One of the first big purchases we made in preparing for our official opening of Djuma Bush Lodge was that of a 1982 Toyota Land Cruiser. It had belonged to ESCOM, the electricity supplies commission of South Africa, and in its heyday had been a bright yellow.

When we discovered it just outside Johannesburg it had already been converted into a game-drive vehicle of a fetching bottle-green hue. It was in good nick and, for our purposes, a decade-old vehicle would be fine. On its dashboard a sign warned us that speeds of over 90km per hour would lead to instability. What a laugh - as if game-drive speeds could ever reach anywhere near that! For the moment we forgot that we were going to have to get the vehicle to Djuma!
Because we were doing a shoot for our very first brochure we needed the Land Cruiser to be at the lodge as soon as possible, so Jurie roped in Mark Napier, a good friend and a photographer, as company on the drive of 520km to the bush at speeds well below 90km/h. Mark went along not only to keep Jurie company on the drive; we also wanted to call on his photographic skills and moral support in the bush.
I had enlisted the help of a fashion designer friend, Wilma Alberts, to do the styling for the shoot of our first brochure. The two of us drove our personal Land Cruiser, the same one in which we had had an accident the year before in Johannesburg. One of the quirks of this workhorse, resulting from the accident, was a solenoid problem that caused the engine to cut out every now and then. Most times one could pop the hood and hit the solenoid with a screwdriver and - hey, presto – it would start up again. Other times, it would not!
To cut a long story short - the AA had quite a job saving the Moolmans, in separate Land Cruisers, at various points along the route to the game lodge. Jurie and I would alternate in calling for help from the mobile mechanics, while the people at the call center remained convinced that they had already helped us. Put it this way - our AA membership was very well used that day!
In those early days before Bush Lodge became a fully fledged commercial operation, there are some stories worth telling. One morning a traumatic squealing began coming from behind the fridge in the open-plan kitchen. Nowadays I recognise this is a distress signal from frogs being devoured by some sort of snake. On that first occasion I tentatively investigated and discovered a Spotted Bush Snake with a Foam Nest Frog disappearing between its jaws, while the rest of the snake’s long frame extended through the inner mechanics of the fridge. Right. The next task was to find a man (i.e. anyone who would willingly approach a snake) and remove it and its lunch from my kitchen. Mark Napier, who had grown up with my brothers, was close at hand and, best of all had no qualms about handling snakes. He grabbed the snake by its tail, but at the last moment seemed to falter in identifying it. He was not quick enough to get a good grip behind the snake’s head, so solved the problem by swinging the snake around by the tail above his head until he got outdoors. Then with a deft sling-shot manoeuvre he let go his charge, which glided gracefully through the air until snake and frog landed safely - the snake anyway - on the opposite side of the drainage line.
In the mean time I had decided rapidly to vacate the lodge and ran up the driveway into the bush amid vague childhood recollections of the ways and means my brothers would devise to torment me. The concept of ‘boy with snake’ meant only one thing to me and I was not sticking around to face any potential consequences. Much time passed, with Mark and Jurie trying to convince me to return to camp - let alone the kitchen - as the coast now was clear. Eventually with many threats as to their future health I re-entered the camp very cautiously.
After this episode I did realise, however, that I had to come to terms with sharing my life with snakes. Either that or I would have to retreat to an office job in Johannesburg, God forbid! Wally Petersen, our herpetologist friend, was given the task of educating me in all matters reptilian. I have learned how to identify snakes into venomous and non-venomous categories, and, also, their basic behavioral characteristics, which all has helped me enormously.
The same night we were braai-ing (barbecuing) where Bush Lodge’s boma is now, and had been busy, preparing, cooking, and then eating for more than an hour. While we were clearing up one of us heard a twig snap just meters away and reached for the hand-held spotlight. Imagine our response on discovering that a pride of lions had been watching us: apart from the surge of adrenalin pumped through our veins nothing happened. The lions seemed positively bored and were not at all interested in eating us, or even applauding the show we had unwittingly performed for them!
True to our usual style we enlisted the services, as ‘models’, from mates of various members of our families. This time it was my younger brother who had some friends holidaying in Natal who would not mind posing in front of the camera in return for a couple of days of safari. All well and good, except poor Fiona had been struck by lightning some days previously. She still had burn marks on her feet and hands, as well as under her breasts as a result of wearing an under-wire bra! She was a little distant, as to be expected, but her good looks and cute boyfriend served our purpose well.
The brochure, produced as cheaply as possible, all came together with the layout help of yet another friend, this time a graphic designer. I also met my trusted editor – for this book – Eithne Doherty, as she undid and rewrote the text for us.
Producing the brochure strongly indicated that we were getting closer to having paying guests to stay and we began sourcing tour operators to take notice of our product. The competition was not that bad as far as the number of other lodges was concerned, but those that were already operating had experience in the safari industry that we could not gain over night. As newcomers to the industry we lacked the years of experience of the ‘Big Three’ to the south of us. These three lodges in the Sabi Sand Wildtuin had already made names for themselves in the South African safari industry. At that stage Mala Mala was consistently voted as the best small hotel in the world; Londolozi had a trusted reputation and John Varty’s wildlife documentaries, which were popular worldwide; Sabi Sabi had stunning land along the Sabi and Sand rivers and an intense marketing wing. The new kids on the block were us and Chitwa. By no means were these the only lodges operating in the area, but Mala Mala and Londolozi were our inspiration, as they were family owned and family run, just as we intended to be.

To be continued....

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Our African Way