Durban: My maiden trip to the ‘continent of the future’ was courtesy South African Tourism as part of a media and travel trade contingent. Africa has always fascinated me for its stark contrasts: be it the politics, cultures, languages, bio-diversity or tourism offerings. On my first day in South Africa, I encountered a young man who said to me, “We are Africans, not because we are born in Africa but because Africa is born in us.” They strongly believe in this statement, and Africa as a feeling. Africa is the heart of the world and there are only few who have been touched by her. I find myself one of the lucky few.

South Africa welcomed 10.29 million foreign tourists in 2017 which was 2.4 per cent over its previous year which included 97,921 Indian visitors. In H1, 2018, a total of 44,23,165 tourists visited compared to 43,08,358 during the same period last year.

“In the first half of 2018 (January to June), we welcomed 50,015 Indian visitors to South Africa as compared to 51,842 visitors in H1, 2017. India has always been an important focus region for South African Tourism as it is our eighth largest international source market. We are deeply invested in India as part of our long-term strategy to attract a further five million tourists within the next five years,” said Neliswa Nkani, Hub Head for Middle East, India and Southeast Asia, South African Tourism.

My nine-day itinerary allowed me ample time to experience adventure, wildlife, culture and cuisine in the Rainbow Nation.

What gets your heart racing, South Africa definitely has it. Active adventure, that is. South Africa is an endless outdoor playground. From skydiving to walking safaris, hot air ballooning to windsurfing, treetop zip-lining to river rafting – there’s no shortage of raw adventure and adrenaline-pumping moments.

During ITB Berlin 2018, PATWA (Pacific Asia Travel Writers’ Association) had named South Africa’s thrill-packed attractions as the best in the world. Adventure is one of the key experiences that Indian travellers seek when they decide to go on an international holiday.

South Africa is also an untouched world of perfect hushed silences and marvellous wildlife moments. Coming this close to nature is a sense-tingling reminder of why we have always been inspired by the wild. With world-renowned nature reserves and preservation areas in every province, there’s no shortage of places to explore and indulge in wildlife safaris.

Apart from the big-name game parks of Kruger and the Kgalagadi (Kalahari), South Africa is home to some of the world’s most luxurious private game reserves and mountain lodges. Lovers of wildlife come here from all over the globe in search of the ‘Big Five’: lion, buffalo, leopard, rhino and elephant. These animals are said to be the most difficult to hunt and extremely dangerous, hence the Big Five reference. I personally came close to four of them; too bad the leopard was playing truant with us.

“At South African Tourism, we have observed a marked shift from seeing to experiencing for key traveller segments, leading to a rise in immersive holidays. Indian travellers to South Africa want to explore local culture, indulge in art and history of the place, meet new people and try new things. Mirroring this shift, one of our key focus areas is to go beyond the immensely popular Cape Town, Durban, Johannesburg and surroundings and create awareness about new destinations such as Oudtshoorn, Knysna, Plettenberg Bay, Port Elizabeth, the Drakensberg region and the Panorama Route within the consumer and trade spaces. These are picturesque areas where travellers can pack in a lot of action into shorter time-spans,” said Mitalee Karmarkar, Marketing and Communications Manager – Middle East, India, South East Asia (MEISEA).

Tourism in South Africa sustains over 7,00,000 full-time jobs. It contributes 3 per cent directly to their GDP and another 9 per cent which comes indirectly. South African Tourism is chasing a goal of adding 5 million more tourists in the next five years starting 2017. Which means, by the end of 2021, South Africa aims to touch 14 million foreign tourists!

My flight to Durban via Dubai on Emirates Airbus A380 was my first on the world’s largest passenger aircraft. After about 10 hours, I landed at the King Shaka International Airport, (located 60 km north of Durban) which has become the primary airport servicing Durban, after operations ceased at Durban International Airport.

We checked into the Beverly Hills Hotel and moved to the basement restaurant where a large Indian spread awaited us. The food tasted just like what you would have back home. It was yet to sink in that I was thousands of miles away from home. The next day, we had our breakfast on the go as we left early morning in order to catch the boat ride at 10 am. The drive to St. Lucia takes four hours.

Seeing the poshest of hotels on the way, and Audi and Mercedes cars zooming past us my perception about South Africa changed in an instant. The Zulus are far more progressive than I had imagined. At St. Lucia, our two-hour boat ride was organised aboard ‘Born Free’ (R200). Captain Sipho told us that the St. Lucia Lake has 1200 crocodiles, 800 hippos and a variety of birds like Yellow Weaver and Bald White Eagle. I saw them too!

The staff onboard served us finger food in vegetarian and non-vegetarian options. I would highly recommend travellers to bring their own choice of food because if you don’t have a palate for South African preparations, your tummy might not be pleased. You have the option of buying chips, wine, beer and soda on the cruise as well.
A cap, shades and sunscreen are required in South Africa. Don’t be fooled by their idea of ‘summer’ though, because when I was visiting, the weather, on some nights, fell to 14 degrees!

After our boat ride, we drove to the 25-year-old Thanda Game Reserve. This reserve has a villa with five rooms, apart from nine what they call ‘lodge rooms’ and 15 air-conditioned tent rooms. We stayed at the lodge which offered a master bedroom, double-sided fire place and an indulgent bathroom with tub, and an indoor and outdoor shower. It even had a complimentary mini bar and a plunge pool. The lodge has a main lounge, an expansive deck and library overlooking a waterhole, cigar bar, wine cellar and the Safari Lodge Spa. The three-hour safaris here are conducted at 5 am and 4 pm and is a part of the room package.

On our evening drive we saw the Lebombo Mountain ranges, crested and helmeted guinea fowl and the ‘Ghost Mountain’ which is said to be a strange haunted mountain in this area. We also spotted blue wildebeest, giraffe, cheetah, kudu, zebra, antelope, hare and impala. Unfortunately, the leopard can be difficult to spot and the staff too acknowledged the same. But for someone who is used to seeing wild animals through a cage, this is one hell of an exhilarating experience that makes it totally worth coming all the way.

At Thanda (meaning ‘love’ in the local language) they protect their rhino population from poaching and hence declined to reveal the number of the species there at the moment. As sad as it sounds, they are forced to dehorn the rhinos so that poachers don’t kill them for their horns. The horns grow back which makes dehorning a better option to ensure their safety.

Being surrounded by all these wild animals in their splendour is a liberating experience. Standing there and seeing the creatures of the wild in their natural habitat, I felt an innate sense of freedom.

For dinner we attended an open air authentic African barbecue by a bonfire. Here, women of all ages, from children to elders performed a Zulu dance for us. At game lodges, it is rather common to witness the traditional dance but its nuances change according to the province the game reserve is in. It was the perfect way to end the day.

Next morning, we headed to the beach as the instructors from Living the Dream Surf School awaited us. We were given wetsuits to change into and marched out onto the sand carrying our surfing boards. Our surf coach Mathew taught us there how to balance the board and stand up once a wave hits. After some practice, we entered the ocean and began what we can call our very first surf lesson. I don’t know how to swim but was assured by the team that it was safe. I cannot put into words the thrill that followed.

The Karloof Safari Spa at Mahathunzi is a 1100-hectare nature reserve where we were pre-booked for treatments we had selected in advance. I opted for the lime and ginger body scrub while others chose treatments like passion fruit facial, pepper body scrub, coconut body wraps and so on. After the 45 minute treatment which included a bath, we all met again, as new women!

For the next leg of the tour, we took an hour-long flight to Johannesburg and checked into Hotel African Pride at Mount Grace. They have many restaurants at the hotel – TWIST, Rambling Vine (country style food), The Spa Cafe, and the lawns of the resort have their own menu called ‘Picnics’. The resort also has a spa, kid’s club, mountain biking, gym, hiking and running trails, tennis courts, outdoor heated pool. Bird watching tours are organised for the guests.

The Bill Harrop’s Original Balloon Safari early next morning before sunrise was certainly my most awaited moment in this whole journey. We were accompanied on the balloon by our three captains, Bill Hallop, Andrew Gregery and Marc Nuthall. Bill was the president of SKAL for two years. He has been flying hot air balloons since 1976 and has personally flown over 1,00,000 people and 4700 plus hours. Bill has six balloons and the one we were on can hold a minimum of nine and a maximum of 18 people. The duration is an hour and the cost is R2595. They have exclusive balloons for couples which cost R7200. From high above, we could also see the Magaliesburg Mountain Range which at almost 2 billion years, is quite senior to even Mount Everest.

Tourists can also opt for hot air ballooning over game reserves which is a costlier proposition but the sightings of the Big Five from up there more than makes up for it.

Once we landed, Bill and team set up a table with champagne and orange juice in order to toast our safe landing. Back in the day when hot air ballooners landed, farmers, assuming them for aliens, would try to poke the balloons with their pitchforks. So a local bottle of alcohol became a token of friendship, to let the farmer know that they are earthlings and have come in peace.

Now, our captains make sure not to land on private property so that they don’t have to share their champagne, they joke. They also recite the balloonist prayer: “The winds have welcomed you with softness. The sun has blessed you with its warm hands. We have flown so high and so well that God has joined you in laughter and set you gently back into the loving arms of mother Earth.” Well, I surely got that checked off my bucket list!

I do not know if it was the South African sunshine or the smiling faces along the way but when in South Africa, adventures never cease to delight.

At Colin’s Horseback Africa, a family lodge in Cullinan, they have 28 horses apart from dogs, kudus, giraffes, zebras and lions. I geared up for our two-hour horse riding lesson (R1000).

Horse riding was yet another first for me and I was pretty nervous but 19-year-old Billy was well-trained. I learned how to trot in the river, steer, make him run and stop. As a tradition, before the ride, they toast with a shot glass of Montana red – a red-co-loured beer brew, and say “Tally Ho!”

We spent the night at Walkersons Private Estate and Hotel which is situated in a forest where the temperature drops to 13 degrees. A lit fireplace and a heated blanket awaited me in the rustic country house room. This 20-year-old property of 800 hectares is nestled in the hills of Mpumalanga. There is no WI-FI in the rooms so you are disconnected from the world. It has a spa and activities like fly fishing, mountain biking, hiking and horseback riding. The property does not allow children below six years of age in their rooms and only one family villa is available.

Induna Adventures at Sabie Road has all the activities one can think of like river rafting (R380 for 2.5 hr.), horse trails (R310 for 1 hr.), zip line (R210), geckoing/white water tubing (R430 for 2.5 hr.), paint ball (R275 for 100 balls), mountain biking (R65, self-guided), quad biking (R520 for 1 hr.), archery (R340 for 1 hr.), bass fishing (R840 for half day), hiking trail (R300 with guide; R50 self-guided), abseiling (R520) and many more, open Monday to Saturday.

The team decided to go for a rafting expedition on Sabie River. But unlike my earlier experience where there were four of us on one boat along with a guide, this time it was just two of us. The guides came on separate boats helping us along the way. The water, more like a lazy river, was shallow due to low rainfall. We saw a baby kingfisher and a cormorant flying overhead. It was a session filled with laughter and fun.

I also did zip-lining and quad biking here. The zip line is 77 m high and 450 m long. The speed is between 80 and 120 km per hour depending on an individual’s weight. I could gather 360-degree views of the farm, a truly gorgeous sight. So much so that I found myself screaming with happiness and letting my hands go off the rope. When I reached the bottom, waiting crew members helped me get off the harness. As for quad biking, our guide trained us on how to operate the ATV. After a few rounds of practice he moved us to the intermediate level instead of the one for beginners. Intermediate is a bumpy ride through farm lands, water bodies, rocky terrain and tree branches. We saw banana, mango, coffee and Beaumont macadamia nut trees. Since I love driving, this was one session I thoroughly enjoyed and hoped would last longer.

I found another site which offers many adventure options while we were on the Panorama Route. The Graskop Glass Lift (R190) is a year and a half old and takes tourists down to Lisbon Falls while offering great views. There are a lot of adventure sporting options nearby like bungee jumping and zip lining though this is not part of the Graskop experience and is managed privately.

Our final night of the trip was spent at Bongani Mountain Lodge. This property was different from the previous lodges as they had a massive forest fire two years ago and most of the flora got burned down. The devastating fire chased away the animals and currently only the herbivores remain. Bongani shares land with Kruger National Park without any boundaries. This property was full of baboons that lived amongst the rangers and the guests. Impalas roamed the property too.

On our safari drive we encountered a 45-year-old wild African elephant a few feet away. We also saw a large group of giraffes and zebras galloping. Out came a beautiful white rhino which had sadly been dehorned.

As the sun went down in a spectacular pink and blue setting, we parked our jeep on the edge of a rocky mountain top and had a final drink together. We clicked photographs as a return ticket to a mo-ment that would otherwise be gone too soon.

MUST TRY F&B EXPERIENCES

Bunny Chow at House of Curries on Florida Street, Durban (don’t worry, it does not contain bunnies!) Options vary from chicken, to beef and prawn curry; for vegetarians there is beans, mixed vegetable, mushrooms, chips and cheese. FYI: They have a no-waste policy. What you cannot finish is given to the needy around the area! Kudos to that!

Nando’s, famous for the Peri-Peri flame-grilled chicken has vegetarian options too on their menu. Fact: Nando’s originated in 1987 in South Africa (and they take great pride in the same!)

‘Red beer’ called Monkey Apple Ale by Sabie Brewing Company at the Graskop Lift Cafe

GETTING THERE

Visa

Visitors from India do not have to apply for visa in person at a South African embassy. For Indian nationals, visa is free though VFS Global charges a processing fee of Rs. 2040. Business travellers from India will be issued a 10-year multiple-entry visa within five days of application.

Air Connectivity

There are no direct flights between India and South Africa. But many African and GCC airlines fly to South Africa via their respective hubs.

Safety and Crime

While law and order within city limits is not a matter of grave concern, it is advisable to be careful with one’s valuables at all times. Single women travellers should avoid being out late. It is highly recommended to have reliable local citizens.

(The author was hosted by South African Tourism)

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