South Africa – the Rainbow Nation, located at the very bottom of the African continent, with a population in the vicinity of 58 million.
Our plan was to have 3 nights in Cape Town, drive the Garden Route from Cape Town to Port Elizabeth via various points then fly from Port Elizabeth via Johannesburg to Kruger National Park. So here we go……
Cape Town’s urban sprawl appeared to have got closer towards the airport from how I remembered it in 2005 – there were still the informal settlements along the roadside though. Some things don’t change. Table Mountain looms over the city to our left as we drive to our accommodation. Our apartment is between the City Centre/Downtown area and the V&A – Victoria and Albert Waterfront, both within easy walking distance. The jetlag didn’t really kick in so to get ourselves orientated we boarded the Hop On Hop Off bus that took us on the red route – from Long Street, up Kloof Nek Road past the Bo Kaap neighbourhood to the Cable Car Station that takes you to the top of Table Mountain (unfortunately due to the weather not operating at this time). Spectacular views back over the city, the waterfront and Lion’s Head filled our camera lenses. Coming down off the mountain the route hits the east coast – Camp’s Bay, Clifton and Sea Point around to the V&A where we get off and head into the Two Oceans Aquarium. A fabulous experience for any age group, exhibiting the incredible diversity of the Two Oceans – Indian and Atlantic, marine life with over 3,000 creatures from the smallest species to the massive great white shark.
The V&A is open into the evening with markets, retail outlets and restaurants to meet everyone’s requirements.
The following morning saw us back at the V&A ready to board the ferry to Robben Island. Robben Island is where thousands of South Africa’s freedom fighters, including Nelson Mandela, were incarcerated for many years. From the ferry, busses tour the island including the graveyard of people who died from leprosy, the lime quarry, the bluestone quarry and then ending with the viewing of Mr Mandela’s cell at the maximum security prison. The tour guides were prisoners of Robben Island and their harrowing experiences are portrayed through their captivating commentary. It’s a very sombre cruise back to Cape Town reflecting on the atrocities that lay behind us.
Incorporated with the Hop On Hop Off bus ticket is a walking tour – we chose the vibrant Bo Kaap tour. The colourful houses, cobbled streets and smells of spices fill the streets of this lively neighbourhood which was formerly known as the Malay Quarter and is packed full of history and culture. During the twentieth century, the Apartheid government declared the Bo Kaap a Muslim only area and forced other religions and ethnicity to leave the area, being very unique as during this time most working class and non white were being moved away from the cities. The Bo Kaap is one of the most photographed area’s of the city.
The following morning we collected our car, right hand drive, left side of the road just like we do here – so it’s a breeze. We head south down the Cape Peninsula taking up past beautiful Hout Bay, a quaint old fishing village, across the peninsula to Fish Hoek and into the Cape of Good Hope Nature Reserve. The mountainous scenery and secluded beaches make for incredible photography. We pass a number of ostrich and a few baboons as we make our way to the Cape Point lighthouse. The original lighthouse was built in 1859 on the summit of Cape Point, 238 metres above sea level with a newer lighthouse built in 1914 and is the most powerful on the South African coast.
We then follow the coast up the eastern side of the peninsula with the Indian Ocean and False Bay to our right. Boulders Beach is a busy location as there is a colony of African Penguins (also known as Jackass Penguins) that waddle in and out of the water. We didn’t stop as there is another colony with much fewer tourists further around the coast – Stony Point, Betty’s Bay, but that was after we had stayed the night at Pringle Bay. The drive along False Bay was spectacular especially as we were doing this at sunset – fog in the mountains to our left and the sun setting over the ocean to our right. Pringle Bay is a small coastal community with many of the houses used as holiday homes by their owner’s, along with a few restaurants and curio shops.
Stony Point is an old whaling station and the conservation area at Betty’s Bay was established to combat the decreasing numbers of the incredibly endangered African Penguin. On arrival in the car park you will already start to see them roaming around. Once you pay the entrance fee you are able to walk along a boardwalk and get really quite close to them either sitting on their nests or coming into and out of the water. Hidden in the rocky outcrops along with boardwalk – the rock hyrax, more commonly known as a Dassie – a part of the rat family.
The rest of the day sees us heading towards the southernmost tip of the African continent – Cape Agulhas, via Hermanus, where we walk along the cliffs and wander through the local markets. Hermanus is a seaside town that comes alive with the whale watching season. Southern Right Whales are the most prolific of the whales that come into this area from June to December (we were there at the end of April) choosing the this as their home and “playground” to mate and give birth in the sheltered sandy bays.
From Hermanus we follow the R43 and other smaller roads through rural landscapes until we arrive at our accommodation in Agulhas. We head straight to the most southerly tip of Africa, where the Indian and Atlantic oceans meet in a tumultuous crashing of waves to watch the sun setting on another truly spectacular South African day. The sky and clouds overhead reflected in the ponds of beautiful pinks and mauves – a photographer’s delight. The lighthouse was built to aid early explorers navigate the rough seas off Cape Agulhas, and is the second oldest working lighthouse in southern Africa which began operating in 1849.
Only an hour from Agulhas is De Hoop Nature Reserve – a 340 square kilometre reserve, a favourite for hikers, cyclists, bird and whale watchers. Soon after we enter the reserve we see Cape mountain zebra, bontebok, eland, baboon and many bird species. There is a boardwalk that leads to kilometres of endless pristine beach and rock pools. At this time of the year we almost have the place to ourselves – it’s absolutely stunning. The sun it out but the water is chilly – we take a dip anyway.
The mountains are always out to our left but now we have to head towards them. Again we take the less travelled road and wind our way through to Oudstoorn – the ostrich capital of the world. Very, very early the following morning we make our way about 8kms out of town and turn down a dirt road were we enter a meerkat conservation site. The meerkat is a member of Africa’s shy five, along with porcupine, bat eared fox, aardvark and aardwolf. We have a cup of tea, take our lightweight aluminium chair and follow our guide through the semi dessert area into the meerkat’s natural environment where we sit……and wait. As the sunshine hits and warms up their burrow one by one they emerge to their standing pose, stomach to the warmth of the sun, sussing out their surroundings after a night underground. Curious and wonderful to watch, they have extraordinarily well honed senses. They go about their daily routine of foraging and frolicking – insectivores living in gangs of up to 20 members. The family we are watching is 13 and they are lead by a dominant female which can breed up to 3 times a year. It’s a fantastic experience and a unique privilege to get this close to these little creatures in the wild.
About 30kms from Oudtshoorn lie the spectacular underground wonder – Cango Caves, their vast halls and towering formations situated in a limestone ridge parallel to Swartberg Mountains. We enter the caves and I have seen nothing like it – organ like pillars soaring 15 meters high and hundreds of thousands of years old – we are drawn to the tall, stalagmites reaching towards the ceiling. They are still active and still growing. The chambers and tunnels are breathtaking and extend over 4km making them among the largest caves in the world. The tour is open to about a quarter of caves – 500m.
Swartberg Pass is a natural wonder that is considered one of the most spectacular and best known mountain passes in South Africa. Giant rock formations and cliff faces tower over the road and in other locations the views are breathtaking – mountains, valleys and waterfalls. Twisty hair pin bends, high elevations and steep descents on this mostly single road track make this drive slow but very rewarding.
The Ostrich is native to certain parts of Africa and at Safari Ostrich Farm they have Zimbabwean, Kenyan and South African ostriches. It’s a working farm that offers tours by tractor where the largest bird in the world will come right up next to you and the guide explains the breeding cycle of the ostrich, the food they are fed, carving of eggs, incubation of eggs and if you want to you can feed them yourself. No tour is complete without an option to purchase goods made out of all things ostrich – leather goods from their skin, carved eggs and feathers – a very comprehensive and educational tour.
Heading back towards the coast, Wilderness, we can see a massive fog that has rolled in over the sea. We can barely see the beach which is directly below us from our accommodation – it hasn’t happened in a very long time we are told. It doesn’t stop us from getting down onto the beach with thundering waves crashing onto the sand – it’s deserted, but beautiful in an eerie way.
Knysna Elephant Park is a very unique experience – a facility that houses and cares for orphaned African Elephants. Elephants that require relocation, rescued from culls and ex circus animals. The daily walk offers the opportunity to interact, feed and walk amongst the heard. The guides know everything about elephants – any question was answered with passion and energy. We stayed overnight at the lodge where our room overlook the boma where the elephant’s sleep. The breakfast walk with the elephants allows you to walk alongside these gentle giants, occasionally stopping to allow us to rub their dry and dusty skin. They are incredibly graceful and don’t mind us being so close to them.
If it was elephants that we wanted, it was elephants that we got in Addo National Park – situated close to Port Elizabeth (from the south gate you are in downtown Port Elizabeth within 30 minutes) and South Africa’s the third largest national park, Addo is known for it’s large heards of elephants and is the only park in the world to house Africa’s “Big 7“ (elephant, rhinoceros, lion, buffalo, leopard, southern right whale and great white shark) in their natural habitat. Being a national park you must stick to the paved/tarred roads, having said that we still had some really up close experiences with a number of animals – particularly elephants and warthogs. The usually skittish warthog was happy to graze within a few metres of the car. A species that we saw which is unusual to spot, a leopard tortoise.
From Port Elizabeth we flew via Johannesburg to Hoedspruit (Eastgate Airport) – one of 3 three airports for accessing Kruger National Park, with the dramatic Drakensburg Mountains below us. Our home for the next 4 nights is nThambo Tree Camp in the Klaserie Private Nature Reserve which forms part of the Greater Kruger and shares unfenced borders with the Kruger National Park. Being a private nature reserve there is no limits to where you can go on safari. Off-roading and bush bashing, without impacting the vegetation too much, is the norm. This allows intimate experiences with the animals that are within a couple of metres of the vehicle.
nThambo is stilted wooden chalets with only 10 guests at a time. Our days start early, 5.30am wake up, tea/coffee/rusks and out in the open 4×4 safari vehicle by 6.00am. The best game viewing is first thing in the morning when the animals are active. Our tracker and guide point out all sorts of animals, bird, insects, tracks/foot marks on the ground, dung and flora – their depth of knowledge about the bush is amazing. Issac, our tracker, has been sitting on the front of safari vehicles spotting for 37 years and his eyesight at night, spotting chameleons in particular, is simply incredible. Mid morning sees us back at camp for a full and delicious breakfast that the kitchen staff prepared while we were out on safari. Some time to relax and reflect on the plethora of wildlife you have seen during the morning, before lunch is served around 2.00pm. Again, the food coming out of the kitchen is truly amazing. As the African sun begins to ease away and the shadows start to form we are back on safari. The animals become more active again after the heat of the day and the nocturnal animals get ready for their prime hunting time. With the sun setting over the bushveld, our guide finds a picturesque, and safe, place to stop for a sundowner – a safari tradition. Once the natural light is gone out comes a powerful spotlight and we are in search of eyes that reflect – chameleon, leopard, lion, bush babies. We return to camp once we are satisfied that there is nothing lurking that we have missed. The dinner table conversation is full of excited reflection of the day’s sightings. We do it all again tomorrow.
On one particular day we spotted the Big 5 (lion, leopard, elephant, buffalo, rhino) and Issac allowed me to handle a chameleon – very special. I miss the African bush and hope to be back there soon.