Africa has always been a dream destination, one for the bucket list. Romanticized in such movies as Out of Africa and I Dreamed of Africa, a land of adventure and amazement. A decade ago, the tour company I work for, Grand European Tours, first started selling a trip to South Africa and lucky us, we were one of the first in the company to get to go on tour and check it out!
The flights to South Africa are a huge challenge for anyone from the USA but from the West Coast, they’re brutal. Due to some schedule changes we were forced to overnight in JFK on the way to Cape Town and the return required stops in Dakar, New York and San Francisco but wow, it is soooo worth it!
We arrived in South Africa two days earlier than the rest of the group, and what a blessing. This time allowed us to not only get over our jet lag but also gave us plenty of time to simply wander, our favorite thing to do in a new city. Cape Town is arguably one of the most scenic cities anywhere in the world. We were fortunate enough to stay at The Commodore, a 5* hotel near the inner harbor at the V&A Waterfront. With Table Mountain looming over the city and near perfect weather, we spent our days exploring the waterfront, eating, shopping, and falling in love with South African wines. It was late May, fall in the in the southern hemisphere, and sunny and averaging 75degrees every day.
While we were greatly enjoying the harbor area, we wanted to see more of the “real” city. Traveling by taxi we headed downtown to the Castle of Good Hope fortress. This fortress houses the oldest surviving buildings in South Africa, being built in the 1660-1670’s by the Dutch East India Company. It’s now used as a military museum and officially for military balls and dinners. We walked further into downtown to the pedestrian area for lunch. Located near the bus station and filled with street artists, sidewalk cafes, and amazing people watching. Having never been to Africa before, we were in awe of the very obviously different tribal clothes and looks all around us. Taking the bus back to the waterfront proved to be even more fascinating people watching and, in spite of all the warnings, we never once felt unsafe.
When the group arrived a couple of days later we got into our included sightseeing. In our four days remaining in Cape Town we did all the “touristy” things and yet, because this country is so incredible, each day was better than the last. One full day we enjoyed the natural beauty of the area with a stop at Kirstenbosch Botanical Gardens on the way to Cape of Good Hope. Kirstenbosch was overwhelming, with over 3500 species of flora and fauna, including the gorgeous protea, the national flower of South Africa.
We had mistakenly believed that we were heading towards the very tip of Africa when, in fact, it’s further east at Cape Agulhus, but Cape of Good Hope was breathtaking all the same. Watching the Atlantic Ocean crash along the shores with exotic flowers blooming and defending ourselves against the marauding baboons made for a pretty interesting lunch spot! The baboons of South Africa are actually quite dangerous with incisor teeth as large as lions! Aggressive and not scared of much of anything, we watched as they stole one woman’s purse to get her trail mix before actually ripping the soft top of a convertible from some poor souls who left food in their car.
We love wine but were almost completely unfamiliar with South African wines. Due to the high cost of import, there aren’t a lot of options to taste them in Oregon and we were beyond thrilled to find out how delicious and inexpensive they were. We veer towards red but found ourselves savoring the crisp Sauvignon Blancs, Chenin Blancs, and blends they specialize in. One day on tour we headed into wine country, visiting several wineries enjoying tastings and a delightful lunch in wine country. A clear afternoon took us up the cable car to the top of Table Mountain for a spectacular view over the entire city and taking in an amazing sunset.
On our final day in Cape Town it was a free day so Jim and I jumped at the chance to go to Robben Island, the infamous prison turned museum where Nelson Mandela was held for eighteen of his twenty six years in prison. Entering the prison, led by a man who, himself had spent fourteen years imprisoned there, was a sobering experience. Yet another example of how history comes to life when you’re actually walking in the footsteps of the people who lived it.
Although sad to leave Cape Town, after nearly a week there, we were nonetheless anxious to see the rest of the country. Next up, ostrich country to Oudtshoorn, Ostrich Capital of the World (who knew there even was one!). The ranch we visited had the obligatory ostrich show and tour before an amazingly delicious dinner. Ostrich is a rather delicate meat but, when cooked correctly, is absolutely unique and served with a pinot noir sauce….perfection!
Next on to the beach town of Knysna.. Knysya is a small town of around 76,000 people and is known for mountain biking, hiking, fishing and kayaking and reminded us a lot of Hood River, here in Oregon. Torrential rain kept us from doing too much during our time there, but it was a lovely and relaxing place to spend a couple of days relaxing. Nearby Mosel Bay is another great spot for the active traveler with endless opportunities to get out in nature and explore, including such extreme sports as cage diving with great white sharks, something we would love to do someday but, alas, didn’t have time for on this trip.
Finally, safari time! We flew to Johannesburg for a quick night before heading out to Kruger Park. Words cannot fully do justice to describe what it’s like the first time you are really in the bush in Africa. Seeing the animals in their natural environment is truly out of this world. Just driving into our park we spotted elephant and giraffe and impala and zebra. It’s a surreal experience that nothing else we’ve ever done can compare to. In our two days staying outside the gates of Kruger we saw all of the big 5 except for the elusive leopard, as well as dozens of other new and exotic birds and animals. Dinner each night was eaten in the “boma” or fenced outdoor are surrounded by spiky bush fencing. We let our taste buds go wild and experienced warthog, impala, kudu and ostrich among others, all while sitting under the African sky, hearing the sounds of the wilds around us. It’s a goose bump experience that everyone needs to have at least once in a lifetime.
The highlight of our entire three weeks was coming up next. As incredible as Kruger Park is, being a national park there are certain rules that need to be followed. Vehicles are more enclosed, you must stay on the paved roads, and remain a certain distance from the animals. The private game parks are still run based on keeping the animals safe, however, the land rovers are allowed to go off road and follow wildlife throughout the park. Sabi Sabi Game Reserve was our scheduled destination and, as luck would have it, due to some booking conflicts, we were upgraded to their Earth Lodge….something we hadn’t expected and something we would never forget. Earth Lodge consists of 12 individual earthen cabanas partially built into the ground with skylights throughout. Our room was nearly 1200sq feet and had a sitting area, bedroom, and a huge bathroom with the most amazing hand patted clay mud bathtub I’d ever seen. An outdoor patio with a shower and private plunge pool overlooking the watering hole and it’s very cranky hippo in residence who, we would learn, spent all day and night roaring and rushing any animals who dared come for a drink.
Thats our room in the background. Heaven!
An afternoon in the plunge pool anyone?
At Sabi, our bush experience was completely different. In spite of the luxuriousness of the lodge, the cabanas were all set some distance apart for privacy, creating a feeling of being completely alone with the wildlife. Some of the group spotted cheetahs on their skylights, one couple got an excellent video of elephants drinking out of their plunge pool, and we were all delayed to dinner one night when a herd of cape buffalo decided to stop for a snack in between the bar and the boma. It really hit home that WE were the visitors in their environment and as thus, dependent upon their whims and wanders.
The sights, smells, and sounds of Africa are difficult to fully express in words. How do I explain the intoxicating smell of the eucalyptus trees in the chill of the morning, being awoken in the night by cranky hippo defending his pond, the night we followed a huge male lion on a game drive and having him stop to roar …the sound literally vibrating through the air around us. The morning we watched a leopard remove his impala breakfast from his tree to a rocky outcrop and the crunching of his powerful jaws brought home the true circle of life all around us. There was not a single site, city or part of the tour that didn’t live up to everything our imaginations had dreamed of.
With a decade passing since the end of apartheid, newly elected government, wonderful food and wine, friendly people and a thriving tourist segment, South Africa has become one of the up and coming favorite travel destinations around the world and for good reason. Go, you will never regret having experienced time in this amazing country.
We have since been back to Africa several times and are humbled and inspired by it each time. Although I love many places around the world, Africa speaks to me. It’s a special place and each time our plane takes off to leave, I am already missing it.
Grand European Tours is not offering this same tour anymore, although we do have a new South Africa tour we’re selling that includes time at the amazing Twelve Apostles Spa near Cape Town before heading to Madikwe Game Reserve, near the Botswana border, for three amazing nights in the bush. Africa is a place everyone should experience at least once in their lifetime and will never be forgotten