There’s a reason why people say a trip to South Africa is like seeing the world in one country. It is such a culturally diverse and geographically rich country. When the opportunity presented itself to visit for the first time in 37 years, I jumped at it.
While it was partly an opportunity to reconnect with old friends made during my year as a Rotary Exchange Student, I have always wanted to travel down the famous Garden Route on the east coast.
We flew into Durban staying in the outer hills and then down to Leisure Bay visiting friends. Our friends now live in compounds with razor wire and laser beams protecting them and their properties. Durban and Pietermaritzburg were a treat to visit when I lived in the rural town of Kokstad on the Transkei border during apartheid, with the increase in crime and attacks on tourists in recent times, we were advised to avoid these once beautiful cities.
We returned to Kokstad, which was a largely English farming community during the apartheid reign, and found that it has essentially become a black township with a population of some 50,000. While they have a shopping centre and supermarkets where the whites will shop with the rest of the community, there are also black supermarkets where you would only find blacks. We shopped in one of these by mistake. Market stalls lined the main street and witchdoctors peddled their wares on the pavement, where some people lit fires for warmth in the early morning. It is also now home to the largest high security prison in South Africa (that was built in 2002). High speed police convoys overtook us on the highway as they ferried prisoners to this jail.
We travelled with friends to M’Sikaba (now called Msikaba) on the wild coast and visited the largest vulture colony in southern Africa. We have found that townships are occasionally spelt in different ways to reflect tribal differences. So don’t be put off if you notice different spellings on google maps or local maps such as the capital of what used to be the Transkei was Umtata but is now referred to as Mthatha.
We left Kokstad at 4am with a plan to head through Mthatha and stop at an Engin (a major petrol station and café service centre) for petrol and some breakfast once we had past the city. We were headed for two nights in Addo Elephant Park, a 1600 square kilometer sanctuary boasting a range of other wildlife including lions, buffalo, leopard, wildebeest, zebras and kudu.
We were advised to leave early for the 10-hour trip and to not stop until we were through Mthatha about three hours away. Also, to not look like tourists (we only brought our iphone to capture images), nor stop for photos by the road in case of being attacked. Most of the towns we drove through we did not see another white person. And while all blacks we encountered were lovely, friendly people, with unemployment rates of 26 per cent (and youth unemployment rates of 50 per cent), and government financial support limited to pensioners, war veterans, single mothers and disabled people, many people have it tough and subsequently the crime rate is high.
We drove down the N2, an excellent freeway that goes all the way to Cape Town. We drove past East London and Grahamstown then took a road that says Patterson to Addo Main Gate arriving about 3pm. (This was not a good turn off, as it meant 11 kms of dirt road and apparently the next turn off is better – made roads all the way). There were a number of toll stops along the freeway where you pay a few rand, so it’s worth having some notes on you for the journey.
Be aware that the speed limit on the freeways is 120Kph, but many drivers will go faster than this, and when we were there, there were road works underway, so much of the freeway hand no lines (but maintained the 120kph).
We discovered that South Africa does its national parks well. You pay a conservation fee of around $24 (AUD) per person per day, and a fee of approximately $100 (AUD) a night for the chalet for two people. We stayed in a chalet that was comfortable and had everything we needed (including elephants in the fenced reserve right outside). The roads through the reserve were mainly bitumen and were fine for a two-wheel-drive.
We had some amazing encounters with the elephants including twice finding ourselves in the middle of the herd of elephants while crossing the road and once being in the middle of a stampede.
We went for a safari through the reserve after settling in. You can only drive in the reserve between 5.30am and 6pm. There is a restaurant here that is open for breakfast, lunch and dinner and was very popular.
We were advised to go for a drive in the reserve early when the wildlife tends to be more active, so we did this each day at 6am to great benefit. In the middle of the day it was worth going to the waterholes where the elephants often go to cool off and get a drink.
After this adventure, we drove to just past Tsitsikamma (past three turn offs from the freeway) and stayed over at Storms River Mouth – a stunning national park with a caravan park and chalets set at the base of volcanic mountainous cliffs and on the beach with the dramatic ocean before you.
There is also a restaurant at Storms River Mouth. While we were there, it was housed in a large pavilion tent as the restaurant had burnt down a couple of years earlier.
Early the next morning I planned on walking to the suspension bridge about 1km away. Dodging cheeky baboons, I enjoyed a beautiful walk along the jungle on the cliff face to the bridge that spans the river mouth. It’s actually made up of three suspension bridges and is well worth the walk. There is a small outdoor ‘classroom’ with information boards that explain that 33 different species of insets were found at this spot in recent times that have never been classified by scientists before.
We then drove on to Knysna the oyster capital of South Africa, and visited the very stunning Knysna Heads, where we enjoyed a lovely lunch that felt like we were sitting in an exotic Mediterranean location. We drove to the top of the heads for a look at the view, and then headed off to Blackwaters River Lodge where we stopped for the night. The lodge has a little mashie golf course and a restaurant that did a very nice dinner and breakfast.
We continued down through the fruit growing region of South Africa and turned off the N2 to visit Witsand, 35 kms away on the coast. I stayed here with friends on my earlier visit and was keen to revisit the place. Like South Africa, this place had also grown in that time, but I still managed to find the cottage we stayed in which thankfully was unchanged.
Once we dove through Sir Lawri’s pass (a nice spot to stop and admire the view) and decended into Cape Town. We followed the road around the coast to Kalk Bay to do the trip down the peninsular to the most southern point of the country before going to Cape Town. We drove past the huge squatters village that is reputedly 7km by 17km and houses some 2.5 million people.
We enjoyed the Italian fare on offer at Satori.Kalk Bay is a beautiful, historic town on the coast. We stayed at a lovely BnB and spend a couple of days exploring the township. Seals were on the historic pier looking for fish from the fish mongers as the tourists lapped up the display.
We ate a lovely Italian dinner at Satori on the recommendation of our host at Sonnekus Guesthouse – one of the oldest guesthouses in Kalk Bay. We also stayed a night in Chartfield Guesthouse, which looked like a lovely building but found we were staying in a cottage across the road and had to lock and unlock four doors to get to our room. I would hate to be in there when a fire broke out and had to leave quickly.
We stopped into a great bar on the water Cape to Cuba a very cool spot to stop for a drink or a meal.
While in Kalk Bay, treat yourself to a meal in the historic building on the harbor appropriately called Harbour House. You will need to book ahead as it is very popular, but worth it. The views are stunning and the meal was memorable for all the right reasons.
We went to the Cape of Good Hope then around to Hout Bay for a night. We stayed in Poseidon Guesthouse, which had a great view of the township and served the best breakfast with homemade sourdough bread.
On the final day we drove along the scariest road I have ever driven along into Cape Town a stunning city where we stayed near the V and A on the waterfront, explored The Castle – the historic home of the East India Company, Table mountain and Robben Island where Nelson Mandela was in prisoned for much of his 27 year incarceration.
We then flew to Durban and drove north to spend a few days at Imfolozi and Hluhluwe Game Reserves about four hours drive north the airport. We stayed in safari tents first, which really was glamping with solid floors, a bathroom and kitchen, hot water and electricity till 10pm.
The ‘tents’ are cleaned daily, but don’t be surprised if the sheets aren’t clean. Ours had the sand grit in the bed of the previous guests. While the accommodation area is fenced for elephants, you could find any of the other animals roaming around your tent including lions so take care always when outside the tent and I wouldn’t recommend going to the kitchen across your deck after dark. Also we went there planning to eat in the restaurant, not realizing there was no restaurant also no supervisor staying over night to keep an eye on us all. Fortunately there was a little shop so we could get some canned beans and stew to tide us over.
We then spent two nights in a luxury resort located on the edge of Hluhluwe (in the northern half of the reserve). Imfolozi and Hluhluwe used to be two game parks Imfolozi and that have joined together in recent years. While everything was laid on in the very beautiful Rhino Lodge (including morning and evening safaris, all meals, there actually was a restaurant in the main camp of Hluhluwe. Sadly we discovered that a rhino was killed near Rhino lodge on the night we arrived in Imfolozi. As a result our morning and evening safaris were spent with an eye out for poachers and being stopped by rangers. With a rhino horn worth approximately $150,000 I am told, it’s not surprising that it is so keenly sought by poachers. Unless pressure is bought to bear from other countries as happened with ban on international trade of elephant tusks (even though this hasn’t wiped out the problem), it is predicted that these majestic animals will become extinct if serious action isn’t taken soon. A reported 28 rhinos were killed in this game park in May alone and 20 in April.
I would recommend travelling down the Garden Route of South Africa’s east coast, and around the south of the country and game reserves, but advise travellers to take caution.