My Spafari experience in South Africa

This is how it works at the Karkloof Safari Spa. They stop you at the main gate to verify your credentials and then phone the reception to expect you. You drive on further on the mud track and reach the reception area. After those last fifteen bumpy minutes on a gravel path, those cold towels feel just perfect.

No complicated check in process: just one signature here please. Someone then smiles broadly and tells you all about the facilities at the safari spa, named after the Karkloof valley it is located in. You smile back at them, only half listening, and get on to the jeeps waiting to transfer you to your villas.

And then you almost fall off your seats. Just outside the reception area, a couple of white rhinoceros are lounging in the shade of a tree (no, not acacia, even if we are in Africa).

Rhino
(image courtesy: Karkloof)

When I enter the Karkloof Safari Spa, I know I am not going to spot any of the big cats. You see, I have gone through their website with increasing wonder and anticipation for days before I finally get there. But I certainly don’t expect a welcoming committee of the other wildlife that this safari lodge meets spa heaven promises.

For a minute, I cynically wonder if the call from the main gate is some sort of code for “visitors ahead, let the rhinos out” but another look at these behemoths kills that thought. So I sit back and take a few hundred photographs. Imagine the abundance of wildlife here when I say that by the time I leave I am blasé about these big guys. Oh ok, one more rhino.

The drive to the villas, through the green and golden bush, is a taste of what is to come. And the dozens of pools, that seemed to be the preferred rendezvous for the local birdlife. By the time we reach the accommodation area, we have spotted zebras, warthogs and the native antelope, nyala (what a fascinating sound; I cannot stop saying the word aloud. Go on, try it yourself.)

nyala

It is a lovely walk from the main lodge to the villas, linked to each other by stone walkways and wooden bridges, with streams gurgling underneath. Esther shows me to my villa, where I make a quick mental note of the espresso machine and the small selection of South African wines.

The villa is a spacious affair with a bedroom, a sitting area and a bathroom that opens out to a cozy rear garden. Up front is a verandah that tempts me to put my feet up and wait for a nyala – there, I use the word again for its sheer melody (it could just as easily be a wildebeest) – to stop by my doorstep. With the bush all around and the expanse of the valley far ahead, it is no wonder they call it a viewing deck.

Villa

View
(images courtesy: karkloof)

The game reserve itself is spread over 8600 acres of land where the animals roam free. And to allow that, it is deliberately devoid of big game, the predators. But I have no time for Karkloof’s fauna to find the time to pay a house call. The spa awaits. In a land strewn with hundreds of national parks and game reserves, a safari lodge that is also a destination spa is a rare delight.

So, the spa. This paean to pampering is set in a space that is as large as the lodge itself. Karkloof takes great pride in the fact that the spa has been built to blend seamlessly into the environment. The nifty buggy gets me straight to the spa and within minutes, I am officially open for a whole day of spadom. One of the best things about this spa is, not having to go through the agony of making hard decisions based on time and money. I have eleven hours of spa treatments to indulge in, breaking off only for a bite of organic food at the spa café or a leisurely game drive to wave at a few giraffe.

All this is part of Karkloof’s concept of “timeless stay”: flexible check in and check out schedules, meal times of your making, game drives at your convenience and the luxury of staying at the spa all day. Uplifting facials? Detoxifying scrubs? Aroma Thai massages? Bring them on.

Spa
(image courtesy: Karkloof)

The star attraction of the spa is the hydrotherapy treatments – a floatation pool, the open area Jacuzzi and the Kniepp pools, among other things. The last is a system devised to boost your blood circulation by making you alternate between hot and cold pools. If you survive the shock to the system, that is. Obviously, I skip it.

In keeping with the eco-friendly theme, the hydrotherapy area boasts of “living roofs” of thatch and grass, where animals wander in to graze. The treatment rooms, also reached through wooden walkways, are spread around the core zone and overlook the wild bush. I almost expect curious zebras to peep in through the large picture windows and suffer mild trauma upon seeing humans with gooey face packs on.

My therapist is a petite Thai lady who silently works magic with her fingers. Towards the end, she tries to give me a few health tips to keep my skin glowing. I wonder sleepily if I can’t take her back home with me instead.

After being spa’d so much, I can barely keep my eyes open at the dinner table. Much of the food choices here are of the raw, healthy variety; I had a choice of falling asleep on the bowl of roasted vine tomato soup (cooked) or the pear, melon and rocket soup (raw).

That bit about game drives being at my own convenience? I had fully intended to make use of it to not wake up at an ungodly hour to go wildlife viewing. But fate has other plans. Our safari guides Kenny and Lovemore hint gently that early mornings are ideal for drives inside the reserve but of course, I could sleep in if I choose to.

ostrich

And so we go on a safari at the crack of dawn. The Karkloof birds – over 300 species within the property – are just coming to life. A couple of hippos are raising their heads hesitantly from inside a large pond. A group of ostriches is going on a disciplined march, even as wild buffalos engage in mock fights nearby. And just about everywhere, zebras and giraffe stay close to each other, grazing, content. The long and short of it, I think, looking at them.

Giraffe
(image courtesy: Karkloof)

zebra

Despite my rhino sighting of the previous day, I am excited at the thought of seeing more of them. Thanks to a white rhino-breeding programme, there are nearly twenty of them in the reserve and a solitary, endangered black rhino. The rhino we spot is right by the side of the road. He ignores us with a steadfast dedication to his breakfast. Seeing him framed against the golden glow of that morning sunlight, there is a moment of affectionate silence in the jeep. Then he looks up and the spell is broken.

Kenny and Lovemore, Zimbabweans both, are remarkably informed and passionate about the reserve and the birds and animals within. They drive us to a “special place” for breakfast. And like everything else I have experienced at Karkloof so far, breakfast too is special, in the bush, on top of a cliff, overlooking the valley.

breakfast

breakfast1

All too soon, it is time to leave. I wonder if I have the time to sneak in one more spa treatment; this kind of thing is rather addictive. But the call of the real world outside these gates is getting sharper.

The Karkloof Safari Spa calls itself Africa’s best kept secret. I come away believing it.

THE INFORMATION

How to get there

Fly Jet Airways (Rs. 51,000) or South African Airways (Rs. 53,000) from Mumbai to Durban via Johannesburg. From Durban’s King Shaka International Airport, the Karkloof Safari Spa is less than a two-hour drive. The nearest big town is Pietermaritzburg, 24 km away.

Visa

Apply for a short-term visitor visa (no fee for Indian nationals) at the VFS in Mumbai or Delhi and allow for a minimum processing time of five working days. A service charge of Rs. 1350 is to be paid in cash at the time of submission of the visa application.

Stay

There are 16 private villas at the Karkloof Safari Spa, with tariff 9900 ZAR per person, per night. The rate is inclusive of all meals, beverages, game drives, outdoor activities and spa treatments. Check in is allowed from 8 am and check out the next evening at 8 pm, which means that for one night, you get two days at the property.

Since the spa has 17 treatment rooms, there is no need to book in advance. And the stay policy also means that you can potentially get up to 22 hours of spa treatments.

Activities

Apart from the wildlife and the spa, the property is home to the Karkloof river and the 340-feet high Karkloof waterfall, reached by a mild hike. And for those so inclined, activities like fishing, birding, mountain biking and yoga sessions are offered.

A bite of bunny chow

Most of my mealtimes during my South Africa trip were spent looking at colleagues tuck into all varieties of meat, from ostrich to wildebeest, while I quietly ate the pasta or salad put in front of me. I did have one Indian dinner at The Ocean Terrace restaurant at the upmarket Oyster Box but that was a dubious “curry buffet” and not the most satisfying meal.

One of my most delightful Durban experiences came in the form of the bunny chow. Or bunny, as locals call it. For example, “Let’s go for a quick bunny lunch” (asking for “bunny chow” immediately marks you out as an outsider, I am told).

What is bunny chow?

Nothing to do with rabbits or indeed with any form of meat. It is simply a hollowed loaf of bread – usually a quarter – filled with curry that could be vegetables and kidney beans, chicken, lamb or mutton.

The origins of this dish are unknown, with many theories floating around. The most popular one is that Indian labourers working in the sugarcane plantations of Kwazulu Natal (a region in South Africa, of which Durban is the capital) found it difficult to carry an elaborate lunch with them. So, a clever housewife decided to make a one dish meal of bread and curry that can be eaten with the hands.

As for the name, it is believed to have originated from the word “bania” – although you will hear stories of this dish being invented by a Mr. Bunny from India! And for a bit of trivia: today, Durban has the largest Indian community outside India.

How is bunny chow made?

It is one of the easiest snacks to make – I should actually call it a meal, because a quarter loaf of bunny chow is enough to keep you going from lunch till dinner. And remember, the bunny chow was born out of a need for convenience.

So, here is the bunny chow in five easy steps:

1. Scoop

Scoop

2. Arrange

Arrange

3. Fill

Fill

4. Garnish

Garnish

5. Serve

Serve

And Bob’s your uncle! Or should I say, Bunny’s your chacha!

The National Geographic rates it among the top ten culinary experiences in Durban – as a vegetarian, I would go further and extend it to all of South Africa.

They also call it “lip-searing spicy curry” and perhaps by Western standards, the filling is a bit fiery. But certainly not by our palates conditioned by “Everest ka tikha lal” masalas. But I do agree with this bit in the article: “It’s hot, messy, and impossible to eat without using both hands and lots of napkins” – if you want to eat it daintily with a fork and spoon, you may as well forget it and go find something more amenable to cutlery.

Where should I try bunny chow?

Bunny chow is available everywhere in Durban, and these days, in other South African cities too. Locals swear by Goundens, although I tried it at The Oriental, which also came highly recommended. It is a small place inside a shopping mall, designed for a quick eat or take-away experience. The manager kindly allowed me into the kitchens with my camera once I expressed curiosity about the chow-making process.

Oriental

I had the vegetarian version, with a generous filling of a curry (how I hate that word!) loaded with vegetables and rajma, and spiced gently with Indian masalas. I had a tough time managing the mess but hey, that’s part of the fun. And I have to say, this bunny was absolutely delicious.

The Wall Street Journal thinks highly enough of this “sloppy, savory, eat-it-with-your-hands Indian curry dish” to carry a piece on finding the best bunny chow in Durban.

So, if you ever head to South Africa, go find yourself a bunny.

Losing the fear of flying

I had never thought I would find myself 65 metres above the ground, hanging on for dear life. And doing this of my own volition. I am not the particularly adventurous type, preferring to get all cultured out through museums and concerts while on holiday.

Well, it is a bit of an overstatement to say that I was hanging on for dear life. After all, I was tethered in three places as I zipped across the steel cables in the heart of the dense Blue Grotto forest.

Hanging on

Here, in the midlands of South Africa, they call it the ‘Canopy Tour,’ a nod to the lush canopy formed by the venerable trees of this forest located in the uKhahlamba-Drakensberg Park. This UNESCO World Heritage site encompasses the Drakensberg mountain range – roughly translated as Dragon’s Back from Afrikaans – which stretches on for 200 kilometres.

Lake at Drakensberg

The canopy tour site was a short walk away from the Drakensberg Sun Valley resort, where I was staying. At the site, we went through a detailed safety briefing, after which we were kitted out and harnessed. My guide’s name was Promise; in my super nervous state, I took it as a divine signal. Promise was a local who had been doing this for five years, a woman with a gentle smile and (as I discovered later) endless reserves of patience.

The canopy tour

South African midlands

And then there was a bumpy jeep ride into the forest, followed by a long walk to the starting point. Sharp sunlight was soon lost to us, as we found ourselves surrounded by ancient yellowwoods, cape chestnut trees, red pear trees and pine trees. The two accompanying guides kept up a constant comforting chatter but I was preoccupied with morbid thoughts of the adventure ahead. Let’s get this over with already.

Into the forest

The first slide – aptly called the Rabbit Hole – was very short and easy, meant to lure me into a sense of false security. At the next stop, reached through a walk over a wobbly hanging bridge, I found that I could barely see the other end of the zipline on the other hill. There was no turning back. This was just the beginning. And there were twelve such platforms perched on treetops and cliff faces to cross before we reached the end.

Canopy

Sure, we had been told all this before, but seeing it on a map and doing it were two different things.

My guide Elijah went first, performing all kinds of tricks to reassure us of how utterly effortless and safe the whole thing was. “Easy for him,” I muttered under my breath as he waved both his hands while mid-air and turned somersaults in harness. He whistled and sang, even as I found it difficult to take normal breaths.

On the platform

Upside down

When my turn came, I got harnessed again and brought long-forgotten prayers to my mind. I found that the toughest thing here (as in life, chimed my inner philosopher) was to let go. I had to assume a sitting position, stretch my legs forward and just launch myself into thin air.

Trouble struck at the end of the third slide. That was when I braked too early by pressing on the cable – I misread my guide’s signal – and went sliding back on the line.

We had been given clear instructions on what to do in such situations. We were to turn back and crawl our short way to the platform, monkey style. But panic took over and I just hung on screaming for help till my guide came and towed me to safety. I admit that this is not a moment I am particularly proud of, but what can I say, I am not a monkey.

My adventureAfter a few initial hiccups – embarrassingly captured on video for posterity – I actually began to enjoy myself. The Drakensberg mountains, and particularly the Blue Grotto Forest, offer several popular hiking trails for all levels of walkers. However, the canopy tour offered something no hike could: a bird’s eye view of the spectacular mountains. A vista of lofty trees above, below and all around. An occasional glint off the thin ribbon of river way below. The novel sensation of flying straight on to a waterfall. And of course, the company of birds at eye level; there are over 150 avian species in this forest alone, including the Greater Double Collared Sunbird and the much rarer Bush Blackcap.

Each of the platforms has been built to harmonise with the existing natural feature: cliff face, waterfall, tree trunk. So, there were times when I went zipping through a large tree on one side and a rock jutting out on the other. But by then, I was in Tarzan (or Jane, if you will) mode, happy to fly from these ancient treetops.

Harmony in the forest

I lingered at the end of the last slide, on the circular platform built on a 300-year-old Outeniqua Yellowwood and affectionately nicknamed Madiba by the crew. It was at that moment that, on a lingering adrenalin rush, I wondered why I had fussed so much. Bring it on once more!

The Canopy Tour

The entire activity takes approximately three hours and costs R495 per person, including all equipment, guides, transport to the starting point and refreshments afterwards. Visit Drakensberg Canopy Tour for more information.

***

Published in the Sunday magazine of The New Indian Express as Losing the fear of flying

 

Up in the air

This is the story of a hot air balloon ride I took in Drakensberg in South Africa, told in pictures. It was this whirlwind trip, where we had driven up from Durban the earlier day. I had completed the Canopy Tour (more on this coming up soon), much to my own amazement – and secret pride – and my nerves were shot to pieces. We were staying at the gorgeous Drakensberg Sun Resort but didn’t get to spend any time walking around the resort or sitting by the lake with a glass of wine. Back from the zip lining adventure, I could barely keep my eyes open – though I had a really disturbed sleep that night, where I kept dreaming off falling off cliffs.

The next morning, we were up and early. By early, I mean that we left the resort by 5.30 am to get to the hot air ballooning location in time for our ride. When we got there, everything in front was a thick, soupy fog. It was early winter in South Africa and in hot air ballooning, there is little control over anything (as I found out several times during my ride later).

Fog

So we spent a couple of hours drinking lukewarm coffee and stomping our feet against the cold, waiting for the mist to clear and the sun to come out. At the first signs of a hesitant sun, the team swung into action and soon, the first group went up for a 45 minute ride.

What I was saying earlier about having little control over anything – the pilot Davie had to coast with the wind and land in the middle of a corn field. Getting to the balloon through the thick, tall corn stalks was a mini adventure in itself.

Corn field

The flight was brilliant: deep blue sky, with the sun out in full force. No trace of the morning’s mist or cold remained as we went up. We were surrounded by the Drakensberg mountains on all sides, with fluffy blankets of clouds below us. I loved the way the shadow of the balloon stayed with us throughout – according to Davie, “angels flying with us.”

Balloon

Shadow

And our landing, much nicer in the middle of an open field (although we did get perilously close to more corn stalks), celebrated with a glass of champagne.

Trying to land

More corn

Tying down

Champagne

Easily one of the best hours I spent in any holiday ever…

To do it: Take a 45 minute ride with Drakensberg Ballooning.

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