Chobe – What’s The Buzz?

If you have an eye for natural beauty, you’ll know as soon as you reach the Chobe River, in north- eastern Botswana. It’s a wildlife lover and nature photographer’s dream.

For elephant lovers and safari fanatics, the great elephant concentrations on the Chobe River occur during the winter months. For birders, the wet summer months are the drawcard, when the migrant birds are in full colour, and antelope start dropping their young. Any time of the year, the Chobe provides the most spectacular sunsets.

Game viewing in the dry season pretty much guarantees excellent sightings, since animals have to visit the river to drink when all the watering holes dry up. And viewing game from the water is possibly the nicest way. And possibly the nicest way to do that is aboard Flame of Africa’s Chobe Explorer.

On board this triple decker, spacious, wood cladded river cruiser you have what my fellow “shipmates” described as their best Chobe experience ever- and between us we had had over 50 such experiences.

Skipper David Twembuchi, barman and charming front of house Ronald Rungwe, with Kabelano, Mercy and Malebogo running the kitchen, were warmly welcoming. Then, it was a short hop from the Flame of Africa jetty in the town of Kasane, Botswana, before the boat nudged in at the Chobe National Park offices to gain entry permit to the park (the cruise is on the Chobe River and there are happily no immigration formalities). After our welcome briefing and drinks from Ronny we were sedately on our way.

Drinks glasses became prism glass as guests reached for cameras when skipper David got us up surprisingly close and personal- especially considering the boat’s size- with a plethora of wildlife. One such involved a massive bull elephant swimming across a river channel and then taking a keen interest in the long grasses at the boat’s prow, causing an evacuation of the lower dining deck.

After 1 ½ glasses of Nederburg Brut bubbly, backing off from one sighting was a giddy delight as David spun the big vessel almost 360 degrees.

The dining deck is where we enjoyed a superb lunch: delicious Botswana beef steak, boerewors, chicken, various salads, potato bake with excellent freshly made bread- followed by a delightful dessert and accompanied by a selection of wine.

The five adults at our table- repeat visitors to the area and one a riverside resident- repeatedly exclaimed that this was their best Chobe River experience. Exclaimed may not be the correct term. We were too laidback for that, lulled by the sumptuousness and the pace. And it is the pace, together with the service and the space afforded, that sets the Chobe Explorer apart. Another plus is that you have a head start on the usual afternoon mass launch, seeing plenty of wildlife long before, without any jostling for photo opportunities.

Above the dining deck is the bar and lounge, with ample, comfortable couches which seemed even comfier post-lunch- and the top deck has a formation of suspended, luxurious loungers which really top off the show.

Gently swaying atop the boat is the dreamiest way to top off the day. And, having launched around 11 am, it was on the stroke of 6pm that we nudged up to the jetty again- pretty much the whole, glorious day.

I shamelessly plug Flame of Africa, simply because of my experience using them. It was a Google search for a transfer company that kicked it off and I have extensively used them for transfers between Kasane and Victoria Falls, 80 km distant, and/or Livingstone. I’ve also experienced lodges they market and activities they provide in the Chobe area.

Another recommended river outing, if all day is too long, is aboard the sumptuous Chobe Style- perhaps with lunch on The Raft. Flame of Africa owner, Brett McDonald, lives most of the time on the Chobe and constructed this unique 64-seater floating restaurant from scraps and throwaways.

A trip to the Chobe or the Zambezi would not be complete without trying your hand at fishing. These waters are home to the voracious, powerful tiger fish- a true thrill to every serious or amateur angler. Capture and release is the policy with tiger, while “hook and cook” is adopted for the delicious bream that frequent these waters.

Impalila Island is well worth a visit. It has a  colourful history and is uniquely positioned, straddling the intersection of four countries. Here you can enjoy a Zimbabwean Zambezi beer, a Botswana St Louis, a Zambian Mozi and a Namibian Tafel and know that the countries from whence they came are not more than 200 metres away.

Also try to make time for a visit away from Chobe- in particular to Victoria Falls, if you’ve never been. Even if you have, it never loses its awesomeness.

Luxury Meets Nature- Cresta Mowana Safari Resort & Spa

Fancy a round of golf? Do so in very close proximity to the vast elephant population surrounding the course at Cresta Mowana Safari Resort & Spa. Magical- even if you have to wait for various game to be coaxed off the course.

Here on the banks of the Chobe River, in north- eastern Botswana, on the outskirts of the town of Kasane, there’s no rush in any case- unless it’s to bring your camera or binoculars to your eye in this fabulous game viewing destination. Rather chill, catch a cocktail, as you enjoy views from the beautiful grounds across the river and the floodplains into Namibia on the far side.

Enjoy the friendly service, the extensive facilities and activities- on and off site- not forgetting about nine holes of golf of course. Enjoy, too, the old world yet fresh style of this grande dame, the recent recipient of a major overhaul.

The brief was to freshen up the whole property, taking inspiration from the river and the surrounding vegetation, and to make it contemporary. I would definitely say the overall tone of “luxury meets nature” was achieved and, having visited before, appreciate the new decks, the decluttering, the clean, contemporary surfaces with minimalistic organic elements like chandeliers and iconic pieces of furniture and wall sculptures.

The fresh blues and greens with greys and white lighten everything and create a cool, calm, refreshing feel which complements the warmth of the thatch and terracotta flooring. The tech upgrades are much appreciated, with an improved Wi-Fi experience and many more plug points- although the large tv in my room was never switched on. Too much to do.

Mowana, more elevated than other lodges on the Botswana river bank, has arguably the best views, with all 112 bedrooms and four suites having sliding glass doors opening onto a private patio with views of the Chobe River, though you may have to share the patio with vervet monkeys or a warthog or two, especially if you have fruit. The upstairs bar is the place to be if you want to see the most beautiful African sunsets.

Within the resort complex the mowana (baobab) is a central focus point. The high thatched roof of the lobby pretty much points at the tree, and lodge buildings circle it- at a respectful distance.

The hotel amenities are superb. it has tennis court, several swimming pools, golf course, gym, spa- and the masseurs really know their stuff!

Mowana is a 10-minute drive from the North part of the 11 700 square kilometre Chobe National Park. Arguments rage as to whether the elephant population is 60 000 or 120 000. It really does not matter which is correct as the sight of herds numbering in the hundreds is a sight you will never forget. In this park, where predators like lion, leopard and wild dog abound, it is no wonder it has been called the Galapagos of Africa.

Another argument (mine) is that the best way to view game is from a boat. Mowana’s custom designed game viewing boats are designed to go where the larger game viewing boats are not able to, creating an opportunity to get up close and personal with what the Chobe has to offer.

Chobe Style

Other options on the Chobe- and neighbouring Zambezi- include an outing on Flame of Africa’s luxurious double decker Chobe Style or a day aboard the triple decker Chobe Explorer, or fishing. These particular waters are home to the voracious, most powerful power to weight ratio fresh water fish in the world- the tiger fish- a true delight to every serious or amateur angler.


 

 

 

Or outings to Victoria Falls (full day) which, if you’ve not been, is a moving must-do. Impalila Island, which straddles the intersection of where four countries- Botswana, Namibia, Zimbabwe and Zambia- meet, is another interesting visit, with a huge 2000-year-old baobab tree riddled with bullets from when South African armed forces used the tree as both a lookout, a machine gun placement and- clearly- target practice.

That mowana outlasted all- and, I’m sure, your memories of Cresta Mowana Safari Resort & Spa will similarly linger. You can experience this by taking advantage of the 2019 Mowana Christmas special of P7425 (approximately R10042) for a three night stay.

 

Fordoun- For all the right reasons

My favourite places seem to be family owned or run and Fordoun Hotel and Spa is one such place. All five senses celebrate at five-star Fordoun … and then further celebrate as birth is given to their sixth sibling.

 

It happens in an extremely romantic setting; weeping willows with their gentle flowing boughs, enormous organic artworks, ethereal azaleas contrasting against rolling hills, iris-lined pathways, ancient terracotta bricks mottled with age evoking a Hansel and Gretel nougat house- all peacefully nestled in the KwaZulu-Natal midlands, a few minutes from Nottingham Road village.

                                  

From cascading steps, to greyhound guarded Roman-bath fountains, to mini-canals; there is flowing water around every corner, all creating a vibrant life-giving energy, like a giant vascular system.

            

There is such wealth in the glorious gardens- the essence of it all- which is then brought inside to pamper one in every which way.

Skye Bistro at night

Fresh food delights of a superb standard are presented in utter comfort in the Skye Bistro. Chef Lorenzo Giliomee and his team have upped the ante since last I was there. The menu may change but some firm favourites remain- like the grilled beef fillet nestled on horseradish potato mash and red wine tomatoes, gratinéed with gourmet Greek “Brie” cheese and a Fordoun wild herb garden buchu jus. Superb. Vegetarians won’t scratch for options, with offerings like wild mushroom and black summer truffle risotto, topped with creamy Indezi blue cheese, and slow roasted butternut and peppers. Starters and desserts are possibly more enticing, as is the extensive and well-crafted wine menu.

Hedonistic indeed. If, however, you are on a detox retreat, your choices are a juice fast or raw, vegan healthy eating- and much time in the spa.
Fordoun’s spa is all encompassing and the therapists are delightful, adding to that feeling of rejuvenation. The old grain silo has been brilliantly converted into a magical grotto, where one floats in the essence-imbued pool with calming music being amplified through the water; a unique experience. Apart from treatments from skilled masseurs, Reiki and Bio-energy specialists and aestheticians, the spa features a rasul, indoor swimming pool, gymnasium, sauna, steam room, hydrotherapy room, and a couples’ treatment suite with hydrotherapy bath.

                         

Integral to the spa and Fordoun as a whole is Dr Elliot Ndlovu- inyanga, sangoma and ethno-botanist. In Elliot’s garden and around his consulting rooms are over 120 different species of healing plants, used by him and in Fordoun’s products. The poignancy and passion underlying his uthwasa- the necessary process of suffering to become a traditional healer- endear this huge character to believers and cynics alike, including Hollywood stars and the British Queen.

                

Afternoon walks are a great idea. Oak-lined avenues, waterfowl preening themselves on the shores of dams, a deeply wooded grove full of bee-hives leading to the tennis courts and outdoor pool. One imagines an otter or two in amongst the impressive trout rising for their evening feed.


Fordoun has a field of the happiest hens in the entire world; they come to greet you as you arrive at the edge of their enormous scratch-patch field. And yes, the eggs taste wonderful.

Fordoun Farm Village

And, beyond the field, the Fordoun Farm Village comprising a tasteful multi-functional venue, chapel, nine luxurious self-catering chalets, veggie gardens and the spinning classroom- all arranged around a full-size cricket oval. Although separate to the original establishment, adults staying here have access to the facilities up at the Hotel- and vice-versa.

The main buildings, originally part of a dairy farm from the 1860s, have been thoughtfully adapted. There are 22 luxurious double suites with verandas, underfloor heating, bath and shower and a dressing area. There is also a wheelchair friendly suite.

If founder John Bates is about, he may share with you Fordoun’s interesting history, dating back to 1850, or enthuse about the social and environmental initiatives Fordoun is involved with- including a nearby crane sanctuary- or let you sample his leonotis (wild dagga) gin.

Retiring to one’s suite is a dream- especially one of the five superior mountain facing room set atop a ridge with views toward the Drakensberg, and the size of a country cottage. The bed, the linen, the bathrobes and all the treats are of the highest quality. It’s sumptuously draped and lavishly appointed with high, pitched ceilings. A cold snap makes the ready lit blaze in the glass-fronted fireplace, the bedtime treats and story, most welcome.


Stepping out of the French doors, the eye is led across rolling pastures to the hills- with the young maiden’s breast, iNhlosane, dominant and framed by not-too-distant mountains. A table and chairs, loungers and a tumbling water feature in a secluded courtyard is a tempting lolling spot in the day.

The thickly carpeted passage takes you to a large dressing room opposite a lovely black and white chequered bathroom with heated towel rails, underfloor heating, dual vanity basins, bath and shower, which leads to a further, outdoor shower.
The fresh air and the heightened stimulation of the senses, not forgetting the awakening of that sixth sense, all make one beautifully exhausted. The huge bed waits to engulf.

The countryside goes silent, as iNhlosane’s silhouette slowly merges into the night.

Visit www.fordoun.com or e-mail reservations@fordoun.co.za for further details and bookings.

Chobe Water Villas- Inspiring Tranquility

Crossing the wide expanse of Chobe waters from Botswana to Namibia, all one sees is the row of A-frame peaks, like the zigzagged scales on a crocodile’s tail. Grinning Gilbert sees us safely onto the sturdy boardwalk-jetty and then…

Secluded Sophistication

A tranquil, sophisticated ambience is endorsed by the warm, welcome smiles of graceful Subiya tribe staff who drift through our neutral-coloured, fascinatingly designed “home” for the next few days. The simplicity, the open spaces, the cubist arches and columns- all reminiscent of an Afro-Roman palace. Organic textures, desert sand and seed-pods capturing the essence of Namibia’s simple beauty.

Stylish, chic, elegant, arty and many other adjectives apply. The attention to detail is noteworthy, furnishings, fixtures reflect a fine eye for design with an enviable artistic flair. So too the architecture.

The complex and intriguing layout leads the eye and invites exploration of interleading indoor and outdoor spaces. Gentle steps to a patch of manicured grass, sunken seating with hot rock firepits, a long infinity pool, overhead metalwork extending the indoor-outdoor flow, ringed by trees and shrubs with cushioned alcove seating dotted about- one could spend hours just taking it in.

“God, this place inspires me! I love beautiful things, beautiful places”

exclaims Hilary. I had popped in once for a quick lunch and had been dying to return, so am chuffed to be so vindicated- especially by someone with a home on the riverbank and a good idea of what is on offer elsewhere.

Boardwalks interwoven amidst natural flora of silver clusterleaf and sausage trees lead to the villas. 

What a welcome. A cool, spotlessly clean space where an impressive variety of materials have been cleverly used to create ultimate luxury and comfort. Meshed inner curtains soften the view onto the daba grass and the river.  The room itself has the best of everything including a cabinet containing a kettle with multi-boiling points, exquisite wines, full mini bar and snacks, great coffee and a superb selection of teas and black china- all lit by automatic lighting. The bathroom is superb, as are the lemon-verbena pampering lotions.

The outside deck has been cleverly railed like the bow of a cruise liner to maximise the effect of being “at sea on the Chobe”. I keep expecting distant trees to move past the uprights, or past the windows when lounging on the emperor size bed. Delectably comfortable loungers are a temptation to stay on deck all day but once the clouds of whistling ducks have settled into the evening, resist the temptation of staying aboard as disembarking back to the palace heralds the start of another experience – a feast for any aesthete.

Clever lighting maximises the spaces and the art. Epauletted fruit bats silently dance amongst the giant leaves of fruit trees. The rim flow swimming pool has transformed into ink, reflecting the last hint of the African day. In the dining area, resplendent with gleaming glass, crockery, cutlery and crisp linen, one gets very excited at the thought of a menu which will surely complement. And it does, magnificently.

A degustation menu- seven little courses of delectable tastes- awaits. Chef Linus Siyambangu changes his menu daily, so the following night it’s his Sense Experience. Tastes to remember include seeded and rosemary lavash, fresh basil pesto, apple and cucumber gazpacho, superbly plated kudu fillet with perfectly complementary selection of veggies, red pepper puree and red wine sauce- probably trumped by the pan seared Norwegian salmon dish and the excellent strawberry cheesecake.

The lodge is transformed at night by the truly exemplary lighting (did I mention the lighting?), seducing one to tarry here, tarry there.

Tarrying is lovely but the sun rising in front of the villa reminds one there are things worth doing.

A quickish breakfast (we never get beyond the Continental option) and we are on a boat and across the river to Botswana immigration to get passports stamped and be welcomed by N’Jay Sankwasa, our Flame of Africa game guide. Then we’re into the unfenced 11700km2 Chobe National Park for a morning game drive- never a disappointment.

Back from learning about the wildlife, including a lion we spot within a few minutes- as well as the birds, history and plants and our game vehicle becomes a boat- surely the best way to view game? Undoubtedly a wonderful way to enjoy a lunch and an afternoon cruise, with a quick nap before din-dins.

The bed itself provides inspiration for me, seeking an air conditioning solution to a double volume house. The overhead canopy does not merely provide a rail for the mosquito curtain, but a curtain of air-conditioned air.

We’re not the only ones to be inspired. SABC3’s Top Billing had just been and their take of Chobe Water Villas plays on screens (elsewhere), while we just play.

Getting There:
Airlink is a privately owned airline business, operating as a regional feeder Airline, connecting travellers to more than 55 routes within southern Africa and St Helena Island.
Airlink provides direct scheduled flights from Johannesburg to Kasane (Chobe), Botswana. With an all Jet service, Airlink provides a Business Class service, styled in the manner of a European intra-continental service.
Through airlink’s alliance with SAA, travellers can connect conveniently, effortlessly and seamlessly, with SAA, their Partner airlines and other carriers throughout Southern Africa and the world.
Airlink is a member of South African Airways Loyalty programme -Voyager.
Discover more:  www.flyairlink.com
Book Direct:  https://www.flyairlink.com/destinations/flights-to-kasane

Nalitumila (thank you in Subiya) to Chobe Water Villas and Flame of Africa.

 

 

Distillery 031- A Home Run

“I call this my gateway spirit” said Andrew, swirling the amber liquid in his glass. Well, through the gateway, down the hatch and the rabbit hole and colour me impressed, well impressed! Andrew Rall, owner of Durban’s Distillery 031 is a singular man whose burgeoning craft distillery is a portal to some unique, top-notch craft spirits. He was referring to his D’Urban Barrel Aged Gin- something rather special. Serve it on ice to guests without telling them what they are drinking, just to gauge reactions. Plenty of surprised expressions no doubt. Gateway? Well, I agree with him that it may change the perceptions of many non gin drinkers.

Acquire a taste for the finer things in life

Gin is trending- has been for a while now- and Rall has been at the forefront of the gin revolution in South Africa. His passion trumps trends however, and Distillery 031 products include a superb tonic cordial, rum (including cachaça), vodka, absinthe and some unique spirit aperitifs- all with a view to putting the country on the map in terms of carefully and beautifully crafted, award winning, spirits.
Rall distilled privately at first, acquired his commercial licenses in 2015 and, in a relatively short time, has made inroads into the international market. The fact that he exports his premium 031 Vodka to a country like Sweden where vodka is not so much trending as entrenched in social culture says a lot.

He is a gentle giant- charming, charismatic, passionate, perceptive, driven and open to ideas and experiences. That’s a great checklist for someone who continually researches and experiments in his quest for excellence. His introduction and taste for spirits was more about quantity than quality (student daze), but a trip to Scotland ignited an interest in- and passion for- distilling. Fast forward and this once brand manager for Unilever found himself with his own brand, an urban distillery (Durban’s first craft distillery) and in cahoots with like-minded entrepreneurs in establishing Durban’s first urban renewal district- Station Drive, off Umgeni Rd.

Rall is passionate about more than quality hooch. The name, Distillery 031 (031 is the local dialling code), hints at his love of his roots. Hence the distillery being in the city and the many indigenous elements that infuse the business- from bottle labels to botanicals and the raw materials from which the spirits are crafted. These include sugar cane, baobab fruit, indigenous wormwood and rosehip, coffee cherries (cascara) and imphepho, a medicinal herb used by sangomas to summon the ancestors.

“Durbanism” is a thing- an inclusive thing. An evening at Station Drive’s 1st Thursday monthly happenings would give you a better picture. I’m not sure if Durbanism stems from Rall, but he’s a glowing example. If he didn’t have export/import/sales/admin/investors and all the not-so-fun bits about owning a business to attend to, he would be at the still and behind the bar every day, sharing his extraordinary knowledge of all things Durban and walking the talk. And the talk is great.

I’ve attended many, many wine tastings/ pairings etc- I even conducted tastings and tours in my youth. I’ve also toured impressive distilleries, but I’ve never had such an entertainingly educational occasion as in Distillery 031’s industrial-chic tasting room.

A group of German tourists and I exited the tasting room in a haze- a haze of newly acquired tastes, knowledge about spirits in general and Distillery 031’s products in particular. Like my companions, deciding which were new favourites was top of mind. The histories and development of gin, tonic and absinthe were especially interesting to me, the whole experience a treat- the complimentary welcome cocktail, the tasting and the gourmet burger meal in the bar-cum-eatery while eyeing out the gleaming bits and bobs (which I could now identify) in the distillery.

“Local is very lekker” I thought (Afrikaans for “nice”). So too the Germans, who were researching how best to acquire 031’s products in Europe.

Visit: www.distillery031.com or The Foundry, 43 Station Dr, Durban, South Africa
For bookings: info@distillery031.com

Nakai Beach Homestay- a way of life

Diagnosed with advanced Lymphoma cancer, Claude Venter was given six months to live by medical specialists. Seven years later, he looked relaxed and happy as he recounted his journey and explained how his decision to seek an alternative remedy saved his life- and changed his and that of his partners, Grant Horak and Paulo da Rosa.

Claude probably thought me ADD as I kept bobbing my head left and right. Whales, dolphins- lots of them, cavorting in the ocean beyond the deck at Nakai Beach Homestay. Nakai means “on the beach” in Polynesian and the gorgeous boutique retreat that the three are rightfully proud of is perched high above Trafalgar Beach on Kwazulu-Natal’s lower south coast.

What a view! What a stunningly situated property. What a turnaround for all three. This team of very successful interior designers and landscapers are really walking the talk. Their search for a purified environment to aid Claude’s recovery led them to this special part of KZN, where the clean air is oxygen and ozone rich. The water, both drinking and general usage, is purified. The food is nearly all organic- and delicious. There are two kitchens- one for vegans and the other for whatever is flavour of the day, so vegetarians, pescatarians and carnivores will be equally delighted.

As it happened an ex-chef friend commandeered the kitchen for dinner so hard working Grant, the driving force behind Nakai- and chief cook and bottle washer, was excused boots. Nor did I taste his cooked breakfast in the sun filled Gauguin Café and Juice Bar since I opted for a flipping delicious cacao and superfood smoothie, yoghurt and berries.

Nakai Beach is a homestay. The partners and Grant’s mum Lorraine live there along with dogs Maui, Kona and Milo so it’s their home, a showpiece for their impeccable design skills and a five star retreat in one package. It is a restorative and rejuvenating space in which to heal, relax and bliss out.

The bedrooms- with balconies- are sublime and individually themed, though the general feel is consistent throughout. Bold colours, clean lines, beautiful fabrics, finishes and the OCD touches that being a good designer requires. Paulo is proudly afflicted and even the kitchen drawers are a testament to this and to care filled design. Everywhere, inside and out, the eye delights in visual feasts that feed the soul.

I was in the vibrant Amazon themed room and found myself lulled to sleep by the surf below unexpectedly soon after I arrived- and for many total relaxation is the reason to visit.

You can opt to do as little as possible, lazing by the infinity pool, soaking up the sun, the views, the tranquility, though most opt for Paulo’s yoga sessions on the deck or in the brand new yoga studio, complete with underfloor heating. Paulo has dedicated his life to the path and enjoys all disciplines. He offers classes, different retreats, hosts guest teachers of other disciplines and is always on hand.

Steps off the deck take you down through the stretch of coastal forest reserve and to the pristine beach. Trafalgar is a marine reserve and, unusual for the south coast, the beaches are long, straight and flat, with black rocks and shallow pools galore. If you traipse to the main, blue flag beach there are life guards and shark nets. The partners took it upon themselves to jolly up the lifeguard huts and benches with colourful paintwork. The surf is often great and snorkelling too, with 90 million year old fossil beds not far from shore.

There are fossils on land too and the beach below Nakai has been in the news a fair bit as it is (then isn’t, then is) a naturist beach. It’s safe to say that if you take your kit off nobody will bother- and in any case you will probably have the beach to yourself.

Claude’s cancer and recovery completely changed his outlook. “I was all about the six pack, the look” he chuckles. That’s not to say he won’t notice a six pack but he’s at ease, at peace- and that peace and pleasure in life is what guests take away when they reluctantly depart this gem.

 

Wilderness Safaris- Unparalleled Okavango

I have long been intrigued by the Okavango. As a sprog in the 70’s a school chum regaled me with fabulous tales. In the 90’s my late friend Steven Morris was a chef at a camp- and spent a month alone on an island on a personal quest.  Would I find some of what Steven did I wondered as we flew due North from Johannesburg  to Maun in Northern Botswana?

The flying was a breeze, leaving ‘Maritzburg aboard an Airlink flight, changing without having to recheck baggage at OR Tambo, and in Maun by lunchtime. Seemingly endless, uninhabited desert and semi- desert  had been the view for much of the trip to Maun, then some glistening water, scrub and tress as we approached the airport.  Once through the hot tedium of customs/immigration at the small but busy airport, changes came rapidly.

Superlatives may just be word on a page until you’ve experienced them, but our experience with Wilderness  Safaris/Air was filled with them.  This is one very slick, professional outfit packaging exceptional adventures. We were greeted with smiles, scented cool facecloths, whisked ahead of queues and were soon winging our way, hopping from airstrip to airstrip en route to our first camp- the premier Vumbura Plains.

Water glistened, shimmered and shone under the hazy blue sky as we flew. The Okavango Delta- where the Okavango River dissipates into the Kalahari sands- is a phenomenon words can’t adequately describe. Each year approximately 11 cubic kilometres of water spreads over the 6000-15000 km² area. What I kept asking myself was “how does it flow?” since there is a less than 2 metre variation across the Delta. Nevertheless flow it does. But, at first, words did not. Initial impressions of the Delta are thoughtful for most it seems- a time to simply take in its immensity. Words do eventually flow- unspoilt, pristine, primal for example. The water is 97% potable, filtered by the white sands. It appeared in a myriad aspects: glinting from between reed rafts and papyrus, festooned with lilies, fingering through grasses and over contrasting coloured bottoms of innumerable channels, marshes and lakes. The waters were punctuated with small islands, palm trees and many other (as yet) unknown plants, blobby grey elephant, swaying giraffe and other game.

Sadly almost, we made our last landing and were soon warmly welcomed at the gracious, designer delight that is Vumbura Plains. This is bush elegance of a high order. Attention to every detail- once your preferences are assiduously assessed you will find your preferred tipple as a nightcap in your suite, for example. And what suites! They are enormous canvas and shadecloth sided, thatched extravagances raised (for safety) above the ground – split level with a sunken lounge, plunge pool alongside lounger under a huge tree on the large, private deck with its covered, outdoor lounge.  The luxury and views made it tempting to do not much more than lounge- or arrange for a massage with elephants browsing metres away.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The star attraction- the Delta- awaited however and so, after dragging ourselves from the exceptional afternoon “tea” spread, we were whisked off by the charming Lazarus Maolosi for our first excursion. Ebony and Kalahari Appleleaf, Jackalberry and Rain trees, ubiquitous hornbills and plovers, starlings, bee- eaters and the gorgeous Lilac Breasted Roller.  I am not a twitcher (birder) or budding botanist but was fascinated by the make-up of our surrounds. We saw game in greater numbers, and at closer proximity, than I have ever seen. Wild dogs and hyena are generally elusive and retiring. Here they could have been mistaken for domestic pets.  Lechwe and Tsessebe are not to be seen back home. Elephant are- and buffalo too- but I’d not seen such numbers. As much as the game sightings were wonderful, the lessons on the ecology were especially rewarding. The symbiosis between species for example- with the hugely important role micro-termites and their massive mounds play particularly illuminating.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The water levels were rising and we spent time zipping through channels in a motorboat, as well as poling placidly in the fiberglass version (to save trees) of the traditional Mokoro dugout among bobbing lilies and spectacularly bright Angolan Reed Frogs. Two very different, but equally delightful, ways of enjoying the Delta waters.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Back at camp we shared our delights with fellow guests and staff over leisurely feasts and fine wines.  Later, after an outdoor shower under the stars (or the fabulous open- plan indoor shower), we were lulled to sleep by those same frogs, tinkling like distant chimes against a backdrop of profound silence.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

All too soon our Vumbura visit was over and we headed out of the Delta to Savuti Camp on the Savute (sic) Channel- a river system 35 minutes away by air. It’s different here in many respects- hotter, drier. Savuti makes the most of its perch above the extravagant sweeping bend of the Channel. It had a different feel – more “traditional Safari”- and is one of Wilderness Safaris’ Classic camps, with great food and a relaxed atmosphere. It’s perhaps “greener”, with a thermos flask instead of kettle in the room, no fridge, no private plunge pool.  “It’s bound to be even quieter” I thought, sipping Amarula and watching the firefly show, with frog accompaniment, before turning in after a hugely fun evening in the boma. Flopping catfish and munching hippo proved me wrong, but they had a good, metronomic rhythm going which worked just fine.

We were in the care of Goodman Ndlovu, the antithesis of Lazarus. Lazarus was quite the cowboy, Goodman the careful, precise “schoolmarm”. Whatever the character (both were charming), what made our Wilderness experience exceptional was the standard of guiding. I was deeply impressed by the guides’ knowledge and commitment.  I was beyond thrilled while at Savuti to have close, separate sightings within 26 hours of three leopards, to witness the display of the huge Kori Bustard, and chortled watching a massive troupe of baboons sharing a riverbank stage with charging young Impala. Quieter delights included Snowflake Grass- Christmas in Africa in the right light- and trees “decorated” with giant communal spider nests.

 

We learned a lot- in particular to reawaken and utilise our city numbed senses so as to understand and appreciate what the bush was teaching. This meant being still, attentive and so, in those and other ways I guess I did indeed discover some of what my friend cane here for. It wasn’t all Zen of course- like the time when, safely out of earshot (I hope) I whooped and punched the air, singing “Heaven, I’m in Heaven…”

You can understand why our fellow guests were abuzz about Wilderness Safaris’ African Residents Programme-  a loyalty programme which offers  whopping discounts. To find out more about member benefits visit www.wilderness-residents.co.za or e-mail  residents@wilderness.co.za. Visit www.wilderness-safaris.com.

Getting There
Airlink connects you to Maun with direct flights from Cape Town and Johannesburg. Airlink, now connecting you to 37 destinations in nine African countries. Book your flight direct on www.flyairlink.com. Spread your wings- fly Airlink.

Grootbos Private Nature Reserve- something very special

Spring is sprung, but winter is coming- or have you not been following blockbuster series Game of Thrones? And when it does, I’d recommend heading to Grootbos Private Nature Reserve in the Western Cape. Yip, the Cape of Storms, in winter.

Luxurious Grootbos is a favourite for me and travellers return time and again to this botanical reserve above the town of Gansbaai. Their five-star rating is based on meticulous service, genuine hospitality, fine dining, accommodation in bespoke settings and a truly care filled conservation approach that benefits guests, the local communities and the planet.

My first day in winter was remarkably summery. After a delicious creamy Caesar salad with pork belly, free range poached egg and crispy anchovies on the Forest Lodge terrace, taking in the grandeur of the sweeping views across the slopes and over the wide Walker Bay to the mountain headlands above distant Hermanus, field guide Nashlin Groenewald, a local lad, took me hither and yonder on the balmy afternoon to experience one of Grootbos’ winter wonders- the endemic Erica irregularis. This pink blossom that turns the surrounding mountains pink, is so localised that 85 percent is only found on the Grootbos Private Nature Reserve.

You won’t find the Big Five here. What you will experience- and be moved by- are nature’s more subtle nuances in this eco reserve protecting 1768 hectares of the unique Cape Floral Kingdom, with over 750 species of indigenous plants. Since the establishment of the reserve, six fynbos species, new to science, have been discovered on Grootbos. The limestone sugarbush was also in showy bloom, as were other fynbos species.

We also explored the beaches of Walker Bay Reserve and the Klipgat Cave. I have spent half my life on beaches but now view them with appreciably more insight. I also learned how to make a fresh kelp potjie pot- and marvelled at the caves, the site of an important archaeological dig containing artifacts indicating man’s presence over 70 000 years ago.

We were joined by executive chef Benjamin Conradie and foraged for mussels, seaweed and other indigenous edibles such as succulents-samphire and dune spinach.

That was to be my dinner starter. I’ve always been a bit iffy about mussels but it was sublime- as was the rest of my meal. I could fill this space as much as I filled my tummy with the delightful menu options but I’ll skip to the must-have dessert, Grootbos’ fynbos honey ice cream.

That delicious creaminess warranted heading up the road to the Growing the Future Organic Farm, where I gained some insight into the workings of the meaningful Grootbos Foundation from hands on operations manager Lindsay Hannekom and farm manager Johann Strydom. It’s hands on for guests too and I donned beekeeping gear for a real education.

Honey is made here from fynbos and the Erica irregularis. You can collect your own eggs, pick fresh organic fruit and veggies and then head into the kitchen and explore the best ways to prepare your hoard- actually make it yourself- under the tutelage of Benjamin Conradie.

While I was making gnocchi the worst storm in 30 years was spectacularly raging, tossing the hardy fynbos, with giant swells alternately under squalls, then lit by bright shafts of sun. We took to admiring this from the comfort of the glass walled champagne bar. The gorgeous suites are equally great places for storm watching too and the only thing I missed out on was whales, which cavort in the bay in great numbers from June through November.

The name Grootbos, Afrikaans for Big Forest, comes from the Milkwood forests with their gnarled branches and mossy beards. Amongst these ancient forests Grootbos has artfully laid out their accommodation, with sweeping views across fynbos plains towards the sparkling ocean and distant headlands. These vistas dominate everything- whether viewed through the sliding doors in the lounge or bedroom with its huge canopied bed, from the vast bathroom or the lodge itself.

I can only imagine what the distant uber-exclusive villa, where Brad Pitt spent time recharging, must be like.

The exquisite freestanding suites have all the amenities and luxuries you might want- and then some, like the scarves that came in very handy in the storm.

Such touches are indicative of what makes Grootbos special. That, and the staff. In an industry where staff turnover is high, it speaks volumes about a place, when the executive chef and other key staff grow with the establishment over a decade and more- or have left to explore further shores and have been welcomed back.

Hence Grootbos has frequently returning guests like Germans Susan and Christoph Vornholdt, who jested about their “shareholder” status, referring not to their nine previous visits but to their support of the non-profit Grootbos Foundation which runs environmental and social development programmes.

 

There’s much more to tell, but best you find out for yourself. Visit, or at the very least, visit www.grootbos.com

Bahia Mar Boutique Hotel- Sunny Side Up

Half way through my second afternoon, I had had enough- enough to return home with my head and heart happily filled. Strolling the pristine beach of Magaruque Island off southern Mozambique, I thanked my lucky stars and lovely Susana Vidal, GM of Bahia Mar Boutique Hotel, who had arranged our Sailaway Dhow Safaris trip-worth every cent.

The Bahia Mar Boutique Hotel in Vilanculos has truly panoramic vistas from its breezy bluff overlooking the wide, flat bay toward several islands within the Bazaruto Archipelago National Park – Magaruque, Benguerra and Bazaruto.

The view welcomes you as you step through the open plan reception, bar and restaurant and is enjoyed from anywhere on the terrace, lawn, or the infinity pool and its bar. Down steps is the accommodation in four buildings on the slope, each with two sea-view bedrooms on the uppelevel and one ginormous, luxurious beach suite below.

I had me one of those, with private plunge pool, a short path and a door to the beach, and beautifully appointed and equipped for self-catering, although the closest I got to that was plunger coffee in the mornings. A shame almost, what with a built in braai complete with extractor chimney and plenty other mod cons.

Time spent indoors was minimal in any case, since BahiaMar is the perfect destination from which to explore- on board the luxury launch Mayara if you can afford it. Activities include fishing; kite-surfing; stand up paddling; horse riding; diving and snorkelling, which takes me back to Magaruque (visit off-peak to enjoy kilometres of island to yourself).

Booties on, we crossed to the ocean side of our little inlet, plopped into the warm water with goggles on and immediately the current took us. No fins needed unless you want to swim against it, exploring the rock wall which drops some five metres. Loads of nutrients ‘cos of the spring tides, tons of fish- I have never been in such a traffic jam of colours.

We found eddies close to the rocks and bobbed along until, in a calm spot, we were joined by the dhow. While Alfredo Baoane and skipper Manuel Camba cooked over a fire on board, we clambered back over the rocks and swam to the beach. Companion Shelley sat in the shallows as teensy fish exfoliated her legs. I rescued a bag of crisps from crows, cormorants ignored all while diving for seagrass for their nests.

Manuel soon trudged from the dhow with our delicious (mostly seafood of course) lunch .Then it was snooze, swim, meander, back on the dhow and around the sandbars and flamingos and into a drenching passing storm.

Faquir- one groovy guy

Back in Vilanculos the streets were awash, the greenery refreshed. “Faquir! Faquir!” squealed littl’uns, spying us with much-loved guide Faquir Nhamue, whose town tour was a treat and who arranged something a little different.

That cool evening, on a smoky fire in a small reed hut, Sarah Katerina put the finishing touches (crayfish) to Matapa- a fragrant mix of pound Cassava leaves, peanut powder, coconut milk, garlic and onions. Lovely. By the time we finished it seemed such a familiar taste and texture, one which lingered until the tuk-tuk dropped us at Bahia Mar, where I tucked into their Affogato Bebedo dessert. I’m sure the other desserts are lovely but I had this delicious combo of coffee, nightcap and dessert (rum, espresso, chocolate ice cream, cashews and bitter dark chocolate) three nights running.

 

Not to be outdone by the locals, chef Dalida Hugo wowed us the following evening with a seafood platter we couldn’t finish, but most apparently do. Broadly smiling, athletic Emília Massinguile also wowed me with her massage technique in an open sided treatment hut alongside the superbly equipped gym and wellness centre,  with its outdoor jacuzzi and Zen meditation space.

We didn’t meditate, but still left in a pretty Zen state. Marvellous.

Getting There
Airlink offers five flights per week to Vilanculos and daily flights from Vilanculos to Johannesburg.  Airlink, now connecting you to 37 destinations in nine African countries. Visit www.flyairlink.com for more. Spread your wings – fly Airlink.