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Sometime in Africa

Staying In Hotels

Things are about to get easy-er for Ewan Cameron who saw a gap in the market for reasonable standard rooms for the African business traveler and wouldn’t give up.

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It’s refreshing when you come across a foreigner passionate about Africa. The continent has become the new big market for multinationals all over the world. But Ewan Cameron, CEO of Lonrho Hotels is not jumping on the bandwagon, he’s had his sights set on Africa for a long time, and not only for business, he’s also ardent about the continent and its people.

“My interest in Africa came at an early age, I’ve always been interested in the people and the culture,” says Cameron.

Lansmore Masa Square, Garborone, Botswana

Cameron has a long history in the hotel industry though he’s only 39. Born and raised in Glasglow, Scotland, he started out waiting tables and cleaning rooms at the Swallow Hotel and Conference Centre in Dundee, while he studied Business Sciences at the University of Dundee. After graduating in 1992, the Swallow Hotel Group offered him a position as front house manager of the hotel. His keen interest in hotel management won him a transfer to the Glasglow Swallow Hotel, where he became the business development manager. Then the United Kingdom’s two biggest hotel groups, at the time, Thistle Hotel Chain and the Forte Hotel Group, noticed him. Cameron went with Forte, because of its international exposure. Thistle is the biggest hotel chain in the UK but had no hotels outside the region. Forte has hotels all over the world. Cameron’s portfolio included some heavyweight clients like UBS, the Ford Motor Company and PricewaterhouseCoopers. He later took over new business development at Forte. In 1999, Forte bought the Holiday Inn franchise. And in 2002, Cameron moved over to head up franchising. This is where he got his real feel for Africa. He travelled extensively overseeing operations in the Middle East and Africa. Cameron worked closely with Southern Sun, which at the time was running some of its hotels under the Holiday Inn brand. But in 2008, Southern Sun cut ties with the Intercontinental franchise and dropped the use of Holiday Inn.

Cameron also decided it was time to cut ties.

“I tried for years to convince Forte to expand in Africa, but they were not interested, they wanted to expand in Asia and the Middle East, I wanted to grow Africa. I drew up a strategy for Africa and Lonrho liked it,” Cameron recalls. The Lonrho Group has been operating in Africa for over 100 years. It is invested in luxury hotels across Southern Africa. It also runs airlines and is involved in the agricultural sector. The group took Cameron’s strategy and made him CEO in 2010. Since then, he has wasted no time in implementing his ambitious plan. Lonrho has partnered with easyHotel Group to roll out 50 new hotels by 2016.

“There is growing demand in Africa especially for the business traveler,” notes Cameron. Lonrho has five-star luxury hotels in 16 countries in Africa. The group is now moving towards building more business-friendly hotels.

“These hotels wouldn’t have the luxury that our high-end hotels offer, but they’re comfortable for the business person going on a quick trip,” he says. His strategy is to open hotels with a fresh and modern design. They will offer all the services a businessperson needs, like a conference venue, gym facilities, a coffee shop for meetings and full Wi-Fi. Hotel managers are also being trained.

“Our managers should be able to link travelers to local businesses and help link them to potential clients and vice versa; the hotel needs to become a one-stop shop,” he says.

The new low-cost easyHotels have opened in some countries with rooms from $35. In June, Lonrho opened a hotel in Gaborone, Botswana. Another hotel opened in Beira in Mozambique in July. There are plans for new hotels in Nairobi in Kenya, Dar es Salaam in Tanzania and Accra in Ghana.

Ewan Cameron, CEO of Lonrho Hotels

Later this year, Lonrho will also open its first hotel in South Africa in the Johannesburg city center. The hotel will be situated outside the new Gautrain rail link from O.R. Tambo International Airport. In recent years, several international hotel groups have opened hotels in the affluent Sandton area, but not many have ventured into the city’s center.

Cameron is not one to follow the herd; he believes that not everyone travelling to Johannesburg wants to go to Sandton. He is also not too worried about going into areas that pose political and social risks. Lonrho recently purchased a second hotel in Kinshasa in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). For decades, the country has been torn apart by war and civil unrest. This has not deterred Cameron who believes there’s rich tourism potential in the country’s capital. Cameron is certainly a risk taker but he does his homework and says he has an exit plan for every hotel the group owns. He works closely with the Mckinsey research group for facts, figures and other data on Africa. According to Mckinsey research, the DRC will be the fastest growing economy in Africa by 2026.

But not everyone has an appetite for risk. Tsogo Sun Holdings, Africa’s biggest hotel and gaming group, is not convinced there is a real demand for hotels in Africa. It already has a strong footprint in Africa with its Southern Sun hotels and feels more confident in South Africa than the rest of Africa.

“There are no volumes in Africa,” says Tsogo Sun CEO, Marcel von Aulock.

“African economies are small and there’s still very little corporate activity to propose new hotels.”

Tsogo recently posted a solid set of annual results. The group raised earnings 39% to R9 billion ($1.1 billion). Von Aulock is also no newcomer to the industry. He joined Tsogo’s finance department in 1999. Ten years later, he took over as the group’s CEO. He believes he understands the hotel industry and while he does see opportunities for further expansion on the continent, he feels the timing needs to be right.

Tsogo’s approach to the hotel industry differs from Lonrho’s. The group is focused on taking full ownership of hotels; it doesn’t just take over the management and operations.

“We want to own the land the hotel is standing on, we want to manage and operate it and own the brand, and it’s not always easy to do that. But we are not about taking the easy approach,” adds Von Aulock. The group recently closed its famous Southern Sun Grayston Hotel in Sandton after 30 years, because it didn’t own the land. The tenants raised the rent and Tsogo felt it was no longer feasible to remain on the property.

“This served as a lesson for us, that’s why it is more important now that we stick to our business model,” says Von Aulock.

But he concedes this is one of the main reasons it’s hard to penetrate Africa.

“Land is still a very controversial issue, the operating costs are very high. If we build a hotel in Africa, we have to set up our own power generation, our own water purification and sewerage systems—it requires a massive cash injection,” says Von Aulock. This is where Tsogo and Lonrho differ. Lonrho takes over existing hotels, rents the properties and provides the management and operational expertise to run the business.

Tsogo has also done well with its gaming business in South Africa, but says it has no plans to open casinos anywhere in Africa.

“Again there’s no market for gambling in Africa. The South African market is very different—our casinos here are doing very well, even in tough economic times, there’s still spending capacity in South Africa, not in Africa, there’s no middle-class in Africa and unfortunately that’s where the spending comes from.”

But Tsogo Holdings is not staying away completely. It’s still positive about future growth and says it will continue to look for opportunities. It owns 95 hotels in southern Africa, most of which are four- and five-star hotels. But last year, it ventured into the business traveler market opening a two-star StayEasy hotel in Lusaka, Zambia. The hotel is a nice fit for corporate travelers looking for tourist activities. It is attached to a shopping mall, another strategy Tsogo is exploring.

“We want our guests to have quick and easy access to any services they may need,” says Von Aulock.

Tsogo has also taken over distressed hotels successfully. The group recently bought The Grace in Johannesburg’s northern suburb of Rosebank for R85 million ($10.12 million). The iconic boutique hotel closed its doors in August last year after the operating company ran into financial difficulty. Tsogo Sun has spent over R20 million ($2.4 million) on refurbishing the hotel. The new 54 on Bath hotel opened its doors in July.

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Arts

Stone Town: From Freddie Mercury To The Farms

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The sights, scents and sounds of Zanzibar include a 73-year-old tale of the iconic late British singer-songwriter.


Dress conservatively when walking the streets of Stone Town,” advises the tourist brochures in the predominantly Islamic society of Zanzibar, yet, the tiny Tanzanian archipelago proudly claims Freddie Mercury, the controversial frontman of British band Queen, as its own.

The singer, born in the windswept streets of Stone Town in Zanzibar in 1946 and one of the world’s most iconic voices in pop-rock, is this tourist town’s biggest currency-spinner.

Stone Town, which is a maze of historic alleys and spice bazaars with timber shutters, an old Arab fort, churches, mosques and 19th-century stone buildings, is a World Heritage Site overlooking the sea. Within its dusty bowels, leading up from its myriad walkways, is Shangani Street, starting with a white-washed, two-storied yellow building that was once Freddie Mercury’s home.       

There are countless tours offered to what is emblazoned in gold outside as ‘Freddie Mercury House’, featuring four fully-furnished hotel apartments with balconies overlooking the Indian Ocean.    

‘Freddie Mercury House’, featuring four fully-furnished hotel apartments with balconies overlooking the Indian Ocean. Picture: Renuka Methil

Outside are framed glass cases with sepia images of the songwriter and vocalist, describing his famous connection with Zanzibar. Born Farrokh Bulsara, Mercury’s family had immigrated to Zanzibar from Gujarat in India. He was born to Bomi and Jer Bulsara who were originally Parsis (a Zoroastrian community that migrated to the Indian subcontinent from Persia). In 1964, the Zanzibar Revolution forced the family to flee.

The island community’s lucrative tourist trade is even today cashing in on Mercury’s global image, with tours offered at the Zoroastrian Fire Temple where the Parsi family once worshipped, and to a restaurant named Mercury offering fresh seafood.

“Imagine, Freddie Mercury played on these white sandy beaches and clear waters at one time,” says my tourist guide, Amour, proudly, before taking me on a two-hour walking tour of Stone Town. He points to the domed white Zanzibar High Court where Mercury’s father once worked as a cashier.

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His house on Shangani Street, where the first settlers arrived, is a hub of activity, with tourists, and touts selling everything from icecream to tanzanite jewelry and African bric-à-brac. Just a few steps up, is the Shangani post office and buildings boasting Indian, African and European architecture, where you discover your own Bohemian Rhapsody.

Amour helps me weave through the heaving mass of human traffic in the busy streets, to a fish and vegetable market in Stone Town that also sells spices in pretty bamboo gift-packs. The fish is sold fresh and the spices overpower the stench.

“Zanzibar used to be the largest exporter of cloves in the world, but from 70 percent, it’s only nine percent now,” Amour rues, thrusting a packet of cloves into my hand, “and that’s sad, because of declining prices, more competitors and the poor encouragement of farmers.”

Earlier, I had visited the spice farms Zanzibar is so famous for, finishing off with lunch in a Swahili home stationed on a peak in one of the scented valleys. It was modest home-cooked fare but with aromas as strong as the spice farms the ingredients came from: a banana dish with coconut milk and cardamom, flavored cassava from the fields, fried tuna, rotis and the most fragrant pilaf (rice dish) I have ever eaten, watered down with lemon grass and ginger tea. 

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I had been to the Muyuni village in the south tasting the sweetest mangoes and bananas in all of Africa, passing seaweed-strewn beaches, paddy fields and potholed roads with bullock carts, dala dala taxis and motorbikes.

In the lush mangroves of Jozani, I encountered the endangered red colobus monkeys. In the spice plantations, down slippery forest paths, I tasted nutmeg, cinnamon and cloves off the trees.

The natural treats along the way also included lemons and sweet green oranges. As we passed the red mahogany trees, “beware of the green mambas or pythons”, my host had warned. A vendor in the middle of the forest showed us his wares in a wicker basket: soaps and perfumes made from the Ylang-Ylang trees by the womenfolk.

“In Europe, Chanel No. 5 is made from this. Here, we call it Chanel No. 0, our products have no chemical or alcohol,” he says, pointing to the tiny bottles filled with red liquid. “These farms are so rich in spices that the chicken running around are already spiced, you don’t need to flavor them when you cook them,” laughs Amour, towards the end of our outing. From Freddie Mercury to the farms, Zanzibar beckons the senses.

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Sometime in Africa

The Tableaux Of The Wild

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The beasts and the drama of the African bush, far from the harsh lights of big city Johannesburg. 


There is a mystique about the African bush that enchants visitors from all over the world. Some of them become so captivated they decide to stay on, or return time and again.

Even a born and bred African like me, albeit of European descent, cannot say no to a few days of “bundu bashing”. There is nothing quite like escaping the bumper-to-bumper traffic and constant hum of the big city, to experience a range of smells as you move through the bush. The scent of the long grass. The whiff from the marula trees. The odor of fresh dung.

And at night, when you look up to the canopy of the sky, you feel as though you could reach out and touch the stars. The Southern Cross. Orion’s Belt. The river of the Milky Way. Venus, the morning and the evening star. The red glint of Mars.

On the day our group arrives at the exclusive Sable Camp at MalaMala within the larger Sabi Sands Game Reserve, which shares a 19-kilometer open border with South Africa’s Kruger National Park, it is hot and humid.

Sabi Sands Game Reserve. Picture: Jill de Villiers

On this day in the country’s Mpumalanga province, it hits 39 degrees. We settle in and get ready for the first game drive of our stay.

We are here for the launch of a beautiful book by renowned wildlife photographers Gerald Hinde and Will Taylor – both men with a deep love for animals and African landscapes. We pile onto four game-viewing vehicles to find and photograph the heroes and heroines of their book – The Big Seven: Adventures in Search of Africa’s Iconic Species.

The roads are rough and rudimentary as we head into the bush, cameras with long lenses at hand. We drive along a river bed. As the sun moves slowly down towards the western horizon, its rays glint in the waves of green and yellow grass. The wheels skid in the white sand. We drive past a large bush and suddenly an elephant appears, tugging and tearing at the foliage. He looks at us and flaps his ears lazily.

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A bit further on, after literally bashing through the bush, off-road, we see her. Slinky and quiet, her pelt shines in the setting sun. The lone female leopard looks at us with the disdain of a cat disturbed by bothersome humans. She slinks through the bush as we follow her. Then she sits perfectly still, slowly turning her head from side to side.

As darkness settles, the vehicle lights come on and we head back to the lodge. In an outdoor boma, tables are set up in the round, and a five-star dinner is served under the expanse of the night sky. We are treated like royalty by all of the staff of MalaMala. Most of them come from the community that now owns the reserve, after the conclusion of a successful land claim deal in 2014. 

The next day dawns. Overcast, with a soft, insistent rain. The temperature has dropped 14 degrees. Donning rain ponchos, the group of adventurers set forth on the morning game drive. The mission is to encounter every one of the Big Seven. The traditional Big Five tourists flock to game reserves to see are: elephant, lion, rhino, leopard and buffalo. Two more have been added, both on the endangered list – the wild dog and cheetah.

Elephant at Sabi Sands Game Reserve. Picture: Jill de Villiers

Just as humans are shy of rain, so are animals. They lie low in the grass or huddle under trees where they can’t be seen. An hour or so into the drive, the drizzle lifts and we see movement in the grass.

A lioness lifts her head and looks at us. Slowly, slowly, one lion after another stands up to look at the vehicles. There are, at least, eight of them. They lose interest in us again, and stretch out on the ground.

The time to leave comes far too soon. The quiet and beauty of the bush have soaked into my soul and I feel completely at peace and one with the sky and the grass and the trees and the animals and the river and the world. 

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Sometime in Africa

Zimbabwe: Two Realities In One Country

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The grandeur of the Victoria Falls is in stark contrast to the rest of Zimbabwe.


It is eight days before Christmas. We take the 1,300-kilometer drive from Johannesburg to Victoria Falls for a short vacation. As we arrive in Beitbridge, the border connecting South Africa and Zimbabwe, the sun is shining its warm golden light over the bridge. There are no birds chirping over the Limpopo River. It seems like a peaceful morning, until you get closer.   

There is pandemonium as hundreds of cars line up to be stripped and searched before proceeding into Zimbabwe. Most here are Zimbabwean nationals working in South Africa traveling home for the holidays. 

They are bringing with them many supplies like cooking oil, fuel, stationery, furniture, clothing, drinks, building material and even Christmas trees. These items are scarce and overpriced in Zimbabwe.

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Some want to sell them to hurried customers and others want to use them at home. The problem is, most of them require as much as 40% duty and others can’t be imported.

“Is your friend here today? I would like him to help me cross with my goods,” I overhear a man in the autumn of his life say over the phone.

He isn’t the only one trying to smuggle goods into Zimbabwe. According to local reports, the Zimbabwe Revenue Authority (ZIMRA) loses over $1 billion due to smuggling each year. With hundreds trying to make their way across, a journey to Victoria Falls is delayed by at least five hours.

As we drive into Beitbridge, we can see and almost smell struggle. This place is seized by an oppressive gloom. Our first stop is an Engine Garage that now operates almost like a tuckshop. Here, fuel tanks are dry and the shop inside has only bread, water, cold drinks, biscuits and chips.

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Outside, it is filled by a crowd of people pushing, shoving, shouting, buying and selling. There is dirty water flowing down the street and litter fills the potholes. Yet, this grubby place is seeing more trade than Zimbabwe’s biggest banks. Here, the black market is king and the bond notes are pawns.

In 2016, the government introduced bond notes in hopes to ease the cash crisis that saw the US dollar become scarce. The Reserve Bank may say bond notes are 1:1 to the US dollar; the free market says no.  The black market traders are selling 1 US dollar for three bond notes. 

“I used to be an accountant with a good job but our company closed down and now I am jobless. I have to make a living somehow so I rather sell cash on the streets to put food on the table,” says Bongani Moyo.

 As we drive further into Zimbabwe, the situation gets worse. Stores are packed with imported goods; roads and buildings are dilapidated. One of the biggest problems is fuel.

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“I just came out of a two-day fuel queue.  The situation is bad. People can’t go to work and sometimes people hire [other] people to spend the day queueing for them,” says Given Mwale, as he directs us to a garage that sells fuel in foreign currency so we can continue our journey to Victoria Falls.

“That is the only garage that doesn’t get many queues and doesn’t run out of fuel. It is a private garage. They import their fuel from Botswana and they only sell in forex,” he says.

Shocked by the scarcity of cash, we drive towards Victoria Falls. On the way, many businesses are boarded up, their paint peeling and doors closed. As we arrive in Victoria Falls, there are jaw-dropping scenes.

The place looks nothing like the rest of Zimbabwe. Fueled by the tourist economy, the streets are clean and the business district  buzzing. People are relaxed in summer clothing and look like they have no worry. It is a true holiday destination.

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At Victoria Falls, the Zambezi River plummets over a cliff and into the boiling pot before flowing through a series of gorges. It has a width of 1,708 meters and a height of 108 meters, making it the world’s largest sheet of falling water.

As nature lovers, we experience the falls while walking through a rainforest and playing with monkeys. We also get to watch the sunset while drinking champagne in an open boat.

For a few hours, we forgot the troubles that belie Zimbabwe; until we drove out of Victoria Falls, back to Bulawayo. There may be laughter and foreign currency near the smoke that thunders but the rest of the country continues to cry for an economic breakthrough. 

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