Seeing South Africa on our own
It was now time to take on South Africa, the country that so many had warned us about. And we were doing it all on our own. First things first, a shower.
I’d booked a gorgeous little bed & breakfast called 2inn1 Kensington in the upscale inner-city suburb of Oranjezicht (which kind of sounds like you’re clearing your nose). When we drove our hire car up to the gates, we had to identify ourselves over the little buzzer (which had a camera) before they let us in – a sign that locals didn’t take security for granted.
Pro Tip #1: We hired the cheapest car we could find – basically a manual Toyota. I’d heard stories of people getting carjacked in their Lexuses so I thought to err on the side of caution. Nobody even tried to take our vehicle.
The shower at 2inn1 Kensington was lovely – modern and sparkling clean – but had it been a broken pipe spurting water onto a dirt floor I would have spent half an hour wallowing in it!
The place was spotless as was I after 30 minutes later. It was mid-afternoon and there were complimentary canapes served in a very chic lounge room containing a real zebra skin rug. It was so nice to be back in the lap of luxury again, even if the room had a dead animal in it!
Images courtesy of 2inn1 (2inn1.com).
Of course, I couldn’t stay clean or sitting still for long – with tiny bruschetta in hand, I booked a guided walk to the top of Table Mountain.
Pro Tip #2: I’d heard (rumours?) about hikers getting mugged on the walk up to the summit which is why I decided on a guided tour. However, I saw all of two people – both tourists – on the “most challenging” route up – which wasn’t really that difficult at all. You could probably get away with doing this one on your own.
The trail takes you up some very pretty sections of the mountain, with clear streams and interesting native flora. Less than two hours later, we were at the top enjoying some impressive views of Cape Town, including Lion’s Head Rock and Signal Hill. There’s a cable car that will get you up there but where’s the fun in that?
Afterwards, we drove to the Malay Quarter to see the colourful houses and to wander the little museum. In the evening, we went for a stroll along the picturesque Victoria & Albert Waterfront, and enjoyed some very fine dining in a warehouse restaurant downtown which featured springbok carpaccio and ostrich steaks on the menu.
The colourful Malay Quarter.
Pro Tip #3: South African food is very meat and seafood-centric so if you’re vegetarian, you might be stuck with carb-heavy options like bread, potatoes, rice and pasta, which are nevertheless still delicious! You’ll probably also come across pap, a staple amongst southern Africa’s lower-income citizens – which has the consistency of mashed potato but is made of ground maize.
The following morning, we left the city behind bound for Grootbos Private Nature Reserve. En route, we made a lunch stop at the whale-watching town of Hermanus, where we came across a number of charming art galleries and craft stores. Some fine local souvenirs were on offer, from hand-dyed cow hide rugs to paintings by local artists.
Grootbos is a magical place, formerly farmland but now dedicated to the conservation of fynbos, a family of diverse flora endemic to the Cape. The lodge we stayed at – Forest Lodge – was the ultimate in luxury, with its own fireplace and a hot water bottle tucked under the bedsheets for me each night. The food was unforgettable.
Pro Tip#4: Splurge on at least one luxury lodge in South Africa. The standards are exceptionally high in every respect. And each place has its own distinct character, whether an indulgent oasis in the desert or a sanctuary on the savanna.
I went shark cage diving in the morning, something I now regret as a regular scuba diver. All I can say about the experience was that karma got me early. The smell of bloody chum combined with the rocking of the boat in the turbulent, gunmetal-grey waters (visibility was 1 metre) had me feeding the fish for a good two hours. I was so seasick I barely even saw the huge great whites circling the cage and the boat.
Pro Tip #5: Sharks are intelligent creatures. Don’t support businesses that teach sharks (or any animal for that matter) to associate humans with food. It doesn’t bode well for either humans or sharks in the long run.
Happily back on land, I opted to go horseback riding through the flower-flanked trails of Grootbos. This was a relaxing exercise, and the stables did a great job providing me, a novice, with a gentle mare.
We also explored ancient caves along the coast on foot accompanied by a Grootbos guide, before returning to the gorgeous dining room where yet another lavish meal awaited.
Never fly Jetstar!
Pro Tip #6: Just go to Grootbos. It’s a stunner of a place.
On my last day here, I planted a milkwood tree, a slow-growing rare species bound for extinction without intervention. Then it was time to return to the big smoke for our flight to Jo’burg.
Leaving this was hard.
Pro Tip #7: If you’re into wine, there are some lovely vineyards and wineries all around this area such as in Franschhoek and Stellenbosch.
Back in Jo’burg, there was time for a bit of city exploration before we headed to Kruger. We opted to take a small-group minivan tour of Soweto, a township where Nelson Mandela lived for some time. Our guide had lived through the apartheid era, and showed us his “passport” which granted him permission to leave his house and work in another district. In those bad old days, not having a valid “passport” could mean being sentenced to back-breaking labour in the gold mines. This was usually also a death sentence for the rest of the family, who would be turned out of their home (which only the male head of household could ‘own’).
Included on our excursion was entry to the Apartheid Museum. The strange thing about the whole apartheid era is how so many events went unreported to the wider world. The name Hector Pieterson barely registered in my mind, and I had no idea that South Africa, Angola and Namibia virtually dissolved into civil war in the decade following the dissolution of the apartheid regime!
It became quite clear to me after this little tour why white South Africans had such a negative attitude towards black South Africans.
Pro Tip #8: If you have no time or inclination to tour Jo’burg, just go to the Apartheid Museum. It’s truly eye-opening and gives you a sense of the South African spirit.
We flew into Hoedspruit Airport, where we picked up another browbeaten manual car and off we went into the wilds of Kruger. In Jo’burg, I got the sense that if I veered off into the wrong kind of neighbourhood, I could well lose the car (and my valuables) to the itinerant-looking men sitting by smouldering fires on the sidewalk. Here, there was hardly anyone around.
Our destination was Ezulwini Billy’s Lodge in the Balule Reserve. Run by a mate’s brother, this reserve was where we would see our first lions (on a spot-lit night drive), a leopard with an impala kill and masses of buffalo. Mind-blowing, all of it. The variety of bird life was also amazing.
If you don’t have the benefit of a good driver and guide (or can’t hear them from your seat), this is where a comprehensive reference book such as the National Audubon Society Field Guide to African Wildlife with colour plates (used in conjunction with binoculars) comes in really handy. Shy creatures might also be scared away by the sound of your voice so it’s worth having the means to figure out what you’re looking at on your own.
Click on the image to buy:
Pro Tip #9: Stay on a private concession adjoining Kruger National Park. This costs more but the smaller “queue to view” guarantees more intimate encounters with the animals. Plus, you won’t see idiots running down cheetah or picnicking on top of their cars in front of a pride of lions.
We dined on braai (barbecue) by the firepit in a boma (enclosure) both nights here. Game drives at most safari lodges – Billy’s included – take place early morning and late afternoon, so there’s a bit of free time from mid-morning through to around 3pm. This would be fine and dandy if you were at a really swanky place with a library and swimming pool like Earth Lodge or Londolozi, but we weren’t. We booked the rental car for this reason.
Some of the places we visited in between game-drives included Bourke’s Luck Potholes, the Blyde River Canyon and the Moholoholo Animal Rehabilitation Centre. The thing that touched me most about the rehab centre was the staff – these were people who had pledged their lives to rehabilitating vultures who had lost their capacity to fly after getting entangled in power lines and electrocuted. They also took in leopards who had been trapped, snared or shot by farmers, and cared for mistreated former circus lions who stilled bore disturbing scars. I left feeling equal parts happy for the rescued animals and sorry that we as a species could be so cruel.
My favourite thing about driving is the ability to stop at random places. The Greater Kruger area is perfect for doing this. On this particular trip, we stopped at the Godding & Godding silkworm farm which sold exquisite essential oils and silk bedding.
Pro Tip #10: Do your research. Support worthwhile organisations and don’t participate in activities such as elephant rides, canned hunting or walking with lions. Also, shop local.
And then, it was time to leave. Everybody says that Africa gets under your skin – and it did, well and truly. I can’t wait to be back.
Bonus Pro Tip: Keep a selection of “sundowner drinks” in the fridge in preparation for your return. Sipping ice cold, alcoholic beverages (G&Ts, ciders, etc) at the end of every afternoon game drive is standard. Continuing this practice for a few days after you get home helps keep safari withdrawal symptoms at bay!