'We bought a game lodge in Africa'
If you received an inheritance, what would you do with it?
Retire right away? Take a trip around the world? How about buying a safari lodge in Africa? That’s what Rolf Steiner and his partner, Marisa Silva, did. Rolf is Swiss and Marisa is from Argentina, and they live in Sao Paulo, Brazil, where they both work in the insurance industry (they didn’t choose the retirement option).
When Rolf’s parents died a year apart, leaving him some money and a message that he 'should remember the animals', his memories of travelling with them to Kenya as a child came flooding back, and he started thinking about buying a game reserve in Africa.
Not that it was an impulsive decision. 'We looked for a long time,' says Rolf. 'We wanted to do something with passion and enthusiasm; we wanted a more balanced life, something that would make sense for us, for society and for the environment.'
So why choose South Africa? And Madikwe Game Reserve? 'If you are an international person, South Africa is probably the country in Africa where you can come and do business,' explains Rolf.
The couple had come to South Africa in 2010, the year of the FIFA World Cup, and had travelled more than 4 000km in three weeks in a motor home. On the trip, they visited the Madikwe Game Reserve, which they loved, because, says Rolf, 'You can go off-road and you have the ranger and the gun and the feeling of going on a safari.
'The fact that it is a malaria-free reserve also made it a good option.'
At 75 000ha, Madikwe Game Reserve is a large and up-and-coming reserve that is home to many five-star lodges (including Rhulani), and which is run as a three-way partnership between the government (North West Parks and Tourism), the private sector and the local community. Madikwe was founded from old farmland in 1991, with the world's most extensive wildlife translocation taking place. More than 8 000 animals of 28 species were released here.
Now the reserve is home to the legendary Big Five (lion, elephant, rhino, leopard and buffalo), as well as cheetah and wild dog (it is particularly famous for its wild dogs) and myriad other species. The reserve is only a three-and-a-half-hour drive from Johannesburg, and has gained huge popularity with local and international visitors alike in the past few years in particular.
Marisa says that her initial impressions of South Africa were 'the beautiful landscapes. The beauty was overwhelming, and the people were very friendly and welcoming. South Africans’ hospitality is amazing – once we missed a flight and a South African lady on the same flight just invited us to stay at her house! She and her husband even made a braai (barbecue) for us!'
Rolf adds that he was attracted by the uniqueness of South Africa. 'This [game reserve experience] cannot be copied. You cannot create such game reserve elsewhere in the same way. There is nothing artificial here. It gives a great balance for people who are so stressed and busy in their lives.'
So Rolf turned to the internet to start researching buying a safari lodge. 'I had no idea – no idea – even of what a lodge would cost. I just googled and the first thing I saw was that there was a dynamic market for lodges. Then I did a course online in game lodge management ... The first thing I read was that profit should not be the only motive, and that was confirmation for me that this is what I wanted to do.'
Rolf contacted a few agents and after chatting with one for a long time on the phone, knew he wanted a top-quality lodge with no fence ('so you have a feeling you are in the bush'), in a big reserve. He had a whirlwind trip to South Africa, driving over 1000km and staying at several different lodges before arriving at a shortlist that he put into a PowerPoint for Marisa to help them decide.
They eventually settled on Rhulani Safari Lodge, though it wasn’t all that difficult a decision. 'I was impressed by the staff,' says Rolf. 'I thought these were professionals, and we could work with them.' Plus, he pointed out, an 18-bed lodge is not too big and not too small, and was commercially viable. The entire process of researching the market and purchasing the lodge took about six months, and Rhulani officially became Rolf's and Marisa’s in early 2013.
Rolf adds that everything about the purchase of Rhulani went well, and he would highly recommend South Africa to other international business people. 'From the seller, to the banker, to the lawyer, to the staff, to the auditor – everything went very smoothly,' he says.
Marisa laughs that their friends back home in Brazil 'think we’re crazy!' A self-proclaimed city girl, she explained on a blog post on the Rhulani website: 'I’m a city person. Born in Buenos Aires, I grew up in an apartment block and never played on the street because it was dangerous. I feel at ease in a library and I work in an office ... I don’t know how this happened but my husband convinced me to buy a safari lodge.'
Now it’s theirs and there’s no looking back. Marisa and Rolf see their challenges at Rhulani in positioning the property correctly and aiming for ever-higher standards (despite the fact Rhulani won the prize for the best lodge in Madikwe in 2013, they want it to be even better). They want to increase the occupancy, and they admit they’ve sometimes struggled to understand the cultural differences. 'The cultural richness is also something that impressed me about South Africa,' says Marisa. 'It’s rich and challenging.'
Grant Korsten, the general manager at Rhulani, says of Rolf and Marisa: 'They’ve breathed new life in here, and we’re still planning so much. There’s a feeling we’re going places ... This lodge is going to be one of the best in the country.'