Saturday, February 21, 2009

Ten Years of Red Chilli

In all the talk on here, I'm not sure I've ever told the Red Chilli story properly.

It's one I know pretty well now, after nearly a year in the job now, but it pre-dates me by some time. Red Chilli turned 10 in Jan 2009, having been set up by a British expat couple, Steve and Debbie Willis, back in 1998.

Steve worked for the High Commission in Uganda and had met Debbie whilst she was on her backpacking tour of the continent. She continued the tour, but came back to Uganda when Steve persuaded her that he was both the man for her, and that he was going to leave the civil service and they would start a backpackers hostel and campsite together.

They found a plot of land to rent, with some decrepid, rotting, buildings on it, and started renovating and knocking through walls, opening for business officially in Jan 1999, though rumour has it they may not have turned away the overland trucks that started pitching up as early as November the year before, hot on the heels of the rumour that a new backpackers' operation had opened in Kampala.

Eventually, bit by bit, they converted all the derelict buildings on the plot, adding larger dorms, more rooms and even cottages. A bid for a concession in a national park led Steve and Debbie to managing the Rest Camp at Paraa in Murchison Falls National Park, tearing down the old mud bandas that the warthogs would just barge into, and putting smart new brick bandas up in their place.

Red Chilli started running 3 day safari trips - back then they were as little as $99 (but then chimp tracking cost a mere $6 compared to the $40 it costs today, and park entry was peanuts) but even today at $240 they're still the cheapest safari in East Africa.

Then, when everything was going so well, Steve responded to a distress call from some rafting friends who had got into some trouble on the Nile up in the Northern section of the park. Steve went to their rescue in the white landrover we still drive today. He never came back.

This was in November 2003, and Joseph Kony's notorious LRA army had, in previous years, retreated to the jungles of the DRC and southern Sudan, but pockets of guerillas had been left behind. They were armed, hungry and scared. They were now in the minority and all the villages they had been busy raping and pillaging in the late 80s and early 90s were now angry and keen for revenge.

A few of these bandit types ambushed Steve's vehicle on his way back from picking up the rafters. Shots were fired and while everyone else got away (even one of the rafters who had sustained a broken leg on the river) Steve was tragically killed by one of their bullets.

Debbie returned to the UK, utterly devastated at the news of her husband's death, and in a strange twist of fate, also newly pregnant with her dead husband's child. The day to day running of Red Chilli was left to the then Murchison Managers, a South African couple called Hennie and Anne, but as time went by Debbie got more and more involved. She also got more and more pregnant and gave birth to the lovely Zoe the following summer, who joined older brother Joe, as part of the new reality of her single parent family.

Debbie was still mourning Steve, but life in England didn't feel right. Uganda, a country that many saw as being implicit in her husband's death, was luring her back, and what better way to honour her husband than go back and grow the business she and Steve had built together?

In January 2007 she returned to Uganda with her children. Hennie and Anne were still running Kampala but new managers had to be recruited for Murchison as their replacements up there were moving on.

That's when we came into the picture and answered an ad and got the job at Murchison. The job we couldn't take up because I then went and rather stupidly got cancer. In our place came the very able Jim & Tanya, who still run Murchison today. Buildings at Murchison were renovated, and Kampala gained a new adjoining compound with extra rooms and cottages.

In January 2008, Hennie and Anne sadly decided to call it a day on a personal level and Anne returned to South Africa. We got the call and joined Hennie as Managers of Kampala in April 2008.

Now, ten years on from when Red Chilli was launched, the two camps cater for around 2,500 different guests every month. Kampala sleeps up to 150 or so in beds and with a few overland trucks and campers, this can be bumped up to around 240 or so on busy nights in peak season. And we send up to 320 people on safaris to Murchison every month.

The Murchison camp is smaller, but perfectly formed, sleeping 44 in beds and several more camping, but they are permanently fully booked, being the only budget option inside the park.

Genuinely, the business is booming. We're low margin, high volume. Everyone's talking about the global credit crunch affecting business but in our world of backpacks and budget travel, it's hard to believe there's a financial crisis on. Maybe all our customers are disillusioned bankers who've been made redundant. One of the overland truck companies is actually marketing a trip along this basis ("Lost your job? Sod the lot of them and come away with us....").

So, when it came to how best to mark the passing of a ten year anniversary we decided to hold a massive party. Invite the world and his wife - all of Debbie and Steve's friends and supporters over the years, all of our staff and their friends or families, all of our suppliers and business partners. More than 400 people turned up, with plenty of kids thrown in as well.

Nile Breweries donated some beer, we donated some more, and bought cases and cases of wine.

The kitchen slaved for 3 days to prepare the salads (try mixing 50 litres of coleslaw) and some friends from Nile River Explorers produced a salivating spit roast.

Icemark, a fruit and veg export company, donated several cartons of beautiful red and orange scotch bonnet chillies, which were piled around the tables and displayed in every corner.

Grace, Annet and Susan from housekeeping had helped me make loads of papier mache chillies and Fred Opar (a groundsman and one of the 3 Freds we have employed at Chilli...) had shown his artistic talent by helping me paint them bright red and hang them in the trees.

Maringa Ogilvy lent a hand by organising the printing of some massive banners and blowing up some of the Red Chilli archive of photos taken over the years (with thanks again to Nile Breweries for picking up the printing bill), and a massive firework display was organised by a good friend of Debbie's.

Raffle prizes were donated by friends and business partners and a free raffle ticket was given to every guest... Vodka jellies were served as dessert - I tell you, our kitchen floor was sticky for days after making 400 vodka jelly shots.

Debbie had made some chilli tequila, so after the vodka jellies were finished, the chilli tequila shots started. Someone was even seen cutting the top off the scotch bonnet chillies, fillin it with chilli tequila, and then downing the shot and eating the chilli whole and raw. He was later witnessed throwing up in the car park.

The party was a huge success. We were stressing about the weather all day, as it poured with rain all morning and afternoon. The first guests braved the rain, and then as the sun came out, everyone else came out of the woodwork and appeared. The food went down a treat, the fireworks made the whole evening go with a bang, the bar never ran dry, debbie made a moving speech, and the great and the good of Kampala were out in force.

And I spent most of the following week recovering from a vicious cold and wondering just quite how we managed to pull off hosting and catering a party for more than 400 people.

But somehow, someway, it fell together. The staff excelled themselves and lots of other people and companies helped us get it all sorted. And I may have been here ten months and not ten years, but it felt pretty good to be part of it all.


Marie said...

You tell that story so well! It makes me wish I were there too.

Anne-Marie Weeden said...

You certainly would have made the guest list