‘Mein Schatz, I finally hit on a workable business idea!' Anthon clutched Henry's steering wheel in both hands, bouncing in his seat like an excited kid who couldn't wait to go on a rollercoaster.
It was late winter, 2015. We were on our way to Aus. Henry, our Landie, was happily cruising along the spectacular D707 in Southern Namibia, churning up a haze of ochre dust in our wake. I attempted to recall my soul from where it was suspended in that blur between rusty desert and cerulean sky. Forcing myself back, I tried to make sense of his words.
‘You know how my accountant always tells me that I was born without a business brain? Well, listen to this plan!' He looked at me with expectation. I obliged.
‘You have a business plan?' I asked rather dryly.
‘Why don't I sell my practice, you retire as architect, we put all our furniture in storage, give up the house and leave Windhoek when Louise finishes matric?'
‘That's a business plan? Shouldn't it cover some means of income as well?' My mind was still fuzzy of the heat in the old Land Rover.
‘Patience, I'm getting to it!' followed by silence. He loves keeping one in suspense.
‘Come on!' I shook his arm.
‘Think Mohammed-and-the-Mountain, Mein Schatz. If it's inconvenient for a lodge to cart all their food-handling staff, —which could number anything between one and fifty persons,— to the nearest doctor, —which could be up to three hours away on a gravel road,— there must be an opportunity for us to drive to the lodge, ask for accommodation and subsistence as part of our deal and examine the staff right there, without interfering in their normal operations in the slightest. Exactly what we're going to do in Aus this weekend, except we'll turn it into a lengthy Safari!'
‘Think about it,' he was on a roll, ‘we won't need any employees, we won't need office space; we'll sleep and eat at the lodges. Our only overhead will be Henry and his diesel, tyres and upkeep. And our time, of course!'
‘Wow!' was all I could muster. I had to think about such a proposition. I wasn't entirely sure that I loved sitting in Henry quite enough to do it 365 days a year. I voiced my concern out loud.
‘Not for the entire year,' he laughed. ‘There aren't enough lodges in Namibia to keep us busy that long. Anyway, quite a number might not even come on board.'
‘So what do we do for the rest of the year?'
‘I'll finish my Ego State and Somatic Experiencing training, we'll spend some time in Sandbaai to allow you to finish your book and once I've retrained, I'll try my luck building a practice somewhere in Germany!'
I love this man. He makes life seem so simple; especially his uncanny knack to turn the slightest opportunity into a bush safari or world tour.
‘So you're finally prepared to close your medical practice in Windhoek?' I had to make sure I understood him correctly.
‘I can't close my practice for three to four months at a time while I finish my studies or while we do these medicals. I'll lose all my patients. Some even complain if I take a three week holiday over Christmas. And with my receptionist resigning, I simply cannot face training yet another front-desk person again.'
‘And as we both know so well, overheads keep running, whether you generate an income or not,' I added. I was the balancer of books. Our most expensive month in the year was always December. All our employees, whether at home, in Anthon's practice or my architectural office, wanted a thirteenth cheque in December, yet all of them demanded their annual leave over Christmas. On top of it, the entire population of Windhoek migrated to Swakopmund and the coast. We had little choice but to close up and go on holiday ourselves and worry about filling the huge end-of-year hole in our bank accounts on our return in January.
‘I'll miss my patients though; especially the kids,' he continued. ‘I opened my practice in 1993. Twenty-two years is a long time. I have patients for whom I did their pregnancy test, assisted with the birth, inoculated the babies, saw the kids grow up and eventually did the daughter or daughter-in-law's pregnancy test again, twenty years later.'
We slowed down to allow a lone Gemsbok, trapped in the road reserve, to duck under the fence and gallop into the distance; a majestic creature in an endless sea of burnt-orange sand.
So what are food-handler's medicals? In Namibia, there's a law which requires that every person handling food or drink for public consumption must be examined by a medical doctor once a year, for any diseases which could be transmitted in food. This doctor then has to issue the lodge with a certificate of compliance.
It may sound like a good idea if you're the tourist, but as a lodge owner, it's a logistical nightmare. The majority of lodges are located in semi-wilderness areas, often far from a town where a General Practitioner is available. Add that in many areas the authorities will not issue the lodge with a liquor licence without them having a valid food-handlers fitness certificate, and the problem becomes acute: What is a lodge-stay in the wilderness without a beer or a bottle of wine to accompany the glorious sunsets?
Doing these examinations has been part of Anthon's medical practice since the mid-nineties when a lodge near Sossusvlei asked him to be their company doctor. He went out for a long weekend once a year and examined their entire staff compliment, at their request. They believed that examining all their staff, from chefs to cleaners and even the maintenance personnel, was good for staff morale. It also allowed them to give promising back-of-house staff more responsibility. In the more than twenty years he served as their company doctor, Anthon saw youngsters come in as room cleaners and rise through the ranks to become duty managers. We always joked that we've seen lodge owners and managers come and go, only us and a couple of staff members stayed on.
Along the way, a couple of other lodges came online. But until this idea came into his head it was more a matter of a long weekend every couple of months. We provided a service while having a rest, as we always requested a day or two extra to recoup from the rush in Windhoek.
‘And, Mein Schatz, maybe I can sneak in a pro bono clinic on the side for the non-food-handling staff who never get to a doctor?'
I just laughed. He always did it anyway.
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In 2016 we implemented Anthon's Great Business Idea. Perhaps I should add, any business plan which doesn't cost us money is seen as Great. For us, ‘breaking-even’ is reaching that balance described by the words ‘when enough is enough.' This year, 2019, in February and March, we drove more than 11,000km through Namibia. When the heat became unbearable during the day, especially when Henry's air-conditioning system gave up on our way into Damaraland and we had to resort to spraying each other with a bottle of water in order to survive the heat, I vowed it was my last lodge trip. Yet every evening, when the African sun set fire to the sky, the wind died down and a zebra or giraffe silently appeared at the lodge's waterhole, we clinked our wine glasses and counted our blessings.
We've had our ups and downs, our hilarious moments and our times of despair, but all in all we've only enriched our lives. I believe that travel lengthens one's life, and the past three and a half years serve as proof: it feels as though we'd packed up our house in Windhoek ten years ago.
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If you enjoy my writing, you might enjoy reading my book, ‘A yellow butterfly on an elephant’s foot.’
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For more about Anthon, click here.