With nine different provinces, South Africa is a vast destination offering more bucket-list experiences than you’d ever expect. And who better to guide you through them than the locals who live there?
Think South Africa and you instantly conjure up images of safaris tracking down the Big Five, afternoons sipping on world-class wine and a vibrant nation with a deeply complex history. But in a country so vast, and with so many stories to tell, those stereotypes barely scratch the dusty surface of Table Mountain.
In reality, the southern tip of Africa offers more than any traveller could hope to achieve in one visit. So where do you begin?
Hugging the southern coast is the treasured Garden Route, a coastal drive where azure seas roll up against the mountains. It’s a great starting point for first-time visitors and it’s where we kick off our trip. Ensuring we won’t miss a thing, the Tourism Board have lined up 12 expert guides around the country to help us on our way. From a local graffiti curator in Cape Town to a marine biologist in Gansbaai, there’s a friendly face waiting to greet us at each stop along the route.
Touching down in Cape Town, after an 11-hour flight, we only need to wind our watches forward one hour. With
such a small time difference, there’s no unwelcome jet lag to interfere with our travels and we waste no time in getting acquainted with one of the country’s three capital cities. South Africa may still be emerging from a challenging past, with water shortages and electricity restrictions a prevalent concern, but seeing the city from the skies with a helicopter tour around the coast I see a positive end to the story emerging. I can pick out the brightly painted houses in Bo-Kaap, the bustling hub of activity at the marina and the surprising colony of African penguins at Boulders Beach.
Landing back on solid ground, we meet our first local guide, artist Juma Mkwela, who hosts walking tours around the Woodstock area. He shows us vibrant murals adorning the walls and houses in each street. In the early stages, he explains, the locals opposed the idea, thinking art belonged in a gallery, not on their homes. Over time, they’ve taken art to the streets, where now you’ll find more than 100 pieces by local and international artists, brightening up Cape Town’s back roads.
Afterwards, we head straight for the iconic Table Mountain, which frames the city, and sits beneath a table cloth of clouds. We visit in the afternoon as the temperature cools and are rewarded as a most breath-taking sunset seeps into the horizon. Within minutes of sundown, the city beams with light like someone has switched the generator back on.
From here, it’s time to hit the road. Cliché or not, you really can’t visit South Africa without stopping off at one of the many winelands. We meet local wine guru André Morgenthal in the prestigious wine region of Stellenbosch. Having worked in the industry for 30 years, what he doesn’t know about wine just isn’t worth knowing. With a swirling mix of continental and Mediterranean climates, he tells us that South Africa provides some of the world’s most nutrient-rich land. Each wine – and
we get to taste a glass, or five – including the national grape Pinotage, may get shipped over to the UK, but it tastes best on a balmy summer’s day in the Western Cape.
Further along the coast, our road trip takes us to Gansbaai for an ocean safari. Africa summons thoughts of lions and leopards on dusty plains, rather than sharks and seals, but the life beneath the ocean is just as rich and fascinating. On a Dyer Island cruise with Marine Dynamics and the Conservation Trust, we see great white sharks, thousands of cape fur seals, African penguins (four of which we help release back into the water) and humpback dolphins, too. In peak season there’s even a chance of spotting the Bryde’s and humpback whales. These regular ocean safaris don’t just give visitors the chance to see the wildlife up close, but it’s also a way to monitor, observe and protect the marine animals, just as game reserves protect wildlife on land.
Arriving in Plettenberg Bay, we’re treated to the sounds of the ocean, fresh seafood and expansive white sandy shores. But moments away from the coast, we arrive in a whole new world: Tsala Treetop Lodge, a paradise playground for adults where a web of villas on stilts peer out through the indigenous forest. Surprisingly, not a single leaf or tree trunk has been moved or chopped down in the process, but still it offers the height of luxury in an eco-friendly fashion. “The best thing to do in Tsala is nothing,” we’re advised as soon as we arrive. Instead, we simply listen to the morning birdsong and the happy chatter of baboons swinging through the trees. Our villa features its own infinity plunge pool (unheated as a conscious environmental decision), glass- fronted rooms and carefully considered architectural design to give a secluded home in the most exotic location.
Kariega Game Reserve, Kenton-on-Sea
When you stumble across pure paradise, it’s no easy task saying goodbye, but something tells me that the final stop of our road trip will be worth it. We drive to Kariega Game Reserve, near Kenton-on- Sea, in the Eastern Cape in search of that other Big Five. I’ve learned a lot from our local tour guides, but the locals here are a little wilder… and of the four-legged variety, too. Rhinos, hippos, buffalo, elephants and lions await and within minutes, giraffes inquisitively crane their necks to check out their new neighbours.
We stay at the Ukhozi Lodge, one of five luxury lodges on the reserve. The crescent- shaped infinity pool gives panoramic views over the valley: it’s greener than I was expecting, but then again, I know by now that South Africa is full of surprises.
Each morning and afternoon my fellow safari-goers and I head out for a game drive with our ranger Ben, who knows the 10,000 hectares like it’s his back garden. With his help we spot four of the Big Five – only the elusive leopard escaping us.
We step outside the safety of our vehicle and into the Jurassic world for a bush walk, where Ben guides us among giraffes, zebras and ostriches. The evening ends with a traditional boma dinner served under a canopy of stars and around a central
fire with braai (barbecue-style) food.
As we near the end of our safari experience I’ve collected countless memories, photos and stories, but there’s one more animal waiting to meet us. A baby elephant, just two months old, bounds out of the bushes towards us, flanked by mum and dad protectively watching over her. The rest of the herd graze peacefully, nonplussed by the group of people observing them. As the sun falls to meet the horizon, the sky glows pink and I look around, counting no less than 12 African elephants – multiple generations, all shapes and sizes. For once we make like the locals, put down our cameras and succumb to the moment, all in silent agreement that this is the most memorable, other-worldly experience we could have been given on our final day. Consider that bucket-list well and truly ticked off.
Travelbag is offering 10 nights in South Africa, including three nights at the 3* AC Hotel Cape Town Waterfront (room only), three nights at the 4* Protea Hotel Knysna Quays (bed and breakfast), two nights at the 5* Tsala Treetop Lodge (bed and breakfast) and two nights at the 5* Kariega Ukhozi Lodge (all inclusive), plus direct return flights from LGW with Emirates and car hire throughout, from £1,919pp. To book, visit travelbag.co.uk, call 020 3139 7026 or go to a Travelbag shop.