Posts tagged ‘South Africa’

Had Eve visited these gardens instead of Eden, she’d never have noticed the snake

To visit Cape Town, South Africa, and not visit the Cape Winelands that stretch some 100 miles to the east and north is like visiting California and not going to the beach. If you’re foodie, it’s simply inexcusable.

The Cape Winelands is an extraordinary region with jagged peaks, verdant farmlands, flowering lavender fields and wine farms (local speak for boutique wineries).


Originally settled by the French Huguenots 300 years ago, the Cape Winelands served as the halfway point between Europe and Asia for ships on the Spice Route. It was there, they replenished with water, vegetables and fruit. Many of those original farms with their stunning whitewashed architecture still stand, only today they host oenophiles, honeymooners and other contented guests who come by car, bus and train to their charming B&Bs, restaurants (more than half of South Africa’s top ten restaurants are located in the Cape Winelands) and tasting rooms.

I was fortunate to start my tour at Babylonstoren, a 17th century estate in the Drakenstein Valley with orchards, olive groves, bee hives and an eight-acre garden designed by a 20-year veteran of the Kirstenbosch National Botanical Garden. At 7 a.m. each morning, Liesl van der Walt meets her gardening team, the chefs and oftentimes, owner Karen Roos, a former fashion editor, at the magnificent edible garden to pluck what’s ripe and begin designing the day’s menu that is magic-markered onto the pure white walls of the former kraal (cow stable) that has been turned into one of two restaurants on the property.


Except for a daily morning tour of the garden, time at Babylonstoren is intentionally unscripted, giving guests of the 14 exquisite cottages and the restored 1777 Manor House the luxury of strolling the 450 acres of orchards, swimming in the farm dam, relaxing at the spa or, if they want, joining in the harvesting, pruning, planting or picking of the 300 varieties of fruit, herbs, nuts, spices and vegetables.

If Eve had been here instead of the Garden of Eden, she’d have never given that snake a second thought. She’d have been too blown away by this garden where every plant is either edible or medicinal. There’s also a wormery (to help with composting), a prickly pear maze, ducks and chickens and attention paid to even the smallest of details. The path through the fragrance garden, for example, is lined with crushed sea shells and the floor inlays are made from blue and white pottery shards found on the property.


I also had the pleasure of visiting Vrede en Lust, a historic winery nestled in the foothills of the Simonsberg. Originally planted in 1688 with 10,000 vines by French Huguenot Jacques de Savoye, this wine farm is now owned by Dana and Etienne Buys. It makes quite a splash with female servers all dressed in elegant red dresses. Susan Erasmus, their acclaimed winemaker, has been known to play classical music to the grapes in the three vineyards.

This magnificent estate has a restaurant and accommodations in two restored 300-year-old homes.

So, yeah, South Africa’s National Roads Agency (SANRAL) is thinking about charging a toll on the N1 and N2 highways that lead to the Cape Winelands, but nothing is going to stop me from heading back there as soon as I possibly can.

Photos courtesy of Babylonstoren

A man walks into a shebeen: a Sunday in Soweto

Soweto is overcrowded, dirty and noisy. It has high unemployment, a rickety infrastructure and a tangle of narrow streets lined with shanties fashioned from corrugated iron sheets. It’s also one of the most fascinating, joyful, high-spirited places I’ve ever visited.

We’re sitting on a patio at Sakhumzi, a restaurant just down Vilakazi Street from the small home where Nelson Mandela lived with Winnie before his 1962 arrest and 27-year imprisonment.

We’re drinking Castle Lager, a pale lager introduced in Johannesburg in 1895, and discussing how the smiley, a popular street dish in Soweto, got its name. A smiley, for those who haven’t had the pleasure, is a sheep’s head, charred on a braai, or grill, that, along with eyeballs and brain, can easily feed the second row of rugby scrum. The name, we’re told by our waiter, comes from the toothy grin that remains after the lips of the sheep’s noggin have been scorched off.

Also on our conversational docket is the unlikelihood of two Nobel Prize winners living within blocks of each other on the very same street. Mandela’s home, now a museum with pictures, quotes and such memorabilia as the boots he wore on Robben Island and the championship belt given him by Sugar Ray Leonard, is on one side of Vilakazi Street and, a few blocks down on the other side, is Bishop Desmond Tutu’s home, still his main residence.

It’s a Sunday, and all over this township of 3 million, we see (and hear) church congregations, decked out in matching iridescent robes, singing and praying together under scrub trees, next to dry riverbeds and in the street beside the mechanics who are lined up to assist anyone needing a tire changed or an axle greased or an oil pan bolted back to its engine.

Like every day, Soweto’s genius is on display. With unemployment soaring at around 50 percent, entrepreneurs are as common as pill bottles in a retirement home. Across the street from the Sakhumzi patio, one such impresario, a juggler built like an offensive tackle, tosses beanbags, balls, knives, fire torches and zinging repartee, all of which he deftly fields before passing a hat to the fun-loving crowd.

Outside tourist museums such as the Hector Pieterson Memorial, a moving tribute to the Soweto student uprisings that led to the ending of apartheid, crafty businessmen sell frames made from discarded Coke cans, zebras carved from table legs and statues made from bottle caps. Street musicians sing, old friends tap-dance in unison, all hoping their near-professional efforts will coax a five-rand note from passers-by.

Soweto, an acronym for South Western Townships, is actually a cluster of sprawling townships southwest of Johannesburg. Like many things in South Africa, Soweto sprang up to accommodate segregation. It was established in the 1950s as a dormitory for black mineworkers, far from the “white” eyes of the inner city.

Before 1990, when apartheid was finally overthrown, blacks could neither own businesses or visit white establishments, so underground beer halls known as shebeens sprang up all over Soweto to sell homemade sorghum beer, pap, meaty stews and bread dumplings. Often closed down by apartheid cops, these makeshift bars continued to reappear because of their importance in unifying the community and providing a safe haven for activists and organizers.

We wander into one of these shebeens, run from the family living room, and get peppered with questions.

“Ah, the U.S.,” said one friendly patron, handing over the bet he lost to his drinking buddy. “I was just sure you were from Buenos Aires,” an assumption undoubtedly stemming from the stream of Argentians to the 2010 World Cup.

Perhaps the most well-known shebeen is Wandie’s Place. Opened illegally in 1981, Wandie’s is run by Wandie Ndaba who finally got an official license in 1991 and has since added a small B&B. Richard Branson, Evander Holyfield, Jesse Jackson and Quincy Jones have all shared a mug of umqombothi with Ndaba.

Like the shebeens that keep coming back, like the Nelson Mandela Museum that, when the Mandelas lived there, was burnt down and bombed twice (even the guard dog was poisoned after only one week), like the people themselves, Soweto continues on undaunted, resilient and ever-joyful.

Betty White has nothing on this South African tree

It was all I could do to restrain myself from breaking into loud, boisterous gales of Lion King’s “Circle of Life” when I first saw the Sunland Baobab Tree in Limpopo, South Africa. It’s by far the most magnificent specimen of plant life I’ve ever been lucky enough to witness.

But what made it even more alluring is that inside its gnarly, massive trunk is a bar complete with sound system, wine cellar and dart board. I’ve tipped a glass in many a fine drinking establishment over the years, but the Baobab Tree Bar and Wine Cellar in the foothills of the Modjadji Cycad Reserve is one of the most unique. I half expected Rafiki, the wise mandrill from Lion King, to walk out holding aloft a lion cub.

This arboreal watering hole comfortably seats 15 on bar stools and benches, but owners Doug and Heather van Heerden, in times of bleary reasoning, have managed to squeeze in more than 50 of their closest friends.

“We won’t be doing that again,” Heather reports.

The enterprising duo turned their notorious baobab (it has been called the world’s largest, the world’s widest and the world’s oldest) into a bar in 1993 soon after buying the mango and palm farm where it has been growing for, some say, longer than 6000 years. The problem with baobabs is they don’t produce rings. The only way to estimate their age is with carbon dating.

But this we can say with some certainty: This gargantuan tree was around long before the Ginza Pyramid. And while it doesn’t attract quite as many tourists as the oldest of the world’s seven wonders, it does attract a lot of imbibers who come to snap pictures of themselves clinking steins inside the trunk of a living tree.
The record-setting baobab is about seven stories high, 155-feet in circumference and has withstood drought, lightning strikes, black fungus and marauding elephants, all problems with which its weaker peers couldn’t cope. In African legend, the baobab is sacred. It isn’t called “The Tree of Life” for nothing. Hundreds of birds, insects and small mammals live in the branches and knots of baobabs and its fruit, known as monkey bread, has four times the Vitamin C as an orange. Locals use it for fiber, dye, fuel and even on their plates as a nutritious leafy vegetable.

Jokes government botanist, Hugh Glen, “The only problem with the baobab is it doesn’t get handsome until it’s about 800 years old.”

When the van Heerdens first began clearing their tree’s innards, they found artifacts from ancient bushmen who believe the following: Drinking water in which baobab seeds have been soaked protects you from crocodile attack. Feeding your baby a mixture of its bark and seeds ensures a long, healthy life. Plucking a flower from a baobab’s branches portends a lion attack.

I can’t attest to any of those myths, but I can say this with total authority: There’s no better way to while away a summer afternoon in the South Africa savannah than drinking Castle Lager inside a monster baobab tree. Cheers!!!

Producers from “The Bachelor” stalk the Big Five at this upscale Limpopo game reserve

Although I didn’t actually hear them yelling “De Plane! De Plane!,” the family of baboons sauntering next to the runway in Hoedspruit, a small airport near Kruger National Park, reminded me of Tattoo welcoming our small prop plane to South Africa.

It was also a promising sign that this safari in Limpopo was going to produce a lot of wildlife for our shutter-clicking group of five girlfriends. Indeed, we soon learned that this airbase turned airport (inside it looked more like a safari lodge than a terminal) had recently stocked cheetahs in a last ditch effort to slow down the warthog population whose insistent root digging on the tarmac kept interrupting landings and take-offs.

By the time we arrived at Kapama River Lodge, our sumptuous digs for the safari, we had christened our group “the Lucky Five,” because we’d already spotted a herd of zebra (only in South Africa, they call them zebb-ra, a pronunciation that we quickly adopted), a half dozen acacia-munching giraffes and enough warthogs that it was easy to understand the decision to install cheetahs.

And that was just the first 15 minutes. Kapama River Lodge, one of four lodges on the 33,000-acre wildlife reserve, one of the largest in South Africa, has the good fortune of being directly across the road from the Hoedspruit airport.

Not that we were in a hurry. Sitting in our open-air Land Rover, being regaled with safari tales by Tim Verreynne, our guide for the trip, we would have been happy to travel another hour or so. Especially when the bounty of animals prompted Skye, one of the Lucky Five, to comment that it was almost like being on a Disney ride. Except these were real animals with real teeth and real claws and real horns that couldn’t be switched off at night when tourists go home.

The real teeth and claws and horns, we soon learned, were the genesis of the title “the Big Five.”

“The Big Five are considered to be the five most dangerous animals in Africa,” Tim explained, proud of the fact that Kapama Reserve can boast all five.

It was also all we needed to agree to Tim’s rules which included “stay in the jeep,” even though it was a little hard to see how our open-air jeep would provide much protection against a charging 8,000-pound rhinoceros.

Still, we were desperate to claim viewing of all five. To do that, we embarked on early morning and late afternoon game drives. And I do mean early morning. A knock on the door (no phones or TV in this five-star lodge) at 5 am meant get ready for coffee, croissants and cruising in the big jeep. Willie, our tracker, sat in the catbird seat that extended out in front of the jeep.

On our first evening game drive, we followed a female lion who had just enjoyed an evening sip from a not-yet dry watering hole. We were within 25 feet as she padded in and out of brush. Check off Number One.

Then we found a momma rhino tending her baby who already had a small horn — and the same thick, prehistoric-looking coat of armor. Number Two.

A herd of elephants and a herd of wallowing water buffaloes — not together, I must add — enabled us to check off three and four. We high-fived, fist-bumped and got pretty cocky about our “Lucky Five” nickname, but we went in after the first two game drives still missing the elusive leopard.

We saw plenty of other wildlife that, even though lacking the Big Five designation, didn’t look like something you’d want to meet alone in a dark alley. We spotted bush babies, hippos, eland, kudu, porcupines, more giraffes and zebra, warthogs and armored male dung beetles that roll their beloved around on tennis ball-sized balls of elephant doo-doo. Kapama, according to Tim, has 42 mammal species and 350 bird species, most of which start singing around 4 am.

When we weren’t on game drives, we enjoyed the spa (nothing like a massage next to rooting warthogs), the two pools, the exquisite food and views of the northern Drakensberg mountain range. Dinner was served every night in the BOMA, a term in Africa that stands for British Officers Mess Area. Open-air, next to a roaring fire, we enjoyed spicy South African soups, fresh game like kudu and impala, locally-sourced salads, South African wine and the unmistakable sounds of the veldt settling down for the evening.

On the last game drive, the Lucky Five warned Tim and Willie, now fast friends, that we weren’t leaving without seeing Number Five, the leopard. By then, we were passing giraffes and elephants like they were the corner 7-11. Not that you can ever really get used to that kind of wild majesty.

Finally, around 6:30 that night, when the sun had dropped below the scrub-dotted landscape, Tim got a call on his radio. Ever-cagey and responding to the call in Afrikaans, one of 11 official languages of South Africa, Tim wouldn’t tell us what we were pursuing, but he promised it might be interesting.

On a game drive, interesting can mean anything from an elephant giving birth to a lion taking down a kudu to a rare animal making its way from Kruger National Park across Kapama’s wide expanse.

After about 15 minutes of badgering Tim to tell us the “surprise,” he pulled the Range Rover off road and proceeded plowing over bushes and small trees, shouting every few minutes or so to lean to the left or duck “because you don’t want that thorn in your bicep” until there it was: a stunning leopard parading across the reserve.

Tim and Willie, who are experts at reading signals, could tell the leopard didn’t feel threatened so we proceeded to follow the stealthy predator for a good 30 minutes, almost close enough to pet the square-ish rosettes on its sleek big-cat back.

That was Number Five. And so the Lucky Five’s good fortune lives on.