I have had the opportunity to participate in some amazing trips over the years but my recent journey to South Africa, courtesy of World Journeys and Cathay Pacific, supercedes them all. The experience is very difficult to put in words and my pictures just do not do it justice. South Africa is an extremely diverse country from its people, culture, and history to its scenic beauty and wildlife, it has it all.
I flew on Cathay Pacific to Johannesburg via Hong Kong and was fortunate to be upgraded to business class on some of the flights. I experienced the new style of aircraft between Hong Kong and Johannesburg that will be available from Auckland to Hong Kong in 2016. I was very impressed, the 1-2-1 configuration offered more personal and storage space. I also flew in Premium Economy on one of the sectors and appreciated the slightly bigger seats.
There was no need to complete arrival cards entering South Africa in Johannesburg. The process was very simple and welcoming. Johannesburg doesn't enjoy the best of reputations as a travel destination. If you have to stay overnight before moving on spend it in one of the hotels near the airport. We had a full day and here due to the departure time of the Blue Train. Our time was spent visiting the interesting Apartheid Museum followed by lunch in the wonderful Fairlawns Boutique Hotel and Spa, award winning, restaurant in Sandton, about an hour from Johannesburg Airport. Our accommodation for the evening was spent at 131 Herbert on Baker in Pretoria (about 40 mins from the airport). This is a beautiful boutique Hotel with only 8 rooms/suites. The Presidential suite was amazing with wonderful views of Pretoria.
The super luxurious Blue Train took us on a 27 hour journey from Pretoria to Cape Town. The beautiful decor and elegant experience definitely attempts to relive a bygone era, very English in style with African flavour here and there. You are welcomed with a drink in the departure lounge before boarding the train and once on board you have numerous lounges and bars to carouse in. French Champagne and caviar are at additional cost otherwise the bar is open. The food was amazing, more so given how small the kitchen was. There are two sittings for both lunch and dinner and if you are still hungry after your 3 course lunch you can then enjoy high tea. Dinner is a formal affair, jacket and tie for the gents. The staff were fabulous very warm and open, genuine. You could ask them anything and they would tell you, from life before and after apartheid, to how they live and life on the train. They have a great sense of humour. Departing Johannesburg you cannot help but reflect on the contrast of our mode of travel and the conditions people were living in passing by your window. At the same time smiling children illuminate their cardboard and corrugated iron homes. We arrived late in Kimberly, home of South Africa's diamond mining concerns so were unable to shop or see the mine itself. The scenery lifts appreciably passing the vineyards towards Cape Town but then you are again reminded of the economic disparity as you enter Cape Town itself.
On arrival we travelled back to the winelands about 40 minutes from Cape Town. This area is truly beautiful. We stayed at the Franschoek Country House & Villas, this French style property was amazing inside and out. I would recommend you eat at their awarding winning restaurant Monneaux. Our dinner here was sublime and we all agreed the best meal on tour.
There are hundreds of wineries in this region and of course you can taste it. At Franschoek we enjoyed 10 different wines with cheese. I don’t usually like wine but I must admit some of the reds were very nice. Of course like any good winery you can purchase and I was told by the experts in my group that the wine not only was good but great value.
Franschoek is a lovely village type of town with a wonderful ambience, filled with shops, art galleries, and coffee shops. Only 10 minutes away the university town of Stellenbosch wasn't as picturesque as Franschoek but there were a few streets that were really pretty and full of cafes.
Cape Town is a modern, cosmopolitan city, wonderful to explore and easy to walk around. I really liked it here and would have liked more time to explore. I felt safe and comfortable compared to Johannesburg. We stayed at the waterfront property of Cape Grace located minutes from the Victoria & Alfred waterfront. Fantastic views of the harbour or Table Mountain. The property is full of Maritime History and some of the most amazing chandeliers. The Bascule Bar has over 500 different type of whiskies. The Victoria & Alfred Waterfront complex provides great shopping and entertainment along with some amazing seafood restaurants.
We also visited the Mount Nelson Hotel, one of Cape Town's icons located at the foot of Table Mountain. Famous for high teas, it is definitely a good way to spend the afternoon. They have a very detailed menu of different teas you can experience. If you aren’t in to tea that is fine. I had hot chocolate and, instead of just getting a cup of hot chocolate, I got a tea pot full. It was very funny having a fancy pot of hot chocolate. A two tiered cake tray replete with cucumber sandwiches, mini savouries, sushi and many more delights is presented followed by scones with jam and cream. We also visited Charlie’s Bakery (famous on the Food Channel) and the colourful houses of Bo Kaap & De Waterkant (Cape Malay Quarter) and the Cape Muslim community.
The most humbling experience was going into one of the townships to experience how many South Africans live. People were happy to talk to you about their lives before and after apartheid and proud to show you what the community is doing to help themselves. We went to a community centre where they provide projects for the young to get them off the streets. You can purchase many of the arts and crafts they are making. We also visited some homes. To be honest I didn’t feel very safe in this area. I do feel very blessed that I have a roof over my head, food and that my children have clean water. The experience certainly opened my eyes.
Summer is the best time to view Table Mountain as it is shrouded in fog throughout winter. However in the summer it is very hot and very busy with tourists. The top was covered in cloud on our visit so we went up to the start point of the cable car and were rewarded with some amazing views.
Our visit to Cape Town over we made our way by air to Kruger National Park and the opportunity to visit three private game lodges. The Londolozi and Kirkmans lodges are part of the Sabi Sands Private game reserve situated on the western border of Kruger National Park which together with other parks make up the Greater Kruger National Park, over 2 million hectares of land. World renowned as one of Africa’s finest lodges, Londolozi Private Game Reserve is a family run business that is devoted to the protection of animals in Africa. Londolozi is famous for its leopard viewing. The reserve has five accommodation options - Pioneer Camp (3 suites), Founders Camp (10 suites), Varty Camp (10 suites), Private Granite Suite (3 suites), and Tree Camp (6 suites). We stayed in Varty Camp but visited all of the options. Each had their own staff, kitchen, restaurant, and lounge. If you have family groups or a couple you can actually have a camp/lodge to yourself. Each lodge is decorated differently with its own Africa flair and each have their own story. They were all set in beautiful surroundings where you can sit outside your suite or relax on the lodge’s patio and overlook the Kruger National Park.
&Beyond Kirkmans’ Kamp was my favourite lodge. It fulfills my idea of the 'Out of Africa' game lodge, in Africa. Originally built in the 1920’s as a hunting lodge it is full of the history of this period. The hunting days are over and Kirkman’s is now fully occupied with the preservation of the wildlife in its 6,300 hectares of land. The property has 18 rooms designed with rustic charm, iron bed heads and claw baths. I loved these rooms.
Phinda Private Game Reserve is a 90 minute charter flight from Kruger Airport or approximately 1 and a half hours from Richard’s Bay Airport. Again it is a private game resort with 23,000 hectares and famous for viewing cheetah and the rare black rhino. Phinda has 6 Lodges - Mountain Lodge, Rock Lodge, Vlei Loge, Zuka Lodge, and Forest Lodge & Homestead. We visited all of the properties and again some of the smaller properties are idea for family groups or couples wanting a property all to themselves.
All of the lodges have a boma, originally a livestock enclosure. Fairly ordinary during the day they are transformed at night with candles, lanterns and a bonfire, magical. Generally during your stay you would get one night at the boma with a few drinks and some amazing food. The food everywhere was uniformly amazing. The chefs in all the lodges were fantastic. Starting the day with a beautiful breakfast is all the more amazing given our location. I especially liked our breakfasts in the bush.
The highlight of this trip had to be the amazing sights and sounds experienced on the safaris. It was truly staggering to be so close to the wildlife. On our safaris we had not only a guide but a tracker, and they are invaluable. I don’t believe we would have seen half as much game without them. They don't say much but can find a praying mantis on a twig at night! All of our guides had an in depth knowledge of the wildlife from the big five to birds, inspects and plant life.
I would recommend that you try and include a private lodge stay even if it is only for a couple of nights. They do come at a price but what an experience . If you are on a private game reserve your game viewing isn't limited to the roads increasing your chances of seeing some amazing wildlife. For example we were able to follow a leopard hunting. If you are on the public game reserves in Kruger you must stick to the roads. We would not have seen half of what we did if we could go across country.
The morning safaris started with a wakeup call at 5 or 5.30am, followed by a good cup of coffee then you are off before the sun gets up. The early mornings, especially in the winter months, are cold and I recommend you take layers, and a hat to keep you warm. The lodges do cater very well for the colder morning with rugs and sometimes hot water bottles. Generally the morning safari finished around 10am returning to your lodge for a sumptuous breakfast or you may be lucky enough to find your breakfast waiting for you in the bush. After your morning safari you have plenty of time to relax. You might enjoy the pool, read a book or enjoy a walking safari in the bush. Lunch is served overlooking the landscape, where you might get a chance to see a cheeky monkey who wants to share your lunch. Before the afternoon safari you enjoy a high tea and again explore the wilderness looking for whatever animal may come across your path. As the sun sets it does get cold again. I was lucky enough to witness the Big 5 (Elephant, Lion, Buffalo, Leopard, and Rhino) within 24 hours. Among the animals seen were both the white and rare black rhino. We also viewed cheetah, the African wild dog, hyena, giraffe, hippo, bushbuck, zebra, springbok, ostrich, warthog, crocodile, impala, kudu, bats, monkeys, hundreds of different types of birds, and a turtle.
From listening to the crunch of bones as a leopard eats its prey in a tree to baby cheetah clubs calling to their mother or the sound of a leopard lapping up the water at a watering hole, it is really difficult to pick out a highlight. However the most memorable will be watching at least 19 elephants from a baby to a big bull elephant crashing out of the bush to have a drink at the lodge’s swimming pool and watching them all take turns, the bull elephant on the flanks keeping a watchful eye on the surroundings ... this was truly an amazing sight in an amazing country.