A RAPID-FIRE CATCH-UP with Luxury Safaris’ Caren Rossouw, one of the gurus behind designing your dream holiday. From her favourite luxury hotels to must-try South African foods (koeksisters for the win!), she weighs in on what makes a visit to Southern Africa a bucket list priority.
Where are you from? Where do you live?
I was born in Windhoek, Namibia, but consider myself a Capetonian since my Mom brought my brother and I to Cape Town at the tender age of seven. In a life-changing moment in the snow covered garden of the Kremlin (yes, the one in Moscow, Russia), my boyfriend popped THE question and a year later I moved to Russia to join him. He is also a South African and no; he doesn’t speak Russian! Fast-forward two years and we’re still here, currently residing in a little town called Dubna and still loving it despite not being able to speak the language.
Despite living here, my passion for tourism in South Africa has never been diminished and thus I am working remotely as a travel agent and visiting SA as often as I can!
How long have you been with Luxury Safaris/PG Tops?
I started working for PG Tops in 2013, moved to Russia in 2015 and returned to Luxury Safaris as remote travel agent in February, 2018.
What’s your career background?
I hold an Advanced Diploma in Hospitality Management as well as a Bachelor’s Degree in Hospitality Management from CPUT. My working background is as diverse as my interests. I have worked in 5-star hotels, including the famous Table Bay Hotel in the V&A Waterfront, during which I realized that studying and working simultaneously requires a less demanding job. I traded my hospitality job for that of Personal Assistant in a medical import-export company and was then head-hunted by PG Tops to assist in starting up Luxury Safaris.
Moving to Russia threw a spanner into the works and thus I started teaching English in order to get a working permit for Russia. But the memories of spying the majestic lion in the African bushveld, savouring the salty wafts of ocean air while watching the frolicking whales in Hermanus and witnessing the unparalleled sunrise over the plains of the Little Karoo while sipping at a steaming mug of coffee while out on a game drive will always draw me back to the tourism industry of South Africa. There is a little bit of magic at work in each of those moments that cannot be retold in its full glory, and no matter how many photos you take, you can’t truly capture its essence.
What in your opinion are some of the most underrated destinations/experiences in Southern Africa?
Before answering this question I have to admit that I enjoy the simple pleasures in life and that I often overlook the extravagant, once-in-a-lifetime experiences in favour of the simpler ones, like a walk on the beach instead of surfing, or a lazy day spent at the side of a pool instead of spa treatments.
On that note, the most underrated experience that SA has to offer, in my opinion, would be the exceptional food, the gorgeous restaurants and their breath-taking views! For those who don’t travel often it might come as a surprise, or rather just something that one never actively thinks of, to realise that some of the world’s best culinary experiences are to be had in our own backyard. These are further emphasized by uniquely South African products and flavours, such as Mrs Balls Chutney, Red Grapetizer, Amarula, Biltong and Droewors, Worcester sauce, Koeksisters, and many, many more. To me there is nothing better than enjoying local cuisine in the form of a picnic basket under the cool trees at one of the local wine farms.
Some restaurants can be described as both an experience and a destination in one when considering wonderful fine dining restaurants like La Colombe (Constantia), The Pot Luck Club (CPT Central), Azure Restaurant (Twelve Apostles), Haute Cabriere (Franschhoek) to name but a few of the famous ones, never mind the countless little gems in the forms of cafes, bars and market stalls where you can treat your tastebuds to something absolutely delightful without paying an arm and a leg for it. A few of the local favourites certainly also warrant a mention, such as Col’Cacchio, The Hussar Grill, Ocean Basket and Mugg & Bean.
When planning a holiday, many people forget about restaurant bookings and we always try to assist in getting reservations at unforgettable places, especially for special occasions such as birthdays, engagements, anniversaries and so forth. Travelling is hungry work, so why neglect one of our most basic needs? Very often memories are tied to specific smells and tastes, so make sure your holiday is packed with some of your favourites!
When you travel, what do you personally look for? Relaxation and luxury? Adrenaline and adventure?
I like a balanced trip – some time to relax in a luxurious hotel or lodge juxtaposed with adventure activities that will create unforgettable memories to take home with me.
What are your three favourite places in Southern Africa?
Well, I try to visit SA at least once per year and it would not feel like home if I didn’t take a trip to Camps Bay to visit the beach and enjoy a sundowner at one of the many beachfront cafes. The second trip has to be the V&A Waterfront for some shopping at the craft shed and something tasty from one of the many restaurants, or even the food barn. And the third entails a drive to the Stellenbosch winelands area to visit one or two of my favourite wine farms and then head to the craft market at Blaauwklippen or Root 44.
What are your top three destinations globally?
The first would have to be a private safari lodge in the Kruger area, it’s an experience that you cannot really describe or relate to until you’ve been there and seen the animals for yourself.
The second is Saint Petersburg (Russia’s cultural centre) with its incredible museums, galleries and natural beauty. Places like Peterhof Palace, Saint Catherine’s Cathedral and the Hermitage Museum is incomparable to any other in the world.
Third on my list is one that I haven’t had the pleasure of traveling to, but it is top on my bucket list – South Island of New Zealand. Starting in Queenstown, I would love to experience the untouched natural beauty (think Lord of the Rings) while choosing from an endless array of hiking trails, river boarding, boating, and not to mention having their own wine region!
What are some of the biggest tourism misconceptions about South Africa?
Crime – expecting to dodge bullets as soon as you step out of the airport. And that we ride elephants to school/work or have lions as pets in our back yards. Somehow, despite our modern technology and instant access to information, people still think of Africa as either one big, rural, tribal village (think Tarzan or The Jungle Book) or a criminal hotspot where gangs rule the streets and criminals can get away with just about anything.
Here at Luxury Safaris we have a simple motto that goes a long way to banishing these views, and it simply reads: “Spread the good news.” We aim to tell people about all the good things that SA has to offer, the good things we can do to improve the lives of the people who we share this country with through the hosting and participation in community upliftment projects, and most importantly, to help them realise that every country has its issues, but like every country, we’re a work in progress and aiming for a better tomorrow. Yes, we have a higher-than-usual crime rate, and yes, poverty is something we are all confronted with on the streets of our cities, but that doesn’t detract from what we can offer tourists visiting South Africa.
Our country is beautiful, vibrant, multicultural and really has some unique experiences to offer. Furthermore, tourism is one of the biggest industries and goes a long way to support our economy and to invest in our communities.
Which of the Luxury Safaris lodges/hotels are your favourites?
It is exceptionally difficult to pick a favourite lodge or hotel, since the variety in style, atmosphere and location is so great that there literally is something for every mood. So I’ll try my best to stick to only a few in Southern Africa.
Great safari experiences close to Cape Town are quite hard to find as there are some really terrible places out there. My favourites include Aquila Game Reserve for day trip safaris, but for overnight safaris I would opt for any of the lodges at Sanbona Wildlife Reserve (Little Karoo) or Botlierskop Private Game Reserve (Garden Route), but when moving towards Port Elizabeth, I especially love the atmosphere at Eagles Crag Lodge and Bayethe Tented Lodge at the Shamwari Game Reserve.
Moving further North to Limpopo and Mpumalanga, the safari lodges that stand out in my mind in the massive Sabi Sands Game Reserve, includes the Ivory, Tinga and Narina Lodges (Lion Sands), Londolozi Tree Camp, Mala Mala Rattrays, Sabi Sabi Earth Lodge, and last but not least, the Singita Ebony Lodge. The variety of private lodges in the Kruger area is so vast that it comes down to personal preference in style and atmosphere, availability, travel time and so forth.
As far as hotels are concerned in the Cape Town area, a few favourites include the Pod Hotel (Camps bay), The One&Only Cape Town, La Splendida (Mouille Point) and the hottest addition to the list, The Silo Hotel (Cape Town) which is on the Conde Nast Traveller’s 2017 Hot List with its trendy focus on art and culture reflected in each of the 28 individually decorated rooms.
What are the must-see/must-do experiences you recommend to any visitor?
Before making any recommendations I usually try to find out a little more about the visitor’s interests. Seeing that there are thousands of attractions in the Western Cape alone, it can be extremely difficult to pick only a handful of experiences for someone else.
For the adventure lovers there are activities like hiking up Table Mountain and abseiling back down, tandem paragliding, horse riding, shark cage diving, kloofing, sky diving, helicopter rides, stand-up paddle boarding in the city canals, surfing, sandboarding, cycling, and many, many more. For the nature and animal lovers we include trips to the Two Oceans Aquarium, Kirstenbosch Botanical Gardens, Cheetah Sanctuary, Eagle Sanctuary, Crocodile Farm, Butterfly World, Strawberry Farm, Penguins at Boulders Beach, safari day trips, whale watching and marine safaris, boat trips to Dyer Island to see the Cape Fur seals and so forth.
Then of course visitors are usually interested in our history and culture, and for that we include tours into the local township areas, Apartheid-, District 6– and South African National Museum visits, a boat trip to Robben Island, a cooking class in Cape Malay Cuisine, visits to local arts and crafts markets, etc.
Personally, I think that if you have limited time to see Cape Town, then a great way to touch on everything is to take 3 days, one dedicated to exploring the city sights, history and culture, the second for a Cape Point tour which allows you to also see the pristine beaches of the Camps Bay area on the way back, and lastly to venture out into the winelands for a wine tasting or two – another big part of the Cape Town experience.
When you are not at work, what do you do for fun?
The culture and climate here in Dubna lends itself to many different outdoor activities, it really just depends on the season. In summer I love to take a swim in the Volga River, which is quite literally across the road from where I live. Autumn is the season of mushroom picking. It’s a family tradition here, after a day in the forest every person comes home with a bag or three filled with different types of mushrooms, some are to be laid in, others dried, others frozen or salted. Winter is my favourite time of the year with ice skating, skiing and snowboarding. But nothing beats the long walks in spring when the ice starts melting, the sun is just that little bit warmer every day and you can see the world coming alive around you.
Although most people would never say it, I do love being outdoors and really miss hiking up Lions Head and Table Mountain!
What’s your favourite view and your sundowner of choice?
Any view with water – be it a lake, the beach or the river, I love a view with a water element to it. If that isn’t possible, my second choice is that of mountains. On a hot summer’s eve, there is nothing better than a cold glass of gin and dry lemon to cool you down, quench your thirst and, of course, keep the mozzies away! But on the off chance that I’m in the mood for something sweet, Amarula on ice is also perfect to end the day with.