The Big 5 in Africa mean lion, leopard, elephant, rhino and buffalo. Spot them all and you’ve got your paisa vasool. But there are more attractions in South Africa, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your friendly travel magazines. Here are 5 things you gotta, gotta experience.
1 Hanging at Tagore’s
For Indians travelling to South Africa, places associated with Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi are mandatory pilgrimage sites. But then, don’t forget Tagore’s. It’s a quiet, dark, bar-meets-clubroom place at Cape Town that keeps getting louder as the evening progresses.
Tagore’s is hard to miss for two reasons. One, the flowing beard-covered Jerry Garcia-meets-Gandalf graffitied-face of Rabindranath Tagore on the wall outside greets even the uninitiated. Two, this outpost of South African bohemian life is the residence of the coolest man in South Africa: Leroy the soft-spoken lord and master of Tagore’s well-stocked bar. And by the coolest man in the country, I include Nelson Mandela.
The wooden furniture, the corners with adequate shadows, the slightly decadent air mixed with various spirits, and the music that seeps out of nowhere until you’re knee-deep in it make Tagore’s a must-visit. For the intellectually minded, the evenings are punctuated by readings, performances and finger-on-the-chin discussions by an eclectic local crowd. I was happy to be part of a roomful of them listening in on people speaking – and singing – on Language and Oppression. For the less inclined, there’s always the second floor to sprawl out in.
My evening graduated to Leroy’s helpful servings of Irish whiskey and choice of songs on the sound system. I had sceptically requested for The Smiths’ There’s a light that never goes out. Leroy played it on a loop with a quiet grin making the act of leaving Tagore’s at around three at night seem like being exiled. Come to think of it, Leroy, with his black, scraggly beard and bony face, looks so much like the young Rabindranath T.
Whale of a time
To not travel down the coastline from Cape Town to the seaside town of Hermanus is to miss something grand. The best season for this four-hour road trip is between August and November. And the best place for a pit stop has to be the Schulphoek Guesthouse. But even the sea food spread, put on the table by Schulphoek’s husband-wife hosts Mannes and Petro van Zyl, is just an appetiser of things to come. For, the reason to visit Hermanus is to catch a whale.
One of the joys of being on a boat with a group of jolly rogers from Delhi and Mumbai is that when the sea gets choppy, it’s easy to notice the change just by
looking at the faces.
At the fishing village of Grootbos, we clambered aboard the boat, happy that our fellow travellers included former cricketer and administrator Ali Bacher and his wife Shira, a few bottles of bubbly and canapés. Armed with camera phones – and listening to Ali tell us about the first post-apartheid India-South Africa Test series – we were all Captain Ahabs waiting to catch a glimpse of Moby Dick.
The thing about getting seasick is that you pray that you’re not the first one to start hurling. The thought of getting sick while the boat was taking almost 45-degree rollercoaster dips didn’t terrify me as much as the fact that I could be the only one expelling my seafood lunch. The captain told me to hold on to the edges of the boat as he continued to describe the mating habits of the Southern Right Whales that we would be spotting any time now.
And then, even with my stomach sloshing against my Adam’s apple, we spotted a black shape. It first looked like a piece of dark wood, then like a surfacing submarine, and then finally, the shape grew a flipper before bubbling the waters around its massive body. The next 45 minutes we spotted some five whales. “There he blows!” I said, holding on to a rod attached to the floor for dear life.
Sabi Sabi nights
You don’t come back from South Africa without seeing the land animals. So there I was, getting off a three-hour flight from Western Cape province to Nelspruit in the province of Mpumalanga. Our
destination: Sabi Sabi, a 65,000-hectare private game reserve.
As a wildlife sceptic, I was polite but firm about not breaking my back to see animals. I get to see elephants near my house next to the Yamuna and I’d rather eat buff meat steaks than see water buffaloes. But once I stepped into Sabi Sabi, it was love at first sight with the wide verandah that overlooked a watering hole for the animals. And behind this verandah was another watering hole, where the clientele was human. Under a swirling fan, I could lap on my lager in the afternoons and blended malts in the evening.
Once at Sabi Sabi, to not venture out in an open jeep safari would be like going to the poolside and not taking a dip. So there I was, buttoned-up to my neck in a portable tent, with the rain belting down. The jeep hurtled and stopped, with the radio crackling messages between our guides-drivers about where the last elephant/leopard/rhino had been spotted. I saw a lion gnawing away on his grub. A size-zero lioness was walking about as if waiting to catch his eye. “The lion first eats then it lets the lioness have a share of the kill,” our guide said, reminding me of my family. “They mate only after they eat. The act takes up three or four seconds.” I was reminded of my family again.
On the second day, we stopped by a clearing where a leopard was sitting with its prey on the branch of a tree. I could have sworn that it was a papier-mache model the staff had propped up as an emergency back-up. But then I saw it move through the binoculars. It really was a leopard.
Sabi Sabi was unforgettable not so much because of the animals I saw but because of the atmospherics and the sounds I heard through the night – animal cries and the rustles in the leaves. A few nights at the place tells you that ‘getting away’ isn't only about withdrawing from everyday life, but it’s more about getting into a place where the nights are darker and the sky is wider, even as the
critter comforts are a walk away from your room.
The French connection
Imay not know my Cabernets from my Sauvignons. But South Africa is wine country and at least I could tell folks back home that I had fine wine, next to the finest vineyards in the world. So there I found myself plonked on a wine trail as I ‘tasted’ one variety after the other on an empty stomach at the Fairview Wine Estate.
Our heads pleasantly abuzz, we found ourselves in the pretty village of Franschhoek. Sitting at a lunch table at Le Petite Ferme – after a sip of the pink wine, I tactically spilled my glass to get it replaced with a fine South African beer – we were told about how the village near the Drakenstein Mountains was founded in 1688 by French Huguenot immigrants fleeing the persecution of Catholics.
The main street was lined with stores for tourists, although one building had a board pinned with posters on drugs and how they are harmful, not to mention illegal. The thought that Franschhoek can harbour anti-socials in hoodies or drug peddlers at doorways seemed as fanciful as finding a Black South African in any of the variety of restaurants, bistros, art galleries and curio shops in this
village. Although there could be, I sensed after coming out of the town church, desperate (French-speaking) housewives here. Alors!
The moment I land at the Lanzerac Wine Estate and am introduced to the Lanzerac Hotel’s area manager, the brightly tanned and well-honed Michael Hunter-Smith, I step back in time. Over a few rounds of whisky egged on by bowls of macadamia nuts, I imagine Mohandas Gandhi being thrown out of the precincts for not appreciating the fantastic Spanish hacienda settings. The two black stone leopards at the mouth of the hotel lobby’s entrance seem to demand the attention of a bearded conquistador on horseback. Today, with the right amount of money to spend, anyone can spend a weekend in this quiet, imperial getaway. And I would recommend the pinotage braised lamb shank and quenelle of spinach mousse from the dinner menu. I had no idea what it meant but it tasted bloody tres bien.
Cape Town is stunning in its beauty and you can walk for hours on end through the Bo-Kaap (literally, ‘Above Cape’) Malay area with its house facades bursting with colour before settling down for a drink and food at the Noon Gun Tea Room that overlooks the city. But it was in Johannesburg that I wanted to catch the Kings of Leon, the American rock band with its distinctive Southern sound. While I had missed their gig in Cape Town, I could still make it to their show at the Soccer City Stadium in Soweto.
Travelling inside Joburg can be tricky, with distances being big and walking about not an option because muggings are real and frequent especially if you seem like a tourist. But attending the Kings of Leon was non-negotiable, so there I was, piled up in a taxi with my three compatriots, an hour later walking towards a structure that looked like that giant spaceship in Close Encounters of the Third Kind. For a while, I kept wondering why the stage looked so small even though there weren’t that many rows in front of us. I was then told with the sharpness that comes with moderate sobriety that the band seemed miles away because we were seated along the length, not the breadth, of this gigantic 94,736-seater stadium.
Even with the giant screens helping me locate the band, the concert was excellent. Joburg works for the concert gypsy. So if you’re keen to attend the Moody Blues concert on June 1, you can start planning for your South Africa winter trip (it’s below the equator, remember?), picking and choosing from the other alternative Big Five.
Learn to fly in style and comfort
1. Try to block seats when you book tickets and make your meal preference very clear. Travel agents usually take the vegetarian choice.
2. Check in online as soon as you can and secure seats towards the front of the plane. The food and drink service starts from up front and you deplane faster at your destination.
3. Always ask if it’s a full flight – and if they are overbooked request them to bump you up. If you’re a couple, giving the check-in staff the impression that you are on your honeymoon / anniversary increases your chances further.
4. If your choice of meal is not available, you could politely but firmly try an earnest request – for example, “I’m severely allergic to vegetarian meals and I might die on the flight if I were to eat one” – and they’ll probably get you a non-vegetarian meal from Business or First Class.
From HT Brunch, May 6
Follow us on twitter.com/HTBrunch
Connect with us on facebook.com/hindustantimesbrunch