9 Things I learned on a corporate getaway to De Hoop Nature Reserve

Epiphanies on a leadership retreat in the bush
  1. Try everything three times…with a friend

We went sandboarding.

They say one should try everything once (Google what Sir Thomas Beecham said about that!) I discovered that three times is the minimum: once because you should overcome your initial fear; once adding variety, and once pushing the fear factor.

Now in my middle age, I am no longer a daredevil physically, but I was itching to hurtle down the virgin slopes of the coastal dunes, and discovered that no more am I the first person to put up my hands for athletic feats. In fact, I was anxiety-ridden, not about making a fool of myself (That was inevitable) but of actually hurting myself. However a colleague and I plucked up the courage and went down (sitting) together in a ‘race.’ Well ‘down’ is an exaggeration. I slithered to a halt one metre after the guide stopped pushing me. But once we got going, what fun!

Then I tried standing up – for a while – and quickly realised that making like Kelly Slater on sand would be the quickest way to return with a broken ankle, but at least I can say that I rode the slope. (Two seconds is a while!)

Behind us was an almost sheer drop which three of us braved together – I participated in that madness only because I figured there were no bumps on the slope to stop me – I forgot about my behind – leaning back in fear of tumbling head over heels, I managed to embed my personal rear bump firmly in the hill and I had to paddle to the bottom, only to have to clamber on shaking legs back up the cliff.

But what exhilaration to conquer fear just a little. And sans Sally, I would not have done that.

2. Baboons share my sugar addiction

Baboons often damage protea plants seeking the sugary nectar beneath the flower head. Thankfully they stayed away from the chocolate stashes in the restaurant kitchen, but this chap was very interested in our cottage. Thankfully we had been warned to keep doors and windows closed.

Photo Credit: Sally Langerman

The delicious food at the Fig Tree Restaurant certainly kept us well fed and the chocolate splendour of the final dessert elicited enjoyment utterances akin to that scene in ‘When Harry met Sally.’

3. Sometimes you should just dive in fully clothed

Returning from an entertaining game drive, I joined fellow heads of schools, who were hot and exhausted after a walk through the fynbos, at the infinity pool on the cliff. Our costumes were far away in our cottages and after some splashing from the wildlife already in the pool, we threw dignity to the gentle breeze and dove in fully clothed, like children.

So often as heads of schools, we are called on to be solemn and proper, and decorous; at school we are always on display, but it was good to be real and have unadulterated fun. I think that childlike activity added years to our lives and reduced several therapy sessions worth of stress.

There’s a life lesson in that.

4. Fynbos and women

Our guide jokingly told us, as he pointed at the cones on the (female) fynbos plants he was showing us, that here the women have the… er … cajones (The euphemism is mine – he was a trifle blunter). It struck me looking at the smattering of female faces in the group how necessary it is in life for women to have ‘cones’, and not just at work. Listening to the stories of the women around me, I marvel at the capacity of women to maintain stressful careers, raise their families and run their homes simultaneously. If I have learned anything working in my job and seeing the struggles of so many single (and married) mothers, it is that there is a core of strength within us that is indestructible. Tired, yes! Defeated? Never.

5. Fynbos and fire

And that brings me to the miracle of fynbos: as anyone local to the Western Cape will tell you, fynbos has to burn every 8 – 14 years in order for the seeds to germinate. We women are certainly forged in powerful fires if you pardon the mixed metaphor. It’s a bit sad though that we sometimes only come into our own when we have to face disaster. If I think how many women are defined by their single-parenthood, breast cancer survival; or rape survival, rather than being recognized first for their strength of character or talents. But perhaps it is only in a crisis that women allow themselves to show their steely core. Don’t mess with a woman who has been betrayed: she has learned she can live without you.

But the fynbos is not merely a metaphor for the might of women, it is a sign for all of us that sometimes it is trouble that makes us fruitful. We are most creative when we are under pressure. In every tragedy there is an opportunity – that is how we tap into the creative power of the Almighty.

6. Saying no is powerful

Our itinerary involved an exciting afternoon walking along the shore and snorkeling in crystal clear waters. I wanted to go, and suffered severe FOMO by not going, but I decided to listen to my body which was screaming ‘Kan nie meer nie.’ Strong people sometimes battle to say ‘no’ or to ringfence free time for ‘sharpening sword’ activities. I chose myself that afternoon and slept for 3 hours. As a woman, as a leader, and as a female leader particularly, I frequently feel I ought to, should do, have to do, must do it all so I do not appear to be under-performing or lazy and sometimes it is a potent decision to take back my own power and just say ‘no’… and I didn’t get sunburnt.

7. Conferences versus connection

I am so grateful that the organisers of our conference put the emphasis on ‘conferring’ and connection rather than on lecturing and instructing. What made this gathering unique was the absence of powerpoints and workshops, the focus being on relationships – and funnily enough, watching the finance guys rock the slopes on sandboards was infinitely more instructive and entertaining than spreadsheets; chatting late into the evening and hearing another head say, ‘Wow you are describing exactly the challenges my school has!’ was as beneficial as formal training on collaborating about how to solve similar problems; and shared laughter was a balm for tired souls at the end of a long term.

8. Don’t lean on stone walls in the veld

Mice and goggas live there…and therefore so do snakes. There is probably a metaphor for life in that, but there endeth the lesson!

9. Life comes full circle

Arriving home was like returning from a school camp, having bonded with colleagues rather than merely shared a conference venue. I think we came back more friends than peers, a powerful thing in a post-Covid world.

And as I climbed off our overland bus, there was my son, Michael, standing at his vehicle like a Viking with with his blood-red beard, ready to take mom home, just as I had done so many times after tours and camps for my children.

Life is good with friends and family.