Entabeni: The Place of the Mountain

The road journey to Entabeni for my highly anticipated safari tour is one that will remain in my mind for a long time.

Out of the thousands of available coach drivers in Johannesburg, we had to get the driver from Hell. As we made our way from Johannesburg Airport to Sun City, the monotonous droning from the coach engine was suddenly broken by a loud exclamation from the driver.

“What? I am not staying there! I want to go home. No, no. The agency did not say I have to stay. I can take you there and then I’m going back home!”

Home for the coach driver from Hell, is in Pretoria, about 144 kilometres or a 2-hour drive from Sun City. The local guide tried her best to explain to him that the tour itinerary had been confirmed with the travel agency well in advance, and that his accommodation, meals and overnight stay allowance had already been paid out to the agency. The exchange between the tour guide and driver continued for some time with the driver grumbling loudly that he was not informed of the arrangement.

Fast forward to early next morning when we set off for Entabeni Game Conservancy, approximately 4 hours away from Sun City. After some attempts at making small talk with the driver, the tour guide managed to find out that the driver had never been to Entabeni. She reassured him that it was okay as she had been there several times and knew how to get there. I think the driver from Hell was still reeling from the fact that he had to stay overnight at Sun City and wanted revenge. When we came to a junction where he was supposed to take a right turn, he flatly refused, citing heavy traffic during that hour and that he didn’t want to get caught in a traffic jam. He took the left turn instead, telling the tour guide that he knew what he was doing, and that the road should eventually join back with the one to Entabeni. Well, that didn’t happen. Pleas by the tour guide to turn back fell on deaf ears.

We spent more than an hour in unfamiliar territory looking for a signboard or person to ask for directions. If you have ever driven on a highway across the savanna, you would probably know that the landscape looks the same everywhere and signboards are few and far-between. Finding another human being in No Man’s Land is practically an impossibility! Finally, our driver from Hell decided to exit from the highway to find a town where he could ask for directions.

I won’t go into details about this excruciating journey that seemed to last forever! We were all relieved when the coach pulled up at Legend Golf and Safari Resort an hour-and-a-half later. While we refreshed ourselves in the resort’s luxurious washroom, our driver from Hell went to the reception desk for directions to Entabeni. The final leg to our elusive destination entailed a dead-slow drive on an isolated 20-kilometre stretch of very bumpy, unused dirt road, before finally arriving at the security entrance of Entabeni Game Reserve. What was supposed to have been a 4-hour drive turned out to be a 7-hour drive!

Entabeni, also known as “The Place of the Mountain”, is a private game reserve in the World Heritage Waterberg region of South Africa’s Limpopo Province. The reserve traverses over 22,000 hectares showcasing a wide variety of landscapes. It is home to the Big Five and a diverse range of African wildlife and bird life.

Five eco-systems can be found here. The upper escarpment offers majestic craggy rock formations, wide-open grass plains and forested hills. 600-metre-high cliffs separate the upper escarpment from the lower plateau made up of sandy wetlands, with the temperature about three degrees warmer than the top.

The security entrance to the game reserve was as far as the coach was allowed to go. Thereafter, you can only get around in the reserve’s 4WDs. Entabeni has five lodges spread over different locations of the Conservancy. We waited 15 minutes for the 4WDs to arrive and ferry us to our accommodation – Ravineside Lodge, 4.5 kilometres away.

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The fun started almost immediately when we climbed onto the 10-seater 4WD. The ostriches around the security entrance began to chase our vehicles as we drove off, running side-by-side with the open-top 4WDS. These big birds can really run! From driving on the open plains, the vehicles continued into a wooded area. The ranger slowed down and told us to look on our left. I strained my eyes and got my first glimpse of a giraffe eating leaves off some tall branches.

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I was thrilled to spot some more wildlife in the distance as the vehicle made its way towards the lodge. The ranger reassured us that we would get the chance for a closer view during the game drive scheduled that same afternoon.

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First glimpse of Ravineside Lodge

By the time we arrived at Ravineside Lodge, it was 2:30pm – way past lunch time which was to have been at 12:30pm. As we were already behind schedule, we rushed through the buffet lunch and skipped high tea to get ourselves ready for a 3-hour game drive while there was still daylight left.

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The walkway leading to the bar and dining area.

Ravineside Lodge sits under the shadow of Entabeni Mountain on the upper escarpment overlooking the gorge. The lodge caters for three meals, which is commendable considering that it is quite a distance away from civilisation. The cuisine served here is very palatable – comprising a fusion of traditional South African and European elements, accompanied by fresh garden vegetables and fruits. Guests can have their meals either in the African-themed dining room or in the bar.

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The dining room
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African art donning the walls of the dining room
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The roof of the dining area has a safari theme.
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The bar area seen from the dining room.
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There is WiFi access in the bar but reception is somewhat erratic.

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The rooms are not found in Ravineside Lodge itself, but situated some 500 metres away. As the lodge is in the reserve itself, it is not uncommon to get four-legged visitors in the vicinity. So guests are discouraged from walking from the rooms to the main lodge due to the likelihood of running into wildlife. This means that guests are heavily reliant on the rangers for transportation between their rooms and the shared facilities.

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The thatched-roof en suite bedrooms at Ravineside Lodge sit on stilts by the cliff side. There are 22 rooms altogether, grouped in clusters of 3 or 4. You can’t see the rooms from the cliff. A wooden and stone stairway hugs the sides of the cliff and leads down to the rooms.

When the 4WD turned onto a sloping clearing at the edge of the cliff, a sudden panic came over me. I did not see any rooms – only a huge gorge in front of me. Worst of all, the ranger seemed to be going straight for the cliff’s edge. Oh, my God! We are going to die, I thought to myself. It was only after the vehicle had come to a complete stop that I realised the “lookout point” at the edge of the cliff was actually a stairway leading down to the rooms! Even thinking about that little clearing gives me the shivers until today! What if the brakes fail?

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The rooms stand on stilts at different levels of the cliff side.

The ethnic-themed rooms are simple, yet clean and comfortable. There is no air-conditioning, television or internet but each bed gets an individually controlled electric blanket. In light of the many activities available during the day, however, all you really want to do after returning to the room is have a nice hot shower, get between the warm sheets and fall asleep!

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Each lodge features 3 or 4 en suite bedrooms with ethnic-style decor.

The cluster rooms share a private open-plan lounge and bar area that extends out to the walkway and sundeck/balcony. From here guests can indulge in bird-watching and enjoy great views of the valley with its ravines and wooded hillsides.

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My room was at the furthest and lowest end of the cluster.
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View from the doorway.
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Journey to the Cape Peninsula

The Cape Peninsula with all of its stunning scenery and rich biodiversity is a feast for the senses. The weather was kind and it was a beautiful clear morning when we journeyed along the scenic Atlantic seaboard coastal road en route to Hout Bay. The road meandered out of Sea Point and into Clifton, which is home to real estate that only the super-rich can afford. Next to Clifton is the similarly affluent suburb of Camps Bay, popular with locals and international tourists for its long beach and pumping night life. This is THE place to strut your stuff and be seen. To my right, a never-ending stretch of white sand, sheltered from the south-easterly wind and very popular among sun-worshippers.

The Twelve Apostles on the Atlantic Coastal Road

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The coach pulled up at an open car park for a photo opportunity of the Twelve Apostles mountain range. The Twelve Apostles are a group of small mountain peaks that run along the coast of Capetown and are part of the national park that runs from Table Mountain to Cape Point. The formidable Twelve Apostles rise above the road on one side, while steep cliffs and unusual rocks formations drop into the seemingly endless Atlantic Ocean on the other.

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Hout Bay and Boat Cruise to Duiker (Seal) Island 

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We arrived at Hout Bay, a quaint fishing village which sits halfway between Cape Town and Cape Point. This once-fishing community is now a popular residential area nestled by mountains to the North, East and West and the ocean to the South. This village still carries the charm of a bygone era with many local craft markets and antique shops along the waterfront.

Hout Bay is well-known as the port of departure for scenic day trips to Seal Island.

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The boat ride to Seal Island entails circling round The Sentinel to the other side.

Located 6 kilometres out to sea from Hout Bay, Seal Island is home to well over 60,000 Cape fur seals and 24 different bird species. Seals are the favourite menu for the Great White sharks that circle this area. The seals are well aware that they are the choice meal for sharks and enter the ocean with some degree of caution.

The whole island is an ever-changing scene of shades of brown bodies stretching and rolling lazily on the rocks. The seals squabble, bawl, bellow and snort at one another. The larger males compete for dominance while other seals nonchalantly slide off into the cold waters of the Atlantic.

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We could only view the seals from the boat. This is not the kind of island where you can disembark. There is no beach, soil or vegetation at Seal Island. The whole place is rocky and slippery.

Groot Constantia Winery 

Dating back to 1685, Groot Constantia is the oldest wine estate in South Africa. It is particularly well-known for its legendary dessert wines (Constantia Wyn), which have been enjoyed by aristocracy and royalty, from Bismarck to Frederick the Great of Prussia, King Louis Phillip of France and Napoleon. The luscious dessert wines have also been mentioned by Charles Dickens and Jane Austen in their books.

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We were given a 45-minute guided tour of the wine cellar and watched the wine production process in action. We then made our way to the meeting room, walking past some beautiful works of art on the walls. The staff explained the background of the wines and suggested different blends and vintages that go well with food. During the talk, each of us got to sample the award-winning vintages he was referring to.

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From left: Gouverneurs Reserve 2013, Pinotage 2015, Merlot 2013, Chardonnay 2015 and the famous Sauvignon Blanc 2016

The Manor House, which is a good example of Cape Dutch architecture, provides an insight into the life of a successful Cape farmer as well as the lives of rural slaves who worked in the wine estate. Other exhibits include furniture, paintings, textiles, ceramics, brass and copperware from the 18th and 19th centuries.

In the historic core of Groot Constantia Wine Estate stands Jonkershuis Constantia Restaurant. It is spacious and flexible enough to cater for big group functions like weddings, parties and conferences as well as for smaller occasions like family-style lunches, small group outings and picnics on its front lawns.

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Sweeping views across the vineyards and beyond.

Fish Hoek Village

The wine-tasting and activities in the morning had whetted our appetites and all of us looked forward to having lunch at Fish Hoek.

The village of Fish Hoek sits on a pretty bay with a lovely beach and colourful Victorian bathing boxes that add a festive flavour to the place. This vibrant town is surrounded by rugged mountains and lays claim to one of the safest swimming beaches in Cape Town. It is no wonder that Fish Hoek is popular with wind surfers, lifesavers and hobie cat enthusiasts.

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The restaurant where we had lunch, The Galley, is situated right on the beach with fresh breezes and panoramic views of the waves and sand. Customers can choose to dine in or outdoors.

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For starters, we were served with Pumpkin Soup with Garlic Bread, followed by the main made up of Lobster served on a bed of Butter Rice, accompanied with Fish Fingers on Skewers, Salad and Chips. We rounded off the meal with ice-cream – a perfect dessert for a sweltering afternoon.

Boulders Beach, Simon’s Town 

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With all that heavy meal weighing inside my stomach, I was looking forward to getting a bit of a shut-eye inside the coach before we arrived at the next stop. Well, that didn’t happen. Seven minutes into the journey, the coach pulled up to the side of the road in Simon’s Town. We were asked to make our way down a somewhat steep side lane leading to Boulders Beach for the African (Jackass) penguins to have a closer look at us.

Every year over 60,000 visitors flock to Simon’s Town to watch and photograph the penguins in their natural habitat. Boulders Beach remains the only place in the world where one can get up close to African penguins. There are broad, wooden boardwalks cutting across the beaches for both parties to get a good look at each other.

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African Penguin standing directly under me on the boardwalk.

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Cape Point 

Cape Point lies 1.2km east of Cape of Good Hope and is the most south-western corner of the African continent where the Indian and Atlantic Oceans meet. Cape Point is in the Cape of Good Hope Nature Reserve and is part of the Cape Floral Region, a World Heritage Site. This narrow stretch of land, dotted with beautiful valleys, bays and beaches, contains a stunning array of animal and plant species.

South Africa’s most powerful lighthouse can be found here. Completed in 1859, it still stands at 238 metres above sea-level on the highest section of the peak and is now used as the central monitoring point for all lighthouses on the coast of South Africa.

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In order to get to the lighthouse, visitors can either make an uphill walk from the car park to the lighthouse or take The Flying Dutchman Funicular. This funicular takes its name from the local legend of the Flying Dutchman ghost ship and is believed to be the only commercial funicular of its type in Africa. A 3-minute ride in this wheelchair-accessible Flying Dutchman Funicular transfers visitors from the lower station at 127 metres above sea-level, to the upper station to see the lighthouse and panoramic views of the ocean.

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The intermingling of currents from the Atlantic and Indian Oceans help to create the micro-climate of Cape Town and its surroundings. Contrary to popular belief, the meeting of both currents does not result in any obvious visual effect, so there’s no “line” in the ocean where the sea changes colour or looks different. There are, however, rough seas, dangerous swells, tides and localised currents around the Point and in the adjacent waters. There has been countless maritime disasters in the centuries since ships first sailed here.

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A bird’s-eye view of the strong waves directly beneath me.

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Cape of Good Hope

About 1.2 kilometres west of Cape Point is The Cape of Good Hope, a rocky promontory at the southern end of the Cape Peninsula. The Cape of Good Hope is a haven for historians, nature lovers and outdoor enthusiasts offering scenic trails, hiking, biking, swimming in tidal pools, surfing, fishing, angling, bird, whale and wildlife watching.

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The fading rays over Table Mountain marked the end of an exciting and memorable day at the Cape Peninsula. As the coach cautiously made its way out of the national park, I looked out of the window at the darkening sky and hoped fervently that I might one day get to see this all over again.

Footnote: As I was preparing the final edits to this post, I was shocked and saddened to receive news that our Tour Leader to South Africa, Ms E.M. Law, passed away on Sunday December 4, 2016. It was just last month that I dropped by the tour agency to say “hello” and reminisce on some highlights of the trip. She had promised to keep me updated on a small-group tour to Botswana, Tanzania and Kenya planned for next year. I just can’t believe she’s gone!

Colour Scents:Kirstenbosch Botanical Garden

A visit to Cape Town is not complete without a visit to the Kirstenbosch National Botanical Garden. Set in a 36-hectare site on the eastern slopes of Table Mountain, it certainly lives up to its reputation as a wonderful showcase for South Africa’s indigenous flora.

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Kirstenbosch was established in 1913 to promote, conserve and display the extraordinarily rich and diverse flora of southern Africa. Over 7000 species of indigenous plants are found here, including many rare and threatened species. In addition, there’s also a rich collection of bulbs, alpines and ferns.

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In 2004, Kirstenbosch as part of the Cape Floral Kingdom, became the first botanic garden in the world to be included as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

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Nature and flower lovers will no doubt be blown away by this place. The are a number of stunning themed gardens connected by hidden trails that offer little surprises at each turning. There is a lovely wooden tree canopy walkway giving breathtaking views of the rich and colourful landscape, with the majestic Table Mountain standing as a backdrop.

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Inside the Visitors’ Centre entrance and at the main lawn is a bust of Nelson Mandela standing next to a pepper-bark tree (Warburgia salutaris). The bust was sculpted by John Francis Gardner, who gifted it to Kirstenbosch to commemorate Mandela’s planting of the tree during his visit on 21 August 1996.

It portrays Nelson Mandela during the pivotal years of his presidency and captures his radiance and generous spirit for which he is so well known.

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Strelitzia reginae ‘Mandela’s Gold’ is a rare, yellow form of the crane flower and famous orange bird of paradise. This spectacular flower has flaring, yellow petals and a blue tongue reminiscent of a crested tropical bird. The grey-green leaves can grow to a height of about 1.5 metres and the large bird-like flowers stand above the foliage on the tips of long, sturdy stalks during winter and spring.

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Schoolgirls waiting excitedly to begin their excursion of Kirstenbosch.

Too bad that we were given only an hour-and-a-half to roam around – which was hardly enough time at all, considering that six of us spent about half an hour going round in circles, trying to find the right path that would lead us to our meeting point at the second entrance to Kirstenbosch. Nevertheless, it was a morning well-spent in a very tiny corner of the African continent where for a while, everything was peaceful, balanced and beautiful.

On Top of Table Mountain, Cape Town, South Africa

If there’s one attraction that you just cannot afford to miss when you’re in Cape Town, it’s Table Mountain. The mountain forms part of Table Mountain National Park and sits right in the heart of Cape Town. The views from the top are one of the most stunning, so it’s no wonder that Table Mountain is one of the most photographed landmarks in South Africa!

Reaching a height of 1,085m at its highest point, it has a broad flat surface like a table, thus inspiring its name. The indigenous people call it Hoerikwaggo (Mountain in the Sea).

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Apart from gaining the distinction of being one of the New Seven Wonders of Nature, Table Mountain also lays claim to being the only natural site on earth to have a constellation of stars named after it. The name of the constellation is ‘Mensa’, which translates to ‘table’ in Latin. Mensa is located below Orion and it is possible to get a glimpse of this constellation in mid-July if you are in the southern hemisphere.

For the adventurous who are into extreme sports, the mountain is currently the world’s highest abseil at 112m high.

For the fit and agile, this mountain is a hiker’s paradise with numerous trails and amazing views on the way to the top. It takes anywhere between 1 to 3 hours to get up there. However, while the mountain may look tame on any given day, it’s good to be well-prepared and carry water and warm clothing. Sudden changes in weather have resulted in fatalities every year. It’s preferable to hike in a group, hire a guide or join an experienced hiker.

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If you are like me, a casual tourist with limited time and whose fitness level is highly suspect, just use the Table Mountain Aerial Cableway. It only takes a 5-minute scenic ride inside this state-of-the-art cable car to reach the top. There’s no need to strain to see the cliff views above and city below, as the floor of the cable car rotates so that everyone gets a 360-degree view – no matter where they are standing.

There are actually two cable cars that travel at a maximum speed of 10 metres per second and can transport 65 passengers each. The cable cars counterbalance each other as one goes up, the other comes down. They cannot operate independently of each other. The cable cars base is filled with water that serves as a ballast in windy conditions.

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Through the cable car’s looking glass overlooking Lion’s Head mountain and the city of Cape Town.

This cableway has carried many famous visitors ranging from Hollywood and Bollywood megastars, sports personalities and royalty to political bigwigs and business leaders from all over the world.

They include Queen Elizabeth II, Prince Andrew, Oprah Winfrey, Arnold Schwarzenneger, Jackie Chan, Forrest Whitaker, Halle Berry, Brooke Shields, Sting, Michael Buble, Tina Turner, Dolores O’Riordan, Usher, Blair Underwood, Ne-Yo, David and Victoria Beckham, Stefi Graf, Micheal Schumacher, Bob Skinstad, Robbie Fleck, Pele, Maradona, Ronaldo and Justin Gabriel – just to name a few. 

So when your nose is pressed against the glass of the cable car, remember that it’s entirely possible that an A-list visitor may have once pressed up against the very same spot!

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For about 2 seconds, there was no one between me and the glass, so I managed to get a shot of Cape Town.
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The view just before the approach to the upper cable car station.

At the top, there are friendly trails to breathe in the mountain air and explore the beautiful surrounds. On a clear day you can see miles ahead with the entire city spread out on all sides, embraced by the ocean with the clouds gently brushing your head! The photos here do not do this mountain justice.

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Even the birds can’t seem to get enough of the scenery from one of the most beautiful places in this planet.

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The rocks on the mountain are over 600 million years old, making Table Mountain one of the oldest mountains in the world. By comparison, it is 6 times older than the Himalayas and 5 times older than the Rocky Mountains.

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Lookout to Robben Island where Nelson Mandela spent 18 out of 27 years in a prison cell.

Table Mountain hosts the richest floral kingdom on earth with more than 2000 species of plants. About 70% of those species can only be found up here and nowhere else.

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Table Mountain is often covered in a sheet of cloud which is responsible for the flourishing vegetation found on the mountain. It looks similar to smoke but is actually the result of a south-easterly wind rising up to meet the mountain’s cooler air. The cloud that forms around the mountain is aptly called “table cloth”.

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Restaurant and a curio shop under the shroud of a “table cloth”

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Our coach driver (left) and his friend at the Cableway car park with Lion’s Head mountain (669m) in the background.