Travel to the tip of Africa – South Africa

Travel to the Tip of Africa
South Africa

Africa had always been a dream destination, a place romanticized in movies such as “Out of Africa” and “I Dreamed of Africa”, and a land of adventure, romance, and really great sightseeing! So, when I found out my husband and I would be able to spend 3 weeks in South Africa on a work-sponsored trip (translate that as FREE!) I was overwhelmed. I work for an escorted tour company that mainly focuses on Europe and group bus touring is NOT our favorite form of travel (we’re more the backpacker sorts) but when someone is willing to pay for me AND my husband to go to Africa I’m there!

The flights to and from South Africa are a challenge from the West Coast of the USA. Going over we were forced to overnight in NY due to scheduling but coming home our route was Johannesburg-Dakar, Senegal-New York–San Francisco–Portland and took 32 hours including layovers. That was no fun but this trip even made that worth it!

Due to flight schedules we arrived 2 days prior to the rest of the group, a fact we were grateful for after the long trip over. This gave us a total of 6 nights in Cape Town.

Cape Town is surely one of the most scenic cities anywhere. Our hotel was near the inner harbor area at Victoria and Alfred waterfront, which is full of curio shops, sightseeing activities, and restaurants and bars but also a working harbor. With Table Mountain looming over the city and near perfect weather we spent our first couple of days exploring the waterfront, eating, shopping and falling in love with South African wines. We traveled late May into early June, South Africa’s fall, and it was sunny and between 75-82 degrees every day.

Although we enjoyed the area where we were staying we did want to see more of the “real” city. We traveled by taxi to downtown to visit the Castle of Good Hope fortress. This is the oldest surviving building in South Africa and was built in the 1660-1670s by the Dutch East India Company. It is now a military museum and only officially used for military balls, dinners, etc. We then headed downtown to a pedestrian area for lunch. It was near the bus station and filled with street artists, sidewalk cafes, and great people viewing. After a long lunch we were more accurately able to determine what tribe the women were from by their looks and clothing – absolutely fascinating! Taking the bus back to the waterfront provided even more good people watching and an interesting view of an area we wouldn’t have seen otherwise. Even with Cape Town’s high crime rate we never felt unsafe except for a brief moment downtown where we thought we’d walked into a riot only to discover it was “visiting day” at the local prison, which consisted of family members shouting to their families on the second floor.

When our tour group arrived we got more in official sightseeing mode. In the 4 days we were with them we spent one full day enjoying the scenic beauty of the area with a stop at Kirstenbosch Botanical Gardens with over 3500 species of flora and fauna on our way to the Cape of Good Hope. We, along with the whole group, had mistakenly believed this was the very tip of Africa when, in fact, it’s further to the east at Cape Agulhus but it was breathtaking all the same! The views of the Atlantic and Indian Oceans meeting were spectacular and we were able to successfully defend our bananas from the marauding baboons (actually quite dangerous as they have incisor teeth as large as a lions and they are very aggressive).

The next day we went to the wine route for some wine tasting and winery tours. The wines of South Africa are not well known worldwide but are truly wonderful. We are normally red wine drinkers at home but found ourselves savoring the crisp Sauvignon Blancs of the area. This beautiful region of rolling hills deserves a longer visit than we were able to give it and we’d certainly go back with a rental car.

That afternoon we took the rotating cable cars to the top of Table Mountain for a spectacular view over the entire city and an amazing sunset, although we were confused on direction our entire stay so seemed to set in the wrong direction.

Our final day in Cape Town was at leisure from the group and Jim and I had tickets to Robben Island, the infamous prison island where Nelson Mandela had been held. It was a sobering experience to be led through the prison tour by a man who had been a prisoner for 14 years. Yet another example of how history really comes to life when you’re actually in the location where it occurred.

The next day we headed east to ostrich country where the scenery reminded us very much of Central Oregon. We spent the night in the town of Oudtshoorn, Ostrich Capital of the world and, of course, attended an ostrich show…right before we had more of the same for dinner!! For anyone who hasn’t tried it, ostrich is wonderful if cooked correctly and with a nice pinot noir sauce…perfection!

From Oudtshoorn we headed to the beach town of Knysna. Knysna is adventure central of this area and, unfortunately for us, our only 2 days of really bad, rainy weather on the whole trip was here. The area is known for is mountain biking, kayaking, and hiking but the torrential downpour kept us in town. Near Knysna was Mosel Bay, another great location for the active traveler. Not only did it have a great beach but also is the base for quite a few adventure-based companies in South Africa. Cage diving with the great white sharks was one thing on our list we did NOT get to experience. Next time!

From Knysna we finally headed back to Johannesburg on our way to Kruger Park. I don’t think words can do justice to what it is like to actually be out in the bush! We spent 2 nights at Kruger Gate Lodge and did daily game drives within the park. Seeing the animals in their natural environment is truly out of this world. We spotted all of the big 5 on day 1 except a leopard, as well as many, many other types of animals and birds. Dinner at all of the lodges is eaten in a “boma” or fenced in outdoor area. We tried all of the local delicacies – warthog, impala, kudu, ostrich, etc. And, all were quite tasty!

From Kruger Park we headed to Sabi Sabi Private Game Reserve for 2 nights. This was what we had truly been looking forward to, to really be “with” the animals, instead of in a fenced off lodge. Sabi Sabi consists of 12 individual rooms built partially back into the hill and overlooking a drinking hole with a very cranky resident hippo. The main difference between Kruger Park and the private game reserves is that in Kruger the jeeps must stay on the road whereas in the private parks you can follow the animals off-road. This allows for much better viewing, especially of the more elusive such as the leopard.

At Sabi Sabi we had to have our rangers walk us to and from our rooms as we were truly out in the animals territory. At one point elephants were drinking out of our mini plunge pool RIGHT outside our door. Dinner was even delayed for 2 hours one night because we were all in the bar and a herd of 200 Cape buffalo surrounded us so we had to wait until they moved on.

The sights, smells, and sounds were indescribable. The smell of the eucalyptus trees in the chill of the morning, being awoken in the night by the sounds of cranky hippo defending his pond, following a male lion on a night drive and having him stop 5 feet from us to start roaring…the sound literally shook the air and verified why they are referred to as “king of the jungle”, watching a leopard remove his impala breakfast from a tree, lie on the rocky outcrop and start crunching away. There was truly not a single sight, city, or tour that didn’t live up to everything our imagination had dreamt of.

With the end of apartheid, newly elected government, wonderful food and wine, friendly people and a thriving tourism segment, South Africa is rapidly becoming one of the up and coming favorite travel destinations in the world, and all for good reason. I can’t wait to go back.