The African Queen

As seen in a trade publication for the speaking industry...Sharing Ideas

What do you call someone who speaks 11 languages? South African! What do you call someone who speaks three languages? European! What do you call someone who speaks one language? American! My audience roared! Actually that was a variation of a joke shared with me by my good friend, consulting client and President of NSA Metro New York Chapter, Diane DiResta. Foreigners greatly appreciate self-effacing humor especially when it relates to Americans lack of language versatility.

Knowing I was faced with a seventeen hour flight,I finally got smart and did something that I recommend to all international speakers. With best friend, Kathy along ( you've seen her picture with me on other international trips in Israel and Australia) we flew to London and took a day rate at my favorite hotel at Heathrow Airport, The Edwardian. We checked in and immediately signed up for a massage, sauna and other relaxing treatments at the hotel spa. First,a workout, then massage then an afternoon nap. We awoke refreshed in the late afternoon, had a leisurely dinner and boarded our flight to South Africa at 8 p.m.

Although this speaking engagement started out as one initial engagement, it is the ultimate example of networking. I met Sharon Levin six months before when she approached me at a conference I spoke at in Las Vegas. When she told me that she was from South Africa , I immediately let her know that I was planning to be there in October. I kept in touch with Sharon and when I told her that I was going to be speaking in Sun City ( probably one of the worlds most beautiful and exclusive resorts) she said, "That's not the real South Africa!" You have to have a real South African experience. It's comparable to Americans feeling the same way about Las Vegas being representative of the U.S.

Sharon picked us up at the airport and drove us four hours across the vast continent of South Africa. I was in awe of its size as we drove over cavernous mountains and valleys. We stopped for lunch at "a licensed bistro" Tondeldoos. I was surprised at how "Americanized" the menu was. I remembered how Kathy and I pondered over what would we eat in Africa? We arrived at Londolozi Game Reserve in the African Bush about 4:30 p.m. on a Friday for the "true African experience'. Much to my surprise and delight, Londolozi is the only Game Reserve listed in the exclusive Relais and Chateaux guidebook to the finest lodging in the world.

We were immediately invited on a game drive by the ranger who greeted us. After checking in and dropping our things at our stone cottage in Bush Camp(elegance in the Bush, a true oxymoron) we boarded the open air Land Rover for our foray into the wild. Eight of us with binoculars, sun hats, loads of insect repellent in tow drove off deep into the Bush in hopes of spotting animals, taking pictures and yes, experiencing the "true African experience'. About two hours into the drive, we stopped for hors d'oevres and cocktails in the darkness in the bush. We ate biltong (dried meat) and hazlenuts and drank wine while gazing in awe at the amazing African sunset. Not your average cocktail party.

Back to the lodge where we are immediately escorted to dinner outdoors around a barbeque fenced in from the animals and set up like a formal dinner party. As we stood around 'networking' with the other guests we snacked on shish kebab of impala. After the initial shock, it was the most delicious meat that I ever tasted. We were then escorted back to our lodge by the security guards dressed like Green Berets. Rumor had it that one guest at another game reserve went unescorted back to the pool one evening as she had left her shoes there when she met up with a lion who was obviously not as well sated with food as we were. And the rest is history! Our lodge was truly first class with all the amenities including an outdoor shower, yes for the 'true African experience'. Our front deck overlooked the bush, we had mosquito netting surrounding our bed and were told to keep our door locked during the day as the baboons come into the rooms to eat the fruit and play with the clothing. We were told the next day that the elephants broke down the fences again to come into the compound and eat as usual.

The next day we decided to pass on the five a.m. game drive and catch up from our jet lag. We got up in time for a gourmet breakfast on the veranda of the main lodge and then decided to venture out on a hike in the bush. I must admit I was a little more hesitant about this than the game drive. The idea of traipsing through the very dense bush had me looking constantly downward for possible snakes underfoot. Our tracker had a great personality and sense of humor as did the incredibly young and good looking staff. Everyone looked like they just came off the set of a soap opera. Our tracker, Fanwell told us we'd probably never remember his name so he said it was okay to call him Fanbelt. We walked for about an hour through the dense bush (It was like a scene from Mash) down to the water to watch the crocodiles and hippos, saw the giraffes and kudus and still keeping my eyes open for snakes. Back to Bush Camp for another elegant meal. And Kathy and I kept wondering before we left,"what will we eat in Africa?' No problem!

Kathy went to the pool and I went to work. Sharon and I walked over to the Zulu village where I would give my presentation in the childrens schoolhouse. I passed the mud houses just like I read in the book The Covenant. I read every book that I could get my hands on about South Africa and rented every movie. I must have watched 'The Gods Must Be Crazy' at least ten times. I presented to many different audiences in many unique locations but I'm sure this wins the prize. The management, the staff of 'the young and the beautiful',the game drivers, the trackers all sitting at little desks. They were a warm, receptive audience and their keen sense of humor gave them the edge in appreciating my humor. Back to the lodge for tea and goodies and then off on another game drive. Most of the animals come out after dusk so that is the best time to observe them. And observe we did. We came upon a pride of lions and watched the mating process. Our guide told us that lions mate over one hundred times in a twenty four hour period. No wonder they're always sleeping! We were only about ten feet away in the open land rover. Our guide told us that the animals think that the land rover is another animal and only if you stood up would they attack.

Dinner this night was actually in the Bush in an old Shangan Village but that sure didn't stop them from providing another gourmet feast. One of the most memorable moments of this experience came from our last evening at the Game Reserve. Kathy and I were sitting in our room and writing our postcards home when we both looked up at each other when we heard large crunching of leaves outside our house. I said to Kathy,'that couldn't possibly be an elephant, could it?' Kathy immediately jumped up on the bed and peered out the back window and looked down at me and said 'it is an elephant!' I said what shall we do now and at that moment we giggled as we remembered what our tracker had said just that afternoon as we passed a herd of elephants. What do you do if an elephant charges asked one of the guests and he replied,'you zigzag'. Kathy immediately jumped into her sneakers and I grabbed the closest shoes near to me which happened to be a pair of jeweled sandals. Kathy tool one look at me and at the prospect of me 'zigzagging' from an elephant in my jeweled shoes in the bush was more than she could handle and she doubled over in a fit ofrlaughter. After we realized that he could not break down our house,we resumed our letter writing with a postscript 'pardon the interruption but an elephant just came to our door. Just another average day in the life of a speaker. On the morning of our departure, the tracker knocked on our door to warn us about the poisonous snake that was hanging over our walking path. Well. that's it, I've seen it all and I can leave now.

Our hosts and owners, Shan and Dave Varti and of course, Sharon Levin my networking buddy who arranged it all had certainly provided us with the true 'African experience' and an incredible beginning to what was going to be the trip of a lifetime and certainly the highlight of my speaking career.

We drove back to Johannesberg or as the locals call it, Jo-berg to be picked up by our next host and driven to my next speaking engagement for the life insurance industry of South Africa. This opportunity came from more networking after my presentation at the Million Dollar RoundTable. The event was being held at the mega-million resort at Sun City. A visionary South African man, Sol Kershner was flying over the countryside one day when he spotted an old volcano and his vision was to build The Lost City in the crater. He was laughed at and scorned as he pursued his dream and eighteen months later it became a reality. There are no words to describe the magnificence of The Palace, The Valley of the Waves and all the other facets of this Las Vegas in Africa. Stayed at Sun City for four days to do the keynote and a breakout session for the insurance convention. In the movie "The Gods Must Be Crazy" a coke bottle falls from the sky. One of the tribesmen finds it and thinks that it was sent by the Gods. This in turn leads to some very hilarious happenings. At the conferenece, I had the stage crew rig a coke bottle from the ceiling and had it dropped at the end of my presentation. They loved it! When I picked it up, I removed a piece of paper that I had written on, that had the theme of the conference on it and that said,"We've Only Just Begun" The audience was as magnificent as the country------warm, receptive, enthusuastic and so evidently excited about the new and emerging South Africa. It was contagious!

In between speeches there was time for assorted events; an outdoor opening spectacular show in what looked like the Roman Coliseum highlighting South African talent, food and their greatest resource, people. We also were entertained at a Halloween party, yes, they do celebrate many of our holidays. In fact I was amazed at how comfortable I felt in South Africa as it was in many ways comparable to the U.S. Even the toilet paper(refer back to my article on Germany in the Fall 1994 issue.) Our days were filled with sun and surf(they make their own) and the nights with more entertainment. The closing night Gala was a perfect ending to an all too perfect week.

Off to Jo-berg to present for a full day to one of the major insurance companies. Again another terrific audience and more unique experiences. Dinner that night at the beautiful Sandton Sun Hotel and the Villa Meura restaurant for Portugese seafood. The next morning we awoke to a scorpion climbing our wall. While we stayed frozen in our beds we called for the housekeeper to take care of it. Just another day in, well you know the rest!

Back to the airport for our flight to Cape Town and we were met at the airport by our Londolozi hostess with the mostess, Sharon and family. Checked in to yet another beautiful hotel owned by a terrific gentleman, Arthur Gillis (more about him later). We met up with our other Cape hostess, Adrienne Altman who I had just met four months prior when I spoke for the national convention of the Society for Human Resource professionals. Yes, I was networking again! I also stayed in contact with both of these gals, actually introducing them to each other via fax. They, in turn put together my Cape portion of the trip and the public seminar sponsored by the local fitness association.

Off to a great dinner and some of the evening sights of the Cape. The next days seminar was to an overflow capacity crowd. The South Africans have been starved for entertainment,speakers and contact with the rest of the world so it is only natural that they are so receptive and excited . After the event, Arthur and his charming wife, Annette took us all out to dinner. A delightful couple and a brilliant businessman. Arthur, as it turned out is the Education Chairman for the South African chapter of YPO, Young Presidents Organization. Hmmmmm! Yes, he's already recommended me!

The next day they took us down to the Harbor for lunch and of course, SHOPPING! We were going to take the cable car up to Table Mountain but it was too windy. That evening we went to dinner at Horizons on the Waterfront and cocktails at the elegant Ambassador Hotel. Still making memories! In the morning we had breakfast at an old Dutch Cape House and took a walk on the Indian Ocean side of the Cape. We said a tearful goodbye and flew off to Durban for the last leg of the trip.

I met Cathy Yuill at a convention in New York where I was doing a breakout session on what else? Networking! She was sitting in my front row wearing a badge that had her name and her home, South Africa. After the session I immediately approached her to let her know of my planned trip to her country in the fall. She like all the other South Africans that I met was so proud of her country and especially where she lived in Durban that she instantly offered to put together a program there as well. As in the other instances, I kept in touch with Cathy and her lovely partner,Wendy whom I met the next week at another convention that I was speaking at and they were attending. Later that week, Cathy found out that I was presenting my Speakers School in Las Vegas and she immediately signed on. I knew then that this gal was a go-getter. We made plans to meet at the airport and it was not meant to be.

As in all the other cases, I returned to my office and continued to nurture my new friends in South Africa. I must admit that never have I had so many promises made to me that came to fruition than with this remarkable group of South Africans. When we arrived in Durban, Cathy, Wendy and spouses picked us up and off we went to yet another wonderful dinner. Tough job, speakers but someone has got to do it!

Stayed at the elegant Royal Hotel. These folks have class and it's all first! The next day Cathy arranged for me to speak at one of the largest and most successful retail companies in South Africa. In the morning, he brought in all his Managing Directors from all the subsidiaries from all over the country and we convened in the boardroom for a three hour session. Then a consulting lunch with Terry Rosenberg, the Managing Director of the entire conglomerate. The most astute, down to earth and charming company leader that I have ever had the pleasure pf working with.

After lunch, Terry had invited several of his peers, MD's from many different companies for an afternoon session that focused on many diverse issues. It became quite evident that U.S. CEO'S could learn alot from the management styles of these first class leaders. Now to the finale, the end, the piece de resistance, the AHA! the TA DAH! And so it was!

My final day in Durban and the last of this awesome trip was a memory unto itself. The Mrs' Cathy and Wendy had put together a full day program for the public featuring me as the day long speaker at the summer home of President Nelson Mandela and hosted by the Premier of Natal's wife. It was a beautiful warm day and a white marquee (tent) with the interior draped in white silk, white tablecloths and beautiful table settings, flowers everywhere, the stage adorned with huge plants and more flowers , and a singer to entertain during he coffee breaks. I had a professional sound man and system, the presentation packets done up in red with my logo and not a detail was overlooked. The day opened with a racially mixed group of young peoople singing the new South African anthem and other folk songs. It certainly brought tears to my eyes.

After lunch the Premiers wife gave us a private tour of the inside of Mandelas home and the magnificent grounds. As I stood in his office and held the new South African flag ,I was once again humbled by the "privilege of the platform". It was the perfect ending of the perfect trip. Never have I been so captivated by a country, its people and its past, present and future and by the rewards and gratification of being received so openly as an international presenter. I can now claim having spoken on all continents(except Antartica,of course) and I can say without a moments hesitation that this was by far the most memorable(with Isreal running a close second and the lunch in the Negev Desert, see Oct/Nov 1994 issue)

As all the South Africans say instead of "You're welcome" Pleasure! ..........and that it was ............the true African experience!

Mikki Williams,CSP is an inspirational humorist and business motivator. Her company, Mikki Williams Unltd. specializes in speaking, training and consulting in business dynamics, professional development and personal growth. 

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