The Games People Play—On Safari in Africa: New World Wine With a Healthy Dose of Giraffes
We can all appreciate that wine is the common thread that weaves everything at The Napa Valley Reserve together—travel included. Naturally, even when The Reserve goes to Africa, taking at least one safari is a must—and six days on safari is more like it. After all, with the many great things Napa Valley has to offer, lions, giraffes, hippos and elephants aren’t part of the picture. Needless to say, we took full advantage of every aspect of this year’s destination, which included spotting all kinds of exotic animals in their natural habitat and also tasting the best wines from the Cape Winelands.
The trip kicked off in Johannesburg, where an intimate group of 26 travelers boarded a small plane to Botswana. Upon landing, open-top Land Cruisers drove the group to the Sanctuary Chobe Chilwero. It’s a luxurious lodge in the heart of the bush next to the enormous Okavango Delta and Chobe National Park, which is the second largest national park in Botswana. Upon arrival, the whole staff of twenty greeted us singing. It was an especially meaningful gesture, which foretold of promising nights ahead full of riveting cultural performances and dancing.
We snacked on make-your-own pizzas made in the outdoor, wood-fired pizza oven. Then we went down the Chobe River where we saw elephants—the first game sightings of the trip. According to the guides, there are more elephants here than in any other part of the world, with herds reaching up to 500 elephants. As Managing Director Philip Norfleet observed, “You see photos of these animals in nature magazines, but when they’re 15-feet from you, it’s truly exhilarating.”
Safaris by day and cruises on the delta by night filled the itinerary. Throughout each day, spotting animals was nearly as easy as keeping our eyes open. The aforementioned elephants, as well as hippos, alligators, water buffalo, gazelles, Cape buffalo, impala, giraffe, and troops of baboons were everywhere.
Speaking of baboons being everywhere, one of the most amusing stories of the trip involved wild baboons crashing the lodge’s pool. For a little background: The camp is surrounded by electric wire in an attempt to keep animals out since the lodge is nestled right in the heart of the enormous Chobe National Park. From time to time, animals get through the fence, and it happened after lunch on the third day. Even with the fence, a troop of about 30 baboons climbed under it and bee-lined to the pool. We looked out and saw that some baboons were in the pool, some were on the trellises above the pool, some were playing tug-of-war with towels, and some were in the outdoor shower. It was a sight, proving that sometimes reality is far sillier than the imagination.
The only animals to seemingly elude us by the end of our stay in Chobe, were lions. So we took one last game drive at dawn to change that discrepancy, and then it happened. Way at the far end of the park, a Member spotted fresh tracks, and we saw a lone lion calling to the pride, then we immediately saw a lioness and her cubs—cubs which were about 6 months old and even some newborns that were as tiny as really small cats. Minutes later, a jackal appeared from a distance and started to approach the cubs. Upon seeing this, our guide moved the Land Cruiser to block the jackal and alert the lions to ultimately save the cubs.
With a solid checklist of animal spotting in our back-pockets, we went to the airport where three single-engine planes were waiting to fly us to Zambia. En route, about an hour into our flight, we saw a big cloud up ahead that looked like smoke. Only, it was the opposite
of smoke or a fire, it was water. Turns out that it was the mist from Victoria Falls 20km in
After landing at the airport in Zambia, we went to Sanctuary Sussi & Chuma in the heart of Mosi-oa-Tunya National Park, with the main lodge boasting 12 tree houses connected by stilted wooden walkways. Later in the afternoon we took a Zambezi River cruise. The river was running high and fast, and we cruised down it spotting hippos along the way.
The next day involved a trip to Victoria Falls. These stunning waterfalls are twice the height of Niagara and beyond spectacular. The mist was so thick that we couldn’t even see where the falls were, and we had to wear ponchos because it’s like being in a heavy downpour. Mix the mist and the sun together, and everywhere we turned, we saw rainbows. We took a helicopter over the falls then into the gorges below. Looking back at last year’s Mount Etna helicopter trip and this year’s Victoria Falls one, a pattern is starting emerge about traveling with the Reserve: If there’s a helicopter option on the itinerary, always take it.
In the afternoon, we went on a walking safari in search of the rare White Rhino. Poaching makes it hard for them to keep their population strong. Normally they’re scarce, but on this particular afternoon, they were only 15-feet away, while we were on foot—accompanied by armed National Parks ranger, just in case.
Even with the memorable opportunity of seeing these animals in their natural habitat, visiting a local village might’ve been the most poignant, eye-opening part of the trip. Witnessing this village and observing how the villagers live, it revealed to us how exceedingly well we live in comparison. Since their conditions are normal for them, they didn’t know that they’re missing anything, but we knew. We bought 100 pairs of shoes and gave them away to all the local children—as a gesture to try to help. As a consequence of this trip, The Reserve plans to work with them to assist with building a new maternity ward in Livingstone.
Next we flew from Johannesburg to Cape Town to stay at La Residence in Franschhoek Valley, which is an opulent oasis and proved to be a fittingly luxurious end to our vacation. It’s a gorgeous ultra-luxury hotel in what may be considered South Africa’s version of Napa Valley. The property is a stunning valley setting with mountains in the distance, and vineyards, orchards, olive groves and infinity pools on the 30-acre estate. It was a bonding moment for the group to be able to completely relax.
This may be why everyone from The Reserve felt right at home. It was the lap of luxury in wine country. Our first event was meant to be a formal wine tasting that we missed when we arrived late, but the staff didn’t lose a step and they set out a marvelous spread of cheese, quiche, mini-hamburgers, and vegetables, and wonderful wine.
On the first full day, we tasted some Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah, Merlot and Petit Verdot at the Anthonij Rupert Estate. This preceded a tasting at the sister winery, L’Ormarins Estate. After more wine tasting we toured the Manor House and then visited the Drakenstein Stud because Gaynor and Johann Rupert—friends of The Reserve—raise racehorses and thoroughbreds there. Private tram shuttles took the group to the Franschhoek Motor Museum, which houses four pavilions filled with vintage cars like Alfa Romeos, Mercedes SSKs, Bugattis, Nelson Mandela’s armored limousine, and a Rolls Royce that was a gift to the King of Egypt. Bringing the morning full circle, we tasted more wines on the deck at Anthonij Rupert. That night, we enjoyed a beautiful dinner at Pierneef at La Motte in Franschhoek.
In Cape Town, we took cable cars to the top of Table Mountain, which was fogged in but still impressive. From there, we went to the Cape of Good Hope Nature Reserve at the end of the Cape Peninsula, almost to the tip of Africa, to see penguins. That night we enjoyed an extravagant dinner at Le Quartier Francais.
For the final day, Manu Singh, fellow Member of The Napa Valley Reserve who is also the founder and Chairman of Mullineux & Leeu Family Wines invited us to spend an afternoon at the winery. While we missed Manu, our group was showered with exquisite wines, breathtaking views, and cuisine that managed to taste even better than it looked. Lunch in itself was an experience as each course was paired perfectly with a wine from the Mullineux & Leeu collection. Pairing included: black squid tempura, smoked chili, and pineapple pico de gallo with Mullineux Schist Chenin 2013 as well as baked mango ice cream with caramelized mango and passion fruit with Mullineux Olerasay Straw Wine. We also got our hands dirty and planted some of the first trees and shrubbery on the estate. In the afternoon, people started leaving and heading home.