Monday, October 8, 2018

A TASTE OF SOUTH AFRICA - SUN CITY

We had already had a taste of 4 continents. Africa was the next in the list. We would have loved to do a long tour of a fortnight but with advancing age ( each being on either side of 70), we opted for a shorter tour of 8 days. We browsed the itineraries of various tour options of that duration, and zeroed in on South Africa.

We booked for the group tour starting on 22 September 2018. The itinerary looked promising with a variety of exciting experiences spread out around Sun City, George, Oudtshoorn, Aquila, Stellenbosch, and Cape Town. SA is 3 1/2 hours behind Indian time. We checked the weather - winter was just over and it was the advent of spring there and the daily temperatures were around 20 / 10 degree Celsius. We packed light sweaters - we believe in travelling light, so we usually avoid stuff not really needed. Well, except Sun City, all the other places we visited were rather windy and we would have done better with a jacket too.

Since our entire tour had been paid for, we needed cash only for shopping there. Thanks to Google, we had learnt that we'd be able to manage most of the shopping with USD, which we already had in our kitty. So we didn't procure Rand, the currency of South Africa. (1 Rand =  Rs 5 and 14 rand = $ 1). Let me tell you, even the little shops lining the Hout Bay  Harbour accepted USD!

Our tour company had wanted us to get Yellow Fever vaccination for visa purposes. But once again Google came to our rescue. We checked with the Consulate of South Africa and got confirmation from there that we would need that only if we were travelling through countries listed in the YF belt / if our transit at such a place lasted more than 12 hours. Again, it is required only for persons between 9 months and 59 years of age. So be informed, my prospective SA tour friends!

We were a group of 23 plus our Tour Manager. We were booked on Ethiopian airlines. After 5 1/2 hours, our flight landed at Addis Ababa. We had a layover of just an hour. Luckily we were directed straight to our next gate, so we didn't need to go through security check - such a welcome rarity! But I have to state that on our return, we did not enjoy this privilege - all the passengers were stripped of ..... their shoes and metallic accessories during the security check which had a serpentine queue. The place did sport the look of a bus station!
The airport was below average but was pretty crowded, being a transit for several countries in Africa.

Another 6 hours flight, and we were in Johannesburg O.R Tambo international airport- at 1 pm. The airport was good, less crowded and immigration was quick. We freshened up and were ready for our 2 hour drive to Sun City. We were greeted by our local guide Lyn. Every tourist coach needs a registered tourist guide.

The coach was comfortable, the drive was cool. The roads were good, traffic was sparse.

The fields were mostly arid and brown, 
but there were paddy fields here and there.

Tin sheds / shops and tiny huts whizzed past. At a signal, a group of street urchins made faces at us. My first impression of the place was far from impressive. I silently wondered whether we were wrong to choose this tour - of a developing nation? Anyway, I chose to keep my fingers crossed.
We also saw tiled houses and brick / concrete ones too. We were told that a new two bedroom apartment in the city would cost a million rand. Our guide provided interesting little tidbits about the country. Gold was discovered in Johannesburg in the 1800's. Also 75% of platinum reserves is from this place. It is also famous for the best gem stones, specially diamonds - the blue and white varieties. However we were not taken to these mines / factories - the men folk must thank their stars for that. Otherwise their wallets would have gone dry in the first two days itself! Another interesting revelation was that electricity is chiefly generated from coal. Corn, wheat and sugarcane are the chief crops. All the best fruits are grown here - kiwi, strawberry, pineapple, papaya, melons etc and all types of dry fruits - walnuts and pecans and cashews and almonds. They were laid out in abundance at our breakfast halls.
We reached Sun City at 4 pm - a very small township solely comprising of exotic resorts / hotels. (Many of us remembered that Miss Universe contests had been held here in the past. Our hotel was situated at the very far end - 'The Palace of the Lost City'. 
It overawed us with its opulence and majestic appearance - we truly felt like royalty in the Palace, our home for two nights.
Our room was sprawling, well equipped with amenities. We were tired after the long journey. So we rested a bit and then after freshening up, our group gathered in the lobby to go for dinner.

Free shuttles are available for different destinations within Sun City. We got into a bus and went to 'Soho', which had a casino as well as an Indian restaurant 'Raj'. 
Needless to say the meal was really tasty. It was at this place that we came again for next day's lunch and dinner too. That is apparently the only Indian restaurant in Sun City.

We took the shuttle back to our hotel and were glad to retire to bed early. Need I say we slept like a log!

Breakfast next morning was at the hotel's impressive dining area - 
a lavish continental fare, complete with loads of fresh fruits and dry fruits.

We were excited about going on our game drive in Pilanesberg National Park located nearby. Our guide had told us about Operation Genesis wherein animals were relocated here.
It was a big jeep with sides, front and back open, with a seating capacity of around 24. Professional guides are familiar with the best routes to spot animals. Our driver cum guide was fluent in English - that was one thing we noticed there - everyone speaks good English.

We sat holding our breath, with great anticipation of glimpses of the BIG 5 - lion, leopard, elephant, rhino and African buffalo. 


Of course we were more than happy to see 
antelopes, 
bison, 
giraffes, 
hippos lazing by the side of the pond, 
baboons .... 
We came across 'zebra(s) crossing' too. 
Next we saw the one-horned rhinos crossing the road. Our guide parked the vehicle at vantage points, enabling us to click good pictures of animals as well as panoramic views.

The next animal we spotted was the majestic African elephant - he is bigger, his skin seemed more wrinkled than that of our Indian ones and its trunk is also more heavily ringed and is not as hard. Most importantly, their ears differ. Our driver asked us to observe 
the elephant's ear - yes indeed, it had the shape of Africa! The ears are large unlike that of the Indian elephant's which is smaller and shaped somewhat like India.

We then stopped along with other vehicles. The driver got information on his walkie-talkie that there was a lion amidst the bushes, just after the kill. Binoculars were pulled out and we tried to catch a glimpse of the lion camouflaged amidst the orange sand and dry bushes. We could barely manage to get pictures. But yes, that made it 3 out of the BIG 5.

Another route, another halt. We were asked to look for the leopard - again at a far distance, lying amidst the bushes. We could spot its spots every time the leopard moved. We couldn't see it clearly but we added it to our list.

But the fifth - the African buffalo, one of the wildest, fastest and most dangerous creatures, was elusive. 

Anyway we were more than happy to have had a successful two hour game drive. Winter (July- October) is considered to be the best time to visit the place as the days are warm and clear and animals spend longer hours feeding and hence easier to spot. We were glad that we had timed our visit for September.

We were then dropped at our lunch place 'Raj'. 

Post lunch, we were ready to explore the lavish resorts in Sun City. 


First we went around Soho and

its Casino, which was a modest one, in comparison to Las Vegas or even Macau.

We also took the 'hop on - hop off' bus to Crocodile Park but entry was not free, so we skipped it. 


We then took the Sky Train to 
Cascade and enjoyed its garden. We also went around the interesting shops.

We then took a shuttle back to the Palace. 


In the evening both of us walked to the nearby golf course, as we have been exposed to golf by our golfer son. 
There was Sun Vacation Club 
with lots of modest cottages close to the golf course. 
Only the green on the golf course was green, the rest of it was a patch of brown and green.

We got to see the glorious sunset.


 We also encountered a beautiful peacock during our return, 

and also a bunch of mongoose crossing the road and scurrying home ...

There is also Gary Player golf course located in Sun City.

Once again we had early dinner at 7 at 'Raj'. One good thing about this tour was early dinner, and retiring to bed before 9, so we were completely rested.

Next morning, after breakfast, we went around the Palace. It would be a shame if we didn't do that after spending two nights there! We are grateful to our tour company Veena World for booking us at the Palace and providing us the lifetime experience of a royal and regal stay. If we had gone on our own, how many of us would have opted for it? Don't we pinch our pennies and tighten our purse strings to cut costs? That is the advantage of embarking on a group tour with a reputed tour company - just pay the price in advance and enjoy the luxurious vacation! 


The carpets had animals all over. 
The chandeliers and statues of animals everywhere were an eyeful! There was royalty in every inch of the place. 
We felt like royals for two days as we savored 
the magnificence and splendor of the Palace .....
As we walked to the swimming pool, we couldn't help observing the grandeur everywhere and 
the imposing look of the Palace from different angles!

We then took the lift to the 7th floor, then took the steps up two more floors to get a bird's eye view of the place. And it was simply fabulous - the minarets, the swimming pool, the golf course beyond ...!

Then it was time to say goodbye to Sun City. 
It was with reluctance that we bid goodbye to the Palace ....

We drove back to Johannesburg and took the flight to George


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