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JewishJournal.com

October 20, 2011

TRIBE Life: Game on

http://www.jewishjournal.com/tribe/article/tribe_life_game_on_20111020

While urban hubs Cape Town and Johannesburg are home to thriving Jewish communities, with members whose personal convictions helped shape post-apartheid South Africa, the allure for many who make the long journey from the United States is the rare opportunity to experience wildlife in its most authentic setting. In other words, the original “eco-tourism” experience, which goes beyond anything that may be trendy in nature-focused vacations, is a major draw for travelers.

Safari lodge resorts like Kapama Private Game Reserve near Hoedspruit (on the outskirts of South Africa’s Kruger National Park) represent today’s South Africa at its best without trying too hard, thanks to ethnically diverse staffers and guides, superb cuisine and a relaxed, comfortable approach to luxury safaris.

At the Kapama’s sprawling complex, nature’s bounty, combined with uplifting examples of philanthropy and an eco-friendly lifestyle, are celebrated both on a grand scale and on a personalized, intimate level. The reserve is composed of several resorts of different sizes and settings, enabling guests to customize their safari experience to their own needs — families, honeymooning couples, corporate groups, guys’ or girls’ getaways, or hard-core adventuring travelers.

The compact but regal Kapama Lodge (kapama.co.za) is quintessential safari South Africa. Its cottages are appropriately comfortable and elegant, yet free of the trappings of jungle kitsch or over-the-top five-star hotel décor. Dinners are served open air in a lapa (courtyard) with an array of seasonal, simple sides and made-to-order grilled meats. Daytime dining, meanwhile, benefits from the presence of local produce and a gorgeous terrace overlooking the nearby river.

While the resort has decent Internet access, e-mail loses its urgency when you’re surrounded by the serenity of the area’s lush greenery and sprawling river. Though camping here is hardly “roughing it,” Kapama’s approach puts you back in touch with nature, from a greeting committee of giraffes to nayala antelopes and monkeys strolling nonchalantly past your cottage, to elephants adding extra ambience to your spa experience, to the lodge’s astute and youthfully energetic staff.

Kapama Lodge’s guests enjoy braAi (pronounced “bry”), a traditional South African barbecue.

Though you could visit Kruger National Park on your own, guided tours are ideal for short stays and eco-tourism virgins. Game drives conducted by Kapama’s guides in tricked-out Land Rovers deliver on their promise of genuine thrills and “wow” moments, ample photo ops and plenty of witty commentary from guides as they make earnest efforts to ensure you see at least four of the “big five” (lions, elephants, water buffalo, rhinoceroses and the elusive leopards) as well as other equally interesting specimens of wildlife. However, this is the jungle, so expect surprises. Our group, for example, delighted in stumbling upon a family of normally elusive cheetahs en route to an outing outside the Kapama compound.

Firms like Distell (parent company of Amarula Liqueur and several internationally distributed wines, including Durbanville Hills) contribute significantly to the well-being of communities neighboring Kapama and Kruger National Park. Convening with nature on safari may be the focus of your journey, but a visit to the Amarula Lapa (visitor center) near the village of Phalaborwa brings an added dimension of human interest and cultural enrichment to a safari vacation, even if you are not an avid cocktail fan.

Marula fruit (a relative of the mango that in its fresh-picked state tastes like an eccentric hybrid of citrus, passion fruit and plum) has provided nourishment to elephants and humans living in this region for centuries. Prior to the arrival of Distell, locals used marula to manufacture local beer, fruit juice and beauty products. However, the economic value of this fruit grew when, nearly 20 years ago, Distell’s experiments to develop a marula spirit with international appeal, in a manner of speaking, bore fruit.

From that seed emerged the Amarula Trust (amarulatrust.com), and if you travel to the Amarula Lapa during harvest season, you can witness firsthand the trust’s conservation efforts and community philanthropy in action. During the months the villages’ men are stationed at their jobs, the trust provides wives supplemental household income, as well as a medical facility and day-care center. The trust also oversees a scholarship program enabling young adults to further their education and train for field-guide careers.

Johannesburg-based Rabbi Baruch Goldstuck, meanwhile, has developed a uniquely Jewish way for his brethren from other countries to experience Africa’s majestic bush and wildlife, using his own memories of childhood vacations as a starting point. By converging the Jewish traditions that shaped him with the untamed wonders of nature, Goldstuck built a unique tour company offering tailor-made and strictly kosher safaris in Southern Africa a little over a decade ago. Today, The Kosher Wildlife Experience not only offers fully catered, glatt kosher safaris, but also has retained its quaint, personal approach, arranging a unique, custom-prepared vacation for each group.

For more information on South Africa, visit southafrica.net, and for information on flights into South Africa, visit flysaa.com. Companies such as Momentum Tours (momentumtours.com), The Kosher Wildlife Experience (kosherwildlife.com) and Travel With Jacob (travelwithjacob.com) also offer Jewish-focused tours of South Africa, which include safaris in their itineraries.

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