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Out of Africa

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Whether it is a bustling market, a beach, a spa-day or scuba diving, nothing is too far from Durban city limits.

Home and its sights and smells are never far away in Durban, the busiest port of Africa, a city with the highest concentration of Indian origin people anywhere in the world. There is the obvious Gandhi connection - this, after all, was the Mahatma's town before he sailed Indiawards determined to fight the imperialists with his own brand of satyagraha. But beyond the obvious reverence for the man and his method in modern-day South Africa, there are cultural echoes that you can scarcely ignore. 

At the Victoria Street Market, the air is laden with familiar smells of spices: cinnamon, chilli, coriander, cumin lie around in mounds, ready to be picked up by eager shoppers and mixed into the legendary Durban curries, whose popularity cut across racial lines in this part of the world. And then there is the inescapable fact that you will soon notice: All the shopkeepers selling everything from Zulu pottery and African memorabilia to clothes, bags and handwoven jewellery are all, well, Indian.

"Blacks make everything, Indians sell it and the Whites buy it, " says my shopping companion in hushed tones, trying to simplify the basics of African economy even now. At the market, it seems perfectly true. But despite surface similarities, do not be fooled. This is a uniquely African slice of culture. Faces may look Asian - or Dutch, French, British, Zulu - but centuries of common, intertwined lives have made them all part of a uniquely South African fabric: at once familiar and exotic to the traveler who comes to these shores.

Durban is hardly your usual touristy destination in South Africa though. Most people from India would do the mandatory Jo'burgh-Cape Town stopovers between their safari experiences. For centuries, this has been a hardy town for trade and commerce. But while that may still be true, the town is finally acquiring its own leisurely sophistication.

Its warm, tropical climate and beaches mean that it can be a pretty sought out destination today. But if you want to escape the bustling main city and its summerseeking crowd, there is enough peace and privacy on the outskirts.

The sea is never far away from Zimbali - the "Valley of Flowers" in Zulu - a charming, lush green gated community where I am staying. Beachfront homes, a lovely Fairmont resort and another lodge, restaurants, and even a sprawling golf course (Tom Weiskopf, former British and South African Open Golf Champion, has designed the course with some stunning natural features) form part of the estate, 50 hectares of which is reserved as a conservation area, rich with local flora and fauna. Birds and butterflies, hundreds of African shrubs and herbs, lakes, springs and indeed bits of the famed African wildlife - wild pig, buck, mongoose, sprightly vervet monkeys - stray into your path as you step out for a quick coffee. Then, there are dolphins to be spotted in the quiet of the deep blue if you stay long enough on the beach. And from the privacy of my room that faces the Indian Ocean, I can watch the perfect sunset - weather gods permitting. But the gods have something else on their minds, as I sit down to a traditional high tea in the hotel lobby. Given the colonial connection of this KwaZulu-Natal province, it's an especially apt thing to do. A wide variety of special blends placed in a beautifully carved teak box are placed in front of me. And while I make my selection, the goodies - delicate cakes, Enid Blytonish sandwiches, flaky pastry, quiches, hot scones to be had with pats of butter (no, don't count the calories yet), all the frills are here.

The idea is to contemplate the perfect blue of the ocean and life as it goes on. The sea outside is furious though - raging, frothing, swollen with unseasonal rains. And as the clouds darken the horizon, we see nature at its uncontrolled best. Tomorrow is another day. The good thing about Durban is that a safari experience is never far away. Phinda private game reserve is just a couple of hours drive from Zimbali and luckily by the time we reach it, the weather gods are smiling again. With only a handful of lodges sharing an area of 23, 000 hectares and experienced rangers, Phinda offers you a chance to see not just the Big Five but the less easily spotted animals as well such as the cheetah or the black rhino. The experience is customised and we, for one, go on a private safari with our own exclusive ranger.

Zuka, the lodge where we stay, is small and luxurious. You can have your bespoke meals looking out at the wild, carefully walk back to your room lest a big cat stray into your path, and listen to a Zulu choir formed by employees who will entertain you in the night. Then, there's the actual safari.

We encounter four four lion cubs at very close quarters but also the leopard, not so easily sighted. But Phinda has more: should you be so inclined, there's scuba diving, fishing and turtle watching that can all keep you gainfully employed. That is if you are not simply resting your soul in the wild, quiet and still, in the manner of all those fabulous billionaires who also own their homes here.

Back at Fairmont Zimbali, we go for a spa treatment - the Zulu way - with an intonga or stick used to crack maize traditionally! It's a remedy for all aches and pains. And it works well. On that last evening, as the sea darkens once again, I settle down with a glass of Amarula - the South African answer to Bailey's and relive my Out of Africa moments.

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