I learnt so much on this forum while planning of my recent trip to South Africa that I thought I should give something back and provide a rather detailed report of our recent month long trip (September, 2011). In summary, we had a fantastic time. It was safe, friendly and extremely enjoyable, especially if you love wildlife, as I do. It was also quite inexpensive (well, for the Aussie dollar at least).
We flew into Johannesburg and had a pre-organised cab to take us to the Northern suburb of Melville, where were stayed at Melville Turret Guesthouse (B & B), which was lovely and safe and peaceful and highly recommended. Melville itself was as great choice in Joburg – it was pleasant, safe and fun. We walked up to Seventh Street to browse the shops and eat out (Melon and Lucky Bean were two great eateries). We used Africa Tour Desk to do a private tour of Soweto and the Apartheid Museum, both of which were totally absorbing and a fascinating day out. (On the way back, our guide took us through downtown and Hillbrow, which we would not have done on our own, due to safety concerns – but it was fascinating). One night, we caught a cab to the Northern suburb of Houghton to see the Musical called “Africa Umoja –Spirit of Togetherness.” This was excellent, with singing and dancing, ranging from tribal (with spears, shields and big beating drums), through to jazz to rousing Gospel that made the hair stand up on the back of your neck. It told the story of black African music and dance. We then cabbed it safely back to Melville (organized with the cabbie who took us there). The weather in Joburg was warm and sunny the whole time (about 27° C), and we had a good time, so September is well recommended.
We then cabbed it back to the airport to pick up a hire car (pre-booked online thru Carhire300, the UK broker, as recommended on TA. We had no problems at all). Then we drove five hours up to Kruger National Park (hence, we never needed to drive in Joburg city per se). I had booked bungalows in Skukuza, Lower Sabie and Satara Restcamps, two nights each, about eight months prior). We enjoyed all three restcamps, the en suite bungalows were fine, and we saw heaps of wildlife (all the usual suspects, many up close, including elephants, buffalo herds, hippos, rhinos, lions, giraffes, zebras, a cheetah, a leopard at night, and all sorts of antelope and birds). Lower Sabie had the best bar/deck overlooking the river, while Skukza was great for facilities (banking, post office), while I especially liked the accommodation bungalows and bird life at Satara. It was very dry and nice and warm (about 30 degrees), with animals clearly visible (cf the wet season, when green foliage makes viewing harder). We did a night drive in each camp, which ranged from a bit boring to great (saw leopard, hyenas, genets, civets, a serval, and an African wild cat on the great night drive). Hence, the night drives vary, and I guess you just need to do a few to strike a good one. (By the way, we found the night drives in open-sided vehicles to be very cold in September, so we rugged up in everything we had after the first one).
After the Kruger self drive, we drove to Elephant Plains Lodge in the Sabi Sands area. This is renowned for its up close-and-personal viewing of the Big Five and more (especially leopards), in pricey game lodges. Elephant Plains is about the cheapest and it was fantastic – we saw all of the big five a few times. Highlights included following a group of five lionesses on the hunt, watching a leopard eat its kill in a tree at dusk, sitting in the range rover amongst a herd of elephants eating, and sitting amongst a large herd of buffalo that suddenly decided to stampede all around us.
After Sabi Sands, we drove through the beautiful Blyde River Canyon down to Nelspruit and stayed overnight in the Old Vic Travellers Inn, which we thought was a bit run down. We were then headed South to KwaZulu-Natal, and decided to go through Swaziland (the most direct route on a map). This was straightforward and enjoyable, and we stayed in the Siteki hotel about half way through the small country. Back in South Africa, we stopped briefly in Mkuze Game Reserve, then a few nights at Hilltop Camp at Hluhluwe-Imfolozi Game Reserve. Hilltop was a great place, with excellent accommodation and surprisingly good and cheap food and booze. The weather was cool and cloudy, but we saw heaps of rhinos, also elephants, giraffes and three lions in a tree by the road. It was a lot greener than Kruger and our photos of giraffes on a green background are striking (cf. Kruger, on a dry brown background). We drove on to Durban, via the town of KwaDukuza, where, on Heritage day (Sept 24) we were supposed to be meeting Zululand Eco Adventures, who had VIP passes to the Zulu festival called Shaka Day. But they did not show up as organised and we drove there ourselves, and spent a little bit of time amongst the colourful festivities. Then we drove on to Durban, and had dinner at the excellent restaurant called Spice, in Morningside (we stayed nearby at Hotel 64 on Gordon, which was fine). Next day, we did an organised tour of city and township with “Durban Street Scene Tours” which was excellent. Not for those who are not adventurous, as we found ourselves drinking lots of beer with local folks at a chaotic shebeen in a black township while our guide nicked off somewhere. But he soon returned, and we loved the tour, it was really worthwhile and showed us the real Durban. Back in Morningside, we had Bunny Chow at a local restaurant (a hollowed out half loaf of bread filled with a curry of your choice).
We drove to King Shaka airport, dropped off the hire car and flew on 1Time from Durban to Cape Town – a good, punctual flight. Then we picked up another hire car and drove 2 hours South East to Gansbaai, to see the great white sharks. We went with Shark Diving Unlimited. They seemed to have lost my booking of several months earlier, but took us anyway. Seas were rough (take sea sickness tabs prior), but the sharks turned up and we really enjoyed the cage diving (no scuba nor snorkel – you just wear a wet suit and pop under water to see the shark as it swims by). In Gansbaai, we stayed at The Roundhouse in the little village of De Kelders, which was excellent. There is a local pub that was great for good food and atmosphere. Then, we drove to Hermanus and stayed in an apartment on the water, called Hermanus Esplande. This little place was amazing. It was dated, but was inexpensive and the view from the main bedroom looked straight out onto the water, where the Right whales were breaching and playing.
After whale watching (heaps of them at this time of year – September), we drove via the coast to Simonstown. This was a leisurely and very scenic 2 -3 hours. Simonstown is a lovely little place and we stayed on the water, at the Simonstown Quayside Hotel. Very nice. We went to see the penguins at nearby Boulders Beach (we had bought International Wild Cards at Kruger, which allows access to various SA parks, including the penguins, and works out cheaper than paying daily entrance fees to Kruger, Imfolozi, Boulders Beach, etc.) The weather throughout this time was mild and generally clear (about 20 – 23 degrees).
We then drove around the Cape of Good Hope, including Cape Point, and Chapman’s Peak drive and so into Cape Town. The coastal drive was magnificent and not to be missed if you are in Cape Town. In Cape Town, we stayed in town (city bowl) at the Cape Heritage Hotel, which was very nice, with a number of eateries and bars associated with it in the same heritage building. In Cape Town, we did a tour of the Bo Kaap area – highly recommended. We also did the rotating cablecar up to top of Table Mountain – a must do in fine weather, and strolled around the V & A waterfront. On Long Street, we enjoyed the restaurants called Fork and Mamma Africa’s (the latter had a small band playing and was very atmospheric). Also recommended are the Pan African Markets in Long Street, and Greenmarket square – lots of souvenirs , etc. We walked around the city area – Long Street and the vicinity of our hotel- at night, there was a high security presence and we had no problems (but we were three males in our forties). On our last day, we used the hop on-hop ff bus to go around to Kirstenbosch gardens, and to Hout Bay, where we had fish and chips and beer at the wharf. (We don’t usually do hop on and off buses, but we found it to be excellent, with great commentaries.) The gardens were excellent at this time of year, with Proteas in bloom. Also, we would recommend Camps Bay , which was beautiful late in the arvo, in one of the cocktail bars facing the beach!
In summary, South Africa in September was perfect. We felt safe, and everyone was really friendly. The weather was very good – still warm with no rain yet in Joburg/Kruger, and warming up with the rain having stopped in Cape Town. (Also, we took the antimalarial, doxycycline, while in Kruger, but, due to an error on my part, ran out of the drug half way through the trip. So, we did not do the full 4 week course, but did not even see a mosquito, and staff at Elephant Plains said that they do not use anti-malarials as the risk is quite low).
We flew on Kulula from Cape Town back to Joburg in the morning, in time for our 6pm international flight back to Australia that same day.
I have travelled a lot around the world, and this was my favorite trip to date ! Simply brilliant and thanks heaps to all you South Africans out there.
Craig in Melbourne, Australia