Monday, 17 July 2017

A Safari into History in South-Africa





A Safari into History in South Africa

Safari snobs sometimes look down on South Africa. It's easy and accessible, but the parks are crowded, some say, and there's better game viewing elsewhere on the continent.

That may be true, but there are exceptions to every rule. One is Zulu Camp on the private Shambala Game Reserve, which stretches over 32,000 acres in the Limpopo Province, a few hours' drive from Johannesburg. The Land Cruiser crosses a shallow pond to enter the reserve, a design flourish to emphasize the purity inside. And once you're in, you don't see anyone from the outside.

What you do see are plenty of animals. The reserve's owner, South African insurance tycoon Douw Steyn, bought the land when it was still used as grazing fields and farms and gradually restored it to bushveld. Then he began buying Cape buffalo, wildebeests, giraffes, zebras, antelopes, elephants, lions, leopards, cheetahs and rhinos-and now spends large amounts of money to keep safe from poachers. Some 40 kinds of mammals live in the reserve.

He also dammed the Frikkie-se-loop River to create the largest man-made lake in southern Africa, home to hippos and crocodiles. Visitors are often taken on a sunset cruise, in which the boatman steers to the dam and points the bow over the edge.

It's scary but spectacular-one of many slightly over-the-top elements at Zulu Camp, the lodging component of the reserve. The eight thatched chalets have a honeycomb shape that reflects traditional architecture and measure more than 600 square feet. They're decorated in what the camp calls Afro-French Provincial style, with fine linens, French armoires, huge bathrooms, private decks and outdoor showers. Each comes with a butler. And the dining room and lounge are built on the banks of Steyn's lake, making wildlife sightings over breakfast common. (Disclosure: I stayed as a guest of the camp.)

Truth be told, I've seen more animals in other countries. But searching for the big five just another form of bucket-list tourism. For me, safari is about vast wild spaces and occasional up close encounters. It reminds you that your problems are really quite trivial in the great scheme of things. My complicated life sure beats that of an impala being chased by a lion.

And what I experienced on my South African safari that I haven't found elsewhere is history. In addition to his conservation efforts, Steyn was a close friend of Nelson Mandela's, hosting him in his home after he was released from prison in 1990. He built a private villa at Shambala for the civil rights hero, who wrote parts of his autobiography there.

Formerly called the Nelson Mandela Centre for Reconciliation, the six-bedroom villa is outfitted in African style (somewhat vintage now) with traditional designs, natural materials, an intricate Rhodesian teak door frame and Mozambican woodwork by a master craftsman. The camp calls it a "masterpiece of understatement, a fitting tribute to an exceptional yet humble human being."

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