In surreal time

Aditi Sengupta | Updated on September 21, 2018

Manor-born: Belvidere Manor, in the seaside town of Knysna, looks straight out of a Victorian-era novel   -  Aditi Sengupta

As clear as it gets: A sandy stretch along the Garden Route, a few hours from Durban   -  Aditi Sengupta

South Africa’s Garden Route is counted among the world’s best drives for several good reasons. Beaches, lagoons and ambling wildlife are just some of them

Gerald was merely inquisitive. Or so it seemed. He followed a camera-toting Carlos Carvalho like a little lamb, though he was really a giraffe. And when the filmmaker got too close for comfort — animals understand boundaries very well — Gerald swung his neck and hit Carvalho in the head, killing the 47-year-old South African.

Unlike Gerald, the two giraffes in the distance, standing near what appeared to be a cave, had no reason to be curious about us. We were inside a bus, parked on one side of a highway and about a kilometre away from where they were munching on leaves. Our cameras were of the regular tourist variety; our reaction — on seeing wildlife outside of “protected enclosures” and jeep safaris — was one of stunned silence. Without giving them reason to swing necks or kick hooves, we drove off as silently as we had stopped to admire them.

With the death of Carvalho still fresh in my mind, thanks to news alerts on the smartphone about the filmmaker’s encounter with Gerald just northwest of Johannesburg, I had made peace with a South Africa visit sans the game reserve experience. It had a fair bit of the outdoors though — ziplining, Segway ride, bungee jumping, canoeing and paragliding. “No safaris!” I had earlier exclaimed in near-disbelief when the itinerary popped up in my mailbox. I had even cancelled an online purchase of camouflage clothing. And just when I had settled for South Africa’s non-wildlife riches, the giraffes had made an appearance, barely an hour after the bus had rolled out of Durban.

We were on the country’s Garden Route, counted among the world’s most scenic drives for good reason. Rolling hills and meadows give way to arid stretches with scrubby vegetation. Alongside world-class beaches, there are plenty of lagoons and lakes on the route. Soon after the giraffes came the zebras, also along the highway. Some of them seemed more interested in working their leg muscles while the others chose to just “stand and stare” in true William Henry Davies fashion. The ostriches, in mind-boggling numbers and much further down the route, looked less benign. That they are fast runners is something I had gathered from the many documentaries my father would make me watch as a child. To see them in real life, kicking up a dust storm of sorts, was indeed a treat. Sadly, for me, there were no lions or elephants down the way. But it is a good thing for them. You don’t want busloads of noisy Indians — there are plenty of those in South Africa, mind you — whistling and cooing to the big cats on highways.


Our first scheduled stop on the Garden Route was a town called George. It was evening by the time we checked into a sprawling colonial-era hotel. The air was nippy; the month of May, in the southern hemisphere, is considered pre-winter. The province of Western Cape — where the Garden Route lies — is in the midst of a severe water crisis that began in 2015. Apart from the country’s beautiful wild animals, we spotted signage urging people to conserve water. They stood out along the highway, grabbing attention from atop government buildings, appealing to customers outside supermarkets and greeting me as I entered the shower in the George hotel. “Only two minutes, please” — read the paper tag on the towel rack. The number of towels were less than what five-star hotels usually spoil you with, but how many does one really need? And when the water is cool and crisp — I am one Bengali who is not too fond of gorom jol (hot water) or prone to thanda (cold) — the shower time need not exceed 120 seconds. Nonetheless, I used my mobile to keep time. Five minutes later, I was at the lobby. My Zulu necklace, a dazzling combination of orange, blue, yellow and white beads, indicated that I was ready to party. My companions obliged and we drove to a bar for cocktails.

Through the window, George looked every bit like a sleepy town from the colonial days. It sure likes to sleep early because dinner time, just like in the other towns on the Garden Route that we stop at, is seven in the evening. By 10pm — okay, take another 30 minutes if you are on outsider — George is tucked in bed, dreaming of breakfast at seven. We followed the “when in Rome...” ritual and proceeded for dinner accordingly. The ostrich meat reminded me of the bulging eyes they stared back at our bus with. For all its exoticness, the world’s largest bird tastes almost like chicken. But I am not complaining. There was a strange familiarity to the taste and the same comfort came from my mains of glazed pork ribs with apple sauce and mashed potatoes. I skipped the wine — the very affordable South African red — for refreshing cider. When asked to choose a dessert, I could only burp.

Bottle in: Apart from highly affordable South African wines, the ales and ciders will keep you refreshed   -  Aditi Sengupta



A wild, piercing shriek greeted me as I walked into the breakfast room the next morning. It made me forget where I was. “Did I wake up in India? Or am I in a dream,” I asked myself as a battalion of Indian tourists trooped in for poori-bhaji. I sidled up to the bacon and eggs counter, eager to keep anyone from assuming that I belonged to the pandemonium party. Respite arrived in the form of our bus and we were off to Wilderness.

A town as pretty as its name, Wilderness wanted us to get into the water and canoe. We drove past houses on the beach, most of them available for tourists. There were cafés and restaurants too as well as a clutch of small companies offering equipment and gear for water sports. Indians are not the most outdoorsy but there is always room for adjustment.

As long as there are life jackets and two willing accomplices, even a non-swimmer can canoe. I did, after many hiccups though. I took the bow seat and the responsibility of navigating the boat. In exactly two minutes, we had sailed into the tall grass on the other side of the pier. With amazing precision, thanks to my navigation skills, we returned to the same patch every two minutes. The instructor demanded our return to the safety of land. When we refused to oblige, he canoed up to our boat and escorted us back. “The group thinks you should stay here. No canoe for you,” he announced. A little bit of rejection can work wonders, I learned that morning. “We can do it,” I told him before we returned to the canoe. I sat in the middle this time, leaving the bow seat to an abler and younger person.

Instead of sailing towards the sea, we moved to another direction, taking care to keep to the middle of the water. Around the bend, we arrived at a stretch lined with wooden houses. Linen hung on the clothesline while children scampered around small green patches facing the water. A fat cat lazed on a floorboard table and armchairs beckoned from sunny balconies. We stopped the canoe near these houses, tempted to call out to the families for coffee. The water was still and the other canoes in sight chose to stay away from ours. We watched this scene for at least 20 minutes before moving towards a rail bridge in the distance. It was a finishing line of sorts.

We promised to up our adventurousness with paragliding that afternoon. That was on our way to Oudtshoorn, a town famous for ostrich farms and limestone caves. Lunch at Zucchini, a restaurant in a village outside Wilderness, was meant to be a short affair. But it turned out otherwise because a cloudy sky was declared unsafe for paragliding.

Regional flavours: Fresh local food and ales are some of the highlights of a holiday on the Garden Route   -  Aditi Sengupta


I feasted on salmon and springbok (of the gazelle family) after picking up wines and a gin from a store nearby. To make my gin cocktail more interesting, I added flavoured tonic to the kitty.

The highlight of our night at Oudtshoorn, in a family-run boutique hotel, was the excellent braai — meat grilled over an open fire. There was a fair bit of India on the menu: Jeera aloo, pickles, baingan and so on. The hotel owner meant well but I wasn’t homesick or craving home food. The springbok sausages and the ostrich meat complemented the red wine he plied us with. And ghost stories from the group made things only juicier. Some of my companions, however, felt differently about the paranormal touch. They showed their displeasure by walking out on us.


The spectral world returned to haunt us — only some of us — at Belvidere Manor in the seaside town of Kynsna. It was our last night on the Garden Route and even in the dark, the rambling estate looked straight out of a Victorian novel. I envisioned women with parasols and men with sideburns and hounds. Some others could see only phantoms and vampires. I left them behind for my cottage, a huge one, right by a lake. Draped in thick blankets, I stood at the window in an attempt to gauge the stillness of the night. It was surreal. Just like the Garden Route.

(The writer was in South Africa at the invitation of South African Tourism)

Travel log

Getting there

Emirates connects Durban and Johannesburg to Delhi and Mumbai through Dubai. It is easy to get on the Garden Route — a 300-km stretch along South Africa’s south-western coast — from either of the two cities. The best way to do this is hire a car or a bus (depending on the group size) and stop at towns along the route.


There are plenty of options for every budget — from private houses on the beach to boutique hotels. Belvidere Manor in Knsyna is for those who want a cottage to themselves (www.belvidere.co.za). Turnberry in Oudtshoorn is a cosy family-run boutique hotel (www.turnberryhotel.co.za)


Pack several stretchable pants, because the food choices are aplenty. Grills and barbecues are on almost every menu. So is a variety of fish. Hake fish and chips, with salt and vinegar, is a must-have. Dessert lovers will enjoy the strawberry-laden goodies at the Redberry Farm near George.


The towns on the Garden Route shut down by 9pm. Best not to walk alone at night.


South Africa is in the Southern hemisphere, so what is cruel summer for you in India is glorious weather in that country. Carry a light jacket and/or a shawl.

BLink Tip

A favourable conversion rate (₹1=5 rand approx) makes it easy to budget for tips for guides, waiters and porters. So don’t be a miser.

Published on September 21, 2018

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