Lion stories

The meals in the hotels, lodges and camps of South Africa generally come as something of a revelation to our American visitors.  They are fresh, healthy, colorful and simply delicious.  What is more surprising to them, and many are world travelers, is that they are delightfully “normal” looking to their western eyes.  Of course this is not always the case and one should always be prepared to be more adventurous in culinary pursuits when visiting new cultures and lands.

Ngomo SL buffet stretchSuch was the case recently when I was leading  a Corporate Group in South Africa.  A carefully selected meal of hot and cold canapés of South African delicacies crafted to appeal to the North American palate had been prepared.  And this had been thoughtfully paired with the appropriate world-class South African wine.  It was a charming evening and perfect introduction to the delights that lay before them as they traveled exotic South Africa.

As hostess I did the rounds talking to the guests and enquired after their comfort and enjoyment.  I was greeted enthusiastically by several of the groups as they raved over their experiences thus far.  One group told me how delicious the food was, however “they didn’t care much for the lion!”  I laughed and replied that they must be mistaken as there was certainly no lion on the menu.  They assured me that was what they had eaten.  Thinking perhaps too much good SA wine had been enjoyed, I smiled and moved on, only to be told at the next table as they too raved about the delicious spread, that they had “loved the lion”!  More than puzzled, I decided I had better find this particular hors d’oeuvre and try it for myself in order to clear up this misunderstanding.  It was clearly small bites of something meaty.  As every delicacy was thoughtfully labeled, I leant over to peer at this label in the somewhat dim cocktail lighting, to see

“SPRINGBOK LION CRUSTED WITH COFFEE AND CUMIN WITH SWEET POTATO FONDANT”

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The next day, I was at pains to point out that my guests were not to go back to America and tell wild stories about their gourmet African experience and eating lion all because of some dyslexic typist!  That Lion they thought they were eating was really Springbok Loin –  and yes, I had to agree it was truly delicious!

A ‘disgusted’ male lion strides into the sunset and away from any mention of Springbok and Lion in the same sentence!

African Sunrise

It happens sometimes when you travel across time zones that you take a while to settle into the time change.  That can mean waking or sleeping at times not usual to you and in turn hearing or seeing things that you would normally not experience.  I woke sometime during the night and lay listening to the African night sounds.  The fiery necked night jar calling his distinctive “Good-Lord-deliver-us!” and an owl with his mournful hoot.  Somewhere a disturbed cockerel begins calling for the sun but it’s still too early for that.  We drift back to sleep only to wake again in the pearly light of dawn and lie quietly talking about the journey we have come.

Granite kopjie Zimbabwe

With a jolt I remember how dramatic the sunrise is in Africa and we jump out of bed to fully open the drapes.  A rosy hue touches the tops of the trees and suddenly the glowing orange orb of the rising sun pushes its way into view over the horizon.  We watch fascinated as pale pastel light rapidly changes to bright colorful vibrancy.  It lights up the room, the garden and beyond in a matter of minutes.  It’s almost as if some giant Hand reaches down and plucks the sun up and then hangs it in the sky.  Time will seem to move slowly for the rest of the day – until the sun once more approaches the horizon when suddenly it will drop and darkness will fall almost instantly.

Low light on eles at waterhole Zim

There is nothing stealthy or subtle about sunrise or sunset here in the African tropics.  The beginning and ending of every day is a dramatic enactment of life – a moment or two to pause and rejoice, a moment or two to pause and consider.  Each takes your breath away and it is a comment I hear often while traveling in this incredible continent “why is it that the sunrise/sunset here is so much more beautiful than anywhere else?”  I don’t know the answer to that – but I have to agree!

Homecoming

After nights of sleepless excitement we have finally arrived!  We are back in Zimbabwe – our home land – as visitors.  How strange it all looks and yet how familiar.

Familiar sights

Our son was there waiting for us at Harare International Airport, the plane was early, all our luggage arrived and accounted for, the immigration and customs officials polite and rather bored, the airport clean if shabby and outside the sun is shining in a blue sky.  The countryside looks lush and green with long grass and flowering trees evidence of the past season’s good rains.  It seems informal markets selling wonderful woven grass and reed goods, wooden furniture and sculptures are back in business along with the tree-cutters who advertise their wares on hand painted metal signs hammered into the trees on many a corner.  A new addition are the sellers of “air time” who rush out into the traffic at each intersection to help you keep your all-important cell phone topped up!  Incredible dodging and weaving in between vehicles who behave as if these intrepid vendors are bionic or at the very least, invisible!

Baskets and benches

Avenues of dappled shadow and hard-edge sunshine bring good memories flooding back.  Riding home from school, heading off to matches, afternoon teas and morning playgroups.  There is a smile growing inside of me.  We drop our bags in the spacious guest suite of our friend’s home and gather outside on the patio to begin the unraveling of time and stories.  We sit under the shade of a large canvas umbrella and look out over the impeccably manicured lawn, luscious tropical plantings, their swimming pool and tennis courts as we chat and exchange news and slowly the last few hectic days fade steadily away.  And then as if to complete our homecoming, at four o’clock Blessing arrives carrying the tea tray.  It’s laden with teapot and mugs for a hot cuppa and freshly baked home-made crunchies, our most favorite of biscuits.  Ahhh!  Such a civilized tradition and one we have missed!

Fall in Franschoek

There were originally two very distinctive European influences on this most southern tip of Africa, the Cape, both brought through the Dutch East India Company.  The sailing ships trading exotic spices and Cape winelands Boschendaalgoods brought from the Far East and India needed a safe harbor and fresh food and water on their long journey to and fro Europe and brought Dutch farmers and settlers to the then uninhabited Cape.  At the same time the persecution of French Huguenots had forced many of these people out of their native France and into Flanders and Holland.  A business deal was struck between these displaced French and The Company (as it became known) bringing many of these Protestant families to settle and farm in the Cape.

“Wheat before wine” was the mantra but it was soon proven while water went stale, wine remained palatable even after many months at sea, and so more and more vineyards were planted.  The French settled predominantly in Franschoek (French Corner).  Long after the French language and accent has disappeared many of the names in that region still give testimony to their heritage today.  As do the restaurants and wines of this region.Avenue to Boschendaal

It is vaguely reminiscent of Sonoma Wine country in California but the mountains are bigger, greyer and somehow more forbidding.  We stopped at Boschendaal along the way – it is a magnificent estate and enormous.  Here it is possible to enjoy wine-tasting, picnics and distinctive gift shopping as well as history.  They have a gorgeous old French Huguenot Manor House preserved and available to self-tour which is easy to do as it is only five rooms!  Fascinating and well worth the $2 fee to get in.

 

Once again the gardens surrounding the manor are beautiful and in this perfect weather an outside amble is just compulsory.  The little gardener responded to my greeting with a toothless grin and some word that sounded like “Oily” and indicated the old oak tree that he was sitting under.  I looked up to see this gorgeous owl just sitting there as calm as can be and patiently observing me as if he was waiting for acknowledgement!  Wonderful!

 

We explored the little town of Franschoek and a special place called the La Quartier Francais which is world renowned for its food and accommodation – and it was impressive – and then I did a side trip to the Huguenot museum.  Most interesting and I just wish I had written down the names of those Huguenot ancestors that we have from the 1700’s.  I learnt a lot in a short time.

At Le Quartier Francais

It was getting late then and we still hadn’t had lunch so we decided to put lunch and dinner together and we drove out of Franschoek up the mountain to a beautiful vineyard with fantastic restaurant called La Petit Ferme.  The view from the restaurant was expansive back over the villages and towards the southwest and watching the light change over the valleys as we lingered over late lunch brought back some long-forgotten memories of our time in the Cape while at university.

 

I enjoyed the most mouth-watering lamb wrapped in aubergine on rosemary potato gratin with yogurt sauce drizzled over all …. it was melt-in the mouth tender and SOOO delicious!  La Petit Ferme grow most of their wines to sell in their restaurant and so it’s almost the only place you can enjoy their wine – had the most refreshing and delicious Sauvignon Blanc Fume full of green grass and melons!  My sommelier daughter would be proud of me!

View from restaurant

Fall in the Wine Lands

From Cape Town city it is a 30 – 40min drive to the little university town of Stellenbosch, nestled at the foot of the Simonsberg.  These harsh grey mountains provided the first barrier to the pioneers trekking inland all those centuries ago.  As they persevered they discovered little protected valleys and slopes perfect for the growing of fruit and vines.  Many settled and today there are still some vineyards and farms that remain in family hands from the late 1600’s.  It is an outstanding wine growing region with some distinctive vintages and flavors completely South African. 
While in the Winelands we chose the River Manor Lodge in the heart of Stellenbosch and stayed in large comfortable bedrooms with gorgeous old claw-tub bathrooms. It is a beautiful old historic house with much care and attention given to both the indoor and outdoor decor.  Of old affluent farmhouse style – inviting and very welcoming! 
But it is the gardens and the trees that I love!  Masses of white iceberg roses under-planted with delicate Santa Barbara daisies, lavender and rosemary, green lawns, old oaks and the heady smell of ripe guavas everywhere from gnarled old guava trees lining the terrace.  Love that smell!  It takes me back to our childhood and the unsprayed guavas that mum insisted on picking and stewing up for dad, complete with all the uninvited organic “guests”! 

Cape Wine and Leisure Tours picked us up the next morning and took us off on a Wine Tour after first discussing our specific taste in wine (our palate!) and what, if anything, we would specifically like to see or taste. 
They operate a highly personalized and outstanding service which I found to be both most informative and informal enough to be loads of fun.   We drove up the magnificent mountain pass high above the little village of Stellenbosch to make a start on our wine journey at a modern tasting room at a company owned vineyard, Tokara.  The wine tasting was complimented by stunning views over the vineyards through the large plate glass window. 
 Through the day we wound our way around the Stellenbosch area through dozens of wines both red and white, table and dessert, through five other vineyards both small and large, family and corporate owned – old to ancient complete with cobwebs – and all the time aware of the breath-taking mountains and the scenic beauty of this region laid out before you like a feast!  We ended up with a light lunch at Delheim, one of a select number of vineyards that have restaurants on their property a long with tasting rooms.   Biltong salad and home-made fresh squeezed lemonade for me!!
That evening, as darkness fell, we walked from River Manor into the main street of Stellenbosch and wandered around looking at several restaurants before settling on a little Bistro which offered what we felt like eating. We had delicious butternut soup with fresh baked bread and skipped the wine!  Over dinner we decided that the next day we would venture over that same fantastic mountain pass to the quaint village of Franschoek. 

Cape Town Fall

Fall in the Cape of South Africa is a spectacular time of the year to visit.
The weather is that jewel clear warm sunny late summer type of weather and its hard not to find yourself unwinding with it.  I am in sandals and sorry I didn’t bring my shorts! After arriving at the clean and modern Cape Town airport, we went straight down to the Waterfront to enjoy fresh fish and chips for lunch.  We sat outdoors, watching the sight-seeing crowds milling around and all the pleasure boats and yachts heading out on an oily calm sea.  Not a breath of wind. It is amazingly clean and neat.  Very Pier 39-ish.

After lunch we headed past the tour boats and shops towards the cruise ship terminal and the lovely Table Bay hotel.  Ever “on the job”, I asked to be shown around the hotel and we had a fantastic tour – very professionally done and I am most inclined toward that beautiful hotel.  It is connected to the big shopping mall via a marble walkway so in bad/windy/rainy weather there is no problem at all in getting out and about and enjoying time at the eclectic shops in the mall. 

The rooms at Table Bay all have gorgeous views, either of the ocean and Robben Island in the middle distance or of the iconic Table Mountain, and are spacious while defined by understated luxury.  We were told while there, that the gleaming white yacht moored outside is owned by the “sixth richest man in the world” – but I have yet to research and see whom it is!  It was about the size of a Seaborne yacht so no small price tag!

Family room at Table Bay
We left there and wandered through the waterfront area enjoying the sights and sounds (plenty of seagulls here!) and visited two other hotels – the Victoria & Albert and the Cape Grace.  The V&A is actually an imaginatively refurbished 2-story warehouse.  It used to store the luggage for the old P&O Liners that called frequently in Cape Town on their World Journeys half a century ago!  It is very elegant and has a unique and comfortable character reflected in the painted brick and steel of its building. 

The Cape Grace is a little walk from there to the other end of the waterfront.  Again views of Table Mountain dominate the rooms that look towards land while other rooms overlook the working harbor and ocean beyond.  A gracious hotel with creative use of décor – look up at the chandeliers to see silverware arranged in a most artistic and comical way!  Both this hotel and the One & Only across the marina have private yachts moored outside which guests can hire (complete with crew) to explore the surrounding shore.

The Radisson Blu deserves mention here too as one of a number of luxury hotels with an enviable position poised at the very edge of the Atlantic Ocean.  The hotel boasts a wide verandah running around 2/3rds of the hotel with comfortable outdoor seating inviting guests to linger.  This is exactly what we chose and over a delicious margarita, we watched the day turn slowly to evening as it does in this most southern African city at this time of the year.  Sophisticated sundowners this time!  With the fresh ocean breeze, crashing waves on the rocks and wharf surrounding us, and catching up with old friends – life doesn’t get much better!   

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Sophisticated sundowners on the Waterfront

 

Midlands Meander II

The Midlands and Underberg also bring those with a taste for more energetic endeavors to this region with a variety of high adventure activities.  One can arrange with a good local tour operator to do any of the following: trekking in the Drakensberg mountains, white water rafting, mountain climb with abseiling (or rappelling), kayaking or drive a 4×4 trail.  The rivers and small lakes here are magnets for fly-fisherman intent on catching trout.  Can anything be more delicious than freshly caught rainbow trout cooked over an open fire in champagne air?
As mentioned in the previous post, the fields and hills of this region saw many historic, dramatic battles taking place and the tours on offer here can be a surprising highlight to many who embark upon them. 
There have been numerous films and passionate documentaries made about these epic battles between rival tribes and ethnic clashes.  A guided tour of the Battlefields of Kwa-Zulu Natal is another highly recommended activity for the visitor as they weave stories, history and fine accommodation together.
It is possible to hire a car from the King Shaka International airport in Durban and to drive the hour and half through to Hilton to stay at one of the B&B’s here or in Howick and onwards to explore the Midlands Meander on your own.  Car rates are very reasonable and there is a variety of car hire companies and cars to choose from including automatic, air conditioned vehicles.  Driving is on the right-hand side of the road and does require a high amount of vigilance in the busier areas and on the freeway where the rules of the road appear sometimes to be suggestions rather than rules.  However, in the quieter hilly areas amongst the farmlands and especially on the Meander, this is not such a problem. 

Alternatively, there are numerous tour operators that can arrange for private tours and transfers and these will include collection from the airport and a drive in these regions catered to your own taste and desire.  One can look at either a full day tour from Durban or else a tour that involves an overnight stay at one of the local lodges or B&B’s and a more relaxed visit to this charming and often overlooked area.

Midlands Meander I

The little village of Hilton and its neighbor Howick a little way down the road are quaint reminders of an English imprint on an essentially African culture.  Both are full of pseudo English homes and references to that land in their use of country lanes, names of streets and many gorgeous cottage gardens but here the similarity abruptly ends.  These little towns are busy, bumbling hives of activity with much coming and going as they stand on the main highway between the port city of Durban and the gold capital of Johannesburg.
Howick’s main shopping streets are especially indicative of a thoroughly mixed populace. There are shops selling tires and motor spares, another with old sewing machines complete with tailor outside the front on his pedal Singer for those immediate-can’t-wait alterations and repairs!  Just opposite on the street is a modern-day bank with high-security entrance and exit, next door is a studio-lit, up-market grocery store selling gleaming tomatoes and breads with fancy names and a little way down the road, a miniature cell-phone store.  Just off this main street towards the town’s claim to natural tourism fame, the Howick Falls, are a multitude of stores selling local hand-made craft or curios which spill from inside to outside, and almost completely eclipse the last remnant of the stone wall built to serve as protection to the then villagers of Howick in 1879 during the Anglo-Zulu wars.  Incongruous is the word that immediately leaps to mind and yet indicative of the pace at which history has moved in this little corner of Kwa-Zulu Natal. 
The Howick Falls themselves are a surprising sight.  This rather sluggish dirty brown river trudges its way through the town only to suddenly fall some 300ft over the edge of a sheer rock face which plunges into a deep chasm which winds its sinister way rather innocently to the south west of the town.  In typical African way there is no barrier or warning to this geographical fault and I can imagine many a tipsy wayward soul has stepped off into this sudden nothingness on his way home after happy hour.  The local hotel is just up the road! 
Hilton, on the other hand, is Howick’s rather more snobbish great aunt and carries herself with more charm and gentility.  Here the village is renowned for prestigious schools, a refined retirement community and now a number of delightful Bed & Breakfast’s catering to the ever-exploring adventurer.  Being placed at the foothills of the unparalleled Drakensberg mountains, it is the perfect beginning point for the Midlands Meander or even an expertly guided tour of the Battlefields of KZN.   
The Midlands Meander is a charming self-drive which winds its way through the lower reaches of these mountains.  Along the way there are numerous stopping points at private home-galleries where you can enjoy art and craft of the local artists of an extremely high standard varying from exceptional leather work, pottery, weaving and unique jewelry to paintings and finely crafted furniture.  All the time one can enjoy magnificent vistas over hidden valleys, rolling hills and the peaks of the ‘berg in the far distance.  Many of the galleries include a tea room or restaurant too and it is a treat to enjoy a fresh cup of tea or delicious milkshake, home baked scones with farm picked preserve or hot morning-made, flaky pastry, chicken pie and sit quietly enjoying the special tranquility and champagne quality of the air of this region.  There is even a Piggly Wiggly much to the delight of us who live in Southern United States and associate this with a kind of ‘mom and pop’ grocery store!  Instead you will find a perfectly refined collection of shops set around a green square of lawn and selling an eclectic mix of fine pottery, hand-made clothing and gifts, unique furnishings, and fresh produce from the local farmers.  This all tied together by a quaint country restaurant offering delicious teas and lunches to hungry meanders!

 

The Road Less Traveled

There are well paved roads and there are beaten paths or as my Scots granny used to tell me “there is a high road and a low road”.  I could never decide which was the better to travel.  The high road might be the one with the most expansive views, the freshest air or bluest sky but then again that view could be hidden by a huge lumbering bus or worse still, a stream of traffic or perhaps it’s so high that it’s hidden in mist.  Perhaps I should travel the low road and discover the nooks and crannies, streams and grottos, wild flowers and grasses along that way.  On the other hand, that road could be full of potholes and muddy patches or could actually be the fastest route between places ensuring a veritable river of roaring traffic which would never allow for meandering and discovery!
Instead I’ve decided which ever road you pick should be the one less traveled and that is definitely one of the delights of foreign travel.  It’s finding the route that is off the well-beaten tourist pathway.  The one that may instead be a favorite of the locals.  The one they would almost like to keep a secret excepting they know it is too good to withhold and so they share it with a kind of sly pride as if admitting you to an exclusive club.
That is exactly what I found in the KwaZulu Natal Midlands when I visited South Africa recently.  An area not quite in the majestic Drakensberg mountains and yet not down on the golden and green coastal plain.  Midway – the middle lands between these regions.  An area of lush and fertile farmlands, national parks, of history and creativity.  Many a bloody battle was fought on and over these lands.  Battles between English and Boer, between Zulu and English and Boer and Zulu.  There are riveting Battlefield Tours fully narrated and led by knowledgeable guides who are passionate about their subject.  There are cottage industries, artists and craftsman scattered all over this area and all tied together by a unique and fascinating concept called the Midlands Meander.  The little villages of Howick and Hilton stand at the gateway and it is from here that this venture down the road less traveled begins.

Dining Out – On Safari III

Back at Ivory Lodge, we are greeted with the news that dinner will be served tonight on the open deck underneath the old spreading Mahogany Tree.  We have just enough time to enjoy a large bubble bath overlooking the night river or an open-air shower under the stars.  Oh, difficult decisions! 

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Outdoor dining

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Tables are set a-deux with white linen and silver and glassware that sparkles in flickering candlelight.  Our butler takes us through the delectable menu and makes sure our glasses are kept filled with our beverage of choice, an excellent South African wine.  Courses arrive promptly and both eyes and tummies are soon well satisfied!  While we enjoy quiet conversation over the delicious meal in this supremely civilized manner, we are reminded rather suddenly how very deep in the African bush we are.  A hyena takes a chance and slinks from the dark around us into the edge of the light.  He is drawn by the smells of dinner.  Although branded as a cowardly beast and looks pitiful with his ungainly gait, they are opportunistic and immensely strong.  Fortunately the staff, too, has spotted him and he is quickly chased off leaving only his eerie cackle-like laugh behind.   As coffee and dessert arrives, we are serenaded by a group of local women; many of them part of the housekeeping staff.  They sing melodic happy songs and long involved story songs in delightful a’capella and provide a sweet and gentle finish to our safari dinner.   
It is our wedding anniversary and we are escorted back to our private suite to be greeted by dozens of tiny candles flickering in the soft night breeze all over our bedroom.  The white bed cover is sprinkled with bright bougainvillea and creamy fragrant frangipani petals and a personalized “HAPPY ANNIVERSARY” message is spelled out in little green twigs.  In the corner a small table and chairs is set up with a bottle of chilled champagne sitting in the ice-bucket alongside elegant flutes and yet more candles. 
Outside the sky is black dark and scattered with a million diamonds – so close it feels as if you can reach up and gather them.  The night sounds are loud and exotic and memories of the sly hyena and implacable topaz stare of the lion, add just a taste of thrill as we toast each other in this champagne gift.  The day is done and overflows with a myriad experiences that have filled our every sense – but another day in the wild, beckons to us, tomorrow, just beyond the sunrise.
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