September 30, 2016

On a recent trip to Durban, South Africa, when I had gone to attend INDABA 2016 in May, a short city tour and a quick getaway to a nearby game reserve threw me a macro, yet, unique view of what one can expect to experience in the land of the Big Five. We had a few hours free on one of the days in the afternoon and a group of Indian journalists decided to take a short tour of the city. It being a Saturday, the streets of Durban were not as packed and clouds loomed large as we drove first to the famous Victoria Market.

The Victoria Market provides a colourful window to South Africa's shopping attractions. Rich and multi-hued handicraft shops, jewellery and souvenir shops, spice sellers adorn Victorial Market. Unfortunately for us, business had almost closed when we reached there and had to be content with buying just a few things. Not wishing to let this dampen our spirits, we immediately set forth to visit the house of Mahatma Gandhi, who had lived in South Africa, when he practiced law during his youth. On our way, the chauffeur stopped the car to point at the railway station where the infamous incident of ousting Gandhi from a train took place.

The house is located at about an hour's drive from the centre of Durban. Vast stretches of dry grasslands, interspersed with many automobile stores, dotted Durban's landscapes. Durban is, interestingly a hub for several automobile establishments, the chauffeur tells us, as we whizz our way past the roads. Very close to Gandhiji's residence, is the school started by his wife Kasturba and the institution is still functional. The pathway leading up to his house is flanked by several trees and is completely soaked in serenity. The Mahatma's house is as compact, humble and simple as the legend himself. Today, it houses exhibits of several of his letters, artifacts, etc. and is maintained as a key attraction.

South Africa has a fascinating connection with India with thousands of people from the Indian diaspora settled there since over a century. While they sustain the roots of Indian tradition through food, culture and festivals, what is intriguing that they still follow the customs that were brought in by their forefathers when they first arrived there; not much dilution has taken place with regard to it. A sizeable population of people of Gujarati, Punjabi and Tamil origin live there. Understandably, food is not a problem for Indian tourists in South Africa. Many dishes have been given a twist over the years; we tasted 'Bunny-chow', a spicy delicacy, that was made by an Indian, who, according to a local tale, wished to have Pav (Indian bread). So, he created a Pav with a hollow in it and prepared a tasty gravy to fill it with. It is a must have for any tourist visiting Durban.

Tourism in Africa, in general, and in South Africa, in particular, is characterized by a history of struggle for survival by mankind and the beast alike, whose existence was imperiled by way of exploration, habitat encroachment, poaching and colonial rule. No visit to South Africa is complete without mentioning Nelson Mandela, the anti-apartheid revolutionary. While we could not see any important places in his relevance during our trip, the conversations that I had with many of the locals still reflect the indelible impact his work has left on their lives; nobody wants to venture a word or two about the tarnished segregation practice that had once haunted the nation.

On our last day, we went to the Hluhluwe Game Reserve, a three hour drive from Durban to meet the Big Five game animals of Africa - Rhinos, Elephants, Lions, Leopards and Buffaloes. However, we were not so lucky and managed to meet only three of them. It was close to two in the afternoon when we reached the national park. After obtaining permission, we changed to safari jeeps and went into the reserve, which led to sprawling stretches of grasslands and mountains as far as our eyes could take us. Several giraffes and zebras greeted us as we entered the reserve; they seemed absolutely at ease with visitors as we got down to click photographs at a distance of 10 feet. The giraffes generally go with their zebra buddies to protect them from predators. The world's tallest mammal has a great vision but not sound sensory input; the zebra, however, senses predators at a short distance but not from afar. So the two of them move together to defend themselves.

While we sighted only a couple of buffaloes from a distance, we soon spotted a few jeeps huddled at one corner. As we went nearer, we realized that not very far from us was the king of the jungle, majestically mounting his paw on a buffalo that he seemed to have killed a short while ago. While the lion was watching us straight in the eye, he let out a roar as if to tell us to let him have his food in private. As we moved away, our chauffeur pointed at two rhinos far down the valley. As we were returning, not fully satisfied, two huge rhinos came just beside our jeep for grazing. We promptly became quiet and awestruck at the beautiful and exquisitely black skinned horned bulky wonders as they warily moved across. The skies were changing hues by the minute as the chauffeur signaled that it was time to go.

We left the game reserve feeling smug though we could not spot the leopards and elephants, but the sights of several giraffes and zebras darting across in a playful, carefree manner, made our day, although the chauffeur tried to underplay our excitement, saying that the giraffes and zebras were as common in Africa as KFC and McDonald outlets!

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