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Swap the Winelands for safari dining - are you adventurous enough to eat crocodile?

Travel and food writer, Jared Ruttenberg has seen significant growth in the quality and offering of food in the South African hospitality industry.

by: Jared Ruttenberg | 04 Sep 2017

The major focus of being on safari, is the actual safari right? Hours spent on the back of a game drive vehicle excitedly searching for those elusive animals, while receiving interesting anecdotes and stories from your knowledgeable ranger. You’d be right in thinking that. I’ve come to realise, however, that there’s another element of any safari experience that is almost as important as the game drive: the dining.

One of the privileges of my role as a travel writer is that I’m able to experience a variety of safari options, particularly in the Western Cape. Why is dining such an integral part of your safari experience? Firstly, for those who haven’t been to a private game reserve, there’s a general rhythm of life on the farms: breakfast, morning safari with coffee and rusks, lunch, afternoon safari, supper. Let’s get a little more precise: roughly 4-5 hours a day are spent on safari, and then 4-5 hours in various forms of eating, so you see why half of your experience of a game reserve depends on how much you’ve enjoyed its gastronomy.

In broad strokes, I’ve seen major growth in the overall level of creativity, quality, and offerings of dining in the South African hospitality industry in the last decade, particularly on the safari scene, and here are some of my recent highlights.

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1. Tasting crocodile or zebra at Gondwana Game Reserve
You may be accustomed to enjoying seeing the fauna while on safari, but how would you feel about tasting them back in the safety of the lodge! Head chef of Gondwana Game Reserve told me that: “There is a growing culture by our guests to be more adventurous when it comes to their food tastes. We like to add some unfamiliar items to the menu as well as some familiar classics to help promote a healthier and more unique option to our offering.”

On our visit, honey and mustard glazed crocodile-tail fillet, with roasted harissa rainbow carrots, crisp polenta squares and mustard sabayon were an option. Whilst I wasn’t brave enough to taste it, my travelling companion seemed to have enjoyed it, describing it as more than the usual ‘tastes like chicken’ response. I asked what else can you expect to find on the menu...“We work very closely with our suppliers to ensure a steady supply all year round to promote any alternative meats for our guests to explore. Some of the options include warthog, eland, zebra, snake.”

2. Hands on cooking experience at Grootbos Nature Reserve
Ben Conradie is the very humble, but also the very talented man behind the food at the Groot Nature Reserve, one of National Geographic’s Unique Lodges of the World. Typical of most private reserves, lunch and supper is a choice from various incredible options. As part of the ‘Secret Season’ at Grootbos, we were able to get hands-on with two foodie experiences.

Firstly, we had the privilege of being invited into the kitchen, and were taught how to prepare some of the elements of the evening’s menu! For an epicure like myself, this was a dream come true: I’m dying to try to recreate the goat's cheese fondue that I made on the evening, and I appreciated it, even more, when it accompanied the grilled quail on my plate later that evening. Conradie was in his element, telling me, “Chefs are normally restricted to being in the kitchen and this allows for a great interactive experience.”

Secondly, we were invited to join him for some foraging on the coast for the evening’s meal. “The inspiration for coastal foraging originated from the proximity of the Grootbos Private Nature reserve to this unique coast that benefits from both the Benguela and Agulhas currents. Foraging has become a community of shared knowledge and tapping into this traditional knowledge has been a great journey" says Conradie. Another first for me! The cherry on the top was undoubtedly breakfast in bed, with totally incomparable views.

3. A South African Feast at Aquila Game Reserve
Lastly, for visitors to South Africa, particularly from overseas, Aquila Game Reserve provides a Big 5 option for those who don’t have time to travel further inland. They’ve known for their expansive lunch buffets: a spread of South African favourites including potjies, potato bakes, roasts, and a variety of local desserts. The self-serve buffet option means you’re able to sample as many different options as you like, and once you’ve found your favourite – go back for more. The pool has a built-in bar, so if it’s a hot day, enjoy your cocktail or glass of champers in the pool with views over the reserve.

Whilst prices may be high for many of these reserves, remember that most are inclusive of all meals, and as I’ve discovered, the quality of dining on safari has given me something to write home about.

Follow Jared Ruttenberg on Instagram and visit his website for more SA food and travel adventures!

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