South Africa Blog - by Taylor - September 2015
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23 September 2015
Trip off to a smooth start...
Heading down to Heathrow went surprisingly well. The M1 proved all of us skeptics wrong!! There was no congestion in sight (luckily), took me a little under 2 HRS from my front door to Terminal 2.
Upon arrival, it was clear we were all eager to get going on our Saturday Kitchen FAM trip as we had all arrived before our 16:00 meeting time. I must admit that I hadn't a clue as to how to go about finding "the group." But...With my beady eyes, I noticed a circle of people shaking hands and exchanging pleasantries. With my nice detective work I (easily) found them and we all continued introducing ourselves.
Checking in was pretty straight forward. However, you have to check yourself in by either scanning or typing in your Booking Reference number, scan or type in your E-ticket number OR scan your passport. Frenetically, I swiped and scanned all documents with very little luck. It was the passport that appeared to do the trick. Once you've selected your name and continued with the check in process, it then asks you if you have any luggage. I of course did, therefore, I selected that I had one piece of hold luggage. The machine then spat out my ticket/tag for my suitcase. I placed it on the side handle and I was off to the counter to drop-off my case.
Once we all dropped off our bags and cleared security, we were fortunate enough to have access to Air Canada's Maple Leaf Lounge. This is a great business lounge tucked away in the terminal and near our departure gate! However, you must do your shopping and things of that nature before heading to the lounge because whilst it is in close proximity to the gate, it is quite a ways from shops and restaurants, etc. The Maple Leaf Lounge was very welcoming and hospitable and saw to it that we had everything we wanted and were very attentive. The lounge has a lovely cocktail bar, an array of newspapers and magazines for its guests, and you could also get yourself any number of soft drinks, coffee and tea, as well as flavoured/infused waters. I treated myself to the cucumber flavoured water and it was quite refreshing. There is a help yourself buffet which has several hot dishes like pasta and rice dishes, but I opted for a few nibbles from the chilled selection. They had any number of options to choose from. Everything from toasted tea sandwiches, couscous salad, various cheeses, hummus, potato salad, crisps, and for those with a sweet tooth...cakes, cookies and various confectionery sweets.
Boarding was seamless and take off was a breeze. We took off on time and were wheels up in no time!!
Seeing as I have never been to South Africa before,I have never flown South African Airways. I must admit I am already pleasantly surprised. Everything from the disposition of the flight attendants to the "welcome pack" consisting of an eye mask, toothbrush and toothpaste, including socks was all very much appreciated.
Our dinner was also something that I noticed. Not only on an aeroplane but in Economy Class nonetheless, we were given proper cutlery! Not only that, but the meal was actually decent. I had the chicken which came in a nice masala sauce accompanied by a lemon orzo salad, it was quite tasty. I have flown many long haul (Economy) flights over the years, and so far... I am thinking if you had the option, South African would be an easy choice!
24 September 2015
Landed in Johannesburg. A little blurry eyed, but everyone was in good spirits. We cleared immigration quite easily. In fact, no questions asked and we were through. After collecting our luggage, we made our way through security and waited for our connecting flight to Durban.
Once we arrived, we were greeted by our lovely tour guide whose name I (actually the entire group) cannot pronounce. He introduced himself by his formal Zulu name which included a 'click ' somewhere in the middle. For short, we call him Tammi.
He is full of knowledge and very passionate about what he does. En route to our fist stop he shared a ton of information about Zulu culture. As were were driving along he pointed out reeds growing along the side of the road. Tammi shared with us about The Reed Dance ceremony. This is where the king chooses a bride. Only after her virginity can be confirmed. The king will have 5 and a half wives. What is the half you ask? That is a girlfriend. This is because it is very expensive to have a wife due to the fact that when you want to get married in a Zulu tribe, one must pay a dowry to the bride's family. One wife is the equivalent of 11 cows. Our guide shared with us that the average Zulu man has 3 wives. In rural areas to help maintain farms and plantations it is around 7, but in urban areas, the average is one.
Our first stop was Moses Mabhida Stadium for a ride up the SkyCar. The stadium was built for the 2010 FIFA World Cup. It was an amazing ride up and allowed you see beautiful areal views of the city. Although we did not have the opportunity, you can also take advantage of a zip line swing adventure over the stadium. Tammi pointed out various buildings and other sites while we're on top of the viewing platform. One of which really stuck out with me. He pointed at the beach told us which parts were black, which section was for Indians and the other part for coloureds. Even though that isn't the law anymore, the "rule" is generally still followed. Another surprising fact was that this is where the most Indians live outside of India and it shows in their culture as well as the influence it has had on their cuisine.
From there, we headed to uShaka Marine World. Located right on the sands of the Golden Mile. We were treated to a guided tour of the aquarium and had an amazing time admiring all of the aquatic animals. Whilst at UShaka, we had a three course lunch with an aquarium tank in the background. This trip is being used by South African Tourism as a way to sell Durban and the budget Dubai, and I do feel that with the adventure and wildlife, shopping, idyllic weather and budget friendly food and activities... It is (or could be) just that!! Next we were off to Victoria Markets where we saw rows and rows of stall consisting of an array of local spices, beautiful handmade baskets, jewellery, wood carvings, and needless today... It was a bit of sensory overload.
It was finally time to head to our hotel. The AMAZING Oyster Box Hotel. Upon arrival, we were greeted with a choice of champagne or specialty infused waters as we were checking in. We all really lucked out and were each given our own rooms. But with little over an hour to freshen up there wasn't as much time as I would have liked to really take in the splendour of this hotel.
Once we had changed we met Sally Grey, General Manager of Sales. She escorted us to the kitchen where head chef Luke prepared three different types of gourmet curries that he is famous for. Every evening the restaurant serves an elaborate buffet of 9 different curries. From there, we had dinner with Sally and Wayne Coetzer, Oyster Box's General Manager. Dinner was yet another incredible meal and was ANOTHER 3 courses. It is fair to say we were all ready to burst at this point!!! A prawn starter, 3 different types of meat in different curry sauces and a traditional South African rice pudding topped with crumbled pistachios. Our dinner was served/lead by the hotel's Maitre'd, Hendry Pakiri whose been a member of staff for 52 years!!!
It is clear this hotel treats not only their guests but their staff very well and you can see that with their interactions. Whilst this is luxury 5-star accommodation, The Oyster Box makes certain to cater to children as well. When families check-in, children are given nets and a bucket. This allows kids to play in the sand and collect shells and oysters. The hotel also gives children little glass bottles with paper, so they can send a message in a bottle and about 3 weeks they receive a response. Obviously from the staff but to me, it is little touches like that which makes this accommodation above and beyond.
After dinner it was off to bed. We all were very much looking forward to a goodnight of rest. From travelling to an entire day of sightseeing and practically eating our way through Durban, sleep was very much anticipated!!
25 September 2015
This morning when I woke up, I quickly opened my venetian blinds and slid the glass doors opened to hear the crashing waves of the Indian Ocean. We had breakfast at our leisure today. The Oyster Box provides a lovely assortment of food, everything from a hot breakfast, fresh fruit and yogurt and even oysters!!
After breakfast we met in the lobby and set off for a 2 and a half hour guided open top bus tour that took us around Durban. We had a couple stops along the way one of which was a local spice shop. Many of us used this as an opportunity to purchase different spices and rubs to take back to the UK. You wouldn't believe the amount you could buy and for very little. A packet of saffron was a steal at 50p!!! Absolutely incredible!
For lunch we went to the Freedom Cafe. Our guide pointed out the importance of the word 'freedom ' in South Africa and that it is used a lot. This of course is because of the apartheid. The restaurant served us their traditional Durban delight, Bunny Chow. I must say...it was delicious. Bunny Chow is simply a curry that is placed in a hollowed out loaf of bread. It is a traditional dish that farmers would take out into the fields and was easily eaten (and transported) since it is contained in the bread. I honestly didn't know how to best eat it without making a mess and pretty much ate it like a sandwich.
Thanks to the Durban Tourism Board we were fortunate enough to be given tickets to the Sharks vs. Bulls rugby game. They were also kind enough to get us our own private suite. It was certainly an experience! Unfortunately, the Sharks lost but that didn't stop the locals from having a braai (bbq)in the car park after the game.
26 September 2015
Today was a rather early start. The three groups went their separate ways and went to their individual hotels where we will spend the next three days. Our team set off the earliest (of course) and made our way to Ghost Mountain.
Fortunately our three hour journey was broken up into two parts with a stop in St. Lucia. I was very much looking forward to today because we went on an all day safari and I was the only one in our group who had not been on a game drive before.
Our guide on safari was Bryan. He was incredible. You could tell he was not only knowledgeable but loved what he was doing. He took time (and would turn off the engine) to stop and explain what we were looking at and boy, did he have a good eye at spotting animals in the bush. We were lucky enough to see two of the Big 5 (white rhino, and buffalo). We saw a group of zebras before we were in the fenced-in part of the park and Bryan let us get out of the truck and walk down towards them!! They of course got a bit skittish as we got closer but it certainly was a tick on the bucket list.
Bryan made a point to stop and let us get out to look at several viewing platforms. They were out of this world. We all were quite surprised as to how green everything was. Half way through our drive, which was five hours, we were presented with a picnic lunch. It really was above and beyond with an assortment of meats and cheese, a couple different salads and bottle of wine. We could not have asked for a better afternoon! Another memorable moment on our game drive was the lovely walk down to the shores of the Indian Ocean. I must admit, I do not necessarily think of walking down to the beach whilst on a game drive but I most certainly wasn't complaining!
After our game drive we went for a sundowner cruise in the iSimangaliso Wetlands. I was very much looking forward to this excursion because we were going to see hippos; which are my favourite animal.
Whilst on the estuary, we were able to get up close to the wildlife which was absolutely remarkable. We were able to hear the territorial calls and saw territory disputes amongst the hippos. We were also able to see crocodiles and birds. In the town of St. Lucia, there are ‘Beware of hippo crossing at night’ signs; which I found very entertaining... until our guide shared with us how serious it was. This is because hippos can run up to 30km an hour and have very poor eyesight which causes them to easily feel threatened and will in return... CHARGE!! Our guide Bryan shared with us that there have been a few instances where he has left a bar or restaurant and had to jump over a wall into someone’s back garden, to make sure he was not in the hippos way.
Once our cruise was over it was time we made our way to Ghost Mountain in Mkuze. We arrived rather late but we still were treated to a very welcoming greeting from Rath the General Manager and Jean the hotel's Safari Manager. It was a quick freshen up, and then we reconvened for a quick bite to eat. We wanted to make certain that we finished up in time so we could have the opportunity to watch the Zulu dance performance that was taking place in the gardens of the hotel.
27 September 2015
This morning, we had a nice buffet breakfast with our guide in the hotel before we set off with Jean on a morning cruise on the dam.
All of us ladies on Team Ghost Mountain felt a bit spoilt with all of our boat and wildlife viewing from the day before,but we willingly obliged. Whilst on the boat, we were able to see large herds of Buffalo and we even stumbled upon....hippos!!!!! I was over the moon! Wildebeest were also on the shores of the dam taking in a morning drink. There is plenty of bird life to be seen as on dam and apparently if you are lucky enough, you may have the opportunity to see elephants.
After our morning cruise we had lovely picnic lunch back at Ghost Mountain. They had set up an amazing spread under a large shady tree, with lovely cushions, blankets, complete with a wicker basket and enough food to feed an army! The hotel provides this service option not only for travel agents who are checking out their accommodation but for other guests as well (upon request).As a matter of fact, there was a young couple on their honeymoon who were enjoying a picnic of their own that wasn't too dissimilar to ours. After lunch we had a couple hours to unwind before setting off on our next adventure. This time was greatly appreciated and much needed because all of this fun...is hard work!
Later that afternoon, us four ladies, our guide, Themba, and Jean set off and headed up Ghost Mountain. It was not long into our journey that us ladies realised that Jean is not only an excellent tour guide, and full of character but she truly makes the experience at Ghost Mountain. She stopped our Land Cruiser at the side of the road and had us gaze at the mountain and asked what we saw, and wondered if we spotted what the locals see in "her." She was referring to the fact that if you are looking directly at the mountain, it appears to have the resemblance of a lady lying on her back with he feet planted on the floor. You can see the facial features of a head, her chest,her knees jutting upward and that "her legs" go all the way to the ground. It may sound silly, but I didn't even have to pretend to see what she was talking about. It did in fact give an illusion of a woman. That being said, I doubt I would have come to that conclusion on my own! While we were stopped and had her attention, we did ask about Ghost Mountain and where the name is derived from. Naturally our imaginations had ran wild BUT we had also heard stories of deaths that had taken place on the mountain. We had heard through the grapevine that Ghost Mountain's name comes from the fact that a Zulu king had thrown his enemies off the side of the mountain and inevitably ...were killed. Needless to say, Jean put that tall tale to rest.
As we trekked higher up the mountain on the main road, it suddenly veered left (or you could continue onwards). At the fork, Jean stopped and shut off her engine and turned around to explain to us about Zulus and their culture. She informed us that owning land is not a part of Zulu custom. Where we were about to enter, nobody owns the land. It is an understanding that this is in fact Zulu land and has been. In today's society yes, people will leave their homestead for work but it isn't THEIR money. It is everybody's in the homestead. No single person is entitled to such things. You are to provide and look after one another. Family both alive and dead, are valued very highly amongst this culture as well as tradition. Jean continued to explain that not everyone is allowed (or is not welcome) to enter this homestead/s. About ten years ago she set up a meeting with the Chief and several of the elders and was given permission to 1) drive up this particular stretch of road and 2) to bring guests from the hotel. She was only able to obtain this "meeting" due to the fact that a former breakfast chef at Ghost Mountain, Justice, was a member of this Zulu community. Whilst she has brought guests previously up to the homesteads and their school, NO ONE had ever done, experienced or tried what we were about to partake in. Everyone was interested to see how it would all pan out.
Once we pulled up to the perimeter of the homestead we had to stop our vehicle and Jean began to shout at the top of her lungs Justice's name. We were informed that the fence surrounding their home shouldn't be crossed without being formerly welcomed in. It is their equivalent of knocking on their door (which you should never do), you must call and address the person with whom you are there to see. If they do not come out out and let you in, you are not welcome. That being said, in this day and age if they do not answer your cry you can pick up a mobile and see if they will respond to a call.
Luckily, we were greeted and met by Justice who was eager to show us around. Not only was he there to meet us but about 11 children were there beaming with smiles and excitement. We were quickly escorted to the ancestral room. This building is valued as the most important of the entire Zulu homestead. This is because in Zulu culture, ancestors are still present, even if they have been long passed. Nor do they leave this earth until they are forgotten. We were all quite surprised that we had the opportunity to step into the room itself. We all figured it would be too spiritual and sacred for us to step foot in. Whilst in the room Justice explained that any family matter, issue or dispute is always sorted out in this room. The man of the house solves arguments in this room and after a decision by the man has been made...that is that. If a Zulu is leaving to go work in a town nearby or leaving for university for example, they will at first consult the family but they are to share that news with the ancestors as well. They do so by taking and engaging with them in this room. It became quite apparent the deceased members of their families were honoured and always remembered once we were shown the graves that are placed on their land. When a member of a family dies, all of the men in the community come together to honour and bury the family member. Justice showed us the grave of one of his sisters who died at the age of one and a half. I have to say the entire experience was quite moving.
Tour over, time to start our cooking preparations. Since this trip was a culinary trip sponsored by South African Tourism, we had to practice our poitjie which we later prepare in a cooking challenge with the other two groups. Jean gave us her perfect go-to poitjie recipe which consisted of: chicken thighs, white wine, carrots,potatoes, sweet potatoes, garlic, onion, and dried peaches,etc. Meanwhile, Justice started his own poitjie on the other side of the homestead. We were already in a cooking competition before we knew it!!
I must admit, I have never chopped vegetables with a glass of wine, on the back of a truck surrounded by chickens, goats, dogs, Zulus and cows before. It was all quite surreal. While our food bubbled away in our pots, we had the chance to sing songs with the children and make tons of balloon animals. Everyone was having a great time. Once our dinner was ready, it was time to see whose turned out the best. Quite frankly, I couldn't tell much difference but do know that they were both delicious!! ...and Justice's sisters mentioned that our was their favourite. I am really hoping that was true because we have a cooking competition later on!!
28 September 2015
After our (buffet) breakfast, we were off for another game drive! I must admit that today's itinerary was drastically altered, but it was our guide's (and the crew at Ghost Mountain) intention to make sure we had our ideal schedule. We were supposed to go to Jozini to purchase spices and produce to cook with in the evening and go bass fishing at the dam; followed by cleaning and cooking our catch for that evening. Although Jean was all for us catching and cooking our dinner, Rath quickly put an end to that idea. As a result, they had already caught and cleaned the fish that would be served in the evening... AND they informed us that their chef was going to prepare it as well. Now you understand why amendments had to be made to our itinerary. However, who would ever be opposed to more game drives?!?!
We set off with our game driver Richard to Mkhuze Game reserve, ranging from the eastern slopes of the Lebombo Mountains to stretches of rolling acacia savannah, swamps, woodlands and riverine forest. Unfortunately we could not be accompanied by Jean herself because she had a group of 30+ she needed to take round.
As we headed towards Mkhuze Game Reserve it was easily noticed how dried up the land was. I recall hearing that they were experiencing the worst drought in thirty-two years but as many times as I heard that they needed rain I did not truly see why until today. I had never seen so many dried up streams, everything was red dust. The day before, they had told us about the significant drop in the water levels of the dam, but having never seen that body of water and it being so big, you could not really imagine to what extent. The amount of water that was lacking from this area was evident all alongside us as we looked down from the truck.
We were lucky enough to not only have our game driver, Richard but our guide Themba, who previously worked as a ranger and has known Richard for years. With everyone's eyes peeled ...we were off!! Right from the start we easily spotted wildlife. There was a white rhino, vervet monkeys, impala and a multitude of plains game. Off in the distance on an ant hill, Themba, spotted a leopard-spotted tortoise. How he managed to spot the tortoise and from so far away whilst zipping by is beyond me. As they day went on, it was quite clear that Themba had sharp eyes and knew his way around the park and could easily navigate the best viewing of the various animals.
As we saw other guides driving past we stopped to ask locations of various game. One group had spotted a cheetah with two cubs, but our guide Richard had not adequately heard as to where we could find them nor did he ask so we weren't so lucky on that front. However, immediately after, we stumbled upon a journey of giraffe. I could not believe how close we were to them. Without even having to "zoom in" you could easily spot their long eyelashes. The way they move is truly outstanding. They are so gracious and poised.
We then made our way to a hide. We were instructed before entering that were to not speak and to be as quiet as possible. We proceeded to walk through a set of what appeared to be bamboo doors which lead us down a path lined with bamboo-type walls. I had tried my best to see through any slits of these "walls" and did discover there was additional industrial fencing placed there. Once you reached the end of this man-made corridor, you ended at this beautiful hide. The hide was overlooking the watering hole. It was such an amazing sight. There were baboons, wildebeests, impala and a large group of zebra. By the time we had arrived, it was a little after eleven in the morning. We had (quietly) spoken to a couple who had been there since 6:30 and had seen both male and female lions having their morning drink. Clearly, we should have left before half seven if we wanted optimal game viewing.
Whilst we studied and gazed at all the wildlife, a water tank trunk came roaring through the bushes which caused all of the animals to scamper off. The truck was there to replenish the water supply (due to the severe drought). We thought that would be the end of our wildlife viewing due to the fact that they were all scared away.
Once the truck had left, the animals slowly came out of the woodwork and made their way back to the watering hole. Apparently, they have become quite used to this occurrence and knew that there would be more water. As we sat there watching and taking photos we all became overwhelmed with excitement as a white rhino and her young came out from behind the trees. They too were in need of a drink! Still in awe, sitting there, we saw yet another rhino makes his way down. It was truly remarkable. Mkhuze is home to the Big 5, and over 420 species of birds making it truly remarkable and all around spectacular!
After our game drive, it was back to Ghost Mountain for lunch on the terrace overlooking the pool and grounds. After we finished, another game drive was in the works. You see, it was Themba's mission to have us see all of the Big 5. He took us to Hluhluwe Game Reserve. He told us that years before he was a guide in this reserve and knew it like the back of his hand. He then vowed to find me an elephant, and I held him to that!
As we drove up and down the reserve, Themba ran into several people who he knew and had worked with in years past. We would ask for different locations of sightings and race over to try and see the game. As we road along, we noticed that some routes were roped off and were not allowed access down the paths. We wondered why that was and Themba was unsure either. As we ran into yet another guide he knew, he asked why there were road blocks. We came to find out that sadly the night before, five rhinos were poached for their horns. Making a total of nine rhinos killed that month. After hearing this news we looked off in the distance and we saw park officials and medics surrounding one of the dead rhinos. We were all horrified and disgusted. We were told that there are only 1,800 rhino left, and at this rate, they will be extinct within a decade.
As it neared 6 o'clock, when the park closes, we still hadn't seen any elephants. We'd seen numerous rhino, monkeys, zebra, hundreds of buffalo and an array of birds. Then as if by making, through a row of trees, elephants slowly made their way over and they were heading towards us. Themba had to reposition our van because apparently elephants will continue walking a straight path and it doesn't matter who or what is in their way.
Unfortunately, we did not have the longest time to stop and admire the elephants as 6 o'clock neared we had to high-tale it of there, or it was us with a fine AND trapped in a game reserve.
29 September 2015
Today we left Ghost Mountain and had to make the three and a half hour journey back to Durban for our flight back to Johannesburg. We were the only group that flew back to Johannesburg because of where our accommodation was, the other two had a rather long car journey before they met up with us four ladies at our hotel.
Once we landed, and collected our luggage, we were met by our driver who took us to the Four Seasons Hotel the Westcliff. Upon arrival, our jaws dropped. It was absolutely stunning. It sits elevated up on a hillside giving you unbeatable panoramic views of the Johannesburg Zoo and the city itself. Once we were checked in, we were driven by golf buggies up to our individual rooms. It is quite steep and hilly so the buggies were excellent option. Once I was in my room, I was instantly floored. Firstly, it was impeccable pure luxury with tremendous attention to detail. I not only had his and hers sinks but his and hers wardrobes as well; which were decked out it marble and mahogany. I had two French doors that opened up to my own personal walled garden complete with a fountain. I must admit that I was spoilt but was most certainly not complaining.
As I had time to kill before meeting up with The Independent Traveller's ground agent, Anna, I decided to meet the others for a quick dip in the pool. I had been very much looking forward to meeting Anna. I was curious as to who was the lady/face behind the voice on the other end of the call. Admittedly, there was some confusion with our meeting. So much so that she had been talking to all four us for about 5 or 10 minutes before we each realised who we were!! We did have a good laugh about it all. I was over the moon to have had an opportunity to chat with Anna. If I am being honest, I could have done so all day. Her passion for what she does and the love of her country really shines through when she speaks. Every story she shares, you want to hang on every word because they way it is being told is with such zest. If you haven't already gathered... I thoroughly enjoyed meeting Anna and hope to see her in the near future because one hour was not long enough.
After the meeting with Anna, it was a quick freshen up and dinner with the other two groups where we heard all of their stories and experiences over the last three days. Dinner at Flames restaurant was lovely. Half opened to the elements, overlooking the city, with good food and good company, it could not have been any better.
30 September 2015
This morning we had breakfast at our leisure before our arranged site visit around The Four Seasons. We had the opportunity to once again be chauffeured around the grounds as we ventured up the hillside to the top of the complex. It was at the top where we saw a helicopter pad, and apparently it is used at least five times a week. As we got off our golf buggies, we were escorted to a courtyard where we had the opportunity to walk through two of their deluxe suites. Let me say, if I thought my room with a private walled garden was nice...these were phenomenal. HUGE terraces drenched in bougainvillea, plush lounge seating and the biggest bathrooms you have ever seen! Obviously this is a high-end 5-star accommodation and it showed. It was tastefully done and each design/layout scheme of the rooms was beautifully executed. The hotel had recently gone through refurbishment and had only reopened in November 2014. Perhaps that is why everything from the rooms, to the paint and the grounds themselves look immaculate and pristine.
After our tour of the hotel, we were off with our luggage in tow. From Johannesburg, we headed to Pretoria. More specifically, Rovos Rail. When you arrive at Rovos there is a certain air about the entire set up. You immediately feel how special it is and this place is an experience all in itself. Tucked away off the beaten path you arrive at Rovos station. Immediately you are greeted and it is if they are eagerly anticipating your arrival. We were met by Estee Badenhorst and Ian Morrison; both of whom are part of Rovos Rail's Marketing Department. They escorted us to the upstairs lounge where they had a lovely spread of finger sandwiches, nuts, confectionery treats and other nibbles. All of which were fantastic! Of course, before we began our tour a champagne toast was in order.
As we sat there, chit chatting , it was quite a sight. Not only Rovos station itself but also looking out and seeing peacocks and ostrich walking around the tracks. We all just hoped that they would move before the train rolled in! We were given a brief introduction as to how Rovos Rail came to fruition. It was the dream of owner, Rowan Vos (Ro-Vos), and it was his "fantasy obsession" in which he wanted to create a holiday for him and his family. Rowan, a successful businessman and entrepreneur began executing the plans for his train journey in the 1980's. He did so by purchasing retired train carriages which he renovated and re-furbished. This was certainly a labour of love. We were fortunate enough to have Rowan drop in on us and say, "hello." we even had a few photos taken with Mr. Vos himself!
We then were then able to go on board. It was a bit hectic since passengers had just gotten off from a journey and the crew were starting to clean the carriages, but we greatly appreciated that they let us climb aboard. When you are on the train, you do get the feeling of a bygone era. All the attention to detail, the décor and the personal care and attention guests receive whilst on Rovos, is truly 5-star. On our tour we saw two of the dining cars, their three sleeper option, the Pullman Suite, The Deluxe Suite and the Royal Suite. All three options are lovely and continue the rich style and furnishings that are throughout all of the carriages. All room options are quite spacious and there is no weight limit in regards to luggage allowance whilst on board. I will say, that the Royal Suite is something to be admired. It comes complete with a claw-foot bathtub! The tour continued with each of us (individually) climbing aboard the engine. We each had a go at pulling the chord and sounding the train's whistle. How could we resist?
We sadly had to depart Rovos and their lovely staff, but we were on to our next adventure...
We began our journey to legends Golf Resort and Safari. While this is over a two hour journey, I will say that I have found all of the main roads in South Africa to be quite smooth and well kept. I was pleasantly surprised.
Once we arrived at Legends we literally hit the ground running... As soon as we stepped foot out of the van we tagged our luggage, we each jumped into one of the two trucks and were whisked away to a game drive. I (purposefully) got into Kristy's vehicle. This is because even before we set-off it was apparent that she had a boisterous personality and I knew she would be a ball of laughs. (and it turned out... I was correct in my assumptions)
We went through the hotel's private game reserve, the Entabeni Safari Conservancy which is situated in the World Heritage Waterberg Biosphere. An impressive 22,000 hectares, and home to the Big 5, this was sure to be a site worth seeing.
We had not even been through the entrance for 10 minutes and there he was... Mr. Lion. He is the only (male) lion in the park, and at six years old he was a mighty looking lion. He appeared to be posing for our vehicles. As luck would have it, he lay down between our trucks...For a photo opportunity no doubt! We sat and watched Mr. Lion until he got bored and strolled off further into the bush. We then drove through the trails of the conservancy, where our guide, Kristy pointed out birds, aardvark holes and spotted a giraffe for us that was off in the distance. There were hippos standing in the water and as we turned the corner, through the trees, we stumbled upon elephants. It was clearly the elephant's dinner time and were quite hungry. That was clear by the fact that they (literally) were pulling limbs off the trees. We sat and watched them munch and what appeared to be cracking the tree into bits.
Reluctantly we headed back to reception. It was not a sad farewell, knowing we would have another game drive in two days time. If you are keeping track, our Ghost Mountain group has been fortunate enough to have now seen four of the Big 5. Now, if we can only see a leopard...
After we collected our lodge keys, we were driven to our accommodation. So far we had lucked out and hadn't had to share rooms but this was a twin-share basis. However, there is something about being in the dark in the middle of nowhere, hearing wild dogs howling and having animals walk past your window that make you feel less than at ease. I must admit, a roommate was gladly excepted with open arms in this instance!
01 October 2015
Today was the day we had all been anticipating. This is what the SATKitchen trip was all about. It was the traditional potjiekos cooking challenge. Since we had all gone our separate ways half way through our trip no one knew what the other groups were going to prepare. I must admit, it was all very hush hush. I could not believe how competitive it all became. The fact that we were told there was a 'mystery' prize for the winning team help to boost people's interest. I'll admit, I too fell subject to the hype of it all... adorned with "our team" aprons..the challenge was on!
Our group, Team Ghost Mountain, if you recall had prepared ours already at the Zulu homestead. Team Isandlwana Lodge had not prepared any dish, nor had they seen a step-by-step process of how to do so. They simply had to go off their recipe they were given and on top of all that, they were preparing kudu, whilst we all cooked chicken thighs. Lastly, there was Team Fordoun, who had a trained chef not only cook their dish for them but who had also given them a print- out of exact times of when to put their ingredients into their pots as well as precise measurements. Fordoun's chef had also sent produce and other accoutrements with them for "the challenge". Needless to say, teams Ghost Mountain and Isandlwana felt a bit under prepared...
We had two hours to prepare and cook our dishes. They would then be judged by Legend's head chef. Our challenge took place in the hotel's BOMA, which I learnt is an acronym for a British Officers Meeting Area. With our food cooking, we set off and were on a hunt and scavenged the hotel's grounds to find the perfect items for our centre pieces. Again, teams Ghost Mountain and Isandlwana were oblivious that we have to set our tables as part of the challenge. Team Fordoun on the other hand, were able to use the goodies their go-to chef had sent with them.
As it came time to judge each team we were all sitting on pins and needles and waiting to hear who had won, but we would have to wait to dinner. By now it was lunch time. It was a spectacular lunch because we ate what each of the three groups had prepared. The hotel kindly provided some bread, salads, maze, rice and other side items to accompany our dishes. To all of our surprise, all three of the team's dishes tasted excellent. How they came up with a winner is beyond me. Honestly. They were all quite tasty!
After our potjiekos lunch, it was time for a round of golf. We paired up in groups of two and were given a tour around the gold course. This unlike any golf course I had ever seen. Not only are each of the 18 holes are all designed by a 'Legend' golfer, but there is an Extreme 19th hole atop of the mountain. In order to partake in the 19th hole, a helicopter must take you up and you have one shot to get a hole-in-one. The prize? One million dollars!!
Whilst the landscape and the uniqueness of the resort is something in itself, the fact that as you go across the green and find zebra, impala and sable grazing helps to make for a truly magical experience. Half way through our golf buggy excursion, we had a go at six holes of golf. Having never played anything more than crazy golf before I had not idea what to expect. Needless to say, I won't be quitting my day job. I was not quite up to par.
After an entire day in the sun, cooking over an open fire and a round of golf , our two hours of down time was greatly appreciated. After we freshened up, we were picked up by our trusty hotel van and were taken to dinner. We had no idea as to where we would be having our dinner, we knew it was somewhere on the hotel's grounds and not in the main restaurant but no clue as to where. When we arrived, we all were floored. The gasps and awes ensued. The hotel set up what I can only describe as a candlelit tree house dinner. Luminaries lined the stairs and tiki torches were strategically placed around the decking and fairy lights twinkled all around. I have to say that the ambiance has been my favourite thus far. Not only because of how enchanting the atmosphere but the realisation of this being our last night together. The meal was lovely. They provided us with a traditional South African braai (or "grilled meat") with all the salads, sides and pudding you could every want. It was a perfect evening to end a perfect trip!
02 October 2015
This was our final day in South Africa before heading back home to the UK. We began our day at 5:30 in the morning for our morning game drive. There was no need for us to set an alarm because Brenda, who is part of team Ghost Mountain is also a town crier, and was nominated to be our human alarm clock. She did in fact (successfully) get everybody awake. Then it was off on our three hour morning game drive.
Again, I hopped in Kristy’s truck for the same reasons as before... Like two days prior, we weren’t long into our drive and we found Mr. Lion. After our initial sighting of the day we sat and watched and then he began to slink off and was then masked by the foliage and elements. Our guides then began to radio back and forth to one another, we were desperate to see the lion again!
It was not long before we came across him again, but Kristy noticed something straight away, it was the way his shoulders jutted forward and how he crouched down low. She turned and whispered... he is going for a kill! As we sat there quiet and in anticipation , all of a sudden... BAM! He was off heading towards the back of a group of wildebeest . Unfortunately, for the lion he was unsuccessful. You can imagine our excitement and all of the camera shutters going mad as we saw his mad dash! Afterwards, the lion slinked off and was out of sight for the time being.
As we carried on we saw a white rhino and their babies munching some shrubbery. They seemed completely content and did not seem bothered as to how close we were in proximity to them.
A unique aspect of this game drive in particular that we had yet to experience was that we were fortunate enough to have come across a lioness. She was not as friendly as her male counterpart and stayed hidden (and protected) under a low tree. As we studied her further, we noticed that the joint area at the top of her front leg was covered in blood and very swollen. Kristy informed us that she assumes the lioness went to kill a wildebeest and got caught in one of their horns as she pounced on her prey. She made certain to radio in the lioness and her whereabouts, letting the game rangers know of her injuries. They like to keep an eye on things such as injuries in case any of the animals need any medical attention.
Unsurprisingly , our 3 hour game drive flew by and was over before we knew. It was a great high-note to be leaving with and is something we will remember and cherish for years to come. With seven games drives under our belt, I think my Team Ghost Mountain did pretty well for themselves!!
It was back to the hotel for breakfast, freshen up, last minute packing, and to check out of our hotel and eat a bit of lunch before heading back to Johannesburg airport. The drive back to Joburg is roughly three and a half hours, but like the drive up, it is easy, smooth and pretty much a direct straight route. However, we went through about three different toll booths. The queues for paying a toll can be a bit haphazard with people darting in and out trying to inch forward more quickly. Other than that...no complaints.
Once we arrived at the airport, it was pretty direct and straight forward, but please allow AT LEAST three hours before an international flight. This is because once you have waited and checked your luggage, you then have to wait in a line for the metal detectors. From there, you must go through passport control; which is another queue. Whilst in both lines it seemed that a lot of South Africans could not be bothered to wait and sneaked through past people not wanting to wait around like we all had. Hmmm...To be honest I did not want to wait for over 40 minutes either, but I did.
Once we had gotten through all three security lines we were in our terminal. It is quite big and very nice since they had re-furbished the airport for the FIFA World Cup. However, since we had to wait in so many security lines we did not have a tremendous amount of time to shop in duty free and to use up the last of our Rand. That being said, all of us did manage to do a bit of some last minute power shopping!!
As it drew nearer to our departure time, we headed to our gate. Where...you get it... another queue. Having to stand there a fourth time while they looked at your ticket seemed a bit excessive to me, but hey, that is just me. Suppose it wasn’t the end of the world. Just note to leave yourself ample time when flying out of Johannesburg; especially if it is a popular/peak travel time.
As we board, I could not help but reflect on an amazing trip I was so fortunate to have had this opportunity to be a part of SATurdayKitchen 2015. What an amazing experience I have had, I met tremendous people and am walking away with unforgettable memories. A HUGE THANK YOU to South African Tourism who helped make my dreams come true!
Until next time South Africa! What to do next
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