Afire with Nature
Discovering southern Africa is an easy, yet extraordinary adventure, says DIANE SUSTENDAL, in the conclusion of her two-part article.
The Victoria Falls ... don't just look at it. Fly over it. Or dine and swim near it.
DIANE SUSTENDAL'S 10-day safari began in Johannesburg and then moved to Botswana. From there she flew in and out of three camps. It was then back to the Grand Victoria Falls Hotel, Zimbabwe, two days in Cape Town, South Africa, and then an overnight stay in Johannesburg. The next day, it was the flight back home. A description of the Eagle Island camp in Xaxaba, where she left off last time:
WHAT is astounding is that not a single nail is used in the construction of the camps, a testament to the "Gametrackers'" sensivity to ecology. Every building can be taken down and within two seasons nature will reclaim the land without a trace.
Each camp has a swimming pool for the guests (human) and watering holes for the others. There is a campfire area to sit around before breakfast on chilly mornings, as well. The gents seem to take great pleasure sitting there after dinner with Cuban cigars in one hand and a fine port or brandy in the other.
A central lodge serves as living room, dining room, first-rate bar and general meeting place. Besides comfortable seating conversation areas, there were lots of deck chairs to stretch out to watch sunset or the nocturnal movements of the animal kingdom. It is also stocked with books, maps, a series of telescopes and ledgers for guests to record distinctive markings of elephants, which are under great watch as overpopulation is an increasing problem. The closest thing to a television is a video that allows guests to review the film they may have shot that day! At Eagle Island, in Xaxaba, the wetlands areas are explored in a mokoro, a small pod shaped two-passenger boat, pushed by pole or paddle. One can spot a lilac-breasted roller, the national bird of Botswana, or, very rare sitatunga and red lechwe antelopes only found in the area.
In the low season, the waters are barely three-feet deep, so we found ourselves looking up at an elephant cooling off in the late afternoon sun. In winter, the waters rise to considerable heights.
Khwai Lodge, on the edge of Moremi Wildlife Reserve, is "Gametrackers'" centerpiece and for some, a destination to itself. It was certainly my favourite.
Because the lodge is not in a reserve, game drives can begin before dawn and end late at night when lions, leopards and cheetahs are on the move.
During the day, most game take to the water or settle in the shade of bush where little disturbs them. We pulled up within 10-feet of three lionesses and their cubs most blissfully napping.
It was there we had our heart-stopping encounter with the Cape Buffalo.
I must admit, it may be the first time I was truly grateful to bore an animal since my childhood. That happened at eight years old when a deadly snake slid across my bare foot and kept moving as if I were a log rather than a person. To this day, my mother swears she's never seen me so still either before or after ... She wasn't in Africa.
Much of Chobe National Park, where the Savute Elephant Camp is located, is semi-arid wilderness. In April, at winter's end, its gray, dusty, bleak landscape looks like the backside of the moon. Then suddenly the sky turns black, blue, pink and purple. Lightning strikes and hail-sized raindrops begin to pelt.
Then as quickly as it has begun, it is over, leaving watering holes filled for the enormous herds of elephant that move from one to another; crashing tree limbs, fences, and just about anything in their way. With their poor eyesight and keen sense of smell, they can get dangerously close.
The sounds of Africa amaze: A lion's roar thrillingly shatters a good night's sleep. The hundreds of migrating zebra make the earth thunder.
The harmonious clacking of antlers usually indicate antelope sparring for attention or at play. Elephants trumpeting can be heard for miles but it's usually nothing to worry about. The hyena's laugh is, well, not funny. Even the ostrich squawk as they make their way across the sandvelt to open marshlands and savannahs dotted with acacia, baobab trees and wild sage bushes.
It is, as one of our guides, Mighty, pointed out, the one's you don't hear that can be trouble: the leopard moving silently in the night, the snake slithering in the tall grasses, the seemingly sleeping crocodiles.
Mighty was mighty smart.
One night, I was awakened by the sound of grass being torn up and grunting just outside my tent. Remembering what Mighty had said, I got up and went to the window to see what was going on. Not three metres from my tent's edge was a huge hippo. Being the brave sort, I jumped back into bed and pulled the covers over my head clutching a small silk pouch, a constant companion in which contains a little silver Ganesh, a rosary from Goa, prayer beads dipped in the Ganga, and a smiling Buddha. I have a dear friend from Rajasthan who, knowing I went to a convent school, shakes his head and always asks if these things make me think "I'm covered." The answer is, "Yes." When a hippo which could swallow half of me in one bite is that close, or, a lioness is looking benign but you know the danger, or, you're just trying to get across the street in Bombay in one piece, or there is turbulence on a plane, or someone is sick, we need all the help we/I can get.
From Chobe, we drove to the Zimbabwe border which, of course, no one said we should do. Travel advisories and all that. Victoria Falls is one of the great natural wonders of the world. Being that close and not seeing it is like not going to the Taj Mahal because of terrorist threats! If life is short, I'd rather not miss a minute of it ... and to miss seeing the falls would have been to miss a great, awe-inspiring experience. Fortunately, the travel advisories have recently been lifted so if you are headed on safari, it's a do not miss.
I would have not traded anything for the post-camp stay at the historic, wildly British colonial Victoria Falls Hotel. Its back lawn sits directly above the falls, so one can drink, dine and swim with a full view of the spray and steam from this great natural wonder that has impressed everyone from Sir Cecil Rhodes to the humblest of mankind. The hotel still has a full orchestra that plays nightly in its grandest of dining rooms. Despite the fact that we were one of 10 people in this astonishing Edwardian ballroom, the band joyfully played on.
Since there were so few guests, I was given a suite for the same price as a regular room. The suite, it turned out, was the late Queen Mother of England's favourite ... . Mine, too. Fine antique desks, chairs, sideboards, sofas, a fireplace, and a view of the gardens. Luxe.
Luxurious and historic; I couldn't have been happier. Doubtful, I'll scratch up enough rupees to stay in that room again unless I'm on the arm of some very influential person. But it was grand.
A helicopter ride through seven rainbows over the falls is, in a word, unforgettable. You can white water raft and bungee jump. I opted for a cool beer on a slow-moving boat down the Zambezi river.
It was then on to Cape Town for two fast-moving, trend-spotting days where our attention was divided between shopping at the Victoria and Alfred (not Albert) Waterfront, wine tastings in Stellenbosch and Franschhoek and Paarl. You will have to trust this writer; the wines of South Africa have few rivals.
The best-kept secret in Cape Town's elegant, rambling Mount Nelson Hotel are the four individual cottages, tucked away on the back of the property. Each with its own floral motif, book-filled sitting room, several bedrooms, fireplace, small kitchen and private gardens. One can arrange for nanny services if one has not brought one along. I didn't need a nanny, but it was nice to know.
These cottages seem to sit right under Table Top Mountain, which overlooks the skyline of what is certainly South Africa's most beautiful city. From the top, one has a sweeping view of the Cape of Good Hope. Our cottage, just a skip and a jump from the hotel's hidden adult pool, kept us in the "lodge" mode.
Johannesburg gets a bad rap but it's the most serious financial player in all of Africa. I was surprised by both the beauty and cleanliness of the city. The streets were immaculate. There were flowers in bloom everywhere. And the hotel's cars and shuttle services makes one feel completely safe in all areas of the city.
The Westcliff is a series of houses, once condos, perched on the side of a cliff. Its varying levels of rooms, pools, restaurants and reception areas keep the feeling intimate. The Polo Lounge is perfection down to its mean "dirty martini" and lots of vintage photos of African polo teams playing Indian polo teams. The food from light, to exotic to continental dining is superb.
Try to get to the airport early for what has to be one of the best duty free, last minute shopping experiences ever. From diamonds to devilishly chic table accessories and the hottest music store that side of the Atlantic; you can cover everyone on your list for just a few rupees.
Today, a safari is an easy, yet, extraordinary adventure. Botswana, with its three eco-systems and abundant flora and fauna, offers something for everyone. And who would have thought that southern Africa would wind up being one of the safest places in the world post-9/11?
There's something about the area - be it the game viewing at Khawi, the joy of the Zambezi, the time-stands still atmosphere of Victoria Falls, the hipness of Cape Town, or the surprise of Johannesburg it lets the tensions roll right off. Each place has a rhythm of its own. There's an extraordinary ease and friendliness in the nature of the people. Their backgrounds are such that they may have never been more than 50 miles from their native village or it expands to touch almost every corner of the world. But they genuinely want you to like their countries! And you do.
The first part of this article appeared in The Hindu Sunday Magazine, issue dated February 23, 2003.
Diane Sustendal is an international freelance writer based in New York. She is a regular contibutor to The Hindu. She has also written for The New York Times Magazine, The Associated Press, Vogue, and Town & Country Magazine. She may be reached at email@example.com
For the African experience contact:
Gametrackers (www.gametrackers.orient-express.com), P.O. Box 786432, Sandton, 2146, Republic of South Africa, 27 11 481-6052
The Victoria Falls Hotel (www.lhw.com), P.O. 10, Victoria Falls, Zimbabwe, 263 13 4751
The Mount Nelson Hotel (reservations@ mountnelson.co.za), 76, Orange Street, Cape Town 8001, Republic of South Africa, 27 21 483-1000
The Westcliff (reservations@ westcliff.co.za), 67, Jan Smuts Avenue, Johannesburg, Republic of South Africa
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