Ask most South Africans about dream destinations, and it’s the exotic and the far-flung that tend to come up: from Caribbean islands and Asian beaches, to America’s glamour cities and the romantic capitals of Europe.
But while there’s undoubted appeal to a week in the Bahamas or a romantic sojourn in Paris, there are myriad destinations that take the breath away awfully close to home — as discovered in an extraordinary South African pilgrimage by Jan Scannell, the man behind National Braai Day, and affectionately known as simply ‘Jan Braai’.
National Braai Day is the informal title for what’s technically ‘Braai4Heritage’, a campaign to get South Africans united around a fire on National Heritage Day in national celebration, much as the Irish do on St. Patrick’s Day, or the Dutch on Queen’s Day.
But with ‘heritage’ such a vague and imprecise term, and one that conjures up images of the past, Jan set out to explore South Africa’s heritage by visiting the country’s eight World Heritage sites - and numerous other venues of national consequence - over 40 days, and having a braai somewhere new each day. Along the way, he conjured up a few of his own heritage sites that reinforced the vibrancy of a country both remarkable, and full of surprises…
“The most surprising place I visited was Oranjekom,” Jan says after a moment’s reflection. “It’s a lookout point on the edge of the Orange River canyon, four kilometres downstream from the main Augrabies Falls. I'd say it's prettier than the main falls. I'd never heard of it before, and I think most visitors to the falls leave without going to Oranjekom. One of the prettiest sights I saw on tour - and in my life - was the river and canyon in full moon from behind a braai.”
Live in South Africa, and never heard of Oranjekom? You’re in the majority there, but add it to your local destination hit list - and if you can manage it, a flight over the Vredefort Dome gets the thumbs up from Jan.
“Flying in a four-seater Piper over the Dome at sunrise was an unforgettable experience. A little nerve-wracking at first, but once you’re airborne, and the sun starts coming up, your breath is taken away. Incredibly beautiful.”
A little more accessible, but also on Jan’s list of places he feels South Africans need to get to: the Cradle of Humankind, just 40 minutes from Sandton.
“The Sterkfontein Caves is a place most of us should visit,” Jan advocates. “The fossils found there are integral to scientific understanding of evolution theory, and the caves are surprisingly close to central Johannesburg. The Maropeng visitors centre is modern and slick, and the whole place is run extremely professionally. The other place I’d head for is Baviaanskloof. There is a 200-kilometre stretch of gravel road that is the most fun (and beautiful) 200 kilometres of driving I’ll probably have in my entire life.”
And then there’s the rugby…
And there are many more moments Jan reels off in delighted recollection, from standing on top of Mapungubwe Hill with a view of South Africa, Botswana and Zimbabwe, and braaing on the edge of Kimberley’s Big Hole, to standing atop of Spioenkop, overlooking the Drakensberg and the Tugela River, and gazing out to an unbroken horizon from the Sani Pass. And then there’s the rugby…
Sport and braai are synonymous, and while several attempts to have a braai at the FNB Stadium to commemorate Siphiwe Tshabala’s goal in last year’s World Cup came to naught, Jan did secure a braai at Ellis Park on the very spot from which Joel Stransky kicked his famous drop-goal in 1995. “That was one of my proudest moments on the tour,” Jan reflects. “That day united South Africa over 80 minutes of rugby, and Joel’s kick symbolises that unity. And that’s exactly what I hope we’ll achieve this year on September 24.”
Rugby also featured in the people Jan met on his 40-day adventure, as one of the new sensations in South African sport also turned out to be just as adept round a fire.
“…he says he braais four times a week..”.
“I braaied with (Sharks and Springbok loose forward) Willem Alberts right after a Sharks game,” Jan recalls. “He was the most down to earth and decent guy I’ve met in my life, with a smile to rival that of Schalk Brits. To top it off, all of his team-mates agreed that he is the best braaier in the team; he says he braais four times a week.
“There was also Daantjie Jafta, the mayor of Graaf Reinet,” adds Jan of the characters he encountered.” A man with an infectious laugh, and a love of witblits!”
With plenty of media coverage, including a television crew following Jan for the entire journey, ahead of a 13-part television series on KykNet that starts in June, the whole trip has been captured in detail - and it’s a member of the media crew who provided Jan with one of the more entertaining stories from the South African braai odyssey.
“On day 37 we visited a private game reserve in Touwsriver, and a lion jogged by, coming very close to the vechicle,” Jan smiles, enjoying a story he’s clearly told many times already. “Chris Davies, a journalist from Getaway who joined us on the trip, made high pitched noises, jumped from his seat, over another seat, and into my lap. He will not be allowed to forget that story soon…”
There are few negatives that Jan touches on; in fact, only one emerges: “On the one day there was a gentleman who braaied his (our) steaks for 45 minutes. I was not impressed.”
Page 2: More of Jan's favourite spots