Yes, South Africa was our second choice for this year’s travel destination, but ultimately it has won our hearts ! Here is how our decision to travel to South Africa finalized. We had initially planned to travel to UK – touring London, Windermere, the Scottish Highlands up north to the Isle of Skye and return through Edinburgh. But a tenaciously long tour plan of 22 days, problematic health conditions and a fairly large cost estimate forced us to change our travel plans at a late stage. Thus, with a heavy heart, we went through the task of cancelling our hotel and car bookings,and our flight tickets too.
We were looking for alternatives, and had a few options to decide upon, where we tried to examine each of them. We are residents of Dubai, UAE and the months of July-August, with schools under recess for summer, are a good opportunity for family travel. But these months also witness rising temperatures across the Northern Hemisphere. Far Northern Europe ( Scandinavia) looked a fair choice but again did not fit into our 12 days window that we now wanted to restrict our travel plans to. We debated but eventually crossed out plans for Eastern Balkan because of weather, logistics and visa issues. Turning our interests downwards now, we crossed out Australia where I had been for work and lived for about 10 months about a decade ago, and South America ( Peru hangs high in my destination wish-list ) was again too far – didn’t look the right choice for a 11 to 12 days of tour plan, that we were now mostly targeting. We also shelved any plans for Russia (since language is a problem for non-Russian speaking travelers, and reports of high handedness from immigration and government officers). In comes South Africa into our potential travel horizon. The advantage for South Africa is that, it too lies on the Southern Hemisphere and hence experiences winter when we, the northerners experience our summers. It has great wildlife, nice beaches and waterfronts, and some mountains and rivers too. Being amateur photographers with a keen interest in landscape and wildlife, this suited us perfectly. We read a bit about South Africa, and equipped with some initial knowledge, selected it as a probable destination. Enough to build a positive interest in doing a bit of research !
First things first: Why South Africa
Some basic information about South Africa.
South Africa, the southern most country in the African continent, was ruled by white minorities (mostly Dutch and British) for about 300 years. It then struggled through half a century of systematized racial discrimination known as Apartheid, till the government was forced to change constitution and its laws during the first-half of the nineties. The country boasts of four Noble Prize winners for Peace and Anti-Apartheid movement : Albert Lutuli, Demond Tutu, Nelson Mandela and FW De Clerk. Johannesburg and Cape Town are the two biggest cities of South Africa, while Durban and Pretoria are also well known. Kruger National Park is one of the largest game viewing parks in the world. We had earlier been to Masai Mara (which you can read here) and is another star attraction. Besides Kruger National Park, there are numerous public and private game parks at South Africa of which Sabi Sands and Timbawati are pretty famous.
As an Indian, our relations with South Africa runs deep. We were in the forefront of vesting our support for the anti-apartheid movement, the first country to sever all diplomatic, trade and cultural relations with South Africa in 1946. The father of our nation, M.K. Gandhi had spent about 20 years in South Africa, first as a lawyer and later as a civil activist. It was South Africa, which proved to be the incubator for Gandhi, to mature as the social and political activist/ leader that he transformed into on his return to India. We had conferred on Nelson Mandela, the father of the South African nation, the highest Indian civilian award of Bharat Ratna ( one of two foreigners ever , if you leave out Mother Teresa that is, the other one being Khan Abdul Gaffar Khan of Pakistan ). Mandela had also chosen India as his first nation to visit after becoming the President of South Africa.
Once we had zeroed in with our initial knowledge about the country, we started researching in depth to sketch out a travel plan for South Africa. I have never traveled with agents and other tour operators, all tours have been a matter of research and planning by me and Anita, my wife. We narrowed down the choices and locations and found that the main two base location needs to be Johannesburg and Cape Town. Going forward, we found that it is quite an improbable task of driving between these two main cities of Jo’berg and Capetown as they were 1400 Km apart. Thus, logically, there needed to be two legs for the tour, and a domestic flight to connect them in between.
The question of “safety” slowly rose as our biggest point of worry or concern with a South Africa tour. Wading knee deep through scores of travel related websites, blogs and governmental restrictions, what we read troubled us. Mugging, looting, killing and raping was highlighted in many of such travel related portals, and our apprehensions rose. After further discussing, debating and analyzing, we somehow felt that it can be a doable tour, but with greater control, allowing lesser chances for occurrences of unwanted events, and choosing safety instead of rewards or risk, while being perpetually alert of our surroundings. A bit of information here : Indians do not need to pay for Visa ( they need one , mind you !!) for South Africa.
Orlando Towers at Soweto, Johannesburg
Our Travel Plans for South Africa
We planned to fly into Johannesburg, and stay for a night. Next we planned to spend a couple of days at Kruger National Park, travel back through the Panorama Route around Graskop and Hazy View where we again planned a couple of days halt. We then return to Johannesburg to visit Nelson Mandela‘s house( now a museum) near Soweto and then fly off to Cape Town the next morning.
The second leg of the Tour would include Cape Town with its local sights and attractions like Table mountain and the Waterfront. It would continue to the southern coastal town of Hermanus where people travel for Whale watching and Shark Cage diving, and Simon’s Town where they have a Boulder’s beach Penguin Colony, and is in close proximity to Cape Point and Cape of Good Hope. Six days for the first Leg and Five days for the second. Being lovers of road trips, we pre-booked our cars, using Rentalcars and AutoEurope site, a car for each leg of the trip. We loved the freedom and flexibility that a self-driven road trip brings. It was then that Anita found out about Aha Lesedi, an Afro cultural Village about 65 kms from Johannesburg, and we fell for it. Aha Lesedi became the first halt for the night, replacing Johannesburg, for our South African Road Trip.
Now that we were all set and the basic plan frozen, we started building our daily time schedule with things to see. Te most challenging was to cover about seven different locations of the Panorama Tour in a day or just over. But we were determined not to miss. Ultimately we didn’t. Slowly the whole tour took logical shape after a bit of discussion and deliberation.
We booked our multi city-return flights. We chose Ethiopian for its cheaper rates and shorter transit breaks, the alternates from Dubai were Emirates and the Kenyan Airlines. We booked the hotels through Booking.com . (As one of its Genius member I receive a discount at many of its hotels and some privileged late check out benefits and I am offering that to you too if booked through the this link ( Booking.com) . We also booked the first two nights inside Kruger National Park through South African National Park website, Sanparks. This is one of the biggest challenges since they stay fully occupied most of the year around and have to be booked really early, if you are travelling during the moderate or high season. We also booked our tickets for Table Mountain National Park and Robben Island in advance to avoid longer queues, for our Cape Town visit.
Below is our finalized South Africa Travel Plan after a few tweaks :
South Africa Leg 1:
This was what our final plan looked like for South Africa :
Aha Lesedi – Cultural Village and an African Tribal experience – 65 kms from Johannesburg- . From here drive through Pretoria into Kruger the next day (about 450 kms )! – We planned to stay here for 1 night. Read about our experience at Aha Lesedi Here …
Kruger National Park : Game viewing with night stays at Berg en Dal and Skukuza Rest Camps – Total 2 nights. For people who are viewing such wildlife parks for the first time, the advice is to add one more day here. Lower Sabie Camp is also great alternative. In general pick the southern camps since Kruger Park is huge and even a fortnight may not be enough to visit all the camps. Stay between Melalane and Kruger gate if your time is shorter. You can see all the African Big 5 animals in a day or two, as we did !! 🙂
Graskop – as a base for our Panorama Route which is a haven for Nature Lovers- 2 Nights. This is close to Kruger, and the drive between Graskop from Hazy view will take your breath away with its unending rows of pines and birches and long desolate valleys and mountain slopes.
Johannesburg: For city Attractions, visit Nelson Mandela’s home at 8115 Vilikazi street near Soweto. Stay for the night near Johannesburg OR Tambo Airport to catch a morning flight to Cape Town – 1 night
South Africa Leg 2:
Cape Town : Table Mountain , Signal Hill, Camps Bay, and Victoria & Alfred Waterfront – 2 nights. Add another day here for Robben Island where Nelson Mandela was imprisoned for most of his twenty five years of incarceration. This cruise/ tour itself is about 4 hours long but is heavily dependent on weather conditions.
Hermanus – Southern coastal town off the Indian Ocean, well known for such Adventure sports like Whale Watching and Shark cage diving. – 1 Night
Simon’s Town – The southern most town of Africa. A neat small town this forms the base for the Penguin’s Colony and the Table Mountain Reserve which includes Cape Point and Cape of Good Hope). – This is the southern most tip of the African continent !! – We booked here for 2 nights.
Our return would be from through Cape Town, and Anita added Chapman’s Peak Drive to our return route into Cape Town International Airport. A small detour and you can enjoy a lovely drive with the mountains on one side and the blue waters of Atlantic on the other.
We have just returned from our South Africa trip in the first half of August 2018, absolutely happy and satisfied. South Africa has not only fulfilled, but have overwhelmed us with its sights and beauty. The spectacular golden sunrise off the Indian coast from our second floor balcony at Simon’s Town still runs fresh in my mind. And so does the sight of the whales going round and round our small cruise boat in the middle of the Indian ocean. The sights from the Table mountain are forever to cherish as well as the wide expanse of the horizon around the Panorama tour. The trip went without a glitch and we are absolutely glad we went. As we sit and compare it to a few of our previous road trips in the last 6 to 8 years across Europe and US ( Here is one for you : Road trip of Iceland ) we feel South Africa tops them most, if not all.
What Else you need to know to travel South Africa ?
First and foremost, it is a country surviving under extreme drought conditions and thus water scarcity is a very practical problem. Not that you wouldn’t find drinking water, but usage needs to be controlled. Note that it includes saving water during showers and kitchens and sinks using buckets/ basin tubs and such. Similarly public toilets are mostly water-less ( and that includes Johannesburg International Airport too !!), use sanitized hand-wash and tissues, which are usually available . Hotels do not encourage usage of dishwashers or individual washing machines, laundry services are prescribed.
Second, the issue of Safety in South Africa. Most blogs and places would throw this red alert regarding safety for travelers and even localities especially at Johannesburg. Yes, its a fact, that Johannesburg was one of the most unsafe cities in the world around mid 90’s. To say the least, though situations have improved in these last twenty years, but still, there exists some localities which are not favourable for travelers. My advice, stick to the touristy places and don’t go around walking the streets after dark. Stay around Sandton or Rosebank localities. There isn’t really much to enjoy from Johannesburg night life. Stay indoors, stay safe. Pick hotels with safe parking if you are travelling on your own / rented vehicle as we were. Do not brandish your watch, pearls, currency wad, diamonds and gold chains , or the latest smartphone gadget to the general public. Let them stay inside pockets or under wraps when in Johannesburg. Cape Town is much safer, while Hermanus and Simon’s Town at the southern coast is pretty safe. Avoid Sun City !!
Third, use a local Sim card when travelling inside South Africa both for calling at data purposes. I suggest buying a Vodacom sim (available at Airports.). You can have customised packages for data and air bundles. I chose for a 2 GB data and 60 minutes calling. It lasted fine for about 12 days.
Fourth, the infrastructure inside Kruger is pretty good for self drive. Do not be hesitant about driving inside a national park infested with African Big 5 and lots of other animals. It is perfectly safe if you stick to the rules. Most camps have a diner-restaurant, a store for your necessities, and a petrol pump. Roads are well marked and forest rangers are pretty active. A few words of caution here : Do NOT step off the car under ANY CIRCUMSTANCES inside Kruger National Park and Do NOT drive on unmarked roads. There would be no support and any insurance you carry for self or car would be null and void.
Fifth, whale watching and shark cage diving are common activities at Hermanus and Simon’s Town. Please book such activities ahead of schedule especially if you are visiting on a weekend or a public holiday. Seats and services are limited.We went for whale watching and the experience is worth the price.
Sixth, Book ahead for your tickets to the local attractions at Cape Town, especially Robben Island and the Table Mountains. Buy such activities from the official WebTickets site in link in advance. In case you are not able to avail the trips, the tickets stay valid for a week, and after that it gets cancelled and the money credits back to your card.
Seventh, Convert your currency from local stores rather than the counters from airport. Airport has the most horrible currency conversion rates. Some hotel apartments may accept USD too.
Eighth, keep your car doors locked at all times. Do NOT pay heed to loiterers who may approach you at traffic signals for some donations or a lift. Better to stay safe than sorry !! Keep your passports with you , mostly.
Nine : Two fantastic road drives for you. One is between Hermanus and Simon;s town through Betty’s Bay and Gordon’s Bay. Both of these towns are also great to stay for a night or two. The other drive is between Simon’s Town and Cape Town and is known as Chapman’s Drive. Very scenic both of them, the later one is more famous, but for me the earlier one was more attractive.
Ten : Braai and Paap are two common food items here. Braai is very popular, essentially means Bar-B-Q while Paap is a softened rice pulp mashed and eaten with both gravies and vegetables. Taste the marvelous South African wines. Wine lovers should pay a visit to Groot Constantia about 20 kms from Cape Town city.
Vaccination Requirements for Visa : Yellow fever vaccine.
This is a country which has a bit of everything! From great lively cities and picturesque urban attractions, a bit of history and architecture, holidaying activities, great choice of food and drinks, well made infrastructure, and lots of nature wherever we went .. Yes, South Africa is amazing !!!