Where do you even begin writing about a trip of a lifetime? Squeezing a nine-day visit to South Africa into a review of just a couple of thousand words.
Well, every good story has a beginning, a middle and an end and, while I was most excited about the final leg of my South African adventure — a three-day wildlife safari at Pumba Game Reserve — I guess I will start at the beginning.
It isn’t impossible to sum South Africa up in a short story, just very, very difficult. The country, after all, stretches an area of 1.22 million km squared — and for every kilometre yet another incredible sight is thrown up, so much so that I constantly found myself declaring “so I think this is my favourite spot” to my travel buddies.
We were on a tour of South Africa, from the Western Cape to the Eastern Cape — all 592km of it — taking in the famous Garden Route, which starts in Mossel Bay (one of spots that I declared was my favourite at one stage… with good merit) and ends at Storms River.
But we started our journey in Cape Town, flying Dublin to London, then onto Johannesburg before flying internally to the capital (one of three of them).
It’s a long trip, but as they say, the destination makes the journey worth the while — and no truer words have ever been spoken when it comes to South Africa.
There are many, many highlights on a trip to Cape Town but, for me, the pinnacle was watching the sunset at the top of Table Mountain.
Being lost for words is not something that often happens a journalist, but after taking a cable car to the top (you can hike instead, if you like) and watching the sun go down over the whole of Cape Town with a glass of bubbly in hand, I was speechless. It’s truly a sight to behold.
Getting to the mountain wasn’t too shabby either. We travelled in unique style — by sidecar, courtesy of Side Car Tours (www.sidecars.co.za) — and this definitely beats your more regular modes of transport.
As we vroomed around, stopping at Camp’s Bay and Chapman’s Peak, a look to the right gave us views of the ocean waves crashing against rock formations while to our left there was a mountainous landscape — such is the diversity of South Africa’s geography — and houses
in Hout Bay that would leave even the most passive of person green with envy.
Later that night we saw the hustle and bustle of Cape Town as we enjoyed dinner in Mojo Market, just a two-minute stroll from our accommodation, the Protea Hotel by Marriott at Sea Point (www.marriott.com).
We had lunch here earlier in the day and the sociable atmosphere was enough to make us return in the night-time when the vibe was even more electric, with a live band entertaining revellers. And the food is delicious too, ranging from Mexican and Indian to traditional American dishes like mac ’n’ cheese and delicacies such as sushi.
We saw the beauty of Cape Town on day one, and on day two we saw just how many sides there was to the capital.
A trip to Woodstock will get even the most unimaginative of people’s creative juices flowing. Here, you’ll find coffee shops, boutiques, art installations — and, on the right day, Meghan Markle, who visited just weeks before we arrived.
We enjoyed a walking tour of the local art, including murals from well-known Chinese artist DALeast, who currently lives in Cape Town.
My personal favourite, though, was a painting on the wall of catering company, No Fixed Address, by Lutu — a convicted armed robber who was jailed in the prison where Nelson Mandela was held for seven years.
Lutu, who has gone on to turn his life around, now goes by the name Know Hope, a moniker that is as clever as it is inspiring.
However, what’s most striking about Woodstock is the class differences that can be seen within close proximity of each other. We visited one of the poorest areas of Cape Town where, just around the corner, they recently built penthouse apartments that cost a pretty penny to buy. It really is fascinating to see.
After our tour, we headed towards the Old Biscuit Mill Market (www.theoldbiscuitmill.co.za).
We visited on a Saturday and the place was abuzz with revellers as well as shoppers (I picked up a great bargain… or two, myself), with an energetic band blaring out the tunes and food stalls serving up all different types of dishes.
The smells alone were enough to get your taste buds going.
Later that night I wished I hadn’t overindulged at lunch as we headed to Food Jams — where eating is only half the experience.
Based in Cape Town, Food Jams (new.foodjams.co.za) was started by a former MasterChef South Africa contestant who’s sister-in-law Lulu, who as a bonus is absolutely hilarious, now acts as the head chef, overseeing you and your party as you prepare, cook and then eat your own dinner.
On our night, there were four groups of four ‘chefs’ preparing an array of different dishes, from starters to mains and dessert, before we all sat down together to tuck into our masterpieces with plenty of wine and craic over the dinner table.
This concept is probably the most innovative restaurant idea I have come across in a long time and is highly recommended on any visit to Cape Town.
After our fun-filled night, we were up bright and early the next morning to drive along the Cape Whale Route — which boasts a rugged coastline flanked by towering fynbos (a belt of natural shrubland found along the Cape) mountains — to Gansbaai.
The drive to Gansbaai takes about two-and-a-half hours, but it was a little longer for us as we stopped along the route to take in a penguin colony, which, it goes without saying, is always a good idea.
When we arrived in Gansbaai, there was just enough time to drop our bags into our guesthouse, White Shark Guest House (www.whitesharkguesthouse.co.za), before heading for a lunch that was about to surpass even the highest of food expectations and wine that was so good, it turned even this white wine-only drinking journalist onto grapes of the red variety.
The eco paradise of Grootbos Private Nature Reserve (www.grootbos.com) is not only stunningly beautiful, with some of the friendliest staff you’re ever likely to encounter (the word friendly, actually, encompasses every person we met in South Africa), the food is second to none, and you can eat and sip wine on the terrace while overlooking the incredibly picturesque Walker Bay. Or, if you are lucky enough to be staying at the five-star reserve, enjoy nature walks and
Grootbos has a terrific history also, which the staff will delight in telling you about, and the owner Michael makes soaps and honey from the natural landscape.
Before we knew it, our lunch had turned into a seven-hour visit as we watched the sun go down over the glistening waters of the Bay. This truly is nature — and relaxation — at its finest.
And again, it was one of those times when I swore blind that nothing would top the day we had just had. I mean, a morning spent with penguins and an afternoon filled with five-star food and top-notch wine — it’s the coming-together of my childhood and adult dreams.
It wasn’t a dream I was about to wake from any time soon, though, as the following morning we rose bright and early for a much-anticipated marine safari with Dyer Island Cruises (www.whalewatchsa.com).
Openly, I had joked throughout the trip that I was expecting to see the ‘Big Five’ but the open water is a vast place and it’s setting your hopes very high to assume that you’d be lucky enough to spot dolphins, seals, penguins, whales and sharks in one outing.
But just as our trip had gone throughout, we were indeed just that lucky.
We met at the boathouse before getting kitted out in our waterproof gear and heading down to the boat with our guide, marine biologist Alison Towner, who works with the Meet Your South Africa campaign.
Knowledgeable and passionate about marine wildlife, Alison gave us all the facts about the Big Five as we headed out to sea, before we were interrupted by one of the guides who rushed frantically to the front of the boat, alerting us to the fact that there was something in the water.
And there they were, two humpback dolphins gliding through the waves. I was elated.
Or at least I thought I was, because if that was elation, I don’t think I have a strong enough word for how I felt when a little while later two southern right whales came into our path.
Most people, if not all of us, have this scary image of whales in our head — they are massive creatures after all (an adult southern right whale can weigh up to 23,000kg).
But when you see them in their natural habitat, they are relaxed, majestic mammals and there is something calming about watching them breeze through the sea.
With sharks, however, it is a little more terrifying despite being completely safe. We spotted a bronze shark — from the comfort of our boat — with just its fin seen above the water… and perhaps the Jaws soundtrack playing in my head!
We then travelled about 20 minutes further out to where
a strong smell greeted us, letting us know that the seals were near.
What we didn’t expect was a population of hundreds, some gathered on the rocks and others popping their heads up to the boat from the water.
After arriving back on dry land, we headed to Dyer Island African Penguin and Seabird Sanctuary, which
I actually think is my spirit home, and met the absolutely amazing people who nurse injured penguins back to health before setting them free back into the ocean.
Is there a better job in the world than this? Please, send me your answers on a postcard.
Next up was Swellendam — the third oldest town in South Africa and one so postcard perfect, it seems an injustice that we had just one night here.
We managed to fit in a lot though. After checking into our gorgeous accommodation, Schoone Oordt Country House, (www. schooneoordt.co.za), we took a stroll through the town where quaint shops line the streets, with a fabulous church smack bang in the centre and gorgeous homes dotted around the hills. Simply magnificent.
The following morning we rose early for a hike to Marloth Nature Reserve, ending up at the stunning Duiwelsbos Waterfall.
Could our trip really get better than this?
See Buzz next week for part two of our South Africa review
Dyer Island African Penguin And Seabird Sanctuary,
Grootbos Private Nature Reserve,
Old Biscuit Mill Market,
Schoone Oordt Country House,
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