Images of South Africa point towards a nation that is likely to overwhelm a first time visitor, but instead, it leaves you mildly stoked and at times surprised – be it the food, people or sights.
The visiting team from India, hosted by South African Tourism, flew to Jo’burg to catch the connecting flight to Port Elizabeth in the Eastern Cape. Step out of the airport, and the topography strikes you.
The buildings, no higher than two storeys, are widely spread, with grassy patches interspersed between them. The town without a concrete skyline couldn’t have had a prettier backdrop than the blue sky and mosaic of clouds.
There is a stark difference between the dwelling areas of whites and blacks. The pretty English-style villa homes surrounded by white fences just off the beach road, give way to apartment-style nude coloured buildings.
Clothes hang out of the front balcony, youngsters loll around corners or wait at bus stops. And you realise you are in the native African part of town.
You should spend your evenings chewing on braai along with a swig of Pinotage, a red wine native to South Africa. It would be a sin to come back without eating this South African barbecued delicacy, which is served in the eateries splattered across Uitenhage in PE.Nicknamed the friendly city, the people are eager to help and hawkers ready to talk, even if you don’t buy their wares.
The mere mention of Durban, the next stop, results in a barrage of warnings about its lack of safety. But a walk along the beach at night is safe, even when you cross motels advertising massages and offering sex for a price.
The Victoria street market here is a window to India, with shops named Reddy sweets and Hiralal stores. Set in an ornate building, you can buy almost anything, from spices to Chinese wholesale goods. If you have any inclination towards cooking, the morning fish market is a haggler’s delight.
The city shuts down by 6pm. “We believe in having a family life”, says a shopkeeper at Gateway Mall. Only a few eateries remain open – most of these, such as Spiga d’Oro, which serves incredible bruschettas, are on Florida Road – the weekend party hub.
Wilson’s Wharf might captivate you with its private yachts and freshly made seafood, but the century old Jummah Mosque, the biggest in the southern hemisphere, is the place to be.
Unlike PE, where whites are spotted often, blacks are prominent here. The women carry themselves with much aplomb and flair, a rare phenomenon in India.
What you’ll be thankful for is our public transport system, however flawed it may be, for PE and Durban have none. Cabs are the only reliable means of transport and are usually expensive.
Live Free or Die Wild
No journey to South Africa is complete without a game drive. Having stayed at the Lobengula in Shamwari Game Reserve just outside Port Elizabeth, lionesses, giraffes, zebras, rhinos and African elephants were no occasional sights.
Unlike in India where most sanctuaries come under the Centre, this reserve is private and given investors’ interest in conservation, seems to be run better.
This forested region was cleared by early settlers to farm sheep and cattle, eradicating the indigenous fauna and flora by agriculture, hunting and drought.
But under the conservation programme, animals are re-introduced to the area where they once roamed freely and are bought from other private sanctuaries across the country. In effect, every animal roaming on these grasslands has a price tag to it, avoiding poaching and sale of animals to hunting lodges.
There is also an animal rescue and educational program, in partnership with the Born Free Foundation, to house rescued and injured big cats from captivity.
The Shamwari Game Reserve, stretching over 25,000 ha, has a second Born Free animal rescue centre to the north of the sanctuary, where you are even allowed to work with the vets.
Getting acquainted with the South Africa tourism team, makes one glad about ‘Incredible India!’ Despite showcasing the best of South Africa to a group of journalists, some of the better experiences came from our own travels.Even though the trip was organised in the backdrop of the Travel Agents Federation of India (TAFI) convention in Durban, a trip to Mahatma Gandhi’s museum and even the Jummah Mosque was not in their itinerary.
A promised trip to the Moses Mabhida Stadium, which offers a 360-degree view of Durban and has the world’s only stadium swing, was forgotten.
Not expecting Indians to want to taste the local flavours, ‘breyani’ and ‘dhal’ were served. While South Africa boasts of a vibrant wildlife, the South African tourism board did little to encapsulate the experience for the visiting team.
Local experiences, including a sampling of regional food, were thrown in only after requests from the visiting team.
Chewing Bunny Chow
TO feel the vibrancy of Durban life in your bones, you must lunch at the Workshop. A short walk from the ICC Durban, this piazza comes to life with music, food and Christian worship in the middle of the day. Step in to be overwhelmed by the colour, sounds and aromas wafting through the air.
Though the shawarma joint might beckon, walk straight to the Oriental Restaurant just beside it for your bunny chow, a local street food.
It is nothing but a hollowed out loaf of bread stuffed with curry of your choice – chicken, mutton, kheema or vegetables. Topped with a sprig of coriander, the Indian influence is unmistakable. Opt for the quarter portion even if you are hungry.
Whether you’re a Gandhi lover or hater, it is humbling to visit the Gandhi Museum in Durban. Officially opened by the then President Thabo Mbeki in 2000, the museum is situated in the Phoenix settlement area.
It sits in the building, which was rebuilt after the house that Gandhi stayed in was razed down in the riots.
Peppered across this three-room museum are Gandhi’s statements, verses from his favourite books such as the Bhagwad Gita, the Bible, Return to Nature by Alfred Just and Plea for Vegetarianism by Henry Salt, as well as images from his struggle.
In addition, are boards depicting freedom struggles around the globe, including the Orange Revolution in 2004 and the Tiananmen Square Protests in 1989.