Butler training

Butlers in the Wilds of South Africa

Another boat ride and flights through and long layover at Dubai airport found me finally in Johannesburg airport, where I enjoyed a couple of days with my sister and family, including Plato, the old Rhodesian Ridgeback. First time visiting Sis in South Africa since she moved there three decades ago, so I had some explaining to do. Actually, she was busy as heck meeting deadlines for the first ten days, so I had arranged to train at two hotels before we began our (working) holiday together.

We did manage to attend a lecture at the Military Museum by the former Chairman of Anglo American on his take on Africa and its future, as well as China. Fascinating stuff, especially he being the only one to survey and brief the Chinese leadership. This was a few years back, when the Politburo elite feared an American implosion on the mortgages resulting in a worldwide financial collapse in demand and their own potential collapse as a government when not able to keep giving their increasingly demanding populace the kind of expansion (8% growth minimum) that keeps their standard of living rising. And look where we are now. Funnily enough, testament to the mantra that he who dares, wins, the Chinese politburo contact thanked him afterwards for his consulting, telling him that had he been English or American, they would never have asked him to speak. The irony being that this gentleman works in South Africa but is as British as they come. I am afraid we cornered him during the break and became so engrossed that we all missed out on the nibbling of biscuits and sipping of tea.

This gentleman, Mr. Clem Sumter, sees crime as the main issue South Africa faces in order to maintain its stature as the gateway to Africa. I might agree with that. While we were there, a friend of my sister was followed into her estate as the gate closed, but at least the robbers told her if she did not look at them, they would just take what they wanted and leave. And so they did. Most robberies, it appears, are just for some food and money. One of the butlers I trained in Joburg had an organized gang drive up right after he had left for work, and when he returned, the only thing left was the bed. There are solutions, of course, like, a program with a 70-99% success rate in reforming criminals permanently.

Then it was off to train butlers at three lodges: Waterfall, Atlantic, and Safari, all part of the privately held luxury Tintswalo chain (a local Shangaan word meaning “the intangible feeling of love, gratitude and peace that you bestow upon someone who has given you a meaningful and worthy gift”). This is a deeper meaning than one normally discovers in the names of hotel chains and in a way reflected the earnestness with which the staff took their positions.

"Atlantic" is built at the bottom of a steep cliff, inches above the Atlantic where it meets the Indian Ocean by Capetown, with a magnificent view of the Sentinel rock and the occasion whale sliding by languorously.

The hotel is built around an existing intricate and dense stand of trees on an old campsite, a condition for building in the nature reserve Chapman’s Peak, touted as one of the most scenic oceanic routes in the world. The grand opening occurred while we were there (my wife, Monica, had joined me by then, flying down on the unlikely named Mango airlines) with the Consul General of the Republic of Hout Bay officiating and his red-uniformed gunnery officers and men firing two old cannon into the Bay (and not hitting anything, luckily). In case this is a country unknown to you, the citizens of Hout Bay declared themselves a Republic in 1987 and even issued their own passport that some countries recognized (accidentally) when presented by arriving tourists.

 Swinging by Johannesburg to pick up my sister, we drove all day to Kruger Park, or more particularly the park on its border, Manyeleti, in the local Shangaan language meaning Place of Stars: A most apt name, because during a night safari, we saw a panoply of Southern hemisphere stars in stark relief, heralded by the moon, Venus and Jupiter.

We took every opportunity to exercise the skills of the driver and tracker assigned to us after each day’s class with the butlers, to go on all the safaris we could fit in. For we were in the middle of luxury in the wild, a spectacular concept, and from our armchairs, the picture window of our villa overlooking the waterhole afforded a TV au naturelle that captivated us for hours; but we wanted more, hence the four three-hour safaris. There was so much game, it was almost as if the animals were taking numbers to appear before our jeep. The very first day, we saw “The Big 5” in an hour flat. Then we saw the “Small 5,” and then everything else between, including a colony of wild dogs that represented 15% of the entire world’s population of such malodorous beasties. Maybe not high on one’s list of things to see, but their group dynamic and hunting techniques make a fascinating story. Had I not forgotten my camera in Johannesburg, I would have taken copious photographs of this cornucopia—a sorry confession from an erstwhile professional photographer.

One is used to butlers in diverse settings, from stately homes to barefoot on beach paradises, so in the wilds of Africa was definitely one for the books. The reasons one appreciates butlers are perhaps even more compellingly clear in the wilds of the bush, and Monica and I did not see any contradiction in enjoying the epitome of sophistication within a primitive setting; for the very juxtaposition created a unique universe. Take the warning on the laundry slip that the lodge would occasionally be overrun by baboons. What this had to do with one’s laundry, and what to do about such an invasion, were left to the imagination. We decided that perhaps the baboons might make off with one’s more personal articles of clothing (being of the right size compared to trousers or shirts), so we tasked ourselves, amongst the many wildlife curiosities we expected to see, to be on the lookout for any baboon troupes already attired from earlier raids. Enquiring further about the baboon question, we were told to double-lock our doors as baboons could open a door that was merely locked. We were advised, furthermore, to exit the suite discreetly if they did manage to enter, rather than yell and scream at the baboons (as one sorry gentleman had done, only to have the entire troupe, now in a high state of agitation, empty its collective bowel from the rafters). The only problem we saw with this advised strategy was that we were not allowed to walk between suites (discrete huts) without an escort, in case itinerant wild cats felt puckish, peckish, or peevish. What exactly the escort would do with his small torch in the event of such an encounter, was never explained with any great degree of satisfaction, either. Such is life in the bush…don’t sweat if you don’t have to, smile, be happy.

We made good friends and enjoyed ourselves very much with the butlers and staff at all three lodges (and hope the Executive Chef has quit steaming and cutting himself to shreds…your cooking is too good to lose you!), and seeing Sis was a real treat. But Saudi Arabia called, so back North through, you guessed it, Dubai, to Jeddah.