“So I am sure the staff at &Beyond head office know that thousands of guests pass through their various lodges, from the far corners of the earth, and leave glowing reports of their experiences. For some, they have seen the Big Five for the first time, for others it is a return trip several times over. As someone who has visited several &Beyond lodges in South Africa over the past 25 years, my challenge is always to find a way to convey my gratitude and praise at the end of an &Beyond experience. The adjectives just seem so inadequate and I feel sure that the staff reading those feedback forms probably get numb to words like ‘fantastic’ and ‘awesome’ and ‘marvellous’ and the like. But I have another story for the &Beyond team that I thought I would share – you need to know that you really do touch lives in a way you may not hear about.
I have two teenage stepsons. Having never had children of my own, these boys are my sons and I have had the privilege of being able to take them to your lodges from time to time. Last year, my youngest, Jordan, aged 15, and his best friend Nick, were moaning about their Afrikaans marks at high school, which were hovering in the mid 40% range and in an expansive mood, no doubt brought on by a glass of particularly delicious wine and a beautiful setting overlooking the Sundays Falls at Nambiti Game Reserve, I made them an offer – improve your Afrikaans marks by 20% and I will take you to the best &Beyond lodge in South Africa – Ngala Tented Camp.
I personally had visited &Beyond Ngala Tented Camp more than 10 years ago, and the experience remained entrenched in my memory as being simply astonishingly beautiful. I was fairly confident that my offer was ‘safe’ and that the boys had little chance of reaching that level – they certainly appeared to dismiss my offer as being unrealistic at the time. Imagine my surprise when I was presented with final reports reflecting 65% and 73% respectively for the dreaded subject!
I am a woman of my word and so I knew that the booking had to happen – no matter what. School holidays and peak rates did not make my task very easy, but finally I made the commitment for 2 nights in the July holidays and at the beginning of March I presented Jordan and his friend Nick with the confirmation from &Beyond of the booking. The smiles on their faces literally lit up the room! But this is not what this story is all about.
On the 13th March Nick was in an accident at school in which he was badly electrocuted, resulting in horrific burns to his hands and chest and the loss of several fingers and his thumb. Nick should not have survived the accident and initially was not cleared for surgery because his heart was affected. We rushed to the ICU at St Augustine’s hospital that night and the tears just rolled down my face watching Jordan talking to his buddy lying in a bed – connected to all types of machines with tubes inserted into his neck and looking so terribly frail and weak. Words failed me and in desperation to try and disguise both my tears and my fear, I said to Nick ‘I have only one word for you Nick, and that’s Ngala. I am not going without you.’
Those words were to become a mantra in the months to come. I left the hospital on 13th March knowing that there was no chance of Nick getting to Ngala – in fact we were praying for survival. The months in hospital passed and Jordan kept a faithful vigil over his friend, assuring me that Nick would be ok and would be coming with to Ngala, with a certainty that was humbling and at times very trying. Every time I would leave him lying in his hospital bed I would repeat the same mantra – sometimes he smiled, on a bad day he remained silent.
On 14th July, 4 days before the Ngala booking, the surgical team gave Nick permission to visit Ngala. He had endured 21 surgeries, various amputations, multiple skin grafts, infections and graft rejections, excessive quantities of morphine, countless anesthetics and an indescribable level of trauma. He was as white as a sheet and had little stamina, having spent 4 months in a hospital bed, both his hands were covered in thick dressings and bandages and only 2 fingers on one hand were functional – but the excitement he exuded was not something I can adequately describe. His Mum, Julie, bravely entrusted her precious son to my care, in the knowledge that this trip was so much more than a simple holiday.
Just prior to our departure I had discovered that ranger Sean Messham had transferred from &Beyond Kirkman’s Kamp to &Beyond Ngala Private Game Reserve. This had to be a sign that this trip was going to happen and was going to live up to the expectations we all had for it. I contacted head office and requested that Sean be allocated to us. We had experienced the most amazing 4 nights at Kirkman’s Kamp with Sean as our ranger when we celebrated my husband’s 50th birthday in January 2015 and being able to reconnect with Sean again was quite simply the ‘cherry on the top’.
Did I have my heart in my mouth when we arrived at Ngala? Did I wonder how Nick would cope with the daily activities of such a trip? Did I worry at the reaction of the staff to Nick’s condition and his disability? Yes to all these questions. But the hearts of the staff at the lodge are life’s ‘missing ingredient’ – to steal your catch phrase – Ally, Clifford, Thomas and Sean just swept aside my concerns, dealing with the special requirements and rendering assistance and support at meals, on drives and on the game walk in an unobtrusive manner – sensitively, carefully and without any fuss – and I watched the dream of a young boy come true.
African Safaris with “The Safari Legends”