The idea of visiting South Africa found its seed during the run-up to my husband’s long-deserved retirement, which was coincidentally also our 40th wedding anniversary. If we were going to gift ourselves a special holiday, was there somewhere that either of us would like to find out more about and subsequently spend time exploring?
My husband had visited South Africa only on business, but I had never been there myself. So, we agreed that it fitted the bill and we decided to make arrangements for the trip many months in advance.
Planning the trip and expectations
Local travel agents were helpful and put together some interesting itineraries (although eye-wateringly expensive when you added in the cost of flights), so we ended up choosing the less costly and slightly more adventurous challenge of planning the whole trip ourselves and making bookings over the internet. Or rather, my husband did, when out of laziness I said I didn’t mind being surprised. My only caveat was not to take me to anywhere dangerous (meaning very high, very dark, very wild or very scary), and of course, we ended up experiencing most of those delights anyway.
So, before I lead you through a potted version of our travels, I need to admit to a certain degree of apprehension. It was something akin to the presumptions people might make when they are about to visit Northern Ireland, where I was born and grew up. It’s reasonable to assume that the need to be super cautious is still a necessity, but I’d like to think that this small country of ours is no longer quite so intimidating.
Assuming that you have some common sense while travelling about, you’ll generally find us hospitable, amenable and accommodating, which is indeed what happened during our visit to South Africa. The people we met on our travels in that most beautiful of countries were indeed all those things and more.
The Garden Route and Kariega Game Reserve
First of all, we had heard much about the ‘Garden Route’ with its spectacular scenery and interesting places to visit along the way. Yet we were keen to widen our experiences and didn’t adhere completely to the norm, eventually covering over 2,100 kilometres in total over two and a half weeks. We hired a medium-sized car in Port Elizabeth (a good idea to check tyre pressures before driving off), which is a must if you want some flexibility of movement, although anyone with time constraints might not be afforded this luxury.
Our first stop was the quiet town of Kenton-on-Sea, a quick stopover before making our way next morning to the Kariega Game Reserve on the Eastern Cape. It would be the most expensive financial outlay of our whole trip but an experience I’m never likely to forget. To see wild animals in such close proximity and in their natural habitat is hugely life-affecting and we experienced four of the ‘Big Five’ (lion, leopard, African elephant, Cape buffalo and rhinoceros), the leopard being the only one to remain elusive.
Of all the other animals though, my favourites were the giraffes – elegant, proud and endlessly regal as they perused the vast landscape of the Reserve from their privileged vantage point above the treetops. Our guide, JJ, was extremely knowledgeable, patient and, above all, confident in his job, creating a necessary feeling of trust between himself and his charges in the open Jeep.
Westwards to the summit of the Swartberg Pass
Onward then towards the west where we had a short stopover at St Francis Bay before carrying on to Knysna. My husband had booked us into the guest house ‘One on Bollard’ situated on Leisure Island, where our hosts Diane and Rob were genuinely welcoming and friendly, and immediately made us feel at home.
As we were staying for a couple of nights, we were able to explore the area and I can recommend the Robberg Walking Trail, provided that you are fairly fit and can deal reasonably well with sheer drops. We also had a go at zip-lining because, although I am actually frightened of heights myself, I needed to prove that at the age of 68 I was still up for a challenge or two.
Instead of continuing westward we headed north from the town of George, towards Prince Albert by way of the Swartberg Pass. It is a gravel road, 23 kilometres long, and is supposed to take about an hour to drive but took us at least two as I wouldn’t let my husband go much faster than five mph. Reaching the summit at 1,568m above sea level was well worth my anxiety though, despite an official sign that says ‘Die Top’ which I hoped just meant ‘Top’!
Wine, cars and Cape Town
Other places of note on the onward journey west included Oudtshoorn, Prince Albert, Swellendam and Franschhoek, all of which offered a diverse variety of high-quality eateries and interesting histories.
Famously, wine farms are abundant enroute right through to Cape Town itself and although we didn’t partake in a wine tasting experience, we did visit the Graff winery for lunch and enjoyed the incredible artwork smattered throughout the grounds.
Worth mentioning is the Franschhoek Motor Museum just outside Franschhoek, which showcases over 100 years of automotive history. It’s important to point out that to visit most of these places you need to book ahead as they are extremely busy and security can be understandably tight.
Our final destination would be Cape Town and we concluded the last few days in South Africa in another lovely guest house on the outskirts of Camps Bay. Having held on to the rented car, we were able to explore the coast at our leisure, including trips to the Cape of Good Hope, Constantia, Llandudno and of course, Table Mountain itself. The big attraction of the latter is the cable car ride to the summit, but be aware that queues can be very long and the weather unforgiving if you have to wait.
South Africa? A resounding ‘Yes’!
Did we love South Africa? A resounding yes. It has incredibly beautiful scenery, a very favourable climate and offered us wonderful hospitality wherever we went. Quite honestly, it was one of the best holiday experiences we have ever been on. But could we live there? I don’t think so. The gap between the haves and the have-nots is just too wide and I felt uneasy with it, despite living in a divided society myself. Here, it does not seem like such an insurmountable task that bridges our own gap anymore, but I think that South Africa has a much longer way to go, although I hope I’m wrong.
My final thought on the subject is that an organised tour through a travel agent is probably a good idea if you are limited by time constraints. However, by hiring a car there is much more flexibility in your itinerary and, providing you book most things in advance (given that these can mostly be cancelled at short notice), then it’s definitely the better option. Take your common sense with you and enjoy every single minute. We certainly did.