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.