Magical South Africa
Magical, diverse, beautiful, exotic, wild, historical and jolly are just some of the adjectives that I would use to describe South Africa. It is a nation of diverse culture (there are 11 official languages), beautiful topography and some of the most charming people you would ever have the pleasure of meeting. I do not want to sweep its history of apartheid, poverty and crime under a carpet, but my intention for this article is to paint another story, one I don’t think gets enough traction in today’s media. And this is why I have titled the article “Magical South Africa”.
Johannesburg to Kruger National Park
Johannesburg never really featured as the big ticket item on our itinerary for South Africa – this was for various reasons, lack of time taking top marks. Nevertheless, I had a day in Johannesburg (my friend was stranded in Paris due to delays with her flight) and whilst I tried to maintain optimism about her arriving in time for our flight to Kruger, I needed to occupy the hours in between. And that’s how I wound up on a city tour of Johannesburg.
The company that ran the city tour wasn’t the best but as it was on short notice, I couldn’t really complain. The Apartheid Museum was very impressive (and enormous), but it was the township of Soweto that really struck home. If you are not familiar with this concept, townships were underdeveloped urban living areas that were reserved for non-white residents during the apartheid. Today, townships are more ‘informal’ settlements that almost feels like a city within a city. In hindsight, I would probably recommend spending a couple of days in the city to soak up the history of South Africa, particularly if you are interested in the history of Apartheid and the freedom movement.
From there, it was on to our next destination.
Thankfully, my travel buddy arrived in time and we flew into Skukuza airport, a small airport located within Kruger National Park, and were picked up by the good people at Hamilton’s Tented Camp, which was to be our magical home for the next two nights. The one thing I wish we had realised at the start of our safari is that your experience quite literally starts the moment you get into the car. For some reason, it didn’t quite hit us that the wildlife that we would see along the way (e.g. rhino), we might not see again for the remainder of our trip – lesson learned! On our journey to the resort we saw giraffes, elephants, zebras and even one of the Big 5 – the Rhino.
The Hamilton Tented Camp takes you back in time; it is designed in the style of the late 1800’s and when you combine that with the fact that there is no wi-fi, telephone, television or any other connection to the outside world, you really do feel like the clocks have gone back a 100 years. The staff at Hamilton’s are some of the nicest, most jovial people we had ever met. Harold, the lodge manager, and the rest of the staff made contributed to making our experience so memorable – they were also very good at pulling more than a few over us.
The safari experience is designed around two game drives; the first is at dawn and the second is close to sunset. It is set this way because these are the best times to see game. We were able to see the Big 5 and countless other animals (antelope, zebras, giraffes, elephants, hyenas, leopards, birds etc) during our game drives, so definitely do not miss the early morning ride. I think I drove Ranger Dan nuts with my animal sighting requests but he did not disappoint. We even managed to spot a leopard on our final game drive. When we were not on the game drives, we were eating (the lodge even provided food on the game drives!). By the end of our safari, I had resolved to go on a 3 day fast. That is how much food we were fed during our stay – A LOT. And if you don’t believe me, you only have to read more about the safari experience to see what I mean.
At the end of our two nights in Kruger, we had definitely packed on a few pounds, but also left with a new found appreciation for the wild. I haven’t been able to go to the zoo since South Africa and the National Geographic Travel instragram page is my newest obsession.
- In my opinion, the best way to get to Kruger is to fly into Skukuza airport or similar private airport.
- Hamilton’s Tented Lodge is owned by Vijay Mallya (Indians should be familiar with the name)
- Surprisingly the food served at the Lodge was halal. I checked several times with the staff at the Lodge prior to and during my stay – that being said, Kudu (in the antelope genre) was not my favourite meat.
- 2 – 3 nights is perfect for safari.
The Garden Route: Port Elizabeth to Cape Town
Everything written about the allure of the Garden Route is true and not an exaggeration. There is a reason why it is called the Garden Route and I would wholeheartedly recommend including this area on your itinerary. The Garden Route extends from Mossel Bay in the Western Cape to Storms River in the Eastern Cape and covers a total distance of about 350kms.
The topography along the Garden Route is second to none. We started our travels in Port Elizabeth, but in hindsight, I would probably have landed at George airport and started our journey from there, just to maximise our short time. My advice would be to have Knysna and Mossel Bay as your base and explore the surrounding areas. We stopped along places such as Tsistikamma, Knysna, Plettenberg Bay, Mossel Bay. Beautiful canyons, amazing hiking trails and breathtaking forests. Weather permitting, and if you are in the mood for some adventurous activities you should definitely give Tsitsikamma Falls Adventure, Tsitsikamma Canopy Tours, Tsitsikamma National Park and/or the Knysna Heads a try. A word of advice, do not book in advance in the winter months. Most of our activities had to be cancelled due the unpredictable weather (but we still managed to trek in the rain).
Whilst researching our trip, we read that the winter season (and along the Garden Route) was perfect for whale watching from land. If you drive down to a little town called Hermanus, you won’t be disappointed. Hermanus is considered to be one of the the best land-based whale watching locations in the world. Whilst we didn’t get to see Free Willy do a back flip, we did spot a couple of whales come up for air. If you are in the area long enough, you will see more than just whales coming up for air.
As you drive towards Cape Town, there are plenty of wineries along the way. These are beautiful, even in the winter time. If you have the time, even if, like me, you don’t drink, I would definitely recommend stopping into a few along the way. Otherwise, Stellenbosch and Franschoek (closer to Cape Town) have some gorgeous wineries that you can visit once your in Cape Town.
- Eat: East Head Cafe in Knysna. Not halal, but serve excellent fish and chips and magnificent views.
There is a reason Cape Town features on many Top 10 lists of cities to visit in the world. It is the perfect combination of city meets nature. The one thing I can definitively say is that you would need a week in Cape Town to see everything.
We stayed at The Commodore Hotel which is less than a 5 minute walk to the V&A Waterfront. Although we had our car, we didn’t want to have to rely on it to get around Cape Town and this is why the V&A Waterfront formed the perfect base. The hotel itself was a little run down but was undergoing renovations during our stay so perhaps the refurbishments have given it a bit of an uplift.
We had booked a few activities prior to our arrival in Cape Town, the most exciting one being abseiling off Table Mountain. Unfortunately, due to the weather, a lot of our activities had to be rescheduled or cancelled, including our trip to Robben Island. What we instead ended up booking was a bike tour and a hike to the top of Table Mountain with AWOL Tours & Travel. While we had initially planned to take the cable car to the top, I’m so pleased we were able to hike to the summit instead. It is a much nicer way to go and you can avoid the extremely long queues for the cable car. If you are planning to hike to the top, make sure you arrange a guide or go with someone who knows the trails. Alternatively, the most popular hiking trail is Platteklip to the Upper Cableway Station for which you wouldn’t need a guide, but it is a really steep hike and not for the faint hearted. The bike tour was also a great way to see the city and included stops in Bo-Kaap, a predominantly Muslim area of Cape Town, with beautifully coloured row houses and a ride through the bustling city.
If you intend on visiting the Cape of Good Hope, there are 2 things you should remember. The first is that you need to set off really early (as there are plenty of places to stop along the way) and the second is that you need a car (unless you plan on joining a tour group). There’s no real public transport that can get you there. If you have the time, and you’re keen you should drive via Hout Bay and Chapman’s Peak Drive. Alternatively, you can combine this with a visit to the wineries at Constantina Valley if you are so inclined.
You should definitely not miss the penguins at Boulder’s Beach in Simon Town. It was my first time seeing penguins in the wild and I think my jubilation was even greater than the toddlers and pre-teens who were around me.
The Cape of Good Hope is a hiker’s paradise with numerous hiking trails. If you are constrained by time, then the highlights version of the tour would mean making your way straight to Cape Point and up to the lighthouse if time permits and then down to the south-western most point on the African Continent for the obligatory picture with the sign post.
South Africa, and particularly Cape Town are famous for its beaches. Take a drive along the coast and you will find plenty. One such beach was the Muizenberg Beach with the colourful beach shacks (not very pretty up close though!). Although we were not able to visit ourselves, you should definitely visit Robben Island and the Kirstenbosch Botanical Gardens.
- The Kloof Street House (many items on the menu are halal)
- The Pot Luck Club and the Test Kitchen comes very highly recommended. We weren’t able to get a table so please book in advance if you are keen on going. You will have to verify whether the food is halal or not.
- V&A Market on the Wharf – there are lots of different food kiosks and quite a lot of them serve halal food.
- Charlie’s Bakery – again comes very highly recommended.
- Balducci’s – certain items on the menu are halal
If you’ve made it to the end of my post, congratulations are in order. There is so much more I could write about South Africa but I don’t want to overstay my welcome. If there is one piece of advice that I can end this post with, it is that 10 days is not enough. You should aim for 2 – 3 weeks to be able to fully explore all that there is to offer.
- Visit Durban
- Indians – whilst you do need to apply for a visa beforehand, there are no visa fees.
- Always check in online to avoid being bumped off the flight. If you can’t check in online, arrive early – this almost happened to me because I was on a code share flight and couldn’t check in online. Thankfully, because I was a member of the airline loyalty programme, I was able to get on the flight.
- In South Africa they distinguish between halal and halal kitchens. When the staff tell you that they operate a halal kitchen, it means that the they do not have any non-halal items in their food (i.e. pork, alcohol). When they say the meat is halal, it is just that.
- If you can, definitely hire a car and drive. You will be able to see so much more that way particularly as public transport is next to non-existent.