Out of South Africa author Janet Owen with her husband Rodger.
By Janet Owen
The moon rising over South Africa.
I don’t think anyone can adequately describe the South African experience. This amazing country affects everyone in a different way. For me, it was a bit of the fear of the unknown, which disappeared after the first day and made me wonder what I had been worried about. As a true city girl, I admit that I jumped when the lion roared at the Zoo Ball this year! And now that Rodger and I have just returned from South Africa, we are still under its peaceful, magical spell and have a new understanding of animals in the wild and the peace and balance of nature at its most basic.
After much preparation including reading Hemingway’s The Green Hills of Africa, reading the History of South Africa, watching Out of Africa more than once, asking our wonderful (and patient) travel agent, Julie Lemish of Rex Travel, numerous questions, visiting the Immunization Center, packing lightly in soft earth toned colors that all must fit into a 44 lb duffle bag (they never once weighed our luggage when boarding the small bush planes that took us from Cape Town to the airstrips at the game lodges and then back to Johannesburg) and after hearing so many wonderful stories from all of our friends who have visited this beautiful country… I was still not truly prepared for the way this experience would affect me. Everyone, without exception, told us it would be “life changing,” advised us to “live in the moment,” to “savor every minute” and, most especially, to “enjoy the peace.” We took everyone’s advice. We disconnected, except for photos and immersed ourselves in our surroundings and consequently, we would give the exact same advice to anyone contemplating this trip.
Rodger and I started planning our trip a year ago over dinner with good friends, Tom and Sherry Barrat from Palm Beach. It’s a good idea to plan early if you are planning to use mileage to upgrade for the long flights and the game lodges are all very small and are booked very early, as well. It’s also fun to have an entire year to anticipate the journey.
And, so it began. Rodger and I had a quick few days at the Ritz in London to accustom ourselves to the jet lag and do some sightseeing, shopping and touring Churchill’s War Rooms.
After the 15 hour British Airways flight into Cape Town, we met with Sherry and Tom. Our terrific ground personnel, Africa Inscribed, took very good care of us during the entire trip from the moment we landed in Cape Town to the our reluctant departure from Johannesburg. Because this was one of our “bucket list” journeys, we all decided to do a 5 star trip… one of the advantages of going in later years rather than right out of of school!
Our stay at the beautiful Cape Grace in Cape Town was a perfect introduction to South Africa and a great transition prior to our trip to the game reserves. James was our driver and guide in Cape Town and he was not only extremely knowledgeable but a lot fun to be with. A relatively new and beautiful city, Cape Town feels somewhat like San Francisco. Our suite faced the beautiful harbor and dramatic mountains beyond. We experienced the cable car ride up to the top of Table Mountain on a beautiful sunny and clear day (we were extremely fortunate with beautiful weather during our entire trip) and we enjoyed the simply breathtaking views from the top of Table Mountain. We drove through dramatic landscape to the Cape of Good Hope, spotting wild ostrich along the way. We visited the marvelous and adorable penguin sanctuary and magnificent Camps Bay Beach, miles of sandy white beach just below the dramatic rock formations called The Twelve Apostles and near the very upscale multi million dollar residential area of Cape Town. We savored the excellent South African wines and enjoyed dinners at Kerrom, Miller’s Thumb and the very elegant restaurant in our hotel, Signal. James also took us on a walk through the colorful houses of the Dutch inspired ad multi- cultured neighborhood, the Bo-Kaap in the Malay Quarter of Cape Town.
One of our highlights, truly not to be missed, is the drive through the South Africa’s famed wine country, which is just 45 minutes outside of Cape Town. We enjoyed the wine connoisseur at Waterkloof in the Stellenbosch region explain the country’s excellent chenin blancs, sauvignon blancs, cabernets, zinfandels, pinot noir and the earthy pinotage. Afterward, we enjoyed a long and leisurely afternoon lunch at the beautiful Graff vineyards (and a quick peek into the diamond boutique). James drove us back to the Cape Grace just before sunset but we could have used another day in wine country. However, we were looking forward to our next stop, the bush of South Africa and the game reserves… the real reason for our trip. And they did not disappoint.
We were warmly greeted at the very small, elegant and wonderful Singita Ebony Game Lodge at Sabi Sands where we spent three glorious days. Guided by our ranger, Daniella and our Level 5 tracker, Raul (6 is the highest level obtainable which very few trackers have reached) The lodge is decorated in the colonial style with open air formal rooms, each with beautiful views. The nearby Singita Boulders is a bit more modern in decor, but we all agreed that we were very happy to be at the Singita Ebony lodge.
Every morning at 5:30 we were awakened for our 6 early morning game drive and we gathered again after a relaxing day at 4 for the afternoon drives. We very quickly fell under the spell of the peaceful bushveld, as this vast area is called… we are the visitors in the animal’s territory and we soon realized that it really is true that the animals pay no mind to the Range Rovers.. we were a mild curiosity, but that’s all. They see the Range Rover as an entity which is non-threatening. We were thrilled when Raul and Daniella found kudu, impala, elephant, zebra, giraffe, hippopotamus, black rhino, white rhino, warthog, leopard and so many countless and beautiful birds; franklin, heron, stork and so many more. We loved the smallest creatures, as Daniella told us stories about everything we saw; the insects, the flowers, the trees.. the bushveld is truly alive with wonder.
On the second day we spotted the elusive lions in the tall grass… and adorable cubs with two mothers watching them very closely. We learned very quickly not to come between the mothers and their cubs, which was true of all of the animals. The maternal instinct in the bush is incredible. Mating season was over and we were entranced by how many babies we saw in all the species. We were in still in search of the elusive cheetah… but did not see one until we reached the Royal Malwane Game Reserve.
A very civilized tradition is morning coffee, croissants and juice served out in the bushveld during the morning game ride before returning to the lodge for a beautiful breakfast. During the evening game drive, “sundowners” and wine set up on white table cloths and served to us from the front of the Range Rover as the African sun set and the full moon rose… quite a sight to see. We would return from the evening drive to freshen up for an exquisite dinner. During our stay at Singita, we were also treated to a private wine tasting in the excellent and very well stocked wine cellar.
The wild dog is very elusive and is rarely seen, but we came across a herd of mothers and their babies and witnessed a kill on our last day at Singita. It was hard to watch but it is the way of the bush. You are the prey or you are the predator. The strong survive… it is a truth and it is nature’s way, but it was still hard to watch.
On our last night we were completely taken by surprise by a formal dinner set up for us in the bush. It was simply unforgettable and beautiful in every way. The local villagers sang for us after cocktails and the sumptuous dinner, and we all ended up dancing and singing with them around the fire. We were moved as they sang the South African national anthem.
Our eight seater plane flew us directly to the airstrip at Royal Malwane in the Thornybush area of the Kruger Game Reserve where we spent another three glorious days in the bush. The vegetation is Woodland Savanna, with acacias and Combretums dominating allowing the mammals who are not hunters to survive and flourish on the Reserve. We were again given a warm South African welcome and offered luxurious suites, excellent dining and superb wines during our entire stay.
Nik, our ranger and Lawrence our tracker finally found the elusive cheetah and it was worth the wait. . a mother was guarding her recent kill and calling to her cubs. To see her sprint at 80 miles an hour, the prey had no chance… but, again, it is the way of the bush. We then came across a herd of elephants running toward our vehicle…rather heart stopping to say the least… but as soon as Nik turned on the engine and backed up a bit, they parted and ran right past us… truly a sight to behold. The expectation of being frightened was long over for me. If we leave these beautiful animals alone and don’t try to change their environment and let them live as nature intended, all is right in their world and consequently in ours to be able to witness this cycle of nature.
I cannot name all of the many creatures, both great (the Big Five) and small, all living together on this vast open bush. The leaves had not yet bloomed so we could see so much more… it is a perfect time of year to visit the bush. We were lucky to have perfectly beautiful weather… cool African nights and warm sunny days but most of all, generous and kind South African hospitality everywhere we visited. On our last morning a giant bull elephant sauntered up to our front door and then proceeded to take a morning drink from our private infinity pool! What an unforgettable sight and a perfect ending to our stay at the lovely Royal Malewane.
Yes, the trip was life changing, but I would say for me, it was more life enhancing. I shall never forget it. Even now, as we enjoy a few nights at the luxurious Saxon in Johannesburg and I try to write my thoughts and memories, it is hard to put my feelings into words… I still feel both the excitement and the peace of the South African bushveld and I have experienced nature and animal life as it was meant to be.
Farewell South Africa, you will always have a part of my heart and a part of my soul. They say that you will leave Africa, but Africa will never leave you. It is true.