(January 2019) Going on safari to witness the majesty of the big five animals (lion, leopard, elephant, rhino and buffalo) is a dream held by many people, but for wine lovers there is also the question of “how is the wine on safari?” Fortunately in South Africa, the answer is “great,” because with more than 700 wineries in the country, South African safari lodges can afford to be generous with wine, and they are rightly proud to show off the delicious and well-balanced wines of their country.
I am lucky to have just returned from a great safari that I booked with Siyabona Travel Agency, based in South Africa. They handled all details flawlessly, including booking lodges, meals, transportation between lodges and flights within the country.
Wine at Imbali Safari Lodge in Kruger National Park
My favorite safari lodge was Imbali, located in Kruger National Park, where the hospitality is warm and friendly, and wine, beer, and cocktails are complimentary. Indeed, in my luxury suite complete with a comfortable bed draped with mosquito netting, there was a small refrigerator stocked with South African sauvignon blanc and pinotage, as well as all types of beer, sodas, and spirits. Guests can help themselves to a drink in one of the 12 private luxury cabanas this lodge provides, and then soak in their private plunge pool on the deck, while overlooking the river to see elephants, impala, and wildebeest foraging nearby.
Beautiful Bed and Private Plunge Pool at Imbali Safari Lodge
During lunch and the three course gourmet dinner each evening, a selection of 10 to 12 different South African wines, including sparkling, were available. Therefore during the three days I was there, I was able to sample a little of each of the wines and found them to be refreshing with crisp acidity, fruit-focused with some minerality, and lower alcohol – around 12%. My favorites were the dry chenin blancs, fruity pinotages, and crisp sauvignon blancs. I was also impressed with their very generous pours – usually around 6 ounces. Since the weather was hot, they often served white and rose wines with ice on the side, which I thought was a nice touch.
Elephant Plains Lodge – Wine Served in a Silver Chalice with Rhinos
The second lodge we visited was Elephant Plains, which was equally luxurious but with more discrete professional service, rather than the overflowing friendliness of Imabli. Alas they also charged for wine, but the prices were very reasonable – as I found throughout South Africa. A glass of wine was usually $3 to $5, and a bottle ranged from $15 to $25. This was also the case in restaurants in Capetown. I love a country that doesn’t try to gouge consumers with ridiculous wine prices, and South Africa is one of the few places that makes wine affordable on-premise. Due to this, I saw many people drinking wine in restaurants and bars during my visit, which is a positive way to highlight their unique and delicious cuisine –often featuring exotic farm-raised meats such as warthog, kudo, impala stew, ostrich, and buffalo.
However the best part of wine at Elephant Plains Resort is the silver chalice they use to serve it on safari. It is lovely to be standing near your guide watching rhinos in the distance at a watering hole, and holding a chilled pewter wine glass filled with refreshing South African sauvignon blanc. Now that is a wine experience!
Drinking Wine and Watching Rhinos on Safari in South Africa
Gin & Tonic – A Common Safari Sundowner Cocktail
I must admit that due to temperatures hovering in the 90’s F (32 Celsius) most days that I often indulged in a gin and tonic for a “sundowner” – the term the South Africans use for happy hour. They also specialize in many types of gin, as well as unusual tonics, including pink or blue tonic. Our guide told us that gin and tonic was used as a means to ward off malaria in the past because mosquitoes do not like the taste of a person who drinks “quinine” used in tonic. Though I was taking malaria pills, I decided that it didn’t hurt to adopt the old fashioned method of drinking tonic water – even though medical doctors now say it will not help, because you must drink 67 liters of tonic per day for it to work!
Wine, Gin Tonic and Appetizers on Safari at Sunset
The Alluring Rhythm of a Safari Day Schedule
One of my favorite aspects of going on safari was the daily schedule. It felt like going back in time to a more gentile period when nature and the temperature ruled the day. The schedule is based on animal time, so you venture out of the lodge in the early morning and evening when the animals come out to drink water, eat, and play, and then sleep or relax during the heat of the day. It is a gentle rhythm that is addictive, and I find I miss it now that I am back into my regular exhausting work schedule. Here is the timetable that is followed by most luxury safari lodges:
- 5:00am – someone knocks on your door to wake you up
- 5:15am – coffee and biscotti served in the main lodge
- 5:30- 8:30 – game drive with a coffee break mid-point, usually laced with Amarula – a South African liquor that tastes like Irish Cream –yum!
- 8:30 – 9:30 – breakfast back at the lodge, usually a generous buffet
- 9:30 – 1:00pm – relax (have a massage, exercise, take a nap, read a book, etc.) No television to distract and very spotty cell phone service, so you can truly relax
- 1:00 – 2:00 – lunch, usually elaborate buffet with wine
- 2:00 – 3:30 – relax some more
- 3:30 – 4:00 – high tea with sandwiches, cakes, cookies, etc.
- 4:00 – 7:00 – game drive with a cocktail break midpoint, where you have a choice of wine, beer or gin & tonic
- 7:00 – 8:00 – relax, have a glass of sherry or juice handed to you with a chilled hand towel by a smiling server when you return to the lodge
- 8:00 – 10:00 – gourmet three course dinner with wine and candlelight