In September 2016 we started representing Walthers DBS for Southern Africa, now in their 35th year of operation and firmly established as one of the leading DMCs in the country. Additionally, they operate in East, West and Central Africa under the Walthers DBS Africa partnership.
I was thrilled to have the opportunity to attend this business development event, it was an invaluable opportunity to update my destination knowledge. I have been to South Africa twice before travelling extensively in the country, however my last visit was 15 years ago and so much has changed in that time. I travelled out with our group of esteemed clients who attended Meetings Africa as Hosted Buyers of Walthers DBS. Our wonderful Walthers hosts for the trip were Daryl Keywood, Managing Director, Heidi Keywood, Marketing Director and Darshana Bhoola, Business Development Manager.
Meetings Africa was held at the Sandton Convention Centre in Johannesburg, it’s a pan-African business events trade show that has been in existence for 12 years. It was born in response to the global meeting industry’s growing recognition of Africa as a sought after premier business events destination. It’s appreciably smaller than IMEX or IBTM, however it’s a nice intimate show and if you are a UK meeting planner with potential business for any part of Africa the event is well worth attending for a chance to meet with the key suppliers including hotels, convention centres, venues and service providers. I particularly enjoyed learning more about two premier rail companies who operate throughout Southern Africa offering exciting options for groups, Rovos Rail and The Blue Train.
The Sandton Convention Centre itself is an excellent venue with two fabulous hotels linked by skywalks namely The Michelangelo Hotel (Legacy Hotels) and Sandton Sun Hotel (Tsogo Sun Hotels) where we stayed. Sandton is the new financial centre of Johannesburg.
Whilst in Johannesburg we took a bicycle tour of Soweto which was a fascinating and grounding experience. Soweto emerged just after 1900 as a racially segregated area re-locating an emerging black labour force for white companies, especially the gold-mining industries. Johannesburg or ‘Egoli’ – ‘The City of Gold’, attracted South African’s from all corners of the country, the vast majority of Black African people settled in Soweto. Besides accommodating the working class, Soweto was also home to anti-Apartheid political activists including Nelson Mandela. We had an excellent guide who took us around the different neighbourhoods. The local kids loved ‘high fiving’ us on their way home from school, it was lovely to see them go about their everyday life, full of smiles, happiness and positivity. An interesting fact we learnt is that over 90% of homes in Soweto now have mobile phones!
Boarding our SA Airlink 37 seater Embraer plane at Johannesburg airport we flew 50 minutes to Skukuza Airport in the Kruger National Park. From here it was an hour’s transfer to our home for the next 2 nights, Sabi Sabi Earth Lodge. Sabi Sabi is situated in the Sabi Sand Game Reserve which flanks the south-western section of the Kruger National Park. One of the very best safari locations in Southern Africa you can expect an abundance of wildlife with an excellent chance of seeing the Big 5 amongst beautiful scenery.
Sabi Sabi Earth lodge is a sanctuary sculpted into a slope of earth, almost invisible in the landscape. This is the most futuristic of the group’s lodges. We took over the lodge privately for our group taking 12 of their 13 suites. The lodge has been described as the most environmentally sensitive lodge in Africa and is one of National Geographic’s 12 unique lodges of the world!
During our stay we visited the other lodges in the Sabi Sabi collection including Selati Camp, imagine Africa of the great safari era! This luxury lodge with 7 suites has been decorated in a 1920’s style and colonial charm.
We also visited Bush Lodge and Little Bush Camp, both luxurious and contemporary with a warm and vibrant modern design. Bush Lodge, established for over 35 years is located deep in the bushveld, overlooking a water hole and an open plain, its views are stunning! It has 25 suites and has earned a reputation for being a ‘luxury home in the bush’. Little Bush Camp is the newest addition to the Sabi Sabi collection with just 6 suites, nestled on the banks of the Msuthlu River offering unrivalled intimacy and seclusion.
We did two morning and two evening game drives, each 3 hours in duration. We were up at 05:30am each morning, time for a quick breakfast snack then on board the vehicles at 06:00am. The evening drives start at 16:30 and include the quintessential sun-downer stop of course! Our Rangers Joe and Tracker Petro were great characters and impressed us with their vast knowledge.
One of the great advantages of Sabi Sabi is the ability to take the 4×4 vehicles off road into the bush, meaning we were able to get right up close to the animals. We were spoilt with some fantastic game viewing and were lucky enough to see the Big Five (the most dangerous animals to hunt), Lion, Rhino, Buffalo, Elephant and Leopard. We were very fortunate on our last evening to see the ever-elusive leopard, Petro caught its eyes in his spotlight on our way back to the lodge, we tracked him down and parked alongside where he lay, a fine specimen he was too! We got close to a large pride of lions on three occasions, saw several elephants and other game spotted included hippos, impala, kudu, waterbuck, mongoose, warthog, wildebeest, zebra, giraffe, baboons and plenty of birdlife including owls and eagles.
During our stay we visited Ezweni School which Walthers DBS has been sponsoring and supporting since 2007 when the school was founded. It was with huge thanks to their client KPMG from Holland who generously donated funds following a visit to the school for a CSR exercise. Their support enabled two of the school buildings to be built, they now have over 500 pupils at the school. We were warmly greeted by all the children who laughed and joked with us and encouraged us to take ‘selfies’ with them! The school is a real success story and continues to develop successfully although still with a limited water supply and very basic facilities. We were all moved by the experience, it was wonderful to see the children thriving and loving to learn.
We were treated to a wonderful surprise Boma dinner under the stars on our final evening with a superb Braai (BBQ) of course. The service we experienced throughout our stay and quality of food was second to none, we were utterly spoilt by the delightful and caring staff who all ensured we had the most amazing stay. We were sad to leave and all yearn to return to Sabi Sabi again, a truly amazing safari experience.
We then flew from Skukuza direct to Cape Town, a journey time of 2h 20mins. The relatively recent introduction of the daily service between Cape Town and Skukuza has made it so much easier to combine the city with Safari. Before you had to route via Johannesburg which added significant time. The route is served by the 37 seater SA Airlink aircraft.
On arrival we were greeted by our guide ‘Kunnie’ who has been a member of the Walthers’ team in Cape Town for over 20 years. A true Capetonian born and bred, Kunnie is full of energy and was great company. Our first port of call in Cape Town was the award-winning Twelve Apostles Hotel and Spa, where we had a show round and magnificent High Tea. The hotel is a member of the Red Carnation collection and is situated on Cape Town’s scenic route in Camps Bay, poised above the Atlantic Ocean and flanked by the Table Mountain National Park and the Twelve Apostles mountain range. This boutique hotel has 70 bedrooms with some unique features including a private cinema, the well-renowned Azure Restaurant and The Leopard Bar which offer spectacular sea views.
Next up was a trip to the top of the legendary Table Mountain, we were treated to breath-taking 360 degree views over Cape Town and the Cape Peninsula. It’s always sensible to schedule the Table Mountain experience on the first day of a programme so that if the weather isn’t good you have another chance on subsequent days to include the trip. The cable car takes 60 pax and it’s a very efficient service, you simply can’t visit Cape Town without going up the Mountain!
On our return to terra firma Walthers had organised a surprise Harley Davidson transfer to our hotel which was met with squeals of delight by the group! We had a thrilling ride along the coast with everyone whooping and raising arms as the bikes accelerated, it was a fantastic and memorable experience which everyone loved. Such a rock ‘n’ roll way to arrive at a hotel!
We stayed at the 4 star Southern Sun The Cullinan Hotel (Tsogo Sun Hotels) on our first night in Cape Town, a great location just a short walk from the V&A Waterfront, the Convention Centre and Cape Town CBD. This hotel is ideal for pharma groups, it has 394 rooms and 6 flexible venue and event spaces available for up to 155 pax.
On our second night we stayed at the Westin Cape Town, located in the same area as The Cullinan, but situated directly across from the Cape Town Convention Centre, so within a short walk of the V&A Waterfront. The hotel is modern in style and rooms offer clear views of Table Mountain, Lion’s Head and the entirety of Table Bay. The property offers some of the largest conference and banqueting facilities in the city. There is also an impressive spa with an infinity pool that overlooks the harbour and ocean.
As if the Harleys weren’t enough of a highlight, the Walthers team had another surprise in store for us, a helicopter flight! The views of Table Mountain and the city were simply stunning, another indelible memory for us to take away.
We then took the scenic coastal drive along the Cape Peninsula to Cape Point, which is in the Cape of Good Hope Nature Reserve within Table Mountain National Park, a World Heritage Site. After a delicious al fresco lunch at the Black Marlin Restaurant we headed to Boulders Beach in Simon’s Town, home to a breeding colony of over 2000 endangered African Penguins. We loved watching these comical little tuxedoed birds go about their daily business, another attraction not to be missed.
On our final evening we had an African themed dinner at GOLD Restaurant. The evening started with a fun African drumming session, we then settled down to a 14 course menu whilst being entertained by dancers and musicians. GOLD is the perfect venue for an informal ‘welcome to Africa’ dinner, the food was delicious and the service excellent.
You can’t visit Cape Town without taking a trip to the winelands. On our last day we visited Delaire Graff Winelands estate which is set in the most beautiful location in Stellenbosch. The views are out of this world. Stellenbosch and its winelands boast the largest concentration and variety of wine farms and wine tasting venues in the country and together form the wine making, research and viticulturally hub of South Africa. It was the perfect way to conclude our trip.
For a long-haul destination, South Africa ticks every box for me. Here are the reasons why:
· Long hot summers and mild winters make the Southern African region an ‘all purpose, all season’ destination waiting to receive you 24 hours a day, 365 days a year.
· Overnight flights – Flight time from London Heathrow to Cape Town is 11h 30min and to Johannesburg approximately 11 hours. As the flights are overnight, arriving at 7:30am / 08:00am so you can hit the ground running with groups.
· No jet lag to contend with (South Africa is just 1 or 2 hours ahead of GMT depending on time of year
· Increased domestic flights – it’s now easier than ever before to connect Cape Town or Johannesburg with Safari. You can also fly into Johannesburg and easily connect to Livingstone for a programme based around Victoria Falls coupled with nearby Chobe National Park, Botswana.
· Value for money – the exchange rate is currently approximately ZAR16.00 to GBP1.00, you’ll be amazed just how far your budget will go on the ground.
· Safari – the word evokes images of elephants and lions, sunsets and the sounds of Africa. Safari is all this and so much more. Lodges range from traditional “Out of Africa” style to avant-garde, rustic, or even tented and cater to everyone’s tastes and budgets.
· Cape Town – overshadowed by the iconic Table Mountain, Cape Town is a city that literally has it all. Mountains, scenery, beaches, whale watching, shopping and some of the best food and wine you’ll find anywhere and all at great value. The New York Times has voted Cape Town the number one place in the World to visit.
· Winelands – magnificent land abundantly yields the lion’s share of the world’s precious stones, sun ripened fruits and of course, superb wines from the finest grapes ever plucked from the vine.
Walthers DBS is a second-generation family-owned business, where management is hands-on every step of the way from conception stage to execution. They won’t give you hard sell – when you talk, they listen! Being flexible and resourceful, they are able to meet their client’s needs at every turn. Their consistent delivery of exceptional and seamless events speaks for itself and their aim is to always exceed expectations. The large proportion of repeat business is testament to the fact that clients are seen as partners and invariably end up as friends. For more information please visit their website www.walthers.co.za.
Report by Simon Burleigh