Safaris, Sharks & City Splendor

Safaris, Sharks & City SplendorStill Undiscovered by Most Americans, South Africa Offers the Best of Nature and of Civilization

Story and Photos by Brian E. Rowland

In 2010, the World Cup soccer tournament will be held in South Africa. As a result, the beauty and excitement of that country will be broadcast to the world, and the world will come to a place not yet visited by many Americans. Here’s a preview: South Africa is a must-see destination.

A journey to the lower part of the African continent should be on the itinerary for all who consider themselves well-traveled and everyone wanting to experience the absolute best that nature and its ecosystems can offer.

Whatever your reason for visiting, commit to a minimum of three weeks. Plan a 36-hour-plus journey each way and be willing to keep on the move so you can take in two safaris, a stopover in Cape Town, a visit to the winelands just 45 minutes north of that waterfront city and a multi-day drive along the coast. You’ll discover two completely different ecosystems as you travel east from Cape Town.

The Logistics of Travel
I highly recommend flying the national airline, South African Airways, for several reasons. The carrier offers dinner flights to Johannesburg and Cape Town from Washington, D.C., and New York, and this makes a huge difference in the most difficult part of this adventure – getting to and from the African continent.

Secondly, South African Airways’ internal connections are abundant, allowing you to streamline reservation planning and luggage transfers. Its fleet of aircraft is new, very comfortable, and service far exceeds what I’ve experienced on American carriers.

For one of the safari destinations we chose, Federal Air, a shuttle service, provides charter service to the site’s private airstrip.

Do plan to rent an automobile for the better part of the trip. Local rental companies offer many lines of autos, with insurance-inclusive rates far more competitive than the big American names.

A portion of driving in South Africa can be on very remote roads. On a few days during a four-hour drive one could see less than a dozen cars, and speed limits can be pushed to whatever you can handle.

High-performance cars can be secured, so you can make the most of true open-road driving. Keep your fuel tank topped off and prepare to see countryside and breathtaking vistas.

The Safari
South Africa boasts innumerable safari options. Two destinations I recommend are quite unique and offer completely different experiences:

Sabi Sabi Private Game Reserve – Located within the southwestern portion of Kruger National Park about a five-hour drive (or a 45-minute charter flight) from Johannesburg, this privately owned game reserve has four lodges, each with a different feel and design and only one thing in common – unsurpassed service. From the moment you land on the Sabi Sabi private airstrip, you are greeted by name and loaded into a private vehicle for the short drive to your lodge. Within moments you will be exposed to the up-close experience of elephants, rhinos, hippos and more than 100 other species living free in their domain – the ultimate zoo experience in reverse.

Your daily rate includes fine food, two safari drives daily and a personal ranger whose intimate knowledge will bring the cultural, animal, bird and botanical environment up close and personal. Each safari includes a stop for snacks and beverages. And finally, you are also catered to by a five-star staff within the lodges.

The daily routine is simple: Wake up early for a light breakfast and depart when it is cool, and the animals are most active. Then start again around 5 p.m. for sunset and nocturnal animal sightings. On my trip, within our first three drives we encountered each of the “big five” – elephants, rhinos, buffalos, lions and leopards – all within 10 yards of our vehicle.

At one point in the darkness of night, our open Land Rover was surrounded by six female and two male lions on a hunt. They worked in an instinctual, tactical approach, moving in from both sides front and behind. Then at one point, two broke loose to seize the prey, with the remainder coming in to feast on the fresh kill – all within a very short distance of our group.

Samara Game Lodge – About a four-hour drive from the coast of the Eastern Cape, deep within the semi-desert region of South Africa called the Great Karoo, lies this lodge, boasting one of the longest driveways in the world. Pull off the paved road and you’ll travel 20 miles down a gravel path before you approach the first gate. Then, seven miles later, a double gate with electrified fencing gives you access to Samara.

The game reserve was developed during the past few years by a British family that acquired seven farms encompassing 28,000 acres, two mountain ranges and a vast valley in between. Three quarters of this park was rehabilitated to its original state before sheep and goats decimated the land. This property is also designated as a cheetah preserve, and the owners work closely with the government in breeding. Today the land sustains two male brothers, a female and her six cubs, rhinos, giraffes and a plethora of other indigenous open-plain animals.

The rangers know these cheetahs, their moods and their limitations. The cheetahs know the rangers’ voices. The mother and her 6- and 9-month-old offspring allowed us to walk with them as she taught them how to hunt. She led – they followed – and soon had the three of us surrounded, all within 10 yards. At one point, I wondered if we were more than “pretend” prey, and I could not keep from looking over my shoulder as they moved with ethereal grace.

Fully grown, these cats can accelerate from a standstill to 60 miles per hour in 2.5 seconds and sustain this speed for 500 yards in the kill pursuit. Theirs is a beauty that must be experienced to comprehend.

On another day, we motored up the 4,500-foot mountain in the four-by-four, pushing the vehicle to its limit as we ascended the slippery, rocky road. We reached the top to discover a plateau as large as the valley, with zebras and a wildebeest running freely across the grassy plains and a 200-mile view to the coast in the background. The desert/mountain ecosystem and its fowl and fauna create a totally different safari experience.

Respites and Retreat on the Journey
At Sabi Sabi, there are four lodges, each with appointments meant to evoke its theme, “Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow.” Yesterday: Selati Camp, the traditional old English lodge with eight rooms, lit by lantern light, filled with antiques, creates the atmosphere of a century ago. Today: Bush Camp, an eight-villa lodge, and Little Bush Camp, a 26-villa lodge with a traditional feel and many more amenities of modern times.

Tomorrow: The Earth Lodge, an ultra-modern experience in which you walk down below ground surface to enter. Built into the side of a hill, every unit has a private pool and a spare, modern feel.

The Samara Lodge is a six-unit facility, with three spacious rooms within the lodge and a dining room wrap-around porch. Impeccably appointed in a classic African motif, the three separate villas are a short walk from the main lodge. A pool, tennis court and safe walking paths allowed us comfort and entertainment four hours away from civilization in the middle of absolutely nowhere. The night sky provided a glimpse of the universe like none I’d ever seen.

Cape Town – and Beyond
In this bustling harbor city with a wide variety of hotels, the working port is the attraction that draws the crowds. Cape Town is an active port city with shopping, dining and a generous tourist experience. Should you desire a five-star Greenbriar- or Breakers-like experience, make a reservation at the Mount Nelson Hotel. Away from the tourist district, this property is steeped in class and tradition.

About 75 miles away from Cape Town is another otherworldly accommodation, Birkenhead Villa. A very modern structure, it is built high on the rocks overlooking the Atlantic Ocean with 15-foot waves rolling in day and night. The all-inclusive accommodations feature a staff dedicated to you. You’ll experience meals, drinks, laundry services and a level of care that rival any Ritz-Carlton experience. A finishing touch on the last night of every stay: Your room is sprinkled with 1,000 rose petals, 50 candles are lit and a bubble bath is drawn. Just as you are finishing dessert, a bottle of champagne is chilling on ice next to the claw-footed tub.

Your bedsheets are ironed linen and the doors are left open to give you an unforgettable view of the Atlantic.

There is a nature walk steps away from the villa’s back door that winds along the coastal area for five miles. Or turn left, and in 10 minutes the path opens to a seven-mile-long deserted beach with 50-foot dunes between you and the sea.

Hop in the car and 30 minutes later arrive in the world’s best area to experience the great white shark. We boarded a specially designed craft and set out one mile offshore to anchor. With mates chumming the water, four 12-foot whites were soon circling the boat as gracefully as the cheetah stalked its prey. We donned wetsuits and slipped into a four-person shark cage with enough headroom above water to breathe naturally. The crew tossed a fish on a line our way and, in a flash, we had the real “Jaws” – mouth wide open – coming directly toward us. It’s a close enough encounter that one would not want to extend a finger outside your otherwise safe ocean refuge.

A South African safari experience provides a journey through nature that will have you yearning to return to experience something enriching and exciting time and time again. After 2010, the world will get a closer look at this country. Book your experience now and get a personal encounter that the TV cameras can’t match.


Tips for Long HaulsWhen international travel requires more than 20 hours with multiple transfers in transit, several strategies can make your experience less stressful and more comfortable:
• First and foremost, if at all possible, book business-class seats. It’s well worth saving up your frequent flyer points, as it will make all the difference.
• Plan early and keep calling on a weekly basis, as seats continue to open up. Take your time with the airline representative – two or three hours of exploring options will often pay off. Be willing to accept an odd route, book your flight, then keep calling back. For a $50 fee you can modify the itinerary to be more suitable to your needs. Always have them e-mail your trip documentation and get the rep’s name.
• Take at least one change of clothes on the flight. Ask for passes to private airline lounges, as most international carriers have shower facilities. There is no better rejuvenation than a hot shower and a fresh set of clothes.
• When packing, bring some shoes and clothing you are willing to leave behind. This makes room for bringing back items and is quite freeing. Plus, in countries with high poverty levels, these gifts have more value than you could imagine.
• When coming into a strange city in a rental car, flag a taxi and have the driver lead you to your destination. It’ll be the best $10 you spend on your journey.
• Be nice to people, ask questions, be sincere, say “thank you” and try to dispel the “ugly American” image.
• When “walking about,” have a photocopy of your passport on you, some cash and a credit card. Keep in the hotel safe your original passport, more cash, an extra credit card and jewelry … just in case. Never, ever bring expensive jewelry; it is an invitation for trouble. Do not be afraid, just be aware of where you are and what is going on around you.
• Call your credit card companies two days prior to your departure and advise them when and where you are traveling and your return date. ATM cards do not work everywhere. Have destination and U.S. currency with you at all times and spread it around your clothing, shoes and body.
• Last but not least, plan on something going wrong. It’s international travel. It will, and there is nothing you can do to control things. Have a sense of humor and make the best of it.