People in the times of the coronavirus crisis – Eyewitness Jan Bester in South Africa

The world cannot travel right now. South Africa closed her borders for tourists. News updates come in faster as lightning in a South African summer storm. Health experts research tirelessly to get us as fast as possible through this. The situation is dreary, awful, and to most probably heavily frightening. We live in hectic times. Sharing stories and knowing that no one of us is alone in this, helps.

Mountain ranges, gravel roads, flowers, Dutch style houses.

We cannot go to South Africa right now, but we can ask the locals about their country.

You find the Swartberg mountain range at an elevation of up to 2,300 metres, in the Western Cape province. They divide the Great Karoo in the north and the Klein Karoo in the south. It is an area of lakes, with caves, with peaceful valleys from where you can see steep ravines.

The Swartberg Pass connects the Karoo towns Prince Albert and Oudtshoorn. It is certainly a road trip for the bold and brave. A gravel road that winds to the summit 1,583 metres above sea level, with divine views at every turn. The thrill comes from manoeuvring steep (and often sudden) serpentines.

In 1762, a farmer’s couple began to build what is today known as Prince Albert. The place soon attracted more and more farmers. Fast forward eighty years, a church had been built. A well-established community formed. Locals suggested naming their town Albertsburg. In memory of Prince Albert, the English Queen Victoria's husband. The community of settlers accepted the idea gladly.

Oudtshoorn is the true ostrich capital of the world. Indigenous Bushmen have lived in this area ever since 44,000 BC. The San People are hunters and gatherers, they were not interested in trade and business. They ate ostrich eggs and used the empty shells to carry water. When European settlers arrived to make money, they did so with ostriches.
Jan Bester lives in Oudtshoorn and runs two companies. 

One of Jan's companies is Africa Safari Connexion. The other is True South Travel, a registered operator specialised in Swartberg Mountain tours. Their stargazing trips sound like a true highlight. I check in with Jan Besterto hear from him about the situation in South Africa.

Jan Bester, True South Travel, africa safari connexion. South Africa.

Coronavirus crisis in South Africa – face masks, drastic measures and a positive mindset

When I ask about the current situation in South Africa, Jan tells me that “Locals should comply with all lock-down legislation and stay at home and only travel for essential services. Everyone should also keep social distancing and the wearing of masks is strongly recommended.”

Authors note: Update, according to the official Twitter page of The Presidency of the Republic of South Africa "South Africa will be placed on alert level 3 from 1st June 2020. Public gatherings and other high-risk activities, especially those that involve close contact between large numbers of people, remain prohibited to prevent the spread of the coronavirus. ... All borders of the republic remain closed except for the transportation of goods and repatriation of citizens"

To me, it feels as if nothing is as it was and will not be in the foreseeable future. I wonder how Jan handles this. “A positive mindset founded in my personal faith and conviction that this too will pass. I have suffered great loss during the 2008 global economic meltdown and this has made us very resilient to deal with this current scenario. It is imperative to continue to work hard at your business and now is the time to renew and reinvent. We are refining our product offering and focussing on the future rather than succumb to the fear of our current reality. We are taking drastic measures to survive financially in the next couple of months. We are cutting unnecessary operating costs and arrange for bridging finance.”

The bright red Ericas offer a feast of nectar to the sunbirds

I briefly described the Swartberg mountain ranges earlier, if visitors would go on a tour with Jan this month, they would see that “Autumn is one of the most beautiful months on our beloved Swartberg Mountains. Traversing the mountain via the spectacular Swartberg Pass offers beautiful vistas with various Proteas in flower. The bright red Erica’s offer a feast of nectar to the sunbirds. Nature is spoiling us with her last flowers before winter sets in.”

Stay connected – Social Media

Jan deeply misses to be around people all the time, but it is a delight to see he found a way to compensate. “I draw a lot of energy from guiding and hence it is important for me to stay connected via social media and other digital platforms. I just managed to launch my Swartberg Pass tour on YouTube and reading the response from all our followers made me feel connected with them.”

He seems to some extent favourable of his situation when he explains “Now that I have much more time to reflect, I realised that I am more creative in designing more products and services. I have not had a break like this in 15 years. So now that I am rested, I find myself focussing constructively on the future and enjoying time with my family.”

Hope dies last – a life-changing experience

The big question that everyone is interested in right now is when the situation in South Africa will begin to normalize again, and Jan predicts “I am an eternal optimist so I trust that we will have a better than expected “high season” or summer. Nearly 80 % of SA tourism businesses are Small Medium & Micro Enterprises. No SMME can afford not to have a good high season since that helps us survive winter months. We work and plan to welcome our first clients in August 2020.”

I dream of the time when the coronavirus crisis is over and ask Jan whether he is going to do things differently once this is over, and he thinks he will, “Yes, appreciate the privilege I have, spending most of my time in nature even more! I will also focus to reflect more and fulfil more of the dreams I have planned. I have my own foundation, H.O.P.E Foundation. We have some projects within the local communities. I would like to get more involved in assisting school children within rural communities and train more local guides. I also want to produce more of my own videos and marketing material.”

Everyone experiences this coronavirus crisis different, and I am not the least bit surprised when Jan describes it as "Life-changing," before he describes in more detail "I thrive under pressure and chaos since I know that a calm, focused approach is the only way out of this. I purge all negative emotions, censor media exposure and work dedicated long hours on my vision of the future. Every weekend I reward myself with leisure time and celebrating the successes of the previous week. If you do not keep your mind in check, the fear of the unknown will be paralyzing. This I avoid at all costs."

No one can foresee the future and say for sure when we can travel again, Jan holds on to his dreams and says “I will execute the travelling plans I had for this winter and visit many of the gems our beautiful country has to offer. I love South Africa and when possible will explore all those unique off the beaten track spots. We have so many of them. I planned a three-week tour through South Africa exploring the remote areas of our country. This had to be cancelled."

Businesses and freelancers in South Africa

Businesses and freelancers go through immense financial problems in this crisis. Governments are left in charge to decide in what way they use tax money and how to utilise funds most effectively. I would love to find out what South Africa does in this crisis. It seems people face a rather complicated situation, one where no one will get a straight and easy answer. Jan explains “Yes, we are a small family business with no other income that tourism. Like everyone else in our industry, we have no income. We have applied for the relief funds made available by the government but due to the fact that we are not representative of the preferred demographic (B-BBEE) we do not qualify.”

According to the South African Economic Development Department “Broad-Based Black Economic Empowerment aims to ensure that the economy is structured and transformed to enable the meaningful participation of the majority of its citizens.” When I ask whether Jan received a letter which told him that funding is not available to him, and what would have been an exact reason, he explained “I have not yet received any communication from them. However, after I submitted my application the minister of Tourism stated that B-BBEE companies will get preference for funding. We do not qualify.”

A message to old and new friends of True South Travel

This leaves me with lots to think and read about. Before Jan leaves, he has a message for old and new friends and guests “Being of service to our clients is not only our livelihood but also our passion. We know that this too will pass and look forward to welcoming every traveller exploring our beautiful country!”

Please use the articles I have written so far to plan a trip to South Africa.

Looking for more stories from South Africa? Dream now - Travel later.

From Berlin with love