This is my way to give back to the readers of Tripadvisor which has been a fantastic resource in planning a vacation. Hopefully my trip report should be of some help to the people on this forum trying to plan a South African holiday.
We are a couple in early 30s and decided to take a two week vacation to South Africa. After a little bit of research on Tripadvisor, we stumbled upon a South African based tour operator called Africapass which helped us plan a memorable trip to South Africa. From the very beginning, Africapass was extremely responsive via emails and gave us detailed answers and recommendations to our numerous questions. Their recommendations were very genuine and accurate and Margriet Kotze from Africapass dedicated a lot of time in planning out an itinerary which fit our needs. We were not very budget sensitive, but after doing a quick price check with a few other travel agents from SA, we realized that Africapass had the best price. Most of the SA based travel agents were quite competitive price wise but Africapass stole the show with very good attention to details and fantastic service. They went all out and Margriet even gave us her personal cell-phone number and Skype ID, in case we needed to talk to them over the weekends. Impeccable service overall and would highly recommend them without any reservation.
We divided our trip in four parts:
a) Cape town
b) Shark Cage Diving in Hermanus/Gansbaai
c) Safari in private reserves in Greater Kruger Area
d) Panorama Route
It is a beautiful city and the weather around the last week of august had started getting better with warmer days and barely any rain. We either wanted to stay on the V&A Waterfront or in Camps Bay. After quite a bit of research and multiple conversations with Margriet from Africapass, we decided to go ahead with the Bay Hotel in Camps Bay. It was a fantastic recommendation and we decided to choose their Suite Package with beautiful views of the Atlantic Ocean. To our surprise, when we arrived, we were upgraded to the best room in the hotel, which was their Penthouse Suite, bang in the center of the hotel with uninterrupted view of the ocean. The service and hospitality at the Bay Hotel was very good and it is probably the only luxurious 5 star hotel right on the beach in Camps Bay. Our suite package included a dinner for two, which was fancy but to be really honest, just OK. There are quite a few restaurants in Cape Town which potentially have better food. Early next morning, our rental car arrived at the hotel, (organized by Africapass) and after a heavy breakfast (included in our package), off we were to see the sights around Cape Town. We spent most of the late morning and early afternoon, driving up to the Table Mountain (unfortunately the cable car which takes you to the top was closed due to maintenance) and Signal Hill. Both spots had jaw dropping views of the entire city. Finally, midafternoon, we both decided to do a trek up to the top of Lions Head. The trek started off like a piece of cake and then got more and more challenging as we approached the top. Neither of us are seasoned trekkers and the steep climb with cliffs on either side, towards the end, using chains and via ferratas was quite an experience. The views from the top were magnificent are worth every effort. I would highly recommend this climb which takes about 2.5 to 3 hours roundtrip. We spent the rest of the evening on the V&A Waterfront. It is quite commercialized and crowded, but does offer quite a few restaurants, bars and shopping area to spend a good few hours.
The next day, our plan was to drive down to the Cape Point via the Chapmans Peak drive. The drive is very scenic and is highly recommended. It took us a few hours to drive through the cape peninsula and reach cape point which is the lowest most point of the cape peninsula. The view from the old lighthouse is unreal and can be reached easily using the funicular. Most of the people stop here but another 15-20 minutes beyond the old lighthouse is the new lighthouse and should not be missed. The new lighthouse is essentially the lowest most point and offers some stunning views. You cannot quite reach the lighthouse since it is built at the edge of the cliff with no walkable paths but one can easily walk up to 100m from the new lighthouse. We grabbed a quick bite and a drink at the café at cape point and after a couple of hours at the Cape Point and Cape of Good Hope (10 min drive from cape point), we started to drive back to Cape Town making a stop at Boulders Beach in Simons Town. This is where a colony of Jackass African Penguins has settled a few decades ago. The place closes down by 5pm; hence it is very important to plan the drive back from cape point accordingly. We were very lucky and were allowed in even after 5 pm for a quick peak, which luckily tuned into an hour with the penguins. Quite an experience! We ended the day having a hearty meal at a restaurant called FORK, back in Cape Town which served some very good Tapas.
Shark Cage Diving and Hermanus:
We hit the road early next morning on our way to Hermanus; a quaint little town about 2 hours away from Cape Town. It serves as a fantastic base for Whale watching and Shark Cage Diving. The initial drive is quite boring, with most of it being on the national highway N2. Once we hit Somerset West, we decided to take a slight detour and go for some Wine Tasting into the lower Stellenbosch area. We stopped at Spier Wine Estate which also had a Wildlife Outreach. Unfortunately the cheetahs at the outreach were let go due to high costs, but we saw quite a few birds of prey, which was delightful. After a quick wine tasting, we headed back to Hermanus and decided to take a more scenic route along the ocean; thru Pingle Bay and Bettys Bay (another colony of African Penguin); instead of the boring N2 highway. This detour took us about an hour extra but was quite beautiful. We reached Hermanus late in the evening just before sunset. We were booked in a suite at a guesthouse called Oceans 11 (recommended by Africapass), which was located overlooking the ocean. It was quite exciting to see a Southern Right Whale right from the patio of our room, no more than 300 meters from the coast. During the months of June to November these whales migrate to the shallow coastal areas of South Africa. The shallow, sandy-bottomed and sheltered bays are perfect for mating, calving, nursing their young and resting. We spent the rest of the evening walking along the coast in Hermanus and watching these gigantic creatures at a distance in the wide ocean. Dinner was at a seafood restaurant at the Marine hotel, which was quite nice to end the day.
Early next morning at 6 am, we were picked up by White Shark Projects, a company which specializes in shark cage diving and is totally dedicated to the conservation of the great white sharks. To our surprise, there were quite a few people in our mini-van, who had been picked up from hotels around Cape Town at about 4 am in the morning for a day trip. While a day trip from Cape Town is doable, it can become very hectic and I would highly recommend staying overnight in Hermanus and having a good night’s sleep before venturing out to see the Great Whites.(Do not forget to take your swimming costumes). It took us about 45 minutes to reach the town of Gansbaai from where our catamaran would leave for the cage diving. Before boarding the boat, we had breakfast and were fully briefed on the procedure and the precautions to be taken while cage diving. I would highly recommend White Shark Projects, since they are probably the first boat which leaves for cage diving every day and takes less than 20 people on the boat. This in turn gets you to spend a lot more time in the cage, without any rush. It was an amazing experience which was very safe. We saw nine great white sharks that morning, with one of them as big as 4.5 meters long. We spent about 2 hours watching the great white from the boat. Normally one would spend about 15-20 minutes in the cage. To be very honest, being in the cage for too long can get a little uncomfortable due to the tight wetsuits and being surrounded by water full of chum. We enjoyed watching the sharks more from the top deck of the boat. These are magnificent creatures and it is a once in a lifetime experience which should not be missed. I would recommend against doing this though; if one has sea sickness. We were dropped off at the guesthouse at about 12 pm. After lazing around for a bit, we had lunch at an ocean view restaurant in Hermanus while watching the whales close by. That evening, we drove back to Cape Town and stayed overnight at the Westin, close to the V&A waterfront.
Safari in private reserves in Greater Kruger Area:
After dropping off our rental car at the airport we boarded a flight to Hoedspruit. Our first three nights were at Ngala Tented camps, which were about an hour’s drive from Hoedspruit. Ngala private reserve is located in the northern part of the Greater Kruger region and has only two private camps. Off-roading is allowed in the private reserves and due to the small number of vehicles in the reserve (maybe 5 or 6) we were able to spend a lot of quality time with the animals without waiting or being rushed. We had a private vehicle dedicated to us, hence had all the flexibility to plan our game drives. The early mornings and evening can get a little chilly and a fleece or a jacket is highly recommended to carry even though we were provided with hot waterbottles to keep us warm. Ngala tented camp is run by &Beyond and is a beautiful luxury camp located close to the dry river bed of Timbavati river. The service was impeccable and everyone at the camp went out of their way to make our stay unforgettable. Our Ranger Amy and our tracker Steve were an awesome team and tried very hard every day to make every single game drive perfect. We saw all of the big five, up close and personal. The highlight at Ngala, was a pride of twenty one lions called the Birmingham pride, a coalition of six male lions who were trying to take over the Birmingham pride and a herd of 500-700 cape buffalos. &Beyond also organized a bush lunch for us overlooking a waterhole, which was quite a lovely experience.
Next we headed to Kirkmans Kamp in the Sabi Sands private reserve for two nights. Our flight from the Ngala airstrip to Kirkmans was about 20 minutes. It is an older camp with very colonial feel and very different from the Ngala tented camp. It was much more open with beautiful views of the Sand river. Once again we had a private vehicle dedicated to ourselves. Our ranger Jason was very energetic and along with his tracker was able to track some unique animals. They have traversing rights with neighboring Lions Sand private reserve and the highlight at Kirkmans was being able to see the endangered black rhino and a pack of wild dogs hunt and kill a bushbuck. Overall the camp was quite comfortable, but lacked a touch of personal attention while dining at the camps restaurant. The game drives on the other hand were quite awesome. Our last game drive was quite a treat when we tracked a male leopard and followed it through the bush for almost an hour. We then ran into a lioness right in the middle of the road stalking a nyala and then chasing after it. Then saw a herd of elephants cross the sand river and then a white rhino and her cub ten meters away from our vehicle and finally the cape buffalo. All the big five on one morning’s game drive. To top it off, Jason organized a surprise bush breakfast for us which was a fantastic way to end our stay at Kirkmans.
Next we headed for a one night stay at the Exeter River lodge, an &Beyond property located about an hour’s drive from Kirkmans camp. It is a very modern luxury camp with private swimming pool and very romantic private tents. The concentration of game in this private reserve is spectacular. Even though we did not have a private vehicle, we did not feel very rushed. The highlights of Exeter were seeing a gigantic bull Elephant uproot a huge tree as if it was child’s play and a wild dog den. We also saw two leopards with a kill and a pride of lions with new born cubs not more than 5 meters from our vehicle. Our ranger Mac was very knowledgeable and made every effort to make our game drives enjoyable and fun. They organized a private dinner for us in our tent which was a nice little touch. The food at this camp was probably the best compared to all the other camps. The only complaint we had was that our tent was very very far from the main area of the camp with trees obstructing our view of the river. We feel that our travel agent should have requested a closer tent since at the time of booking there were quite a few available tents.
After six amazing nights in the safari, we decided to end our South African vacation by going to see the world famous panorama route. Our rental car was delivered to us at the Exeter River Lodge and it took us about 2 hours to reach Hazyview, our base for the panoramic route. The initial drive from the camp of about 45 minutes is not very comfortable as it is mostly dirt road, so it is advisable to get a solid four wheel drive. We did not stop at Hazyview and headed straight for the panorama route. The drive was quite amazing with dramatic landscapes and few regions in the world can match the beauty and diversity of the Lowveld (low fields) and Highveld (High ground) areas of this region. We stopped at Graskop for a quick lunch before heading towards the Three Rondavales, The Blyde Canyon and the Bourke’s Luck Potholes. The weather was very cooperative and totally enriched our experience of the panoramic route. There is a minimal car entry fee for each of the view point. The entry fee for the potholes was the only one which we thought was a little steep at close to R100 for both of us including the car fee. After spending a full afternoon on the panoramic route, we headed back to Hazyview to stay overnight at Plumbago Guest House which is about 10 minute drive from Hazyview. It was quite a good recommendation from Africapass. It is a beautifully decorated house with gardens and fountains and spectacular views. We were warmly welcomed by the owners Llara and Robbie and had a very comfortable one night stay at the guesthouse. Llara is an excellent chef and we were quite glad to have decided to eat dinner and breakfast at the guesthouse itself instead of driving back to hazyview.
Next morning we once again headed towards Graskop to see the God’s window (not that very exciting and easily skippable) and some of the waterfalls around Graskop. We had lunch at Harrys Pancake and did some souvenir shopping from the art and craft gallery across from Harrys. This was quite a slow and lazy day for us since it was our last day in South Africa and we were about to board a 15 hour flight back home. We spent a couple of hours in Graskop and then drove back down to the Nelspruit airport for our flight. Instead of driving back via Hazyview, we took a quicker route though Sabie where we stopped for half an hour at the Mac Mac falls. We dropped our rental vehicle at the Nelspruit airport and after about an hour, boarded our flight to Johannesburg from where we took our connecting flight to New York.
South Africa will definitely go down as one of our favorite destinations for a holiday, with quite a diverse mix of beautiful places, plethora of different cultures, friendly people and a variety of activities to choose, ranging from hiking up the Table Mountain in Cape Town, to Shark Cage diving and Whale Watching in Hermanus to going on a Wild Game Drive in the world famous Kruger National Park. We thank Africapass once again for organizing this nearly flawless experience for us and would very highly recommend them for a tailor-made holiday to South Africa.