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The Rissington Rag - September 2020

Posted on Wed September 23, 2020.

Some News and a few somewhat Hazy Views. The Rissington Rag, just as you remember it but now even better.

Dear Ragsters

Welcome to Spring in Southern Africa. Here comes some exciting news - and also a bit of fun and some quirky facts as usual...

The September Reinvention Rag

Think about it. Hibernating animals go through this every year. They fall asleep at the fading of summer and then re-emerge with the dawn of spring, just as southern Africa has done this year, into a completely different world. The word 'hibernate' comes from the Latin hibernus for ‘wintry’ – hence the French word hiver – and we have certainly had an exceptionally cold winter in Hazyview, both literally and figuratively. There have been no permitted visitors from other parts of the country or from around the world to keep a warm atmosphere going – and the weather has been cold enough to freeze and even to kill off some of the macadamias along the banks of the Sabi river. Anyway, that's enough etymology and amateur meteorology. It is Springtime. Almost Summer. Read up on where Rissington is going in the New Era as we head into the Time of Afro-Optimism (Google it. It really is a thing.) The amazing photograph below is from the Afro-Optimism Facebook page: How could anyone live on such a beautiful continent and fail to be optimistic?

Firstly, a new format for The Rag

The whole world has been reformatted and your Rissington Rag is no exception. I hope you will like what we have done – and don’t worry… all the old favourite bits are still there. We have simply changed the layout and made it all a little punchier and (hopefully) a tad less rambling at times. The Rag will continue to be emailed to you quarterly but it will also be permanently available as a blog on the brand new rissington.co.za website. Take a look. After 25 years of Rissington and a somewhat introspective year, it was time for a few changes. Keep an eye on the website in future for any specials. They will be posted there first (and on Facebook as always) and there may even be a few infrequent interim blogs with quick updates, ideas and deals too. You won't want to miss those. You can also check availability and make all your bookings direct on the website, although we would also love to hear from you any time by email so that we can make sure you get exactly the room and activities that you want. Email us on: [email protected]

So … what has changed? Well, as they say, everything and nothing.

Further down this Rag, you will find a list. It is not a very long list … but it is a list, nevertheless, of the aspects of Rissington Inn that have changed forever. It is important that everyone knows what to expect and also understands that our client base has altered and expanded through the last six months. We are excited about this long-wished-for development which has been facilitated by the Covid era and we have adapted permanently and with enthusiasm to our new situation.

As a result of all the cancelled bookings from our overseas visitors over the past months and for the coming weeks, we have been able to attract in their place a broad range of South African families, couples, businesspeople and retirees of all hues and cries, interests and backgrounds, and we very much hope that we shall hold onto them whilst continuing to appeal to all our fans from around the world who are looking for a down-to-earth, authentic, entertaining and sympathetic African experience.

It has all been something of an eye-opener. At times, we feel a bit like extras in a Kardashians production (farewell to them!) as we watch some of the youngsters cavorting around and taking their selfies but more often it's like having a bit-part in some sort of quirky medical drama where every guest is now suddenly a doctor-and-politician-and-soothsayer-and-epidemiologist-and-mask-enforcer. Everyone has however been good-natured, charming and just plain pleased to be out and about. It has been an absolute treat watching South Africans get to know each other and bond in these times of confusion.

If you read the June Rag you will remember that I was talking about the book Rainbow Nation, My Zulu A*se (I am not putting in the full word for A*se as it apparently sent the last Rag into a lot of Spamboxes) by Sihle Khumalo and the ‘Sihle market’ is the exact group that we have enjoyed being able to accommodate the most. At last, because we weren't booked up months in advance, SA tourism – and with it Rissington – has been made available to everyone.

Coping during Covid – some stories …

So who are they, these new Rissington fans? Well, let me tell you a story or two …

The lodge sat completely empty for the month of April and most of May with a lockdown team preparing for the new cleaning systems and with the office handling seemingly-endless numbers of cancellations and refunds of deposits. It was a happy time with a great team and their many children hunkered down with us, as our Facebook followers will remember. In June, we decided to open for Essential Workers and the new story began.

I received a call from a police contact asking us if we would accommodate 12 police officers for 28 days. Of course, with no bookings at all in the offing, we jumped at the opportunity. They would need a room each (fine), no meals (also fine) and televisions in their rooms. Hmmm. Now, I am known for never having been a fan of TVs in hotel rooms, but we agreed to put them in. We needed the money and it was a question of survival. In return for the investment in 12 television sets, we would sit with a sudden dramatically-increased occupancy …

There were cops everywhere you looked at Rissington in June. Cops swinging in hammocks, cops playing loud music and cops revving their vehicles. Cops jogging through the bush with Bruno the dog, who was delighted to have some new best friends. Cops and cop cars coming in and out randomly, day and night. Cops breakfasting at 11am. Cops braaiing in the afternoons. Suddenly the cold room was filled with giant slabs of meat and cabbages and the kitchen was taken over by cop amateur cooks as Rissington’s highly-trained chefs took a back seat and watched their domain turned into a DIY Shisanyama.

These guys were armed to the teeth. There would be sudden scramblings of the masses, as they donned their Kevlar and loaded up arsenals of weaponry into their leg-holsters and the backs of their vehicles, before hurtling off in convoy to deal with whatever drama had unfolded and required their attention, the most radical of which was when the Bushbuckridge police station was besieged and robbed of all its armaments, requiring ‘our’ team to respond and retrieve. Exciting stuff.  Hlengiwe’s nine-year-old son Ryan’s eyes nearly popped out of his head the one afternoon when he saw the car-boots-full of assault rifles preparing to set out on a manoeuvre.

Eventually I summoned up the investigative courage to ask them about their precise role and it emerged that they were the 'Tactical Response Team', specialising in the handling of ATM bombings and Cash in Transit heists.

We don’t have many of those around here,” I said.

That is because we are here,” they replied. Fair enough, I guess.

Their own security was something of an issue to them though, and we had to keep the gates firmly closed at all times and to have extra private security on-site to keep them safe, convinced, as they were, that (like their Bushbuckridge counterparts) they were going to be attacked and lose their weapons. Suddenly, having felt very safe from having 12 heavily-armed police officers on-site, we were now feeling very unsafe from having 12 heavily-armed police officers on-site. Especially with all the desirable firepower and brand new flat-screen televisions knocking around.

The SAPS team would come and go at all hours with their sirens blaring. If the gate didn’t open for them immediately, they would sound their sirens and hoot loudly until someone opened it for them. They stopped short of letting off a few rounds of machine-gunfire, fortunately. It wasn’t relaxing, but they were great people and it was money. And there was no-one else here. We loved them.

They told us that they would pay cash, which meant that every one of them would have to go to the bank and withdraw his or her portion of the bill. This resulted, in turn, in each of them turning up at our little office with their R11 200 in shiny new notes, drawn in a series of death-defying visits to the ATM. And this, of course, left us with the small matter of having R134 000 stashed away in the office and feeling somewhat vulnerable. Luckily, we had the perfect solution right here on the spot. The cops all helpfully donned full body armour and, tooled up with assault rifles and with screaming sirens and lights flashing on their nyala armoured vehicles, they escorted Sipho the Rissington driver all the way to the bank with the fresh cash that had literally only been withdrawn that morning. Yes. The same piles of cash notes from the ATM came all the way here from the bank with the 12 individual police officers and then, on the same day, escorted by the same 12 officers in the same vehicles, went straight back. Talk about validating your own relevance!

All of this was in the early stages of the pandemic so, when everyone else was sitting stone-empty, we were delighted to mask up, source suitable alcohol-based sprays and swabs and practise our sanitising techniques on the South African Police Services. I had never thought until now that there would be a time of my life when I would wake up thinking thank goodness for the South African Police. Or, even more bizarrely, thinking “I wish I was in cleaning products”.

At the end of June, to our chagrin, the police left us and a new range of clients began slowly to emerge, many of them impressively creative in their interpretation of the concept of what constituted an Essential Worker, as was then permitted by the regulations.

My favourite couple was husband-and-wife pensioners from Johannesburg whose essential service was the sale of oil. I assumed they had an oil rig or a pumpjack donkey in a previously un-drilled part of Mpumalanga but no. It turned out that they had managed to talk their way through all the roadblocks with a couple of 500ml cans of engine oil in the boot of their Corolla. When asked why they had so little oil, the answer was simple: “Sold out. Had a great day.” And then off they headed to the then-recently-reopened Kruger National Park (which was blissfully empty, too, whenever we visited it).

We’ve had construction engineers aplenty, many reps, National Parks managers, clinic doctors and nurses, shopfitters, hoteliers, tour operators, security guards and all sorts and it has been wonderful watching them settle in and make themselves at home at Rissington, even with the booze ban (where people were also, I must say, amazingly resourceful). And now with the further lifting of restrictions, we are getting genuine domestic tourists again. What a joy! 

It has been an ongoing learning curve resulting from the unexpected recognition of just how low-maintenance our local visitors are to look after. They understand the staff and the menus. They all know where they are going without a map. They can get the WiFi on their phones first time. They are instantly relaxed and at home here. No-one since 25th March has complained about the condition of the road or the speed of the Internet or the occasional party music emanating from the neighbouring room or from the shebeens in town. They eat what they were offered and drink what we have (or had left when the earlier booze ban was imposed). And I think we introduced some unlikely takers to Craft Gin.

We are all obviously ready, willing and prepared though, when general tourism returns for a new range of even more unusual complaints. Maybe the quality (or the smell) of the sanitiser? Or the ‘funny foods’ on the menu, where we have now added a number of delicious new local South African dishes to our more regular items? Or the difficulties for our nonagenarians when it comes to lip-reading masked waitrons?

How Rissington has changed a little and improved a lot …

One aspect of Rissington that has not changed is the sheer space. If you want to socially-distance, we have got you covered (or should that be uncovered?) but you will notice a few subtle changes as a result of the new way of doing things, so here they are:

Table d’hôte menu: In the biggest change, the old à la carte menu has gone and we are now preparing a delicious 3-course table d’hôte (also known as a prix fixe) menu with a choice of three starters, three main courses and a few desserts every day. You can see some examples on the Dining Room page under Facilities on the website. This is available at lunchtime and at dinner. The menu is drawn from our significant repertoire of popular recipes on the previous menu including many of our popular vegan, vegetarian and gluten-free options. Our breakfast is not currently a buffet (although we hope to return to that soon) but it still retains its good range of cooked breakfasts as well as the usual cereals. juices, yoghurts and fruits. There is also a light meals menu available all day which includes some pasta dishes as well as a number of local dishes such as the ever-popular chicken and pap with chakalaka and some children’s options, pizzas and pasta dishes. Guests on long stays will be able to nominate some of their own choices to go onto the table d’hôte dinner menu as we go along.

Televisions : Yes, we really have put televisions into all the rooms (except for the two budget rooms) offering a broad range of channels including plenty of sport. They have caused much less trouble than expected but we have nevertheless all had to become experts in reprogramming when someone accidentally messes up the whole system by changing the source from HDMI1 to AV2. But we are coping!

Outside furniture : With the renewed emphasis on space and open-air living, we have invested in new tables and chairs for the terrace in front the main building, where we are offering all our meals for those who would rather eat al fresco. In addition, we deliver dining tables and chairs to the rooms and to their verandahs, for those who prefer to dine privately. The dining room is unchanged though and there is plenty of space there too.

The Herb Garden : We have created an additional outdoor dining area by the new herb garden just next to the dining room and under the hill. It is peaceful, shady and – at dinner – brimming with bird and animal calls, including nightjars, frogs and bushbabies. And (next paragraph notwithstanding) hopefully not human babies.

Family stuff : As promised, Rissington now caters more than ever to families and there is plenty to keep younger children and teenagers occupied. There are no computer games – of course, because they can do that at home – but we do encourage all sorts of active outdoor stuff as well as some more sedate activities like Uno and other card and board games. We have card tables, as well as table-tennis and a pool table, beach volleyball, badminton and boules (pétanque) and we are putting in a rather rough bowling green as well as a golf putting green and a pitching patch complete with a bunker. Plans for the new pool are still well in hand too, with a firepit already in position next to where it will soon be situated. Imagine magical summer evenings of swimming under the stars and then climbing out and drying off, drink in hand, around a great big fire. How fabulously African is that?

The wildlife : I mentioned in a previous Rag that we would be stepping up our environmental walks and I am pleased to report that the improved birding as a result of the lockdown is persisting into the new world with 194 species now on our current bird list for being visible at Rissington. Recently we have been enjoying regular sightings of the magical long-crested eagle and a number of other larger raptors. We also regularly catch our side-striped jackals and our porcupines on the bushcam and, unbelievably, we also had an elephant up behind the lodge for a few days. It presumably wandered here along the river beds from the Kruger.

Experiential tourism : We are also putting together some new ideas, especially with families in mind, for active and interesting days out visiting local schools and development projects. These are not charities, they are communities – and there will be an opportunity to really get to know people without patronising them. There will also be entertaining treasure hunts for family days out up the canyon as well as the option, for those who want to stay behind, to get stuck in with the chefs in the Rissington kitchen and to learn some of our signature dishes including our delicious breads and scones.

New website : For a catch-up and a fresh look at Rissington, be sure to have a look around our website, which has been completely redesigned. If you are reading this, you are on the website already! We hope you love it as much as we do. With everything still in something of a state of flux, offerings might change and a few of the activities that are often popular with our guests are still currently closed as they deal with the challenges of virus-control and social-distancing. This includes some of the adrenalin activities, although most are up-and-running. There are also some exciting new businesses opening up, such as the Kruger Station restaurant in Skukuza, which offers lovely meals and will soon have a 360-degrees cinema (whatever that is). And there’s a play area there, called Li’l Gricers, for over-ice-creamed kids to tire themselves out before they are loaded up for more game drives. I can’t believe I had never before heard the world ‘gricer’ for a fanatical railway enthusiast, but now I know – and that knowledge led me to a few more great words for train-spotters. How about gunzels? And ferro-equinologists?! Iron horses. I love it.

Lantana and re-indigenising : In order to further improve the conditions for the wildlife at Rissington we have also undertaken a huge clearance programme of non-indigenous species, which has opened up the property beautifully and allowed all our naturally-occurring trees – the acacias, the silver cluster-leaf and the kiaat, among others – to thrive again. Like everything else on the planet, Rissington is taking a deep breath.

Personality of the Month

Followers of Rissington’s social media feeds will already have seen this. (Find us on Facebook and Instagram, where we are getting quite a following for our great photographs of what we are up to.)

Meet our magnificent metre-high owl, pictured here at ground level with Bruno and then, at the bottom of the page, on his new perch with Lucky, who positioned him high in a jacaranda tree overlooking the Rissington steps, with a long view down the driveway. The owl is not the Personality of the Month though. That title belongs to its creator, James Delaney, who will be known to many readers for a variety of different reasons. Perhaps for his accomplished art and sculptures, for his photography or for his founding role in Hazyview’s Shangana Cultural Village or maybe for his dedication to all issues municipal and historical in the Johannesburg CBD and areas to the north, where he has been instrumental in celebrating many magnificent old buildings and cleaning up and rehabilitating The Wilds, a popular inner city park and nature reserve.

James generously created the owl for Rissington after he stayed with us before lockdown, so we mounted it right where the real spotted eagle owl sat last year when keeping an eye on its young brood in its flamboyant-tree nest below. Our sculpture is beautiful and wise and, if you can, zoom in and take a good look at its eyes. In these days of Afro-optimism, this is a real insight.

You can see more of James’s work on his website or at his studio in Johannesburg's trendy Victoria Yards. Look at his website on www.delaney.co.za for more information or to sign up for his newsletter.

Podcast of the Month

I mentioned Jayne Morgan in the last Rag and here she comes again. Now that you have mastered Podcasts, here is our next recommendation. Jayne hosts and puts together The Friendship File. The current world health crisis has highlighted all sorts of aspects of human relationships and although the timing of the podcast has nothing specifically to do with the virus, it nevertheless has a heightened relevance as a result of it. Jayne has just moved from Makhanda (formerly Grahamstown) to London so there are South Africans, Brits and even combinations of the two featured in these files. It is thought-provoking stuff and it will get everyone mulling over and valuing the most important relationships in their lives. Subscribe wherever you usually get your podcasts.

If you're on your phone, you can just click on this link to listen and subscribe (it's free - it just means you'll get new episodes as they come out) -  or to find out more from wherever you are, go here www.thefriendshipfile.com. Don't forget to like, comment and rate with (preferably) five stars.

I know many people – myself included – are currently still finding it difficult, with all the interesting challenges we face, to concentrate sufficiently to be able to settle into a good book, so podcasts (and audio books) are the answer. If you haven’t done so yet, this is also another reminder to sign up for The Boring Talks podcast from the BBC. Go on. Do both!

Where in the World …

I am all for integrity and for not using Google in the Rissington competitions. Here is another honest winner, in response to the most recent Where in the World photo (left) of the hillside suite swimming pool:

Dear Chris,

I believe you are standing by the 2 lodges to the left of the main building.

One of the lodges name begins with an M can’t remember the full name. Since we were last there it looks like you have opened up the area as I remember it being enclosed. Hope I’m right. Take care.
Elaine & Stevie Bevan

You are right(ish) – and you have won a couple of nights at Rissington. The rooms names are Shonalanga (sunset – or west) and Pumalanga (sunrise – or east), so no M, but I can see where you were coming from. Congratulations!

Here (below) is this month’s mystery location. Where in the world was this cycling photograph of JJ taken? Win two nights for two at Rissington …

Refurbishments

The June winners’ answer – and the memory of how scruffy that pool used to be when it was enclosed with its shabby grass and its clunky peeling-paint wooden fence – reminded me just how much we have done at Rissington over the past few years and lockdown has been no exception. This month, we are finally finishing of the task of replacing all the tired old wooden doors in the garden suites with smart new aluminium sliding versions, for example, and the outside shower doors have also been replaced. We have given all the rooms a good sprucing up and applied paint and varnish. It is all looking really good – and with the recent early rain, the gardens are greening up well. I don’t think the place has ever looked better, largely because we have let the shrubs and plants do their own thing for a while and everything has thickened out beautifully.

Our Travels

So far, I have only spent one night away from home since the end of March, but it was unexpectedly memorable and a great example of how South African tourism products are having (and managing) to reinvent themselves for a new way of ‘doing tourism’. Savanna Private Game Reserve has long been one of my favourite places on earth and now it has been rendered available and more affordable to a much broader market with the launch of a self-catering option which includes two game drives per day with a Savanna guide. The house has a fully-fitted kitchen and open-plan sitting/dining room and sleeps six in three bedrooms with two separate bathrooms. There is a large outside verandah with a dining area and a private garden with a heated pool overlooking a private waterhole. It was really great and there is a magnificent view from the stoep over the western grasslands of the Sabi-Sand towards the sunrise. A rhino wandered right past us as we prepared our morning coffee to take with us on our game drive. What a way to start the day! Look up the website savannalodge.com and get in touch with the Savanna team.

Accolades for Team Rissington

Embracing all sorts of new guests with enthusiasm, I have watched with amazement and respect, the great dignity and calm maintained by the Rissington team through these challenging times. It is not for nothing that they are renowned across the country and around the world for their smiles as much as their skills. Sadly, with the downturn, we have had no choice but let a few of our most recently-employed team members go, at least for the time being. Those that have gone were offered full and (I hope) generous packages and a number of the longest-serving team members have taken the opportunity to take voluntary pay-outs and start small businesses of their own. We miss them, of course, but I admire their determination to take advantage of the world shake-up as a chance to start again. Those of us who are still here are fully aware of how lucky we are and we are giving it everything we have. There is no staff list at the bottom of this letter. You will just have to come and see us to find out who is still on the team but despite the (hopefully short-term) absences, I promise that many of your favourite staff members remain in situ.

In addition, our old favourite Tripadvisor has recognised Rissington for being in the top ten percent of all accommodation establishments worldwide in terms of exceeding client expectations by announcing that we qualify for the 2020 Travellers’ Choice award.

In Tripadvisor’s own words it “gives a Travellers’ Choice award to accommodations, attractions and restaurants that consistently earn great reviews from travellers and are ranked within the top 10% of properties on Tripadvisor.” Ag, well. I have to be excited, I guess! And yes, TripAdvisor has undergone a subtle reinvention as Tripadvisor. It is all in the attention to detail.

Guest Comments:

In yet another of the seemingly-endless lists of adaptations we have had to make to the way we do things, we have dispensed with our visitors book and our guest feedback forms in order to minimise contact between one person and the next person’s hands. So, in this world of distant waves, fist bumps and namastes in place of handshakes and high-fives, we are dependent on emails of thanks and online reviews for our guest comments and I will save those for the bumper Christmas Rag.

Now that we have backed down and put in televisions and our South African guests’ satisfaction with the road and with carrying their own bags, I am wondering what people will find to complain about. I am sure I will find out soon enough, but in the meantime, we shall continue to smile at our guests (and even laugh at the tricky ones) from behind our masks. And no-one will ever know!

And the Choir? 

A Rag would not be a Rag without the Ndlovu Youth Choir's latest uplifting offering, would it?

Our President set us all a task for our Heritage Day public holiday this year, which falls on 24th September. This week. His idea for uplifting the nation was to challenge us all to film ourselves doing the famous dance routine to the sensational Jerusalema, a South African original and now a worldwide fad. Luckily for Team Rissington (because we are a bit busy right now!) our friends at the Ndlovu Youth Choir have recorded their own (somewhat shorter) version and we think they have absolutely nailed it (which spares us donning our white John Travolta outfits and shuffling around ourselves). Watch it here: Jerusalema Challenge

What do you think? Pretty damned good! There are literally thousands of these routines around. Compare it, for example, with one of the earliest videos (this one came of out of Angola) and you will see how far it has come: Angolan Jerusalema

Don't you just love Africa? Happy Heritage Day, South Africa!

Thanks to everyone …

… who sent us an email enquiring how we were doing. Many, many people did and many more posted on social media how much they were looking forward to coming back to Rissington as soon as they were able. It meant a lot and it saw us through. We are not out of the woods yet, of course, but things have improved dramatically and will continue to do so. If everyone reading this (and who is able to get here) were to book, we would keep going easily. If every one of those people sent some other people and recommended Rissington generally and widely, we would come through comfortably. So share this letter, please!

You can still buy a voucher, any time, for a friend or a family in need of a break – or for yourself if you like. Many have. It’s a great treat and it will give them or you something to look forward to. There are also still a few spots left for Christmas and New Year if you are keen. Send us an email and we will tell you all about it.

We have a fantastic tight little team here working their socks off to keep everyone happy, safe and excited to be out and about. The support means everything to us – and we will show our gratitude by offering generous room upgrades whenever we can to everyone who books direct for the rest of this year and the first half of next year. And forever if we can. Email us.

Any travel industry peeps reading this, please make sure you are also receiving our separate (and very occasional) communications explaining any changes in our supplier policies by sending us an email asking us to add you to that (different) mailing list.

Then, finally, to all the amazing people who sent money and tips for the team and who told us to keep the deposits they had paid and to share them between staff, you are amazing. Thank you. It was life-changing and you made them (and me) cry.

So, everything has changed but we carry on just as before. We are taking Covid-19 seriously but we are not letting it ruin our lives. It is a balancing act we think we have mastered and, in difficult times such as these, there is no substitute for experience. After 25 years or Rissington, we think we have plenty of that.

Come and stay. We need to see you. And you need us! If anyone understands how much you need to get away, we do at Rissington Inn, Hazyview, Mpumalanga, South Africa …

Wishing you all the very best,

Chris and the Amazing Rissington Team. Plus Rusty and Bruno. And JJ, who turned 16 in the middle of all this madness. Wow.

Having said that I wouldn't be naming any of the current team, pictured here in a tree with our owl, is the aforesaid Lucky without whom our lockdown would have been a lot tougher. Lucky is 22 and he has been my left and right hand throughout. From a timid and silent general labourer last year, he has grown into a confident and competent builder, landscaper, handyman (unasked, he fixed three broken irons that he found in the workshop), food expert (he ate at least four bowls of Cornflakes every day for five months) and security supremo. Thank you, Lucky. You are a hero. This would have been so much more difficult without your ever-willing ways, your long hours and your cheerful smile. And naturally, those of all your remaining colleagues too. Ngiyabonga.