From the sequel: Out of the Fire into the Furnace. To be published soon.
Amorgos for three months in the winter means that Serala here has to be looked after. The gardeners work as usual as do the housekeepers. However they have to be supervised and paid in cash and the estate has to be occupied day and night for security. This requires house sitters. Therein lies a problem.
There is really very little for house sitters to do in our situation as we employ staff for 50 man hours a week. Many house sitters have to maintain the garden and house and feed animals and walk dogs. Our sitters just have to be here looked after by the staff paid for by us. We ask that they maintain the swimming pool but our gardeners can do it if required. It has been a continuing problem. For the last few years we have used online house sitting agencies but this has proved to be no better than trying to find someone locally.
We have had nothing but disasters. We had only been in the house for a few months when we had to go back to Amorgos so we had to find someone locally quite urgently. Being 40 kilometres out of town this was not ideal for most people there. Many of the ‘wanabe’ pilots house sit but they don’t have transport and need to stick around town night and day to get known by the air charter companies. It also needs someone mature to manage the staff. We were getting quite desperate and considering expensive and not totally reliable professional security firms. Just a few weeks before we departed a well-known and, at the time, respected former camp manager was thrown out of his house by his wife and was looking for somewhere to live. This we thought was an ideal opportunity. He was working in town at the time but agreed to the sit as long as we paid his travelling expenses. We paid him in cash upfront for three months staff’s wages and his costs. We disappeared over the horizon with confidence and relief. After a month he announced that he had ‘lost’ most of the cash we had given to him. Another month later he said that he couldn’t afford to drive to the house everyday but he could probably be there at weekends. This was of great concern due to the security aspect. We were forced to return early and employ a lady on the island to look after our business there. The house was standing and we had not been robbed. The swimming pool looked like a swamp and it took us three months to recover it.
A few months later Henri was taken ill and had to be evacuated to hospital in Johannesburg. We asked neighbours a few hundred metres away to keep an eye on the house. They could only pop in once a day to see if everything was OK and check on the staff. Between visits a local gang of youngsters broke in and robbed us. The ring leader was a 15 year old who lives in a small settlement nearby. He was prime suspect from the beginning and was found with some of our possessions in his hut. Unfortunately a very valuable gold necklace was never recovered. At one meeting with Sgt Mox, our diminutive very cheerful police chief, he said, ‘you know of course that the boy had intimate knowledge of your house’. We were taken aback to say the least. It turned out that he also had ‘intimate’ knowledge of our sitter. The pervert was paying him to play in our house and was under investigation for sexual assault amongst other things. We mentioned this to a few friends who admitted that they had heard rumours. Now that we had confirmed it the pervert went into hiding. He disappeared out of the country for some time. Eventually returning to attempt suicide once with poison, this failed as the medics managed to save him. The second attempt, when he blew his brains out with a shot gun, they couldn’t do much for him.
With all the police investigations we got to know Sgt Mox very well and he became a good friend. He would come and visit us and sit on our veranda, drinking coke, chatting for hours. He just loved the view, the wild life and the garden. His family lived in town but he had a bachelor cop house next to the police station in the village. We still hadn’t found a house sitter for the following year. We said, ‘why don’t you house sit for us?’ We proposed that he could sleep in the guest accommodation at night for security and the staff would look after things during the day. He jumped at the idea. After work he would come and sit on our veranda all evening stay overnight and return to work the following morning. The police in Chanoga do not have a police car. A point I have raised with the authorities a number of times. If you need the police you have to go and get them. We proposed that he could use our motor as a police car for three months. He is a mechanic and of course very trust worthy so we were satisfied that it would be driven sensibly and looked after, as indeed it was. He told everyone that he was in charge and anyone who even thought about going anywhere near our estate would be in trouble. Again, we disappeared over the horizon relaxed and with confidence. The police were in charge.
We had only been back on the island for a few days when we got a phone call from Mox. I very impolitely scrubbed around the customary, ‘hello, how are you’. I just said, ‘WHAT’S WRONG?. He had just called for a chat, on the police office phone of course. He continued to do this regularly whilst we were away. Then we got the call we didn’t want, ‘you have been robbed’. Everyone in the village knew that Mox had his family in town and apparently went to stay with them every weekend. We did not know this. A gang of three did a professional job on us. They took almost everything of value. The place was ransacked. Mox was so embarrassed he pulled out all the stops. He got CID in from town. They took finger prints and identified the men. Catching them was a different matter. By the time we got back they had caught two. These two alternated between skipping bail or breaking out of the police cells where apparently the door lock is a bit loose! The third chap was reportedly hiding right up north on the panhandle of the Delta. CID eventually told us that they had got him and were bringing him in. ‘We will phone you when we have him here and you can come and meet him’, they said. I inquired if it was OK if I beat him to a pulp or even killed him. Apparently it wasn’t, so we couldn’t see any point in this appointment and declined. After about a year they were all behind secure bars. The police recovered some items. Only two of any value. One was my Royal Air Force ceremonial sword belt, the sword was fortunately not here but was in Amorgos as is the belt now. I think that this belt seen in town holding up a scruffy pair of jeans would somehow be a little glaring. The other item was a brand new handheld GPS. They probably left it behind because they couldn’t work out where to put the sim card or how to get a dialling tone out of it.
After these two disasters we started to use the online house sitting agencies. We have had a phenomenal response getting over 300 applications a year. They see this idyllic location with incredible wild life, in a perfect tropical climate, staff paid for by us and fall over each other for the appointment. Most are unsuitable though. They need to be experienced in running a complex off grid system balancing between solar, batteries, generators and pumps. We get single ladies in their 80s applying, kids just out of school on a gap year. Single mothers with children and even once a group of three gay academics. Told the latter that the bed wasn’t big enough for three even if it was a ‘Queen’ size.
Selecting the right people is of course difficult. About 80% are clearly not suitable. Qualified applicants get sent photographs of the property, internal and external. They also get a three page information document covering facilities, cost of consumables, details of the vehicle if they should require it and what is available and more importantly what is not. Also sent is a comprehensive document: ‘Serala Management Notes’ which covers their responsibilities, how all the systems work and general information about, for example, doctors, shops and restaurants in town. Most importantly they receive a questionnaire of twenty questions on which we base our selection procedure. This establishes if they are experienced in this type of living, can manage solar systems and swimming pools and can live forty kilometres from a shop or pub! Over the years we have learnt that it has to be a couple. This is male and female not some contemporary politically correct definition of the word. The chaps will not listen to a lady and the housekeepers perform better when supervised by a female. Said ‘couple’ must have lived and worked in Africa. Anyone who has done this will know you have to treat your staff differently than you do in Europe, America or Asia. They behave differently; it is a cultural thing and has to have been experienced. Many applicants claim they have ‘off grid experience’. When pushed it turns out that they have been camping. They have to be mature, but not too mature! In other words have worldly experience but young enough to heave generators and pumps around together. They have to be an established couple. We don’t want them having a bust up on night one about who gets to chuck the hippo out of the bed. It has to be a well-established team. In this situation you are living and working together 24 hours a day without any other company except the staff. We get many applicants who say that they will bring a friend to complete the couple. Wrong answer.
Over the years we have established a short list of about 10 couples of which only three are really ideal. That is of course only one per cent of applications. There is usually one couple who stands out and then we have backup and possibilities for the next year. We start the process eighteen months before the assignment and usually appoint with nine months to go. Sometimes over a year before. The ideal situation is to be able to interview potential house sitters on the estate and for them to see what is required and meet the staff. This is of course not practical for most people but we do have two couples on the books who come under this bracket and are at the top of the short list.
Our first couple from an agency didn’t meet all the required criteria but we didn’t have solar at the time and he was a retired senior military officer from the USA. He claimed that they could live remotely. I had no doubt about his man management skills and he was very experienced in engineering so pumps and generators would not be a problem to him. The problem was that we don’t think the questionnaire was filled in by them together. We don’t think his wife had any idea of the conditions here. Their only experience of Botswana was luxury camps in the Delta. They had no idea what goes on behind the scenes to make these camps ‘luxury’. To survive here in comfort all these tasks have to be managed by, or performed yourself.
He said that they could survive without TV and Internet, they couldn’t. He said that they could survive forty kilometres from the nearest town. Well they did, but only by driving into it practically every day and hammering our vehicle. He said he didn’t mind cold showers or building a fire to have a hot one. His wife certainly did. Maybe my fault but I assumed that they could manage the staff, it was a disaster.
For them back home the nearest shop, restaurant or cinema was just a few blocks away. Five minutes, by car, naturally. Now this was fairly essential, as they needed takeaways as she can’t cook. You would have thought that he had noticed this fact in all their years of marriage. He said that they didn’t smoke. Well she must have been permanently on fire then. We have a rather dangerous old gas geyser on the outside of the kitchen, right under the thatch. We had stopped using it years ago. The lack of hot water coming out of the taps was not what the lady was used to. They evicted all the birds and spiders and tried to get it fixed. Apparently after a couple of rather nasty moments with flames shooting out they got it to work to a certain degree. It seems that they only lit it when it was required and practically stood over it with the fire extinguisher.
This couple were fairly well heeled. They had two big houses and he had large pensions. They paid for everything apart from the staff. All utilities, in this case fuel for the generator, wood for the fire and gas for the fridge and cooker. Well, the fridge anyway, the cooker got little use. House sitters should meet these costs as they would living in their own home. It is not a free holiday and they had little cleaning and maintenance to do. Many house sitters have to look after the house and garden, feed animals and walk dogs. We were paying for the staff for them to help them out and they were more than happy to pay for the utilities. Some sitters think otherwise, we will get to that! In this case they even paid for the water pump fuel to irrigate the estate. We think he was a bit of a shopaholic. The work shop was full of all sorts of gadgets and bits and bobs that he had bought and left behind, many things still in their wrappings. There was a brand new set of fishing equipment including keep net complete with a specialist box of hooks, weights, bait, spinners and a spare reel. I expected to find waders in the corner but I guess croc proof waders are difficult to find. At the beginning as, usual, the staff would let them know if there was anything they needed; compost, bleach or a new rake. His attitude was that money meant nothing to him. For staff who live in huts and get paid peanuts this was too much to miss. The demands got bigger, new brushes, because they would get the old one, new buckets the same reason and so it escalated. It did take him aback when the estate manager asked if he would pay for his wedding though. The staff’s attitude to their ‘employer’ changed. Why should they work for peanuts when he did nothing and could afford anything. When we returned the housekeeper had turned to theft which we never had before.