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Interview with Medha Sampat, Country Head of South African Tourism

Medha Sampat has been the Country Head of South African Tourism in India for over a year. She shares with our readers why South Africa must be on your wishlist of must-visit destinations for sports holidays as well as for unique experiences.

How long have you been the Country Manager for South Africa Tourism and how has tourism to South Africa grown during your tenure?

In 2009, I was appointed as the Country Manager of South African Tourism for the India portfolio. India has always been an important market for South African Tourism. Initially we had aligned our promotional strategies to leverage events around fashion, food and wine to lure the Indian traveller. However, we soon identified Bollywood and sports as important drivers for tourism growth. With the support of the SAT team in India and South Africa, we defined our potential audience and reached out to them with targeted marketing tools in order to create awareness and excitement about the destination.

A smart combination of promotions, advertising and media-related activities, especially during the IPL tournament in South Africa, ensured that our audiences were sufficiently motivated, which further enhanced tourist arrivals to South Africa. With successful marketing and positioning strategies in India, we have seen a growth of 17.5%, with total tourist arrival of 61007 till December 2009. With the momentum now firmly in place, we are sure to carry through this growth curve till the end of the fiscal term.

What is the role of SA Tourism office and how do you go about creating awareness of South Africa amongst members of travel trade as well as potential travellers in general?

We at SA Tourism, play a pivotal role in opening new avenues to package South Africa in a unique format that can be used by tour operators to familiarize themselves on the destination. We have come a long way determining our priorities with regards to markets, based on size and growth potential. Our biggest strength when talking about South Africa to the Indian traveller is a thorough knowledge and understanding of their needs, requirements and travel patterns. We have been promoting our product by various activities with an aim to approach the right market and effectively convey the messages.

In India, leisure products travel through a complex network of intermediaries before reaching the end consumer. There are over 28000 tour operators and travel agencies distributed across India and they are an important group where awareness and education on the potential of the destination has to be impressed. Activities have to be conducted to reach out to the Indian travel-trade industry, provide impetus to existing operators and facilitate partnerships and synergies between Indian operators and their South African counterparts. Realizing this need, we set out to plan our activities for the year, and put in place goals to be achieved. Our calendar of events includes multi-city Roadshows, Incountry Famils, fam- trips, consumer promotions among many other exciting initiatives. Trade-based activities such as these help in expanding the operators’ base, increasing visibility and enhancing understanding of the destination.

What is the estimated growth you envisage out of India in 2010-11 as South Africa will be hosting two major sporting events later this year: the FIFA World Cup and the T20 Champions League?

South Africans’ passion for sport, its world class venues, top international events and well developed infrastructure combine to make the country a huge draw-card for sports fans. Sporting events like cricket and football help showcase our wonderful tourist attractions to billions of captive fans worldwide. They work to cement South Africa’s position as a premier sporting destination, apart from bringing in millions of dollars through the hospitality, travel and tourism sectors. Moreover, the indirect spin-offs from improved perceptions abroad could have an even greater, longer-lasting impact, not only on South Africa and its development but on the continent as a whole.

The contribution of sports tourism to the South African economy is estimated to be approximately ZAR 6 billion annually. The 2010 FIFA World Cup will result in anticipated injection of about ZAR 21.3 billion into the South African economy. We are confident of reaching our target arrivals of 65862 from India for 2010-11 and we hope that the mega sporting bonanza and the subsequent T20 Champions League alongwith similar such sporting events will encourage the Indian traveller to return time and again with family and friends to our beautiful Rainbow Nation.

How has Bollywood and sporting events helped enhance Brand South Africa amongst the Indian visitors?

Bollywood and sports, namely cricket and football have played a huge role in enhancing the visibility quotient that South Africa boasts of today in the Indian market. Sporting events like the inaugural ICC T20 World Cup in 2007, the IPL in 2009 and the ICC Champions Trophy 2009 have helped showcase the country’s scenic locales amidst the sporting action that gripped the world. Playing host to events of such great magnitude has also brought to light South Africa’s proficiency to host world class events.

Films, being such a mass culture in India help reach out to a wider audience and expand the target group – family, honeymoon and MICE segment. With Indian tourists being highly influenced by films and entertainment, South Africa has in its recent years attracted a lot of tourists with Bollywood movies. The country’s locales have benefited enormously from the use of its streets, landmarks and colorful locations.  In the recent past, we have seen some of the biggest Bollywood blockbusters set and shot extensively in South Africa. Clearly, Bollywood and sports have resulted in unprecedented coverage and awareness for brand South Africa.

What according to you is the minimum number of days one should spend to get a glimpse of South Africa, especially the first time traveller?

The average stay of an Indian tourist in South Africa is around 10 days, depending on the type of holiday experience that one is looking for, where one can choose amongst the major hot spots – Johannesburg, Durban, and Cape Town. Wildlife safaris can be experienced across South Africa which is an experience by itself and a huge drawcard for Indian travellers.

Which are the Big 5 attractions that should be included for a visit to South Africa?

South Africa is a mesmerizing country with endless enchanting views but the big five attractions that should be included on a South African sojourn, should be:

The charismatic Table Mountain which is what the Western Cape Province is renowned for. Any person, who lays eyes on it is sure to fall for its powerful spell.

Second would be the Garden Route – Three of South Africa’s top hikes take place here – the Otter Trail, the Tsitsikama and Dolphin trails. It is a paradise for eco-lovers, bird watchers and solitude seekers.

Of course, who can forget the famous Jackass Penguins at Boulders Beach on the Cape Peninsula, near Cape Town which is a real thrill.

The Cradle of Humankind in the Gauteng province comprising a strip of a dozen dolomitic limestone caves containing the fossilized remains of ancient forms of animals, plants and most importantly, hominids tell a story of their own.

The fifth big attraction is the Kruger National Park with its abundant wildlife – hearing the roar of a lion out in the wild is a truly exhilarating experience!

What are the initiatives  taken by SA Tourism to educate the travel trade on Brand South Africa?

We have organized several activities in the past to expand our trade network here in India. Trade events like roadshows, incountry famils, the internationally renowned annual trade convention, Indaba amongst others have helped build strategic partnerships with our Indian trade partners. We have also introduced the Food Map along with our Adventure and Luxury Style Guides that have been effective blueprints for travel trade to understand South Africa’s offerings and help Indian travellers navigate better during their stay in South Africa. Our new training programme, “Learn South Africa”, will be implemented in 12 cities across India that will help travel industry representatives get a better understanding of South Africa as a destination and all its tourist attractions. The programme aims to help travel trade promote, plan and organise quality holidays to suit client requirements. This is a first for any tourism board, and we are proud to be setting the benchmarks for the industry.

There are several myths and apprehensions about South Africa – distance, safety, South Africa offers only wildlife. How do you plan to address these issues?

South Africa is as safe as any other destination in the world, provided you take some normal precautions like you would anywhere else as a tourist. Simply stay alert and be aware of what is going on around you and you will most likely enjoy a perfectly safe holiday. As for the rest of the misconceptions, whilst there is a continuous process of education that we undertake with the trade, who can deny that seeing is believing!

What according to you are the must-visit experiences to be included for visitors to South Africa on:

Honeymoon – South Africa is a Honeymooners haven and it would be incomplete with out paying a tribute to Cape Town and Cape Peninsula well known for world-class shopping, nightlife and some exquisite food and wine. One can enjoy a romantic candle light dinner at Robben Island, Table Mountain or the V & A Waterfront, an exceptionally romantic outing that will ensure you have a wonderful time with your spouse. Another interesting place to discover is Hermanus, where couples can traverse the magnificent Walker Bay that provides nature lovers with an extraordinary opportunity to explore the wonders of the Cape’s beautiful flora and fascinating coastal and marine life.

Adventure – Adventure activities in the Drakensberg region are sure to leave you gasping which include hiking trails, horse trails and safaris, fly fishing, white water rafting and rock climbing to mention but a few. Furthermore the Hot air ballooning in Mpumalanga and Bungy Jumping off the Bloukrans Bridge is sure to suffice your appetite for adventure. And there’s many more unique activities on offer for the adventure-seeker – the shark-cage diving offering fascinating encounters with the Great White Shark; the zip-line and the canopy tour to name just a few.

Family break – A shopping spree at The Gateway Mall (Durban), situated in Umhlanga, is reputed to be the largest shopping centre in the Southern Hemisphere. It has a wide variety of shops, a supermarket, over 30 restaurants and some unusual entertainment facilities. Fourways Mall shopping centre in Johannesburg is famous for fashion and also offers a number of elite jewellers with a choice of selected diamond and gold jewellery. If your family enjoys music, a visit to South Africa’s renowned musical show, Umoja will enthrall and captivate your heartbeats. Of course, the call of the wildlife during a game drive safari in the Kruger National Park is enjoyed by the young and old alike, and makes for a perfect family outing.

Special interests such as wine and golf – Combine your love of safari and your passion for golf at the savannah courses. And a glass of wine to celebrate a golf game will unquestionably be soothing to your soul. For which the Cape Winelands are the most scenic in the world with Pinotage and Hanepoort being made from specially cultivated grapes. Sauvignon Blanc, Chenin Blanc (steen) and Chardonnay are the buzz at the moment in South Africa and there’s plenty of options to enjoy these gourmet luxuries.

What according to you are the top 3 favourite teams for the 2010 FIFA World Cup?

There is a spirit of FIFA that is unmatched anywhere in the world. While Brazil, Italy and France are the hot favourites, all eyes are on the home team, Bafana Bafana this FIFA season to keep the trophy back home. All the countries have come together to showcase their best teams on a common platform. As the vuvuzelas (see photo below) herald the kick-off, we invite the world to bring on the games!

Which are the major sporting events and Bollywood shoots lined up for the future after the FIFA World Cup?

On cricket action, the T20 Champions League is scheduled to take place in South Africa in September this year. Also, the Indian team will tour South Africa in October-November to add to the cricket buzz. As for other sporting events, there is plenty more that keeps happening such as the ATP South African Open which see participating from the top stars of Indian tennis. On Bollywood, it would be difficult to pin down which movies are being shot there during the course of the year. But there is plenty of star-candy at any time in South Africa!

Indians are becoming more discerning as travellers. Which are some of the luxury and exclusive tourism products that one can experience only in South Africa?

Deep in the rugged bushveld, in the heart of an ancient volcano, lies the world’s most unique resort, the internationally acclaimed Sun City. The resort has a unique heartbeat and an African rhythm of its own and is unlike any other resort destination in the world. This is pure fantasy where your every desire is met. Apart from this if one wants to submit his mind and body for a complete revitalization process, then luxury spas in South Africa are rejuvenating havens to unwind. Karkloof Spa in Masunduzi, Lapologa in Pretoria and Mangwanani Private African Day Spa in Gauteng are just a few of the luxury doorways to experience eternal bliss. Many of our game lodges in the heart of the Kruger National Park like the Singita Game Reserve, the Earth Lodge at Sabi Sabi offer luxury unlimited. And these, are but a few that I mention!

Kruger National Park has become synonymous with the legendary Game Drives. What is it that makes a Game Drive in Kruger National Park so special and unique?

In a Kruger National Park safari you will be in awe with the plenty of Big Five sightings. At Kruger, one can experience South Africa’s wilderness in a self-drive safari, or relax and take in the sights on a guided wildlife tour, explore the bush on foot, stay in an exquisite tented camp or spend the night at a luxury lodge. A safari in Kruger National Park not only provides guests with the opportunity to encounter the wild but also allows for cultural interaction. The professional guides help you to identify the animals that grope in the dark and ensure that you will not miss the best game sightings. South Africa’s safari game lodges offer an unbeatable combination of game drives, walks with skilled trackers, and exclusive accommodation in pristine natural surroundings.

Which is your preferred destination in South Africa and what are the emerging places to visit for the Indian traveller?

As a travel destination, South Africa is uniquely placed because it offers something for everyone.

Depending on the type of holiday experience that one wants, one can go to the place of one’s choice in South Africa. If one wishes to experience a serene beach holiday, KwaZulu-Natal is the place to be, because of its favorable climate. Cape Town and Garden Route beckons the Indian traveller to get a glimpse of the scenic beauty. To experience wildlife and get lost in the ‘Land of Bushes’, one can visit the Limpopo Province or Mpumalanga and stay in one of the game reserves to experience the breathtaking safari. If night clubbing and culture is on one’s itinerary, then there is no better place than Johannesburg.

While Cape Town, Johannesburg and Durban are among the top favourites in the globetrotter’s wish-list, other places in the Northwest province and Eastern Cape are also being explored.

What is your opinion of Namaste South Africa (www.namastesouthafrica.com) – a dedicated online platform for the Indian traveller to South Africa?

It is an interesting website, packed with lots of information and exciting visuals.

Lastly, your message to readers:

For all those sports enthusiasts, who want to experience an unforgettable adventure in the wild and not lose an opportunity of a lifetime, get ready with your backpacks and head to South Africa – a country where “It’s Possible!”

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Along the Garden Route: One Road, Countless Experiences

Taronish (along with Zinnia, who took the stunning photos, and a group of 10 friends and family members) travelled to East Africa and South Africa with Namaste South Africa in May, 2010. She saw lions, elephants and leopards, rode an Ostrich and even witnessed the  largest animal migration on earth during her unforgettable trip! Here, she tells us about her experiences along the Garden Route in South Africa.

She wrote this while she was still in South Africa, not long after she actually visited the Garden Route…

The following represents my personal experiences and the feelings that swept through me during part of my South Africa trip, as vividly and solidly as possible. In a way, this is like my own version of a photo album. It is my interpretation of the imprints in my mind and the events that have touched my heart, impacted me or changed me or made any kind of difference at all… I have not only written about factual or information-based events, but also about my reflections and the emotional and spiritual elements of the trip. For me, these personal reflections are important because they captured the essence and fundamentality of the trip.

We have arrived and been in Cape Town for a full day and as usual it has been a busy one. We arrived yesterday night and therefore could not see or gauge too much, but nonetheless I was impressed with what I saw. From the plane, the city looked quite dense and populated, yet there was something pleasant about the lights; they were almost all bright orange with a few bigger white lights. It was the perfect combination of large orange dots complemented by tiny sparkling ones filling in the gaps to create a lovely seabed of shining city life. There were also no overbearing sky scrapers or extreme mid-city-like-billboards: the ‘busy-ness’ was just enough to make the city appear ideally and pleasantly occupied. I was quite tired and kept falling asleep on the way to our hotel, but one of the things I did wake up to, amazed me. Just there – immediately to the left of this apparently ‘normal’ city were humongous mountains, extending right up into the sky and reflecting the moon-beams with their peaks. It really was the last thing I expected to see so up-close, right inside the bustle of urban city life. The prominent presence of nature brought great relief and satisfaction at the same time. My ‘night impressions’ were already positive and I looked forward to exploring the town upon the morrow.

In the morning, at around 9 AM, we headed off on our bus towards the Table Mountain. On the way, I tried to take in everything I beheld… This made me happy because I liked what I saw. There is such a vast array of architecture, ranging from old-English and renaissance style buildings to modern, beachy-looking apartments with classic white balconies – stark and classy looking. The city seems to have a great ‘Melbourne feel’ to it. It was nothing less than what I expected or imagined it would have been like when I saw it in the dark: considerably dense, but with the perfect balance of city and nature; buildings on one side, mountains on the other. Furthermore, at some point, the city gave way to a beautifully clear bay that spread vastly into the horizon. We were able to view it for the first time at the perfect moment in the morning when the light and gentle sun were being reflected almost magically throughout the water.

Here are some interesting facts about Cape Town:

  • The population of Cape Town is approximately 4.5 million of which there are about 2 million coloured people, 1 million white and the remainder (1.2 million or so) belong to other ethnicities such as Indian, Asian etc.
  • Just like Johannesburg, there were originally no trees in the town: it is in fact reclaimed land, meaning that it used to be the sea once ; in 1945 the harbor was dredged.
  • There were originally two tribes in the area that is now Cape Town, the Bushman or SAN (Stone Aged Neanderthal) and the Khoi people. The Portuguese established the first white settlement here in around 1450.

We had left our hotel room to embrace the cool, crisp weather, with the temperature quite similar to what we experience during winters at home in Australia. Although I like heat and warmth, it was a pleasant change.

Our first brief stop was at a street aligned with several brightly coloured houses. They were incredibly attractive and unique. There was some significance to the colours – the council had requested that the houses be painted pastel, but the people contradictingly painted them with bright colours as an act of rebellion.

The first ‘big’ thing we did was riding a cable car up the Table Mountain, a famous attraction that is under vote for being listed as one of the new seven wonders of the world. The cable car was fantastic because it actually slowly spun around so that no matter where you were standing, you got a full view of everything, including the water leading to the cape. We also got a very close view of the rock face nearby which gave us the sensation of slowly rising amongst it all… When we got to the top, it was exceptionally cold and we were literally in the clouds. 🙂  They were intermittent and came and went but the majority of the time we were surrounded by misty white fog which was exhilarating yet soothing at the same time.

It was exciting to have spectacular views of the town peeping through the beds of clouds every now and then, a sensation you would scarcely get the opportunity to otherwise experience. The top of the mountain was big and flat (hence its title) and I took a good walk in a loop through the paths that cut through the hardy cold-resistant shrubs. What was really good was that there was something different to see and a fresh view from each side! You really can never get tired of views and beautiful scenery…

We finished with some hot chocolate at a delightful little café which was not only delicious, but also the perfect treat to warm our chilled bodies. This completed and perfected the experience!

The rest of the day, we explored the town some more, appreciating the different buildings and common sight-seeing places. We saw the town hall, a beautiful and huge Victorian, renaissance building of yellowy-mustard limestone that was shipped over from Bath and completed in 1905. I love seeing aged buildings like that because we don’t have many of that kind back at home. We then went inside a building called the Cape Town Castle of Good Hope; a really old building dating back to 1666 created from stone from the Table Mountain. It was pentagon shaped and was once a fortress. We gazed at it from the outside as we were explained its history…and so when we went inside it, I was excited. It had chipped pastel-yellow paint with green windows and a pool with a courtyard. There was old regal furniture inside and there were beautiful old paintings everywhere, most of which were portraits of people and scenic pictures of Cape Town. There was this one room that was simply stunning; it had one really long wooden polished table with a hundred and one seating places, fifty on each side and you could actually have functions there even to this day!

I am sure I have written this multiple times but I am completely in love with this continent in every way. The landscape, the buildings, nature, skies, animals, weather, people, food, music, clothing, culture…  just everything! At this point, I don’t know how I won’t be able to come back here, because I have just been so happy with everything and its awakening the best parts of me I never knew existed, AS WELL AS as well as satisfying every component of a perfect holiday. I feel so content recollecting the vivid memories of all the cross-cultural experiences we have had uptill now… Witnessing a new way of life has been fascinating. I feel as if the people here have brought a whole new dimension to my definition of a smile.  And then there are all the things I have seen (that I still cannot believe I have seen!) or done that have made me resonate with happiness! Every single moment has been like the best I could imagine it to be, from the really adventurous things to just casually hanging out with the wonderful company we have. It isn’t just a holiday but a complete life transformation, an opportunity to know life, to really live life and most importantly to love and appreciate every second and breath of life. I thought I knew happiness and fulfillment before this, but that was just a tease compared to the contentment I feel now. This trip has put so much into perspective: myself, the world, people, nature, living, loving, appreciating, giving, embracing, reflecting, laughing, relaxing, growing and being happy and a complete human being…

I will finish writing about what we did yesterday before I go on to today’s adventures. We spent some time at the Victoria and Alfred waterfront, browsing through shops and then had some lunch at an Italian restaurant outdoors with a view of the dock and water. It was a really nice and relaxing place that felt like the combination of Sydney Harbour, the docklands in Melbourne and Hobart in Tasmania. The food was really good too. We had this delicious fruity and white bread, so fresh and tasty! I decided to try an ostrich steak: not only because I am always keen on trying new things, but also because I may as well try it while I am here in South Africa. It was served with a lovely mushroom sauce. It was nice and tender, so much more like red meat than I would have imagined, (they even ask you how you want it cooked, just like steak). What further enhanced our dining experience was a musician playing his guitar and singing classic songs right outside the restaurant on the waterfront, adding to the already perfect views, weather, breeze and delicious food. Music really does have the capability to enhance the ambience so much. It can liven any mood, take moods, create moods and can just make such a difference, for me anyway.

We had a bit of time to relax in the hotel before dinner again, when we went back to the waterfront to a fancy seafood restaurant. Again the food was delectable; it was all presented so professionally and tasted delicious. This was especially lucky for me because I love seafood! I had a calamari starter, grilled fish with prawns and salad and a white chocolate tart with ice-cream for dessert.

Things have been so busy and tiredness is starting to catch up so I missed a day of writing and therefore now have two days to catch up on. It is a good, satisfying kind of tiredness though. Any complaints made here aren’t real complaints because everything in reality is exactly the way it should be and I wouldn’t want anything any different. So here I go…

More facts:

  • Cecil John Rhodes discovered diamonds in South Africa.
  • In 1838, slaves were freed in South Africa.
  • The development of the Afrikaans language: how did it happen? It was created after the Dutch had occupied the land for five generations and realized that they had created their own culture and country here, so they might as well come up with their own language. They created a language for which Dutch is the basis, and they mixed it up with all the local languages of the time. This included Malay from the Indonesian slaves, and French because they were involved with the trading of wine. Then, the British influence anglicized many words. And this was in addition to influences from Hungary, Germany, Sweden and Ireland… Intensely eclectic! A common feature of of all these influences was that the ‘k’ replaceding the ‘c’. Afrikaans developed properly over a 12 year period starting in 1910 and was officialized upon the printing of the first Afrikaans newspaper in 1922.

So well, back to today!

We did quite some driving today and which I’ve always really loved and enjoyed driving. And since this was a drive along the Atlantic coastline, we had some new and fresh invigorating scenic views! It was dominated by seaside images, with the breath-taking views of water and beaches. This, combined with the refreshing smell of the sea made it difficult for me not to have my arm and head out of the bus window most of the time, just so that I could take it all in as much as possible.

We stopped at Camps Bay for a bit of shopping; another waterfront-like area. Colin (our tour guide) said this place was very popular for its sunsets on the horizon over the water, creating a spectacularly romantic view. The houses near the beachside reminded me of places in our northern beaches back home; it really would be an amazing place to live. I have always adored the beach and the seaside and as this trip has further affirmed my love for mountains, this place certainly reflects the best of both words and seems to be an ideal location for inhabitance. The mountains are basically in the lap of the sea face: it is such an unusual contrast, but creates a perfect view of the sun rising up from behind the mountains generating a misty glare spilling over and into the sea. It really does seem to reflect the best of everything all in one single view. The strangeness and complexity of this dense civilization just at the foothills of these massive mountains, occasionally broken up by water is a unique situation that I’m sure is not quite like this anywhere else in the world. I know all places are completely different and have their own qualities, but I can tell that the nature of this town and its unique characteristics really stand alone. You can’t imagine it until you have seen it. It makes civilization and human developments look so insignificant and puny at the hands of nature literally in front of your eyes, due to the enormity of these mountains in contrast to the tiny houses. But on that note, it is nice to see everything fitting together and working in what seems to be apparent harmony -for now anyway. Hopefully the earth will remain happy to share a part of its mountain base with us, as long as we can continue to take only what is needed and live within our means and try not to abuse the land’s generosity. Life is all give and take. I have been lucky enough to experience a wide array of ways of living and environments on this journey from pure untouched nature, semi-occupied rural villages, busy conventional cities like Johannesburg and now Cape Town, the ideal combination of both. I found Zambia fitting the mould of the middle path as well. For me this and Kenya felt like the real Africa I had in my mind, but then the real Africa depends on what kind of experiences one seeks. South Africa is wonderful, but at the same time it has a completely different feel. It might be due to the high proportion of Anglo-saxon occupants that it carries somewhat more of a western atmosphere. These are just differences however, and there is nothing wrong with anything a little different. It’s amazing such different places exist side by side on the same continent. For one thing, it certainly doesn’t take anything away from Africa’s holistic and magnificent beauty.

I have not yet caught up and I am still writing as my time seems to be rapidly slipping away! I will try to stay more focused and get to the point because I seem to get carried away and going off on many tangents with my writing lately.

One of the highlights of our drive was seeing a castle resting high up on a mountain. It wasn’t a queenly estate or anything, but it still was something big and spectacular; a nice deep maroon colour with typical castle-like rooftops. It is worth 40 million rand and has 14 bedrooms. Due to its location you can only access it by helicopter. Sounds inconvenient but I’m sure many wouldn’t complain, it would be a fairytale dream house for the majority of people.

We crossed over the mountain at Constantia Nek and made our way to the Cape of Good Hope, situated within a nature reserve. This particular reserve had a different terrain, colours and textures compared to many of the others we had seen. It was quite dry with small shrubs and trees and many small whitish rocks. Didn’t have any high mountains either. There wasn’t an abundance of wildlife, but we did see some ostriches and baboons. We initially stopped at a place which had the ‘Cape of Good Hope’ wooden sign, indicating the degree of where we were in comparison to the world and also the point where three of the oceans meet. I stood and walked over the rocks, whilst enjoying a view of the waves splashing upwards as they crashed into the rocks on the shore, their white spray creating picture-perfect moments.

The best part of my day which really took my breath away was when we were at the main viewing site at Cape Point. We took a little bus up the hill to a viewing station that had a lighthouse, and… I wish I could encompass the perfect words to describe this place. It was another one of those ‘Where am I?’ I would never have imagined seeing something so beautiful’ moments. I have seen many views of the sea from lookout points with lighthouses before, but this was just so different. I can pinpoint the differences being our extremely high altitude, so we could see a whole lot more of everything, and the concept of the sheer vastness. There’s barely any other way to put it: it was just so marvelously flat and open. The endless seas extended in all directions as far as you could possibly imagine. Into the distance the water was flat and smooth like paper, and closer to where we were you could see slow, calming movements of the subtle waves. With the addition of the magical African skies and clouds, it was more beautiful than any ocean view I had ever seen.

We continued along the False Bay coastline and stopped at another dockside-kind of area for lunch at a seafood restaurant. After filling ourselves, we came out and lay on the grass, enjoying the beautiful weather and browsing through some local stalls selling things.

After that we visited the penguin colony at Boulder’s Beach which was just down the road. A section of the beach is closed off and the penguins are confined there , because at one stage they became overpopulated and were considered invasive to the neighborhood. They have a nice little environment set up there and we saw many African penguins sitting on the sand, on rocks on the water and in bushes and burrows.

Our final stop for the day after that was the Kirstenbosch Botanical Gardens, another world heritage site. It was so peaceful and serene in there: there was an assortment of different flowers, plants and trees everywhere and of course true to the characteristics of the country, mountains setting the scene in the background. A perfect place to wander through, relax and take some beautiful pictures. I especially liked that every last plant was labeled so you knew exactly what you were looking at. In the courtyard shop area, there were many lovely statues of different African ornaments and I took some photographs.

We had a ‘free night’ that night and went to a local place called the Gold Museum for dinner. There was a set menu and live dancing and entertainment which was really great, I quite enjoyed it. They put face paint on the ladies as well and all their dances had a consecutive storyline. The voice of the main singer was especially capturing. Some of the food was similar to Indian food and it was all really tasty. We had spicy tomato soup, rice with salty fish, ostrich kebab skewers and Mozambique prawns. Also different vegetables were cooked in different ways: sweet potato, carrot, spinach, a nice salad, and a chicken dish – and all the food was quite sweet. Finally for dessert there was a delicious sweet Semolina ‘liquidy’ pudding-like dish with vermicelli in it, followed by a fruit platter. Another great night out and what was actually the stimulus for me beginning to write the other night that I was totally in love with this continent. I don’t think I’ve had such lively and enjoyable dining experiences before – the people here just seem to have mastered the art of making everything fun and full of life.

On Thursday, the 27th of May, we partook on the Garden Route tour around Knysna. The drive along the highway and coast was beautiful as always. This time the scenery reminded me of Australian bush lands, of course it was much bigger and extended further away and was maybe not quite as dry, but the layout looked closer to home than all the other settings I have seen. Our destination, Mossel Bay, offered another beautiful body of sun-reflecting water and also had little white houses on display on the grass area, creating wonderful photo opportunities.

We went into the Dias maritime museum, the highlight of that being a big, really old sail ship in the middle of the museum that we could go inside and explore. It was so interesting to see the different parts of the ship and how the crew must have managed on there, from their little kitchen to their small Bunk beds in their cabins. It was in such good shape too – almost in the same state it would have been used. I also liked looking at the framed, olden-day nautical maps. Outside there were some whale bones and that gave us an idea of how massive these creatures are. I could probably just get my arms around their one vertebrae, how incredible. For lunch we went to a popular burger place here called Wimpy’s.

That evening we went on another boat cruise. It had just missed the sunset so was mainly in the dark, but it was still really nice. It wasn’t as much in the wilderness as much as the previous cruise we had in Zambia. The view was mainly of houses on one side and tree-filled hills with a few scarce houses in it on the other. I had a glass of wine whilst enjoying the sea breeze, but the best part was the view of the full moon. It lit up the whole sky and was one of the biggest I have ever seen. I tried to take some photos of it, but obviously they do not reflect anywhere near as big, bright and beautiful as it looked in real life.

We decided to walk from the dock to the hotel and then went to a Chinese restaurant for dinner across the road from where we were staying, the food was actually really good and reminded me of being at home because I hadn’t eaten Asian food like that since we have been here. After that we went back to the dockside and I did some yoga/stretches and then we found this place where they were playing these incredibly smooth Brazilian tunes and we danced away, swinging around the tables and poles of the closed outdoor area of the restaurant, it was so much fun. I love foreign music, especially to dance to.

Yesterday (Friday, 28/05) was a really eventful and exciting day. We engaged in many tourist-like experiences which were quite action-packed, as well as our usual sight-seeing. I did two things in particular that were really amazing that I never thought I would do, but I will get to that as it took place. One of the unknown surprises for me was our visit to the Cango wildlife ranch. I’m not really a big fan of the concept of zoos of late, but this one was quite good and specialized in conserving endangered animals, especially cheetahs. We went on a tour of the place and saw/were explained about meerkats, lemurs, red river hogs (red pigs), crocodiles and vultures. We then saw some big cats; cheetahs, including the young, lions, white tigers and a Bengal tiger.

I love wildlife and nature and hearing about the different and amazing things that each species can do. I did something spontaneous that they were offering as well: I patted the white tigers! What an opportunity it was, and strange it was presented because they have been my absolute favourite animals for a while now, so actually being able to touch them was fabulous, especially because they are big cats and could be considered dangerous. I was just playfully patting them as if they were big, friendly pets. They even just sucked the fingers of the trainers like big babies, they really were incredibly cute. Another real ‘living life’ moment, I’m so glad I did it and got a really great photos to capture the moment reminisce on as well.

When we were driving, I saw endless rows of pine trees and above them there was a tiny patch of illuminated sky amidst the grey where the sun was shining, creating a little mini-patch of rainbow. Once again, so immensely paradisical. There really has been something new to see everyday, even if it is at a quick glance.

We drove past small, beach towns (a lot of the Cape Town areas are beachy because its along the coastline) with houses hoisted up on mountain faces overlooking the water. There were so many beach houses and hotels confined in one area and it seemed like such a nice, relaxed place to live. At one point, I got a side profile of the entire beach as we followed the curvaceous bend of the road. The waves were crashing and the water was moving in complete synchronicity. Shortly following that I saw two people walking over a bank across a river in a forest area holding hands and also viewed a little isolated house situated right in the forest near the water. To the locals or people who live there it may just be their ordinary house, but for me it was an experience in itself because like everything else I hadn’t seen anything like that before. I’m so glad I happened to be looking at these special moments because when they add up together, they are what contribute to the perfection of everyday. The suburbs near the beaches are quite small, just occupying a minute area around the beach. I would love to live somewhere like that; just as much human developments as necessary, blended with just the right ratio of natural components, especially wonders such as the sea or vast mountains. As usual I have said all this before, and am now just rephrasing it in different words.

Speaking of natural wonders, we then set out to the Cango caves, another national heritage site. I haven’t been to proper caves for as long as I can remember, so I didn’t know what to expect and that took me even more by surprise. To think that such caves even exist and that we have actually discovered them is mind-boggling. Our tour guide was telling us about the man that wondered through (well actually I’m sure he was a serious explorer and didn’t just casually ‘stroll’ into them). All he had was a tiny candlelight to discover the whole cave area which was massive. We even had all the lights turned off to demonstrate how dark and desolate it would have been, and it seemed quite scary. The explanations of how certain structures were formed such as growing up from the bottom (I can’t imagine how, seems quite strange) and slowly dripping and solidifying from the top were tremendously intriguing.

We went through a few different chambers and were pointed out shapes of the limestone that looked like different objects. There were some creepy coincidences of the formations. Some specific parts dated back millions of years, it was just unbelieveable. I am amazed that such mysterious, wonderfully detailed and intricate spaces ever had and still exist so far beneath the ground, and that these are also places where people actually inhabited at one stage. Purely fascinating!

Similar to the mines at Gold Reef City in Johannesburg, we had only explored a small portion of the caves and they were actually far more complex than what we had witnessed. They had these ‘cave adventure’ tours up for offer and as adventurous as I am, I am not even sure I would be convinced by that because it involves crawling through tiny tunnels that are only just as wide as your body. There are so many different things people are able to do to be adventurous, we just have to discover what’s out there.

The last tourist stop of our day was our visit to the ostrich farm. We learnt some interesting facts about the ostriches and then went outside to see them where we also got the chance to feed them. Then crazily enough I sat on one and rode it for a short while. I didn’t even know ostriches could be sat on, let alone ridden! It’s only done for leisure, not sport or anything and you can only stay on for less than a minute before losing balance. They put a blindfold over the bird because they will be less stressed if they cannot see what’s happening. I had to step up onto the step and sit on its back with its wings covering my legs. They have the same body temperature as humans so it was really warm. I then had to hold on underneath the wings and lean back. The jockeys were holding onto the back and then we took off – I had no idea they would run so fast! It happened so quickly and I was off the bird in about ten seconds. When they are riding properly, the riders hold onto their necks to turn in different directions. We then got the chance to test the theory about the strength of their eggs which can hold 200kg width wise and up to 300kg upright. The largest member of our group stood on them and they didn’t budge. They commonly use the eggs for decoration here, all painted and lacquered and they look very pretty.

Ostrich facts:

  • Ostrich meat is quite healthy and lean, their feathers can be used for garments and to make feather dusters.
  • One egg can feed about 10 people (and is equivalent to about two dozen chicken eggs).
  • Their leather is very expensive and the second toughest in the world after kangaroo, as the process in order to create the finished product is lengthy and detailed.
  • In the relevant season, the mother ostrich can just keep on laying eggs and can even detect when an egg is fertile or not. When it isn’t, they peck on it and feed on the egg.

We then had a cup of coffee and bought some things from the shop there. Another fun-filled and adventurous day indeed.

On our way home, I admired the views from the bus again and for the millionth time, every single day I am amazed by simply the beauty of the skies and that will be something I will really miss here. I haven’t seen anything like them before; so many different colours, forms and textures – gray, pink, white, orange, blue, purple, rose, red, plum. I wish I could describe it all…I just wish I could describe everything perfectly! All I know is that it is endlessly exciting and there has been an alternate beauty to experience in some form each and every day, and throughout different moments of the day for each time of day has its individual advantage. The grassy mountains were again something new to the eyes. We have viewed many a mountain but this time the green grass looked like a smooth untextured silk from our distance. Our altitude of the mountains varied at different points where we were on the road, from being at the base of them to sometimes being aligned almost at the top – it was great to see the different perspectives through looking up towards the peak and then down towards the base.

I am not a huge advocate for taking lots of photos at a scene because sometimes it takes away from living and taking in the experience, but the amazing thing about them is that sometimes you can see and pick up things that you would never have seen. Or not seen from that perspective or angle anyway, especially when you then revisit the photos. Of course sometimes you can miss things looking through the limitations of a lens, but it can also create a different focus on detail you may not capture in your mind. Saying that, when I have looked over photos of the views I saw, many of them didn’t even compare to the greatness of being there. Apart from the live presence invigorating all your senses, there are certain colours and parts you cannot capture because of your distance from, or the magnitude of the scene (what to focus on capturing?). But it seems to work well with pictures of structures and buildings. I have taken many photos where I can appreciate the structure of a building due to viewing it from a certain standpoint.

Our last night topped the day off perfectly. We went to dinner at the cutest little Italian restaurant called Chatters right near our hotel, it was amazing! The wait-staff there were incredibly lovely, the ambience was perfect and that along with the delicious food made it a great experience. We had pizza, but the highlights for me were the oven-baked lasagna and home-made lemon ice-cream served on a brandy snap. You can tell how much I am loving and appreciating food and eating more each day as the details about the meals that we have eaten increase. I guess I really have lived every facet of the holidaying experience!

Cape Town: 6 Unusual Facts

Table Mountain Cape Town

In February 2010, Forbes magazine ranked Cape Town as of the 10 most beautiful cities in the world. And that is just one of the accolades which Cape Town laps up with alarming alacrity every year. :)

With a Table Mountain, a spectacular seafront,  an array of stunning “blue flag” beaches, and the colourful houses of its Bo Kaap locality to top it all, Cape Town is without doubt a tourist’s paradise.

Here are 5 interesting facts about Cape Town that you may not have heard before!

* Cape Town is a “large” city when you look at its land area.How large? According to Wikipedia, it is 4 times the size of Mumbai! And you thought Mumbai was large? ;)

* Generally you list the average height of a city above sea level. Mumbai for example is, on an average, 14 metres above sea level. But you don’t do that for Cape Town. It’s highest point is a whopping 1590 metres above sea level while its lowest point is at level with the sea! Talk of variety… :)

* For a city of its stature, Cape Town is relatively very less dense. This means very less people live in it per square kilometre compared to other major world cities. How less? If you took the effect of area into account, there are 13 people in Mumbai for every one person in Cape Town!

* Cape Town does indeed have this knack of lapping up award after award. Can you guess how many internationally acclaimed recognitions and awards it has received in the past 2 years? Five? Ten? The correct answer is 22. ‘ One Of The World’s 5 Bluest Sky Destinations’ , ‘Africa’s Leading Destination’ and ‘City with the World’s Cleanest Beach’ are three of these fascinating titles!

* Near which city does the world’s largest individually timed cycle race take place? Which city hosts the largest full-service mountain bike stage race in the world? Which city has played host to the Rugby World Cup, the Cricket World Cup and the IPL?  No second guesses: it’s Cape Town. :)

* The Table Mountain National Park in Cape Town is unique: not for the amazing plants it has but for the huge number of plant species it has. With 2200 different kinds of plants, it has more species than New Zealand and the United Kingdom!

Why not end with a video as interesting as the city itself? Here it is.

Visit this page for some interesting Cape Town pictures. And if you are interested in visiting Cape Town one day, why not make a start by looking here?

Taj, Cape Town is Now Open!

There’s now another Indian Connection to South Africa (apart from Namaste South Africa ;) ) – Taj, Cape Town. On March 20, 2010, Taj Hotels Resorts and Palaces announced the opening of Taj, Cape Town. Yes, the famous ‘Taj hospitality’ can now be enjoyed by Capetonians and visitors to South Africa!

Lets look at some interesting facts about this new hotel:

* On the very day of its opening, all its 177 rooms have been booked. That says something about the credibility of the “Taj” brand.

* The five star hotel has been built at a cost of R500-million with contributions from Taj, Tata Africa and Eurocape.

* The hotel is located near the city centre and  has been built around two historic buildings. It took 2 years of construction and renovation of the historic buildings to build the hotel.

* The hotel offers 11 different types of rooms – all unique in their own way. There are Heritage rooms in the newly restored buildings and Tower rooms that provide an exquisite view of the Table Mountain. There is even a Presidential Suite which has 2 bedrooms, a massage and steam room, a fully equipped kitchen, office, gym and a top floor deck!

* As part of its introductory offer, The Taj, Cape Town is offering a special R 3500 (USD 474) room for two people including breakfast.

Here’s a video about the hotel.

I would love to stay in the Taj, Cape Town. :) What about you?