What makes a vacation particularly special and memorable? Is it the natural beauty of the place, the culture, the people, the food, the people you went with, or things you did or that happened while you were there? I don’t think I’ve been on a vacation that I didn’t enjoy, and I’ve been lucky to have traveled for fun to many different countries around the world. As far as I can remember, I’ve enjoyed something about every place. But there are some places that stand out more so than others. And South Africa is one of them.
For me, South Africa was a combination of different things. It had natural beauty almost everywhere we went, a rare “unspoiled” kind of beauty – humans were obviously there, but much of the country had been left alone, and not bulldozed or manicured into some artificial Disneyfied type of prettiness. A lot of the landscape was truly stunning, and driving around I felt literally awestruck at times.
The other thing about the vacation was that I was with my parents and my sister. We were in Cape Town for a couple of weeks where my sister lived. Then we did a road trip around the country, driving from the south-western end, Cape Town, along the entire southern coast, then up north through the interior to the northwestern end where Kruger National Park was. My sister had planned the trip out to a certain degree, mapping out the route we would take. But other than that, we had no idea where we would end up each day, where we’d stay, what we’d eat. That part was an adventure.
Before we set out I was a bit skeptical. Not worried, but I just wondered about driving around random middle-of-nowhere places in South Africa. What would happen? I had seen a movie called White Wedding at the African Film Festival in New York, that was about a not-so-dissimilar road trip around South Africa. And strange things happened to the people in that movie.
But luckily, in real life, all we experienced on that trip were niceness and kindness. We did find ourselves in sparsely inhabited areas some nights. And one night, in the middle of the Drakensberg mountains, it did happen that we couldn’t find a single hotel or B&B to spend the night at that had availability. Finally quite late at night, thanks to our car’s GPS guide we found a lodge that had space according to the guy who answered the phone. When we drove up to the gate he was waiting for us; he got in his car and we followed him for about 10 minutes through a desolate area. The lodge was a big rustic wood and glass construction, with rooms to sleep probably about 30 people. Except we were the only people in that entire place. The man showed us around and then left saying he’d be back in the morning with milk, eggs, etc. It was pitch dark outside, a moonless night – all we could see were millions of stars in the night sky.
It would have been quite magical, but because we had no clue where we had ended up (our phones had no signal there, so no googling or emergency phone calls), we felt a bit paranoid. The place had no locks, not on the front door, nor in the rooms – anyone could walk in. So despite having that massive lodge to ourselves and being told by the host that we could take whichever rooms we wanted to, we decided to all sleep together in a room that had 4 bunkbeds. For the first time in my adult life, I slept with my sister and my parents all in the same room.
Lying in bed in that huge cabin, surrounded by darkness and god-knows-what, I started imagining that maybe the skinny harmless-looking man was really like the Anthony Perkins character from Psycho, and we’d be murdered that night. I shared my theory with my family; they shushed me, we all giggled in the dark, but eventually they got bit nervous too. I piled our little luggage pieces up against the door to block him, or at least be woken up by the noise of the crashing pieces when he’d try to come in. At some point during the night I finally fell asleep.
When we woke up, it was soon after dawn, roosters were crowing. I pulled open the curtain by my bed in the top bunk, and for the first time could see where we were. We were in a valley, there were hills around us and a river in the distance. Mist was rising from the ground, and there was a beautiful dreamy quality in the air. There were 4 little circular white-walled houses with thatched roofs behind our lodge. I could see horses grazing in the distance. It was just unbelievably beautiful. We all got up to check out this suddenly transformed magical place. Our host showed up with fresh eggs, bread, and milk. We chatted with him, marveled at his thoughtfulness and kindness. The simple breakfast we made that day, that we ate sitting in the cold lodge with beautiful warm light streaming in through the giant glass windows everywhere – is now lodged in my memory forever.
We had a not-completely-imaginary close call with death another evening. We were doing our own self-guided safari in our little car by ourselves in Kruger National Park. Since we weren’t with any group or guide, we underestimated the time it would take to get back to our lodge before night set and it would be unsafe to drive. It was getting dark and all of a sudden we saw a herd of wild elephants approaching. My sister stopped the car since they were clearly intending to cross the road where we were. When you’re in a little car, surrounded by elephants, suddenly you realize how truly massive they are, and how tiny you are in comparison; and even the car you now realize is no protection, it could easily be crushed with no problem. There were elephants in front of our car, behind our car, on the side, and more kept joining them. My mom and I thought we were surely about to die; sitting in the back seat, we squeezed each other’s hands and begged my sister to please start the car and drive. My conservationist scientist sister stayed calm and unperturbed. She said there was nothing to do but wait, and predicted the elephants would probably get bored with us after a while and leave. And that’s exactly what ended up happening.
The South Africa road trip was full of surprises. It was one of my best vacations ever. We met many and all kinds of people. Because our cell phones didn’t work in most places, we were forced to figure out things the old fashioned way, without google, relying on human interaction. And random strangers everywhere were kind and helpful. Restrooms along the highway were the cleanest I’ve seen in any country ever – totally spotless. The country itself was utterly lovely. Perhaps it was the route we took, but it was beautiful almost everywhere we went.
The other thing that made the trip especially special – it was the last trip we did as a family. It was the last vacation with my mom. She was diagnosed with cancer 4 months later, then she passed away a year and half later. Life has never been the same since. It was a time of innocence still; we argued as close families tend to do especially when you’re together 24×7 in a car for days, arguing without thinking is this the last time, will you be gone in a few hours possibly… We had fun, we laughed and joked and talked about endless things. We all loved each other, beyond anything in the world. And we were together being driven around this country my by sister in a little car.
So, it was a wonderful time. Cape Town where my sister lived, was gorgeous. She had good groups of friends, I could see myself moving there one day… We went wine tasting in lovely Franschhoek, wandered around the starkly beautiful cape region, lunched in beautiful ocean-side towns, brunched on the mountain overlooking Cape Town, braaii’d at her friend’s houses, ate at weekend food markets, went to what I still think is the most beautiful simple unpretentious little restaurant in the world, where I had the sensation of being in the ocean itself… It was all amazing.
And along the way I discovered a South African dish that I loved, and that I’ve been cooking since at home over the years. Called bobotie, it’s South Africa’s national dish. The origins are as complicated as South Africa is, with Malay/Dutch roots. It’s a savory meat custard – that sounds odd, but it really is quite fantastic. Ground meat with light curry flavor, with bits of fruit preserve so it’s slightly sweet while savory, baked with milk and eggs, and mashed bread to hold it all together. The meat is tender and moist, and the dish is soft and custardy in texture overall.
Some places in South Africa cook it so it’s very very sweet – I don’t like it overly sweet and sticky, so I use only a little bit of apricot preserve. If you don’t have apricot preserve, you could substitute some other sweetish preserve – I’ve made it sometimes with ginger preserve, and even sweet mild mango chutney. The preparation is quite easy, and it smells wonderful while it bakes. It’s delicious served hot. Eat it with rice, with a side of chutney, mango pickles, and plain yogurt. It holds well for days so we love it as leftovers too, even eating it cold straight from the fridge.
Bobotie – Savory ground meat custard from South Africa
- 1.5 pounds ground beef
- 1.5 cups whole milk
- 3 large eggs
- 2 slices white bread, crust removed
- 2 cups onions, chopped
- 1.5 teaspoon chopped garlic
- 2 cloves, whole
- 1.5 tablespoon oil
- 1.5 tablespoon mild curry powder
- 1 teaspoon turmeric powder
- 1 tablespoon sugar
- 1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
- 1 teaspoon salt, or to taste
- 1.5 tablespoon fresh lemon juice
- 3 bay leaves
- 2.5 tablespoons apricot preserve
Optional: serve with rice, spicy mango pickle, apricot preserve or chutney, and plain yogurt
- Preheat oven to 350F.
- Remove crusts from the 2 slices of white bread and soak in half cup of milk. Reserve the remaining 1 cup milk.
- Finely chop the onions and garlic.
- Heat the oil over medium heat in a heavy bottomed pot. Fry the onions and garlic until onion is translucent, stirring from time to time; about 5 minutes. (Note that you don’t need much oil, even though this might not seem enough; the beef has fat.)
- Add cloves, stir fry for about a minute.
- Add ground beef to the pot, mix thoroughly, breaking up the meat so it doesn’t stick or get clumpy. Cook, stirring, till the meat is evenly browned and no pink remains, about 5 minutes.
- Add curry powder, turmeric, sugar, black pepper, salt. Stir in thoroughly and cook for about 5 minutes.
- Turn off heat (the meat should have no extra liquid left at this point, but shouldn’t be dry or crumbly) . Stir in fresh lemon juice. Taste, and if you think necessary, you can add more seasoning at this point and cook for a few more minutes. For example, if the curry powder ism’t fresh you might need a little bit more for flavor. I always do a taste check.
- Transfer the meat mixture to a wide flat baking dish. Dish should be big enough so that the meat covers at least 1/2 inch to 1 inch of the entire bottom. (I use an 8×11.5×2 inch, 2 quart glass casserole).
- Add apricot preserve. Taste, and add a little more if you want a sweeter dish. I don’t like it too sweet.
- Pour out milk from soaking bread into the reserved milk. Mash drained bread, and add the mashed bread to the meat mixture. Mix throughly to make sure apricot and bread is blended in with the meat.
- Place 3 bayleaves on top of the meat, press down so it stays.
- Bake uncovered in the oven for 20 minutes. Remove from oven, but keep the oven on.
- Beat eggs with the reserved milk and a pinch of salt. Carefully pour the milk and eggs over the meat mix so it forms a layer. Bake for about 35 minutes until custard is set.
- Cut into slices and serve with pickle, chutney, yogurt and rice. You can also eat without these sides of course.
Note: I like a soft custard, and with 35 minutes of baking I get the soft tender texture. If you want a more set, denser custard, you can bake it for another 5 to 10 minutes. The longer you bake the dryer the texture; if you’re planning to bake for the longer period, grease the baking dish with butter, otherwise the meat will stick to the sides and can get burnt.