a south african nightlife safari
Last week, I was fortunate enough to go to South Africa as part of a press trip built around an adventure safari. The journey promised amazing things (great white shark cage diving, white water rafting, wild animal safaris and more), but I was most excited about exploring the nightlife scene. After arriving in Johannesburg, I found a local guide who agreed to show me the way the locals imbibe. A quick trip to a number of dive bars in various districts of the largest city in the country left me with a feeling that while a majority of the places had a slight African feel to them, nearly all were hip and modern enough to be transplanted to either LA or NYC with very few changes made.
The same held true for Capetown: monster clubs with hefty entrance fees, high drink prices, booming sound systems playing open format music (mostly American pop hits, ironically) and drunk, dancing patrons. Aside from the local beers (Castle, Windhoek and a few other tasty local brews), there were few telltale characteristics that I was standing halfway around the world from America. That all changed when I got to Augrabies Falls.
Tucked in the Northern Cape, Augrabies Falls is situated next to the Kalahari Desert and the area is rather sparsely populated. One or two paved roads string together shanty towns, settlements, vineyards (it’s predominately wine country) and a few upscale resorts, such as the decadant Dundi Lodge, where my group was being housed for several evenings. After dinner the first night, I inquired as to the nightlife situation in the region, having seen herds of natives stopping off at the sole liquor store before roaming the sole street that connected most of the villages. The manager, an affable fellow named Berto van Zyl, laughed at my question. “There’s only one bar around here, and it’s the only one for 47 kilometers (30 miles),” he replied with a smirk. “I’ll take you there if you’d like,” he offered. Ten minutes later, we pulled into the parking lot of a luxury tourist hotel and lodge, in the lobby of which was the bar. “Welcome to Augrabies nightlife,” van Zyl chuckled as we walked into the space, aptly called the Augrabies Camp and Lodge Bar.
The only inhabitants were a lone patron, a cheerful bartender and a stuffed baboon keeping watch from the left-hand side of the bar. “This place gets going for private events,” van Zyl explained. “They had one last night, and it was packed from 12 until 2 a.m., but most of the time it’s very quiet. It’s a more traditional bar where natives come to hang out, and it’s been that way since it opened in 1958.” Not much seems to have changed since then, aside from the addition of a plasma TV. And of course the 600+ empty bottles of Jägermeister, including one situated in the baboon’s hand.
“We love Jäger,” Hannelie Bester, the barkeep, explained, gesturing to the impressive collection of empty green glass which ran the length of the room above her head. “We can’t get enough of it. There’s at least 300,000 Rands worth of Jäger bottles on the wall.” Translated into American currency, that’s about $40,000 worth of the licorice-flavored liqueur that’s been downed over the past few years. In between shots of Jäger, Bester (who mostly spoke in the dominant language of Afrikaans while van Zyl translated) explained the local liquor laws had severely cut into the locals' ability to have fun.
“There used to be a rule about no liquor stores between the lodges,” she began. “So the hotel bars have changed a lot. It's no longer a bar; it's more of a pub now. Saturday, people get together at 10 p.m. for more of a mellow scene. When I started here it was more elderly patrons, because more of the younger crowds were driving the hour or so to Upington,” the nearest “major” town with a true discothèque, she said. “But the government passed a law that said no bar or club could be open past 12 a.m., so it shut down.” The rationale behind the strict law was the extremely high rate of alcoholism in the region. “The Northern Cape has the largest population of alcoholics in all of South Africa,” Bester said. “So the police preferred that people drink in their homes and not be out walking in the streets and getting hit by cars, or driving and hitting other people.” And so, for a number of years, last call was shouted at 11:30 p.m. “But they’ve relaxed a bit since. Now we can stay open until 2 a.m.”
But last call wasn’t an opportunity to double up on your cocktails before cashing out. “It really meant you had to finish up and be outside by the time the police did their rounds,” van Zyl laughed. “At 1:30 a.m., you have to be outside of the establishment, and you can’t have a drink in your hand. That’s the rule. You can still be here, but you can’t have a drink,” Bester said, rolling her eyes. “And we can’t sell anyone a drink after that…” But? “But we can give it away,” she finished, beaming slightly. "We can start a tab for our friends and they can have drinks for ‘free’ so long as they come back the next day and pay off their bill.”
As for the police coming to enforce the liquor laws, they are prompt and they are strict. “They do come ‘round,” van Zyl said. “But that’s usually when they get complaints about people walking wasted in the street,” he said, pointing to the street with our umpteenth shot of Jäger in hand. “And they’re serious about the laws.” How serious? “They will take your drink away from you, but they return it in the morning.” My astounded gaze wordlessly sought clarification. “It’s because alcohol here is so expensive,” Bester clarified. “People get cross when they’ve paid for a drink and the police take it. So if they do come ‘round at half past one and confiscate your drink, they will return it to you – in the same glass – first thing in the morning. And people will finish it then.” “In case you’re wondering, no, the police do not top it off with ice. "You develop a taste for warm Jäger, if that’s your poison,” van Zyl laughed, clinking his glass with mine. “Drink up. We’ve got only an hour to get in a few more shots!”