The countless photo sessions in the park were followed by feasting and dancing until dawn by the mountains. A glimpse of a wedding in rural South Africa.
It’s a long weekend in South Africa and a childhood friend, Letlhogonolo Kedijang, is getting married in Zeerust, a dusty town in the country’s mountainous North West province, 240 kilometers from Johannesburg.
After an early start and a four-hour road trip, we finally arrive in rural Gopane, 47 kilometers from Zeerust. We are extremely early and ravenous, and the place is downright rural but these are no deterrents.
We have driven all the way to witness our friend’s nuptials. But we can’t ignore the rumbling in our tummies.
The boys decide to go to a local Buy-and-Braai, a butchery where the meat is cooked on the fire as you wait and watch. I stay back at Gopane and document the groom’s preparations with my camera. For a start, there are no modern bathtubs or showers here – you use a bucket filled with water to wash up.
Preened and ready, it’s time to hop into one of the cars that make up the convoy to the bride’s home. We are late and I am told our destination is just around the corner, when it’s actually behind one of the mountains.
The cars are speeding and I am jittery, wishing there are speed-cameras or speed humps to slow them down. The scenes whiz by – dry land, sheep, chicken and grazing cows. There’s no oncoming traffic for miles on end.
Finally we arrive. A mountain away, what awaits us is singing, dancing and ululation. The groom leads the way as he walks uphill on the gravel road to the bride’s home to be accepted by her family.
I photograph their every move; he is accepted and she is taken. They look lovely in outfits that are a fusion between traditional and western; a trend I have been noting at most African weddings, not just in the cities, but in the countryside too.
Another convoy – a larger one this time – leaves for the local park, presumably a botanical garden, for the wedding photos.
Both sides of the family and their extended families are here. This is a staple in black South African culture – photos with the newlyweds amid flora and foliage.
After endless photographs with more than a hundred guests at the park, the couple leave in a white BMW convertible to the bridal home for the ceremony and grand lunch. I can finally rest and hand my time-worn camera to a friend eager to take over.
All the formalities are done, and the newlyweds are dancing away. More neighbors join, the ululating and singing get louder, and the band takes over.
The party has just begun.
This is when we decide to stay on and not drive back to Johannesburg.
We continue to dance on the gravel, and the young couple open a circle for guests to challenge them at the dancing, a practice popular in black culture. The sun has set and the moon is out, and so are we.
It’s Monday morning, the birds are chirping, and the gents are snoring.
We wash our faces and head back home. Before leaving, we are gifted a bottle of whiskey as a token of appreciation.
We save it for later.
We make our first stop-over at a supermarket for a breakfast of chicken and bread. We open the boot of the car to double as a table. Locals can tell we are from Johannesburg.
We scorch the road again to music, until four hours later, we see a sign that says ‘welcome to Gauteng’.
After all the fun and frolic at a traditional African wedding, home beckons and duty calls in the modern commercial capital that is Johannesburg.
IN PICTURES | Along the banks of Ethiopia’s Blue Nile
The Blue Nile pours out of Ethiopia’s Lake Tana as a gentle bubbling stream. Around is an ancient land with life-giving waters.
If one needs to be transported to biblical times, the time machine to do so resides on the banks of the Blue Nile in Ethiopia. This ancient land of many cultures and religions has resisted modernity, leaving many of its traditions intact, as I witnessed traveling through the historic Christian circuit of Ethiopia.
The mysterious Nile was long-hidden from Western geographers and explorers. It was not until the expeditions of such great travelers as Bruce, Burton, and Speke in the 18th century that the origins were confirmed: the White Nile originates in East Africa’s Lake Victoria, while the Blue Nile pours out of Ethiopia’s Lake Tana.
It merges with the smaller tributary, the White Nile, at Khartoum, Sudan, to form the mighty Nile River.
The Blue Nile was responsible for the annual floods that contributed to the fertility of the Nile Valley and subsequent rise of the Egyptian civilization. This ended with the construction of the Aswan Dam in the 1960s in Egypt.
For my exploration, I started in Addis Ababa and flew into Bahir Dar, a clean, safe and well-maintained city (by African standards) and the closest approach to the Blue Nile.
It offers access to more than 20 of the world’s oldest monastic churches that date back to the 14th century, located on the peninsulas and islands of Lake Tana. I hired a boat that regularly plies Lake Tana to visit many of its churches and small villages.
I was quite surprised to see locals operating papyrus boats (tankwas) that have been in use since the 9th century BC, either to fish or transport firewood across the lake. The only other place where I have seen papyrus boats still in use was in Lake Titicaca, Bolivia.
My biblical adventure took me first to the magnificent 14th century Ura Kidane Mehret church decorated with its astoundingly beautiful murals painted more than 250 years ago.
From a rather humble building, some of Ethiopia’s fabled treasures were revealed to me by a priest of the church: ancient parchment books from the 9th century, jewel-studded crowns of emperors, historic battle implements and the mummified remains of 14 of Ethiopia’s most revered emperors.
I was quite surprised at the poor quality of the storage cabinets and an absolute lack of proper security for such priceless treasures.
It barely took a five-minute drive from the lakeside town of Bahir Dar to reach the spot where the Blue Nile flows out of Lake Tana as a gentle bubbling stream. But driving further downstream for about 40 kilometers, the power of the first cataract of the Blue Nile can be appreciated at Tis-Isat village. The village is a market settlement of the Amhara people who have inhabited this area for over 2,000 years, farming crops like wheat, sorghum and teff (from which injera, the delicious national bread, is made).
The footpath leaving the village meanders first beside fertile open fields, then drops into a deep basaltic rift. After about a 30-minute walk, a stiff climb up a grassy hillside is rewarded by a magnificent view of the falls, breaking the smooth edge of the rolling river into a thundering cataract of foaming white water.
The approach to the falls was surreal with cowherds playing the flute and local women gathering water from the river in ceramic amphoras (ancient jugs) – scenes that were truly biblical. The Tis-Isat falls had been one of Ethiopia’s major tourist attractions until a decade ago.
Little did I realize that what I saw, despite being impressive, was a far cry from its gloried past. Since 2003, a giant hydroelectric power project has reduced the giant half mile wide water curtain to a mere third of its size. Even though there were many gorges nearby to install a power plant, the government decided on this easier location which has unfortunately affected fish farming in Lake Tana and tourism in the area.
Unlike some of the great falls of the world – Niagara, Victoria and Iguaçu – with endless hotels and tourist offerings nearby, the falls of the Blue Nile are located in a pastoral and primal setting that should showcase its natural might, but it’s being slowly being dammed into silence. Many young rural women and some men in the area sport tattoos of traditional designs, which are as diverse as Ethiopian society, usually indicating the bearer’s cultural, religious and ethnic background.
Traditional tattoos have many forms — from rows of blue or black lines from chin to chest, dots on the forehead to crucifixes or crescents on the back of the hand and tattoos designed to darken pinkish gums.
Meran Kabede, a young lady in her 20s peered through my car window, as I was taking photos of her tattoos. “I am ashamed of my tattoos. My mother told me that it would beautify me but my friends in Bahir Dar tell me that it’s a sign of backwardness and ignorance,” she said in halting English. While I appreciated the beautiful and unique facial decorations, I could very well see her desire to shed her rural identity for more modern times.
Not much has changed along the river bank over the centuries; donkey carts transport goods inland while papyrus and dugout boats carry people across the different villages lining the river.
One man, carrying an ancient firearm on his shoulder, claimed to be protecting himself from any number of ethnic conflicts that could arise. The Eritrean, Somali, South Sudan and Kenyan border areas have always been areas of unrest. In fact, I was fully escorted by a Kalashnikov-toting soldier for my tour of the highlands near the Eritrean border.
This ancient land with life-giving waters, in an otherwise parched landscape is both a blessing and curse for Ethiopia. The sharing of the Nile waters has become a contentious issue in Egypt, Sudan and Ethiopia where the population explosion has put pressure on water consumption. It is often said that the world’s next war will be fought over water and there are few places as tense as along the river Nile.
The Rise Of Millionaire Tourism
Private jets, elite lodges, haute cuisine and watching the perfect sunset – luxury safaris and bespoke experiences can cost anything from $20,000 to $350,000.
My greatest experience was standing in the Makgadikgadi salt pan in Botswana, which, as far as you can see in all directions is absolutely flat and white. Then the sun goes down. All of us have seen beautiful sunsets, and then there’s the glow and all of us have seen that. But then, there’s a kind of… grey pause. And then, the real sunset begins. It lasts for 35-40 minutes. The entire sky starts changing color and then the sun is long gone. But the sky lights up with all these fabulous colors that keep shifting all the way around you. We watched it every night,” says Christopher Beach, an American tourist describing a moment on his R3 million ($208,700) tour around southern Africa in May 2018.
This trip – a bucket list-adventure for the group of six friends and partners – was guided by tour company Luxury Africa Destination Management.
A 19-day excursion, this one-of-a-kind experience included private planes, luxury lodges and a full immersion in the sweeping landscapes of South Africa, Botswana and Namibia.
How is ‘luxury’ defined?
Is it a five-star stay at the Ritz-Carlton in New York, or a meal from a top chef at an elite restaurant?
For many top-tier, elite travelers today, ‘luxury’ isn’t about caviar and diamond-encrusted cutlery.
‘Luxury’ in travel has changed from a garish display of wealth to one about experiences, privacy, and unique memories all bundled into one bespoke package.
As Angama Mara Lodge co-founder, Nicky Fitzgerald, with decades of experience in decadent travel and top-tier lodges in southern Africa, explains: “There are different opinions of luxury. In the end, the stuff is just the stuff, and if you have enough money, anyone can have gold cups or build a beautiful lodge. But experiencing good game is unique, and having a talented guide and caring staff take the experience out of the ordinary. Luxury is bespoke care for each person. Luxury for the super-elite is watching the perfect sunset, and seeing the Milky Way from bed.”
The sunset on the Makgadikgadi salt pan in Botswana was such a luxury experience for Beach.
“It is more than a poetic experience. It’s a life-changing experience,” he says.
A regular traveler, he is the retired President and Artistic Director of the La Jolla Music Society in San Diego. For over 40 years now, he and his partner have traveled annually to Venice. A few years ago, Beach and his sister went on National Geographic’s 24-day ‘Around the World by Private Jet’ trip (costing a minimum of $82,950 per person and including destinations like Easter Island and Marrakesh). “[My partner and I] say to everyone – people know that we’ve spent 40 years traveling and we say to everybody – you have to trust us. [A trip to southern Africa] is the most transcendent travel experience of your life. I went on the National Geographic ‘Around The World By Private Plane’ trip a couple of years ago and it was great and it was first-class and all of that… But going on a safari exceeded anything we’ve ever experienced.”
According to Virtuoso’s annual Luxe Report, a luxury trip advisory service, “the desire for unspoiled natural beauty is continuing to motivate travelers”.
Their 2018 forecast listed Africa as one of the top five must-take trips. They said in the report: “From culturally-rich South Africa, which is also 2018’s top adventure destination, to the wilds of Botswana and Kenya, and to the souks of Morocco, Africa is one of the world’s most diverse continents. Virtuoso’s advisors say a safari is an integral part of the African experience, particularly with wildlife preservation a priority for today’s sustainably-savvy travelers.”
Though Beach doesn’t consider himself ‘rich’, his trip on the continent was certainly in the upper echelons of tourist budgets pouring into the continent.
As the Southern and East African Tourism Update website writes: “Millionaire tourism in Africa has been on the rise for several years. In 2016, a study by a Johannesburg-based research institution found that in a period of 12 months, around 43,000 individuals with net assets of $10 million or more visited the continent for a holiday.”
Stats SA backs up the importance of all tourism in South Africa: “The tourism sector directly contributed 2.9% to South African gross domestic product (GDP) in 2016.”
The lure of the bush and a chance to experience a complete immersion in landscapes unseen in the West, not to mention close encounters with animals, are hugely appealing to international visitors. Says founder of Famba Famba Tour Design Specialists, and winner of Gauteng’s Lilizela tourism award, Valentino Meirroti: “The tourism industry is growing. There is a growing market for luxury travel as air travel becomes cheaper worldwide. The super-wealthy are spending less money on material things and more on unique experiences.”
The private villas, the haute cuisine, the sundowners, and the private jets aren’t the draw cards for the super-elite traveler, Meirroti explains. The biggest appeal for these luxury tourists is the chance to experience the raw beauty and these special moments in relative privacy.
Angama Mara Lodge, a 30-sleeper villa is perched on a hill overlooking Kenya’s Maasai Mara, with these needs in mind. In peak season, during one of the world’s most phenomenal sightings – the Great Migration – guests will pay $1,650 per night per person. The lodge’s co-founder Fitzgerald, describes: “We have a heart-stopping view from our position over the valley. We’re absolutely packed in high season. We’re very, very high-end and visitors find that visiting us on a safari tour and witnessing the Great Migration at such close quarters is a huge highlight.”
Beach describes it as well: “This is like being on earth millions of years ago in the garden of Eden. You are invisible in your jeep. The animals ignore you. They are acclimatized to you. You’re not a threat, you’re not something to eat.”
Patrick Siebel, founder of Luxury Africa Destination Management, has a whole business built around creating bespoke, luxury tours.
Most people using his services spend a minimum of R300,000 ($20,877) for two weeks, but on his most opulent trip, six people spent R5 million ($348,000) on a 15-day trip. He says he has serviced, amongst others, Russian oligarchs, American businessmen and CEOs, and super-wealthy families.
Says Siebel: “Last year, I had a guy, he wasn’t even planning to visit South Africa I guess. But he had a super yacht with the tallest mast in the world. While he was here having their main sail fitted on, he ended up going up to Johannesburg and bought a whole safari camp. Fascinating people.”
This type of travel is also falling into the enlarging wellness travel industry.
This billion-dollar section of luxury travel feeds another, equally important part of the luxury traveler’s needs – relaxation and enrichment.
Skift quotes Joss Kent, CEO of andBeyond: “Health and wellness are an increasingly larger part of travel, but these can mean different things to different people. We’re seeing that guests are traveling, not to escape their daily lives, but to enrich them.”
Fitzgerald agrees: “It seems outrageous but people who like luxury travel have more of an issue with time than money. Some guests have no clue what they paid for their accommodation. There is so much money for people to do beautiful travel.”
Meirroti adds: “Our guests appreciate exclusivity, and a combination of complete relaxation while having a unique experience. People are happy to spend money for a bespoke experience that is well-organized and guided by knowledgeable guides.”
Perhaps Beach says it best: “When I travel to Africa, I want a place that is private, private, private, and you walk out in the morning and you are the only person in the world looking out over a vast horizon. It feels like you’re in Discovery Channel. And though African safari costs are some of the most expensive trips I take over the world, they are life-changing.”
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