“I am not sure I trust you.”
“You can trust me with your life, My King.”
“But not with my wine, obviously. Give it back.”
― Megan Whalen Turner, The King of Attolia
My beautiful bride, Laurel, and I arose very early in the morning, as we wanted to start packing before our last morning drive at the Londolozi camp. We were going to leave for the airport in Skukuza for Livingstone, Zambia directly after the drive. Livingstone is named after the Scottish missionary David Livingstone of “Dr. Livingstone, I presume,” fame. Livingstone is also the Zambian home of Mosi-oa-Tunya/Victoria Falls.
Zambia and Zimbabwe share the Zambezi River, along with Angola, Namibia, Botswana, and Mozambique. The Zambezi, with a length of 1,599 miles (2,573 kilometers), is one of the world’s great rivers. The border of Zambia and Zimbabwe is Mosi-oa-Tunya (meaning, “The Smoke That Thunders” in the indigenous Lozi language). The Falls’ official name is recognized on the World Heritage List as Mosi-oa-Tunya/Victoria Falls. Dr. Livingstone named the Falls after Queen Victoria, and it is deemed the largest falls in the world, with a width of 5,604 feet (1,708 meters). The Falls are roughly twice the height of Niagara Falls and twice the width of the Horseshoe Falls (which is located between Ontario, Canada, and New York), at a height of 354 feet (108 meters). Mosi-oa-Tunya/ Victoria Falls has been named as one of the Seven Natural Wonders of the World.
The flight from Skukuza to Livingstone is approximately two- and one-half hours. Laurel was in Zambia on a photographic safari last year, and she took some remarkable photographs. However, she did not make it as far south as Livingstone, so she was excited to be back to Zambia and to finally get to see the Falls.
You can see the mist of the Falls from the air as you approach Livingstone, and it makes your heart race. Our driver collected us at the Harry Mwanga Nkumbula International Airport and drove us to into the Zambezi National Park. We were met on the on the banks of the Zambezi by Peter Jones, the owner of the River Club, the camp where we would be staying for the next week.
Peter greeted us with a bottle of South African sparkling wine, which we enjoyed during a short boat ride to the River Club, which is situated on the Zambezi. Along the way we were serenaded by the grunts of hippos in the water, the trumpets of elephants on shore, and the toots of Egyptian geese flying overhead.
The River Club is a beautiful camp with a very different feel than the Londolozi and Rattray’s camps in South Africa. The staff and amenities were wonderful, but the overall feel was just different. The staff had decorated our chalet with roses and petals were strewn over a heart-shaped design on our bed. Here is a travel tip: Always say that you are on your honeymoon. The facilities really pull out all the stops.
That evening, following a glorious sunset over the Zambezi, we found ourselves in for a treat. There was a nighttime rainbow at the Falls. Can you imagine, our first visit to the Falls was going to be at night? We could faintly see the Falls, yet, we could see the rainbow very clearly, even in the pitch black of night, silhouetted against the clear, star-filled night sky. What was most pronounced was the feel of the mist and the roar of the Falls itself. What an astounding natural occurrence! We could not wait to see the Falls in the daylight.
We arrived back at the River Club and a lovely dinner had been prepared, together with a bottle of Chameleon Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot blend 2013 from Jordan Wine Estates in Stellenbosch (the 2013 is unrated by Platter’s Guide, 14.00% alcohol). Our new best friend Kristy Jordan’s family had followed us to Zambia! (See Parts two and seven for a fuller discussion of Jordan Wine Estates’ wines and Kristy Jordan.)
The Chameleon is a South African Bordeaux blend of 48.00% Cabernet Sauvignon, 43.00% Merlot, and 9.00% Syrah grapes, topped off with negligible amounts of Petit Verdot. The wine spent 20 months in French oak barrels, ensuring a full-flavored wine with soft, delightfully balanced tannins. The nose is replete with ripened plums and dark-skinned berries with just a suggestion of mint. The wine is textured on the palate, with a full mouthfeel replete with dark kirsch, cassis, and vanilla. Seeing a bottle of Jordan wine reminded us that our friend Kristy Jordan would always be with us.
The next morning, Laurel and I took the walkway at the Falls. We were issued ponchos, which was a sign that we were to have our second shower of the day. You can feel the enormity and power of the sheets of water pounding into the gorge below. Vision was at a minimal in certain spots due to the mist. At times, it felt like we were in a Category 5 hurricane due to the vast amounts of water that drenched us. It was early May, but it was autumn in the Southern hemisphere and the Zambezi was at its peak. Laurel had been in northern Zambia just a few months earlier in October, and she saw dry riverbeds, so this was revelatory for her.
The next day, we decided to take a helicopter ride over the Falls. The aerial view of the Falls is an unbelievable experience. We flew up the Zambezi River and then carved our way through the steep cliffs of the Batoka Gorge. There are several small islands, and we can see wildlife such as zebras, elephants, kudu, baboons, hippos, and even a crocodile.
Remember, the Zambezi is the dividing line between Zambia and Zimbabwe. Thus, we were able to zig-zag between the two countries in our helicopter. If walking along the Falls is amazing, and it was, flying above the Falls is cathartic. It is said that David Livingstone wrote on seeing the Falls for the first time in 1855 that, “Scenes so lovely must have been gazed upon by angels in their flight.” What would he have said had he been able to fly above the Falls?
We learned that an elephant sanctuary was nearby. We were told that the elephants at this sanctuary were the result of their being orphaned, abandoned or rescued. Moreover, we would be allowed to pet and feed them! The sanctuary was also the home of the Elephant Café, which we were told had a great wine list.
We took a short, pleasant speedboat ride up the Zambezi to the Elephant Café and Sanctuary. We never tired of seeing the wildlife that was in the water and along the shore. Arriving at the sanctuary, we were immediately greeted by the sight of at least a dozen elephants along the waterfront. We were both issued a bag of elephant pellets, and we began to feed the elephants by alternately placing the pelts in their trunks or tossing handfuls into their mouths.
Elephants are amazing animals. They are beautiful; even more so close up. They are so large, yet graceful, and their skin is very tough, thick, and surprisingly hairy. We could have spent hours petting and feeding the elephants. However, feeding the elephants made us hungry, so we washed up and went to the waterside restaurant.
The Elephant Café is in a Bedouin tent beneath a grove of ancient riverine trees. You can see the birds flying into and out of the trees and vervet monkeys jumping about, all whilst elephants strolled on the lawn and along the waterfront. We began with Wild Kir Royales, which is usually made with sparkling wine and cassis. The Elephant Café’s twist is that theirs are made with scarlet sindambi (wild hibiscus) syrup instead of cassis.
Each dish is locally sourced or is indigenous to the Zambezi Valley. The edible flowers are from the Livingstone markets, and the fare is a fusion of Zambian, European, East Asian, and Middle Eastern cuisines. The appetizers consisted of fire-roasted bell pepper and Muchingachinga (known colloquially as “monkey fingers”) soup with edible flowers. Our entrée was seared ribeye, with caramelized garlic, red wine, and truffle oil, with Mongu rice (Mongu is a Western province in Zambia) and nzembwe. Nzembwe is a local grain that has the nuttiness of quinoa and the texture of pearl barley, and it is gluten-free. The entrée was paired with charred aubergines. Dessert was a flourless dark chocolate torte with musika (tamarind) ice cream. My bride has gluten issues, so she was in Heaven.
On our first night in South Africa, Gerald, our favorite bartender from the Cape Grace Hotel in Cape Town had recommended that we try a wine called Chocolate Block from Boekenhoutskloof, locate in the Franschhoek Valley if we had the chance. (See, Part One for more of Gerald’s suggestions.) The Elephant Café had it on the wine list.
Gerald never steered us wrong, so we had to give it a try. Chocolate Block 2016 (Platter’s Guide ★★★★☆ and 14.39% alcohol) is a blend of 79.00% Syrah, 11.00% Grenache Noir, 6.00% Cabernet Sauvignon, 3.00% Cinsault, and 1.00% Viognier grapes. The wine is matured in French oak for 16-months. The nose is exceptional. There are almost equal aromas of peach, orange peel, red and black fruit, earth, and spices, together with a little vanilla as a bonus. The palate is equally amazing, with the dark fruits taking the lead followed by structured notes of spices, particularly, cardamom, cumin, cloves, and black pepper. This wine is well-balanced and richly textured with powerful tannins, all leading to a lingering finish. Once again, Gerald did not miss a beat. What a delightful compliment to an astounding meal.
We left the beauty of Zambia and Mosi-oa-Tunya (I prefer that name to Victoria Falls, as “The Smoke That Thunders” is definitely a more apt description) and headed back to South Africa to spend a few days in Johannesburg. Joburg (as the name will soon become officially) is an amazing city. If Cape Town is San Francisco, Joburg is Chicago. There is so much to take in that you will always need just one more day. Joburg is the largest city in South Africa (the Joburg metroplex has a population of more than 10.5 million people), and it is a city of contrasts. It is a cosmopolitan city of gleaming skyscrapers, as well as traditional South African bazaars and Indian markets. Joburg is home to South Africa’s most famous township, Soweto, which I was surprised to learn is an acronym for Southwest Township.
Soweto is famous for the role it played during South Africa’s Apartheid period. Today it is a unique cultural mecca. Laurel and I toured Soweto, visiting Nelson Mandela’s house, which has been converted into a museum and the Credo Mutwa Cultural Village, where we watched Zulu and Xhosa dancers perform. The Apartheid Museum graphically shows the rise and fall of South Africa’s eras of segregation, oppression, and rebirth.
Soweto has one other interesting fact: Vilakazi Street is one of the most famous streets in South Africa. It is located in one of the bustling parts of Soweto, which is filled with restaurants, clubs, and businesses. However, that is not what makes it unique. Vilakazi Street is the only street in the world where not one, but two, future Noble Peace Prize Laureates lived. Nelson Mandala and Bishop Desmond Tutu were neighbors!
We left Soweto and drove a short scenic 31 miles (50 kilometers) northwest of Joburg to a UNESCO World Heritage Site: The Cradle of Humankind. The UNESCO site includes the Sterkfontein Caves, where over 1,000 hominid fossils have been discovered. The Wonder Caves, also part of the UNESCO site, is located just down the road from the Sterkfontein Caves, and it is renowned for its beautiful underground waterway and stalactites and stalagmites. What would our ancestors say if they could see our world today?
Our driver suggested that we have dinner at one of the restaurants at Nelson Mandela Square, a shopping area located in Sandton, an extremely fashionable part of Joburg. Nelson Mandela Square is one of the largest retail, office, and hotel complexes on the continent, with more than 400 stores. It is dominated by a 20-foot (six meters) statute of Nelson Mandala located in the plaza. There is a vast array of culinary choices, from seafood, to Indian food, to food from the Hard Rock Café. Wangthai is located at the top of the steps behind the Nelson Mandala statute. Wangthai is an attractive, upscale Thai restaurant. My bride and I love Thai food, and here was the chance to try something different from the South African food we had been eating for the past month.
Wangthai has a diverse wine list, not just the usual Rieslings that pair so well with spicy Thai food. We decided on a wine that was local in more ways than one. Ernie Els is a South African professional golfer and wine cognoscenti. In 1999, he decided to pursue his other passion with the development of Ernie Els Wines, located in Stellenbosch.
Ernie Els Big Easy Cabernet Sauvignon 2016 (Platter’s Guide ★★★★ and 14.00% alcohol) shows the links of 60.00% Shiraz, 20.00% Cabernet Sauvignon, 7.00% Cinsault, 5.00% Grenache, 5.00% Viognier and 3.00% Mourvédre grapes, matured in second and third fill French oak barrels. The nose has a drive of chocolate and spices, whilst the palate is chipped in with a foursome of peppery ripe cherries, herbs, mint, and licorice. The wine is structured to a tee, and the tannins are par for the course. (I hope you can appreciate how hard it is to use golfing terminology to write about wine.) The Big Easy was an excellent pairing with the savory beef in Thai spices. Our meal was so good that we came back for lunch the following day.
South Africa is a remarkable and diverse country, in the wines, the cuisine, and the people. We cannot wait until we return. However, our honeymoon is not over yet. First, we leave for Amsterdam, the land of Van Gogh, Rembrandt, bicycles, cheese, and wine.
(Bonus – Part 9: Amsterdam is more than just the Rijksmuseum and canals. No, I will not be writing about cannabis or the red-light district!)
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