South Africa – Beyond The Safari

Written by Tom Thrun.

South Africa is becoming increasingly attractive to Americans, as the awareness spreads that the country is not only about safaris and wildlife but also the cosmopolitan pleasures of its sophisticated cities-their nightlife, music, art, shopping, beaches, golf, international cuisine- and the wine country. It’s a long way to go but worth every butt-numbing minute of the twenty-hour flight it takes to get there.

We began our two week South African adventure in the country’s cross-cultural epicenter, Cape Town. At first we questioned if six days in this vibrant city might be little too long. It turned out that it was not long enough. There is so much to see and do in town and within close proximity that we could have stayed twice as long and not done it all. We had the opportunity to experience two of the cities toniest addresses, the Cape Grace and Table Bay Hotel. Two entirely different styles of properties both in the same breathtaking location, at the Victoria and Alfred Waterfront framed by the ever changing Table Mountain.

On our first crystal clear morning we ascended the mountain, you can hike it but we opted for the exciting revolving cable car ride to the top. Once we reached the summit we were rewarded with some of the most spectacular views we had ever seen. One side overlooked the city and the famous Lion’s Head with the infamous Robben Island off in the distance. In the other direction we could see the entire Cape Peninsula all the way to the Cape of Good Hope. That afternoon we hired a car and drove through Table Mountain National Park south to Cape Point. Along the way we stopped at Groot Constantia to sample some of the estate wines that usually don’t make it out of the country. We followed the coastal road along False Bay to Boulders Beach where some 3000 African jackass penguins make their fishy home. When we finally reached the stunning Cape Point we found several signs warning us of the simian crime spree gripping the neighborhood. Roving gangs of very pushy chacma baboons were swiping everything from Snickers bars to Digital Elphes from unsuspecting tourists. These maniacal monkeys strutted around like they owned the place… and I guess they do.

Making our way back to town we stopped in at the Spier Winery in Stellenbosch for one more tasting. This famous winery happens to be adjacent to the Cheetah Outreach Center dedicated to the preservation of these majestic cats. Here we were swilling world-class chardonnay and stroking a fully grown feline predator at the same time… only in South Africa! Back in Cape Town we took advantage of the world-class shopping and cutting-edge restaurants the city has to offer. Green Market Square boasts art from all over the African continent and the V&A Waterfront is home to upscale shops and international restaurants. Seafood is king in Cape Town and we had a particularly memorable meal at Baia, a restaurant where crustaceans are the specialty. With the warm Indian Ocean to the east and the cold Atlantic to the west, Cape Town has seafood of all kinds. There were four different varieties of South African lobster on the menu and shrimp in all shapes and sizes… delicious!

Speaking of the sea, for some reason Joy and I had ‘cage diving with great white sharks’ on our to do list. So after double-checking our insurance policies, we departed our hotel at 4 A.M. (apparently great whites are early risers) for the two-hour ride to Gansbaai, world capital of the great white shark. It was a cold gray morning and the sea was so choppy that Joy got urpy just looking at it. You could almost hear Quint from ‘Jaws’ growl, “Let’s go shark’in”! After chumming the waters with fish guts and tourist regurgitation, the steely giants began to assemble. Clad in an embarrassingly tight wetsuit I entered the shark cage tied to the side of the boat. The captain would lead the sharks toward the cage with a tuna head on the end of a rope. One monster with jaws agape slammed into the bars of the cage… oops I crapped my pants. This was our introduction to one of the many ‘over the edge’ activities available in this diverse country.

We departed Cape Town and drove the scenic Garden Route along the ocean to the seaside town of Plettenberg Bay. We stayed in two different hotels in the area, each with their own unique ambiance. The Plettenberg Bay Hotel is situated on a peninsula directly on the Indian Ocean with a world-class spa and gourmet restaurant. During breakfast on the terrace we watched in amazement as southern right whales and dolphins frolicked just offshore. We were also guests at Kurland, a former polo estate with only twelve suites set on 600 beautiful acres. Here you can spend your day horseback riding, exploring the grounds on ATVs or just relaxing by your private pool.

Plettenberg Bay is located next to the Tsitsikamma National Park and activities abound. Diving, fishing, animal viewing, hiking, sea kayaking, zip lining and bungee jumping are all just minutes away. This is where Joy and I took a giant step out of the box and our minds. In the morning we zip lined through the canopy of the national forest and in the afternoon a bungee jump off the Bloukrans River Bridge. We had zip lined before, but bungee jumping, never done it… never even considered it. But here we were in South Africa at the tallest bungee jump in the world, no guts no glory, let’s go! One of the great things about travel is that it inspires you to do things that you might not normally do, but this was ridiculous. My big mouth got us into this mess so I jumped first. Joy was seduced by the slogan ‘fear is temporary, regret is forever’ so she went over the edge too! Believe me, it was an experience never to be equaled and never to be repeated.

Next on the itinerary was our much anticipated safari in Krueger National Park. We flew from the town of George to Johannesburg and then onto Sabi Sand. Here we stayed at Kirkman’s Kamp, a private game lodge built in 1927 and famous for the Big Five, lion, leopard, buffalo, rhino and elephant. We saw them all! Unlike most other camps, you are able to get off the beaten path and into the bush making for spectacular wildlife encounters. Early morning game drives with breakfast cooked in the wilderness and night drives with sunset cocktail parties, it was rough going but we made it. After Kirkman’s Kamp we took a small plane and flew north to the Ngala Lodge. This small camp is built right next to a watering hole so many of the animals come to you. It is not unusual to see elephants or rhinos just outside your door. At both camps the cuisine was wonderful and diverse. Each evening for dinner we were escorted by an armed guard to the dining room so we did not become dinner, even mealtime was an adrenalin rush! Our entire two weeks in South Africa was an unforgettable adventure and the people were wonderful. It is the third most ecologically diverse country on the planet behind Indonesia and Brazil. With so much to offer, South Africa truly has something for everyone. For us it was a trip of a lifetime. But as an old proverb says, ‘Don’t listen to what they say, go see’.

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