For a growing number of incentive travel delegates, South Africa tops the bucket list. Lauren Arena recently visited the Rainbow Nation, emphatically embracing its natural, cultural and culinary wonders. By Lauren Arena
It’s hot. Really hot. The unrelenting African sun beats down on us and through the gooey heat we can hear the thick panting of feeding lions. As the growls get louder and louder so too does the incessant buzzing of the African blowfly.
Gnawing away at a freshly slain wildebeest, the hungry cats are too busy to even acknowledge our presence. They’re in a hurry you see, because if they don’t finish the wildebeest by sundown, the blowfly, and its flesh-eating maggots, will.
Welcome to Madike Game Reserve, which teems with wildlife.
Four hours northwest of Johannesburg on the Botswana border and spanning 75,000 hectares, Madikwe was founded in 1991 through Operation Phoenix, a project where 8000 animals from 28 different species were relocated in the largest translocation of game ever recorded.
Today, more than 20 years on, it’s an open-air theatre – and we have front-row seats.
Once fed, the young lions lie about dusty plains, sunning their now content and bulging bellies.
Our guide Thomas, who’s been at Madikwe for 10 years, knows the game here well and says the action often takes place at the reserve’s main water hole. Nowhere is the pecking order more evident than here. The game is separated into two distinct groups: the hunters and the hunted.
We see a pair of male loins, two brothers, who have just shared a baby elephant and are now resting in the sun; a cluster of impala, petite and sandy brown; a furry jackal, who takes a quick drink; and nearby, a bulky white rhino grazing. It’s a peaceful scene and unless absolutely necessary, no one makes a move. The smaller and more vulnerable of the bunch are also smart enough to keep a safe distance.
Visitors too are part of a safari’s rich ecology and most big game are used to the 4×4 Toyota trucks that roam the savannah and bushveld areas of Madikwe. The elephants are perhaps the most at ease, walking right past us in their constant search for food. Besides that, if push came to shove, they know we wouldn’t stand a chance against them.
The reserve is also home to packs of wild dog and we are lucky enough to catch a rare sighting on our pre-dawn morning game drive. It’s another hot day and the motley-coloured canines with their patchwork coats of gold, brown and white, are loafing about in the shade of an acacia.
Madikwe has more than 20 lodges and camps and places like Jaci’s Tree Lodge are typical of luxury safari touring. Here we’re staying in one of eight private tree houses, made from rosewood and thatch, hidden among ancient riverine trees where we have our very own terrace and outdoor shower. There’s a bathtub too, with plush robes and lavish soaps. We share our outdoor amenities with a few of the locals – monkeys, birds, and a few crawly creatures – but this only adds to the sense of being in the African wilderness.
The staff here are another great asset, and with modern luxury trends heading more towards personalised service and away from superfluous suites and snooty wait staff, Jaci’s gets it so right. This is the ideal place for exclusive incentive travel vacations. For larger groups there’s Tau Game Lodge, which can accommodate up to 60 guests, and Madikwe Safari Lodge, which consists of three separate private lodges with 20 luxury suites.
There’s no doubt the wildlife here is the main attraction for international visitors, but to see only the animals (as thrilling and awe-inspiring as it is to tick the Big 5 off your bucket list) is to experience only half of what makes this country so special. South Africa is a fantastically friendly, incredibly human place and the people are its real treasures.
Despite warnings of high crime rates, safety isn’t an issue for incentive travel delegates. As in most global cities, trouble is contained within small pockets. But there is poverty; and while post-apartheid South Africa has taken tremendous strides towards becoming the Rainbow Nation, there is still a significant and noticeable divide between its people.
In Soweto, an expansive township southwest of Johannesburg (it’s touted as the world’s most famous township thanks to its Vilakazi Street – the only street in the world to house two Nobel Prize winners, the late Nelson Mandela and Archbishop Desmond Tutu), the locals are effervescent. They are a long supressed yet an extraordinarily resilient people.
Many parts of Soweto rank among the poorest in Johannesburg, but there’s a mix of wealthier and poorer residents. Besides accommodating the working class, Soweto was also home to anti-Apartheid political activities and today is a beacon for the new South Africa, a symbol of resistance.
When we arrive for a bike tour around this city within a city, the locals embrace us, not just as visitors, but as friends. Lebo’s Soweto Backpackers runs bicycle and tuk-tuk tours for groups of all shapes and sizes. It’s run by locals as part of a sustainable tourism initiative and is a great way to explore the sights and sounds of this vibrant place.
Apart from the famed FNB Stadium, which seats more than 90,000 people, the former residence of Nelson Mandela, and the Hector Peterson museum, which documents the historic 1976 student uprising in Soweto (where an estimated 20,000 students took part in protests and an unconfirmed number perished due to police brutality), there are local markets to visit and traditional Zulu culture to be observed. On our tour we visit a shebeen (a place of social gathering and drinking, similar to a tavern) and drink Zulu beer out of a clay pot with the locals as part of a traditional ceremony.
From Johannesburg we head further south where the landscape’s dusty brown carpet begins to flourish into a velvety green shroud, covering the mountainous spine of the Cape Peninsula.
The Mother City
In Cape Town one can’t help but feel an overwhelming sense of familiarity, even on the very first visit. There’s an incredible mesh of culture in this polyglot city, once the economic and cultural hub of the Cape Colony, and with its rugged cape, cosmopolitan eateries and European-inspired architecture, nostalgia lingers at every corner.
History buffs will revel in multicultural Cape Town, whose previous life as an outpost for the almighty Dutch East India Company (VOC) is now immortalised in its many museums and monuments. There’s the Slave Lodge Museum, which explores the long history of slavery in South Africa; the South African Museum, the oldest museum in sub-Saharan Africa; The Company Gardens, a lush green sanctuary in the heart of the CBD originally established by Dutch settlers in 1652; and of course, the grandiose Castle of Good Hope.
The castle is perhaps the oldest surviving building in South Africa, built between 1666 and 1679 as a maritime replenishment station. It was the centre of civilian, administrative and military life at the Cape and remains the seat of the military today. Walking the grounds means entering a carefully guarded fortress. We’re surrounded by bastions and cannon ports and in certain blocks, once used as a dungeon and torture chamber, an eeriness lurks. The site also houses the Castle Military Museum and the precious William Fehr Collection of art and artefacts. Private tours and functions can be held within the castle grounds and amid its precious colonial artefacts.
The South African National Gallery, the SA Jewish Museum and the District Six Museum, which deals with the memory of the racially-mixed district that used to exist within the city, are also worth a look.
But as far as cultural fusion is concerned, you can’t go past the Taj Cape Town. The grand hotel retains an old-world charm (paying tribute to its historic site – originally home to the South African Reserve Bank and Temple Chambers), while elegantly integrating all the facilities and mod-cons today’s business traveller would expect in a five-star property. With 176 exquisitely furnished rooms and suites (the presidential suite is the jewel in Taj’s crown – with its own gym and spa, butler service and a sprawling terrace that offers awe-inspiring views of Table Mountain), the invigorating Jiva spa, a suave cigar lounge, and numerous dining options, this hotel will impress even the most discerning corporate globe-trotter.
From the centrally-based hotel, Table Mountain isn’t far. The flat-topped mountain looms large over the Mother City and its dramatic plateau, often sheathed by a ‘table cloth’ of cloud, is flanked by Devil’s Peak and Lion’s Head. A hike up the mountain is no easy feat, but the epic views make it well worth it. On the downward journey there’s a number of walks that lead to the pristine Kirstenbosch National Botanical Garden, but for those looking to ease the pressure, the scenic cableway is always a comfy option.
The mountain’s spectacular skyline is perhaps best witnessed from Robben Island although there’s a lot more on the island than just the view. Not an experience to be taken lightly, a tour of Robben Island is as inspiring as it is appalling. Here, seven kilometres off the coast of Cape Town, Nelson Mandela served 18 of his 27 years imprisoned by the Apartheid government.
Our guide, Vusumzi Mcongo, is a former inmate. He was arrested in 1976 at the age of 25 for being a member of the South African Student Movement and sentenced to 15 years for sabotage and terrorism. As we make our way through the maximum security prison, Mcongo remains stern, his speech detached as he details the harsh and often torturous treatment of prisoners: “People disappeared from this place,” he says. Mcongo is one of the lucky survivors. But the pinnacle of the tour is Mandela’s cell – a diminutive room barely wide enough for him to lie down – now a symbol of the struggles faced by all South Africans during Madiba’s long walk to freedom.
Whether it’s sampling traditional fare, or wandering the prized wine trails of the Western Cape, South Africa serves up a gourmet adventure like no other. By Lauren Arena
Groot Constantia – Constantia is one of South Africa’s oldest grape-growing regions, tracing its wine history back to 1685. The historic manor house tells of the region’s history with an extensive collection of Cape furniture, porcelain, and maritime art; while the award-winning wine (a favourite of Napoleon, King Louis Phillipe of France and Frederic the Great of Prussia) speaks for itself. The Gouverneurs Reserve and full-bodied Pinotage are a must for any red wine enthusiast.
La Motte – Moving further inland, the wine regions of Stellenbosch and Franschhoek are as picturesque as they are fruitfully delicious. Nestled in the Franschhoek Valley, La Motte’s cellar door experience is the penchant of stylish wine tasting – a charming estate with sumptuous surroundings and an exceptional 2010 Shiraz Viognier.
Babylonstoren – This historic Cape Dutch farm, with expansive vineyards, breathtaking fruit and vegetable gardens, and an exclusive farm hotel, is surrounded by the dramatic mountains of the Drakenstein Valley. But the real gem here is The Green House, an outdoor restaurant in the heart of the garden that serves only produce grown, reared and churned on the farm. In cooler months, the adjoining garden conservatory is a great space for events.
Mama Africa – Located on Cape Town’s buzzing Long Street, this restaurant and bar celebrates South Africa’s vibrant diversity with local sounds and hearty, traditional fare. Local bands fill the place with African beats and encourage patrons to dance around the bar, while the menu’s raison d’être is game. For a truly authentic experience try Mama’s game grill: crocodile kebabs, ostrich, springbok and kudo steaks, and venison sausage.
Beluga – This chic eatery serves a seasonal menu focused on fresh fish and seafood with a fantastic sushi offering. Located in Cape Town’s thriving Green Point district, this is the spot to sip crafty cocktails and indulge in extravagant crustacean platters.
Bombay Brassiere – The Taj’s fine-diner combines contemporary design with the marble panelled opulence of the old Reserve Bank building. The dining room’s dark woods, decadent turquoise chandeliers and lavishly upholstered, finely embroidered armchairs create an intimate and sensual atmosphere. Here diners are treated to refined Indian cuisine (arguably the best outside of India) where a delicate melody of flavours and textures enliven the palate and showcase chef Harpreet Longani’s culinary excellence.
South African Airways – offers daily non-stop services to Johannesburg from Sydney and Perth.
Aahaah Shuttle & Tours – locally run, this Soweto-based service is friendly and reliable. Visit: www.aahaah.co.za
Wow Cape Town Tours – will ensure incentive travel delegates move around the bustling Mother City with ease and in style. Visit: www.wowcapetowntours.co.za
Southern Sun Hyde Park – a business hotel with all the trimmings and a great base from which to explore Johannesburg and its surrounding suburbs. Visit: www.tsogosunhotels.com
Three Cities Mandela Rhodes Place Hotel, Cape Town – offers contemporary living with 84 self-contained apartments, conference facilities and outdoor swimming pool. Visit: www.threecities.co.za
Taj Cape Town – an oasis in the heart of Cape Town that will ensure incentive travellers feel well and truly rewarded. In March new banqueting and events space will also be available in the adjacent ABC Branch building. Visit: www.tajhotels.com
Jaci’s Tree Lodge – the ultimate in safari luxury at Madikwe Game Reserve. Visit: www.jacislodges.com