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South Africa. An evolving country

Nothing prepared me for South Africa. Everything I knew about the vast country only confirmed it had been many things to many people. So when I travelled there in March and saw a country balancing wildlife endeavours with bustling cosmopolitan cities, I put aside my preconceived notions. Instead, I let the country’s complexities, gracious people and utter raw beauty guide me.

I had arrived in Johannesburg with Above and Beyond Holidays, and headed straight to Soweto. Infamous for the Soweto Uprising in 1976, this predominantly black residential area has steadily grown in popularity with tourists. With 50 suburbs in South West Johannesburg, this urban sprawl has undergone significant transformation over the last decade. We lunched near where Nelson Mandela grew up, and visited Hector Peterson’s memorial; one of the first students to be killed during the uprising. The history is stark, but seeing the streets where the bloodshed occurred gave me a greater appreciation of what the country has endured, and overcome.

In complete contrast, our hotel – the African Pride Melrose Arch Hotel – was probably the hippest place to stay in South Africa. This innovative hotel is surrounded by a neighbourhood teeming with restaurants serving up delicious local fare and late-night drinking holes; this is where the ‘in-crowd’ hangs out. But with the hotel’s quirky landscaping – think Alice in Wonderland with enormous trees in buckets –you are almost tempted to dine in and soak up the atmosphere. But we were seduced by the aromas wafting up from the street. Don’t leave town before trying the chicken tagine. Your tastebuds will be changed forever!

A quick 45 minute flight from Johannesburg delivers you to Nelspruit, the gateway to Kruger National Park. Here the majestic African landscape begins to unfold. Nestled on the banks of the Sabie River (also known as the Sand River), the exclusive Tinga Legends Lodge has a reputation for one of the highest predator densities in Africa. Yikes! So after arriving and munching on ostrich kebabs, we headed out to see for ourselves. Immediately we spotted animals. Elephants trundled past. A leopard eyed us from the grass. It was breathtaking and more special because the animals are wild. They treated us with indifference because they weren’t threatened. Nor were we, as long as we remained in the jeep!

Makalali Private Game Lodge was our second luxury lodge and memorable for its outdoor showers. Perhaps I indulged longer than I should have, but standing under a steaming hot shower whilst looking into the African night sky was mesmerising.

Savannah Private Game Lodge was our last lodge and the most luxurious. Definitely suited for discerning travellers. Sightings of the ‘Big 5’ – lions, leopards, elephants, buffalo and rhinos – are common here because of the lodge’s location in Sabi Sand Reserve. During one tour, we parked beneath a tree while a leopard eyed us casually from above. Not even the whirl of camera shutters made her blink. So serene.

Most safari lodges offer two game drives every day. An early morning tour leaves at 5am which lasts three-hours, but can be dependent on animal movements. Whilst the evening tour leaves at 5pm with half-time refreshments including a cheeky wine or beer! Then straight back to the lodge for five-star outdoor ‘Boma’ dining. Delicious.

It was a wrench to leave the safari reserves but Cape Town with its stunning location wedged between a harbour and Table Mountain beckoned. While more adventurous sorts took a walking tour to the top, I chose the Table Mountain Aerial Cableway. The revolving carriages let you gawp at the view in all its 360 degrees of magnificence. At the top, it’s not all bare rock either. The cafe serves up tasty bites and coffee, or you can wander off on one of the walking paths. Or just browse the souvenir shops. The view over Cape Town is picture perfect, and in spring the mountain explodes with a riot of flowers and colourful shrubs.

As a foodie and wine lover, the Cape Malay Cooking Tour ticked off all my hedonistic culinary boxes. Hosted in the Malay neighbourhood of Bo Kaap, be prepared for buildings painted garish yellows, pinks and oranges. Alongside, shops overflow with herbs and spices making a walk through this part of Cape Town intoxicating. Local woman Faldela has opened her home to tourists and teaches traditional Malay cooking. Our day’s lesson included folding samousas, mixing masala and blending the delicate flavours of a Cape Malay Curry. I was in heaven. We finished the afternoon over a shared lunch and steaming mugs of lightly rose scented milk called faloodah. We left with contented hearts and stomachs!

Snaking its way between Noordhoek and Hout Bay, Chapman’s Peak Drive hugs the rocky coastline for nine kilometres. Towering mountains border the road, while sheer cliff faces drop towards the ocean. Prepare your camera for a work out. Further on you can see the Atlantic and Indian Oceans collide from the Cape of Good Hope Nature Reserve.

Back in Cape Town there’s only one place for late supper and drinks. Head up to the roof of the Grand Daddy Hotel and curl up beside the old-school Airstream caravans. Or soak up a movie on the rooftop cinema. This place is quirky and the friendly staff attentive.

With one day left, we headed north to Zevenwacht Wine Estate for tastings and lunch. I adore red wine and relished the chance to listen as connoisseurs led us through tastings of absolutely stunning wines. Look out for their divine Zevenwacht Pinotage and tasty Zevenwacht Sauvignon Blanc. It’s very easy to while away an afternoon overlooking Table Mountain from this 450 hectare winery.

From game parks to a country house, our final night in South Africa was spent at the five-star Franschhoek Country House and Villas. The Franschhoek Valley was settled by French Huguenots more than 300 years ago and still influences the food at the hotel’s famous Monneaux restaurant. Dine under sprawling pepper trees on the fountain terrace, or chose the more formal dining room. The food is exquisite and you can see why this restaurant has been rated in the country’s Top 10 restaurants for two years running.

Then my trip to South Africa was over. But I’ll return and spend more time on the reserves, or perhaps just go back to the delightful wineries and continue sampling the country’s selection of reds! Either way I’ll be happy.

Additional note: You don’t need yellow fever immunisation before visiting South Africa, but malaria tablets are recommended. It’s a personal choice and I’m sure a doctor could inform you of the risks and benefits.