Into the wild.
When I was a kid, I used to collect stickers of wildlife for my WWF sticker book. Little did I know that many of the animals in the book were endangered species and even more shocking to realise that many are already extinct and disappeared from this planet. I used to love that book and fascinated by the animals. As I grew older, my love for wildlife faded and found myself addicted to Tetris and Atari. The book eventually went missing.
Out of the blue, I received an invitation from South Africa Tourism recently and was invited on a media trip to explore South Africa. The idea of visiting the safari has reignited my interest in wildlife all over again. And before you know it, I am hopping onto a plane with a group of food, travel, fashion and wine writers and jet setting to the other side of the world. Our South Africa trip has been scheduled in conjunction with VINDABA, the inaugural South African wine tourism show in Cape Town, but our itinerary doesn't stop there. For many of us, this is our first time visiting this beautiful country, we simply have no idea what to expect and ready for a wild ride, and a 'wild' ride it is.
First stop, Johannesburg; or as they called it, the 'JoBurg'.
Pit Stop - Johannesburg
Let's face it, the flight from Australia to South Africa is long, a non-stop 14 hours flight. To beat the jetlag, I determined to stay awake and watched six movies on the entertainment unit back to back. By the time we finally touched down in Johannesburg, I am weary and delusion, hoping my body will adjust itself and able to sleep when night falls.
Our stay in Johannesburg is short but sweet, purely as a pit stop for recovery before moving on to our next destination. A relaxing meal at Lekgotla in Nelson Mandela Square is our first crash course of South African food, including kudu meat. As much as I'd love to stay a little longer at the restaurant to enjoy the meal, but the comfy beds at Michelangelo Hotel beckon and we all decided to call it a night.
The Palace of the Lost City - Sun City
The very next morning, we headed north east to the Sun City. With a name like that, you can't help but feeling like Indiana Jones every time you say it. The Sun City is actually a luxury casino and resort, approximately 2 hours drive from Johannesburg. Built back in the 70s, it officially opened in 1979 and was located in the Bantustan also known as black African homeland of Bophuthatswana where gambling and strip shows were allowed under the South Africa's apartheid government's law. Sun City resort has expanded since then and now is a mega complex which consists of four luxury hotels, international standard golf courses, man-made wave beach, a convention centre, and of course don't forget the casino. Despite the golden days were long gone, many locals and foreigners still come and spend their summer vacation in this oasis. Sun City is truly the Las Vegas of South Africa.
As our coach bus passes the front gate and slowly cruises up the hill, only then we get the real sense of how massive the whole complex is. We will be staying at the most luxurious hotel among the four, which has a dramatic name to match - The Palace of the Lost City.
No kidding, our jaws just dropped as we are arriving at the front of the hotel. It is ludicrously grand and over the top like a Star Wars movie set. Everything was built in large scale and sky soaring towers with the most intricate motifs and sculptures of African wildlife are simply stunning and awe-inspiring.
The bronze sculpture of a hunting scene at the entrance of the hotel.
The reception hall is just as impressive, above head is a colourful mural of safari landscape painted on the round dome and below it is a row of sandstone carvings of African wildlife.
Bad luck if the safari theme decor is not your cup of tea, but I can assure you that everything is tastefully designed and decorated throughout the whole resort; from zebra skin lounge chairs, bronze monkey gas lamps to something perhaps a little bit bigger...
How about an elephants fountain right in the middle of Crystal Court Restaurant? I did warn you everything here is, bigger!
We checked in and dropped our bags in our rooms, a quick freshen up before heading back out for lunch and a tour of the property. The room is dated, but comfortable and extremely spacious. A breathe of fresh air by opening the windows is a no no, the intrusion of baboons into the room is no monkey business; so keep your windows shut.
Not many guests would have known this, there is actually an elevator that will take you up to the king tower which offers an unobstructed 360 degree panoramic view of the whole Sun City and beyond. As the Sun City is literally built on the fringe of Pilanesberg National Park, here will be your first glimpse of the safari.
Instead of having lunch inside, we decided to have an alfresco dining outside by The Palace's Grand Pool to soak up the warmth of the African sun.
A few of us still haven't gain the appetite back and go with a light lunch of smoked salmon salad. The portion size is huge, slices of smoked salmon is piled with lettuce leaves, onions, walnuts and a pickle dressing.
The term 'line fish' is not that common here in Australia, it means the fish was caught by using lines instead of commercialised unsustainable trawl net fishing. The line fish of the day is monkfish. The chunky white flesh is battered then deep fried, not at all crunchy but at least the fish is not overcooked, served with sweet mango chutney. French fries dip in spicy mayo saves the day.
The grilled chicken and avocado salad looks so simple and healthy, but is it? The highlight is definitely the two big wedges of Parmigiano Reggiano on the side, who say salad has to be boring?
Then there is always a humble burger that never fails to please, melted Cheddar adhered to a glisterning fatty beef pattie sandwiched in soft bun roll spread with sweet onion jam, then jacking up the calories with fried egg and bacon and a side of fries; I am sure it is the best meal to cure a jetlag hangover.
The Valley of the Waves
Lying by the pool after lunch seems not such a bad idea, but why pool when you have a beach! Well, a man-made beach that is, Valley of the Waves is a water fun park that will get your adrenalin rushing either swimming in a mechanically-generated wave pool which generates 1.8 meter waves every 90 seconds or go sliding down one of the five flume rides which includes Temple of Courage that plummets swimmers down a 17 metre shoot. But of course, you can always sit back and relax under the shade of palm trees, listening to the sound of crushing waves with the occasional screech of terror.
Game Drive at Pilanesberg National Park (evening)
The most anticipated hour has finally come, we are ushered into an open air safari truck and head to the nearby Pilanesberg National Park for our sunset game drive. The park is made up of over 55,000 hectares of rolling plains and is situated within an extinct volcanic crater. The Pilanesberg National Park was open in 1979 not long after Sun City, known as the largest game resettlement project in history of South Africa, and is also one of the top 5 in conservation in the world.
These days we don't shoot with guns at game drive in safari anymore, instead DSLR cameras are the common weapon of choice, hoping to capture the Africa's "Big Five" - elephant, lion, (black) rhinoceros, buffalo and leopard.
As soon as our truck passes the boom gate into the park, we immediately spotted a dazzle of plains zebras grazing casually on the side of the hill in no threat to run away, as a few warthogs crossing the road with no worries. No fences, no enclosures, the animals are literally few meters away from our truck, ironically we humans are the ones who confined inside a truck, looking back out to the open plain fields.
Anywhere you look, there will be wildlife in the scrubs or behind the bush including kudu, springbok, impala, elephants, giraffes, wildebeest, baboons just to name a few. Some are more easy to be spotted than others. Our ranger Nikyo guides us through the safari with comprehensive information about the animals every time we spotted one.
Armed with giant canine teeth, do you know that hippos are said to kill more people each year than lions, elephants, leopards, buffalo and rhinos combined? And they actually also can move quite fast up to 30mph despite weighing up to three tonnes.
So you do as you are told in the national park.
Inside the national park, you can either self-drive in your own vehicle or join the game drive with an experienced ranger. If it's your first visit of any safari, I'd suggest to go for the latter one simply because the ranger has the knowledge and skills and they know what to look for. You'll find the rangers are on the walkie-talkie communicating with each other the whole time during the drive and occasionally they will get tipped off where they could find the animals, particularly the hard to find ones.
Without Nikyo, we would have never spotted these white rhinos. He already spotted them from miles away and suddenly veered into a small dirt track and heading for the hill. To us, they look just like two lump of big rocks from afar. There are white and black rhinos at the national park and no doubt these endangered species are highly protected. Sadly rhino poaching for the horns is still happening around Africa frequently and we've been told that one white rhino was poached at this very national park just over two months ago. The government has issued shoot-on-sight policy against rhino poachers. All the rangers are also prohibited to reveal the number of rhinos so no one would know how many of them are actually inhabiting in this national park.
The elephants just had a drink at the lake and slowly heading back into the wilderness. We can't seem to get close enough to them, oh well better luck next time.
The giraffes are lot friendlier and ready to pose for the cameras. Our safari truck slowly inching and getting closer to them but they don't seem to mind and still casually feeding away on the young leaves sprouting on the thorny bush.
Many questions about giraffes were thrown at our ranger Nikyo, "How do you differentiate a male and a female giraffe?", "Why they eat the leaves on the thorny bush and not others?" "Where does baby giraffe come from?" Nikyo explains that usually male giraffe has darker patterns on his body and the "horns" is usually bigger and taller. Most of the bush in safari is high in tannin and the herbivores hate them, hence the giraffes go for the leaves on the thorny bush that has less tannin, despite it is hard to get to. As for the last question, you just have to use your imagination.
The large Mankwe Dam/Lakein the park is the best spot for wildlife spotting during sunset as most of the animals will come to the same spot for a drink. There are also over 300 bird species here at Pilanesberg and there is a platform outstretched to the lake which provides tourists a perfect bird watching platform in stealth mode.
Our tour has also provided light afternoon refreshment to snack on during the game drive. Apart from the spiced cashew, potato crisps and dried mango, tearing and chewing a piece of soft cured beef jerky biltong with our teeth while watching the wildlife in a safari gives carnivorism a whole new meaning.
The duration of the game drive is 2.5 hours but you'll be surprised how time flies when you are fully submerged yourself in the wilderness. And we have spotted two out of the five Africa's "big five" isn't so bad, until we have an imminent call on the radio transceiver. Our ranger is just as excited as us and asks for our permission to extend our game drive for another 30 minutes so that he could take us to this secluded part of the national park for a new sighting. We have no objections what so ever and strap on as it is going to be a bumpy ride. And then, we see it...
Not one, but seven lionesses are resting and having a drink at the riverbank. My eyes widened, my jaw dropped and my heart is racing, the excitement of spotting lions in the wild is simply indescribable. We watch them play on the riverbank, take photos and whispers to each other in disbelief without disturbing the peaceful surrounding.
As the lionesses have their last sip of water before retreating back into the bush, our game drive also concludes at the right time before the sun disappearing behind the mountain. We head back to our hotel, but my brain is still in a rush and reminiscing all the fascinating animals we have encountered. Truly an experience that I will never forget.
At night, the Crystal Court Restaurant looks even more opulent and lavish, guests are enjoying their meals or sipping cocktails while serenaded by the pianist playing a few fine tunes on the grand piano.
A massive glass chandelier hanging above the fountain is incredibly stunning!
Interactive dinner at Crystal Court Restaurant
An interactive dinner has been specifically organised for our group. Tonight we will be cooking our own meal under the guidance of junior sous chef of Crystal Court restaurant, Julian Moalangoa.
We will be preparing two dishes from the casual make shift cooking class outside of the private dining room. Julian shows us how to prepare a scrumptious Thai-Asian inspired chicken and prawns glass noodle salad with a piquant fish sauce dressing. And the second dish is a duck curry, emphasises on using local produce where the duck is sourced from a nearby game farm.
But my favourite dish of the evening is definitely the springbok carpaccio. Loins of springbok red meat is salted and seasoned with lots of black pepper, before rolling into logs and let it cured overnight then thinly sliced. The tender game meat is surprisingly sweet and not too strong in flavour, pretty much like eating beef carpaccio. In South Africa they do eat all kinds of different types of game meat but rest assure that they are actually farmed animals and not hunted from the wild. We call it an early night tonight as we have to wake up at 4am the next morning and ready for our hot air balloon flight over the safari!
Game Drive at Pilanesberg National Park (At Dawn)
After receiving numerous wake up calls from the reception between 3.30am and 5.30am; our hot air balloon flight is destined not to be happening due to the ill weather condition at the national park. Absolutely gutted but not defeated, another game drive around the national park has been scheduled to fill our now free morning. The morning game drive offers a total difference safari experience, it is a lot quieter and more peaceful, so as the animals are lot more calm and subdued. Today we are hoping to see the remaining big fives, buffalo and leopard. Also hopefully spot a few cheetahs.
Wildebeest, the one that killed Mufasa in Lion King!
In the animal kingdom, apart from the famous Big Five, there is also a group called the Ugly Five - Hyena, Vulture, Warthog, Marabou Stork and Wildebeest is also in the list. I actually don't think the Wildebeest is that ugly, they just look dumb but cute!
The Southern yellow-billed hornbillis also known as the "Flying Banana".
How to differentiate a white rhino and a black rhino? White rhino is also known as square-lipped rhino, they have a wide spade-like mouth used for grazing, so you'll always find them with their heads down grazing hiding behind the bush. They are the most sociable and tame rhino species whereas the black rhinos are extremely aggressive and charges readily at perceived threats. The black rhino is also called the hook-lipped rhino.
The picture perfect of a safari landscape where giraffes and zebras in a group grazing together in harmony.
Nothing can be more exciting and nerve wrecking than spotting two male lions in the wild. These two brothers have been feasting on a kill they've made last night, a young kudu. They look contented and tired but still gnawing on the carcass between naps. A jackalalso lurking around nearby feeding off the scraps. It's a wild wild world out there!
Even though we didn't manage to spot all the 'Big Five' here at Pilanesberg National Park, none of us can really complain about the whole experience and being part of the animal kingdom. The sun is well above head as the temperature slowly rising, it is time for us to head back to the hotel for breakfast. Watching the lion feasting on kudu is making me hungry!
Buffet Breakfast at Crystal Court Restaurant
If you are hungry, well I can guarantee you won't be anymore after having the buffet breakfast here at The Palace Hotel. It is one of the most outrageous buffet breakfasts I've ever seen. Where to start you may ask, there are rows of food stations from wall to wall, you will need a good ten minutes just to browse through all the food and hoping still feeling hungry afterwards.
I kick start my breakfast with oysters, because I can. These freshly shucked oysters are from the South Cape. These medium size oysters have very similar characteristics to the Sydney rock oysters, not overly plump but creamy and full of sea brine flavour. The pancake stationis a children's dream come true; plain pancakes are made to order before handling over to you for a DIY sugar high toppings madness. There are over 20 different types of toppings for you to choose and create your own "perfect" pancake. Beware of screaming children on sugar high!
No one can skip the hot food station, even the bacons you can choose between crispy or soft. If you don't fancy the scrambled eggs or the sunny side up, there is always an omelette station that will able to sort you out. Once again pick your fillings and the chef will whip up an omelette for you in no time.
Happy chef makes happy omelette!
The buffet doesn't stop there, there are also the sushi station, porridge station, noodle and congee station, ham station, cold meat and seafood station, but the cheese stationsteals the show! Among the extensive range of hard and soft cheeses, there is also a whole giant wheel of Grana Padana sitting on the counter for you to chip to your heart's content. Believe it or not, I refrain myself from this debauchery temptation and only hit the oysters, omelette and hot food stations and finish it off with a plate of fresh fruit, I will conquer the remaining stations at tomorrow's breakfast!
On a side note, since I arrived in South Africa, I've become aware of the excessive consumption of salt in this country and the food are generally very salty. But I will touch on this topic in a later post.
Motseng Cultural Village Visit
A great way to learn more about African cultures and customs is to visit the Motseng Cultural Village which is actually situated in the Sun City Resort, walking distances from the hotels. Here we are taken through a visual introduction to eight main tribes of South Africa and learn about their history, customs, tradition costumes and their villages.
Established and developed by North West Parks & Tourism Board, they have built this cultural village inside Sun City will not only provide local and international tourists a unique opportunity to experience and appreciate this country's rich and diverse culture, it also provide employment opportunities for the people living around this area. It is a definitely must-do activity here at the Sun City resort.
This informative tour is followed by quick taste of traditional South African food, the spiced meat bobotie and pap which is their staple made from ground maize. Then wash it down with a lethal cloudy fermented beer called umqombothi which is made from maize and sorghum malt, yeast and water.
"Hmm delicious... "
A sip of fermented beer, follows by a high pitch chanting screech, the party has just begun!
The multi talented volunteers have now broken into various traditional South African dance moves, singing along to the rhythm of the drum beats, it is an uplifting, energetic performance with the occasional high kicks above heads only few of them manage to execute such intense manoeuvres.
Before you know it, me and fellow travel companions are dragged to the centre stage and form our first human congo line with a stick, they call it the "snake dance". We wiggle, we turn and jiggle some more, oh the hilarity is inevitable.
Our visit of the Cultural Village concludes with a performance of the African balafon. Similar to xylophone, the balafon are traditionally made from hollow tree trunks or gourds but they are simulated by using PVC pipes and fibreglass these days.
'Sundowners with the elephants' at The Elephant Wallow
Even though we may not have any close encounters with the elephants at the Pilanesberg National Park, but our visit to The Elephant Wallow will guarantee a very up close and personal interaction with the mighty giants. It is nestled at the foothills of the Pilanesberg mountains and it was once a sanctuary for rescued animals to recover before transferring them to the national park. We've been told that all the elephants here at the Wallow are rescued from other places and now happily settling in at this park.
There is only one adult female elephant in the group while the rest are males, but it is the 3-months old baby elephant and her 3 yo sister that capture everyone's heart.
The Elephant Wallow also offers elephant-back safaris, a bonding ride on the elephant back through the Letsatsing Reserve and view the safari from the elephant's perspective. For me, I rather spend the valuable time touching, feeding and interacting with these truly intelligent majestic animals.
Honestly, I wasn't sure I still have the same passion about wildlife as I used to when I was a kid, I can't even remember when was the last time I visited a zoo. As you grow older, you lost the interest of learning about animals, zoo is for children and you simply don't want to watch another repeat on National Geographic of a cheetah chasing after a zebra on the telly. I dare to say this because I know I am not the only person who thinks that way.
But how wrong was I.
Words cannot describe my Safari experience in South Africa and I will be forever grateful with this rare opportunity. If it took me 36 years to finally able to witness the endangered wildlife that are facing extinction with my own eyes, what are the chances for the younger generations to have the same opportunity to encounter with the animals 36 years later from now? The chances are slim.
I have a newfound respect of the Animal Kingdom and falling in love with it all over again.
[A Table For Two travelled to South Africa on media trip hosted by South Africa Tourism]