by Leo Jakobson | March 18, 2014
There was a moment when the wildlife spotter, perched precariously on a chair bolted to the front hood of our Land Rover, shined a powerful spotlight on the five lionesses taking their ease in the early evening darkness -- on a patch of ground so close that we could nearly lean down and pet one -- that we realized, "this is not a zoo." We were sitting on an open-topped vehicle in the Sabi Sabi private game reserve on the edge of South Africa’s 7,500-square-mile Kruger National Park. As our guide ranger pointed out the pride matron, "Floppy Ears," who was about to get up for the night to go hunting we realized she had to either kill something or go hungry. This was the real deal. And what’s even more amazing is that we were not scared but thrilled.

We were on a six-day familiarization trip organized by Dragonfly Africa, one of the continent's top destination management companies, prior to attending the Meetings Africa trade show in Johannesburg. We flew on South African Airways, a group-friendly carrier, that features wide, comfortable business-class seats that turn into lie-flat beds, good cuisine, and top-notch service that makes the 15-hour trip a lot easier, but it is a haul, there's no denying that. The South African National Convention Bureau (NCB) doesn’t try. The fact is, "South Africa is a once-in-a-lifetime experience," says Amanda Kotze-Nhlapo, executive manager of the NCB. "If the event organizer presents it as a once-in-a-lifetime experience, it is very easy to excite potential attendees."

Cape Town

Johannesburg, while good for meetings, isn't really the city where you’d take incentive groups. That is Cape Town, a small, beautiful city dominated by the Atlantic Ocean on one side and scenic mountains on the other. Flat-topped Table Mountain is the most famous of these. On clear days the views it commands over the city are breathtaking, and there are plenty of good hiking trails for fit attendees. There is also great golf in the region.

Even with the two-hour flight to Cape Town, you’ll arrive in the early afternoon. Wise planners will consider it in large part a travel day, and not schedule hectic activities or a late dinner. After checking into our hotel, The Table Bay at the Waterside, right on the lively Victoria & Alfred Waterfront, we had an hour-long introductory tour by Cape Sidecar Adventures, which uses a fleet of 25 vintage motorcycles with sidecars to ferry up to 50 participants around Cape Town's scenic spots. This can include Table Mountain. They also do longer tours to the Winelands or even full day trips down to Cape Point, the Southwestern-most tip of Africa, overlooking the Cape of Good Hope.

"Cape Town is a very compact city, with a revitalized center," says Rupert Jeffries, executive chairman of Dragonfly, which can handle groups of 20 to 2,000 or more. "You can get anywhere in five to 10 minutes." It's walkable and as safe as any big city, and has the lively Victoria & Alfred Waterfront, great shopping, excellent restaurants, and plenty of nightlife. In some ways, Jeffries adds, "it is such a cosmopolitan city that you have to introduce 'Africa' into it."

One way to do that is with an excursion to Cape Point. The scenic route is stunning, going past scenery such as the 12 Apostles, a series of breathtaking cliffs, and can introduce some wildlife like baboons and ostriches. Cape Point itself, an imposing, rocky promontory with two lighthouses, has great rugged beauty, and helicopter transfers and speedboat tours of the Cape are very popular.

After that, a short van ride took us to nearby Buffels Bay beach, where Adventure Works Tour Co. had set up an especially rugged tent -- the wind at the Cape make al fresco dining untenable -- for a seated champagne lunch. The company can also provide a wide range of outdoor activities like Jeep four-wheeling, kayaking to a nearby penguin colony, and cage diving with great white sharks, to name a few. Dinner that night was at Gold, a lively, multi-floored restaurant specializing in excellent dishes from all over Africa, such as springbok venison, and live entertainment with traditional dance and music. It can seat up to 1,000 in the building.

The core of the next day was taken up with an excursion to nearby Langa, the oldest township on the Western Cape. This should be more than an excuse for a CSR event. Dragonfly arranged for local guides who really helped us delve into the history and culture of the township -- usually it’s a several-hour long walking tour and chance to interact with the locals -- as well as see that while poor, there are distinct neighborhoods and social classes in what look like textbook third-world shantytowns from the road. Lunch at a local restaurant like Mzansi is a good addition.

Dinner that night was in the Winelands, on the outdoor deck of Delaire Graff Estate vineyard's restaurant, which has stunning views. The food was excellent and the rosé was a huge hit. Longer excursions often include multiple tastings and vineyard tours.

The Bush

The next day we flew to Johannesburg where we boarded a chartered Federal Air flight to our bush lodge’s private airstrip. Sabi Sabi is composed of four separate lodges, which are fairly well spread out across the private, but unfenced reserve. All are five-star all-inclusive, and we stayed in the largest, Bush Lodge, which has 25 thatched hut suites on either side of a central courtyard and boma (where firelight dinners are served), facing a large watering hole that drew everything from a troop of baboons to a mother rhinoceros and her calf during our stay. There's also a bar, spa, and pools. The six-suite Little Bush Camp is similar in style but each hut has a private plunge pool. The third is Selati, which has eight suite-huts and a colonial theme. The 13-hut Earth Lodge, which is built into the side of a hill, has a swooping, slightly futuristic design. All Sabi Sabi suites feature massive four-poster beds draped with mosquito netting and spacious bathrooms with separate tubs and showers.

The daily routine is fairly set: up early for coffee and a three-hour morning game drive departing no later than 6:30 am, followed by a full buffet breakfast and leisure time, then gather at 4:30 pm for the evening game drive. As darkness falls, the second half of the drive is by searchlight, with the spotter looking for "eye shine." Dinner is generally in a boma in your lodge, but Sabi Sabi has a large area near Bush Lodge that can hold 150 for a bonfire-lit feast featuring exotic game, a full lamb on the spit, excellent South African wines, and traditional musicians and dancing.

One of the reasons Sabi Sabi is one of the top game lodges in South Africa is the amazing amount of wildlife wandering through it. We saw all of the Big Five -- lions, elephants, Cape buffalo, rhinos, and leopards. But we also had an excellent sighting of a fairly rare cheetah, as well as many zebras, giraffes, a variety of antelopes and their kin, and a hippo, a wildebeest, and a hyena -- all of which wander freely in and out of the reserve and throughout Kruger National Park. Seeing a wild elephant eating by the roadside is an experience far removed from the zoo. And Sabi Sabi spends an enormous amount of money and effort on preservation and anti-poaching efforts.

The only major incentive experience we missed was the two-day trip to the magnificent Victoria Falls, on the border of Zambia and Zimbabwe.

With a top-notch DMC like eight-time Site Crystal Award-winner Dragonfly managing your schedule and ensuring every experience is the best it can be, South Africa is a once-in-a-lifetime experience that lives up to its considerable hype.

Incentive Hotels of Cape Town

The Belmond Mt. Nelson Hotel, Cape Town
The Belmond Mt. Nelson Hotel is the oldest five-star hotel in Cape Town, and it knows how to make a first impression: classical columns at the driveway, a bright pink façade, private group check-in by the fountain of the sculpture garden out back, and rocker Carlos Santana in the dining room. An Orient-Express Hotel, its a serene oasis of a 19th century grand hotel with 198 rooms, a lawn that can handle 250, an elegant, naturally lit ballroom, spa, and eight cottages that are perfect for VIPs.

The Table Bay at the Waterfront
A Sun International property and member of leading Hotels of the World, the five-star 328-room Table Bay was our host hotel for the first two nights. It's very well located, right at the bustling Victoria & Alfred Waterfront, and it boasts excellent views of Table Mountain and Robben Island -- where the late Nelson Mandela was imprisoned. There are five function spaces, including a ballroom room that can take 300 for cocktails and the Victorian-style, naturally lit Pavilion, which can take 120 theater-style, as well as a six-treatment-room spa. It is also directly connected to a high-end mall so shopping is easy.

The Westin Cape Town
With wonderful views from floor-to-ceiling windows of Table Mountain, Table Bay, and the V&A Waterfront, the sleek, modern, 483-room Westin Cape Town is the largest five-star in the city, and features a collection of local and African art. It has the largest ballroom (handling 600), and is directly connected to the Cape Town International Convention Center, which is in the process of doubling in size. The Westin has an award-winning spa and the food is exceptional -- the lamb rib chops served at a private dinner function were as good as any I’ve ever had.

One & Only Cape Town
The four-year-old One & Only Cape Town's lobby offers breathtaking views of Table Mountain, as does its boardroom and all but 14 of its 130 rooms, the largest in Cape Town. The 12-treatment-room spa is on a private mini-island along with 40 of its rooms, and the hotel offers a water shuttle to the convention center. On the culinary side, it's home to an outpost of Nobu, and Reuben's, by a local celebrity chef.

Taj Cape Town
In the city center, the 166-room Taj Cape Town is right off Green Market Square, which plays host to an excellent crafts market for souvenirs. A little more classical in design, the hotel is made up of several historic buildings, and has taken over an historic Art Deco bank next door that is being transformed into a banquet room that can handle 390 for cocktails. It has a small wine tasting room, high-end Indian restaurant, and a nine-room Jiva Grande Spa, the first in Africa.