When Lord Byron wrote There is pleasure in the pathless woods... the verse was just a bunch of words for me, but the moment I set foot in the wilderness of South Africa, I realised their true essence.
The pleasure of being amidst the uninhibited beauty of the forest and the creatures that live within the deeps of it. Of course, I wasn't there to start a spiritual revolution within myself, nor was I tramping it Jack Kerouac style. I was there for more contemporary reasons. I had to cover a cricket match in the wild.
Yes, you read that right. A cricket match between Indian and South African veterans within the deeps of the African jungle. And who would be our spectators? Cheetahs and lions, of course!
In all my excitement I forgot one basic piece of information I am petrified of flying and for a paranoid flyer, 9 hours from Dubai to Durban seem like a lifetime, each second ticking away like a death knell.
Fingers crossed the entire way (I am not kidding), I decided to leave it to fate and surprisingly, fate did not turn its back on me. The moment I landed at the King Shaka International Airport at Durban, my paranoia mysteriously transformed into a sudden burst of exuberance which caught even me off guard.
Maybe it was the fresh air of Durban (which is now extinct in Mumbai) or the excitement of having survived the ordeal, but I was ready for the many adventures in store for me.
Now, cricket and South Africa go back a long way but the thought of playing it in the wilderness seemed a little bizarre. Where on earth would they find a natural clearing and a playable cricket pitch? How would they ward off the predators on the prowl?
But our hosts and the event's organisers, Jaideep and Nupur Sinh Parmar of Beyond Boundaries, ensured that everything went off smoothly. After all, Beyond Boundaries had managed to pull off a cricket match in the Swiss mountains a few years ago. So while we sat and soaked in our surroundings, they were always on their toes making sure that the game went off without a glitch.
A three-hour scenic drive from Durban international airport took us to Phinda Private Game Reserve which is located approximately 350 kilometres away. Yes, they drive really really fast.
Former cricketer Sandeep Patil and his wife Geeta Patil, who were also travelling with us, looked rather nervous when the driver decided to do some impressive yet dangerous manoeuvers. But driving down the N2 highway with its neatly manicured landscapes, we witnessed the beauty of nature in all its glory.
Phinda Private Game Reserve, located in the middle of nowhere, is an ideal getaway for people looking to cut off from the world. But you need a lot of cash in your kitty to afford this secluded seven star wonder.
Luckily for us, we didn't have to dig into our depleting bank accounts; we were there on journalism duty. Which sometimes was hard to remember: the resort's staff make sure that once you're there, you disconnect from the world, cold turkey! Forget high speed wifi connections, there is no Internet at all (I heard loud gasps and sighs from guests and some even wanted to pack their bags and scoot).
Thankfully, there is limited phone connectivity, just in case you come face-to-face with a leopard and need to make that one last phone call (this is a true story).
Being plucked out of maddening city life and put in a secluded mountain lodge overlooking the valley did come as a shock, but a pleasant one. Each room designed aesthetically in African colours complete with a bar was as comfortable as it was lavish.
Things that caught my attention were the custom made toiletries and the open shower. I was also pleasantly surprised to see a warthog family chilling by our plunge pool. Now this is truly living it up in the wild.
Into the wild
There are some things that are synonymous with South Africa one of them being its untamed wildlife. Phinda Private Game Reserve with its magnificent tapestry of woodland, grassland, wetland and forest, interspersed with mountain ranges, river courses and marshes, is ideal for safaris.
And a safari was what we were waiting for. We'd barely slept for four hours before we sprang up like excited kids for our safari at the crack of dawn. After all, the night before, we had heard stories from Kapil Dev about how they saw a leopard kill.
Even though we didn't witness a leopard kill, we were lucky enough to spot a lion less than 10 yards from our open jeep. He sat there, majestically lazy, playing with his mane, squatting flies with his tail, stretching and looking away.
Incredibly, even when he spotted us, he stared at us for a while and then unimpressed by what he saw, yawned and looked away. I don't know about the others but my heart leapt to my throat when we were under his unblinking gaze.
Apart from the lion, we witnessed an angry elephant pulling down trees, leopards playing with each other, graceful nyalas, goofy looking giraffes, lazy zebras, rhinos, hippos, crocodiles and Africa vultures amongst other creatures. We even caught a glimpse of the shy suni antelope, a rare sight indeed.
Surprisingly, just when we thought we were headed back to our lodge, our ranger Nicholas J Marr stopped the jeep in the middle of nowhere, and whipped out a couple of beers and Amarula. We sipped our drinks, munched on sun-dried beef and watched the sun go down. Bliss!
But where's Tiger?
The morning of the cricket match was different from other mornings. The Indian players, who were usually seen playfully chatting, reminiscing about the past, eating, drinking and making merry, came out in their jerseys with their game faces on.
While everyone was busy contemplating which side was stronger and who would win, I was still wondering where we would find a flat ground and a playable pitch. A quick drive through the jungle, I suddenly saw what looked absolutely breathtaking a natural clearing in the African bush and a cricket ground surrounded by a vast expanse of wilderness.
Both teams, led by Kapil Dev for India and Mike Proctor for South Africa, took to the veld on a pitch usually inhabited by rhino, buffalo, cheetah, lion and the occasional herd of elephants, sporting black armbands in the memory of Mansoor Ali Khan Pataudi. After all, it was Tiger who initiated the concept of conservation through sports.
Kapil Dev won the toss and elected to bat. What followed may not have been high-octane cricket, but it had its moments. Fortunately the animals didn't venture too close to fine leg or third man during the game. After a closely contested 12-over match, South Africa won the 'World Cricket Legend in the Wild' match with just one ball to spare.
A night to remember
Imagine being driven in the thick of darkness to a clearing illuminated by fire and moonlight, with African music thumping through the woods. A surreal thought for some, a reality for us After our eyes adjusted to the light, we saw musicians dressed in African clothing playing traditional instruments.
The moonlight shone on their bare chests and they thumped away while making animal sounds. Even the most tired cricketers couldn't stop tapping their feet and swaying to the music.
Apart from the amazing music, the assortment of cuisine needs a special mention. How about beef sausages with red wine, honey glazed chicken in African spices paired with white wine and ostrich meat salami with beer? Great food, some would say, gastronomical heaven is how I would describe it.
However, my vegetarian colleagues were left high and dry. Most of them survived on fresh fruit, bread and rice. My