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.
My Valentines evening was not romantic. No. Anything but. I’d been deep in consultation all day and was feeling emotionally drained, in spite of the days triumphs.
My client, the wry and dry Robert Brendel, proprietor of Riebeek Kasteel’s Royal Hotel where Q is working on an exciting new refurb is demanding, but with an unexpected sense of humour given the demands on his bank balance. The clock had barely chimed five when he ordered a bottle of smokey vanilla and citrusy butter and woody and marvellous Glenelly Estate Reserve Chardonnay. Just the way we both like it. (Oh Rob! We have so much in common.)
It was really only a matter of time before we were obliged to consider our stomachs and, although we were seated in the half painted fine dining restaurant to be and surrounded by stacked tables and freshly upholstered chairs, Rob called room service for a snack.
It was not to be.
The usual menu was suspended in favour of a celebratory four courser to celebrate that poor martyred Valentine patron saint of star crossed lovers.
Three hundred and ninety five bucks (ZAR). We missed out on the romantically dressed tables on The Royal’s fabled veranda, fresh with summer breezes up the valley and decorated with a faraway view of the dusk kissed Elandsberg mountains.
I would have been happy with a toasted cheese and tomato and really wasn’t expecting the sumptuous deliciousness that followed.
A heartful, blood red starter of beetroot prepared in six different ways. Ambitious, nothing I’d try at home. The kitchen had clearly been busy. A tantalising and piquant shot of borscht infused with a hint of vodka to set the pulses racing. A deeply fried chip of beetroot, crisp and fresh. Luxurious, silkily bright pink beetroot panna cotta. Complexly flavoured hummus infused with the lovely scarlet colour of this year’s favourite vegetable. Also pickled and flavoured in the Swartland tradition and also with, best of all, goat’s cheese.
But there was more! Another starter- and I could spend every meal eating starters don’t you know?
A tiger prawn wrapped in a rice pastry candyfloss. Another marinated in garlic, ginger and chilli and then seared on the grill and yet another, blanched and presented with a mango and chilli salsa with a cumin spiced mayonnaise.
The room was already beginning to look romantic despite the half painted walls, draped dust sheets and stacked newly delivered furniture.
I hardly ever eat fish and, well, the wine and the music and, um, the moonlight was kicking in, so I dived in, continuing the marine theme begun with the trio of delicious prawns.
Banting too! Perfectly grilled kingklip, marvellously plated with cauliflower risotto and a poached egg drizzled with sauce Hollandaise and served with a bright green portion of wilted asparagus. I don’t remember eating a piece of fish this tasty or perfectly prepared and so artfully paired. Egg and Hollandaise. Yummy.
The kitchen pulled out all stops for the dessert. A complex ménage a trois of red velvet milkshake flavoured with everyone’s favourite- Amarula, Dutch apple tart with cream and a crumbled honeycomb and (it had to feature somewhere) a tiny lonely heart shaped panna cotta with a passionately blazing red berry coulis.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org
The Holiday Factory- visit www.theholidayfactory.co.za
Seychelles Tourism Board: visit www.seychelles.travel, e-mail email@example.com
Constance Resorts: www.epheliaresort.com, www.lemuriaresort.com
Air Seychelles flies between Johannesburg and Mahe, and Mahe and Praslin
I like, nay love, vanilla- the taste, the smell, the textures, the colours. And I’ve tried it wherever I’ve found it- synthetic and genuine essence off shop shelves and in candle factories, pods from who knows where, from Zanzibar, Mauritius, pungent large specimens from Madagascar- all of them different in quality and price and none of them a patch on the vanilla from Reunion Island. There’s a richness, smoothness and subtlety to the Bourbon style vanilla produced on the island, which just happens to be one of my favourite places in the world.
We swept up the palm lined avenue of Domaine du Grand Hazier outside the coastal town of Sainte Suzanne on Reunion Island to meet Bertrand Côme. With 28 years of experience in the trade, he is regarded as one of the best vanilla producers in the world and the La Vanilleraie plantation here, in an ancient former stable, has restored Reunion vanilla’s worldwide reputation through many awards, most notably at the Agricultural Show in Paris: gold medal in 2011 and silver medals in 2008, 2010, 2012, 2013 and 2015. That is consistency! Côme is a guarantor of the ancient tradition, but also looks to the future through his work on varietal selection and research on land, in collaboration with the local University and CIRAD, a French research institute.
Before 1850 all vanilla came from Mexico. The Aztecs- and before them the Mayans- believed that the scent of vanilla could connect them to their gods and had long mastered the ripening process. In 1521, the Spanish conquistador Cortes brought the first pod back to Europe, to the court of the Holy Roman Emperor, Charles V. It arrived in France in 1664 and Louis XIV was most taken with the lush flavour. He decided that vanilla would be cultivated on the colony of La Réunion – then called Île Bourbon. The vines grew well and bloomed, but no pod developed. Eventually the French abandoned their endeavour, persuaded that the Indians had kept a secret.
It was only in 1850 that a young slave, Edmond Albius, discovered how to pollinate the vanilla vine´s hermaphrodite flower thanks to the thorn of a wild citrus (legend goes that this discovery bought Albius his freedom). The heavy pollen was naturally dispersed by a hummingbird native to the forests of Southern Mexico. Nowadays vanilla flowers are pollinated by lifting a separating membrane called the rostellum to bring together the stigma and the pollen.
Vanilla is expensive because of the slow, labour intensive production process. The island’s best vanilla farmers cultivate the delicate orchid with care on three distinct terroirs. About nine months after pollination the pods are harvested and entrusted to the care of Côme.
The pods are first wilted by hot water scalding and then drained and kept in a sweating box for 24 hours.
The next stage is three weeks of sun-drying, partly under direct exposure to the sun and partly under the cover of blankets which retain the heat and prime the curing.
The pods are finally spread on racks in well-ventilated wooden buildings for six months and achieve their desired suppleness before being graded and packaged.
How do you know it’s the good stuff? Well, don’t take my word for it, but rather trust renowned (formerly three Michelin-starred) French chef Olivier Roellinger, who runs a hotel, restaurant, cooking school, bakery and spice boutique, who asserts about Côme “He is, without any doubt, one of the best vanilla curers in the world”. On http://www.epices-roellinger.com Roellinger says “Vanilla from the French department of Reunion Island is particularly notable for its soft, refined taste.
Both its cultivation and its preparation have been perfectly mastered there. Visually, it is often the prettiest and the best taken-care of. I especially reserve it for warmed milk with vanilla, the soothing childhood drink that everyone loves so dearly.
When I make warmed milk, I put two centimetres of vanilla (split lengthwise and scraped with the back of a knife) in 25 cl of organic whole milk. Then I gently bring the milk to a boil before leaving it to steep for fifteen minutes. Occasionally I reheat it before serving.”
Vanilla has antidepressant properties and warmed milk with vanilla is an ideal cure for insomnia.
When you use high-quality vanilla, you can put a lot less than indicated in typical recipes. In the case of savoury dishes serving four to six, it is best to use not more than 1 or 2 cm of vanilla pod as the flavour and aroma of vanilla should not dominate in these dishes, but should play the same role (as vanilla does) as a base note in the perfume industry: to act as a supporting part to other flavours, both linking and revealing all other notes of the sauce, broth or court-bouillon (an aromatic liquid for poaching or quick-cooking).
Côme’s vanilla comes in several types: beans, extract, powder- also in salt, sugar, syrup, jelly, caramel, oil and vinegar, all of it vanilla-flavoured.
Each year, more than 20,000 visitors discover La Vanilleraie in person and, like me, go home with his products. Five tons of green vanilla are processed every year in one ton of ready-to-consume vanilla- that is to say about 500,000 vanilla beans are processed by hand in accordance to traditional techniques.
Lunching one flawless Cape afternoon on the terrace at Simonsig’s Cuvée restaurant a tall, blonde and smiling young man approached my table. “Good afternoon.” He boomed a little too loudly for Q who prefers his midweek lunches to be on the plus side of discreet. “I know you.” he announced to the sun dappled terrace in a way manner that left Q feeling decidedly awkward if not downright uncomfortable.
The shady terrace, crowded with guests was all ears. “Yes,” he said. “We are Dutch! We were in Hermanus at the Marine Terrace and you were eating mussels (actually it wasn’t The Marine Terrace, it was a place called The Burgundy) and you sent them back!” he cried, to friendly waves from his companions and nervous looks from the Cuvée staff.
“Yes,” I murmured, slightly disturbed that I might have made a scene. I’m certain I didn’t. I never under normal circumstances send my food back to the kitchen, but it was the 7th January and I was irritable and more than slightly hungover.
And. One of my favourite dishes, moules marinières, had been roundly and soundly fukked up. The taste of vegetable stock cube was pervasive, the wine was cheap and nasty. Cream was added for some reason and the portion of chips, well, they were, um, unnice…
Rest(aurant)) assured, always a winner
So! Enough of the Burgundy and back to Cuvée. It never disappoints. Always keeps it simple. Has a variety of dishes and menu options to suit a range of budgets from more expensive to modest and great choice of Simonsig wines, all paired with a dish on the menu and available per glass.
“Chefanie”- head chef Stephanie de Wet
To make things easy on myself I tend to eat the same thing and to be honest, have only ever lunched there and not delved too far into the menu.
There’s always ‘boerewors’. Served differently every time. Always grilled on a skewer, but served sometimes with a gorgeously golden slice of polenta or with a peach chutney or, on this occasion with subtle and creamy risotto. This, paired with a glass of their fine Kaapse Vonkel brut, is often all that’s needed for lunch, but why have less when you can have more? If there’s time to linger, have another starter. All priced at around ZAR70 and paired with a glass of wine.
Beetroot salad or howzabout an onion tarte tatin served with a gorgonzola panna cotta, accompanied by balsamic pickled figs. Main courses are from ZAR160 (not that I’ve indulged, preferring to snack at lunch). This is really great value and with a superb glass of vino, a starter and an espresso and a tip, you can be out of there for under a ZAR150 if you stick to something light. The Saturday breakfast is hugely popular (so book) and the dinner menu looks marvellous, especially if you don’t have far to drive.
I know it’s still early days at Olive Bistro, but the discreetly air-conditioned room with its crisply white décor contrasts- most favourably- with the hot umber dusted streets and boho chic of Riebeek-Kasteel, the small Swartland town in the Western Cape hinterland where it finds itself.
Chic dining in Riebeek Kasteel
I also know that Paul & Istelle Carlin are an ambitious pair. They’ve already moved on from Café Olive, the tiny coffee shop they took over five months ago. A 25 seater restaurant was never going to be big enough for a chef on a mission in a town known mostly for jolly eateries and rugged, but fine craft beer.
So clearly, the days of a prix fixe table d’hôte at Sunday lunch are limited. A more detailed and comprehensive à la carte menu is evolving as they settle into their new premises on the corner of Fontein and Plein Streets. The restaurant (it’s a bit to glamourous to be a proper Bistro) features as an anchor in a beautifully refurbished house which is located in a complex that contains an art gallery and offices. The broad and shady stoep with a views of the Kasteelberg Mountain serves gourmet breakfasts and lighter lunches during the week.
For two weeks in a row now Q’s lunched late and languidly on Sundays. The first after an opening at the RK Contemporary gallery next door had it
I find the table d’hôte vibe to be stress relieving.
Sit down, get chatting to your friends and eat wots put in front of you. Easy.
Particularly when the cooking is as careful and deliberate and detailed as Istelles and just so for the careful and measured service from Paul and his front of house team.
Amuse bouche: an agreeable little skewer of seasonal fruit and Chourico on one occasion and a complex hit of Gazpacho on the other.
Appetiser of Gorgonzola in phyllo with fresh seasonal figs and a compote of things fruity. More-ish, on my second visit. The first featured a smokey beetroot soup with potato croquette, don’t dare call it borscht, served just a small degree off room temperature. Proper!
A choice of entrée. Chicken or lamb on one outing and chicken or beef, the other.
I’m a red meat eater so no surprise at my choice. Fall off the bone lamb shank with an authentic jus packed with flavour and complexity, served with delicately flavoured mash and carefully prepared vegetables. Cooked and crisp. The following week a rolled topside of beef that distracted from the conversation of my companions enough to assure me quality, but not nearly enough to bring me to detailed analysis.
We were all impressed by presentation and taste with the vegans more than adequately attended to, with a saffron rice pilaf dressed with a casserole-ish deliciousness featuring nuts and mushroom and tofu miso.
As dessert the vegans found berry dressed papino and the rest of us a chocolate and crème fraiche marvel also dressed with a berry compote and a crisp wafer thin biscuit and ice cream.
Some at the table found the experience fussy and formal and over priced.
I didn’t. I like detail and I like being waited on and besides what can you get for 250 bucks and bring your own wine and not get charged corkage?
I’d motored into Cape Town on the Wednesday. Basically to get a haircut and a carwash and to attend to some business. Luckily, I finished the business early and since I’d dressed up in a beautiful double cuffed Paul Smith shirt I ventured into the streets of hipster central in search of Robert and Alberto.
In search of hope.
Hope that these two charmers could be persuaded to join me for lunch and CheninBlanc in one of Bree Street’s sun dappled bistros.
Alas. It was not to be. Robert had an appointment and Alberto had to keep an eye on the Gallery, with its fresh consignment of treasures.
Alberto told of Cape Town’s latest artsy hotel venture as he guided me through the display of Villa sculptures and mid-century glass ware. A conversion of grain silos on the old dockside.
All dolled up, with the perfect place to go
I headed off into the high noon.
At the lift I met Magdalena. Beautiful. Beautifully groomed. Impeccably put together. We exchanged witticisms whilst standing in the parking garage waiting for the concierge to unlock the lift lobby door.
New hotels are bound to have teething problems, don’t you know.
Charm, wit and an impossibly handsome man in immaculate tails. All of us crisp and smiling. The lobby a perfectly understated transition from the harsh parking garage to the lushness of The Silo Hotel. Polished concrete floor. Limed brick work. Hand finished plaster walls. Three shades of grey. Dazzling yellow velvet sofa. Satin stainless steel, mysteriously abstract artwork, all in all the right places.
The lift arrived, we entered, looked at each and laughed as we chanted the mantra that is so often silent or sadly unnecessary, “perfect lighting.” More than that, the perfect lift. Narrow oak panelling, with mirror in the wainscoting. A shallow chandelier on the ceiling, much like the old Maharani, far across South Africa in Durban all those years ago, except for the artfully incorporated stainless steel of course.
We looked fabulous. Fabulous.
I handed Magdalena my card before we parted on the sixth floor.
Two laughing girls got into the lift.
Keep in mind if you please, that I am of a vintage when all I meet seem younger than me and almost without exception are either ‘boy’ or ‘girl’, or ‘children’. It leaves me feeling fatherly, or patriarchal in the nicest possible way, of course.
The girls, gorgeous and groomed, embraced me, kissed my cheeks and insisted that I join them for lunch.
I did. I’ve never said no to lunch.
The roof deck reminds me too, strangely, of the Maharani. The ghosts of grand hotels passed. The luminous green lawn (here it’s AstroTurf, used to marvellous effect as a kind of witty outdoor carpeting) and bright yellow parasols channelling Sol Kerzner and the gold and sunny yellow years of Southern Sun.
The maître d’ greeted the girls like he knew them and had been expecting them. He recognised me in the manner only an expert restauranteur can.
The menu beautifully conceived by Veronica Canha-Hibbert, previously of the Ellerman House, consists of deconstructed old favourites- perfect for light snacking and ideal to enjoy with drinks. A Cosmo for Jo and a Belling for Candice. I went straight for one of the Chenin Blancs that my new world in the Swartland has led me to lately. Botanical the Citrusdal Winery a fine choice, I thought. Peachy and lush with a long finish, deeply dry on the palate. The girls normally seduced by Sauvignon Blanc were surprised and delighted by it (280ZAR).
I enjoyed my chilled Chenin with finely made Vietnamese vegetable rolls (ZAR95), served with a startlingly pleasant and piquant sauce. Water. Candice ordered the prawn tempura (ZAR225), divine! Jo-Anne highly exited by the deconstructed lamb curry roti (ZAR160). Fab, (and made all the more interesting by the crisped up roti.)
We lounged back on beautifully cushioned sofas, and chatted and giggled and bonded, eating and drinking off tables of just the perfect height and size. Linen napkins and beautiful cutlery. Paper thin glassware.
The staff are all absurdly attractive and the view is unsurpassed- certainly in Cape Town and possibly even the world. The calmest of calm Cape days and the finest of Chenin Blanc (did I mention the Chenin), sails dotted over Table Bay and the friendly fussing of the service team as they cheerfully chatted and wobbled finding their feet in a restaurant only just open, but delivering fine unobtrusive service anyway.
A restaurant tinged with nostalgia that they know not, the pleasure of the company of strangers.
“Time for a lemonade” said Anton Roberts as we sat atop the riverbank in Ukuwela conservancy, some way outside the small town of Hluhluwe in Northern KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa.
One or two “lemonades” later and the sun was setting over the trees of neighbouring five star Phinda Game Reserve, a very different affair from where we were sat. Here the stars shine brighter, since there is only bush and distant Albizia Camp- a nice rustic camp for large or small groups with permanent ablutions and a central hangout. Perfect for Roberts’ frequent volunteers and interns- the latest batch being veterinary students from the UK whose moon tans vie with the luminous fever trees in the fading light. It’s also available as a glamping option for people who want to just break away from the hustle at a reasonable rate.
Conservation In The Bush
I need to backtrack to 2011, when I first met Anton and Emma Roberts at Umkhumbi Lodge their three star lodge a short distance from Albizia, where the focus is on families and small groups. I was struck with the care they had taken in building guest units in the indigenous sand forest, using wheelbarrows to cart materials between the shrubs and trees for minimal environmental impact.
About The Lodge
Umkhumbi is a quiet, comfy place and the subdivided units dotted around the forest are roomy and airy, with lofty ceilings and private decks. No tvs, except at the bar, but all-important aircon and bar fridges, en-suite bath and separate shower. The main hub for guests is the dining area and upstairs bar with fantastic sunset views. Chef Meva Zisongo is a keeper and his meals are definitely four star, as is the very friendly, laidback atmosphere.
It’s an ideal base for exploring the region and you are likely to meet people from all walks of life, including the aforementioned veterinary students and film crews.
A visit to Umkhumbi is not complete without a close encounter with some creeping, slithering or crawling creature from the Roberts’ collection. Anton has helped facilitate wild life documentary film crews in 96000 hectare Hluhluwe-Imfolozi Park, the oldest proclaimed reserve in Africa, as well as other game reserves in Southern Africa and the Roberts’ have hosted The Survivor Man – Les Stroud, Nitro Circus, Nat Geo, BBC, Animal Planet and many others. Anton will find the creatures required for wildlife programmes and conservation, assist with inserting telemetry tracking devices and afterward monitor the animals and the transmitted data.
“I’ve led tour groups, film crews, scientists, film stars, presidents and other so-called important people from all over the world in Namibia, Botswana, Malawi, Zambia, Zimbabwe, Lesotho, Swaziland and Mozambique” he says.
The large female also had a large clutch of babies, which Anton saved from certain death at the hands of the terrified local community.
The environment, its preservation and sustainable resource usage are driving passions for the Roberts family. Umkhumbi is not a huge money spinner. But they are not in it for the money. “If we were we could simply start a pineapple farm” Emma says, rolling her eyes. Pineapples are big business in the area but that would mean destroying their forest, home to endangered Suni antelope and many other species.
Instead they’ve partnered with like-minded people and associations, most notably the Wild Tomorrow Fund. Anton says “John Steward and Wendy Hapgood are amazing people with total dedication to conservation and wildlife. I have been in contact with many NGO’s and non-profits but they are mostly top heavy with egos and consultants with nothing but theory and paperwork, which stalls the actual efforts where the money is badly needed. With Wild Tomorrow Fund the funds go straight into the field where it’s used and managed by the people doing the actual work. Their ecologists are 100% committed and have a great relationship with everyone they work with, both in private reserves and government parks”.
Their relationship with The Wild Tomorrow Fund resulted in the Ukuwela conservancy, the base for their environmental awareness courses. Emma is often an “office widow” as Anton spends weeks at international trade shows and presenting to schools, colleges and universities to get youth groups- from veterinary students to expedition groups, sporting and educational school tours- to South Africa on very hands-on, customised programmes that cover all facets of ecology and the importance of conservation.
Umkhumbi offers internships with up to three month placements, or a minimum of two weeks (www.wildvolunteers.com) volunteering. Included are basic bush skills, core conservation principles, night skies, game walks, game drives, iSimangaliso Wetland park visits and more- work and play combined.
Umkhumbi Lodge has a clinic and interns spend time working on animals that have generally come from rehabilitation centres such as CROW (crowkzn.co.za ) and are now ready for release into the wild.
“Rewilding” the animals often involves weaning them off any form of human contact. The puff adder being treated for pneumonia and the hissing spotted eagle owl in the aviary seemed well keen to be rid of humans and the interns joshed each other about their reaction times.
“Releasing the rehabilitated wildlife in a very low game density area such as Ukuwela gives them the best possible chance of survival” says Anton. Various studies on the conservancy include game density studies with camera traps that have revealed the likes of aardvark, porcupine, honey badger and four leopards that were previously not known of. Bucket traps are also in place and data of insect and reptiles is recorded on a daily basis and the conservancy is also home to a variety of plains game- antelope like wildebeest, nyala, zebra and impala.
“Bring it on!” is Anton’s often heard life motto and it’s always “on” it seems, if one tracks his and the interns’ progress at Umkhumbi, at Albizia, or through South Africa into the Namib desert and other remote places. Back at the lodge, staffies Copper and Shadow keep Emma company and guests amused (Copper loves chasing bats in the evening). You should join them.