Wild Geese: ‘In the bush the only roadblocks were elephant and lions’

Despite the advantages, Africa can be a dangerous place, says Semma Badenhorst

Semma Badenhorst: “It was the summer of 1998 and I decided to travel to the bush to run a pub and restaurant for a year.” Twenty years later, Badenhorst is still in Africa.

Semma Badenhorst: “It was the summer of 1998 and I decided to travel to the bush to run a pub and restaurant for a year.” Twenty years later, Badenhorst is still in Africa.

 

Botswana’s frontier town of Maun is a long way from Killyleagh, Co Down, but Semma Badenhorst wanted an Out of Africa-type experience before settling into a “real job” back home.

“I had just finished my degree in European regional development at the University of Ulster. It was the summer of 1998 and I decided to travel to the bush to run a pub and restaurant for a year,” she says.

But, as so often with plans, life got in the way. Twenty years later, Badenhorst is still in Africa.

“It’s hard not to fall in love with the place. Botswana is incredible. When I first moved to Maun, there were no mobiles phones, very little contact with the outside world,” she says.

Maun is a real safari hub, Badenhorst says. It’s the tourism capital of Botswana and the headquarters of numerous air-charter operations that run trips to the Okavango delta. “But it was still wonderfully remote,” she adds.

Badenhorst met lots of ex-pats, who were servicing the camps and lodges, as well as interesting people passing through. “You forge close friendships when you live in a place with a population of just 50,000.”

A year passed quickly and she decided to stay on and take a job with a Mack Air charter company scheduling charter planes for bush pilots. “I worked there for almost eight years. I kept planning to go home, but couldn’t peel myself away.”

And just when she did finally decided to head home, in 2006, she met her now husband. “So I decided to unpack my bags and stay. I quit my job at the air-charter company and we started running the Nxamaseri Lodge together in the panhandle of the delta.”

The couple then moved to the heart of the Okavango, managing safari lodges for tourists. “We lived in the bush for four years where the only roadblocks were elephants and lions on the pathways.”

Hippos in the river

In 2010 the couple, now married, moved back into Maun to run lodge operations from the town and to enjoy the luxury of brick walls and air conditioning, though still with the sound of hippos in the river in front of their house.

Badenhorst worked as a general manager of Sense of Africa Botswana, a destination management company in Maun specialising in creating tailor-made holidays and safaris in Botswana. “It was great. I worked with an amazing team of people from Botswana, Zimbabwe, England, Germany, Spain. And during that time, I also had two children.”

In January 2018, after 20 years in Botswana, Badenhorst and her husband decided to move on – but not leave Africa altogether.

It’s a huge challenge, but also a renovator’s dream

“My husband’s brother, who is a winemaker, had bought a farm in Swartland, outside Cape Town, 10 years ago and we decided to join him and his wife to help turn the working farm buildings into accommodation and function rooms.”

The farm and winery AA Badenhorst sits on 28 hectares and comprises many renovation opportunities.

“It’s a huge challenge, but also a renovator’s dream,” she says. “We host weddings, events and and lunches and have been turning the buildings and cottages into bespoke accommodation, where a bottle of chilled wine awaits all our guests.”

Labour of love

Badenhorst says it’s a labour of love, but also a work in progress.

After so many years away from relations, she says moving to South Africa was beneficial for their young family. “It’s great having cousins next door and granny close by. The kids love it.”

While it’s difficult having Irish family so far away, Badenhorst does come home regularly.

Despite its natural beauty and obvious weather benefits, time goes slower in Africa

“I have always gone back every other year, with my family coming [here] on alternate years so we see each other every year,” she says. “Since having the kids, we now do a trip back every year to spend time with family and friends and make sure the boys absorb as much Irishness as they can.”

Despite its natural beauty and obvious weather benefits, time goes slower in Africa, she says. “It’s cheaper and you have a great quality of life, but at the same time there are frustrations.”

When you come to Botswana, its much trickier to get a work permit now than it used to be.” The same goes for South Africa, where it’s almost impossible to get a work permit or visa. You need to have a sponsor, work lined up and and prove that you can do a job a local person can’t.”

‘Stark contrasts’

Because paperwork is tedious, Badenhorst advises anyone thinking of moving to be sure to have certified copies of documents and always travel with unabridged birth certificates if you have kids. Medical insurance is also a must.

“Needless to say, Africa is a continent of stark contrasts, and it can be a dangerous place. Between the social classes and cultures, South Africa, particularly, is not without its problems and you have be aware of the dangers.”

But, she says, the space and the fact that you get to spend so much time outdoors is wonderful.

“Life here is different – you can’t compare it to home. Obviously there are things you miss, but I’ve built a life here, so I can’t imagine coming home anytime soon.”

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