Vacationing in South Africa is almost indescribable. The region is culturally accessible to Americans due to the prevalence of spoken English, yet as incredibly exotic as could be imagined. A vacation visit to the Zimbali on the Eastern coast of South Africa just south of Durban proved to be a memorable trip, combining a variety of activities including visits to a local Jewish community and a day-trip safari.
Our stay at the Fairmount Zimbali Resort was made easier since we booked our trip over Passover when Cape Kosher offered a program. Our first dinner was a buffet of some foods we recognized and many we didn’t. Each covered serving tray was helpfully labeled with the type of food inside, but we still needed to ask what the dishes were. Boerewors appeared to be a type of sausage, but we were totally lost when it came to Chakalaka (similar to a warm “Turkish salad” with more peppers). Eating was an adventure in and of itself.
By far the largest Jewish community in South Africa is in Johannesburg, in the center of the country, with approximately 50,000 Jewish residents; Cape Town in the very south of the country has about 17,000 and Pretoria, about 35 miles northeast of Johannesburg, has about 3,000.
A new Jewish community was established south of Durban in Umhlanga (pronounced “Um-shlang-uh”) by a group who felt the old Jewish neighborhood in Durban was no longer a safe place to raise a family. A large plot of land was purchased and the Umhlanga Jewish Centre was established with a K-8 elementary school, Orthodox synagogue and community center. Housing around the gated community ranges from apartments and condominiums to houses of all sizes. The Centre was created amidst controversy, as part of the established Durban community felt that dividing the community would leave two parts that were both too small to survive. We did not have the opportunity to visit the established Durban section, but the facilities in Umhlanga were beautiful and the community members who led out tour were incredibly welcoming.
It was a bit strange to read the local papers and see winter coats and scarves advertised as the perfect Mother’s Day gift. Being in the southern hemisphere, Passover heralds the approach of the winter months, not spring as we are accustomed to in the U.S. and Israel. But the weather was temperate, similar to late summer, and allowed for early morning nature walks. Zimbali was created as a community within a nature reserve, so it was not unusual to see monkeys, springbok (a type of antelope) and eagles while walking the mile or so to the hotel’s sister resort up the road.
One day we visited a zoo specializing in reptiles and local species. There was a petting zoo and the staff was helpful in bringing animals to us and pointing out their features. I’m normally not too thrilled with snakes, but we were shown some very friendly ones who were quite appealing. There were also pens for crocodiles that were grouped by age. One of the enclosures had a picnic table on a grassy knoll amidst the large crocodiles. A highlight of the trip was the actual opportunity to eat lunch with the crocodiles, an achievement documented with a certificate that shows you survived the event. We ate our Passover boxed lunches under the watchful eyes of our guide and over a dozen crocodiles. It was a good thing Cape Kosher placed a bottle of wine in our picnic basket!
Another day’s event was a presentation of the history and customs of the local people at a living history museum. We saw the thatched huts, and hunting and gardening tools, and also watched presentations of songs and celebrations. Not to be missed was the chance to take a tour of the South African coastline in a paraglider. The view was unbelievable as we were high enough to see almost forever, but low enough to see the details of the landscape.
Of course, the highlight of the trip was going on the genuine safari, not at all like the kind we were familiar with from Great Adventure. We saw lions and drove alongside giraffes and zebras. Our guide pointed out wild boars, antelope, gazelles and other animals in the area. Generally, the animals went about their business and ignored the open jeeps that drove through their habitat. We saw a few elephants along the way, but nothing compared to the large group we encountered towards the end of our safari. A large group of more than 30 elephants was eating alongside the road, when a youngster moved away from the herd and ambled over to the road where several jeeps were slowly driving. The mother elephant thought it might be a good thing to teach the youngster a lesson and brought over the whole herd and surrounded our jeep. Our guide cautioned us to remain very still and quiet; if the elephants viewed us as a threat they might have become agitated and possibly overturned the jeep. The herd gathered around us for quite a few minutes, and then decided to head off in another direction. The video of that event still takes our breath away.
We flew South African Airlines from New York to Johannesburg and changed planes there to get to Durban. Coach class had an incredible amount of legroom, seats were comfortable and there was no problem getting kosher food. There was even a kosher snack provided for the short connecting flight. A perfect complement to an amazing vacation.
By Deborah Melman