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On The Scene - A South African Adventure

By Gerrye Wong    June  2015
Natives of South Africa welcome visitors to African continent
When one pictures an adventure to Africa, many times the mind envisions countless hours in raging heat to see armies of animals in, around and surrounding your safari vehicle, as you’re stylishly dressed in jungle friendly tan clothes a la Robert Redford in “Out of Africa”. Many say instead of trekking halfway around the world to see animals while being burdened by heavy cameras and binoculars while braving dusty, bumpy roads, why not visit Disney World’s Safari Land theme park or the local zoo instead?    All I can reply –there is no comparison, and I can vouch from first-hand experience, having visited East Africa’s Kenya and Tanzania twice  and most recently, ventured to South Africa last month for my second time there since 1998.

At Capetown’s Gold Restaurant, natives amuse Calvin Wong
What drew my husband and me, and 25 other fellow passengers on a House of Travel Tour arranged by Brenda Abrahamson to shell out funds that could have purchased a compact car instead, and to drag our bodies 30 airport/air hours away from serene California, you continue to query?  Let me share my African Adventure with you here, for you to decide.

Bay Area Chinese American ladies don zebra scarves to get in the African safari spirit  
Yes, it is the primary lure of seeing animals in their natural habitat that draws the interest of most visitors, but our tour introduced us to much more of South Africa’s attributes.   It was a long tiring journey from California to New York to Johannesburg to Cape Town, but the beauty of cosmopolitan Cape Town’s setting did rekindle the spirit after a much-needed night’s sleep at the beautiful One & Only Cape Town Resort Hotel situated beautifully near the popular Waterfront area.   Cape Town reminds me of other beautiful bay-side cities like Vancouver and San Francisco surrounded by mountains, but it is Cape Town’s famed Table Mountain that stands majestically alongside the city that makes it even more outstanding.  A must-see in Cape Town is to take the Table Mountain Aerial Cableway to see the beautiful city from its mountain top view, along with a short cruise to Robben Island to view the site where Nelson Mandela had been imprisoned. Another day’s outing for the group was the Cape Point tour by cruising to Seal Island, Cape of Good Hope and seeing the penguins at Boulders Beach. I always like to catch any city’s doubledecker busses which provide on and off privileges but can take you completely around the city to get a feel for the city’s special sights, especially Cape Town’s beautiful beaches, its many museums of history and art, and its famed Botanical Gardens. Activities and music is everywhere, and we enjoyed seeing a crowded marathon run through the middle of town, shopping for local handicrafts at the inner city’s Green Market, and visiting the Victoria & Alfred Waterfront area with its many restaurants, street artists and unique building featuring native-made products and locally produced foods. 

Morgan and Daisy Lee with Osla Young seen enjoying African outdoor feasts
Emerging from the shadow of Apartheid, South Africa has become classed as a “new world” region where the wines it produces are often nicely poised and represent good value for money at all levels on the quality scale, we were told. So a trip to South Africa should always include a visit to its wine region. Riding just a short distance from Cape Town, we arrive at the country’s leading wine area, and home to many of the country’s leading estates. The village of Stellenbosch’s vineyards are fringed by mountains and a wine route is well defined.  We were introduced to its famed red variety, Pinotage, which makes striking gamey and earth-tasting wines often with a savoury, cheesy edge to them. We continued and had enjoyable wine tastings at the Bonchendal Wine Estate and a grand Cellar tour and wine tasting at Delaire Graaf, which mellowed us all to enjoy the breathtaking panoramic views of mountains during a long ride before arriving at the Grootbos Private Nature Reserve Forest Lodge.

Gerrye  Wong rests in lavish comfort of canopied bed at Grootbos Forest Lodge
Nestled in an ancient Milkwood forest surrounded by rolling hills of fynbos and majestic mountains, Grootbos’  freestanding luxury suites and lodges led us into a complete immersion into the pristine natural surroundings while being embraced in luxury and comfort.  This was definitely not safari tent accommodations, for upon walking down an enchanted cobbled pathway beneath the ancient forest canopy, I was in for a wonderful sight. Opening the door to my freestanding cottage, I found a stylishly furnished suite with luxurious canopy beds, separate lounge living room with cozy fireplaces and a private wooden deck where I caught my breath at a spectacular ocean view of Walker Bay overshadowed  only by a magnificent orange sunset. This could be labeled South Africa nirvana!   Grootbos owner Michael Lutzeyer greeted us, explaining that his Grootbos Foundation’s conservation efforts are directed at the development of sustainable nature-based livelihoods amongst the local communities. His goal is to produce and use local products grown by local citizens, which has made Grootbos an award-winning pioneer in sustainable tourism, and certainly made for us a wonderful experience. 

Dali Jones, Marie Lee and Gerrye Wong climb on jeeps for safari game drive
During our stay there, some went on a treacherous adventure climbing down 200 steps, and over slippery algae covered rocks to enter the middle Stone Age Klipgat Cave made some 80,000 years ago at water’s edge.  Others took hikes through the reserve learning about the splendor of the Cape Floral Kingdom and some investigated the incredible marine life of this southern tip of Africa where whales are easily seen during its migrating season through the area.  The wine lovers enjoyed a tutored tasting at the Bouchard Finlayson Winery led by Co Owner and Cellar Master Peter Finlayson, so this visit to Grootbos Private Nature Reserve provided different experiences and a different view and appreciation of South Africa not often known or enjoyed by other groups.

Travelers in jeeps search many hours for animals in South Africa
We had been in South Africa a week with nary an animal in sight, so it was good timing that our next stop was flying to Tambo International Airport where from there we bussed for three hours in a comfortable large bus before being transferred to vans taking us on bumpy dusty roads to the Entabeni Game Reserve Hanglip Lodge. After being greeted by a smiling staff and served high tea and cool towels, we were escorted to the 10 en-suite thatched huts on the lower Escarpment of the malaria-free Entabeni Safari Conservancy. Across the plains our escort pointed out a herd of wildebeest grazing nearby so we at last felt the excitement we were finally on a safari of sorts.  The only set-back was that somehow some of our luggage had been overlooked in the unloading of the bus  and  wasn’t discovered until the bus had retraced its way back to Cape Town some 6 hours later. Unfortunately, our first game drive at the Game Reserve was marred by this mishap for some, but lo, the next morning, the hapless bus driver had again retraced his route and the bags were delivered.  Such are the misfortunes travelers must adjust to with a “comme ci comme ca” attitude, or as Americans would say, “That’s life!”

A lion is spotted in the tall brush
Game drive transportation in South Africa is a challenge for many of us. Because for our short Asian legs, climbing up the jeep ladders to the three rows of seats in the open air jeep is a big stretch.  But it provides excellent views of the animals and although we always tried to contain our excitement when any animal came into view to stay quiet, as our driver instructed us, we couldn’t always hold back our excitement like kids.  In the beginning, our cameras clicked incessantly every time we saw an impala, zebra or wildebeest, but all too soon, they became too commonplace.  One high point of this game reserve, which unfortunately has fewer animals than the big game reserves like Kruger National Park, was when we came across a herd of elephants slowly crossing the road right in front of us, seemingly unobservant of our nearby jeeps and clicks of our cameras and our whispered aaaaaahs. 

Excitement reigned when some rhinos come close to our jeeps
 Sometimes the drives are laborious as your eyes tire from constantly scanning the horizon looking for the elusive lion, leopard, giraffe or rhinosaurus but our driver guide warned us to always keep alert as you never knew what lay beyond the turn of the road.  He was right one time when he came upon half a dozen rhinos with their babies in plain sight 20 feet from our jeeps.  For a respite from the hour-long rides,  the jeeps of our group would gather somewhere  in the reserve and lo and behold, out would come the wine bottles and glasses  for a nice breather from game watching  where we could all share exciting tales of what we saw  and queries of what did you see?  

The impressive lion king gives us a nonchalant look
  Such was life on game drives. Early morning drives starting at 6:30am were chilly and cold enough for me to wear my ear muffs, safari hat, knit gloves, scarves wrapped around neck and face, and engulfed in the blankets provided on the jeep for the first hour at least and sometimes for the evening drives here too. Daytimes were often quite warm.  One fun experience to write home about was  playing cards on the  lodge porch and  seeing a group of wart hogs sprint past us one moment, and the next  seeing the lazy wildebeest lumber by.   No wonder the staff always had someone escort us to our huts  in the evening for fear  we might run into meandering pigs, elephants or wildebeest who were uninvited  residents  on the lodge grounds along with us American tourists.

Entabeni Lodge’s thatched roof huts sat in amidst the animals plains area
The eighth day of our two week trip was the busiest and piece-de-resistance of the whole tour. Following our usual early morning game drive, we breakfasted at the Legends Golf & Safari Resort before embarking on a golfer’s  exciting experience of a lifetime visiting South Africa’s EXTREME 19TH HOLE.  Newspapers across the globe have run features on this amazing golf hole for it is accessible only by helicopter with the tee box set 400m up on the majestic Hanglip Mountain and played to a green in the shape of Africa some 400m below. Golfing superstars and celebrities have traveled the world to play this unique hole, and here we were too! The helicopter picked us up right outside the Legend’s Pro shop and quickly whisked us up the 10 minute ride to the mountain top. 

Golfers David Yee, Dali Jones, Sylvia Eng, Gerrye and Calvin Wong wait excitedly for helicopter to take them up to the mountain behind them to reach the Extreme 19 tee box.
 It was a little frightening to stand at the edge so we could catch a glimpse of the tiny green below so the guide eased our fears and let us tee up a couple feet back from the cliff’s edge for our own safety and sanity.  Let’s just say once you hit the ball, you had to scamper a few hurried steps forward to cliff’s edge so you could watch your ball make its vain downward attempt to catch the green.  For statistics, the Legends website says the tee is set 1410 feet above the green and from the base of Hanglip mountain to the back of the green is 1312 feet.  In golf terms, that’s a 437 yard par 3, aptly named the longest (and highest) par 3 in the world.  It was quite intimidating to stand there knowing the task ahead, but for the moment, we pretended we were like the pros going for the gold and green jacket!

The helicopter lands at the top of Hanglip Mountain. If you can imagine the mountain as a tennis shoe, the tee box is located where the shoe strings would be tied.

Golfers from Lodi, CA wait their chance to send off cliff-side drives to the small golf green below.
  I can hear your question – did your group of 11 wanna-be champs get a hole in one? An emphatic NO!  (but neither has anyone, including pros so far!)  Did any of our balls hit the distant green shape of Africa?    Let us report our total of 11 players hitting 5 balls each (total 55 tries!) hit brave and valiant attempts with our balls surrounding the green area, give or take a few hundred yards here and there, but the excitement and exhilaration of the experience made up for our misses and was worth the $200 dip in the wallet.  T’is said there is a $1 million prize for any player making a hole in one, with money yet to be claimed. However, 8 players have made birdies up to print time, and 96 pars have been recorded, no less. 

Calvin and Gerrye brave standing on the cliff’s edge of Hanglip Mountain Tee Box in South Africa

Dr. David Yee sees the small green below he is to aim his golf ball at.
  It took another 10 minute helicopter ride back to the golf course and a 10 minute jeep ride into the wilderness to the Africa-shaped green so we could try for our 11th point shot (yes, count up all the penalties of 5 shots above) from the Free Drop Zone  to the flagged hole.  I am proud to report the oldest of the group, husband Calvin, and the youngest Greg Abrahamson from Australia capped a score of 12, as did I on a hit and a prayer!  We gave each other a big high five when we saw the course’s website stating the highest recorded score was a 23, no less!  We were all presented with a certificate chronicling our score and the wonderful experience!  Ai ya – a wonderfully exciting mark off the Wong bucket list!

Former President Nelson Mandela’s home is now a library in the township of Soweto.
Our next adventure was to bus to Johannesburg where we made a drive around to see historic Soweto, where  two former presidents, Desmond Tutu and Nelson Mandela once lived.  It was Saturday which is declared party night in this poor area, and the people seemed in a happy festive mood, which the guide says happens every weekend.  Historians remember the tragic children’s rebellion and march during the troubled times of the apartheid, so our group was hopeful life in the area now is calmer and happier for the people. 

The lavish Victoria Falls Safari Club grounds is a wonderful final resting place for our trip.

The sounds and sights of Victoria Falls was in full force with huge mists coming up to engulf everyone with heavy rain-like drops of water.
 A flight to Victoria Falls brought us to another highpoint of our trip where we stayed at the beautiful Victoria Falls Safari Club.  From the club’s beautiful garden grounds, we could see the mists emanating from the charging falls, and one day we walked along a well marked path to see the falls from our Zimbabwe side. 

the impressive Victoria Falls were seen by the Wongs and many visitors from all over the globe coming to see this natural wonder of the world.
 Guides provided much needed rain ponchos for the mists are so heavy, one feels like they are in a heavy rain storm as you walk closer to the falls. This is another beautiful sight of nature’s forces, and it is no wonder it considered one of the top natural wonders of the world.  

Enjoying the falls but completely soaked by the heavy mists were Dali Jones, Marie Lee, Sylvia Eng and Gerrye Wong
While in the Victoria Falls area, we enjoyed a sunset cruise to see elephants standing knee deep In islands of green plants which they munched contentedly as our boat came close. Lazy hippos and crocodiles basking in the sunshine were nearby. A bus ride to the Botswana border transferred us to game drive jeeps and  a very productive last day of our trip was seeing Chobe Park’s multitude of animals.   At our group’s last feast, an outdoor Boma dinner complete with candle lit tables, warm campfires and a beautifully presented bush dinner complete with native dancing, our group recalled the animals we had seen on our game drives. 

Exciting animal sighting included a lion eating his kill of an antelope
 To List, they included regular and white rhinos,  giraffes, regular and white lions, cape buffalo, zebras, kudu, impala and blessbok antelope, wart hogs, elephants, hippos, vervet monkeys, baboons and plentiful wildebeest.  The illusive leopard and cheetahs escaped us  but an unusual sight we did experience was seeing a lion eating her prey of an antelope and a zebra with a large bloody gash in its neck, no doubt from a narrow escape from a charging lion.

Gifaffes are spotted at Chobe national Park in Botswana

House of Travel owner Brenda Abrahamson enjoys her tour with son Scott and wife Hillary
One can go on and on about an African adventure, but I hope you realized through my trip description that a trip to South Africa  isn’t just about seeing animals.  It’s learning about a different culture of a third World continent, seeing the lives of others eking out simple lives in humble, natural settings, and experiencing the freedom of an animal world within its own habitat .   Seeing endless cathedrals, museums, mosques, palaces and ancient sites is exciting, but none as exhilarating as experience life in the wild and wonderful place as the African continent.  

baby elephant calmly munches grass in lake as our Botswana boat glides by. 
A trip to the African continent is an adventure in itself, whether it be to east or south Africa area.  I hope this will entice you all to go for this exciting experience as I guarantee you will enjoy it as much as our group did. 

Beautiful bird life could be seen throughout Africa
Always remember these words:  The world is a book and those who do not travel only read one page!

Memories of Africa will always include magnificent sunset views.
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