Last April, I stumbled upon TravelisFree.com, which had an unbelievable airfare deal to South Africa. My wanderlust had me soon purchasing tickets for a trip in the fall for three weeks. Three magical weeks road tripping South Africa.
“A good traveler has no fixed plans and is not intent on arriving.”-Lao Tzu
When scoring cheap flights or using your miles, one has to be ready to go with the flow. That flow could be two 12+ hour flights with a 14-hour layover in Abu Dhabi. You roll with it, find a good book, the coziest airport terminal available, and remind yourself that the numb butt from sitting too long is absolutely worth it, and part of the adventure.
Kruger National Park
Viva Safaris picked us up from Johannesburg and a five-hour journey turned into eight when the main road to Kruger wasn’t passable because protesters had covered the roadways with rocks. I quickly learned that protesting is a common past time in South Africa. Upon arriving at the Tremisana Lodge, we were whisked onto a night drive, which included bush babies and the infamous honey badger sighting.
On our first day, Baloo and Elvis, our guides, took us on a bush hike. Highlights were elephants chomping on trees, giant elephant dung, a baboon tribe, hippos, crocs, and countless birds that kept me lingering behind and losing the group.
We went into Kruger National Park the following days and saw the big five. The folks in our land cruiser giggled at me every time I looked at a bird and then consulted my book, but by the end of the day, they were borrowing the binoculars and book with excitement. En route back to Johannesburg, we stopped at Blyde Canyon, third largest canyon in the world and a rival in beauty to the Grand Canyon.
After picking up our VW Polo car rental from the airport, Keith bravely took the steering wheel for a crash-course in driving on the left side of the road. We arrived unscathed to the Amphitheatre Backpacker Lodge, a charming hostel with the best communal dinners I’ve encountered. Pick up a free Coast to Coast book for an indispensable guide to travelers’ hostels and highlights along the way.
The following day, we hiked the Amphitheatre hike in the Drakensberg or “the dragon’s mountains.” The tiny rental car conquered survived the off-roading to Sentinel Peak parking area. The escarpment towered above and the lush, verdant hills undulated into the South African horizon. The views grew more expansive and stunning as we ascended. White-necked ravens played in their sublime home. Soon, we were pulling ourselves over craggy boulders as the high elevation sun mercilessly burned. We were rewarded eventually with the table “top” where I surely did feel on top of the whole damn world. Endless folds of land shaped by the elements and time expanded outwards into a creamy cascade of warm greens, silky violets, and vibrant blues. My mouth formed a permanent “O” from the continuous “wows” escaping it. My soul exhaled. I wanted to stay forever and melt with the Drakensberg or perhaps fly through it with a squirrel suit.
With limited time, we turned away from the dazzling display and headed to the top of Tugule Falls, the second highest waterfall in the world. Although it was dry this time of year, the pools were alive with life. Onward to the chain-ladders. Two sets of ladders exist to assist folks up and down the steep face, 20 and 40 meters respectively. The mind-blowing expansiveness, exposure, wind, and unstable rungs did put a beat in my heart and sweat on my brow. We rushed back to the car to escape the sunburn that had already branded a triangle on my back (always that one spot to be missed). The drive back was filled with more “ooohs” and “ahhs” as the golden light danced on the picturesque hills with the cloud enshrouded Drakensberg fading away in the rearview mirror.
We departed the mountains with a final hike in Royal Natal National Park through the cascades trail. A dip in the pools at the end where we bid farewell to the Drakensberg. A five-hour drive through mountainous country took us into Durban for the night. If in Durban, do order yourself some “chow bunnies”, an Indian curry served in a carved out hunk of bread, yum!
The next day, we drove to Cintsa, an eight-hour, terrifying stretch of highway. It felt like a bad video game. My heart struggled to remain in my chest, as a head-on collision seemed inevitable. Towns along the highway were full of pedestrians sauntering across the road, cattle, and goats. The road curved and twisted as insanity prevailed.
The Buccaneers Backpackers Lodge welcomed us with open arms and a million-dollar view of the Indian Ocean from our room’s bed. The hostel has landed a number one spot in my heart for its beachside location, wonderful staff, free wine & volleyball every day, delicious food, and exceptional tours. Go there!
We booked the cultural tour, where Totes took us to Ngxingtolo, a local village to get insight into life and years of governmental neglect. We were taken into a ceremonial thatched hut by the ninety-six year old Mama Tofu. With spunk and a jazzy walking stick, she told lively accounts of the puberty and marriage ceremonies of the Xhosa.
After a beautiful three days in Cintsa meeting amazing folks, horseback riding along the ocean, and only breaking one toe, we departed vowing to return someday in the future.
The serenity of the forest balanced the lively celebrations of Cintsa. Staying in the tranquil, mellow Wild Spirit Backpackers Lodge, we took a day to hike around Tsitsikamma National Park. We descended into the lush faybos habitat from and followed the calls of local cuckoos. The hike took us onto the beach for a mile and then promptly straight back up through the forests.
The following day, we went to the must-view Storms River Suspension Bridge and gazed at the magnificent views. Then, to the Garden of Eden, the largest free flight aviary in the world. All of the birds had been rehabilitated and were literally living in paradise.
Awoken by the Indian Ocean serenading me at the Wilderness Beach Backpacker hostel, life was spectacular. Be sure to ask for the room with the view and get into town for pizza and a jam jar at Cocomo’s. After hanging our sink-washed laundry, we headed to the Cloud 9 takeoff for paragliding and a brief glimpse into life on the wing rising on the thermals.
Outdshoorn & Cango Caves
Sometimes after studying birds for so long, you wonder what it would be like to ride one. At the Safari Ostrich Show Farm in Outdshoorn, you can wonder no more. After a touristy but informative showing of the farm and its history, I hopped on my ostrich and took a spin. See the video for the sheer happiness (terror?) on my face. After, we dined on ostrich, and yes I felt bad, but it was quite tasty. We headed north into the little karoo, or desert, to Cango Caves. Electing for the “adventure” tour as you cannot go unguided, we dipped into the depths and marveled at the grandiose rooms full of stalactites and stalagmites. After an hour and a half squirming through “love tunnels” and bumping my head, I left sufficiently bruised and delighted. We departed to Gansbaii for a shark cage dive that was canceled due to the rough seas.
Arriving in a city after the high doses of wilderness was a tad jarring, but Cape Town’s mountain and Oceanside location gave plenty of options to fill the need for nature. Although I don’t claim to be a wine expert, experiencing the beautiful wine lands of Stellenbosch is a must. Out of the vineyard tour, Muratie stood out as the charming winner. Walking into the farmhouse cellar was taking a step back in time. Even the cobwebs were preserved.
The next day, we burned off all the wine and cheese with a leg-burning hike up Table Mountain. We shared the trails with hundreds of tourists and locals enjoying the Sunday’s perfect weather. Albeit quite gorgeous looking down on Cape Town from above, we quickly descended to make it to the Hout Bay market via a stunning coastline drive.The next day, we burned off all the wine and cheese with a leg-burning hike up Table Mountain. We shared the trails with hundreds of tourists and locals enjoying the Sunday’s perfect weather. Albeit quite gorgeous looking down on Cape Town from above, we quickly descended to make it to the Hout Bay market via a stunning coastline drive.
We decided to spend the last few days beachside south of Cape Town in the charming surfer town of Muizenberg. We soaked up the white sands, colorful seaside changing cottages, and local penguins. In the 1980s, the endangered African Penguins started to colonize the coastline near Simon’s Town. Endemic to the area, and only colonizing the coastline as their natural predators were driven out by humans, they are now protected by the local national park.Boulder Beach offered a breathtaking mashup of clear emerald waters and giant boulders that provided shelter from the breaking waves. We scrambled over boulders, gawked at the scene of dazzling aqua water, cloud-topped mountains, and waddling penguins. I checked to see if I was dreaming multiple times. Arriving at a secluded cove, we sat with the penguins. They jumped, slipped, and sustained a dangerously high level of cuteness. As is life, all good things must end and the descending sun chased us away from penguin paradise.