Here we are more a traveler than a tourist as we set out on safari changing hotels each night. We follow the Garden Route, the premier tour route preferred by locals. I (Adventures for Solo Travelers, 770-432-8225, $1824 land) bring in a way-cool group of 45 singles which includes a fighter pilot, 2 physicians, 2 psychoanalysts (who came in handy for me), mother/daughter, father/son, the uncle of Julia Roberts and one of my favorite clients whose passport stamps trump mine, Frank.
Carol Gardner is our omniscient and omnipresent guide for the entire trip. With such energy and enthusiasm, she’s like a meerkat popping up every minute to meet every need. Her knowledge knows no bounds and her passion for her country was infectious. She taught us the good, bad and the ugly. We learned about history, tribal customs, apartheid and Aids.
As we passed endless shantytowns of tin shacks, we understood why the unemployment rate was at 39%. This is the wealthiest nation in Africa, but its resources are stretched due to the influx of 50,000 refugees each year from neighboring nations. We learn that when a man erects a hut on your front lawn, after 72 hours you must allow him to remain or find him a new place to settle. In a population 30% white and 70% of color, reverse discrimination occurs for jobs. There are 11 official languages in South Africa. Most speak Afrikaans, a language derived from the Bushmen and Dutch. There is an indescribable warmth and friendliness in the people here. “Ubuntu” is their word for welcome. They have no word for stranger in their native tongue.
When I say I’m taking a group to South Africa., the geo-illiterate think I’m going to the southern part of Africa. This is the upscale country of the continent where one can get all the creature comforts within their adventure. We follow the Western Cape, the hot spot at peak season and a totally malaria free zone. Here the seasons are reversed from the US and it is spring. Our quest is to see the Big 7. On Kenya trips we searched for the Big 5 (lion, leopard, elephant, rhino and Cape buffalo), but here we add the whale and shark. Personally speaking, I’ve embarked on the most profound journey of my life.
Terry and I planned to marry onboard South African Airways flight #2973, an aviation first. This was the flight we met on 9/22/02 as he was a client of mine then heading to Krueger. It was our dream to tie the knot here. [If interested, see the attached story on the wedding.]
Day 2 – Cape Town rules with incredible natural wonders and trendiness. A cross between San Francisco and Rio, I could certainly reside here. We do a full day Peninsula tour including Camps Bay, Fish Hook, Simons Town, Hout Bay and more. Along the spectacular coast we saw whales breeching. The highlights included a cruise to Seal Island, a hike among thousands of penguins and funicular up to Cape of Good Hope where the Atlantic and Indian oceans merge. There were many great Kodak moments. At night all scattered to the famous V&A Waterfront with its plethora of pubs and cafes.
Day 3 – We head to laid back Hermanus for a whale of a good time. The annual whale festival is on led by the world’s only ‘Whale Crier’ who blows his horn at each sighting. Whales gather here every September to mate. The clear bays are nurseries for mother and calves. There are about 5000 Southern Right Whales named centuries ago as they were the right whales to hunt. They have no teeth and swallow up to 400lbs of fish per day. My supplier said we should see thousands gathered here in protected bays, but locals told me they were shy today and only a few surfaced. Nevertheless it was a great free day of festivities. The whole town goes whale-gaga and we loved mingling with the friendly locals.
Springtime is in bloom now with a kaleidoscope of geraniums, lavender, canola, starburst and colorful protea. My wedding bouquet was calla lilies. Here they grow like weeds. We spent the night in the charming tiny town of Arniston. Our hotel sat ocean’s edge surrounded by mountains that were dotted with lighthouses.
Day 4 – We depart through majestic mountains and Mossel Bay famous for their calamaris that are the size of steaks. Our destination was Oudtshoorn, “Feather capital of the world.” Since 1864 this is the world’s foremost supplier of all things ostrich; hide, meat and feathers. We visit a huge farm to witness mating and hatching. Some got to ride the oddball creatures. Next stop was a wildlife center for an opportunity to get extremely close to various native animals. We had our photos petting leopards, lion cubs and a pigmy hippo named Humphrey. This was home to Duma, the famous cheetah from the movie of the same name. Rare white tigers are bred here. There are only 300 left on earth. Many in our group partook in the worlds only “caged croc dive” where they were lowered by cage into the warm water and surrounded by chomping jaws. These Nile crocs are huge. One bite and could break your spine and shatter all your ribs. This place provided many thrilling encounters.
Our final stop was the famous UNESCO Cango Caves, Arica’s largest show cave. I nearly opted out of going as I’m not a cave woman. It was however, incredibly impressive as we walked chamber to chamber in massive dry caverns which are a mere 800,000 years old.
Day 5 – We arrive to lovely Plettenberg Bay. First tour is Monkeyland, the world’s first free roaming mutli-specie primate sanctuary. Here it’s all about rescue of previously abused monkeys, baboons, apes and lemurs of Madagascar. They tried to steal our belongings at our outdoor lunch. Later we visited the Elephant sanctuary for a hands on interactive educational tour. I didn’t know African elephants could be tamed like Asian or Indian. We learned that no other creature is as understanding as the elephant which can learn, remember, meditate and conceive such things man can hardly perform. We enjoyed a Trunk-In-Hand tour where we walked, fed and examined by touch its ears, tail, tongue and tear ducts. That was sweet. The trainers were Zulu-men. I departed giving them a thumbs up. With big grins they thanked me. I didn’t know this gesture in Zulu signified they were highly fertile.
We spent 2 nights at Whalesong Lodge overlooking the ocean and a favorite of all. Here a surprise wedding reception was arranged for us with cakes, local wines and more from our US supplier. After Frank made a heartfelt toast, we all sang “Going to the airplane and we’re gonna get married” Dinners were on our own. Everything is so affordable here that we often ordered 4 courses.
Day 6 – We’ve traveled to Knysna, oyster capital of the world. There we boarded a ferry and sailed to Featherbed Nature Reserve. 4×4 Jeeps then took us to the summit of the Western Heads for breathtaking views of the sea. From there we did a downhill hike through forest to the crashing waves on the coast. (It’s the most dangerous bay on earth for boats which sail these waters and thus are unable to even get insurance.) A fresh seafood buffet greets us at the Food Forest set under a canopy of milkwood trees. In departing this little piece of paradise, I noticed the pier is black covered in mussels. Rare seahorses are bred here. These remarkable creatures mate for life and it’s the male that gives birth.
In the afternoon we joined Ocean Safari’s in search of whales, dolphins and sharks. For me, this was the highlight of the trip. It was so unique how they launched our boats like rockets into the Atlantic. Suzy on an ostrich research boats allowed us legally to get extremely close to whales. Our boat came upon two 50 ton whales mating. One was the size of Moby Dick that gracefully arced as the other slapped its flipper with a cascade of water. It was like seeing 2 motorcoaches rolling in the water. Another boat spotted 2 pods of 20 whales playing together. This eco-adventure was a powerful experience that left us in stunned silence until our departure. Fighting the surf on our return to shore was like storming the beaches of Normandy (sans bullets) and very thrilling.
Day 7-9 – We set out for our longest drive of 4 hours to our game reserve. The scenery was unblemished under the African sun with rolling hills, indigenous forests, golden beaches and sand dunes that spilled into the sea. We arrived to luxurious Kariega, a private reserve with an abundance of game that was a world apart. Set in 14,000 lush acres bordered by the Bushmans rivers, it was stunning. We passed the electric gates to see herds of gazelle, water buck, antelope and wildebeest. The landscape was a giant lawn for the omnivore wildlife to satisfy their appetites.
Total comfort was provided in our exquisite chalets. Some in our group had their own private swimming pools. All meals were included. The variety of fresh local dishes was a culinary feast. As Terry tried to nap after lunch, a dozen monkeys surrounded his balcony and one managed to unlatch his chalet door. It peered in to see if a raid was possible. He chased them away and outside saw colorful birds fill the trees with a backdrop of 3 giraffe.
Five game drives were provided and at the sunset photo stops wine and beverages were added. Our ranger guides were excellent and these were the most comfortable safari jeeps made. Conservation here is paramount. In nature nothing is guaranteed. I’ve known friends to spend thousands of dollars on African safaris and with rain they saw little of anything. The benefit of a private reserve is guaranteed sightings. This was just a taste of what Africa holds but here we obtained the best photography ever within mere feet of lions, elephants, rhino and countless more animals.
Lions in the grass Cape Buffalo is the most dangerous animal in Africa – but not this one.
The Cape buffalo is the most dangerous animal on earth due to its unpredictability. It’s the only animal a Masai warrior will run from. Several here had been semi-domesticated and suddenly approached our jeeps. One client reached out to pet it as if it were the barnyard cow. It remained calm but rage could occur within seconds. For free time we enjoyed a river cruise among hippos and hiked on marked trails. No where else have I been able to walk among wild eland and zebra in the bush like I did here!
Our farewell “Boma dinner” of traditional cuisine was set under the stars of the Southern Cross. The local staff sang and danced by a bonfire. It was a perfect end to our journey well done. We departed from Port Elizabeth via Dakar Senegal back to Washington and I reflect. I must arrange more trips to Africa from Victoria Falls, the Serengeti, Sahara, Nile, Great Rift Valley, Red Sea, the pyramids and more. It’s the wonders in these life changing places that leave a traveler with the greatest impressions. And I’ll return again to this little kingdom of South Africa with its limitless horizons and promising future. Our next adventure will be Swaziland & Kwa Zulu Natal.
The day we left, our suitcases had swelled double in size from all the affordable souvenirs. As our driver Johann loaded them, I hugged him goodbye. He drove us 1473 kilometers (900 miles) with an ever present smile. I say goodbye to Carol who went beyond the call of duty to please us. For a moment in time, she was like our mother. Then goodbyes were exchanged between my wonderful group who met as strangers and in the end felt like family. On return home I unpacked with delight to see my ostrich eggs have made it without a crack. Among the backlog of emails was a special one from “The ZA Show.” I did a live worldwide radio/podcast interview the next day. The subject was why I love South Africa. I was so relaxed it went without a hitch.