Friday, February 15, 2019

Wine tasting around Cape Town

The Dutch aren’t acknowledged to be among the great winemakers of the world, but we have them to thank for the emergence of South Africa as a nation that’s earned respect for its viticulture and quality wines over the past few decades.

South Africa’s first grape harvest took place in 1659 on a farm managed by Dutch navigator, surgeon and colonial administrator Jan van Riebeeck near what’s now known as Cape Town. While wine has been made in this region of the country ever since, it wasn’t until the end of Apartheid in the 1990s that the world started paying attention.

The Stellenbosch region east of Cape Town is perhaps South Africa’s most internationally recognized winemaking area and produces about 15 per cent of the nation’s wine. Since I was spending a week in Cape Town, it was a no-brainer to spend a day on a Go Touch Down wine tour starting in Stellenbosch.

The first stop was Skilpadvlei, a 78-hectare farm with accommodations, a restaurant, event venues, a gift shop and a children’s play area. After a breakfast of fresh fruit, yogurt, muesli and honey on the restaurant verandah, the wine tasting began at a picnic table around the corner at 8:45 a.m.

I’m a much bigger white wine drinker than red, which was the opposite of the three other people on the tour. This meant that I got to have the majority of the white for the rest of the day, since they just took a small sip and poured the rest into my glass.

Skilpadvlei has been in the Joubert family since 1917, and it’s been making wine for four generations. We sampled six bottles: three reds, two whites and a rose. My favourite was the 2018 Chenin Blanc, a mildly sweet wine with a hint of green apple in the flavour. I liked it so much I bought a bottle for 60 rand ($6).

We got back in the van and drove 10 minutes down the road to Neethlingshof Wine Estate, where wine has been made since 1692. A kilometre-long avenue of pines leads to the large property, which features an impressive manor house and other old buildings, and is flanked by the Bottelary Hills and Papegaaiberg Mountains.

Neethlingshof features a restaurant, tasting centre, event space and a store. Our server was excellent in explaining the history of the estate, the stories behind the wines and the flavour profiles of each of the three whites, one red and one dessert wine I sampled. My favourite was The Jackal’s Dance 2018 Sauvignon Blanc, a rich and full-bodied young wine with a tropical fruit aftertaste.

Franschhoek is another popular wine region in the area, so our next stop took us there and the 19-hectare Grande Provence Heritage Wine Estate, which dates back to 1694. This is another impressive property, which includes accommodations, a restaurant and bistro, a tasting room, event spaces, an art gallery, a sculpture garden and a very small cheetah reserve.

After sampling two whites, a rose and a Zinfandel, I was most satisfied with the very fruity aroma and flavour of the 2017 rose. I was even more pleased, however, with my lovely open-air, three-course lunch comprised of: a starter of cured beef, mustard, Boland cheddar, shallots and mushrooms; a main of duck leg confit, sweet potato dumplings, sultana and Chinese cabbage, served with an apple chutney; and a desert of chocolate fondant, peanut butter ice cream and apricot.

With a full belly, it was back in the van to drive to the touristy food and wine town of Franschhoek. I had an hour of free time and spent it walking around, looking at the Huguenot Monument and then sitting down to sample five beers at Tuk Tuk Microbrewery. I wasn’t particularly impressed with any of them, with the golden ale and pale ale being the best of the lot.

I enjoyed the countryside scenery on the way back to Cape Town and the final stop of the tour, a lovely multi-space restaurant called Blanko that’s part of the Alphen Estate in Constantia. The former farm has been converted to a high-end property with a boutique hotel and restaurant.

Still full from the large lunch, I ordered a local fish called kingklip that was topped with orange, herbs and pink peppercorns and served with saffron rice. I ate so well during my time in Cape Town and its surroundings that, while there was nothing wrong with the food, it may have been my least favourite meal. At least the glass of Brampton Sauvignon Blanc I had with it was very good.

While I didn’t partake in tastings at them, I had two other dinners at wineries. The first was at Cassia Restaurant, which is part of Nitida Wine Farm in the Durbanville Wine Valley. I enjoyed a mildly spicy soup with beef, sausage and vegetables, followed by a swordfish steak and roast potatoes, and accompanied by Nitida’s excellent 2018 Riesling.

The other dinner was at Durbanville Hills, where the restaurant terrace provided great sunset views of Table Mountain and Table Bay. Duck spring rolls followed by a sirloin steak hit the spot pretty much perfectly. In South Africa you’re allowed to buy a bottle of wine with a meal and take it with you if you don’t finish it, so I purchased a bottle of dry but effervescent Durbanville Hills Sparkling Sauvignon Blanc (which had notes of citrus and tropical fruit) for 85 rand ($8.50) and drank what I didn’t have there when I returned to my condominium.

I bought a few other bottles of cheap and cheerful Sauvignon Blanc and Chenin Blanc during my time in South Africa. They were certainly drinkable, if not exceptional, and I have no issue with paying 50 rand ($5) for a bottle of wine to accompany some quiet reading and writing.

Thursday, February 14, 2019

Kicking off 2019 at Victoria Falls

The five cascades of Africa’s Victoria Falls extend for 1.7 kilometres, combining to create one of the largest waterfalls in the world.

I’d viewed the falls from Zambia, where 25 per cent of them can be observed, on Dec. 31. To kick off the new year, I crossed the border to Zimbabwe to see the rest.

A free shuttle from my base at Jollyboys Backpackers took me 10 kilometres and dropped me off where I’d began the previous day’s treks. On this day, I went through immigration, walked down a road, crossed the Victoria Falls Bridge, and continued to walk until reaching the Zimbabwean immigration office.

After being processed and a few more minutes of walking, I arrived at the entrance to Victoria Falls National Park and paid the U.S.$30 international visitor entrance fee.

A path takes visitors through a rain forest with clearances leading to 16 observation points to watch the water of the lazily meandering Zambezi River come splashing down. The first falls you’ll see belong to The Devil’s Cataract, the lowest falls at 70 metres in height, and you can climb down stairs into a gorge for a closer view.

Next up is the 93-metre-high Main Falls, the largest of them all with a peak water flow of 700,000 cubic metres per minute. Even with river levels at a relatively low level during my visit, the mist produced by the water and wind felt like a steady rain. With the water at its highest, it’s apparently next to impossible to see the falls due to all of the accompanying spray.

Moving farther along puts you across from Livingstone Island, where guides take visitors for tours when water levels are low enough. Those feeling particularly daring can use this as their jump-off point to take a dip in Devils Pool.

This deep natural pool has been created by thousands of years of erosion. A rock ledge on the lip of the falls, where the water is very shallow, forms a natural barrier and enables people to peer over the precipice without being swept over the edge. 

The 95-metre Horseshoe Falls, the section with the lowest water flow, is next. It’s followed by Rainbow Falls, the highest point, with a 108-metre vertical drop.

The last falls you’ll view is the 101-metre Eastern Cataract, which is located completely in Zambia. While the other viewpoints have flimsy wooden fences acting as barriers, when you reach the end of the line here at what’s known as Danger Point, you can climb on the rocks to the edge of the cliff. This spot also provides good vistas of Boiling Pot and the Victoria Falls Bridge.

I spent three hours in the national park before returning the way I came. On the way back, however, I stopped at the bridge to watch people zipline across the gorge and bungee jump off of the bridge. I’d like to say that the U.S.$160 cost to bungee was the only reason I didn’t do it, but that would be a lie.

I walked back into Zambia and paid 80 kwacha (U.S.$7.70) for a cab back to Jollyboys, where I spent an hour relaxing in the (not so) hot tub with a couple of beers before it was time to head out again.

I’d paid U.S.$65 to see the Zambezi from a different perspective, and a bus took a group of us to another part of Livingstone where we boarded a boat for a sunset cruise that included all the food you could eat and all the alcohol you could drink.

The sunset wasn’t particularly inspiring, the scenery along the riverbank wasn’t that interesting, and I didn’t see as much wildlife as I’d hoped to. There were several different kinds of birds, two crocodiles and multiple hippos, though only fleetingly when they’d raise their heads out of the river.

On the plus side, I was well fed on chicken wings, sausage rolls, mini pizzas, barbecued chicken and sausage, cole slaw and a bun.

I drank 12 ounces of cane spirit (similar to white rum) with cola and, when that ran out, four ounces of gin with tonic. I was the bartender’s favourite customer so, after we docked after two hours on the river, he gave me a beer even though he was supposed to stop serving so I’d have something to drink on the bus ride back to the hostel.

There were people hanging out at the Jollyboys courtyard bar, so conversations and beers flowed until bedtime.

I flew out of Zambia and returned to South Africa the next day. With flights, accommodations, activities, visas, food and drinks included, my 48 hours in Livingstone and visiting Victoria Falls cost me about $700. I’m a thrifty guy and that’s more than I’d normally spend, but it was a once in a lifetime experience and the memories from seeing my third of the seven natural wonders of the world in 14 months will be worth more than the money when I look back on it years from now.

Sunday, February 10, 2019

New Year’s Eve at Victoria Falls

Waterfalls have always enthralled me, and the bigger the better.

I’ve lived within a three-hour drive of Niagara Falls, which separates Canada and the United States, all of my life. In the fall of 2017 I had the pleasure of seeing Iguazu Falls from both the Brazilian and Argentinean sides. The last piece in my trifecta of visiting huge waterfalls dividing nations fell into place recently when I viewed Victoria Falls from Zambian and Zimbabwean soil.

It’s a less than two-hour flight from Johannesburg, South Africa to Livingstone, the nearest Zambian city to Victoria Falls. I’d purchased a Kaza entry visa, which granted me entry into both Zambia and Zimbabwe, online for U.S.$50.55 before my arrival at Harry Mwanga Nuumbula International Airport. Other travellers didn’t have that foresight, unfortunately, so I still had to wait in line quite a while to be processed while they purchased their visas.

Named after David Livingstone, the Scottish explorer and missionary who was the first white man to explore the area in 1855, the city of approximately 140,000 people doesn’t offer a lot to visitors beyond its role as a gateway. So after getting a ride from the airport into town and checking in to my private room at the charming Jollyboys Backpackers at 2 p.m., I immediately caught a cab for the 10-kilometre ride to Victoria Falls.

The driver agreed to a U.S.$16 round-trip price and would pick me up when Mosi-oa-Tunya National Park closed three hours later. The entry fee to the park was U.S.$20, a small price to pay to view one of the seven natural wonders of the world.

Mosi-oa-Tunya translates from the Lozi language into English as “The Smoke Which Thunders.” When high water season hits in March and April after heavy rains, that name would certainly make sense due to the thick mists and crashing sounds that can be heard from several kilometres away. But even during my visit at the end of December, when the Zambezi River was still moving pretty slowly a month after the dry season ended, the views of the 1,700-metre long falls were still spectacular.

I wanted to build up to that, however, by first walking down the steep Palm Grove Trail through a rain forest to Boiling Pot, where a small waterfall flows into the Zambezi. It offers good views of a gorge and Victoria Falls Bridge, and some folks opted to climb on to rocks in the falls to cool off. But, knowing I had a timeline to adhere to and the main event still to come, I climbed back up, making it a 30-minute round trip.

The Knife Edge Island Trail takes you along a ledge, and across a footbridge over a gorge, to face the eastern cataract. This included Armchair Falls, a natural depression on the lip of the falls where those braver than me immersed themselves in the water. The trail ends with a view of Rainbow Falls and the first gorge’s exit to Boiling Pot in the second gorge.

The third, and least busy, walking option was what I found to be the ironically named Photographic Trail. The views of the falls aren’t as good, or available at all, on this path. About one-third of the way along, I found myself alone amidst a couple of dozen baboons — including some large dominant males. Since I’d had unpleasant experiences with primates in India, I became a bit nervous and turned back.

My driver was true to his word and was there to take me back into town, which has one main commercial street that’s also part of the T1 highway that takes you to the capital city of Lusaka.

It was time for dinner and a restaurant called Na Lelo served me a delicious half a piri piri chicken, French fries and two bottles of Zambia’s quite decent national beer, Mosi, for 84 kwacha (U.S.$7). 

Jollyboy's Backpackers' pool.
Jollyboy's is located just off the main street and, after returning and ordering a beer at its outdoor bar, three women invited me to sit at a table with them. It wasn’t long before they invited me to a nearby club called Limpo’s to celebrate New Year’s Eve with them. Four other women, and two men, also joined us.

My new friends knew people at the door and we were let in without paying a cover charge. We started at an inside bar where a band was playing a mix of reggae, top 40 hits and local music, including an instrumental reggae version of Europe’s “The Final Countdown” which almost gave me an unironic appreciation of the song.

When the band took a break we went to a semi-open-air club with a DJ that was part of the same complex. A bottle of Mosi was just 10 kwacha (U.S.80 cents) and they went down easily in the 30-degree night-time heat.

Zambia is a former British colony previously known as Northern Rhodesia before it gained independence in 1964. Most of the white residents left the country at that time and the population was comprised of 98.2 per cent Black Africans in the 2010 census.

So perhaps I shouldn’t have been surprised that I was the only white man in a club with 1,000 people, and apparently earned novelty status from it. People bought me beers, asked me to pose in photos with them, and a few women offered more intimate proposals.

The stroke of midnight was celebrated with fireworks — not carefully set off by professional technicians providing a show, but by dozens of people who brought their own to the club and set them off freely.

This lasted for quite a while and, with the noise and smoke from the fireworks combined with the loud dance music blasting from the speakers, I'd had enough and felt no guilt in calling it an early night and leaving with a Rasta named Eric to accompany a young Korean woman named Uri back to Jollyboy's because it probably wasn’t safe for her to walk alone.

I was in bed by 1:30 a.m., the earliest that had happened on New Year’s Eve that I can remember since I was a kid — aside from 2012 when I returned home from Mexico and most of my body broke out into hives and I spent the night hooked up to an intravenous tube in a hospital bed. But that’s a story for another time.