Or a visit to Robben Island, where Nelson Mandela was imprisoned for 18 years, would reveal that it also held Chinese political prisoners who were classified as “Blacks” during Apartheid rule?
South Africa has much to offer − soaring peaks, beautiful vineyards, white sandy beaches − but it is the wildlife and its turbulent history which sticks to you long after you’ve returned home.
It is absolutely worthwhile to go on a safari where you wake up at the crack of dawn every morning to catch the sunrise and the wildlife. No zoo in the world can replicate the thrill of seeing lions, leopards, elephants, giraffes, zebras or rhinoceros in the wild. South Africa’s Kruger National Park, one of the world’s largest and most diverse wildlife conservation, attracts over one million visitors.
But a small piece of advice from South African friends proved to be priceless: “Go to a private game reserve. Your chances of seeing wildlife will be greater as you can drive off the road and come up really close to the animals.”
A frantic search on Tripadvisor.com led me to Ezulwini Game Lodges. Ezulwini, which means “paradise” in Zulu, sits on the private Balule Nature Reserve, which forms part of the greater Kruger National Park spanning approximately 3,000,000ha. Ezulwini traverses 7,500ha.
Ezulwini lodges are gorgeous and tastefully decorated to blend in with nature.
The daily rate for a single lodge includes three tasty meals and two game drives.
At 4pm, the evening game drive begins. A few minutes into the drive, and you can see giraffes eating leaves off the trees while two zebras graze nearby.
The zebras’ black-and-white stripes were dizzying to watch, their colours vivid and reflecting back so much light it was almost blinding for a second.
Then the giraffes started moving. It was surreal, the creatures looked like tower blocks in three shades of brown moving in slow motion. The bush landscape was gently rolling by when the open-air Land Rover suddenly accelerated and Trevor, the game driver who looks like a young Colin Farell, shouted: “Sorry for the Safari Ferrari, guys. A rhinoceros has been spotted. I am rushing for it.”
We clung to our seats as the Land Rover bumped over dirt tracks for 15 to 20 minutes before coming to a halt. In front of us, looking like a pygmy-fied dinosaur that had survived extinction, was a rhinoceros busy chewing on grass, oblivious to five humans gawking at it. It was about 4m away from us.
Despite its tranquil surrounding and Kruger’s status as a protected park, rhinoceros are not safe here as poachers sneak into the park and kill them before sawing off their horns. Given Kruger’s vast size, it is difficult to secure the entire park.
The rhinoceros has become the most poached animal in the past four years, due to an upsurge in demand from Asia, particularly Vietnam, for its horns which are considered as a luxury item and a purported cure for cancer, according to Traffic, the wildlife trade monitoring network.
In 2011, a total of 448 rhinoceros were poached, out of which 252 were from Kruger, reported Traffic. In 2012 alone, at least 558 rhinoceros were killed!
As dusk fell, we left the rhinoceros to his grass and his uncertain fate, hoping he would not become part of the grim statistics.
The next day, guests were woken up at 5am for the morning game drive. Giraffes were wandering around, busily eating leaves off the trees, just as we had left them the evening before.
Soon, the sound of a gurgling river could be heard. We got down from the Land Rover and walked down a slope to the banks of the Olifants River. It took a few seconds to register − the dark brown shades in the water were actually a collection of hippopotami, floating lazily on the water with most of the body submerged in water. When they lifted their heads, they revealed a snout that appeared to be carved into a smile, smirking at their lazy, indulgent morning.
Resembling massive floating pillows with short legs, the hippopotamus spends much of the daytime in water and comes out in the evening to feed on grass and plants. Just before the morning drive ended, we drove off the road and five minutes later, right under the shade of two trees, were eight lions.
It was exhilarating to see the large cats from 3m away, looking docile and calm.
“They don’t see us a threat nor do they see us as food,” said Trevor.
The big cats totally ignored us and, after a few minutes, put their heads down in the grass and went to sleep. Trevor said the lions would sleep for hours, and so we left.
We managed to trek and see the same lion family over the next three days. Going on a safari is not like going to a zoo. A safari forces us to be patient. The wait makes the excitement of spotting wildlife so much more thrilling.
Our biggest thrill came on the third morning. After two hours of driving, we spotted a leopard, almost obscured by overgrown bushes, resting under a tree with its back facing us.
It was panting heavily as it had just chased and killed a baby giraffe whose carcass laid nearby. We fell silent, awed by the moment and mindful of how fortuitous it was to see a leopard.
A friend complained he had been to Kruger five times and never once glimpsed a leopard. After a few minutes, the leopard turned his head to look at us with a pair of blue eyes. It was indeed a rare sight as most leopards have golden-coloured eyes.
“His name is Watsekile,” said Trevor. “It means ‘happiness’. He is so named because every time people see him, they smile,” which in turn made us smile.
Its spotted fur was absolutely beautiful to behold. Its beauty is also its death warrant − men have long hunted these fascinating creatures for their fur.
Today, threats to their survival include habitat loss, commercial hunting and poisoning from farmers who consider them a nuisance to their livestock.
The next day, I bade farewell to Ezulwini and took a two-hour flight to Cape Town. I stayed at Camps Bay which faces the Atlantic Ocean, with the spectacular Table Mountain in the background.
The white sandy beach attracts many sun-bathers but few venture out for a swim as the water is icy cold.
The most memorable part of Cape Town was the visit to Robben Island, the prison island turned UN World Heritage site. Former political prisoners guide visitors through the prison cells. They bring the anti-Apartheid struggle vividly to life as they recount their own incarceration.
“I was 20 years old when I was brought here. One of my cell mate was taken away one day and never came back. Someone told us he was beaten to death by the guards,” said Cepu, a former political prisoner.
A hush came over the visitors.
“What was your best memory here,” a tourist asked?
“How we cared so much for one another. The unity was amazing, and I shall never forget that. There was no prison violence amongst inmates,” Cepu replied.
Robben Island today resembles an idyllic island overrun with flowers and trees, burying the dark past in a burst of colours.
After Cape Town, I travelled to a town called Knysna for a spot of dolphin-watching. The dolphins did not disappoint. They showed up by the dozens, leaping through the waves for some 30 minutes.
My last stop was at Tenikwa Wildlife Awareness Center, Plettenberg Bay, for a walk with the cheetahs. There were four of us that morning and the game-keeper brought out two cheetahs, Thandi and Chaka.
“You can stroke them,” said the game-keeper.
Surprised, I gingerly stroke Thandi, a female, not knowing what to expect.
She purred loudly. Feeling more confident, we started walking. More accurately, the cheetahs started walking with us. Thandi purred constantly while Chaka, a male cheetah, stopped many times to pee against a tree to mark his territory.
Both cheetahs were born in captivity and cannot survive in the wild.
Cheetahs are the world’s fastest land animal, capable of reaching a speed of 120kph in 3.3 seconds. Sadly, they are an endangered species owing to poaching, loss of habitat and the high mortality rate of cheetah cubs. It is estimated only 12,400 cheetahs remain in the wild.
As I bade the cheetahs goodbye, I wondered how much time was left before these magnificent creatures disappeared.