Travelling plays an important role in my life and I therefore try to do at least one long distance journey per year. It has always been a dream of mine to go to South Africa and experience the magnificent wildlife in its natural environment. In September 2015 I finally made this dream come true and went on a three week roundtrip through South Africa and Swaziland. I am not exaggerating when I say that no country before has touched and inspired me as much as South Africa did. It’s an impressive and beautiful land, blessed with breathtaking nature and fascinating wildlife and I can only recommend you to go there and convince yourself of its beauty and special vibes.
If you are looking for some inspiration, here are my personal highlights:
Safari in South Africa
The safari was definitely MY personal highlight of this journey. I was lucky to do two, one in the worldfamous Kruger Nationalpark and another one in the beautiful Hluhluwe- Nationalpark, South Africa’s oldest conservation area.
If you are in South Africa, you should not miss out on doing a game drive. Experiencing the wildlife in its natural environment is beyond words and an experience you will certainly remember for a lifetime.
You can self-drive through most parts of the parks but I strongly recommend to consider a guided safari in an open game viewing vehicle. The qualified guides are experts in sensing and following the wildlife and therefore a guided tour increases the chances of spectacular and memorable wildlife encounters. Also they will be more than willing to answer all your questions concerning the park and its inhabitants.
If you are looking for a place to stay, you might want to check out the Timbavati Safari Lodge, located at about 20 minutes from the heart of the world-renowned Kruger National Park Game Reserve (Orpen Gate). It’s a beautiful and clean middle-class accomodation, nestled among mature indigenous trees in a spacious garden. The guests stay in colorful, traditional rondavels with en-suite bathrooms in a truly African ambiance. All huts come with nice little terraces that invite to have a drink while enjoying the sunset and observing the wild animals, like Zebras and Giraffes that often come by for a visit. (don’t worry predators don’t come in :-))
Hike the Table Mountain
During your stay in Cape Town one of the “Must-Dos” is going up to the table mountain observation platform, that offers great views of the city and the surrounding areas. The classic way of conquering the table mountain is by cable car. The floor of the circular cabin rotates which allows a stunning 360° view of the area. The ride to the top only takes about 5 minutes and represents by far the fastest and most comfortable option to get to the peek. A ride (return) will cost you only about € 15. For more information on the cable car and the booking process click here to visit the official cableway website.
However, the by far best and most satisfying way to reach the top of the table mountain is to walk. There are several marked trails that lead to the top with different levels of difficulty. If you consider walking up the table mountain you should always consult the tourist information for weather and safety reports. Please note that you should avoid hiking by yourself, especially if you plan to go on a longer hike far off the main tourist routes. For the sake of your health, you should not walk if you are an inexperienced walker and lack a good level of fitness. The table mountain area comprises rough terrain and the climb can be strenuous and challenging.
I personally recommend you to book a guided hike with an experienced guide. Not just because of safety reasons but also because a trained guide will provide you with a lot of interesting information about the mountain, the plants and the wildlife. Before I came to South Africa I had done a lot of research on the companies that offer guided table mountain walks. One of the best rated on Tripadvisor and similar travel websites was www.tablemountainwalks.co.za, a small company offering a variety of hikes on table mountain and the surrounding areas.
Personally I was very happy with my choice. My guide Margaret was a very kind and friendly person and she had a great knowledge of the area. We walked in a small group of five and she paid a lot of attention to personally get to know every participant. The tour had a very familial and relaxed character and I enjoyed it very much. Although my legs were burning after we had finally reached the top, the view and the impressions were well worth the pain!
The city of Cape Town itself was another highlight of my trip. Due to its enviable location between the table mountain and the sea, it certainly ranks among the world’s most beautiful cities.
In order to enjoy your stay in Cape Town as much as possible I would recommend you to stay there at least 3-4 days, especially if you are thinking of taking trips to the surrounding areas.
For a first impression of the city and its neighborhoods you can take a hop-on, hop-off bustour. This is of course a very touristic activity but it provides you with the opportunity to get around the city and get off and on whereever you want. For example, you can hop off at the water front, do a little shopping there or grab some food and hop on the next bus or simple walk to the next stop.
Insider-tip: The city sightseeing company also offers some free walking tours. We did the historic city tour and it was a really great experience. We had a fantastic guide (whose name I unfortunatly forgot) and he provided us with a lot of interesting and useful information about South Africa and its history. To be honest, during the 90 minutes of the free walking tour I learned more about the country than on the whole 2,5 weeks roundtrip that I had completed before arriving in Cape Town. The free walking tour is tip-based, which means that you pay whatever you think is appropriate.
Other than that, I strongly recommend you to reserve at least half a day for enjoying the historic waterfront. This area used to be the old harbour of the city but throughout the years it has been converted into a very nice dinner and shopping area. There are many nice national and international restaurants, fancy bars, cosy pubs and of course endless shopping opportunities.
If you are into arts and crafts, you will love the craft market where you can spend hours just strolling around and marvelling at the hand crafted art-works. And in case you get hungry just move on to the food market next door, a stunning medley of exotic spices, international dishes and local specialities. To be honest, I could have spent hours there tasting all the different kind of foods and taking pictures of this colorful scene.
Another place you should definitely put on your “To-Do” list for Cape Town is the historic quarter of Bo-Kaap, which is famous for its colorful houses. During the day time it is pretty safe to walk around there on your own but if you feel more comfortable in a group, there is also a free walking tour of Bo-Kaap.
Other things worth a visit:
- For party and drinks check out Long Street
- Wine tasting in Stellenbosch or Robertson
- Day excursion to the Cape of good hope– you may like to join the bicycle tour?
- Signal Hill with beautiful views of the sunset
- Meet the rich and famous at Camp’s Bay
Do a whale watching tour
South Africa is one of the best destinations in the world for watching whales and other marine mammals in their natural environment. Between June and November, thousands of Southern Right Whales and Humpback whales leave their feeding grounds off Antarctica, migrating to warmer climates and reaching the shores of South Africa in June to give birth and mate.
This annual gathering offers visitors from around the world a spectacular opportunity to watch these giants animals on a boat trip or even from land, enjoying their power and sheer joy of life.
If you are in South Africa during this period of time, you should not miss out on a whale watching trip. The most famous town for any kind of whale watching activity is Hermanus, situated about 115 km southeast of Cape Town. Hermanus has actually been recognized by the WWF (World Wildlife Fund) as one of the 12 best whale watching destinations in the world.
You can either book cruises by boat, that take you really close to the animals or, if you prefer to stay on land, you can walk the cliff path, which offers 12 km of the best whale watching points in the world.
However, due to its popularity Hermanus can be very crowded and busy, especially in the spring and early summer months during the peak whale watching season (September to November).
I therefore decided to book my whale watching tour with Dyer Island Cruises, a company that conducts whale watching tours from Kleinbaai harbour near Gansbaai, a little town close to Hermanus. What I personally liked very much is the fact that they are certified as an eco- tour operator and also hold the fair trade tourism accreditation.
I enjoyed the tour very much, it was organized and conducted in a very professional way and we felt safe at all times. The staff was friendly and very helpful and tried their best to provide us with an unforgettable experience.
Get in Touch with Elephants
In South Africa you have the unique opportunity to get in touch and interact with African Elephants. There are a total of three elephant sanctuaries across three provinces of South Africa that provide visitors with the once in a lifetime chance to touch and feel the elephants and interact with them in a natural environment. One is situated in Hazy View, another one in Hartbeespoortdam and one is located next to Plettenberg Bay. They all work with their elephants on the basis of positive reenforcement animal management principles which results in very relaxed elephants that allow visitors to interact with them.
Personally, I am a very sceptic person and so I admit that I was afraid, that the sanctuary would maybe not be run in favor of the elephants and that they would be exploited in order to entertain tourists. Now after my visit I am fully convinced of the work of the elephant sanctuary and the staff. They really care about the animals and you can feel a very special bond and a kind of positive respect between the trainers and the animals. It was an amazing experience to watch them interact and later be part of this relationship as well. Of course, it is still a kind of touristic attraction but it is important to know, that the earnings they make with the offered activities are mainly used to ensure the continuity and the development of this institution.
They never catch elephants in the wild but only work with elephants that came to the sanctuary because they had suffered an accident and would not be able to survive in the wild or with animals that had been declared a “problem” and had been released to kill.
I always thought that elephants were really interesting animals, due to their social behavior and intelligence but I also used to have a lot of respect for them. Therefore I am really happy that I was able to enjoy this unique opportunity, getting really close to these magnificent animals, touching them, feeding them and even walk with them “hand in trunk”. This was certainly a once in a lifetime experience that I will never forget and forever treasure in my heart!
If you get the chance to meet an elephant, you should not miss out on it!
Garden Route: Robberg Island Trail
For those who don’t know me: I love to hike. Interestingly I do a lot more hiking when I am abroad than when I am back home, even though my home country Austria offers endless opportunities to pursue this activity. Somehow, I never have or take the time when I am at home, whereas I spend hours in doing research on the best hiking trails and routes when I am off to another country.
Luckily I was also able to do some hiking in South Africa too. We hiked in different areas of the country and had a bunch of amazing and unforgettable experiences, still the hike that I will remember forever is the Robberg Island Trail part of the world famous garden route.
I am not exaggerating when I say that the Robberg Island was definitely one of the most beautiful and most breathtaking areas I have ever seen in my life. And believe me, I am a lucky person that has already seen quite a lot.
Endless golden and deserted beaches, cristall clear water, untouched nature and breathtaking views. At some points I really thought that I had been beamed directly into paradise.
Wait, at this point I need to switch back to reality. It’s really important to point out that despite the beauty and the inviting look, you should not give in the temptation to swim. Swimming is not recommended in this area because it can be deadly. The currents are very strong and unpredictable, especially during spring tide, so better just watch and enjoy the view!
For hiking, there are three trails of different lengths and difficulties. The longest one takes about 4 hours and goes around the whole peninsula. Unfortunately we were not able to complete it because parts of it were under water due to spring tide. If you intend to walk Robberg, make sure you check the weather report and the tide level. Parts of the hike lead along the cliffs and might be flooded depending on the tide. Always remember that the rocks can be very slippery when wet and please don’t expect safety standards like in Europe or in the US.
Be aware that there are no toiletts or shops along the trail and most of the track is very exposed with little shadow. Make sure you wear a hat and put on sun screen. For you own safety you should wear sturdy boots and bring enough water as well as a snack.
If you consider all the recommendations and prepare your walk carefully you will have a fantastic time and enjoy this beautiful piece of nature very much! If you are lucky you may even be able to see whales and sea lions or a group of dolphins along your way. I know I am repeating myself but yes indeed, this is certainly one of the world’s most beautiful places… and to understand its noteworthiness you just need to see it with your own eyes!
Township Tour by Bicycle
Another life changing experience for me was the township tour by bicycle that we did on our very first day, shortly after our arrival in Johannesburg. Together with our guide we visited Soweto, one of South Africa’s most “famous” townships. In Soweto we met up with a local guide and rented some bicycles in order to explore the area.
Reading this, you might think that a township tour is nothing else but invading people’s privacy and daily life? Of course, we bring our fancy cameras and expensive phones and start taking pictures of the people’s houses and their everyday life and even do selfies with their kids, sharing them on social networks in order to gain likes.
However, we need to look at this issue from a different perspective too. Believe me, I was afraid and kind of scared too, that I would feel like in a zoo while taking this tour. But thanks to our great guide Thandi (“Love” ) I finally felt nothing like that. The tour was conducted in a very respectful way and we were also taught that the tours contribute a lot to the community welfare and also ensure employment. It’s not just the earnings from the tour itself but more importantly the money that is invested by the visitors during their visit, whether in the souvenir shops or even in the local backpacker’s.
And as always, also you as a visitor can make a difference. Treat the people with respect, ask before taking picture and respect their privacy. Children will pretty sure come up to you on their own, fascinated by the cameras and being naturally curious.
What’s more, it is very important to choose a well known and reliable tour operator. Doing so, you will have a very informative, positive experience. You will meet friendly people an gain insight into a lifestyle that will put many of our first world problems into a different perspective. Personally, I was very positively surprised by the many happy faces I met during my visit. I definitely learned that little possession does not necessarily result in unhappiness. On the contrary, the most important thing is to appreciate the small things in life and have the right attitude!
If you want to check out Lebo’s Soweto Bicycle tours, click here.
These were my personal highlights of South Africa. Have you ever been to South Africa? What did you like best and is there any particular experience that you will always remember? Do you think I missed out on something? I am looking forward to receiving your comments and feedback!