined and otherwise.


A perfect place at Kitara to relax between game drives. And to conduct interviews!

Anyway, since we were the only guests demanding their attention, there was plenty of time for my interview. So one morning after game drive and breakfast were successfully completed, Lee-Anne and I sat down to chat. Donovan, it turned out, was taking a nap, which got us right into the first topic, a game lodge manager’s schedule: I learned that Don gets up at 4:00 am (!), to get the truck ready and make sure tea is served, as well as knocking at all the guests’ doors at 5:00 sharp (which in the case of our two girls took quite some knocking), while Lee-Anne gets to sleep a little longer. While the guests are out on their game drive, she kicks into high gear, supervising the kitchen staff preparing breakfast, and generally organizing the day.

Throughout the day there are emails to be answered, shopping lists to be drafted for the once a week trip into the closest town [which is one and a half hours away], staff assignments to be planned (for a total of three lodges they are in charge of), a pool to be maintained, vehicles to be cleaned, fences to be repaired, and of course more meals to be cooked, all while projecting calmness and making sure the guests are taken care of at all times. Their day only ends when all the guests are safely escorted back to their rooms, to make sure no wild animal has wandered into camp and might surprise anyone. If you happen to get a partying crowd, you might be up until midnight! Not in our case, though – admittedly we are a very lame family when it comes to staying up, so even on New Year’s Eve we were safely tucked in bed before 10:00 pm.

I wouldn't mind having a home with this view!

Here are some of the questions I asked Lee-Anne:

Q: What is it like to live in the bush?

A: It’s very isolated and you have to be a specific type of person. You either can or can’t do it, there is no in between. While you’re on site – we work on a six weeks on, two weeks off schedule – it demands a lot from you in terms of hard work, and it can consume you if you allow it. If you’re the right type of person, there is no better way of life. You meet the most incredible people and hear the most amazing and funny stories.

You get treated to such a sunrise almost every day at Kitara Lodge

Q: What kind of person do you have to be?

A: You have to be able to enjoy your own company and be content far from “civilization.” Some people can’t stand that. You must be comfortable being distant from family and close friends, real friends. But you do make lots of friends by meeting new guests, especially the ones that come back again and again, which by the way is the most gratifying part of the job.

Q: Does it matter where you stay in the bush?

A: Not so much the place per se, but whether it’s a commercial or more private lodge. The bigger and more commercial lodges typically have a fairly high staff turnover. If it’s more private like in our case – the place isn’t always fully booked because the owner likes to visit frequently himself – it works very well and the managers usually stay.

Q: Have you ever thought about buying own place?

A: No. We are very happy with the way things are.

Q: What is the hardest thing about your job?

A: I’d say the most taxing is managing our staff. Not because they are difficult in any way, but because there is always something that comes up. Depending on which lodges have guests at any given time, we have to move people back and forth. Or someone’s family member will die and we quickly have to adjust the work schedule. It’s usually chaotic when all three camps are full. But we normally don’t have to deal with bad attitudes, everyone is willing to pitch in and shift between different jobs. What’s also hard is coming back from leave and having to start again, or missing special occasions like weddings and such, because your schedule doesn’t allow it.

View of the Klaserie River from Kitara Lodge

Q: How do people with kids manage this job?

A: Don and I chose not to have kids, but some people do successfully bring up children managing lodges. In fact, I’d say the majority of game lodge managers have families with children. In our case, getting to town takes 1.5 hours each way, and we know a couple who drives those three hours each day to bring their kids to school, until they’ll be old enough for boarding school [typically age 13 in South Africa]. And then when the kids are around, it’s also quite difficult juggling their demands with those of the job.

Q: What’s the best thing about being a game lodge manager?

A: Living here in this absolute paradise. When you stop getting excited about seeing an animal, any animal, it’s time to leave. I still get excited, after so many years, about the very same thing. Sometimes I’ll pass that giraffe driving to work, and I still think it’s absolutely amazing that I get to be so close to it, in the wild, just like that. Then I tell myself, I can just do this every day and other people pay lots of money for it! The other thing I absolutely love about my job is meeting people. I can count on one hand how many “bad” guests we’ve had over many years. We get the most incredible people coming here, people who bring something into my life, all of them impacting my life in some way.

One of many priceless game sightings at Kitara

Q: Who were your most unusual guests?

A: I can’t think of anyone in particular. A lot of our guests are return visitors, even the ones coming from far away. For instance, there is a group of doctors from Michigan that comes here every year, after working for a nonprofit doing aid work in the surrounding villages. When they’re all done, they come here to Kitara to relax. You also meet other unusual people in our line of work. When we managed a lodge in Namibia, in a very remote place in the Caprivi Strip, our owner had to negotiate some issues with the induna [a chief] concerning land use and the employment of locals. He used to meet with him regularly, always under a lone baobab tree.

Q: Have you ever felt scared out here in the bush?

A: I’ve never felt scared from a safety point of view, but I do have enormous respect for some of the animals, particularly elephants. They sometimes climb up the retainer wall into camp [getting around the electric wire designed to keep them out] and waltz straight through camp, making sure they stay on the tiles, somehow aware that the wooden pool deck wouldn’t support them. Then they go up the stairs and into the garden, where they pretty much wreck the fish pond and the surrounding trees. We try to chase them away, but sometimes they get in when no one is in camp, and always at night. Then again, elephants are also useful – we never have any trouble finding firewood, because there are so many dead branches everywhere. We’ve also had buffalo, hippo, leopard, and lots of monkeys in our camp. Not to mention snakes and scorpions.

Show and tell in the bush - Donovan showing us a tortoise

Q: Could you ever imagine going back to city life?

A: We do experience it during our 2-week breaks, mostly in Johannesburg, and it usually doesn’t take long for the noise and chaos, the people and the traffic to grate on our nerves and exhaust us. Then I realize that the longer we stay in the bush, the more at peace my soul is.

I’ll conclude my interview with this image, a soul at peace. Isn’t that what we all strive for? I can't help but admire two people who seem so perfectly happy with the life they've chosen. Or rather, not just happy, but exhilarated. And now the question beckons: Would it be for me?

I think much of this life would suit me fine. I’d be happy with the solitude, secluded from the rush of the city, free to have time to think. I’d love, absolutely love, faxing through all my food orders and picking them up once a week, in fact I need to go find a place that will do that for me, as I HATE shopping. The only thing I couldn't do without would be an internet connection, and Lee-Anne admits that those dial-up days from years past were pure torture. Now there is WiFi throughout the camp, and she and Don are avid readers on their Kindles. Darn it, I already had plans to sell them some through my link.

Okay, so I'm fine with the solitude. But how about the actual work? What's probably not so much for me is serving other people. I have four kids at home who want to be served around the clock, all with their very important demands that have to be dealt with RIGHT THIS MINUTE. I guess at least you don't have to break up fights between your guests. Or do you? Maybe I could go for that self-catering lodge.

As for the animals, that’s where I’m not sure I’d make the cut. I love seeing them, and I love learning more about them – as a matter of fact, we all asked Don a ton of questions, and there wasn’t a single one he couldn’t answer – but nevertheless I’m afraid I’m a bit of the “been there, done that, check” mentality, wanting to move on to bigger and better things to see and photograph, wanting to skip yet another herd of impala and move on to that ever elusive leopard.

Stay tuned for my next post to find out if we got to see one…

Lee-Anne and Donovan seeing us off, happy to once again stay behind in the bush

6 comments :

2summers.net said...

Great pics! I see you've got a new 10-22 :)

Sine said...

Thanks! And yes, my Christmas present, via our friend K:-)

More pics to come in another post, whenever I got those bazillion pictures sorted...

Maddy said...

I loved this! I kept thinking on our safari why our guide would take that job. We of course camped though and it was packing up the tent, planning meals, cooking them, getting up early, getting no sleep cause you're in a tent and of course being totally covered in sweat, dirt and mosquito bites constantly. She was awesome though!

Maddy said...

Oh....I'm signed in under my daughter's account. This is Marie from Rock The Kasbah...

Sine said...

Hi Marie - I thought it was you, because it sounded like you. You have your own style even when writing comments:-).
You know what, if I could convince my family I would love to do the camping thing, sounds so much more romantic. Okay, I admit, at the time probably awful, but great afterwards in the retelling and rethinking. Can't wait for your upcoming blog posts on your trip...

W. A. Jeffrey said...

As long as you didn't have any trouble with the locals, just living out in the bush/country might be kind of fun but running a game lodge would be too much work.