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Life in the fast lane

Johannesburg in South Africa gives a whole new meaning to the words ‘wild life,' writes Akshay Sawai. Read on...

india Updated: Sep 03, 2007 19:23 IST
Akshay Sawai

Since I'm not Pico Iyer, you may not be interested in reading the longer account of my travels. You might just want the important details, the matlab-ki-baat. So here goes.

Which place are we talking about? Johannesburg, South Africa. Can we do wild life? Yes. But that depends on the season. We went in winter and the only wild life we saw was an unkempt Anil Kapoor at breakfast at the Hotel Palazzo Montecasino.

When it's cold, the animals don't come out. Can we do adventure sport? Yes. South Africans are sporty, outdoorsy people. They are the Australians of that part of the globe. Is there good wining and dining? Absolutely It's quality food and wine.

It's reasonably priced and the restaurants are hip. But if you are vegetarian, you will have limited choices. Can we do golf ? Yes. You are talking about Gary Player land after all. Ernie Els land. Retief Goosen land. South Africa has a good number of star golfers. It has more than a decent number of green spaces and rolling hills. The result is that golf tourism is big.

Is there history and culture? Yes. The Soweto township, the Apartheid Museum, the Hector Pieterson memorial are all in or near Johannesburg. Can we shop? Yes. How much would the trip cost? Depends on the duration of your trip, where you stay and what you do. But one Rand (the South African currency), is equal to about Rs 6.50. So it would be cheaper than a holiday in Europe, the US or Australia. How safe is it? Crime is an issue in Johannesburg, as it is in all of South Africa. But as long as you're not foolish, you'll be fine.

Now that I've answered your questions, here are my own experiences. Moyo's restaurant, Melrose Arch. Dinner. Melrose Arch, close to the Wanderers cricket ground, is a lively neighbourhood with an urban vibe. There are auto showrooms, bars and restaurants. One of them is Moyo's.

It's cold. Diners sitting outside have wrapped themselves up in blankets provided by the restaurant. We can do with warmth. So we go in. And down. Downer. The place has many levels. The lights are low. It looks like the villain's den from an '80s Hindi film.

We take our seats and expect an Amrish Puri in muttonchop sideburns to emerge, laughing in a loud, sinister fashion. Instead Lance Littlefield, country manager (India), SA Tourism, walks in. We're relieved for two reasons. One, Lance won't laugh in a mean way and then kill us. Two, he is paying for the dinner.

Dinner, for me at least, is kingklip, a fresh, likeable fish particularly favoured in South Africa. There's lots of wine to go with it. The alcohol and the food help us break the ice and achieve a glorious state of silliness. Waitresses come to paint our faces and we let them.

Lance is happy we are at a place like Moyo's. He is keen to show the world that you can have a good time in South Africa, that it's not all about museums and tribal dances. He puts it in slightly more colourful terms but I can't reproduce them here because this is a family publication.

We surface out of the subterranean Valhalla of Moyo's at about midnight and walk across to another bar to continue the party The neon . signs of Melrose Arch are still on. Afterwards, Lance is nice enough to take some of us back to our hotel in the Rolls Royce Phantom he acquired less than 24 hours ago. It's about six in the morning when I hit the bed.

Two hours later, the phone rings. It's a wake up call from Pooja Chaudhri, the manager, so to speak, of our crazy bunch. I have never slept so little and usually get a torturous headache from late nights unless I rest the next day "Can I stay in . today?" I implore Pooja.

"Don't," she says. A few hours later, I'm sitting on a quad bike, a rough terrain vehicle with four wheels and the handle of a motorbike. Wiggling my head into a helmet, moving it from side to side and up and down till the eyes and the chin are in the right position, I take in the sight before my eyes. Out in front is land, blue sky and animals grazing in the distance.

Tinus, one of the main guys at Centurion Quad Rides, gives us the basic instructions. "Okay all you 'olks (an Afrikaans term for guys, our tour guide Vernon Matthysen tells us). The accelerator is on the right side of the handle, to be pressed by the thumb. The brake and gears are at the foot. There is no clutch." Sounds simple enough. We rev up and discover it's not. The bikes are heavy and difficult to control. For a few minutes, they drive us more than we drive them. Tinus has expected this. He gives us some more tips. "Use your body, tilt to one side when you are turning. Keep the handle straight as much as possible."

We try some more. Tinus is encouraging yet firm. He doesn't want the bikes to get damaged because repairs are a hassle and expensive. He convinces the more hopeless among us to avoid the ride. The rest of us drive off the practice plain and line up at the actual course. It's a dirt track with turns and progressively challenging bumps. The first few slopes cause some worry But as with any kind of . vehicle, driving a quad bike is all about confidence. The initial fear dealt with, the vehicle figured out, we are soon rumbling around.

The route is almost 20 km long but we stop after five km because of time constraints. Pulling the helmets off, we head to the bathroom to wash the dust away and settle down for the next, pleasant part of the programme.

City of Lights
Johannesburg at night – lunch. It's typical South African fare for an outdoorsy day – braai (meat barbecued in South African style), millet pap (ground maize cooked to form a rice like dish, an African staple), thick cut potatoes fried with their skins on, salads and cold drinks. We eat in the open, in the sun and the cool breeze, on wooden benches.

Pooja, thanks for the wake up call. Lesedi African Lodge and Cultural Village, evening. "We don't look at the woman's beauty, we see how much hard work she can do," says Baba about the way things work in the marriage market of African tribals.

Baba is giving us a conducted tour of Lesedi, which is about an hour's drive from Johannesburg and showcases the traditions of Basotho, Ndebele, Pedi, Xhosa and Zulu people. Baba has a pot belly ("a sign that my wife treats me well"), wears exotic ethnic attire and possesses a sense of humour. But given his tribe's views on women, he should beware of feminists. They might attack him with his own spear.

As dusk falls, we walk around the village and go into some of the huts. Baba holds forth in his easy, confident manner about the ways of the tribal people, their poisoned arrows, food, home-brewed beer and maize snacks. We learn some long native greetings, only to forget them the next moment (they are slightly more complicated than "hey!").

Next, we are led into a smoky, circular room with low lights. Groups of tribals belt out a rousing dance performance. Wearing sneakers with their traditional costumes, the men and women throw themselves on the ground, leap in the air. A rabid beating of the drums, not to men tion screams and shrieks from the dancers themselves, provides the audio. The evening ends with dinner at the Nyama Choma restaurant on the premises.

I have worn a crocodile in the form of a Lacoste shirt. This time I eat one. Well, not one. A bit. The meat is agreeable and inoffensive, contrary to what you expect. The dessert counter gives me my first taste of Malva pudding, a South African speciality I walk out feeling . like the Crocodile Dundee of diners. Interesting place, Lesedi. Kitschy and touristy, but fun in some ways. Montecasino, final night.

The Montecasino is an entertainment complex designed as a village in Tuscany It's right next to the Palazzo ho . tel where we are staying. The buildings are the old yellow of ageing cheese, like in Italy The streets are . cobbled. There are Italian props, like a green ‘polizia' car and posters of iconic Italian films like The Bicycle Thief and Life is Beautiful. There are restaurants, bars, cafes, cinemas, shops, a theatre and a casino. There's a piazza and live bands and dances.

What I like the most about the place is its artificial sky that, in one part of the complex, is always blue. It actually feels like day and revitalises you.

Lunch was late on this day so everyone wants only a light dinner. Thin crust pizza would be right. We sit around the table, waiting for the ‘Italian roomalis' to arrive. We joke and gossip. Post dinner we amble over to a candy shop. They have some wacky stuff – sweets shaped and coloured like fried eggs, for example.

You can sample anything for free. We go crazy The trip has had its ups and . downs. With nearly 20 of us, some with television cameras, the bus got cramped sometimes. Two chaps from a news channel were always late, never apologetic. But at a candy store everything comes to a sweet end.