For the better part of a decade I have travelled hard, fast and continuously- chasing deadlines for weekly travel features linked to prizes. Not being quite a tourist, or on holiday, affords a different perspective, as does “speed dating” with owners and staff. Like in movies, associations and relationships are accelerated and in most cases I get a peek behind the scenes of the many wonder filled places I’ve been. Have a peek yourself.
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…”
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.
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
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.
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.
A smear of tears as I looked sideways at 160kph, suspended high above the valley, adrenalin surging after a heart-stopping drop. 32 seconds (or so) seems a lot longer somehow at such speed. Then my legs went over my head, my sunnies went askew, as the braking system kicked in. That’s the Zip Xtreme at Lake Eland Game Reserve– a peach of a spot at Oribi Gorge, 40 minutes from Port Shepstone on KwaZulu-Natal’s south coast.
I’d been to Lake Eland years ago, just for a squiz- and, with a dreadful paint job on log walls, I was in no rush to return. All that has changed, including the management team-and so has my opinion. I love it- with a caveat. Frogs, or guttural toads, or something like.
If you go in breeding season take earplugs. Our chalet over the lower dam was lovely but loud- surround sound loud- with two opposing choirs and a couple of stray descants in between.
Frogs aside, Lake Eland is a place I’d like to return to in a different season. Winter seems a good time to get cosy, though my brother insisted on a fire anyway. We were both struck by the thought that it is a great alternative to the Drakensberg mountains.
It’s close enough for many to make a day trip and enjoy the views along the way, the game reserve and the ziplines- with lunch perhaps in the restaurant. Lake Eland has the longest zipline in South Africa- all of 4.5km- and it is a blast, with a stretch right across the gorge and another so close to the lake that you can trail your feet in the water. It also has an 80 metre long suspension bridge which takes you to a sort of prow jutting out over a cliff- perfect for some Titanic poses.
The setting is spectacular, the property worth exploring. The top section is rolling hills, becoming steeper and tougher to drive through lower down, all the way to the lake, which has bunkhouses and rustic campsites – the favourite of co-owner Trevor Dunstone. Maybe he was just in a good mood as his nephew was getting married, with the wedding venue the only spot where music (non- frog variety) is permitted, but the down to earth farmer, in overall pants and frayed shirt as he got stuck in to some refurbishments, is hugely likeable.
He explained that all the wood for the redone cabins comes from the farm, including the really nice split bamboo ceilings. The self-catering chalets look fresh as a result, be they old or one of the new ones in which I stayed. Accommodation is really affordable and varied. If you’ve forgotten something the shop has plenty, including frozen meals prepared by the chef (with some vegetarian treats) if you’re too mellowed out to make your own. There’s also a country trading store about 150 metres from the entrance.
Apart from camping/caravaning and the comfy chalets, you could opt for a “pipe dream”- a double bed built into an old concrete water pipe with a small patio and braai area. Or the eight sleeper park home or house, both near the swimming pool.
Kids of all ages can enjoy the mountain bike tracks, horse riding, paintball, guided game drives and fishing. Big kids can test their 4×4 prowess on the 4×4 track over the road, while little kids have a huge, fenced playground full of repurposed farm machinery, boats and other interesting “toys”.
The fence is to keep kids in I guess, rather than game out, as all the game- with no large predators to fear- is remarkably chilled. I’ve never had an eland roadblock before, with the big male just standing, looking haughtily. You will also encounter the usual suspects such as impala, zebra, kudu, nyala and giraffe- but also the rarer oribi, after which the area is named.
The 2500 hectares incorporates diverse ecosystems including bushveld, grassland, coastal forest and wetland. The large lake, shaped like the eland common in bushman paintings, gives the reserve its name.
For day trippers, there are designated braai/picnic sites, while the chalets have their own braais (barbecues). Unless you are fairly local, however, it seems a waste not to stay, since camping is from ZAR100 a person and two-sleeper chalets from ZAR700 a night.
If the ziplines and scooter rides don’t deliver enough excitement, white water rafting is popular in Oribi Gorge, and the nearby Gorge Swing is, with a 165m drop, the highest in the world.
Sitting in reception at –Brookdale Health Hydro just outside Nottingham Road village in the KwaZulu-Natal midlands- looking through the French doors as I signed my life away, I had a “One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest” moment. People on a chilly winter’s day in bathrobes and slippers eating their lunch. That was as an outsider. Once you’re “inside” it’s all good- so good they may as well throw away the key.
But they wouldn’t. And inmates sneak off now and again for a round of golf at Gowrie around the bend or, like truant kids and much to the amusement of the staff, a pint and a pie at over-the-road Rawdons or further afield.
You may have heard “Those that can, do. Those that can’t, teach”. What utter codswallop I thought as Cara Larter administered the best Swedish massage I’ve had (I’ve had many). My body learned a fair bit about itself under her strong, intuitive hands. I most often fall asleep during a long massage but I was trying to pay attention as knots and niggles were expertly released.
The same could be said for Mbali, Zinzi, Sarah or any of the therapists.
It’s not just the therapies that taught. The lecture room is a busy place. Brookdale’s concepts and systems are holistic, balanced, integrated, well researched and most effective- or so my detox headache informed me. Happily it was mild and intermittent and soon cleared as plenty of water, treatments, a couple of aquacise classes and brisk walks took effect. So too chef Juliet Stephenson’s wholesome, delicious food.
I imagine many are apprehensive before visiting. Will they survive on the odd lettuce leaf and watery clear consommé? Trust me, it’s not like that. Yes, there’s no caffeine, no alcohol and if you need to smoke or make a cellphone call you will have to traipse off to the rose garden round back. Not a bad spot by any means, with views over the brook of cherry trees and hillside. You won’t go hungry though- and the food is delicious. Juliette has produced two successful cookbooks, but I was chuffed to attend her cooking demo in the unusually simple kitchen, especially when I found that the food prepared was not in either book. Actually, no cooking took place (apart from toasting of nuts), but the “carrot cake” was as good as any from an oven- a baked version a little later served as a comparison.
Repurposed bathtubs out back, now full of herbs and veggies, are evidence of Juliet’s recycling knack. The popular day spa has also been considerably enhanced since my first visit, with the addition of a conservatory- a great place to keep warm on drafty days, considering guests are almost always in robes.
My mum weaned me on the dietary advice of Adelle Davis who preached the benefits of whole grains and breads, fresh vegetables, vitamin supplements, limits on sugar, and avoidance of packaged and processed foods in the 50’s and 60’s. Those tenets have developed considerably since, I learned while attending talks by owner Wendy Somers-Cox and dieticians Caryn Davies (nutrition) and Tanya March- a real eye opener on gut health.
By the time I left though I was in a completely different state from when I arrived, happy on my drive and mindful of the inspirational Ralph Waldo Emerson quote left on my pillow the previous night. I don’t much like inspirational quotes. Not in the “insert inspirational quote” or décor way so often used by many places. Here it’s different, heartfelt and a reflection of Brookdale and one of many reasons so many have been coming back since Tony and Wendy Somers-Cox opened the hydro in 1992. Some, like hydro GM Marilyn Cox, have never left. What an advert she is- engaging, vivacious, clear, considerate and radiating good vibes and health
All the best places I’ve visited are run by involved owners who lead by example. Dynamo Wendy is one such owner, imbuing consistency, quality, energy, confidence and other qualities on staff and guests alike.
I’ve lounged in a robe elsewhere and had fantastic treatments and it was grand, lovely, but just, well, indulgent. At Brookdale there’s purpose- your wellness. “There is a point to what we do” said therapist April McNally during a brisk early morning walk before brekkie. It’s a highly skilled, drilled and motivated team with everyone rowing in the same direction.
You choose how much you engage or disengage, how much you row or are rowed, but I suggest falling in with the regime (for want of a better word) to get the most out of your stay. Answer the wake-up knock, with a pot of Rooibos tea, on your door and take advantage of the fact that all Brookdale’s packages, apart from their specific therapies or activities, include morning walks and aquacise, guided relaxation, yoga and Pilates classes and Clarins demos. The gym is open to all, the indoor heated pool (there’s an outdoor pool too) is open until 9pm, with Jacuzzi, sauna and steam room alongside.
There’s time and space for quietude on a lounger, wincing along the reflexology path or navigating the labyrinth, or meandering alongside the brook and in the forest in-between. There is a wi-fi hotspot and dstv, whether you’re in a standard room or luxury suite, though my tv stayed off.
Almost all Brookdale’s staff live on the property and it’s a highly skilled, drilled and motivated team. The high percentage of long-termers, or returning staff members, is a recommendation in itself, as is the high percentage of returning guests from within and without South Africa.
For the better part of a decade I have travelled hard, fast and continuously- chasing deadlines for weekly travel features linked to prizes. Not being quite a tourist, or on holiday, affords a different perspective, as does “speed dating” with owners and staff. Like in movies, associations and relationships are accelerated and in most cases I get a peek behind the scenes of the many wonder filled places I’ve been. Have a peek yourself.
A group of young English Animal Husbandry students was learning- a lot. A lot about being away from home for the first time, about early morning and nighttime chores, about the bush, animals, heat, Africa- and themselves.
Moon tans with red overlays, flushed and sometimes strained and tearful faces were the order of the day as some found themselves pushed and pulled way beyond any comfort zones by tough Tommy Dierkse, facilitator during their two week volunteer stint at Albizia Camp on Ukuwela conservancy, outside the small town of Hluhluwe in Northern Kwazulu-Natal, South Africa.
Here Anton and Emma Roberts, owners of neighbouring Umkhumbi Lodge, have founded a burgeoning conservation initiative that grows and grows- not just in size, but in diversity and reach.
Partnering and working with like-minded people and organisations- anybody who has their conservation shoulder to the wheel- and, most importantly, the Wild Tomorrow Fund, has resulted in Ukuwela Conservancy.
Ukuwela means ‘to cross over’ in isiZulu. Ukuwela was at risk of becoming a pineapple farm. That would have meant all the animals that lived on the land, including leopard, zebra, wildebeest, hippo and crocodile would have beenremoved or destroyed. As would every tree, plant and flower.
Securing Ukuwela as a wild space is the first piece of a puzzle in the creation of a successful and highly regarded habitat conservation program in Africa. It is a natural jewel. The precious river, fever tree forests, open grasslands, riverine thickets and mixed woodlands make it one of the most beautiful and diverse wilderness areas in the region.
The conservancy is a five minute drive from Umkhumbi Lodge and is the base for the Roberts’ environmental awareness courses for (mostly) school and student groups. In addition to those courses the Roberts offer internships with up to three month placements, or a minimum of two weeks volunteering. Included are basic bush skills, core conservation principals, night skies, game walks, game drives and more. There are visits to the KwaZulu-Natal Sharks Board, uShaka Marine World, to unique, pristine Kosi Bay and Tembe Elephant Park on the Mozambique border, while Anton frequently takes groups on overland safaris into the wildest parts of Namibia and Botswana.
I’ve spent many a night at the comfy lodge, where the accommodation- dotted around a sand forest- was carefully constructed using wheelbarrows to cart materials between the shrubs and trees for minimal environmental impact. Umkhumbi Lodge has a small animal clinic and interns spend time working on animals that have generally come from rehabilitation centres such as CROW– Centre for Rehabilitation of Wildlife- and are now ready for release into the wild. After years of negotiations, the Roberts’ have convinced their neighbours to drop fences, expanding the combined area to 800 hectares.
24 hours on Ukuwela, at present also around 800 hectares, was a little different, as I observed what actually goes down.
The English volunteers had much to do, including clearing many tons of dumped black plastic left by a tenant pineapple farmer, while red ants nipped at any exposed legs. They had camera traps to set up, pit traps to dig and inspect, alien plants to clear and, around the campfire at the evening Indaba, where anyone had the opportunity to speak their mind, it was evident that these youngsters were finding their feet, their voices, in a way they could not have envisioned.
A whole new world. A whole new world for animals too, as 11 zebra were released- and a day or two later a giraffe was darted and treated.
I doubt the Roberts anticipated the direction the internships and volunteer courses would take. They knew of course of the conservation awareness, the hands-on skills, but the courses have proved to be life changing for many.
Friendships and characters have been developed and strengthened. Self-awareness and understanding has grown and it’s great to see how just a short time in a life has helped many find direction.
Take Harriot Brill, Anton’s acting sergeant major, for example. After two Southern Africa trips, working two jobs to get there from the UK, she landed up overseeing the students and interns, of which she was once one. That was 18 months ago- and she’s not budging.
Eliz Thomas, who oversees student groups from Mid Kent College in England, is a regular. She was also one such student See the video below to hear her enthuse about the benefits.
It’s had the Roberts’ thinking out of their box too- just the way they like it. They are relocating their own home from Umkhumbi to Ukuwela, converting and adding to old shipping containers so that they are always at the heart of what they so passionately curate.
Exposing seal clubbing in Namibia, Madagascar’s “tortoise mafia”, hanging with anti-poaching teams and investigating wildlife crises worldwide – environmental photojournalist Aaron “Bertie” Gekoski has put himself in harm’s way many, many times for the sake of conservation. Or shall we just call it morality?
When he recently spent time in Thailand, exposing some of the horrific conditions animals are subjected to for humans’ pleasure, I was really worried for him. Being chased by a truckload of seal clubbers would have ended badly had he and his mates not made it across the border into South Africa but, with big money feathers being ruffled, Aaron and director Will Foster-Grundy could easily have been “disappeared”.
Thankfully that didn’t happen and Aaron’s bold, compelling expose hit the UK tabloids- The Sun, The Mirror, Huffington Post and others in April 2018. The results have been tangible. Last time I checked, at least one Thai zoo had not had its operating license renewed while Aaron’s crowdfunding campaign and petition gathers momentum, hopefully allowing him to investigate further.
Here’s Aaron’s story:
Wildlife Tourism Has A Dark Side – And The World Needs To Know About It
In an industry worth approximately $250 000 000 per year with over 100 million visitors, there’s a serious dark side.
I’ve just returned from documenting Thailand’s Wildlife Tourism industry. As an environmental photojournalist and filmmaker, I have spent the last decade observing the cruelty humans do to animals. Yet what I witnessed in Thailand was beyond the pale; a level of abuse that has no justifications. And the public needs to be made aware of it.
Worldwide, more than 500,000 animals are suffering for the sake of entertainment. Many of them have been stolen from their families in the wild to lead a life in captivity. Here they are dressed up, humiliated and forced to perform on a daily basis. Behind the scenes they are beaten and forced to live in appalling conditions.
The situation in Thailand is truly shocking. Alongside director Will Foster-Grundy, I saw orangutans wearing bikinis forced to box one another, elephants so drugged they could barely walk, a gorilla living in a filthy cell at the top of a shopping mall and monkeys yanked around on chains, before being made to ride bikes or lift weights.
A depressed orangutan on the floor of a filthy concrete cage with no food or stimulants (Image: Aaron Gekoski)
During training, many of the animals will have been subjected to beatings, burned with cigarettes or electrocuted to make them completely submissive to their handlers. Many elephants will go through ‘The Crush’ as juveniles – a form of torture that literally breaks their spirits. It is one of the most horrific forms of animal abuse imaginable.
Yet, bizarrely, these shows also prove to be quite popular. Hundreds of tourists laughed and clapped and appeared to enjoy watching these beautiful, sentient animals forced to perform grotesque routines. We want the world to know that these scenes are far from amusing.
But now we need the public’s help to spread the world. We want the millions of people who view these tourist attractions every year to be aware of the abuses that are happening in front of their eyes and behind closed doors.
The lives of animals are at stake, which is why I’ve set up a GoFundMe to return to Thailand with a small crew to produce a documentary on the country’s cruel Wildlife Tourism attractions.
You can help us out and donate here for now. But that’s just the beginning. If we’re successful we want to visit other countries and create a global platform so users can #raisetheredflag on cruel Wildlife Tourism. Review sites don’t always reveal the truth. We can stop animal abuse – but only if people vote with their feet.
The goal of the film is to highlight the impact of irresponsible wildlife tourism. We will investigate how animals are mistreated: the training methods used, the unsuitable conditions they’re kept in, where they’re be sourced from etc. We will also introduce the people and organisations who are tackling the industry, including the rescue and rehab centre Wildlife Friends Foundation Thailand, along with visiting some responsible operators who offer a blueprint for the industry.
The goal is not to end all wildlife tourism – this will never happen – but to encourage better treatment of animals, whilst making the public aware of the broader issues. If tourists knew how an elephant was domesticated, for example, would they ever ride one again? That’s our role as documentary film-makers: to present the facts and then let the audience decide.
Nico Cyprien continued exclaiming animatedly long after he was out of sight- and very likely when out of earshot- as he rappelled down the waterfall on the Fleur Jaune in Cilaos, high up on Réunion Island which lies between Madagascar and Mauritius.
It says a lot about an island only 51km at its widest and 72km long that someone who has been enthusiastically guiding visitors for over a decade is still discovering new pleasures. And it’s easy to see why this French expatriate settled here after living on five continents and traversing most of the globe. If you’re considering a trip of a lifetime, consider Réunion. If you have a French or E.U. passport marry me and let’s relocate!
My Favourite Things
The famous song from The Sound of Music does not mention countries, but Réunion Island incorporates so many of mine.
Your country, my country- as long as we’re not playing cricket against the Aussies (insert country of choice), it doesn’t matter to me. I do however love my home country, South Africa, and never considered relocating. That was until I visited Réunion- a couple of times.
Although it’s been a couple of years since my last visit, I’ve kept in touch. Nico and I are more than Facebook friends. And I’ve sent others, who affirmed that I wasn’t overstating my case in my role as unofficial island Public Relations Officer. My mate Sophie traverses continents and sails across oceans- and she sails with Rob who does nothing but sail, all over the world. After a week or so she was as enthused as me (Réunion shares top spot with Iceland) and Rob has the island in his top five.
This beautiful little French province is a fantastically diverse mix of cultures and geography. The melting pot of islanders is mostly a Creole mix. Sugar, rum, vanilla, essential oils and seafood are synonymous with Reunion and over 40% of the island is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The land rises swiftly from the shores to high plains and mountain heights and the climate ranges from humid to dry tropical to Mediterranean. There are hundreds of microclimates- a good thing if you like food, because it means that tropical foods flourish along with those from colder climes- strawberries and watermelon for example.
The combination of first world structure and island life suits most Réunionnais. The French government promotes Réunion as a tourist destination and has innovative green projects in place. Most homes have solar power and there are wind farms and fields of solar panels. There is a separatist movement but the headquarters were deserted and listlessly dilapidated when I had a looksee. Why? Well, the first inhabitant were French with free Malagasy people and more than one islander commented on the plus of enjoying the perks of France’s infrastructure, while being far removed from “homeland” politics. Things cost a little more, but there are tax breaks. The rich are very much so while the poor among the population of about 866 000 rely a lot on social welfare, but there is an ineffable quality of life money can’t buy.
How’s the weather?
Your guess may be as good as anyone’s. Nico and his Czech born wife Libuse have guided final year Czechoslovakian meteorological students. This is because the weather on Réunion, with an estimated 200 microclimates, is so hard to predict. Unlike other Indian Ocean islands, Réunion is a huge, dimply, high pimple rising steeply out of the ocean, causing disruption to wind and ocean flow, plus it lies above-and was formed by- one of the planet’s major hot spots.
Drive 15-20 minutes and you can find yourself in a completely different ecosystem, something Nico clearly gets a kick out of. “I’m going to take you to some savannah” he once announced and, sure enough, a while later I felt as if I was back in the African bush. The many definite changes of scenery, vegetation and perspective are some of the things that delight me most about the island. Hard to get bored if you can experience a different “country” more than once a day.
The island is essentially formed by two volcanoes: the inactive Piton des Neiges (Peaks of Snow)- which tops out at 3070m and sees snow once every 7/8 years- and Piton de la Fournaise (The Furnace Peak), one of the most active- and safest- volcanoes in the world. Réunion has three beautiful, distinctly different calderas or cirques- huge, steep, bowl-shaped valleys resulting from the older volcano’s collapse and water erosion. Salazie is wet, with waterfalls and rainforests, Cilaos is similar to South Africa’s Western Cape mountains and Mafate- somewhere between the two- is a rugged wilderness accessible only by foot or air.
Flying in, one touches down outside the subtropical capital city of St Denis. The town has a mix of French colonial buildings and fortifications built with incredibly durable blocks hewn from volcanic rock, wooden Creole-style and some typically European buildings, with a lack (thankfully) of high- rise towers. The island architecture is charming- symmetrically laid out wooden sided buildings with verandahs (varanque) and floral motif fretwork under the eaves and tin or wood- tiled roofs. Colours are fresh and bright, with complete and careful restoration of dilapidated buildings an ongoing project.
From St Denis, many visitors head along the coast to Saint Andre and up into Salazie. I recall that on my first visit a light misty drizzle set in, creating beautiful atmospheric effects and causing the myriad of waterfalls on this, the wettest part of the island, to turn to seething torrents after a few hours. Neither words nor camera can do justice to the breathtaking views. Through staggeringly beautiful, narrow valleys and up steeply climbing roads, one passes roadside shrines. These dot the island and reflect the mix of predominantly Catholic belief mingled with Hindu, Tamil and Islam.
The highland village of Hell Bourg with its ruined thermal baths (a volcanic eruption diverted the spring system) is a delightful glimpse of yesteryear- charming Creole houses with gardens ablaze with beautiful flowers and herbs, several endemic to Réunion. On the subject of endemic, Réunion has no poisonous spiders, no snakes and the main predator is its only bird of prey, the Papanque. Le Relais des Cimes provided a fine lunch, much of which we saw on our journey. Chou chou/ chayote/ sju sju vines cover trees and hillsides and were served au gratin.
The food on Réunion- a mix of French cuisine and Creole delights – is as wonderful as the scenery. Be adventurous. Seafood abounds, the caris are delicious as is gratin palmiste, smoky sausage is great and carne cabris massale an unexpected highlight. Vegetarians will not be disappointed as the islanders pride themselves on their lentils and legumes whilst chou-chou grows incredibly profusely. Meals are typically accompanied with locally produced rum punch (buy your own rhum arrangé “starter pack”) or aperitif, wine, and the pleasant, relatively inexpensive Réunion Bière Bourbon, also known as La Dodo. (Legend has it that the extinct Dodo existed on Reunion). I was happy to see that fast food joints do not thrive, but patisseries/ boulangeries do.
Cilaos is the sunniest and driest of the three calderas and is overlooked by Piton des Neiges. “The road with 420 bends” takes you through tunnels and along cliff faces into a different world. Cilaos- from a Malagasy word meaning “the place you never leave”- is aptly named. The majestic alpine setting is a paradise for sporty adrenaline junkies, nature lovers and those simply there to relax with a glass of local wine in a thermal spring.
With so much to see and do you probably won’t relax long. Canyoning beckons – and what a treat! Wide- eyed, crazily grinning faces are the order of the day on the way down cliffs and waterfalls into crystal clear mountain pools.
A highlight for me was a Creole picnic with the lovely Raymonda Gontier and charming husband Mikael. It began with the ubiquitous rhum arrangé (a potent rum liqueur). This couple have some 80 varieties, infusing rum with a delicious variety of herbs, fruit, flowers and spices. Our lunch consisted of pork and chicken dumplings for starters wrapped in rice ‘pastry’. We progressed to quiche with Cilaos lentils and dark, smoked homemade sausage, Marlin with endemic “mango” ginger, chicken in Cilaos wine with fish sauce from the potjie. Food on Réunion is always accompanied by rougail – interesting side dishes/condiments with, for example, tomato, peanut butter, and almost always an aubergine version. We topped off with corn cake and gâteau maison and vanilla rum, plus home roasted, vanilla flavoured coffee sweetened with honey from their apiary.
Raymonda runs cooking courses and Mikael grumbled about the weight he’s gained since they opened their guest house in the stunning mountain hamlet of Ilet a Cordes.
I was also thoroughly entertained by Noe Noe Dijoux, who owns the charming Hotel Tsilaosa where I stayed. In his downstairs cellar he regaled us with the history of wine in the area, plying us with various vintages and varietals, accompanied by excellent Piton Maido, one of 17 local cheeses, and salami.
Cilaos produces naturally sparkling mineral water (there are four water companies on Réunion) and the spa is popular with local and overseas visitors. Before leaving we shopped for rhum arrange kits, settling on Faham (wild orchid) with vanilla and cinnamon.
Another spectacular drive up from the coast- to the volcano this time- encompasses pastoral farmland, panoramic views toward the high peaks and down to the sea. En route we dined at Auberge du Volcan, where gratin palmiste (palm hearts) and carne cabris massale, two typical Reunion dishes, stole the show. Who knew goat could be so tender and succulent?
The drive climbs above forests to fynbos and the otherworldly expanse of volcanic grit, Plaine des Sables, en route to the view over the lava landscape created by previous eruptions of Piton de la Fournaise. It’s reassuring to know that the volcano is one of the safest and most studied in the world. It’s a “red” volcano and doesn’t spew ash, is not on a fault line and when it does erupt the caldera of high cliffs it created ensures the lava flows toward the ocean.
On the way back, after a bracing hike up and down the cliff face of the volcano’s caldera and onto the magma moonscape, I’d recommend Ti Resto Lontan, facing the Volcano Museum, where they cook on wooden fires.
The caldera of Mafate is a wilderness accessible only by foot or helicopter and like much of the island is a hiker’s paradise with over 140km of footpaths in varied landscapes among 10 peaks.
My knees are buggered so I can’t hike that far, but a helicopter provided amazing sights of little clifftop settlements, ravines, sweeping forested canyons and valleys. Cloud covered the two peaks that day so unfortunately I did not get a bird’s eye view of the volcano or Cilaos.
The coastline of Réunion is as dramatically varied as the interior. In the north- at St Denis- black polished rocks below sheer cliffs form the shoreline. Moving south the road crosses the lava field, steaming under a downpour. The road was rebuilt after lava flows some 60m thick in ’07 and vents on the roadside are still hot enough to scald, Here there are narrow sandy coves between steep headlands and the humidity gives way to drier, savannah-like areas. Some beaches are golden, others black- and they become longer and are protected by coral reefs heading west. The west coast is where almost all the snorkelling, surfing and other water activities take place. It has the biggest selection of hotels and is a popular base from which to explore on self-drive day trips. Five star Palm Hotel, about six kilometres from St. Pierre in the other direction toward St. Joseph was, for me, the most charming spot, though the sprawling five star Lux Hotel in Saint Gilles probably has the most to offer, with a beautiful coral reef and calm, still waters on its doorstep. L’Orangine, the fine restaurant, is superb.
Here I dined on Toothfish and potatoes in a champagne sauce, with the champagne clearly evident and marrying perfectly with the white fish. Tuna and beef, roasted potatoes with a coffee sauce and foie gras topping were simply heavenly.
Réunionnais like to party. One visit coincided with the annual carnival in the coastal town of Saint Gilles Les Bains and, after an elegant dinner at Boucan Canot Hotel’s Le Cap restaurant, we joined the crowds still thronging late on a Sunday evening- around 50 000 attended. What a fun atmosphere! Everyone was chilled- if that’s possible while partying up a storm. Among the painted faces, elaborate hairdo’s and fancy costumes were mums pushing prams through the jam-packed streets past dj’s, pumping music and light and smoke shows.
Expect to give way on the mountain twisties if driving. Thank goodness for the islanders’ attitudes! They are polite, patient and reserved. It is safe to cross at pedestrian crossings- even at peak times. When Nico flagged an oncoming car to ask advice we South Africans hunkered down as traffic backed up while the two drivers chatted for several minutes in the middle of the road but nobody hooted, nor flashed lights or rude signs. There are lessons to be learned from this rainbow nation not far from ours.
Hitchhiking hikers are commonplace, getting from one hiking trail or hut to another. Pick them up. You’ll hear some interesting stories.
Adventure seekers, the list is extensive- paragliding, all forms of mountaineering, spelunking, exploring lava “tube”: tunnels, white water rafting, surfing, diving, fishing, hiking. Canyoning is highly recommended. There is plenty of culture to soak up- Musée Léon Dierx in St Denis for example has a renowned collection of international and local artists. Buy award winning vanilla products from family industries. Essential oils likewise won’t tax your baggage limit. Volcanic pebbles won’t cost a cent. An ultralight flip is highly recommended. If you can afford another 100e each, take a chopper.
Getting there from South Africa: Air Austral (www.air-austral.com- excellent service, excellent food) flies between Johannesburg and Saint Denis every Thursday and Sunday. South Africa passport holders do not need a visa.
Through the crook of my arm on each stroke was an anchored three masted schooner, or gleaming white yachts, unspoilt greenery, white sands, the blues of the water and sky. I didn’t need my goggles in the clear water to see the resident nest of shy stingrays in the sand below, the colourful fish or the leatherback turtle that accompanied me part of the way. That swim across the beautiful bay of Anse Lazio on Praslin Island, and the most amazing sunset I’ve yet seen, are just two vividly imprinted memories from my Seychelles trip. Like some unrequited love, I yearn for more. So what is it that beckons?
For starters it is very, very beautiful, but I have to put the Seychelles in context- compare apples with apples. The islands of Zanzibar, Mauritius, Madagascar and Reunion have similar attractions – resorts, beaches and natural beauty. However, besides Reunion (my other favourite Indian Ocean destination), they do not have the level of commitment and care for their natural heritage- the very thing that put them on the tourism map- that the Seychellois exhibit.
Reunion is also- in the main- more about the hinterland- mountains and volcano- than a beachgoer’s must-do, although it has very good surfing and kite boarding spots.
Mauritius is very commercialised and possibly appeals most to those who don’t like something too different. For a South African (Durbanite) like me, it’s not really that different from ‘ome- with South African retail franchises in abundance.
Madagascar has major environmental and socio-political issues and, as in Zanzibar, the chasm between have and have-nots, foreigner and local, is vast. Of course you are a foreigner in the Seychelles but, hey, you are their bread and butter too. And they probably know about you. The Seychellois I met were educated, worldly, relaxed, chilled. And why wouldn’t they be chilled? If Mauritius and Madagascar are pretty, this is prettier- the quintessential island paradise pics, attracting royalty of all types- George Clooney of the Hollywood variety, Prince William and the Duchess of Cambridge- and a list of who’s who that flock here for lavish do’s no doubt, though it seems most come simply to relax: less speedboats, skiers and jet skis, more slumbering under palms.
No other country has such a percentage of protected land and water. There is almost no litter, rivers and streams run clear, conservation has been part of the school curriculum for decades. A trade-off for preserving the natural beauty is that nearly everything humans use is imported, so leave your exchange rate calculator at home as things aren’t cheap.
The majority of the 115 islands in the Seychelles archipelago, scattered across the Indian Ocean, are uninhabited: old granitic islands, atolls and coral blips on the map. Mahe, Praslin and La Digue islands form the inner group, with all but 500 or so of the multi-cultural population of less than 100 000 (stats vary) on these three- 80 000 on Mahé where I began my trip.
The huge Constance Ephélia resort sprawls between two stunning sandy bays, around forested hills and below granite outcrops- and sits between the marine reserve of Port Launay and a mangrove wetland. It’s not often that Photoshopped brochures or websites pale in comparison to the real thing, but this is a great example. You can kayak across the bay and through the mangrove forest or windsurf, head out on a pedal boat, snorkel, hike through the reserve, zipline, climb, relax. The staff are great, accommodation is spread out and varied- even the junior suites are pretty grown up. You could spend days in the U Spa village- one of the best spa facilities I’ve had the pleasure of- if you haven’t gone the whole hog and booked a spa villa with private pool, dry sauna, hammam and Jacuzzi.
We wound up, down and around Mahé with delightful, impish Eugene Esparon of Mason’s Travel at the wheel. Catholic churches, icons and roadside shrines dotted the landscape- plus a splendidly refurbished Hindu temple near the colourful market in the capital, Victoria. Colonial French and English architecture, with creole influences, stand cheek by jowl in this postage stamp town, which was left behind as we headed for a Creole lunch at Jardin du Roi – a picturesque spice garden-cum-museum which has wonderful views from up high. Yummy, simple food: Cajun-style Job fish with outstanding chutney accompaniments – papaya, mango, cassava, pumpkin and golden apple for example. The cuisine is reason enough for a trip- a celebration of every nation that passed through and marked by a fragrant combination of herbs and spices: cinnamon, nutmeg, garlic, chilli, lemongrass, coriander, mint basil – and the local beers and rum are really good too. I confess I gave the shark dishes a miss though a friend is a fan- and I am not keen to acquire a taste for fruit bat (lots of little bones and I prefer them on the wing).
A 15 minute flight (it’s a 45 minute ferry ride) took us to Praslin Island and Constance Lémuria- a paradise for golfers, tortoises and turtles. Constance Lémuria has a very successful turtle conservation programme headed by South African Adrian Allison whose enthusiasm has rubbed off on colleagues, who even sleep on the beach to safeguard about-to-hatch eggs, and returning regulars. The 18 hole championship golf course on the steep hills behind must have some of the best views of any course.
Patricia Battin was our excellent guide and companion for a tour which incorporated the must- see Vallée de Mai Forest, home to the endemic Coco de Mer, the largest seed in the world. The biggest recorded fruit from these slow-growing palms weighed 42 kg; the seeds weigh up to 17.6 kg and the male and female plants have bits that resemble human bits, hence the “love nut” nickname.
We paid a visit to little La Digue – population around 3000 and accessible only by ferry . Cars were only recently introduced. Mostly people walk, bicycle or travel by ox cart. Very chilled. We didn’t have time to visit the Veuve Nature Reserve to spot the endangered Black paradise flycatcher, or take in the famous Source d’Argent beach.
Next time…which has to be for longer, as I just scratched the surface. I can only imagine what the far flung atolls must be like.
THERE AND BACK
Mason’s Travel (Pty) Ltd for itineraries, transfers, excursions and tours. Visit www.masonstravel.com or e-mail email@example.com
The Holiday Factory- visit www.theholidayfactory.co.za
Seychelles Tourism Board: visit www.seychelles.travel, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org
Constance Resorts: www.epheliaresort.com, www.lemuriaresort.com
Air Seychelles flies between Johannesburg and Mahe, and Mahe and Praslin