Ranjan Pal, 49, the newly appointed India director of The Climate Group, spent 11 days in South Africa with his wife Saroj and daughters Tarini, 17, and Mallika, 13, over the summer. Despite a “lost” scare, he is looking to go back when the economy matures and the locals have more economic power
You seem to have been really excited about your trip.
That’s right. South Africa sounded like a fascinating country, with the ideal combination of culture, history, scenery and fun things to do. Also, we had heard that we could see the fauna at the Kruger National Park at extremely close range. Plus, it takes about the same travel time as Europe.
How did you break up the holiday?
Into three: Kruger National Park, Cape Town and Knysna (pronounced NIZE-nah), and the Garden Route. We spent around three-four nights at each place, but quite a bit of time was taken up flying or driving to each place. At Kruger, we stayed in the Park Camps; in Cape Town, at a four-star hotel called the Capetonian, a 10-minute walk from the V&A Waterfront; and in Knysna, at a B&B I found on the Net.
How did you pick your destinations?
Cape Town is definitely the anchor for any trip to South Africa. Robben Island, seven miles (about 11km) away, is a premier attraction, but so are Table Mountain, the Cape of Good Hope, Kirstenbosch Gardens and the V&A Waterfront. We picked Kruger because it is the best-known game park in the world, though driving there takes the better part of a day from Johannesburg. I didn’t know anything about Knysna and the Garden Route, but a friend, who works for South African Breweries, insisted it be included.
You were cribbing about the driving…
We did a lot of driving on this trip, perhaps too much relative to the time we had. Kruger was a six-seven hour drive each way from Jo’burg and we spent two days driving around inside the park. We also drove to Knysna along the Garden Route (five-and-a-half hours from Cape Town) and back, as well as to the Tsitsikamma National Park from Knysna.
But driving is a great way to see the country on your own time and it works out to be economical, too. We rented a Nissan Tiida for Kruger and a Toyota Corolla for Knysna. The roads and traffic infrastructure are very clearly first-world standard.
Why were you so keen on Robben Island?
That was where Nelson Mandela and his political associates were imprisoned for so many years. I never thought I would be so emotionally moved by the trip. We were taken around in a bus by a former political prisoner, who explained the hardships that prisoners had to endure. We also saw the small cell in which Mandela was imprisoned. I think, more than the physical hardship, what got to me was the psychological torture the prisoners were subjected to. For anyone with any sense of justice, the revelations were appalling. I felt my already high respect for Mandela—one of the truly great leaders of our times—tremendously heightened.
Did Kruger live up to your expectations?
Kruger was great—the camp-style accommodation and facilities were very comfortable. Having one’s own car was a big bonus. We saw a variety of animals—they seemed totally unafraid and came very close to our vehicle. We saw three of Kruger’s big five—the elephant, the rhino and the Cape buffalo. We missed out on the lion and the leopard; if we had spent more than two days, we would probably have had more luck. The girls were delighted with Kruger—for them it was like seeing The Lion King come alive.
And what was so special about Knysna?
Knysna was a nice break from the excitement of Kruger and Cape Town. It is a very picturesque town on a coastal lagoon on the Garden Route, itself a stunning stretch with the imposing Drakensberg range a few miles away and hundreds of miles of sandy beaches and seascapes.
We stayed at a charming B&B called the Hideaway Guest House. I took off by myself one day and played golf at the Knysna Golf Course, while Saroj and the girls went shopping. The next day, we visited the beautiful Tsitsikamma National Park. On the way, we stopped at the Bloukrans river bridge, where Tarini did the world’s highest commercial bungee jump at 218 metres. On the way back from Knysna, we visited the Safari Ostrich Show Farm where, besides the guided tour around the farm, the girls rode on the back of an ostrich for a few seconds.
Any holiday experience you’d never want to repeat?
My one big ambition was to climb the Table Mountain. At 3,000ft, it is not a particularly difficult climb, but it does require physical fitness. My family wanted to go up by cable car, but I convinced them to climb up the mountain and take the cable car down. We were told to take the Skeleton Gorge route to the top rather than the more direct and difficult Platteklip Gorge route. What no one mentioned was that the Skeleton Gorge route goes up the back of the Table, from where it’s a three-hour walk to the cable car.
We started climbing through the Kirstenbosch Gardens. The route went up through a forest and gradually got steeper. At this point, Tarini, who is the fittest of us all, climbed on ahead and we gradually lost sight of her. My wife and younger daughter were making heavy weather of the ascent, so I stayed with them. And so we violated the first rule of climbing in unknown territory—of sticking together. Almost two-and-a-half hours later, our party of three broke through the treeline and the mountain began to flatten out, but we couldn’t spot Tarini.
Fortunately, there was an emergency number listed on a steel plate map here and I had my cellphone with me. I called them and told them what had happened. Very soon, a chopper was sent to “rescue” Tarini. They found her waiting at Beacon Point, the highest point of Table Mountain, a good hour’s walk from the treeline. Meanwhile, we struggled back down through Skeleton Gorge and though it took us only about an hour to get back to the Kirstenbosch Gardens, my mood was as black as thunder. I was thoroughly disappointed at not being able to make it to the top of Table Mountain.
Let’s talk about happier things: the food and drink experience.
I love to try out different cuisines. We had a couple of memorable meals at two fine-dining restaurants in Knysna called the Sirocco, which had a beautiful view of the lagoon, and JJ’s, where I had ostrich steak—a delicious cross between chicken and beef. The roof of JJ’s was covered with wine bottles with handwritten messages from past diners. And the waitrons all lined up to sing a few tribal African melodies for us, which was a surprise treat.
Any regrets about the itinerary?
I was really keen on the wine trail. I would have loved to visit Paarl and Stellenbosch, but had to drop it because we had underestimated the driving time to Knysna and back. We also had to cut out the Cape of Good Hope and the Soweto township. I would like to go back 10 years later, as South Africa develops and the locals gain more economic power.
As told to Sumana Mukherjee. Share your last holiday with us at email@example.com