I finally ‘broke the ice’ and braved the heat of South Africa. I’d wanted to take a tour for some time. To see some of the nation’s legendary landscapes and stunning wildlife, with a bit of pampering on the side.
If you follow all or even part of the journey I took, you’ll most likely end up dreaming for some time of the amazing animals and stunning geographic features you take in.
Careful planning led me to the conclusion that South Africa’s most dramatic and impressive areas can all be covered in a 17-day trip. Call me pedantic, but Africa is not a small place, being the second-largest continent on Earth and South Africa’s land mass alone makes it as the 25th largest country on the planet. That requires some pre-trip logistics.
A multitude of experiences
South Africa also boasts one of the most multi-ethnic societies in the world. Reflecting this proud heritage, and promoted since apartheid ended, the country’s constitution has officially recognised 11 languages – rare in any nation. The effect as you travel through the country is that you enjoy an amazing array of fascinating languages, cultures, lifestyles, foods and attitudes, with welcoming people a constant theme.
The inspiring trip I chose took me from Johannesburg to Cape Town, where I eventually relaxed in some of the most refined private accommodation I have ever experienced, but the adventure was really about viewing the remarkable countryside and national parks that characterise this beautiful southern section of Africa.
Along the way, we explored Kruger National Park, which is home to Africa’s “Big Five” animals: lion, African elephant, leopard, rhinoceros and Cape buffalo. We took in the Kingdom of Swaziland, and the stunning Mlilwane, one of the country’s incredible Royal Wildlife Reserves. Zululand was a special part of the trip, with its isolated location in northern Kwa Zulu-Natal Province, while awe-inspiring indeed was my favourite place and the most talked about amongst all the tour’s photographers – the Drakensberg Mountains, which is now a World Heritage site.
Other tour highlights included Free State province’s astonishing Gariep Dam views, a wander around the historic town of Cradock and a game drive in the Addo Elephant National Park, where we saw elephants, lions and numerous antelope species. Following the spectacular Garden Route, we finished with some fine vintage at Cape Town’s lovely Groot Constantia wine estate, then topped it off with a tour of Cape Point Nature Reserve and a fantastic climb up Table Mountain.
Trip at a glance
Summing up the wonders of South Africa is an impossible task. The best way I can describe my experience of the country is to offer excerpts from my diary, which I wrote during the tour of South Africa that I chose. It was one that took me to places I could never have imagined even existed.
Johannesburg – Mpumalanga (Blyde River)
Our drive today took us through varied rocky terrain to Pilgrim’s Rest mining town, a historic spot we explored for hours in the afternoon warmth. Declared a National Monument in 1986, this location is a real reminder of the heyday of Africa’s late 1800s to early 1900s gold rush and the stop helped me appreciate how gold fever kept men going through adventures in murderous environs. The drive was roughly 5.5 hours and we covered 375 km.
Blyde River Canyon, Kruger National Park
Early morning light cast spectacular shadows deep into the Blyde River Canyon, with its sheer cliffs overhanging the riverbed below. I couldn’t get enough pictures of the angled canyon walls, which I am told rise 800 metres in places. The Bourke’s Luck Potholes are equally amazing – odd cylinder-shaped carvings in the rock resulting from two wild rivers converging. We anxiously drove on to sensational Kruger National Park, through which we wound slowly, capturing shots of the Big Five as well as many other animals. The park is part of a UNESCO International Man and Biosphere Reserve and covers almost 7,580 square miles, stretching 360 km from north to south – breathtaking.
After about 7 hours’ drive from Kruger to Swaziland, we reached the rich, green Mlilwane Game Reserve. Its southern area is mainly swathed in flowing open grassland plains and middleveld vegetation. As one of the Royal Reserves, it is part of Swaziland’s oldest protected areas. I especially enjoyed the guided walk with an expert explaining much of the interesting flora. This, like the guided horse-riding tours and the mountain bike rides are optional and leave from the rest camp. Well worth the additional cost and effort though.
The 6-plus hour drive from Mlilwane to Zululand provided an engaging look at this culturally rich area with diverse wildlife. I actually decided to use a couple of extra cameras and lenses I’d not pulled out yet – endangered rhinos have to be captured with a telephoto lense. Our game drive took us through the captivating landscape of the Hluhluwe / Imfoze Game Reserve, made a bit more fun by the Zulu songs our driver added in as a treat. Another incredible day.
After a breakfast of rich local fare and braced up with plenty of hot coffee, we cleaved onto the refreshing Indian Ocean coast road for a while today. We then steered inland to the Drakensberg Mountains, making a total trip of around 8 hours. These imposing peaks are the highest mountain range in southern Africa at 3,482 metres, but still green with a variety of shrubbery and grasses. A number of endangered and threatened plants still survive in these mountains, although overgrazing has done a lot of damage over time. It felt like a special gift to hike through the grasslands and take pics aplenty, especially the macro shots. We took guided walks into higher woodland areas, taking snack breaks surrounded by lush greenery when we felt like it. Inspirational countryside.
After 7 hours driving along the mountains’ base, we finally reached Free State Province. It was a treat to see the Gariap Dam, which was commissioned in 1971 and at 88 m serves as an aid in irrigation and power generation for the region. Stunning views from our deck overlooking the dam were a calming change from active days of hiking. Meditation over action.
Storied Cradock is only about 4 hours drive from the Garlep dam (such distances seem short now). This was the start point of the Great Trek, a mass and massive 1830s migration of Afrikaans farmers who were unhappy with British rule. Later, demands for ostrich feathers made the town boom. A welcome sight for modern eyes, this old town had a mellow feel that I enjoyed meandering through. Among the town draws are the Victoria Manor Hotel and the “tuishuise”, a group of restored craftsmen’s houses in Market Street. It’s a time machine.
Addo Elephant National Park
The Cradock-to-Addo trip only lasted 3 hours or so, and blessed us with a rich ending. Addo is situated in the Sundays River Valley near the Zuurberg Mountain Range. I, for one, felt that Addo was my personal nature gallery. The huge herds of photogenic beasts included elephants, zebras, Cape buffalos and a variety of antelope species. This is one of the country’s 19 national parks and surely merits a couple days viewing. Our game drive led to a must-do (but at extra cost) elephant-back safari, which was a lot of fun. It brought me closer to the wildlife.
The Garden Route
This is an incredibly picturesque area, reached by a coastal drive that took us under 5 hours. Charming towns dot the area, which is located between the lush forests of the Tsitsikamma and the Western Cape’s wine country. Since I love simultaneously looking through my lens at the lives of local inhabitants, it was fun just exploring the communities in the area. It was also invigorating to trek the many hiking trails, as you can see nearly 300 species of birds in habitats ranging from fynbos to forest to wetlands. No time, but there are also tours to bays that offer sightings of dolphins, seals and other creatures. Endangered Southern Right Whales even come here from July to December to calve.
Camera at my side, I breathed in the scents of fruit and wine as we took 8 hours to travel from Knysna to Cape Town today – mostly through Sir Lowry’s pass. Groot Constantia wine farm’s cellar tour and wine-tasting made the pastoral 300+ year-old farm seem like a sweet dream. We went on further, despite the intoxication, to Cape Town. I needed to wine to be wowed by its backdrop of towering Table Mountain. This morning we left at 8:30 in the morning for an Atlantic seaboard jaunt that took us through scenic fishing harbour, Hout Bay. The gorgeous coastal road circuit stretches from Chapman’s Peak to Cape Point Nature Reserve – a totally lovely park teeming with native plants and wildlife. As a lover of such rides, I had to take the afternoon cable car ascent up Table Mountain before meeting the group at the jumping waterfront. An excursion thoroughly enjoyed.
A Trip Complete
The tour ended after breakfast, but we spent hours talking about it before we split and head for our relative homes. That’s when the dreams began. I hope they allow me to relive the stunning journey over and over again.
A trip to the world’s second largest continent requires a little preparation, even one to the more developed areas in South Africa. Here are some things to bring if you’re planning a little adventure travel.
- If you plan on visiting any National Parks, be sure to take along already-worn and tested walking boots that will not chafe, as well as several pairs of good walking socks. Light-wear clothing that dries out quickly after washing is also good, including shorts and long pants (combined, zip-apart versions work best); and a good sun-protective hat, even if you don’t normally wear one.
- Although temperatures can climb close to 39 Degrees C during the hottest times of the year, you’ll also need warm clothing for mountain hikes, as well as a rain jacket and pants that cover your boot-tops. Other handy accessories to consider include insulated water bottles, serious sunscreen protection for body and lips, and easily ready camera gear.
- Although you probably won’t need to use it, a modest medical kit makes you feel safe in the wilderness. No need for major medicines, but include aspirin, allergy medicine, cream for itches and bites, plasters, stomach or diarrhoea remedies, antibiotic ointment and any prescription medications.