AFRICA UN­ZIPPED

Vacations & Travel - - Contents - BY CARLA GROS­SETTI

If you’re a first-time trav­eller to Africa, de­cid­ing be­tween a trip to South Africa and East Africa is quite the co­nun­drum. So just do both!

IF YOU’RE A FIRST-TIME TRAV­ELLER TO AFRICA, DE­CID­ING BE­TWEEN A TRIP TO SOUTH AFRICA AND EAST AFRICA IS QUITE

THE CO­NUN­DRUM. SO JUST DO BOTH!

The land­scape sur­round­ing Cape Town, which is sand­wiched be­tween sea and moun­tains, is as rocky and dra­matic as South Africa’s his­tory. I’m stand­ing in­side the District Six Mu­seum as Ilios Tours’ guide Avril O’Con­nor ten­ta­tively tells her story about be­ing forcibly re­moved from the Sixth Mu­nic­i­pal District of Cape Town in 1966 after it was de­clared a ‘White Area’.

“I was five years old when my fam­ily was kicked out of District 6. Back then, if you weren’t white, you were noth­ing,” says Avril, qui­etly, stand­ing near to an ex­hibit that in­cludes a sal­vaged sign­post of Bloemhoff Street, where her fam­ily home once stood.

Avril paints a vivid por­trait of her frag­ile child­hood that in­cludes the rip­ple ef­fects of apartheid, what it was like to be part of that bro­ken so­ci­ety and her ex­traor­di­nary ob­ser­va­tions about amass­ing along­side thou­sands at Vic­tor Ver­ster Pri­son on Fe­bru­ary 11, 1990, to see Nel­son Man­dela walk free after 27 years in de­ten­tion.

“It felt like a new world. I knew that life for a per­son of colour in South Africa was about to change,” says Avril, with a soft­ness in her voice.

Lux­ury Sig­na­ture Sa­fari Spe­cial

Our full-day Cape Point & Penin­su­lar Tour with Avril is one of the high­lights of the 13-day Lux­ury Sig­na­ture Sa­fari Spe­cial with Bench Africa, which in­cludes lean­ing into the roar­ing wind at the Cape of Good Hope, tak­ing a buggy tour of Kirsten­bosch Botan­i­cal Gar­dens, coo­ing over the African pen­guin colony at Boul­ders Beach and en­joy­ing lunch in the pretty coastal vil­lage of Si­mon’s Town.

At the end of the full-day tour, on our way to Fran­schhoek, Avril takes us for an un­sched­uled stop at the Vic­tor Ver­ster Pri­son where her vivid sto­ries about be­ing part of this his­toric mo­ment three decades ago seems to con­jure up the very pres­ence of the crowd and ghost of Man­dela him­self. Avril’s ties to the land and its his­tory re­mains front of mind as we pass from a poorly lit sprawl of shacks to rows of vine­yards and gar­dens that lead to Fran­schhoek Coun­try House.

The fairy-tale land­scape of Fran­schhoek

We find the charm­ing town­ship of Fran­schhoek flour­ish­ing the next morn­ing as we board the Fran­schhoek Wine Tram to wend our way around a val­ley where the pretty coun­try­side – rows of vine­yards and Cape Dutch ar­chi­tec­ture – seems to have fallen from the pages of a chil­dren’s sto­ry­book.

After a full day in the food and wine cap­i­tal of the Cape, we fly from Cape Town to Jo­han­nes­burg be­fore touch­ing down on a sun-baked ochre airstrip that cuts through the Greater Makalali Pri­vate Na­ture Re­serve.

The con­ser­vancy is home to the Big Five, and we check one off the list with field guide Jaf­feth Mala­pane, of Garonga Sa­fari Camp, when he finds a pride of li­ons, crunch­ing on the

bones of an im­pala, on our very first sa­fari. While our twice-daily sa­fari drives cover a lot of ground, the rolling wilder­ness around Garonga Sa­fari Camp also at­tracts ele­phants, gi­raffes and ze­bras, which we ob­serve over break­fast, lunch and din­ner.

In ad­di­tion to spot­ting big cats and ba­boons, hye­nas, im­pala, warthog and more we find our­selves within me­tres of en­dan­gered black rhi­nos, hip­pos bask­ing in the shal­lows of a muddy river and two gi­raffes, necks en­twined while en­gaged in a stiff-legged mat­ing dance.

Of course, none of these en­coun­ters are of­fi­cially on the Bench Africa itin­er­ary. But be­cause the com­pany uses ex­perts guides, it boasts above-av­er­age an­i­mal sight­ings. We also en­joy a tree­top sleep­out, learn about the con­stel­la­tions light­ing up the night sky and en­joy daily post-sa­fari sun­down­ers and in­dul­gent three-course din­ners.

For a sa­fari hol­i­day that com­bines Cape Town, wine es­tates, game drives and more, the Lux­ury Sig­na­ture Sa­fari Spe­cial is a wor­thy and pro­found in­tro­duc­tion to the con­ti­nent.

Con­nois­seur Sig­na­ture Sa­fari Spe­cial

“What’s that?” I whis­per, as my askari (Maa­sai war­rior guide), Wil­son Le­mara, es­corts me to my tent at Mara Ngenche camp in Kenya. “It’s the zip­per,” says Wil­son, who’s clad in colour­ful beads with a red-checked shuka knot­ted around his neck and tyre-tread san­dals on his feet. “Ze­bra?” I ask. “No. zip­per,” says Wil­son, roar­ing with laugh­ter.

Stay­ing in a lux­ury tent at Mara Ngenche Camp in the Maa­sai Mara Na­tional Re­serve smashes all the rules about what you think you know about sa­faris.

Wil­son camps out­side my tent each night armed with an as­segai (pole) and steel sword sheathed to his waist and I have no doubt he would pro­tect me to the death from the hip­pos who snort and hee-haw out­side my bed­room all night. After all, this is a man who had to kill a lion to prove his man­hood. Although this age-old cul­tural prac­tice has since been stamped out, the rit­ual scar­ring on Wil­son’s leg is fur­ther proof that he is com­pletely at ease in this un­tamed en­vi­ron­ment.

At the end of each day, I col­lapse in my bed safe in the knowl­edge that the hip­pos wad­dling up from the river to graze on the lush car­pet of grass out­side my tent are not in­ter­ested in eat­ing me. “They are her­bi­vores,” laughs Wil­son.

Mara Ngenche Camp has an in­cred­i­ble view of the Mara and Talek Rivers, where we gather along­side our askaris the next day to wit­ness a new-born hippo be­ing swept down­river in the jaws of a crocodile.

“You are very lucky. I have never seen this be­fore,” says Mara Ngenche camp man­ager Paul Maina.

Luck is again on our side when we join Maa­sai guide Mil­ton Kar­lanke for our first game drive sa­fari in Kenya as part of our Bench Africa tour. The air is pun­gent with the smell of dung as Mil­ton points out fresh an­i­mal tracks and we stum­ble across gi­raffes graz­ing in a grove of aca­cia trees.

Dur­ing our four-day sa­fari at Mara Ngenche we watch herds of ele­phants silently pad across the land­scape, fol­low a hyena lop­ing home after a long night and watch a stand-off be­tween a lioness and an ele­phant.

The skies in Kenya are vast and the­atri­cal when we de­vi­ate from our game drive to visit the Maji Moto Maa­sai Cul­tural Camp to get an in­sight into vil­lage life.

The semi-no­madic pas­toral tribe live in many­at­tas

(mud huts) in the Maji Moto vil­lage, lo­cated in the Loita

Hills and they open their homes and hearts to tourists in a bid to keep their cul­tural tra­di­tions alive while earn­ing ex­tra money for the vil­lage.

We re­ceive a warm wel­come at the camp from Maa­sai war­rior chief Sala­ton Ole Ntutu, who lost his arm to a lion dur­ing his ini­ti­a­tion into man­hood and leads the tribe as they per­form a wel­come song and dance.

When stay­ing at the Ele­phant Bed­room Camp in Sam­buru Na­tional Park, we are also treated to a per­for­mance by a lo­cal Sam­buru tribe who gather in their bril­liant cos­tumes to leap around in the ochre earth and sing.

It’s while sit­ting around a cir­cle of fire lis­ten­ing to the gut­tural chant­ing of the Sam­buru tribe that I re­alise that the real spirit of sa­fari ex­tends far be­yond the riv­et­ing oc­cur­rence of spot­ting the Big Five. Here, in Kenya, which an­thro­pol­o­gists de­scribe as the Cra­dle of Mankind, the real plea­sure of sa­fari can be found when you put down the binoc­u­lars and fo­cus on the pe­riph­eral. •

Open­ing im­age: Ze­bra cross­ing in the Greater Makalali Pri­vate Na­ture Re­serve.Clock­wise from above: Cape Town is stun­ning from sea to sky with the soar­ing Ta­ble Moun­tain as the back­drop; The askari (Maa­sai war­riors) guard the tents at Mara Ngenche Sa­fari Camp each night; Fran­schhoek is em­broi­dered with vines and has a flour­ish­ing food and wine scene; A Bench Africa sa­fari is all about cel­e­brat­ing bare­foot lux­ury.

Clock­wise from above: Stay­ing at The Ele­phant Bed­room Camp in Kenya al­lows guests to be se­duced by the lure of the wild from the com­fort of a lux­ury glamp­site; A pride of mane­less li­ons on the prowl in the Maa­sai Mara Na­tional Re­serve; A lo­cal Sam­buru tribe gath­ers in their bril­liant cos­tumes to sing and dance out­side the Ele­phant Bed­room Camp dur­ing a Bench Africa tour of Kenya.

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