South Africa: A country of wonder, wild and wine

South Africa was the centre of attention last year during the World Cup, but it has much more to offer as a vacation spot than just football. Part 1 of a two-part series.

When my wife and I attended the Rotary Club of Grand Cayman’s Camelot Auction in May 2009, I noticed in the event programme that a stay at a South African game lodge for a photographic safari was one of the items being auctioned. I casually mentioned to my wife that I’d like to go to South Africa some day. However, since we were only weeks away from a major trip to Italy at the time, I certainly wasn’t planned on purchasing another trip.

It was therefore much to my surprise when later – while I was engaged in conversation with someone else at our table – my wife tapped me on the shoulder and said “We just bought a trip to South Africa”.

I made a note to myself to never turn my back on my wife when she had an auction paddle in her hand, but after the shock wore off, I quickly warmed to the idea of going to South Africa.

Luckily, we had two years to use the trip, which really wasn’t a trip at all – just six nights in the Zulu Nyala Game Lodge in Hluhluwe, about three hours northeast of Durban. We were on our own in getting there, no easy feat from the Cayman Islands.

There are several ways to get to South Africa from Cayman, none of them painless. Many people opt to fly to London, spend the day and then fly that night to South Africa. The prospects of two overnight flights didn’t appeal to me, and even though my wife didn’t cherish the thought of an 18-hour flight, I bribed her with a more enticing option: we would fly to New York, spend a few nights there and then fly directly from JFK airport to Johannesburg.

Unfortunately, our trip was far from over upon landing in Johannesburg; there was still a three-hour lay-over, an hour-long-plus flight to Durban and then a three-hour drive to Hluhluwe. After more than 24 hours of travelling with very little sleep, we were finally driving along a dusty dirt road to Zula Nyala, wondering what type of accommodations could possibly await us in the middle of bush.

The sun was setting and we continued down the road to seemingly nowhere. Then I saw something off to the left, but dismissed it as my mind playing tricks on me from the dying light of day and lack of sleep. But when I continued looking at it and it didn’t go away, I realised what I was seeing was real.

“That’s a giraffe,” I said excitingly. Sure enough, standing along side the road eating leaves off a tree was a large giraffe. We stopped and took a few photos. The giraffe stopped eating for just a moment to survey us, then carried on eating.

By the end of six days at Zulu Nyala, we saw so many more giraffes our attitude would be “ho hum, there’s another giraffe’ but seeing this first one, even in our exhausted state, was a thrilling start to our vacation and sign of so much more to come.

We had come to Zulu Nyala with relatively modest expectations because of the mixed reviews on websites like Trip Advisor. Because virtually everyone comes to Zula Nyala after buying the trip at a charity event, there are some negative connotations in some people’s mind.

Although Zulu Nyala will never be mistaken for The Ritz-Carlton, the lodge, which is truly out in the middle of nowhere in the bush, had an elegant, rustic feel. Our room was large, clean and rustically appointed, even adorned with a zebra skin on the floor. Although showering was a little bit of a challenge, we had no real complaints.

The lodge’s food, which was included in the price, was served buffet style. Again, this isn’t gourmet food, but it was pretty good – and much better than hotel buffet food I’ve been served in places like Cuba, Panama and, on occasion, even here in Cayman. The salads were fresh and tasty and in addition to common meats, there was always something exotic like springbok, warthog or antelope.

Alcohol wasn’t included in the price, but there was a decent selection of reasonably-priced South African wine, beer and mixed drinks. We pretty much stuck to the wine, having discovered the joys of Pinotage, a variety of red wine uniquely South African.

More than anything though Zula Nyala is about the interaction with animals. That is done through a series of bush drives with your ranger guide – who is assigned at the beginning of your stay – and your group of nine other people. The drives take place twice a day – early in the morning and late in the afternoon and last about two and a half hours.

One of the complaints we read on Trip Advisor was that the reserve was so small – only about 4,500 acres – that it was more like going to a zoo. For us, that was one of its charms. Because the reserve is small, it’s relatively easy to find up to 40 species of animals that live there. The animals are more or less used to having the open-air trucks drive up and down the dirt trails, so they don’t run off when the trucks drive near, allowing guests to snap photos and shoot videos at a very close range. They are, however, in their natural environment – something we learned the first trip out when one of the reserve’s three female elephants decided it didn’t want us around and charged toward us, causing our ranger guide James Tembe to quickly reverse the truck down the road.

Only three of the so-called big five game animals live at Zulu Nyala: African elephants, cape buffalo and rhinoceros. For cats – leopards and lions – you have to go to on an off-site excursion to one large neighbouring reserves. But Zulu Nyala does have plenty of other animals, including cheetahs, warthogs, zebras, several species of antelope, monkeys, hippos and, of course, giraffes. One of our favourites to see was the baby white rhino – dubbed Jamie – that had just been born on the reserve months earlier.

Because you take the game drives and sit at the table with your assigned group, you get to know the other people, adding an element of human interaction to the experience. Our group was friendly and diverse in make-up, making our stay that much more interesting.

In order to try and see lions and leopards, we took an excursion – at extra cost – to the 211,000-acre Hluhluwe Umfolozi Game Reserve and National Park. For this all-day – and somewhat gruelling – event, we had to leave before breakfast, but the lodge provided packed breakfasts and lunches for us. It was a hard, dusty day on the roads and we didn’t see any lions, but we found four large male elephants and saw first hand how destructive they can be. Rather than raising their trunks to eat the leaves off trees, elephants use their bulk to knock the trees down and then eat the leaves off the fallen trees. We watched as one elephant – seemingly performing for us – knocked down a tree only yards away from our truck. Because they can destroy so many trees, Zulu Nyala only has three elephants, two adults and one baby. But Hluhluwe Umfolozi had enough size to accommodate lots of elephants and we were lucky to find some of the biggest in the park.

One thing that does kind of turn some people off was the relatively hard-sell of the extra-cost excursions. Frankly, during a six-night stay at Zulu Nyala, the on-reserve game drives would become a bit boring if that’s all you did, so we found the off-site excursions worthwhile.

We took a second one – to the waterfront town of St. Lucia – where we went on a riverboat ride to see dozens of hippos, crocodiles and many species of birds. Back on shore, we got to visit a wind swept beach on the Indian Ocean, although the water was much too cold for my Caribbean-thinned blood. This excursion also gave us a chance to visit a little town and to buy various Zulu crafts and souvenirs to bring back home.

One option that was free was the bush hike, where the guide – armed with a shotgun – takes the group through a part of the Zulu Nyala reserve on foot. We learned quickly on our hike that although the animals don’t seem spooked by the trucks on the road, they don’t like it when people are walking around in their world and most ran away when we approached. The zebras barked warnings to the other zebras when we approached, something that was fascinating to witness.

The notable exceptions to the animals fleeing our approach were two male cheetahs, which lazed under a tree 40 metres away, not worried about us in the least – and a large male rhino, which was giving us the evil eye from about 100 metres away, prompting James to tell us we’d best move on.

The hike did allow us to see some of the smaller things – like dung beetles doing their thing and warthog holes – that we couldn’t really see in the trucks.

On our final evening, James took us to an old quarry on the site where functions are held when large groups book the lodge. There we had wine, cheese, grapes and some other snacks as we watched the sunset before heading back to the lodge.

On the drive back, James heard on the radio that one of the other rangers had found a leopard, which had apparently jumped the electrified fence that rings the reserve and came over for a snack of some small animal. James drove like a madman down dark narrow roads to get us to the spot in time to see the leopard. It had just turned dark so we had to put spotlights on it, but it sat there, eating its prey, for about 10 minutes before moving on. It was an exhilarating way to end our safari adventure.

At Zulu Nyala is customary to dine together with the ranger guide on the last night, so we had one final meal together along with James before saying our goodbyes – everyone was leaving early in the morning.

We left Zulu Nyala with memories that would last our lifetimes, and with hundreds of photos to go with those memories. But we still had another part of our South African vacation to go – wine country – but that’s for part two of this story.