OFFSHORE
South Africa Journey to Rainbow Nation
 
A complete adventure awaits a traveller in South Africa. From watching wild animals in their natural habitats and witnessing Great White Sharks at an arm's distance from an underwater cage to sandboarding on the white dunes and geckoing in the jungle, there is an amazing range.
Text & Photographs: OJAS THEKKEKARA

The thought of travelling to explore a country always gives a rush of excitement. I was lucky to be one of the chosen four travellers from India by the Tourism Department of South Africa in India. The best part of this trip was that we were going to be exploring the country along with Jonty Rhodes, the legendary cricketer who gave fielding its due importance in the game.

I was ecstatic as our plane descended at the Cape Town airport. I looked out of the window to witness what was only a small prelude to the indescribable pleasure I was to experience for the next few days of this dream trip. A canvas of a clear, blue sky with mountains in the backdrop and a sun-kissed Atlantic hitting the rocks along the coast with all its might as if to push itself further in.

Upon exiting the Emirates airlines, a sudden blast of chilly wind brushed against my face and the lethargy from the long nine-hour flight vanished in seconds. The view of the mighty Table Mountain is what welcomes you as your step into Cape Town. Filled with excitement, we arrived at our hotel to be welcomed by none other than Jonty Rhodes. Despite being such a big star, he was warm and courteous. We chitchatted about cricket and his love for his country.

Handing over our luggage to the hotel staff we headed straight out of the lobby to the South African Breweries. Soaking in the clean South African air as we drove, I marvelled at the fine roads and the lush green forest cover all around. As we reached the SAB plant, which is situated near a cricket stadium, Jonty told us that whenever they played on this ground they would grab a few beers here after every practice match. Who wouldn’t want to grab a mug of beer after a long game? Our guide took us to the plant for a tour of the brewery, educating us all along about all the stages of processing beer- from the processing of barley to its fermentation and bottling to transportation. We were told beer is made from four basic ingredients: barley, water, hops and yeast. After seeing the process, I was tempted to build my own microbrewery at home! Freshly brewed lager is everyone's favourite. The staff at the brewery took us for some beer tasting. We tasted many types of beers ranging from rose beer to Italian barley peroni. One can imagine how the trip would turn out if the very first thing on offer is to ‘taste’ freshly brewed beer. Let the good times begin...

We had a tightly packed itinerary to follow covering as much of South Africa as possible in the days we had.

We started early the next day with a visit to Warwick Wine estate. Alan, our guide at the vineyard, took us around on his 4X4 to the vineyard where he showed us around the estate explaining the different stages of wine-making- beginning with the planting of tiny saplings all the way to making mature fruit wines. The vineyard is surrounded by beautiful conical mountains from all sides which help  maintain the right temperature apt to produce the finest wine.

While we were looking around the vineyard, another 4x4 pulled up. Nixon, the driver, brought us a few wine bottles and huge wine glasses. We popped the cork off the bottles, poured ourselves wine - the finest produce of the estate, sitting at the vineyard, under the warm sun with the cold air brushing against us, overlooking the mighty mountain ranges. Believe me, that is the best place to savour the wine.

The next day we headed out to the Victoria & Alfred waterfront. Prince Alfred, second son of Queen Victoria, began construction of the harbour in 1860. The first basin was named after him and the second after his mother. It was time for a high-speed jet experience.

Splashes of cold, salty water hit your face and you are barely able to open your eyes because of the wind. Yet, the adrenaline rush is simply worth the experience.

After this we grabbed a cup of coffee and proceeded to a helicopter ride over Cape Town. This 12-minute ride takes you past Lion’s Head, Signal Hill, Robben Island, the Cape Town city centre, Table Bay and Devil’s Peak.

I must say, the city looks stunning from the sky. How I wish we had wings to explore more of each place? The beautiful water hitting the rocks, beaches and lush green roadsides filled with happy people enjoying being in the beautiful town, large ships setting out on voyages- the aerial view gives an entirely new perspective.

After the fascinating flying experience, we head down to the Atlantis Dunes for some sports. The expansive dune field is only 40 km from Cape Town and is one of the biggest in the Western Cape- 26,000 hectares of white, shiny sand dunes. The view from there – magnificent! From the sand dunes one can see the Table Mountain at a distance; the wind heading inwards from the beach is still quite chilly- a perfect setting for sand boarding. I had only heard of snowboarding till the time. Our instructor, Tim, briefed us on how to carry, hold and grease the sand-boards. Tim asked us to respect the board; clean and grease it after each slide. A sand-board is similar to a snowboard. You slide down a dune and walk your way up to slide down again. Before the first slide you have to clean the bottom of the board and apply bee wax which helps reduce friction and ensures a smooth slide. All geared up, we asked Jonty to slide down to lead our way. We were told that the key to sand boarding is to maintain balance. I saw Jonty slide down so effortlessly that I thought this was going to be child's play. Well, I was wrong and how! I cleaned and waxed my board, geared myself tightly into it and standing up with confidence, I gave the first push down to start the slide. But the board had plans of its own. I started sliding slowly down only after a second push. Carefully, I tried to balance myself. I gained a bit of momentum and boastfully turned around to wave back at my friends. Bad idea! I lost balance in the act of waving victory falling flat on my face against the hot sand. With sand in my mouth and embarrassment in my eyes I stood up again. I pushed myself and started sliding and... I went again. This time on my backside. It's not really fun when the sand enters places you don’t want it to.

Mornings in Cape Town are really beautiful. Clear blue skies, chilly air and bright sunlight. The third day we were scheduled to dive into the Atlantic Ocean and meet the Great White Sharks, up, close and personal. Time for Shark Cage diving. We got into our car and drove through the scenic roads of Cape Town to Gansbaai. Gaansbai, situated over 150 kms from Cape Town, is a fishing town and one of the major spots for Shark Cage diving in South Africa.

The thought of diving in front of the hungry sharks is scary but the actual dip beats that fear hollow. Our commandant at the White Shark project briefed us about the dive since the weather was playing truant, it was all the more turbulent. Anyway, we set sail in a small ferry and gradually the sea sickness crept in. We grabbed a lollypop each and tried to talk each other out of the motion sickness. Finally we reached the point where we were to anchor. We got into the diving suits. I strongly advise wearing a warm suit for such activity.

All geared up, we slid into the cage hanging on the side of the boat. Our commander kept putting the bait into the water to attract the sharks. A Great White shark can exert a bite force of over 18,000 newtons and that is really scary. We were half-dipped in the water and were instructed to duck as soon as the commander spotted a shark from the top of the boat. We waited for almost 15 minutes shivering in the cold water when suddenly we heard those frightening words, "Down! Down! Down!" We gasped in as much oxygen as we could and ducked- there it was- a massive silver-coloured beast almost brushing against the cage. The average size of a shark is almost 10 feet. And this one definitely looked bigger. When we emerged from the water, we all had practically forgotten to breathe and our expression was filled with excitement and horror at the fact that we were at a one-hand distance from this beast. After that, a series of ducking ensued. We ducked and spotted three different sharks almost seven to eight times. After returning to the hotel, we went on top of the Table Mountain. There are two ways to reach the top. One is to take the cable car, which is fast and easy. The other one is to hike up the mountain. Howsoever impractical it may sound but a large chunk of adventurous tourists prefer hiking up. It takes almost two hours to reach the top. We chose the cable car, since it took only 10 minutes. The tourism department and responsible travellers have kept this major tourist attraction clean and well maintained. It was when I looked down at the city that I realised that I was at such a height.

Cape Town can have all three seasons in a single day. It starts with cold mornings and turns quite hot during the day with a little rain by the evening. With this we wrapped up our Cape Town exploration.

The following day, we set out for Mpumalanga which lies in eastern South Africa, north of KwaZulu-Natal and bordering Swaziland and Mozambique. It constitutes 6.5 per cent of South Africa’s land area. A small town near Kruger National Park and the flowing river, Sabi. We landed at The Nelspruit Airport in Mpumalanga which is one of the most beautiful airports I have seen. Designed to look like a jungle resort, it is incredibly beautiful and scenic. As we drove out of the airport, we spotted a herd of impalas feeding near the premises. This certainly was a good start to the wildlife experience in Africa. We checked into our resort, a lush green golf course with a pond within the property visted by a herd of over 35 hippos every day. They walk in from the nearby jungle to this pond, relax all day and return in the evening.

The following day was the beginning of a wild adventure. We started out early, at about 5 in the morning to the renowned Kruger National Park on the 4X4 vehicle. The 20,000 sq km Park stretches out to Zimbabwe and is home to almost 1,000 different species of animals. Our agenda was to spot the 'Big 5' of South Africa. And lo.. the first thing we spot is a large herd of African Wild Buffalo chewing the dew-kissed grass in the morning. Our guide, Johnson, warns us against jumping out of the vehicle or talking loudly. Since the animals are now used to the vehicles they do not react to them but they aren’t familiar with people hanging out of the vehicle to grab the animal’s attention and the animals may react violently. We proceeded to spot a pair of rhinos at a short distance. The siblings are among the last few left in Kruger. It is sad that their horns are worth a fortune in the Asian market. The rhinos are poached and killed for them due to the flawed belief that they have miraculous medicinal properties. The protection of these animals is now taken very seriously at Kruger and across all of Africa. Further ahead we spot a hyena going for its kill. However we couldn’t see the hunt but we saw it chasing a baby impala. Baby impalas stand no chance before a full-grown hyena, we were told. Driving deeper into Kruger we spotted a solo giraffe relishing tender leaves from the top of a tree. Giraffes have the best meal in the forest. They eat the tender leaves which no other animal can reach.

We then spotted a male elephant ‘Big 5 no. 2’. from a distance of 500 metres. We were upset since it was far away but satisfied that we had spotted one. At Kruger, it takes a lot of time and patience to spot animals. The park is so huge that animals rarely come towards the road.

Further, we spotted mountain goats, birds, impalas and kudu until it was time for lunch. Kruger Park is a full township in itself, self sufficient with petrol pumps, a cafeteria, Burger King, a supermarket, and a huge restaurant. Over lunch, we planned the exit route which would take half a day. We had seen many animals but couldn’t spot all the 'Big 5'. As we exited the restaurant, we spotted a herd of over 70 female elephants and their calves walking along the road towards a dried river bed. We all were scared as one tiny mistake could get the elephants on a rampage. Mother elephants with their babies in tow are not to be messed with.

After the excitement of seeing the elephants, we proceed towards the exit. We saw a lot of cars parked  at a distance. As we approached them, we were informed that a cheetah has been spotted. Luckily enough, we spotted the cheetah that completed four of the Big 5.

As we distanced ourselves from Kruger, the excitement of being so close to nature and to observe such magnificent animals started taking a toll on all of us and we decided to call it a day.

Back at the hotel, reminiscing on my time at Kruger I couldn't stop thinking how in our quest for progress and development we have moved away from wildlife and its now only these national parks where we can experience the wilderness which till not very long ago was all around us.

The next day was an adventure of a different kind. We headed towards the Indiana adventure club for high speed ‘quad biking’ in the forest. Quad Biking is done on 100 CC bikes that can go really fast. It takes a lot of power to keep it under control. We were briefed about riding quad bikes and then we started off with a small training session on even terrain. Once we were comfortable with riding, we set out to extreme biking within the uneven terrain. It is high speed racing within the jungle and the adrenaline rush from this sport is incomparable.

This was followed by a sport known as geckoing.

Geckoing is in my opinion by far one of the best adventure activities that humans have come up with - it rocks! A Gecko is a small inflatable raft that you steer with webbed gloves, no paddles needed. Geckoing takes place in the upper part of the Sabie river where the gradient is quite steep and the river is narrow due to the steep sides of the gorge. One of the highlights of the trip is the that we got to do an eight metre jump from a cliff into a deep pool next to a thundering waterfall. A degree of fitness is needed as one needs to scamper over slippery rocks and walk out of the gorge at the end of the trip. Each trip is accompanied by well-trained swift-water guides who ensure the trip is safe and fun.

Next day around mid-morning, we were taken on an interactive tour led by a trained guide through the forest to a 'living' village (Xintu), where we meet a Shangana family and experienced their customs and traditions. We also got an opportunity to meet the Chief, Israel Ngobeni. We asked him about his village and their way of life while enjoying a traditional lunch. The Shangana Cultural Village outside Hazyview in Mpumalanga celebrates Shangaan culture, which is made up of Zulu, Tsonga and other smaller ethnic groups.

The Shangana culture started in the 18th century when the first Tsonga traders came to southern Africa to barter cloth and beads for ivory, copper and salt.

This Mpumalanga cultural village, set amongst ancient trees, preserves the way of life of these fascinating people. Created by the local Shangaan people, it is centred around the Marula Market where exquisite arts and crafts are on sale.

From the village, we visited the mystical kraal of the Sangoma (traditional healer) to learn about traditional medicine. I personally consulted the Sangoma on my life and she told me that one day I would be a CEO of a very successful company and I must stop overthinking!

Next morning we set out for Johannesburg which is the largest city in South Africa. It is the provincial capital of Gauteng, which is the wealthiest province in the country. It is also the world’s largest city not situated on a river, lake or coastline. Upon reaching Jo’burg, we headed to The Lion Park that is located close to the Lanseria Airport in the city. The Park offers visitors from the city exciting safari experiences, like encounters with lion cubs and the extremely rare white lions. The Park includes large predators like the cheetah, brown hyena, striped hyena, spotted hyena, wild dog and jackal. 

The next morning we went to the Gold Reef City theme park which is located in central Johannesburg and is built around an authentic 19th century gold mine. It brings together fascinating historical attractions with some of the most thrilling rides in the southern hemisphere. We were taken for an underground tour of the now inactive gold mine. The experience of how miners worked in such harsh conditions really makes one wonder in deep melancholy about how we value material things like gold so much more than human lives.

Our dream trip to the Rainbow Nation was now coming to an end. Despite the irresistable urge to stay back and explore much more that had been left unexplored due to the paucity of time, we drove to the airport to catch our flight back to India. I stared out of the airplane's window and thought this place really makes me want to come back. Although I was euphoric over everything that we had seen in the past 10 days and the amazing company of Jonty Rhodes, I was also experiencing that sad, sinking feeling associated with bidding adieu to a place you have fallen in love with. What made the saddness bearable was the optimism of returning here some day in the future. 

Travel Tips

What to wear: For the summers, bring clothes that are cool and comfortable, along with an umbrella or rain jacket, as this is when most of the country gets rain. A light jacket or wrap is a good precaution. Don't forget a swimming costume.
When to visit: It's wise to consider what it is you wish to do and see, along with the South African tourism seasons.  For example, if you are an avid twitcher, the country is on the flight path of birds from the north in mid-October - November. If it's the floral carpet spread of the Cape flower season that you wish to catch, visit the area when the winter rains are over at the first sign of spring, namely August and September. If you are going on a game safari, the best time is July through September, when the visibility is best and it's birthing season.
Etiquette: Tipping is widely practiced in South Africa. In restaurants and bars, 10 per cent is the accepted tipping standard. For parking attendants and at gas stations a tip of R2 is considered acceptable while for porters, you can tip up to R5. 

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