Nothing makes me want to show off a country more than when it impresses a girl. Especially when the girl is my fiancée, on her first visit to South Africa, hoping to understand the country where I was born and raised. With this in mind, I borrowed my grandmother's old Toyota for a one-week, 3,700-kilometre road trip I had carefully designed to make her fall in love with the beloved country and, by extension, further in love with me.
My plan would forgo the tourist favourites of Cape Town and the Kruger National Park for my secret wild cards. Since we'd be driving in long stretches, this would also ensure she'd develop a taste for biltong (unprocessed jerky), my favourite junk food purchased at gas stations, and conversations about the country's history and national religion, by which I mean sports.
Explaining the rules of cricket occupied most of the four-hour drive from Johannesburg to Kwa-Zulu Natal. South Africa was playing a test match against India, and she couldn't get her head around a five-day game that could still end in a draw. The Highveld bush had morphed into flat, yellow shrub, stretching on for hours, finally running into the mountains at Van Reenan's Pass. I knew she'd love the thrill of safari, but not the side effects of malaria pills, strongly advised when visiting Kruger Park. So I took her to Nambiti, a 10,000-hectare private reserve outside Ladysmith, surrounded by Boer War battlefields, and containing lions, elephants, rhinos, buffalo and leopards. These are known as the Big 5, an old hunting term for animals that seek revenge if you miss.
Of the five lodges in the reserve, I selected Nambiti Hills, an elegant, romantic getaway with a wonderful view of the bush. High tea, red-flame sunsets, Pimms with ginger at the fireplace, friendly banter with tourists – safari is always the most social of occasions. On our first night, we fell asleep in a four-poster bed to the sound of a lion roaring in the distance. On the second, a wild lightning storm enveloped us, as if nature turned on its disco lights.
Our game drives yielded antelope, zebra, giraffe, elephant, hippo, white rhino, wildebeest, warthog, a pride of lions and a rare spotting of three cheetahs. Safari virgins quickly learn that animals in the wild are not animals in the zoo. Each drive offers something new, even for the friendly game rangers. Leaving the Land Rover, we tracked some rhino, walking single file, staying close to the ranger with the rifle.
I tell my future missus the Rule of the Bush: "I don't have to run fast. I just have to run faster than you." She is not amused. Less so when I discover I had miscalculated the drive to the Eastern Cape, which would take about 12 hours in Grandma's old car.
Cue the Road to Nowhere by the Talking Heads. The highway rarely diverted from its clinically straight line through the Karoo, an arid, semi-desert region of South Africa. Eventually, we reached Kirkwood, a citrus-growing centre, where we stayed with the Dutch owners of Magnolia, a homely guest house. The drive was necessary to get us to a roadside attraction I knew she would love. The Daniell Cheetah Breeding Project rehabilitates and reintroduces cheetahs into the wild, while also rearing several tame big cats for movies and television. In an enclosure, Ola, a mature female, quietly stalked up to us. My fiancée didn't know whether to run or cry. It can be an overwhelming experience, meeting a purring big cat. We petted Ola's coarse fur and let her rough tongue lick our hands as we learned about the fastest animal on Earth, so vulnerable in its ever-decreasing habitat.
I knew my girl loves elephants, and just a few kilometres away stood the main gate of Addo Elephant National Park. With more than 500 elephants and all the Big 5, we could drive slowly in our car, experiencing a different type of safari. When a large herd of wild elephant walked right in front of our headlights, she practically melted. Two points for Esrock.
Both points were deducted when we got lost in the Alexandria Dunes, the longest and widest coastal dunes in the Southern Hemisphere. I thought we'd follow our footprints back to the suitably named Elephant Footprint Lodge, unaware that the late-afternoon wind was covering them up behind us. On the plus side, getting lost in a coastal dune desert sounds kind of romantic.
Then we headed out along the N2 for a cage dive with Great White Sharks in Mossel Bay, and up to Outshoorn, where we could take another cage dive, this time with Nile crocodiles. We crammed into a small circular cage, were hoisted by crane into a clear pool containing three massive beasts. "If you survive this, our marriage will be a cakewalk," I told her, eye level with a large croc that seemed particularly interested in our body parts.
The adrenaline helped with the 1,200-kilometre drive back through the Karoo to Johannesburg, loaded up on bright green soda pop, MSG-caked corn chips and kudu biltong chunks. By the time we arrived back in Johannesburg, I had put more miles on Grandma's car than it had seen in 10 years. We had covered two types of safari, close-up animal encounters, endless beaches, historical towns, striking landscape and more than one bottle of wine.
Does this explain a little where I come from? " I asked her.
"Yes," she replied. "But please don't ask me to explain the rules of cricket."
Catch up with Robin on the OLN/CITY-TV series Word Travels or at www.robinesrock.com
Special to The Globe and Mail