I had a strong desire to go back to Africa to do some safaris. It had been about 15 years since I’d seen the beautiful African wildlife and I was eager to try my luck at photographing some of these amazing creatures. Since I was already going to Namibia, I decided to extend my trip and cross into South Africa where I knew I could find a lot of wildlife. I did not have much of a plan for what I wanted to see in the country besides visiting Kruger National Park. I had also heard wonderful things about Cape Town and everyone kept saying that I should visit so I decided to begin my trip there. I planned it so that my last tour in Namibia would drop me off in Cape Town. I had also gotten in touch with a fellow world traveler Marco Pulido (IG: @pulidma) whom I knew would be traveling through Africa during the same time and would also end his tour in Cape Town. I was very much interested in meeting up with him to do some traveling together.
South Africa is a huge country with lots and lots of beautiful sites, including cosmopolitan cities, mountains, national parks, game reserves, vineyards, beaches, etc. I decided to divide my time there into three parts- 1) Cape Town, 2) the Garden Route, and 3) Kruger National Park with Johannesburg.. I wanted to spend some quality time in each place, especially in Cape Town where I wanted to spend a few days enjoying the city at a very leisurely pace.
PART I: CAPE TOWN
The first part of the trip, Cape Town, would also be done in partnership with Marco and I knew he liked to plan as much as possible ahead of time. We made a list together of the must-see’s in Cape Town to make sure that we hit as many of them as we could. We rented a two-bedroom apartment on airbnb on the corner of Roeland street and Buitenkant street in the city center; which had spectacular views of Table Mountain and Lion’s Head. Unfortunately the apartment had a roach infestation and I was not able to stay the entire time there. I am a roach-phobic and had to change to a different apartment in the Gardens area which ended up offering even better views of the mountains. I ended up splitting my time between friends that I had met on my Namibia tour, doing day tours with Marco, and hanging out with my friend Tina’s friends from Cape Town. Tina is another world traveler who ended up spending a couple of months in South Africa and was nice enough to put me in touch with some of her friends.
I spent a total of 7 days in Cape Town and every place I saw was absolutely incredible. Cape Town is truly one of the most beautiful cities I have ever seen. It offers everything one could ever hope for in a city- beautiful natural landscapes including amazing bays with stunning white sand beaches, tons of mountains to hike (18 peaks in total), green parks, museums, restaurants, bars, galleries, etc.
Visiting the Bays & Beaches:
Camps Bay: A beautiful area just west of Table Mountain National Park with tons of cafes and restaurants alongside Victoria Road; which runs parallel to the beach. It is a great place to go to happy hour and enjoy the sunset as you sip on a wonderful cocktail. I went here on my first night in Cape Town to celebrate our friend Theresa’s birthday from the Nomads tour group in Namibia.
Hout Bay: Another beautiful bay, a 30-minute drive from the city center. Here you get beautiful views of the surrounding mountains and this is where you find the popular Hout Bay Harbour Market from Friday through Sunday. You also have the fishing docks, restaurants right on the beach, and a crafts market alongside the wharf from where boat tours depart on trips around the bay to get views of Chapman’s Peak from the water.
My friend Tina put me in touch with Chris Bond (IG: @adventureboyct), an expert paraglider who is currently getting his commercial license and will be ready to take paying clients soon. He offered to take me on a tandem experience at no cost. This is a very popular sport in the city and a great activity to do when visiting. It is perfect way to get a nice view from above of the mountain tops, bays, and city. Usually the paragliding companies meet you at Signal Hill, one of the higher points in the mountains. Fortunately the day that I went with Chris the wind conditions were so perfect that he changed our location to Lion’s Head. I met him at the parking lot about half way up the mountain at Vida e Caffe. The porters usually meet the paragliders and their clients at this point to make money carrying their equipment. From there we hiked up the mountain on a nice marked trail to get to the launch pad. We waited patiently for our turn to fly. We stayed about one hour up in the air flying above Lion’s Head and over Camps Bay before landing on a green field near the beach. It was an incredible experience!!! Thank you Chris! Definitely contact him if you want to try this amazing sport while in Cape Town.
Hiking the Mountains:
Another popular activity in the city is the hike to the top of Table Mountain. There are many routes that you can take and they each offer a different experience. I met my friend Joe to do the most popular trail- Plattenklip Gorge. It is the shortest and most direct way up the mountain. The trailhead begins about 1.5km up from the lower cable car station. The trail is very steep but it only takes about 1.5 hours to complete one way, with a few breaks to catch your breath, take photos, and drink water. Once you are at the top you can spend as much time as you want admiring the views of the city. If you want to save your knees, I recommend taking the cable car down; which will offer another nice perspective of the mountain and different views of the city. You can buy tickets at the top, although the lines can get very long so I would recommend buying them online ahead of your visit.
Robben Island Museum Tour:
At the beautiful Victoria & Alfred Waterfront area you will find the Nelson Mandela Gateway from where you can take the ferry to Robben Island. Robben Island is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and a well known attraction for all visitors who want to learn about Apartheid and the political prisoners like Nelson Mandela who spent time on the island while it served as prison grounds. The island is now a museum offering really well organized and informative tours. The standard tour takes approximately 4 hours including two 30-min ferry rides (there and back to V&A). The tour includes a bus ride through the major points of the islands with commentaries from a local guide and an entry to the cells area where some of the most notable prisoners like Nelson Mandela were held. The commentaries inside the cells area are given by actual ex-prisoners of the island who served while Mandela was there. Nelson Mandela was held there for 17 of his 28 year sentence during apartheid. We heard many stories of sadness and injustice, but also of resilience, courage and determination to learn, heal, and live. Our guide, Sparks, was an ex prisoner of 7 years. He told us how difficult it was for him to get integrated back into society after his release. He eventually took a job leading the tour inside the cells, which he sees as part of his healing. He is one of 500 ex prisoners that remain alive from Robben Island prison years and continues to keep the truth from this dark part of South African history alive. It was a great learning experience that I highly recommend to anyone visiting Cape Town.
You can buy tickets online to ensure a spot on one of the day’s four tours. This is truly one of the most touching experiences of our stay in the city. The visit gives you an opportunity to understand a little bit of the suffering and triumph over the evil of apartheid. You also get a beautiful view of Cape Town from the ferry and during one of the breaks, you get to see part of the penguin colony that lives on the island.
Cape of Good Hope and the Penguins:
Another must-do while in Cape Town is a road trip to the Cape Peninsula to visit the Cape of Good Hope. We opted to join a group tour that took us by car to the town of Kommetjie, from where we offloaded the electric bikes and continued to ride 40km around the peninsula. It was a beautiful, fun, and adventurous way to enjoy this beautiful place. We ended the biking at the base of the hill where the lighthouse is found. From there we hiked on the mountain ridge with beautiful views of the ocean, goingall the way down to reach the most west-southern point of the continent.
Wine Tasting tour in Stellenboch & Franschhoek:
And why would you make it all the way here and not try the amazing South African wines?! That is if you drink of course! although I am not a big drinker, I am definitely a wine lover. I also love nature and a trip to the wine country to the towns of Stellenboch and Franschhoek is absolutely worth any hang-over! This wine area houses 700 wine houses, big and small. You can find many companies that will take you on a full day tour to either place or do a combination of both. In our case we found the company Wineflies.com which took us to some of the best wineries in Stellenboch and gave us a quick visit of Franschhoek. We had a terrific guide that chose a nice mix of wineries of different sizes that offered wines of different grape varieties so we could get a good idea of the region’s wine. Overall the service, the quality of the wines, and the amazing natural beauty of the vineyards made for a fantastic experience! We began in Hoopenburg Vineyards where the local guide explained all about the wine making process in great detail and at the end gave us some great wines with a small tray of chocolates as pairings. We followed with a visit to a very elegant wine house/restaurant called Chamonix where we sat in a beautiful outside patio and tried some amazing wines. We also tried the traditional Biltong or Kudu & Ostrich game jerky. Next we made a visit to Rickety Bridge, a very large estate where we had an amazing lunch with beautiful views of the extensive vineyards. We made a detour to Franschhoek, another smaller but very picturesque wine town where we were able to walk around and enjoy some of the art and food. We ended the day at Mitre’s Edge, a family owned boutique winery located at the foothills of the Simonsberg Mountain. We entered the family’s big house where they have various tasting rooms. If you are lucky, the owner herself Lola Nicholls will guide you through the tastings if she is available. We got to go to a special room in the basement of the house where we paired some amazing wines with delicious cheeses. The service was incredible!
Hiking to the top of Lion’s Head at Sunset:
Another amazing experience was hiking up Lion’s Head for sunset. I met my friend Marco at Vida e Caffe on Signal Hill Road, the same place where I had begun my paragliding adventure. From there we climbed about 45 minutes up the mountain at a very leisurely pace stopping for some photos along the way. It is a zig-zag trail up the mountain with beautiful views, feeling easier than the Table Mountain hike but definitely riskier as it offers a lot more exposure. At one point during the hike you have the option to continue on the regular trail around the mountain before you make the final climb to the top, or follow a steeper climb on a via ferrata using some steel ladders and steps. I recommend opting for this route on the way up but not necessarily on the way down, especially if it is getting dark. The views from the top are truly incredible, especially the twelve apostles illuminated by the late afternoon sun. On the way down it got dark quickly but it was nice seeing the city light up just below. It is easy to order an Uber from Vida e Caffe to get back to your city accommodations.
I was lucky to get in touch once again with another one of Tina’s friends, Mark, another amazing world traveler, full of great energy and lots of stories about living in other countries like Brazil. He was definitely the perfect host and wanted to show me as much as he could of his city. We pretty much took care of the rest of the sites on my list that I had yet to see before leaving Cape Town. We went to the Biscuit Mill Market for breakfast, another wonderful place with tons of food stalls, live music, and lots of shops. We also walked around the Muisenberg Beach where you find the famous colored wooden huts, James Beach a big surfing spot, and had a drink at a great Latin restaurant called Cape Cuba. We ended a perfect day with a visit to the Kirstenboch Botanical Gardens, some of the best I’ve ever seen. They feel more like a natural park at the base of the mountains with beautiful elevated walkways and nature trails.
One of my nights in Cape Town I met with Charlotte, a client from my summer trips with G Adventures and her friends. We went to Marco’s African Place to try some African game meat, we tried Ostrich, Kudu, Springbok, and Crocodile. We later went to Mama Africa’s for some drinks and more great African music. This restaurant has a good reputation for great game food and fun ambiance but unfortunately it was all booked for dinner. Two great streets for a night out with great restaurants, bars and clubs are Long Street where Mama Africa is located and Kloof Street.
PART II: THE GARDEN ROUTE
Another big highlight and something that was high on my list was to drive the Garden Route. This is a 300-kilometre (190 mi) southeastern stretch of road from the Western Cape to Storms River in the Eastern Cape. We went as far as Port Elizabeth in the East. Marco decided to extend his trip to spend a few more days in the area and came with me on the route. He drove everyday except for one afternoon when I decided to give driving on the left side of the road a try. It was difficult but fun at the same time! The best and most affordable way to do the route is by renting and driving your own car. This option gives you the most flexibility by allowing you to choose the stops that you want for each day. You can do the route in a fast paced manner in about four days or in a very slow paced manner taking as long as one month. We chose to spend 8 days/7 nights visiting various towns deemed as some of the best highlights on the route, according to our research. Here is a summary of our itinerary which worked really well for us:
Day 1: Cape Town to Oudtshoorn, 343mi 6.5hr. Drive from Cape Town South to L’Aghullas then continue on to Oudtshoorn taking Route 62 through the towns of Swellendame and Barrydale. Night: Oudtshoorn
We decided to do the longest part of the drive on this day as we wanted to get to Oudtshoorn and take it easier on the following days to do more activities. We first headed to L’Agulhas, the most Southern point in Africa where the Indian and Atlantic oceans meet. After enjoying the views and taking photos we continued on to catch Route 62 and drive through the beautiful canyon passing through Swellendame and Barrydale to end in Oudtshoorn. In this town you can find beautiful huge guest farm houses with big gardens and beautiful patios. This is your base to see the Cango Caves and visit an Ostrich Farm.
Day 2: Oudtshoorn to Wilderness, 45mi 1hr. We spent the day visiting the Cango Caves and visiting an Ostrich Farm before heading to Wilderness for the following two days. Night: Wilderness.
The Cango Caves are a highlight in the area, a 200-million year old limestone cave system in the Swartberg Mountains, about 30 minutes north of Oudtshoorn. They offer guided tours of the caves every hour from 9 to 4pm- the Standard and the Adventure tour. We opted for the Adventure one which takes you deeper into the cave. We covered about 1.5km of the total 5km of the cave. The interior is a pretty stunning show of stalagmites and stalactites and worn out limestone that looks like marble. We went through many fun narrow passages, and some a bit difficult to squeeze through. Our guide Bea was fantastic, she even allowed me to stay at the back of the line as we were exiting the caves so I could see her turn the lights off and get a feel for the darkness and silence of the empty caves. The adventure tour lasted about 90 minutes. We then headed to the “Safari Ostrich Farm” just south of town to see one of the many farms in the area and enjoy a guided tractor tour. We saw a ton of ostridges running around the farm from the comfort and safety of our open tractor. We visited the incubator and learned all about these creatures and the ostridge leather industry in South Africa. They have a big souvenir shop and a restaurant there. Open daily from 8 to 4pm with tours offered every hour.
Day 3: Wilderness, only drove about 2 miles out of town to go hiking at Wilderness National Park. We went to the Half Collared Kingfisher trailhead. We got a permit from the ranger just at the entrance of the trail and we hiked about 4.5km (3mi) roundtrip to visit a waterfall. The trail was a system of well maintained wooden and cobblestone bridges and steps up and down the hills, alongside the Touws River. Afterwards we headed to town to visit one of the cute little restaurants. I recommend trying the Boboti, a delicious traditional South African dish. Night: Wilderness
Day 4: Drive Wilderness to Knysna Elephant Park (past Knysna), then back to Knysna, 58mi 1.5hrs. We headed straight to the Knysna Elephant Park thinking we would do one of the regular 45min elephant tours in the morning but when we got there we opted for the afternoon elephant walk at 4:30pm (there are only two per day) which would give us more personal time with the elephants. While we waited for our tour to begin we had lunch at the center and later went for a drive to hang out at Lookout Beach in Plattenberg Bay, just 7 miles east of the center. The Elephant walk was one of the big highlights for me of the entire Garden Route. The center was pretty amazing, what began with the rescue of two baby elephants has now been around for 20 years and it is now a world-class rescue and conservation place that has seen more than 40 elephants through its gates. Their main mission is to rescue orphan elephants and raise them. That afternoon we were a group of six people for the walk and we each got assigned to an elephant guide and an elephant. The elephants walked in a straight line following each other and we each walked right next to our assigned elephant and our guide who gave us the history of the park, the elephant’s rescue story, and instructions on how to stay safe during the walk. My elephant was named Keisha who came to the center as an orphan baby and is now 15 years old. She had lost her momma as a baby and tried to feed from another momma elephant but was injured, she ripped a hole through her ear (as you can see in the photo below). Keisha had to be fed by bottle at the center and eventually got adopted by another elephant momma. Samson was my elephant guide, a very energetic, passionate man who works with all the elephants and visitors for many years. No words can describe what I felt walking next to a wild elephant. I had my heart in my throat the whole time. It was truly an incredible experience that I will never forget!
Day 5: Knysna Stay with a visit to Tenikwa Wildlife Awareness & Rehabilitation, 34mi 48min. I wanted a heavy focus on getting to know the local wildlife while in South Africa. On the Garden Route I wanted to learn about the local sanctuaries and rehabilitation centers where the injured, abandoned, and rescued animals are being cared for and allowed time to heal. Tenikwa is one of these amazing places that are working hard to protect and rescue wildlife. We paid for the morning photographer’s private tour. The tour offers the chance to enjoy a walk in the Cape Floral Fynbos where the cheetahs and other cats live. We got to be in the same natural enclosure as one of the cheetahs as it took its daily enrichment time out (or walk). They only allow visitors to enter animal enclosures where it is deemed as “non-invasive”. They also have the white lion, several serval cats, and all kinds of beautiful birds. Some animals go back to the wild, and some stay in the center for the rest of their lives, depending on their capacity to survive on their own in their new circumstances. This center admits 200 to 400 animals annually. They also rescue animals that are bred for the hunting industry. They have 30 employees working there who are passionate about these animals and about educating visitors. Another amazing and unforgettable experience! Night: Knysna.
After the tour we headed back to Knysna to check out the Knysna lagoon and the East Head viewpoint. The Knysna river goes through a treacherous narrow channel before it meets the Indian ocean. At the mouth of the channel there are two geological points of interest known as the Heads offering dramatic cliff views. You can reach the East Head viewpoint by car and walk down to the rocky beach. The West Head is a private reserve called Featherbed Nature Reserve and you have to take a ferry to get to it. There are a lot of activities that you can do in this town like canoeing, kayaking, pleasure cruises, and oyster tasting. You can try Knysna’s fresh oysters at one of the many great restaurants in the promenade area near the marina. Night: Knysna.
Day 6: Drive Knysna to Port Elizabeth 175mi 3.5hrs with a visit to Tsitsikamma National Park en route to do the kayak and lilo adventure with Untouched Adventures- an outfitter with offices inside the park. We did the 2.5 hour tour which included a hike (or kayak if the waves are not too rough) to the suspension bridge and canoeing into the Storm’s River Gorge, and later floating on the lilos to go deeper into the narrower parts of the canyon. It also included some cliff jumping- 3 and 6 meters high. On our way out of the park we visited the Big Tree of Tsitsikamma, one of the nationally protected Outeniqua Yellowwood Trees that grow up to 50m in height and as old as 2000 years. Night: Port Elizabeth.
Day 7: Port Elizabeth, final day of the Garden Route. I spent the day site-seeing, went to the oceanfront where I saw a canoe race around Shark Rock Pier, walked around the Promenade area and then took an Uber to go see the historical center including the top of the Donkin Reserve Lighthouse. The town center did not feel particularly safe, local people kept telling to not walk in certain areas. Later in the day I met up with Marco to go to Stanley Street for our last lunch on the Route before saying our goodbyes. I took a flight to Durban.
I was curious about Durban as I had learned that the culture was a mix of African, Indian and Colonial influences and you could get really good Indian Food there. This is the third largest city in the country, located in the province of KwaZulu-Natal. I got a cheap flight for around $65 there just to stay for two nights and at least walk around the main parts of town and try the famous Bunny Chow dish. Since my flight got in at night I decided to stay in La Mercy, a town near the beach and the airport. I stayed in a really beautiful house as one the guests of Alex and Dorothy on Airbnb. Alex is a retired Chef who worked for the big hotel chains and has cooked for Nelson Mandela (three months after his release from prison), Michael Jackson, Princess Dianne, etc. Alex and Dorothy were excellent hosts and my room which was on the second floor was right next to a terrace that offered views of the ocean. Unfortunately there was a thick jungle strip between the avenue and the ocean so I could not go visit the beach. I had a full day to explore the city but I focused on going to an area called Central Park in a nice neighborhood full of restaurants where I tried the Bunny Chow. I later headed to the UShaka Marine world; which is a large themed park with eight different sections featuring a water park, an aquarium, and a village walk among other attractions. I pretty much spent my whole time there at a Xhosa and Zulu jewelry and accessories boutique talking to the manager and her friends and trying on a bunch of jewelry. They joined in the fun and modeled a few things for me and taught me all about the uses of the Xhosa jewelry. I also met a woman that was trying on a traditional dress to go to a Xhosa wedding.
PART III: KRUGER NATIONAL PARK & JOHANNESBURG
It turns out that Black Friday is very big in South Africa and you see it advertised everywhere in the country, even in Namibia. Well lucky for me, I found a super sale on a 4-day camping safari in Kruger offering a 40% discount off the regular price. I got a super cool package to stay in Pretoriouskop camp near the Nimbi entrance with Outlook Travel for only USD $470.
Kruger is the largest game reserve in South Africa with an area of 19,485 km2 (7,523 sq mi) and it offers many different options for safari camps. You need to choose what camp or reserve you want to stay at depending on your budget and what area of the park you want to visit. The South is said to have more animals than the North, which means the latter will probably feel more remote as it will have less visitors. I chose Pretoriouskop in the South as I found the amazing sale with them and I had also read really good reviews on them. My safari package included a sunset game drive with a park ranger on the day of arrival, two game drives per day on days 2 and 3 and one morning drive on day 4 before leaving the park, plus all meals, and my own tent accommodation with a great view of the bush just outside of it. I don’t know if Kruger is one of the best places to see wildlife or if we got lucky on these particular days but we ended up seeing three of the “Big Five” on our very first game drive. The drives were done in open vehicles and a driver guide who explains all about the animals and the bush. It was constantly raining during the first two days but they gave us these big rain coats with fleeces and a hoodie so we were able to survive the cold and wet weather. The rain did not keep the animals away, it actually felt like we saw more animals on the days that it rained than on the final two days when the sun came out.
To give you an idea of what you can see there, we saw hyenas, hippos, giraffes, impalas, springbok, kudus, rhinos, lions, leopards, cheetahs, elephants, bushbok, vervet monkeys, baboons, buffalos and many others. There are about 1,000 leopards, 2,500 lions, and 18,000 elephants in Kruger so your chances of seeing the Big Five (lion, rhino, leopard, buffalo, elephant) are pretty high. On my last day I decided to skip the game drive and opted to pay for a bush walk with a park ranger. Inside camp you find a fast food restaurant, a souvenir shop and a ranger station where you can book game drives if you wish to do more through the park. You can also drive there on your own and rent a tent or room accommodations and do your own game drives in a rental car. I highly recommend doing the drives through the park or with a guided tour so that you can learn from the great knowledge these guides have about the wildlife. I went with four other people on the bush walk plus our two guides who carried rifles with them just in case of an emergency. They don’t shoot the animals, they just scare them away if needed. The guides gave a nice interpretation of the bush and the micro world that inhabits it; which is something you don’t get to see when you are on a game drive. We saw dung beetles in action rolling the elephant dung into small balls, milipieds, termites, analyzed animal tracks, and learned about animal behavior. Although it is hard to see large animals during these walks, we still managed to spot a giraffe, a group of impalas, and a buffalo from a distance.
And the last stop on my trip was Johannesburg where I stayed for three days. I stayed in a very cool loft overlooking the busiest street in Maboneng, an artsy, vibrant and colorful neighborhood full of cafes, shops, art galleries and tons of crafts street vendors. Yet another beautiful and cheap gem of the Airbnb rental world. I also decided to try an Airbnb Experiences tour. The best way to learn about a place is to do a tour with a local guide. I did the “Don’t watch Soweto, Be part of it” tour. Our guide Ntsiki was extremely knowledgeable and passionate about her subject. She took us through the best historical highlights of Soweto, covering every corner of the township that was part of the struggles against the apartheid regime. As part of the tour we visited the Hector Pietersen Museum and learned all about the student Hector who was shot during the Soweto student uprising when police opened fire on students protesting against the enforcement of teaching in Afrikaans in the schools. Our visit included some great traditional Soweto food and drinks at the Soweto Brewery. This is also where you find Mandela’s house and Mandela’s family restaurant.
I also visited the Apartheid Museum where the history of the rise and fall of Apartheid is told. The complex is beautifully designed using buildings, open space art, and landscape to tell the story of triumph over evil. It is a MUST for anyone in Johannesburg!
I ended with a visit to the Cradle of Humankind, a UNESCO world heritage site and the Sterkfontein Caves where limestone was extracted by miners and where “Mrs Ple” a 3.2 million year-old fossil and “The Taung Child” a 2.5 million year-old fossil were both found. These are hominids or human’s earliest ancestors… when ape began to walk upright and on two legs. No one else had joined my tour that day so I had the guide all to myself. He was extremely knowledgeable about the city, Apartheid and all the struggles that South Africa faces today like corruption and rampant unemployment.
South Africa is a beautiful country with great tourism infrastructure, amazing food, very welcoming people, and tons of natural beauty. The big problems here are rampant corruption which is seen and felt on a daily basis as people have to face the imposed rolling black out’s throughout the country known as “load-shedding” and of course, the high unemployment currently reported at 29%, but locals say it is more like 50% in reality. Inspite of these problems, I found South Africa to be extremely beautiful, charming, and the perfect place for a great vacation.
I highly recommend visiting South Africa, it is truly a unique place and now one of my favorite countries!