Sunday, January 16, 2011

Harvesting a Forty-year Family Legacy – Simonsig’s Kaapse Vonkel

It’s summertime in the Cape winelands. The sun is shining. The afternoons are so heated the air seems to shimmer. The mountain tops above seem heavy, a distant deep purple and the leaves on the vines before me are glowing a luminescent green. Bunches of grapes hang from them like perfect, radiant spheres – and they are ripe for the picking.

This is the very start of harvest season, when these delicate globes take the next step of their journey from the vineyards to our glasses. A time of the year that conjures up romantic images like basket loads of grapes streaming out of the vineyards by day and by night, of grape stomping rituals and most importantly, of bountiful celebration. And this year, the Stellenbosch winery Simonsig has much to celebrate.

Home to Kaapse Vonkel, the acclaimed M├ęthod Cap Classique (MCC) bubbly, this harvest represents the 40th anniversary since visionary winemaker Frans Malan introduced it to the South African market. It was the first bubbly in South Africa to be made using the traditional Champagne method, a bold move at the time. Under the careful attention of Mr. Malan’s sons, it also became one of the few MCC’s to use the same classic grape combination used in Champagne – Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and Pinot Meunier. In other words, it’s about as close as you can get to “real” Champagne without throwing a few hundred rand at an imported bottle.

And why not buy local when such at outstanding MCC is at our fingertips? The recipe for Kaapse Vonkel has paid off in the form of a long list of accolades like numerous 4-star rankings from the Platter’s Wine Guide, top position in the Wine Magazine Cap Classique Challenges, international recognition, and several Veritas awards.

Crisp and bisquity with a citrusy nose and yeasty flavour, Kaapse Vonkel pairs well with seafood like oysters, smoked salmon and sushi. It also pairs well with friends, good times and summertime weather, when you feel inspired to lift your glass in tribute to the accomplishments of the past, the joy of the present, and the possibility of the future. Cheers to Simonsig – may this year’s harvest bring even more sparkle to the Cape.

Monday, January 3, 2011

African Dreams & Wild Encounters - Exploring Chobe, the Okavango, and Glorious Victoria Falls

It is Christmas Day, pre-dawn. Stars still twinkling, moon still waxing. I am exhausted awake, almost like I am dreaming – but a rush of anticipation is urging me on. While in other places doting parents are also up at this hour, playing Santa’s elves, I am preparing for something else altogether – and the last of my checklist is now in place. We are speeding along the road to the airport, rushing through the darkness, about to step into another dimension for a wild encounter with nature – the Okavango Delta, Chobe National Park and Victoria Falls stand waiting. We jump through logistical hoops – boarding passes, luggage check, security clearance, seat belts buckled and finally, glide into take off. Once in the air my stomach lifts too and the landscape changes from coastal to farmland, then great expanses of green obscured by puffy thunderclouds casting long shadows on the ground below them.

As we descend into Zambia we get our first glimpse of Victoria Falls – a series of dramatic cracks in the earth, switchbacks from one hairpin turn to the next, the base of each one hidden in the shadow of its depth. Then finally the mother of them all – the place where the Zambezi launches itself droplet by droplet off the ledge of a 100-metre cliff to explode at the bottom and rise again as vapor as thick as rain, creating mosi-o-tunya – the “smoke that thunders”.

The plane continues its descent and the landscape is scrubby and speckled with trees that remind me of a Dr. Seuss book, like massive broccoli stalks – thin at the base, expanding up to a thick canopy. A graceful touchdown and we are here, in the place of Dr. Livingstone, of tales of historic exploration – the ones that sent shivers of excitement down the backs upstanding citizens across Europe’s urban landscape centuries ago – of malaria and dysentery, of poverty and potholes, of lions, elephants and the wild beauty that comes with unspoken danger.

Stepping out of the comfort of the plane the heat of the place is oppressive and the sweltering sun makes my backpack feel twice as heavy – but I am too excited to mind. This is the first part of a long day’s journey – from a taxi to a plane, to another plane, to a taxi, to walking, to a ferry, to another taxi… ‘til we finally arrive where we were staying our first night, a place in Botswana called Kasane.

It takes more than an hour to travel the distance to Kasane – we find a taxi. Along the way our driver, Nicholas, fills our ears with stories that can only come from the lips of Africa. His mother died when he was a baby – at the time, his father was known by Dutch nationals who had come to Zambia for charity. They gave the child his European name and offered to bring him back to Netherlands, to give him an education. Upon hearing the news, Nicholas’s granny took his father to court – and petitioned to keep the child in Zambia for fear he would not be educated but rather enslaved like so many generations before – although in a distant century. So it was that Nicholas stayed in his country, raised by his grandmother, to become a taxi driver. He told stories of celebration – of dancing until “O3” – 3AM, army-time – and watching out for the many mosquitoes that were jumping and dancing, that sometimes bite. The “mosquitoes” are prostitutes and some have AIDS – he told of seeing many people fall sick – his best friend, gone. We stop for cool drinks at a local place in the township. We are a spectacle to the locals and they stare unabashed. The mood is lively, music pulsing, a group of women are dancing in the dust – a naughty one looks our way, bends over and touches the ground, and swinging her hips provocatively – and laughs open-mouthed at our reaction. Another mosquito, Nicholas warns as we move off, they are all around.

We arrive at Kasane just before dark… it’s been a long day yet my sleep is restless, interrupted by wild dreams induced by anti-malaria tablets where I fend off mosquitoes with stingers like drill bits. I awake to sunrise and the song of laughing birds, sounds I’ve never heard before. My mind is moving faster than me and I can’t wait to hit the road. We collect our transport – a rented 4x4 Toyota Hilux – and at last, we leave for Chobe National Park following the banks of the river, stopping to wonder at zebra and giraffe, baboons, monkeys, various birds, lots of impala and elephant. The roads are mostly sandy with a few stretches of mud and we travel as far west into the park as we can and stay the night in the Linyanti Swamps.

Just before reaching camp we come across a lone elephant munching the trees. He observes us for some time before moving off into the distance. Hearts beating we enter the camp, beautiful and quiet, shaded by jackal berry trees. There are only 3 campsites, each with a view of the river. It feels very lush and green. Hippos are calling to one another from their places in the water, something like the sound of a low and rumbling muffler. We start setting up camp. Thunder is rolling in the distance. Before too long it starts a great downpour but we manage to assemble our tent before the worst of it and sit under cover until it passes. It isn’t too long, maybe 15 minutes, until we can start our campfire and cook supper, braaied chicken, potatoes and butternut. At dusk the true nature of the place reveals itself – sounds of frogs and crickets and the humming of mosquitoes. The hum turns to a buzz. We are in mosquito heaven and they are swarming everywhere. Our lanterns become a beacon to them and we resort to eating in the darkness to avoid becoming the feast ourselves.

This even though we have already slathered ourselves in deet and are wearing the long pants and long sleeves that are recommended. We keep the tent zipped as much as possible and when it’s time for sleep we jump inside quickly, lights off, and zip ourselves inside urgently. Lights on, we still find a few of them have infiltrated our tent and spend the next few minutes slapping and smashing until we think we’ve got them all. Backlit from the outside we surely must have looked strange. The morning is nearly as bad, probably because we don’t expect them to still hang around, but there they are – hovering in air – their stingers visibly drooping behind them ready to take their fill. We pack up and leave as soon as possible not even stopping for breakfast. I count six bites so far.

The next day we head into the Moremi Reserve, part of the Okavango Delta. The roads are not as kind on this day – the “roads” are really just paths stretching out into the wilderness, alternating between patches of loose sand up to your calves or clay-mud pools that drop to the height of your hips – their depths hidden from view. Mostly there are ‘escape routes’ skirting the worst spots but we have to cross something like a lake, as deep as the height of the tires, on a few occasions. I now understand why land rovers have snorkels. Luckily we made it through with the aid of low-gear 4-wheel drive, a couple of white knuckles and determined faces.

We pass open fields of long golden grass, gnarled trees, some snapped at 90-degree angles by passing elephants. We drive in the footsteps of fresh elephant tracks – giant circular marks single-file on the road. In one place we stop to watch two elephants near a small lake and a tree. We are surprised when the rest of the pack comes along – nearly 25 of them – stirring up the dust as they rush to the water’s edge. We watch until they pass out of site – the bush is so thick that even a herd of giant elephants can vanish between the trees. We're nearly to our destination - tonight we stay at Xakanaka Camp, surrounded by open fields and a few fallen trees, and a view of the marshy edges of the Okavango Delta beyond.

It’s nearly sunset and we make our way to the boat station, where some locals live in army tents and offer guided tours of the delta. They are pretty nonchalant – yes, sure, a tour – ok, it’s kind of late you know. I guess we’re a dime a dozen – more tourists in a place they see every day, perhaps subduing its wonder. We rent a motorized boat for an hour-long ride at sunset and sit on the roof top, our driver, named Punch, below. We pass a few luxury camps with chalets and restaurants on the water’s edge. They all look quite nice and sleepy, like holiday relaxation. The driver moves us slowly through the water and we watch the sun as it starts to set, reflecting on the water.

A few minutes in and the driver stops and idles… it’s long enough that I start to wonder why… and suddenly an angry male hippopotamus bursts like a torpedo from underwater, his giant mouth gaping, yellow teeth exposed, and there is no doubt that he’s coming after the boat! It seemed to happen in slow motion, an incredible interaction with wildness you could never imagine or recreate. The driver pounces on the gas and jerks us out there with such force I jolt backwards and grab onto the railing to stop myself from falling. As we reach safety Punch explains that hippos can outrun humans, even underwater, and this one is known to take issue with the passing boats, harassing them and even biting holes in the hull. Punch had stopped the boat because he wasn’t able to spot the hippo anywhere in the water, suspecting he might be lying in wait beneath the surface. After that the rest of the cruise is pretty relaxed, we stop off to see indigenous birds resting in the trees and watch the sunset as the reeds lining the delta turn a rich golden hue.

The next day we travel to Savuti Camp, our last night in Chobe before heading back to Kasane. The road is wilder, sandy in places and thick with mud in others. We pass through a meadow of green grass and dead trees, the road reaching interminably before us. The sky turns a moody blue and the clouds seem to converge. Lightening wakes up the sky and a low rolling thunder warns us of our future. The rain comes down, soaking the landscape and the colours emerge saturated and rich. We worry at the lightning bolts all around us, the thunder is roaring and rain streams down. The worst doesn’t last long and actually helps pack the sandy tracks for an easier journey. Eventually the lighting passes and the wild storm that seemed inevitable moves off in another direction – all is calm and the sun begins to set.

We arrive at Savuti, the largest of the camping areas we've stayed in so far, with about 12 sites set in a circle around the ablutions block. The ablutions feel more like a fortress out of Jurassic Park, set in the center of a cement security wall. The wall is built to the standards of a dam, secured by earth on the inside, and access is via a heavy iron gate set with a spring to ensure its closure. We learn this has been built to protect the showers from the elephants who repeatedly destroyed them by ripping the roof off and knocking the walls down during dry seasons to get to the taps inside. Imagine the elephants’ frustration at having to migrate hundreds of kilometers due to thirst, only to arrive and witness comfortable campers showering away. No wonder the elephants were driven to extreme measures.

Darkness falls and an eerie feeling creeps in. From time to time we shine our flashlights around, checking for any orange eyes (predator eyes) that might be watching in the distance. Luckily there were no predators but there were tens of little eyes shining back at us – small animals like mongoose – we were surrounded. We try to settle in next to the fire and now hear a loud noise like crackling branches. A giant black shape forms nearby – the silhouette is barely discernible yet I feel an unmistakable presence. We shine a torch and there it is – a single giant eye is looking back at us – then the other – the eyes of a bull elephant. It is incredible to sit here with this giant so nearby, and I dare not move or make a noise for fear of startling the thing. He stops at the tree above our heads and nibbles a few leaves then circles, tries out some of the grass a few yards away and finally wanders off into the darkness.

In the morning we wake to the sounds of birds I’d never seen before full of beautiful colours. Hyena tracks are on the ground through our site but luckily we had packed all of our food away, inside the truck, for safety. We have a full day of driving to get back to Kasane but take time for an early morning game drive in the nearby surrounds – we see a few Elephant families in groups of eight or more. We seem to happen upon their morning routine as they each approach a lake to drink and bathe before moving off to spread dirt on themselves with their trunks (protecting their skin and keeping themselves cool) and eat the foliage. One trumpets in our direction and makes as if he’s going to charge – but he is a juvenile and only testing the waters.

In Kasane we plan to take a 3-hour river cruise. We get there just in time and the cruise takes us past more hippos, buck and a few crocodiles. In the dryer season you can see all kinds of animals on the river banks including elephants, giraffe and zebra. The next morning we set off for Livingstone and the Victoria Falls – a taxi to a ferry to a taxi and then the backpackers where we will stay the night.

We consider taking the public bus but it is going on to Lusaka and the crowds of people are everywhere trying to get on – at one stage they open the bus for boarding and the crowd swells into a massive bottleneck as they all try at once to squeeze through the doors, heaving and arguing with one another. The luggage surrounding the bus could have filled it alone and I imagine them trying to tie it all onto the roof top later with all manner of rope. Whenever the breeze graces us the smell of Africa tickles our noses with electrifying audacity and even my nose hair seems to curl in disdain. Between all of the squeezing and shoving the ticket guy advises us the taxi is a better option since the bus seems oversold and we manage to find one soon after.

Once in Livingstone we have lunch and then my first bout of Zambezi tummy – luckily it doesn’t last long – and then off to Victoria Falls. The noise is all encompassing. The vapor rises and fills the air with a mist as thick as rain in some places. We take the afternoon to explore the area along the various walks and viewpoints, watching the river rafters below navigate the white water. Along the top people are actually wading through the water, just before the falls, some even lying down on exposed rocks to see the falls stream past them and land below. Occasionally we hear a frenzied scream, not from the waders losing their footing but from the bungee jumpers above. This is slightly disconcerting above the roar of the water.

We hike down to the bottom of the falls along a trail to the edge of the “Boiling Pot” the place where the rough water passes through the canyon walls, where the river resumes its course. Trekking down is a near vertical descent into a tropical zone of tall palm trees, vines and greenery, the sound of the falls is graced by calling birds and gurgling streams. Once at the water’s edge it is amazing to look back up at the wonder of the falls that we’ve seen from all the other angles and have final perspective. Taking a last look we turn to go and just then the sun peaks through the afternoon clouds and the entire view warms in an array of golden light.

Victoria Falls is an incredible end to the trip, one of the most beautiful and dramatic things I’ve seen, and we head back to our lodge to celebrate the journey with a champagne toast. It is our last night in Zambia – and in the morning we make the journey home – a taxi, a delay, two planes, a taxi and long drive later we arrive on our doorstep at the stroke of midnight - just in time to cheer the New Year. I open the door and take a deep breath of home – the scent of the milkwood trees and the sea float in the air around me. I reflect that just this morning I was in hot dusty Zambia and how strange it is to be home again – suddenly, like maybe it was all just a dream.