Running a Backpackers – South Africa

Running a Backpackers
South Africa

The Fairy Knowe is situated near Knysna (actually, inbetween Knysna and George, east of Cape Town). During the day, a steam train would go by and pick up or drop off backpackers at the Fairy Knowe’s very own train stop. It was a source of excitement for a lot of people wanting to take a picture of a steam train that still runs. The train starts in George and part of the way it runs along the coast, giving a spectacular view of the ocean while snaking its way through the occasional tunnel and hugging the cliffs of the headlands. Once it stops in Wilderness and Fairy Knowe, it continues on to Knysna, where people look about and eat oysters on the waterfront. After an hour and a half, the train goes back to George. Frankly, Knysna is nice but nothing really special to it.

Our training came mostly from a very mature eighteen-year-old Scottish woman, named Anna, who ran the place. She was very helpful and very sweet. Lizzy and I assumed an assortment of duties including checking people in and out, giving a tour of the facilities and accommodation, working the bar, selling tours like horseback riding etc., making supper for the guests, cleaning the dishes, making a fire in the pit and braai area, feeding the horses, dogs and cats, doing the cash up at the end of the day, checking email reservations, booking accommodation and activities for the guests, shopping for groceries, administrative work, working the till, providing a groovy and sociable atmosphere for the guests and keeping the place together.

The original deal was that for one month, we were supposed to work for about 3 days a week at night providing the atmosphere in exchange for free accommodation, food and 500 Rand. 500 Rand is a paltry sum but we didn’t care. We just wanted to do the experience and still have time to explore the surrounding area. Then Lizzy and I noticed money was missing from the till at the end of the day when we cross-referenced the receipts with the cash up slip. Through a series of crosschecking and cautious level headedness we found out that one of the morning workers was stealing money. We wished it wasn’t true because we liked her. Next, management lost its head and sacked Anna because she couldn’t work with her and moved her over to the Beach House Backpackers. Immediately our workload increased and supposedly we got a raise in pay. We were fine with it until management decided that somehow, Lizzy and I added up to one person because we worked the same shift. Trust me, doing all of the above duties and cooking dinner is too much for one person to do in the evenings (As I’m sure they figured out after we left). So, from their point of view, we weren’t working enough and therefore should only be paid as one person. There were those issues, and others, that basically resulted from their small mindedness, lack of real communication and jumping to wrong conclusions that led to a spirited discussion we initiated one morning. Well, pretend management went ballistic while we tried to reason with them. Then Lizzy stepped in with guns blazing and I was backup. It was all rather amusing in retrospect but, despite coming close to quitting/being sacked, we came to an agreement and we finished the month with the same pay that other foreigners get for working there with the same shift and duties; 1500 Rand.

I actually really enjoyed the work. It was fun meeting people and being able to accommodate them whenever we could. The backpackers provide the atmosphere where you can sit and chat with people, learn something form their culture, give them travel advice, have a beer with them, swap stories and still be working. The longer we stayed, the more ideas we had of improving the place and hence, more time we put in. The setting was great as we had about three of four hiking trails starting right at the end of our driveway and the beach was a 30-minute walk away. I got to feed the horse and Lizzy looked after the dogs, cats and occasionally fed the horse too. The food was awesome most of the time as we had fresh fruit, yoghurt, muesli, bread, cheese, vegetables, eggs, and at night, whatever was on the menu for the evening we had for ourselves. This didn’t bode well for Lizzy when we had lamb poetjie two nights a week. She is vegetarian. Other nights were pizza nights and that was awesome as we had a clay/brick oven in the courtyard to fire up and made wood fire pizzas all night. They tasted so scrumptious; Lizzy and I decided that if we ever have a place of our own (yes, we do intend to settle down for more than two years) we have to have a wood fire pizza oven.

Another cool thing was that our guides offered us free tours if we recommended them to the travellers passing through. So, we got to do some horse back riding and kloofing for free. Kloofing is like canyoning. You get in a wetsuit and life jacket and hike down into a gorge. Once at the bottom, you get a bit of history of the surrounding area and then plod, swim, slide, and pick your way through the river and waterfalls. We climbed and jumped off 10-15 metre cliffs back into the brown water laced with tannin. It was a lot of fun just floating and pulling ourselves down the river. Have you ever wandered by a pristine river surrounded by lush green forest with birds twittering away and looked longingly at the water; wishing that you could get in and just float away leisurely, as if all worries were left on the rocky cliffs poking out from above the wet forest, without worrying about getting wet or what to do with your dry shoes? If you have, try kloofing. It’s awesome! As always with adventure activities, there is some risk involved and that mainly involves being aware of the rainfall from the previous few days (especially further up the valley) and the forecast. Your tour guide should know about those water levels. In previous years around the world where kloofing is done, tragedy has struck those who do not, or cannot, heed the warning signs and find themselves being smeared across the canyon walls, so be careful!

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