An African safari results in awesome wildlife and tasty cocktail traditions.
By Kim Campbell Thornton
It’s sundowner time. The Land Rover comes to a stop in an open area—the better to see any approaching predators who might want to join us for a refreshing beverage—and Ruan turns the hood into a makeshift bar, bringing out shakers, gin, tonic water, plus wine and beer. The sundowner stop might not be the best part of the day (that would be tracking and viewing a pair of female leopards), but it’s one of the most welcome.
After a late-afternoon drive in an open vehicle through Okonjima Nature Reserve, set in the Omboroko mountains overlooking the seemingly endless Waterberg Plateau, we’re ready to shake off the dust and slake our thirst with something a little more stimulating than water. A gin-tonic, as the Brits call it, is just the ticket.
Gin: Essential Sundowner Component
We’re on safari in Namibia, a large stretch of sand that runs 975 miles along Africa’s Atlantic coast and approximately 1,000 miles at its widest point. It’s bordered by Angola and Zambia to the north, Botswana on the east, and South Africa on the southeast. Here, just as in the rest of Africa, a sundowner is an integral part of any safari.
The tradition of having a beer or cocktail at day’s end is probably universal, but it’s thought to have become known as a “sundowner” in late 19th century colonial Africa. It’s also associated with hard-drinking writer Ernest Hemingway, who traveled to Africa to hunt big game in 1933 and 1954. His first safari inspired his nonfiction book The Green Hills of Africa (described as a book about, among other things, the pleasures of drinking) and his short stories The Snows of Kilimanjaro (“While it grew dark, they drank. . . ”) and The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber, which begins over lunchtime gin cocktails.
Cocktails being prepared for thirsty safari-goers during a sundowner at Onguma. Photo by Jerry Thornton
The traditional sundowner cocktail is a gin and tonic—Gordon’s gin, to be exact. At all the camps and lodges my husband Jerry and I visited, we didn’t see any other brand. It was Hemingway’s choice, along with Schweppes Indian tonic water. In The Hemingway Cookbook, author Craig Boreth says Hemingway once wrote that Gordon’s gin could “fortify, mollify and cauterize practically all internal and external injuries.” The just-cold-enough drink (ice is doled out sparingly in the desert country of Namibia) goes down smooth with just a bit of a juniper jolt.
Gin and Tonic
(adapted from The Hemingway Cookbook)
2 ounces Gordon’s gin
Schweppes Indian tonic water
(I prefer Fever Tree, but stick with Schweppes if you want to be authentic)
Lemon or lime wedge
Fill a tall glass with ice and add gin. Top off with tonic water. Add lemon or lime and stir.
French Toast (from Amarula.com)
1½ ounces Amarula Cream
½ ounce rum
(try Appleton V/X)
½ ounce whole milk
Pour all ingredients over cracked ice in a cocktail shaker. Shake and pour into a glass. Lightly dust with cinnamon and swirl with a cinnamon stick or straw.
Amarula Gold (from Amarula.com)
I didn’t discover the existence of Amarula Gold until we were in the airport leaving the country, but the website suggests mixing this amber-colored spirit with sparkling apple juice; passion fruit juice with a garnish of a pineapple slice and a cherry; ginger ale with a slice of lemon or lime; soda water and mint; or just drinking it on the rocks. —KCT
The gin and tonic is a classic cocktail for more than its crisp, refreshing flavor. Its roots are as a medicinal quaff in the 18th century, when Jesuit missionaries to Peru and Bolivia learned from the Quechua people about the fever-reducing, antimalarial and pain-killing properties of quinine, a natural alkaloid produced from the bark of the cinchona tree. Mixed with gin or other liquor to mask its bitter taste, the quinine concoction was thought to keep malaria at bay. Tonic water is the modern-day mixer, but don’t count on its levels of quinine to stand in for your antimalarial meds if you’re ever on safari.
Ruan preparing gin and tonics. Photo by Jerry Thornton.
Some people believe mosquitoes dislike the smell and taste of gin in the blood, according to Marli Greeff, manager of Onguma Tented Camp and Treetops Camp. “That is why it is so very popular in our part of the world. And it’s just a universal drink that everybody loves.”
The sun drops quickly in Africa and suddenly there’s a chill in the air. The bar is repacked, and we head back to camp, where the drinking continues. Standing around a fire pit overlooking a natural waterhole with a cocktail in hand is almost as elemental as watching a sunset with one. Another gin and tonic? Why, yes, yes I will.
Other people turn to local beer (Windhoek stands out for being brewed according to German purity laws that date to 1516) or one of the South African wines that are served exclusively at the camps and lodges where we stay. One man tries to order a martini at the remote Damaraland Camp. The gin is there, of course, but he’s thwarted by a lack of vermouth. Just draw a picture of a bottle of vermouth and wave it over the glass, we suggest.
Sundowner bar. Photo by Jerry Thornton
“Do you have a shaker?” he asks the bartender. “I’ll just make it myself.”
To avoid such a situation, Paul and Maria de Graaf of the Netherlands, who were among our party on a two-day hike along the Tok Tokkie Trail in the Namib Rand desert, always carry a bottle of Talisker single-malt Scotch “for emergencies.” They didn’t need to break into it during that part of the trip because of the ample quantities of beer and wine available—not to mention the ubiquitous gin and tonic.
Sundowners at Tok Tokkei Trail. Photo by Jerry Thornton
What people drink on safari can often be predicted by their nationality, Greeff says. It’s not just a cliché that Russians love vodka.
“If you know you are receiving Russian guests for a day or two, you must always be sure to have a lot of it in stock,” she says. “The Germans love their beer. British tend to lean more to gin and tonics. Americans love cocktails. South Africans and Namibians have brandy. But they all, no matter what nationality, tend to have wine with dinner.”
Photo by Jerry Thornton
Hemingway’s lunchtime gin cocktails notwithstanding, it’s not typical to drink during the day on safari unless you’re at a lodge or camp having lunch, in which case you will probably be served wine. One of those days happened to be Jerry’s birthday, and I mentioned this to the travel agent during our trip-planning stage, asking if Damaraland Camp could maybe arrange a cake.
What we get is a full-scale blowout, starting with a private outdoor breakfast on top of a hill and ending with a firelit braai (barbecue) under the stars. At lunch, Jerry is presented with a bottle of very fine South African sparkling wine, engraved with his name, the date, and best birthday wishes from the Ultimate Safaris team. It’s delicious, as good as any French champagne or California sparkling wine.
At dinner, we enjoy the opportunity to experience a range of South African wines. A glass of Diemersfontein Pinotage with its notes of chocolate and baked plum is a perfect accompaniment to my springbok filet, served medium-rare in a red wine sauce.
Pinotage is a South African specialty, the country’s second most widely planted red grape variety (cabernet sauvignon is the first). It’s a cross between cinsaut and pinot noir, a match made in 1925 to create a grape that would be more suited to South Africa’s climate than pinot noir. The resulting dark grapes produce a bold wine that’s more like a Shiraz (another South African favorite that I drink frequently on this trip) than a pinot noir.
For lunch, I typically choose a rosé, always a favorite on hot days. I especially enjoy a Groot Constantia Blanc de Noirs, a blend of 60-percent merlot and 40-percent cabernet sauvignon, that accompanies a seafood salad. It seems odd to be served so much seafood in the middle of the desert until I remember we’re not actually that far from the coast.
Time for Amarula
It’s time for an after-dinner drink and that, without a doubt, must be Amarula. As one person said, “If it’s good enough for the elephants, it’s good enough for me.”
This elephant is covered with green-tinted mud, the result of romping in an algae-covered mudpit. Whether any pink elephants were seen by safari members as a result of too many sundowner gin and tonics remains to be determined. Photo by Jerry Thornton
Often referred to as the elephant tree, the marula tree (Sclerocarya birrea) grows abundantly throughout southern Africa, mainly on the plains. It has a wide, spreading crown and grows to 60 feet or higher. It’s one of the first trees our guide pointed out to us as we drove toward our first destination. It wasn’t blooming yet while we were there, but between October and January it’s covered in pale yellow flowers.
The rounded marula fruit, about the size of a small plum, has a tough skin that turns light yellow when ripe. Inside, the white flesh tastes creamy with a burst of citrus. The kernel is edible as well. It has a nutty flavor when roasted but can also be eaten raw. Given how difficult they are to extract from the seed (think smashing it between two stones), a gift of marula kernels is a true expression of friendship or love.
Everyone loves the sweet and sour taste of the marula fruit, including elephants, rhinos, warthogs, kudu, baboons, vervet monkeys, zebras, porcupines and even millipedes. Livestock and game graze on the bark and leaves. People enjoy the fresh fruit as a thirst-quencher that’s high in vitamin C or make jelly and jam from it. And of course it’s used to make alcoholic beverages, from beer and a highly alcoholic homemade liquor that has been known to lay people out flat, to the more gentle cream liqueur Amarula and the newly introduced Amarula Gold.
A rhinoceros at a watering hole. Photo by Jerry Thornton
While both animals and people feast on the marula fruit, it’s especially associated with elephants. African legend has it that Hare was kind to Elephant during a drought and was rewarded with the gift of a tusk. When Hare planted the tusk in his garden, it grew into the marula tree. Elephant revisits the gift each season, when he gorges on hundreds of pounds of the ripe fruit.
Male Greater Kudu. Photo by Jerry Thornton
You may have heard that elephants get drunk from the fermented fruit. Not true. That myth was debunked nine years ago by a British study published in the March/April 2006 issue of the journal Physiological and Biochemical Zoology, which found that elephants eat the fruit right off the tree, even pushing the trees over to get at it, while ignoring the rotten, fermenting fruit on the ground.
To make the Spirit of Africa, as Amarula Cream is known, the hand-harvested fruit is fermented, creating a wine that is distilled twice, first to capture the fresh fruit flavor and second to further concentrate it. The resulting clear spirit is aged in oak for two years. The addition of cream gives it a rich and velvety consistency. The resulting liqueur, which has been in production for 25 years, has a fruity caramel flavor. It was awarded a silver medal in the liqueur category at the 2013 International Wine and Spirit Competition and a gold medal at the 2014 San Francisco World Spirits Competition.
Last spring, its maker, Distell, introduced Amarula Gold, a non-cream spirit that’s 30-percent alcohol by volume, compared to Amarula Cream’s 17 percent. The lack of cream allows the fruit flavor to step out, but it still retains the caramel notes found in the original, no doubt an artifact of the oak aging.
Lots of cocktails feature Amarula Cream, but at safari camps and lodges it’s typically served on its own over ice. I sip it slowly, savoring the silky caramel flavor—one of my favorites. Later that night, I dream of elephants.
Kim Campbell Thornton is an award-winning writer in Lake Forest, California. She writes about wildlife, pets, urban farming and travel.