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6 February 2024

A Grand Tour of Southern Africa: Soft Adventure

Part One: South Eastern; Soft Adventure
Southern Africa offers so much and we wanted an extended journey of indulgence experiencing the best hotels with fining dining and fine wines, but we also wanted some soft  adventure.   This feature covers the soft adventure aspects but there was no compromise necessary on the comfort aspects.
After arriving in Africa through Johannesburg Airport, we set out in grand style as we stayed in the resplendent Victoria Falls Hotel uniquely located directly by the falls which certainly lived up to its reputation; literally high drama.  The hotel was truly fabulous; it was the epitome of a British colonial outpost, not faded as the Empire has become, everything was original and in its place still being polished every day.  The service was deferential, quietly efficient but charming, politeness and smiles were natural, not part of the corporate ethos. 
The resident warthogs, so ugly but so endearing, were helping keep the lawns trim, whilst in the background we could see the bridge over part of the falls and the rainbow caused by the spray.  We dined al fresco with an ancient floodlit tree as a backdrop whilst a local dance group went through its repertoire – sounds kitsch but so right in the setting.     
The Presidential suite was sublime and obviously very capacious complete with its own loggia with table and chairs.  It was a strange feeling to follow so many globally important guests of royalty, presidents and other heads of state.  However, we are sure it was certainly a special experience for even those illustrious people with whom we will have shared our memories of the magical surroundings.
Probably one of the most leisurely and glamorous ways to travel is on one of the most luxurious classic trains in the world – Rovos Rail.  A short walk through the exuberant tropical gardens of the hotel brought us to a champagne reception where we joined our fellow guests for the next three days.  You travel at a leisurely pace (40mph/60kph) across the amazing African landscape, glimpsing the occasional giraffe or elephant, cocooned in absolute decadent luxury enjoying the most delicious food and drinks.
The whole experience was like being part of a film, the scene was set with period carriages our en suite cabin was romantic and not at all cramped.  The nineteen carriages were beautifully presented inside and out, complemented by an extensive attentive and pleasant train crew.  The dining cars were theatrical whilst the lounge, bar and observation carriages were also focal points for socialising.  Every suite was beautifully appointed with its own bathroom and a lovely girl to provide a ‘butler’ service.
There were about fifty guests ranging from a honeymoon couple to an ancient but jolly Scotsman, everyone mixed well so you would have different dining companions at most meals.  There was at least a dozen nationalities aboard, each couple had travelled extensively and frequently,  with complimentary drinks in hand, our fellow guests had interesting views and tales to tell.     
We disembarked whilst passing through Botswana to visit the Wayside ranch (30,000 acres/12,000 hectares) where we toured this well run cattle station.  Five generations have created a model of a farmstead out of semi-arid land, a massive undertaking which is being extended into a lifestyle experience as they have added so many interests from a golf course to reintroducing the wildlife including giraffes.
Our unforgettable journey ended in South Africa’s Pretoria with fond farewells to both the train and all those travelling with us.  We stayed over at the Intercontinental Hotel at Johannesburg Airport.  To our surprise it was not the standard product as we would have driven out from the centre to eat as the restaurant was excellent with sharp, pleasing decor and service to lift the whole experience.  We picked up our hire car from Port Elizabeth that was eventually to take us across to Cape Town.      
It was quite a transition from the historic surroundings of the train to a beautifully designed modern Safari lodge on the Shamwari Game Reserve which was our next experience.  ‘Eagles Crag’ lodge was very much an African building as it used local traditional materials in a modern context, whilst creating a relaxed and very comfortable atmosphere.  The central building provided our focal point whilst we enjoyed one of only nine satellite lodges (yes, more royal visitors were here) which comprised a vast bed/sitting room complete with bath and separate shower and loo.  Outside we had a large area of decking where we could sit out and relax, or use the private plunge pool.  Being ever curious we explored further when others relaxed so we missed the opportunity to watch the wildlife literally on our doorstep, however, we were rewarded with some real treats.
Each day we rose early and after breakfast we set forth before dawn with our driver/guide Frans together with another couple in the open sided Land Cruiser for over four hours.  There are seven lodges and each lodge has its own guides and vehicles so that there was a frequent radio exchanges as to which animals were around.  There were never more than two vehicles at any sighting which gave the animals and us a more natural meeting and quiet observation.  We were never disappointed on the drives as Frans always produced some extraordinary sightings and all the anticipated species.   We all had our favourite animals and experiences; the ‘oh so aloof’ cheetahs could have been parading Harrods and the biggest of all the elephants un-noticed approached us from behind so that when I turned around, I was literally eyeball to eyeball.  The excitement (to me; shock, horror) came from the lioness showed her extreme displeasure in receiving the advances of her prospective mate.    
A second daily game drive was in the afternoons/evenings which finished with a glass of refreshment in very emotive locations before returning after sundown.  Frans our guide joined us for dinner each day, he was an amazing font of knowledge both of the animal life and the sky at night.  
There really is nothing to match the experience of a Safari at this level, however there is a dark side to this ‘Shangrila’.  Many of the animals have been savagely hunted so assiduously over the years and now with the rate of poaching escalating at an alarming rate, conservationists fear that if this is not halted many endangered species could face extinction in the very near future.
The number of rhinos in the wild has fallen dramatically due to the developing market for powdered rhino horn for a market that mistakenly believes it provides a cure for cancer and maladies such as hangovers, as has the wonderful African elephant.
It was for this reason that the Born Free Animal Rescue and Education Centre at Shamwari was created as an international wildlife charity, working throughout the world to save lives, stop suffering and keep wildlife in the wild albeit  ‘managed’ environments.  They also provide a sanctuary for those animals rescued from appalling conditions, whilst the hospital offers its services to other game reserves.
Promising ourselves a return visit, we reluctantly left and headed west.  Driving on the uncrowded open roads was fine but the speed limits were surely chosen at random as people generally just used them as a guideline.  However, when it came to any town, it was frustrating as a green traffic light was an invitation to wake up, not move so progress was reduced to a crawl.  
From one stunning experience that was just about perfect to possibly the most emotive of all the hotels we have ever visited; the Kurland Hotel.   You could forgive it everything as it had a magic and was simply sublime.  For a start, the mountainous backdrop was dramatic; the buildings were all of a domestic scale, built in ‘Cape Dutch’ style of an indeterminate age but in 17th century character.  They were partly surrounded by formal gardens but also with wooded areas backing on to parkland where some 70 Polo ponies were grazed.  Venture further afield on the estate on quad bikes thoughtfully provided and you will find four Polo pitches, the main pitch has a very regal and extensive Victorian inspired pavilion, nowhere have I seen such a natural film set.     
The estate is a family home with the main house becoming the core of the hotel.  On entering, your welcome is a very generous display of roses in the intimate hall from the gardens, all the furniture really belongs; now that is what I call ‘home from home’ atmosphere.  There is a string of reception rooms, many with fires ablaze.  The stoop/loggia/covered balcony even has an outdoor fire; a great place to enjoy your tea and then cocktails.       
We were accommodated in one of the small cottages/pavilions just by the house; there was a large bed/sitting room, again with a fire and we had our own terraces, front and back.  The bathroom was big enough for a second generous bedroom.  
Our visit coincided with a local Polo tournament; the skill of Polo players is very evidently high which makes the sport very watchable.  The thunder of the hooves, the colours of the riders and most particularly that mountainous backdrop was very spectacular and special.   We were smitten.
Before leaving the area, we stopped by a local market where the emphasis was in selling food and other local needs whilst there were just a few stalls with trinkets for tourists.  The latter were most sold by displaced Zimbabweans; they have very good craft skills.  One stallholder offered cut precious and semi-precious stones some rare such as Tanzanite, the Tourmalines proved irresistible.  On returning home, it was confirmed that they were both real and good quality stones.
 The trip had been taken as a “once in a lifetime” adventure, this part of the trip could fulfil that objective but we were to experience as many great but very different aspects of South Africa in our travels around the Western Cape.