It takes some time to find the courage. Voices ring in my ear, fading in and out, but all I see are treetops of an orchard and a 77-metre drop from where I stand. From my vantage point, it is a daunting feat, and even though I am safely harnessed to zip line through it, I can’t let go. My hands clutch at the rope, and my feet stay firmly planted on the ground like they aren’t mine to control.
Behind me, jump master Patrick has been admirably patient. He repeats the instructions and safety precautions again and again; while it is comforting, it doesn’t take away the fear. By the third attempt to pick my feet off the ground, I am ready to give up. The 450-metre long zip line won’t take too long, he tells me. “You will be down in no time, and this fear will be gone too,” I am assured.
I shake my head and try to undo the harness, but to no avail. Heights are a phobia, so perhaps this can wait another day. Patrick, however, has made up his mind. His goal is to send me down the zip line, and he does not seem to give up. He grips the harness and pulls it back in a semicircle, and then I am flying down.
My eyes open to a zooming scenery; the trees come from both sides and a gush of wind is enough to make me giggle. The fear dissipates with the winds as I fly past the endpoint—the zip line is a loop and the upward curve eventually slows me down to a stop.
In my two weeks in the country, the whole of South Africa can be compared to this experience. It is a country that constantly keeps you on edge, excites and reveals its secrets, but you have to be brave enough to take a leap of faith (or be pushed to take the leap). Either way, it is a day of many firsts for me. River rafting is next on the agenda and the guides at Induna Adventures walk us down to Sabie River, where the yellow inflatables are ready for us. The grade two and three rapids are only mildly challenging, the water levels are low, and when my guide jumps out to help others along the way, I lie back and float around till forced to paddle forward.
Quad biking is a lot more engaging but I have to learn how to ride it first. A flat, round, dirt track lies at the base of the hill for practice. I circle the track a few times, and when deemed fit, I ride up the hill. The bike is bulky, though the gentle rolls of the hill are easy to tackle. When the wide turns give way to steep roads and constant dips, I struggle to keep up. I manoeuvre through the bumps, only to ride into bushes and get stuck on fallen tree trunks.
This way, I am forced to learn how to reverse the bike on the spot. From there on, I seem to get a hang of it. Press a few buttons, shift gears, accelerate, lean over and repeat. Deeper into the forest, we stop for a quick break and our guide points to the surrounding trees and plants. A pocketful of macadamia nuts and some flowers later, my quad biking adventure comes to an end.
In Durban, I try surfing. Beaches in Durban are ideal for the activity, I am told. The conditions are optimal for tall waves, the sunrise makes for a great backdrop, and the water is warm (interestingly, the water was chilling and I visited in summer). Surfing requires two things: exceptional arm strength and balance.
In water, apparently, I have neither; walking down the beach with the surfing board under your arm is hard enough but pushing yourself to stand on a board in the ocean is a completely different ball-game. I walk into the water, with a surfboard leash on my ankle and the board under my arm. When I am neck deep, I lie flat on the board, palms pressed on each side. The wave comes from behind me and when I feel it under the board, I push to stand up. If you thought that I would get this right in the first attempt, you are mistaken. I fall quickly and, more often than not, the board floats above my head while I struggle to come out of the water. This is fun only in hindsight and there ends my tryst with adventure.
After this, I only have to sit and enjoy the ride. I take the Panoramic Route near Hazyview in Mpumalanga district. The landscape is gorgeous—rugged mountains covered in green foliage and plateaus that come to dramatic halts for beautiful canyons and potholes to form. The route starts with the Three Rondavels, a geological wonder. From my viewpoint, three oval mountain tops stand beyond the Blyde River Canyon and its winding path. The structures are pointed, much like the traditional African house, and are sometimes called the Three Wives. I enjoy the magnificent scenery until it starts to rain, and then I am off to my next stop.
God’s Window, it is called. A rickety fence separates me from the 900-metre drop where the lush valley goes on endlessly. Covered in a thick blanket of clouds and drenched in the rain, the ravine seems to have come to life. Bourke’s Luck Potholes are a definite highlight for me. It is where Treur River meets the Blyde River, and the whirling waters have resulted in a cylindrical-patterned erosion, coloured in rich browns and yellows, over the years.
One day, we wake early for a hot air balloon ride. I hop into the basket and above me the burners blast and pump the colourful balloon to life. And then, we are up. We hover gently, and slowly across the Magaliesberg mountain range. I chat with co-pilot Marc Nuthall, while we drift above the circular fields and farms. There are times when we are close enough to pick leaves and pecan nuts off the trees and then there are times when we are up so high that we can see beyond the mountains. It is a magical experience. When we land, we pop some champagne and have a light breakfast. Marc takes the cork of the bottle and scribbles the details of the flight. He shapes the wires in the form of a hot air balloon, creating a perfect souvenir.
Experience dictates that one must travel outside city limits to find the wild, forests and what not. But the opposite seems to be true in South Africa. Even when travelling from big cities to small towns, the wilderness is never far away. The green doesn’t exist in the fringes, it dips in and out of the landscape as if just waiting to reclaim all land.
I don’t even enter the game reserve when I spot my first giraffes. They are busy eating off trees until they notice our vehicle. They spare us a glance before resuming their meal. I go for several game drives in the two private reserves I stay at. Aided by professional guides and trackers, I spot giraffes, zebras and wildebeests. Antelopes are found in plenty and their presence is felt everywhere, not limited to the safaris. I shriek the first time I spot one outside my room, but after a few days, I pass them by casually, only taking photos when one of them does something awfully cute. South Africa is about the Big Five though and I am happy to report that I saw at least four. Leopards are considered elusive creatures and there will always be a next time.
The elephants are the most intriguing. The matriarch glares at our jeep while the rest of the herd only show us their tail. Compared to their Indian brothers, the elephants were humongous. A small calf is the bravest of them all, it walks to our jeep and puts its trunk on the hood.
Our guide warns us to stay still as the calf may be bold but the matriarch is still watching and any sort of movement could make her aggressive. He waits till the calf retreats and drives further into the forest.
Africa’s Big Five get their name from the danger they pose, and not the size. These are dangerous game animals to hunt, mostly because they like to fight back. The buffaloes are slightly harder to track down and they don’t impress me much. We drive to a waterhole, where a pride of lionesses are taking their afternoon naps. They hide their cubs to save them from bigger cats, including lions who feel threatened by another male presence. We watch the lions for a while, but it gets boring. They are, after all, sleeping. The waterhole attracts other animals too, and when two rhinos strut down to lap at the water, I sit up excitedly. In most reserves, the horns of the rhinos are removed to save them from poaching. We watch them till the sun sets and until it is no longer safe to stay in the forest.
I even try a guided horseback safari; where we only spot some antelopes and wildebeest. When we cross a small waterhole, my 23-year-old horse, Bonnie, has the time of her life splashing and jumping around in the water, forgetting that I was still on her back.
My last day in the country is particularly special; my birthday starts with a morning safari. As usual, I take my seat at the end of the vehicle and the drive begins. We drive around the reserve as the sun climbs up and the animals come out of hiding. When we stop for coffee, it is at the top of a hill. I can see a herd of elephants at a distance. A little closer, giraffes and zebras are taking their morning stroll. I finish my cup and hop on the vehicle, forever ready to spot more wildlife.
While there are no direct flights to South Africa, there are several connecting flights (Emirates, South African Airways, British Airways or Etihad) from Delhi or Mumbai via Dubai (return fare from approx. INR 30,000).
WHERE TO STAY
- In Durban, stay at Beverly Hills Hotel (from approx. ZAR 4,795; tsogosun.com). The sunrise at this beachside property is beautiful.
- In Hazyview, you can pick Sabi River Run Resort (from ZAR 2,142; tsogosun.com) with 60 well-appointed rooms.
- The Thanda Private Game Reserve (from ZAR 3,965; thanda. com) has nine villas and 15 safari tents. The villas have an infinity pool, a sunset deck and outside dining. All packages include game drives with professional guides and trackers, meals and Wi-Fi.
- Aha Bongani Mountain Lodge (from ZAR 3,750; aha.co.za) is a private game reserve near Mthethomusha Game Reserve. Packages include two game drives with guides and all meals.
WHAT TO SEE & DO
- I had the vegetarian bunny chow at House of Curries, Durban.
- Bill Harrop’s Original Balloon Safaris (balloon.co.za) have plenty of packages to pick from. They offer balloon game safaris over Entabeni Safari Conservancy and Mabula Private Game Reserve.
- Visit Graskop’s Gorge Lift (graskop.co.za) where a glass lift goes 51m down a cliff. At the base, they have developed a park with a 500m forest trail housing indigenous plants and critters
- Take a day trip to Cullinan Diamond Mines for a surface or underground tour of the mine.