Wilderness & Winelands
Updated: Feb 20, 2020
a pinnacle journey through the thickets and vines,
South Africa extends diversity in adventure and luxury
"The only man I envy is the man who has not yet been to
Africa, for he has so much to look forward to."
CHAPTER ONE: THE ALLURE
My neuroses is in full swing, as I find myself yet again at odds with the Achilles heel of my traveler existence. I’m doing it again; over-packing for any and every possible scenario. My suitcase can’t decide if I’m going to South Africa or the moon. Just in the nick of time, an envelope from Alluring Africa arrives at my door. Inside is a personalized spiral bound itinerary and travel companion, ideally compact for someone who already has too much stuff. The cover page inspires a moment of sheer excitement, boldly printed with my name, and designating my journey, “South Africa: Wilderness and Winelands”. Thoughtfully tailored in every respect, its 28 pages of contents include my schedule and transfer times down to the very minute, photographs of my accommodations, important contacts, maps, location specific travel tips, and A-Z information for everything from entry visa requirements to recommended reading to the weather. There’s a special section with a thorough packing list, and it’s as though this little pocket reference knows me where it underlines “do not over-pack.” I’ve never seen such a comprehensive presentation for any of my trips. Ordinarily, I get a loosely drafted itinerary in a PDF, and I’m often left doing a bit of guesswork as to how it will go. Then again, I’ve never worked with a safari outfitter before. I’m not sure if this is an industry standard, but up to this point, I have reason to believe that as a luxury tour operator, Alluring Africa has perfected the process.
I’d been communicating with Becca Fritz for several months now. Based in Florida where Alluring Africa’s office is located, she is among a small expert team spearheaded by its president and founder, Sunit Sanghrajka. We’d had many conversations since the seed of visiting South Africa had been implanted in my mind. She’s not just someone I’d venture to call a friend at this point; Becca is my trusty source of knowledge for all things pertaining to South Africa. I’d been to the second largest continent in the world only once before, but Uganda is worlds away from South Africa, and I’m a little out of my element. Fortunately it doesn’t really matter; as my point of contact, Becca makes me feel heard, really understanding my vision and desires for this journey, and squares away the rest. Sunit, a Kenya native that grew up in the safari business, and has been been recognized as a Top Travel Advisor by Travel + Leisure for six of the last seven years, remains an accessible presence as well, and I’m feeling confident about my upcoming adventure before its even begun.
As I am engrossed in my packet, the phone rings, and it’s Becca for our scheduled pre-departure call to go over the final itinerary and documents. As we recap the day-to-day events ahead, Becca offers keen insights into the places and regions I will see. As each member of the Alluring Africa team personally travels to various countries throughout Africa to scope out new experiences and gain firsthand knowledge that can’t be found online, she thinks of things I’d have never thought to ask, but will make a huge difference in the long haul. I have a few random questions of my own, which she happily addresses, but in this moment, I’m most of all grateful that she’s convinced me to unload my clunky hiking boots I’d brought on my gorilla trek last year. I won’t need them for safari in South Africa, and it’s saying a lot that I trust her enough to leave them behind. I don’t do that for just anyone. If there is a presence, however, to trust in this business, it’s Alluring Africa. For a team with 70 years of collective experience in the safari industry, if they tell me to leave the boots at home, well the boots left at home they shall be.
CHAPTER TWO: 19 HOURS AND 8,670 MILES TO GO
On-board South African Airways, I take notice to the plush surroundings of the aircraft. Noticeably roomier than most jetliners, my leggy body is quite relieved. I’m not a nervous flyer, but I don’t like to feel cramped either. My first look at South African hospitality, SAA’s crew and flight attendants are kind and accommodating throughout the direct flight from New York to Johannesburg. Amenity kits, charging ports, and a 10-inch screen with on-demand entertainment make the long-haul flight a cozy one. Business Class flyers arrive at their destination feeling pampered and rested, having slept like babies in flatbed seats.
As I waltz off the plane with a feeling of excitement for the journey ahead, I’m not quite there just yet. Right now I just need to contend with my luggage, move through immigration, and meet my transfer flight to Port Elizabeth. My itinerary clearly denotes that I will be met by a Menzies representative to assist me through immigration, customs formalities, and baggage collection, leaving no room for error, delay, or the unexpected. Just as it said he would, Meiki from Menzies awaits my arrival, dressed rather dapper if I may say, in a professional suit and tie, and sporting a smile. He welcomes me to South Africa, and asks me how my journey has been thus far. I begin to tell him about how excited I am to be here, but I stop dead in my tracks when I see the immigration line wrapped around Johannesburg Airport like an Indian python. I’m not worried per se, but I’m not exactly looking forward to this Six Flags Great Adventure of a line either. Now, I’m not exactly proud to be cutting the entire line thanks to Mieki taking the lead here, but I figure he’s just saved me a solid hour or more by taking the initiative, and I’m pretty grateful for it. We’re through it all in no time, and Meiki sees me to my departure gate, where I lounge for a bit prior to boarding with a nice cup of Jo’burg joe.
CHAPTER THREE: SHAMWARI PRIVATE GAME
RESERVE – EAGLES CRAG
Following a scenic hour’s drive to Eagles Crag at Shamwari Private Game Reserve, I’m met by the ultimate of wildlife at the gate entrance. A herd of elephants cross the path before me as I pull in to the majestic property, and already I can tell I’m in for quite a safari. Situated along the Eastern Cape, Shamwari may be less known to safari goers than say, Kruger National Park, but there’s a certain appeal in that. Seven uniquely luxurious five-star graded lodges and one explorer camp occupy the massive private reserve across 27 square miles of natural glory home to the coveted Big 5. The region holds a vastly different terrain than other parts of South Africa, with its evergreen vegetation, rocky cliffs, and awe-inspiring coastline. I’d come prepared and vaccinated, but Shamwari holds a major advantage over the northern country in that there is no malaria present. This is especially appealing to those looking to get pregnant anytime soon, or anyone who would rather forgo the anti-malarial pills and its pesky side effects.
The only way to properly describe the newly renovated Eagles Crag is to say that it is simply ridiculous. Ridiculously swank, that is. With just nine suites at this adults-only lodge, it is intimate, private, and utterly idyllic. The welcome I receive is warm and genuine, as I am made to feel like extended family in no time. Before making my way to my suite, which lays on the land like a private Malibu beach house, I am treated to a tapas lunch that sweeps the table like a feast fit for a gluttonous king. Pair that with an exquisite South African chardonnay, and I have arrived. When I finally mosey over to my private lodge, I begin to have serious doubts whether they’re going to be able to pry me away after three nights. It is a masterpiece of construction and design, possibly twice the size of my apartment back in New York. A massive plush bed, sofa and sitting room, desk space, washroom and vanity area, separate tub room, indoor/outdoor shower, private deck with a heated plunge pool, mini bar and Nespresso station, closets galore—it has it all. A Shamwari Safari Kit filled with goodies rests on my bed, and I feel so spoiled. From the exterior, uninterrupted views of the surrounding rock faces where eagles soar, takes my breath away. There’s a cruel irony in there being so much to explore at Shamwari, because there is no possible way to be everywhere at once.
After a few moments of gathering myself and unpacking my things, my telephone rings and it’s my ranger, David Fraser calling to invite me for afternoon tea and canapés followed by an evening safari game drive. I head on over to the open air lobby and partake in a cup of tea as Dave sees that our safari vehicle is stocked with warm blankets and bottles of water. There’s something I quickly learn about the South African climate- the temperature can drastically and noticeably rise and drop ten degrees in a matter of minutes. Layers are always a good idea, but those warm blankets tucked inside the vehicle’s chest are perfect for cozying on up as we roam about in search of wildlife.
The tiered seating of the 4x4 vehicle is comfortable as we drive about the expansive reserve, accessibly spotting families of giraffes, cheetahs, elephants, antelopes, tortoises, zebras, and herd jackals. Ranger Dave knows more about this place than I ever could imagine, holding vast knowledge about everything from the trees to the animals. His immense respect for all life forms brilliantly mirrors Shamwari’s philosophy of wildlife preservation. Merging a commitment to responsible tourism with luxurious adventure, Shamwari hits all of the marks. At the reserve, great efforts are taken in the form of task forces to ward off poachers, and numerous sanctuaries stand to protect endangered species. About two hours into the game drive, Dave locates a spectacular setting with panoramic views of the colorful sky hovering above. Atop the vehicle’s bonnet, a spread of light bites and refreshments decoratively adorn the surface, waiting to be enjoyed as we stare off into the romantic sunset.
Back to Eagles Crag with a little time to freshen up and enjoy cocktails by the bar, I’d worked up enough of an appetite to eagerly anticipate the evening’s culinary offerings. Multiple courses of flavorful cuisine are presented before me amidst the restaurant’s candlelight. The mood is serene and the surroundings lovely, but it is time for me to settle in for the night back at my lodge, as I have still to recalibrate my internal clock, and there is a 5am wake up call for tomorrow morning’s game drive. Upon returning to my suite, I am met with a detailed note card describing the next day’s events, weather forecast, turn down service, and a little trinket jar of lip balm beside my bed.
The next morning we meet again in the lobby just before 6am, eager to get our mitts on a cup of coffee, and light breakfast nibbles. At sunrise, we come in close encounters with elephants, zebras, lions, antelope, and giraffes. I learn more about the conservation efforts of this magnificent place, and pay a visit to the Wildlife Rehabilitation Center, where wild animals in need of medical care are brought in from all over Africa, with the intent to set them back free into the wild. I have done and seen so much before it’s even 9am, when I am treated to a breakfast spread of epic proportions. A station of assorted cheeses, croissants, breads, and fresh fruit complement an à la carte menu with items such as artisan pancakes, omelets, and everything in between. Most selections are familiar, but I appreciate the presence of regional African highlights as well.
After five or so game drives with Ranger Dave, it hits me that he meets every outing with the same enthusiastic energy and excitement like it’s his first time. He’s living his dream, and this translates into an unparalleled experience for his guests. One afternoon following a heavenly massage with Zodwa (whom I nickname “Queen” and in a half-kidding manner invite her to come live with me) at the Eagles Crag spa, I encounter the rarest of sightings in the wild: the coveted black rhino. I’d been hearing for some time now about its reclusive ways. An aggressive creature that can and does instill fear into the hearts of the bravest of rangers, it’s one animal to admire from a distance should the opportunity present itself. Dave had been telling us earlier in the day how he’d once hosted an enthusiastic guest who’d been on no less than 25 safaris, but had never been fortunate enough to see the black rhino. In what must have been equal parts good fortune and dedicated ranger spirit, Dave found us the unlikeliest of finds. Charged with adrenaline through my body as we look on at her fierce beauty, I have a moment of realization for how incredible life truly is. Reeling it all in, we drive off into the sunset and upon a cliff, where Eagles Crag staff had lovingly set up a beautiful gin bar and canapés against the mesmerizing horizon, just prior to a traditional Boma BBQ dinner back at the lodge.
For my last night at Shamwari, Ranger Dave joins me for dinner, and I am eager to hear more about his recent motorbike charity ride benefitting anti-poaching forces. I share a bit about myself too, capturing the places I’d been, and one story in particular surrounding a remote beach in Thailand and an impassioned chef. Back in 2017, I was enjoying a dimly lit romantic dinner in Hua Hin, when I’d been served an endless array of culinary offerings. One dish, while delightful, was an oversized gazpacho served with a spoon better suited for a dollhouse miniatures set, making it simply not possible for me to reasonably finish. The attentive Thai woman serving me had reported back to the kitchen that I did not enjoy the gazpacho, and the next thing I knew, the head chef came down the sandy beach, waving his chef knife, to confront me about my disdain for his soup. He was of course harmless, but it was a hilarious moment in retrospect- me sat there, scared out of my wits, trying my best to convince him, in spite of our language barriers, that I didn’t hate his soup. At some point during my meal with Dave, he’d planned the ultimate prank on me with the kitchen staff, ensuring that when I’d eventually reached the point that I could not eat another bite, the chef would make his due entrance. “So, I hear you don’t like my food…” the chef calls out, barely able to keep a straight face. I burst out in a fit of laughter, thoroughly amused by this legendary reenactment of my episode in Thailand. More than just a convivial moment tailored to my personal escapades, it was a fine illustration of the Shamwari spirit; fun, warm, personalized, and in spite of all its luxuries, doesn’t take itself too seriously.
CHAPTER FOUR: LA CLÉ DES MONTAGNES, FRANSCHHOEK
An early departure from Shamwari invites a new and vastly different scenery to traverse in the Cape Winelands. I’d hopped on a quick and comfortable flight to Cape Town and been faithfully met by my tour guide, whom for the purposes of this story, I’ll call Jana. Jana is a lovely and knowledgeable woman that has dedicated her years to sharing her adoration for the Cape region with tourists seeking an insider’s perspective. That said, something between us just didn’t click. Perhaps all the excitement over the last few days was catching up with me, and I was being a bit too sensitive, but the dynamic between us wasn’t quite right. As hard as I’d tried to decide what or why that was, I couldn’t quite place my finger on it, and it was an unfamiliar feeling for me. Something about Jana was driving me crazy, and it was around the time we’d pulled into the picturesque town of Franschhoek that I’d reached the conclusion not another moment could be shared with this woman. I’d wrestled with whether to say something to Becca from Alluring Africa, whom had been keeping a comfortable degree of contact with me from back in the United States, ensuring that all was well and expectations were being met. I didn’t want to appear difficult or unreasonable, as Jana was by no means a horror show of a guide. Upon the time I’d pulled up to La Clé des Montagnes, the dreamiest villa in the most tranquil setting I’d ever seen, I knew Jana had to go. I looked around me, and I saw a place I’d like to retire someday. Life, and more specifically this trip, was too short not to enjoy it to the fullest. I’d popped a quick email over to Becca, and she’d handled the Jana situation for me like a pro. No awkward break-ups (“Sorry Jana, but I’d very much like to never see or speak with you again…”), no further explanation necessary. It just wasn’t right, and my trusty advisor from Alluring Africa simply understood. For all of my time going forward, I’d not have to worry about my company, and I’d been so relieved that someone had my back in real time.
With acres of scenic vineyards and plum orchards sweeping the land, Franschhoek is a sleepy town with boundless charm. At La Clé, a luxury country style estate amidst the vines awaits. A crystal pool, lush gardens, stately vineyards, exquisite furnishings, and scrumptious little bites all about, make up the fully staffed yet quiet hidden gem of a home. The grounds are arresting with ethereal beauty, extending the most elegant accommodations for an intimate wedding and honeymoon alike. Charming in its fixtures and accents, it is also piqued with modern delights, where even a helipad encompasses the expansive property. Soft classical music softens my mood and brings me back to harmony, as the gentle breeze from the open door to my secluded terrace offers an aromatic touch of fresh air. With a fine bottle of wine from a nearby vineyard, I take this opportunity to unwind in my rustic abode and simply be present in the moment. La Clé reads like a Garden of Eden; it is impossibly calming and breathtaking beyond belief. My accommodation in the Manoir Garden Suite is colossal, and as I’d been welcomed in, the staff lovingly does all they can to see that I feel made at home. Beside my bedroom is a grand dressing room almost mirroring its size. I give up trying to quantify the number of dressers and drawers amassing the wardrobe walls. A challenge to many of its guests, as it so happens, is to place one item in each nook of the dressing quarters, but I can see from the start this would be a hard-pressed feat. Even an over-packer such as myself didn’t have enough to fill this room.
An oversized bath gets the evening off to an optimal start before my kind hosts deliver me to Maison, a local restaurant with just the right amount of trendy in its atmosphere. After a hearty tapas dinner, I return back to the villa, and sleep like a baby for nearly eleven hours until a sensational aroma of coffee, pastries, and an array of heavenly breakfast offerings creep beneath my bedroom door from the dining room. Much the way I imagine the Queen eats breakfast at her country home, I sit before a long wooded farmhouse table, with nothing and no one but the serene setting surrounding me. I wish every morning could beget a peace such as this.
As promised, Jana 2.0 a.k.a. James from Wildnerness Safaris, emerges on the property, and we head out to enjoy our Saturday plans of wine tastings around Franscchoek, and a coveted lunch reservation at Babel on Babylonstoren, where free roaming peacocks and turkeys live in harmony among its farm and gardens. Exclusively serving ingredients sourced right from its property, Babel encompasses a rustic chic vibe, and in a sense, makes Blue Hill look like a Burger King. Every bite is remarkably fresh, as though it was just picked from the ground, and it is truly a sensational afternoon of dining and leisurely strolls.