Sunday, March 25, 2012

The Palace of the Lost City

You're into the last few days of your African honeymoon and you've just flown into Johannesburg from Victoria Falls. You collect your bags, clear customs and immigration and in no time you emerge into the very impressive arrival hall. You've organised a private car transfer to Sun City and there standing in front of you is a broadly smiling African clutching a board with your names on it. It's always a relief to see your driver waiting for you when you arrive in a strange city, but by now you are no longer surprised by the efficiency of African tourism operators.

It's a hot afternoon, but your car is new and air-conditioned. The journey is comfortable and scenic and in under three hours you are pulling up at the main entrance of The Palace of the Lost City. You wanted to stay at one of the cheaper hotels there - Cascades, The Sun City Hotel or the Cabanas. (Not because you're tight fisted but.......Okay then maybe your are a little.) However your travel agent persuaded you to spend your two nights at The Palace. Now you can see why he recommended that if you're going to the trouble of driving to Sun City you have to stay at The Palace. You make a mental note to buy him a bottle of Penfolds Grange when you get back to Australia. The building glows with an inner golden light in the late afternoon sun and the it's many green domes stand out against the tawny hills behind. At the centre of a roundabout in front of the entrance is a magnificent copper sculpture. A pair of cheetahs are chasing a herd of leaping impala across a shallow pool of reflective water.

You are relieved of your luggage by a smartly uniformed porter and you tip your driver generously. The romance is really getting to you. You follow the porter into the reception hall and stand aghast at the towering dome above you decorated by a da Vinci-esque fresco, while the polished marble floor beneath your feet is covered with African animal scenes. Everywhere you look is opulence. In Las Vegas it would be tacky, but here somehow because of the quality of the art it is simply delightful. As you are shown to your room you pass more stunning works of art. There are sculptures, statues, paintings and frescoes - all depicting African scenes and wildlife. Your room, although the most reasonably priced is huge with what seems like a tennis court sized bathroom. There's a huge king sized bed and a double spa bath. That'll come in handy you both think. That evening after a relaxing bath you take a walk in the gardens. Looking back at the The Palace you are amazed to see flames from huge torches at the top of each domed tower. It's eerily atmospheric, like something straight out of an Indiana Jones movie.

The next morning is beautiful, warm and sunny, cloudless and low humidity. After the most sumptuous breakfast you've ever had (and you've had a few) you decide to have a good look around the gardens in daylight. Here you find a precipitous waterslide and "The Valley of the Waves" - an enormous wave pool with a real sand beach. You spend most of the afternoon here, alternately relaxing in the sun and cooling off in the pool. You think next time you'll bring your golf clubs and have a bash around one or both of the two golf courses which have real Nile crocodiles in the water hazards. Now that's what I call a hazard!

That evening you visit the casino where you break even - about the best you can expect in a casino, but it was fun anyway. You also see a show and have a wonderful meal before strolling back hand in hand to the Palace through the fragrant garden with the awesome shape of the Palace of the Lost City with it's flaming towers as a backdrop.

The following morning after yet another tummy tingling breakfast you are transferred by private car to Madikwe Hills Lodge in Madikwe Private Game Reserve. You have never been game viewing in Africa before and have no idea what to expect. Your travel agent recommended this particular lodge and before your stay is over you have decided to upgrade his gift from a bottle of Penfold Grange to a full carton.

The lodge is set on a kopje (hill) of house sized boulders and the rooms are enormous. Nights here can be chilly and there is a real log fire in your room that is always miraculously blazing when you return to your room after dinner. In the morning, when it is even chillier you are more than happy to discover that there is underfloor heating to keep your bare feet nice and toasty.

Your first game drive is the evening you arrive. You wander up to the restaurant and are met there by the other guests, your ranger and your tracker. They run through the safety procedures - a few dos and don'ts and then you climb into the open four wheel drive vehicle. You are amazed to see that the African tracker sits on a seat bolted to the bull-bar. You are even more amazed at how close you get to the animals and at how still and cool the tracker remains as a large lioness sniffs his boots. Before the end of the first game drive you have already seen the "Big Five" - elephants, lions, buffalo, a pride of lions and later as you drive back to the lodge in the dark with the tracker wielding a spotlight, you see a leopard.

And so over the next couple of days you settle in to the gentle, hypnotic routine of life in a really good game lodge. At five-thirty in the morning there's a wake up call and you wander up to the main building for coffee and biscuits before heading out on your morning game drive. Then after a couple of hours you stop in a particularly scenic spot for coffee and muffins before continuing for a further hour or so. By ten you're back at the lodge for a huge brunch. Then the rest of the day is yours to swim, read, have a massage or do whatever people do on their honeymoon.

At about three-thirty in the afternoon you return to the main building for high tea. Sandwiches, quiche, samosas and cakes and then you're off on your afternoon game drive. Right on sunset your ranger pulls up and he and the tracker break out the drinks for a sundowner. You sip your excellent chardonnay and chew your biltong as you hold hands and gaze at yet another breathtaking African sunset. Then it's more game viewing and finally back to the lodge for a magnificent gourmet dinner of equal or greater quality than you would expect from any top notch city restaurant.

So after three days of this you are transferred by your ranger out to the Madikwe airstrip, seeing more game on the way. You waddle to the eight seater aircraft wondering how long it will take you to lose the weight you've gained in the last three days but not regretting a single gram of it. Then as the plane climbs away towards Johannesburg and your international flight back to Australia you see a herd of elephants trundling towards a waterhole, kicking up little clouds of dust as they go. To your surprise a tear springs to your eye and at that moment you know for sure that you will both return.

Saturday, March 17, 2012

Flight of Angels

This is part two of your three part African honeymoon. To read part one please click on the following link.

You're on honeymoon in Africa - Cape Town to be exact, and you're having a wonderful, romantic time, apart from that little incident where you appeared naked at your hotel window in front of several dozen people innocently enjoying their breakfast. The police were very good about it all in the end. Quite understanding, and you were released on a good behaviour bond.

Next stop is Victoria Falls - "The Smoke That Thunders." There are few more romantic places in the entire world. An early flight from Cape Town, a quick change of planes in Johannesburg and before you know it you're descending into Victoria Falls airport, the spray from the falls themselves easily visible in the hazy middle distance. It does indeed look like grey smoke against the blue sky. You check into your room at the Victoria Falls Safari Lodge which has great views across the bush to the waterhole and beyond. You've arrived in time for a sunset cruise on the Zambezi River yet another highlight. Once again on the boat you toast each other with a glass of wine while you watch a small herd of elephants bathing in the shallows on one side of the river and a pod of hippos grunting and yawning threat displays on the other. Meanwhile the entire scene is washed by a blood orange sunset, and again, closer this time there is a tower of spray from the falls.

That night back at the lodge you dine at the Boma - an African themed restaurant attached to the Victoria Falls Safari Lodge. There's a great buffet meal and some wonderful cultural entertainment with African dancers and some superb drummers. There's also a little market, a traditional story teller who roams from table to table and a fortune teller You even pluck up the courage to eat a mopani worm which is a little like a witchety grub. They give you a certificate for doing this and you deserve it.

The next day is busy. You start off with an early elephant back safari. You have an early transfer to the venue where you meet your elephant and your mahout. There's plenty of time to interact with your ellie before you set off on a very scenic ride through the bush. More romance as you share an elephant. When you return you get to give your elephant his breakfast before sitting down to consume your own - cooked out there in the bush. It's a lovely thing to do.

In the late afternoon as the sun is dropping and the heat of the day is waning you are again collected from the lodge and taken to the Lion Encounter venue. This is really special. You walk through the bush with a couple of half grown lion cubs and several men who are there to control them if they become too playful. You can stroke them (the lions, not the men) as much as you like and they (the men, not the lions) will take some wonderful photos for you. It is a tremendous thrill and is soooo much better than Thailand's tiger temples. For one thing these lions are being rehabilitated for being returned to the wild. Human contact is gradually reduced until they are ready to go their own way. The Lion Encounter programme helps to fund this work.

The following morning you a have a guided tour of Victoria Falls. You stroll around the formed paths holding hands while your guide points out the many interesting features, though at times you can hardly hear him for the thunder of the water crashing over the falls. It's a dizzying sight peering down into the gorge and you find the sheer scale absolutely breathtaking. Something else you find breathtaking is the stupidity of the lunatics throwing themselves off the Victoria Falls bridge attached to a rubber band. You stand and watch several of these fruitcakes do their thing and wonder how much they are being paid to do it.

That evening you take a helicopter flight over the falls - "Flight of Angels" as it is known. This is truly incredible. You're hundreds of feet above the great falls with the Zambezi River stretching away into the distance and "The Smoke That Thunders" boiling into the gorge far below. You can clearly see well into four countries from here. Zimbabwe, Zambia, Botswana and Namibia and this makes you keen for more African adventures. Later that morning you fly to Johannesburg to begin the last week of your African honeymoon.

To be continued.

Sunday, March 11, 2012

Naked in Cape Town

Not everyone wants the type of beach resort honeymoon where you stay in bed until 3pm and then struggle down to the pool bar for an couple of hours to slurp margaritas and tequila sunrises before a candlelight dinner and bed - as early as is decent. There are other far more romantic options.

Is there a more romantic destination for a honeymoon than Africa? I seriously doubt that there is. Imagine this. The wedding ceremony is over. Those embarrassing speeches by the Best Man and the Father of the Bride are just a memory. A painful memory perhaps, but at least they are behind you now. At last you are together, alone. The feeling is a combination of euphoria and exhausted relief.

Mad Uncle Bernie has volunteered to stay sober throughout the reception so that he can drive you to the airport. This, you feel is a mixed blessing because while it saves you the cost of a taxi, Uncle Bernie's driving is so dire that he is one of the few people on earth whose driving actually improves when he is drunk. As you cram yourselves and your four large pieces of luggage into the back of his FIAT 500 you are glad that you decided to take the travel insurance you had procrastinated over for so long.

Then, before you know it and somewhat to your surprise you arrive safely at the airport. You're soon checked in, through passport control and security and are sitting in your aircraft seat thirty-nine thousand feet above the Indian Ocean with a glass of pretty reasonable chardonnay in one hand and your spouses hand in the other. Suddenly life is looking not too bad at all. A quick transit through Johannesburg's impressive new airport, but it's dark by the time you reach Cape Town and all you want to do is go to bed. After all it is your honeymoon. You check into your hotel - The Victoria & Alfred at the Waterfront and trot off to bed for a good night's sleep...........or something.

Morning. A sliver of light is squeezing through the gap in the curtains. It plays with your eyes and wakes you. Your partner is still asleep, breathing softly with a gentle smile on his/her lips. You pad over to the window and throw back the curtain. Oh..........My...........God! Is that Table Mountain? It is. It feels a little surreal to actually be here in Cape Town. Seeing Table Mountain for real for the first time is a bit like seeing a familiar TV star in the flesh, only much less disappointing. It is much, much bigger than you expect. 1086 metres tall. That's well over 3500 feet. It's great grey buttresses tower over the city, crowding it towards the ocean. There's not a single cloud and the clear blue sky is reflected in the water of the harbour where boats are already coming and going and seals are lounging on a large buoy. You are so stunned by the majesty of this scene that you forget that you are standing naked in front of a second floor window, providing a fine morning's entertainment for the people eating their breakfast in the cafe down below. You hurriedly close the curtains and leap back into bed.

The romantic highlight of your Cape Town visit came during a tour of the winelands and the town of Franschhoek where the scenery is straight out of a Wilbur Smith novel. You eat a sumptuous lunch and drink a superb bottle of shiraz while gazing out across a green valley at a series of craggy, fairy tale mountains under a blue African sky with just a scattering of fluffy sheep clouds. You hold hands, you drink a toast to eternal love and you swear that you'd never forget that moment no matter what. You don't want the honeymoon to end, but you know it must and already you feel a little sad about having to leave Africa. Between that magical moment and the flight home though, there are many more exciting and romantic moments to be savoured.

To be continued.