Imagine life handed you a deck of cards where the potential for a win is virtually impossible — where anything you do would be akin to climbing mount Everest barefoot. You have 2 options: struggle through it or just ignore it and — irrespective of your means — live it to the fullest.
This is the story of Alice in Afrika — akin to Alice in Wonderland — who through a mixture of absolute lack of envy for anyone, passion for helping others, a natural gift for seeing the glass half full and understanding what is really important in life — managed to go from orphan to owner of one of Africa’s most beautiful safari lodges.
Of course I would be subjective in writing this story. It was my mother after all (she closed her eyes in St Moritz quickly and painlessly while laughing with friends after a beautiful train ride through the Swiss Alps 2 months ago). I am also particularly apt to write positively about her because I was after all her favorite child (let’s ignore the fact that I was an only child for a moment). Alice was a larger than life person. One of those people that is almost impossible to describe on paper but you would never forget once you met her. Always interested in you. Always happy and smiling. Always ready to lend an ear or offer you accommodation, a meal, a chat over coffee and a bit of heartfelt advice. Never laden with so much of a hint of envy, she was always happy when someone achieved success, made it in life or found happiness. And if you didn’t she was there for you. She spoke to young and old, poor and rich, successful and temporarily struggling in her equal loud, full of life, no-nonsense voice. She would be theone who didn’t know how to pay the electricity at the end of the month, but do a 180 degree turn if she saw an elderly man begging on the side of the road and give him R 200.
She was 74 (or as she said, 68 plus VAT). She was in excellent health apart from a few hiccups that come with that age bracket. In the last few years her hearing suffered — but instead of finding a solution she perfected the art of listening without actually understanding a word. At a dinner in Switzerland the CEO of Swissair (if I recall correctly) told her at a loud dinner that her mother had passed away, to which my mother, using a practiced vocabulary — replied “that is nice…”. We never flew Swissair again 🙂 . She also looked — as many would comment to her — absolutely amazing for her age, something she would attribute to her strict diet which consisted of eating nothing between meals. She had at least 4 meals a day so you can imagine the suffering. Her doctor told her to not eat bread, rice, etc. She listened to the doctor carefully and complied to his instructions whenever she would see him — i.e. in his presence she would not eat cheeses, rice, sweets etc, but mysteriously her fridge at home was filled with exactly those things which she bought for me, at least that’s what she said.
Hamburg may have been her birth place (and the place where her final ashes rest), but the globe was her home. She worked on films with famous Italian movie directors, she worked on Middle East Airlines. She worked in the German Embassy in Cairo under my godfather (descendant of the classical music composer Pachelbel who had the track record that in almost all the countries where he took ambassadorship, a war or uprising erupted within 6 months). She made friends everywhere (including ending up with Frank Sinatra and his friends in her pied a terre in Los Angeles offering them a glass of milk as she didn’t drink anything else). She was perpetually without money — not becauseshe was a big spender — but because her business sense was one of living life rather than accumulating wealth. One day she ended up in Lugano at her friend and they drove to Como to a dinner party where she met my father who was involved in fashion (500 employees producing ladies swimwear and evening dresses — designed by Moschino, Lagerfeld, etc. One of La Perla’s founders was one of my father’s sales people). I suspect my father — who was somewhat of a visionary (IBM tested one of the first supercomputers in my father’s offices — and here we are talking about big cooled rooms with tubes and people wearing white coats — 1980s) — fell for her and proposed to her. She accepted on the basis that no-one else had asked her (she was one of those people that in her enthusiasm and larger than life persona could be somewhat intimidating if you didn’t have “hair on your chest”). He was a sailor (won the Italy cup a few times) and I am told I was ideated at a hotel by the sea and was later manufactured in Switzerland on a snowy day).
Growing up internationally (remember she had no money — she would often spend days hungry. All her travels were because of opportunities she found by not sitting still waiting for opportunities to come to her) she struggled immensely in Como — a breathtaking town located in an ancient at the 70km long glacier valley — but — at least in the 70s — old Italian value systems dominated (e.g. woman could not work, foreigners were looked at with disdain, etc). My father’s company however belonged to my grandfather — who in the end had a change of heart and kicked my father out which prompted him to move to South Africa in 1988 — a country that he had visited to do a couple of photo shoots at Sun City on invitation by Sol Kerzner/Monty Shadow. It didn’t hurt that South Africa at the time was offering incentives to move there — so if you owned an apartment in Italy you could own a nice house in South Africa. It was the end run of apartheid and it was expected to end soon — I wish I could ask my father what he thought at the time about the human rights issue (my father was a big supporter of equal rights and one of those people who treated everyone with the same amount of respect). Friends started visiting my parents and before long my mother was starting to organise trips for the friends — this morphed into one of South Africa’s top Tour operators (not top in terms of volume but in terms of reputation). She left an indelible reputation on every venue that dealt with her. I remember how one 5 star hotel in Cape Town (I think it was The Cellars) had a checklist in the reservations room next to the fire and police numbers with things like “If clients of Alice Afrika remember to: 1. spell name of guest correctly, 2. call manager to welcome them personally, etc). She was incredibly fair but if you made a sloppy mistake with one of her customers her wrath was not something you wanted to experience twice (her philosophy: her guests paid a lot of money and deserved the attention to every detail).
I don’t recall exactly what lead to her one day making the decision of buying her own lodge (at the time I was working in one of the 9 countries I spent my professional life — can’t recall which one). I suspect she always wanted to do something in the hospitality. She took a bond on her house (by then my mother and father had separated and we had lost almost everything to lawyers) and dove head first in buying a piece of land under 2 hours drive from Johannesburg and turning it into what is today one of South Africa’s top Safari lodges. Not top for pomposity. Not top for silly luxury. Top for being able to achieve a perfect place to switch off, seated on the terrace, meerkats on your lap and zebras nibbling at your toes. A place that in so many ways reflected her — impossible to describe on paper but unforgettable once you had been. She treated the guests at Zebras Crossing a bit like the owners on an private club would treat their members… It wasn’t ever about the money. Believe me on this. I was doing the finances and the lodge almost always lost money (on a year by year base). For her it was about the experience she wanted to offer. Again, words fail me in describing the place so rather come and visit and then tell me if I am right 🙂
Zebras Crossing is in so many ways a mirror of her… Mom as someone who helps others? Promise Khumalo was working as a construction worker (he was laying the tiles of the floor) when the lodge was being build all those years ago. Today he is the general manager. Mom as an animal lover? The Zebras and meerkats would receive my freshly made lasagne if I didn’t eat them fast enough. Mom the manager? In her own way, she had an incredible instinct for what is right and not right (to the point that every person I did business with I’d try and introduce them to mom and let her give me her gut feeling about them…).
My father passed away a few years ago (cancer). She was at his bedside despite the difficult and long-winded divorce. That’s who she was. She could be very black/white on a topic, but all was forgiven if you needed help. She was holding his hand when — in the last 3 months of his life — he degenerated from walking to wheelchair to bedridden (I was at the time living overseas and was coming down and staying for a while each time… today I regret not having quit my job at Goldmans at the time and move in to look after him, but at the time I lacked the courage to follow my instincts). She was there for me when I had enough of corporate and decided to start my own venture. She was there for me for many a years (from 2007) when many of these ventures failed miserably. She was there for me always without judging. And I am glad to say that for the last 7 years I was there for her too. After the passing of my father, one of the reasons for moving to South Africa was also to not make the same mistake as I did with my father, so mom and I lived together. She taught me — after having lived 16 years on my own around the world — how to be less selfish. How to see life for the beautiful thing it is. How to live with someone. She had always been my mother, but in the last 7 years especially she became my closest friend and mentor. I will never regret having taken the step to move in with her. To spend time with her. To get to know her.
… and this is the lesson I learned which I hope to share. As the saying goes, in life we regret more the things we didn’t do than the things we did. I hope all of you find the courage I found to pursue what feels right in your hearts, and I hope all of you find a friend like I did in my mom.
She passed away in Switzerland after a beautiful flight from Johannesburg to Zurich and a 3.5 hour train ride through the stunning alps. She arrived in her apartment on a sunny day and was laughing with her neighbor and friend, Vreni, when she suffered a pulmonary embolism. It was over in a few seconds. No pain. The paramedics were there in a few minutes and tried everything but in her typical decisiveness once she had made up her mind, that was it. I flew out from South Africa that same evening and visited her body the next day for one last kiss. She looked as perfect as she always did. So I decided to grant her the last wish she had which was that if she died she should die of a champagne chocolate truffels overdose — so I bribed the swiss official to incenerate her body with the biggest Hanselmann champagne truffles box I could find. Her ashes are now at Zebras Crossing, in Johannesburg, by her favorite spot in St Moritz, in the lake of Como and in the river Elbe in Hamburg where she grew up as a child.
Here’s to a full life and the beautiful memories. Here’s to her attitude to living and to her eccentricity — the best spice you could wish in this great dish called “life”.