Visiting SA? Here’s my ‘dream’ itinerary

Thinking of going to South Africa? If your friends and acquaintances are anything like mine, you will get loads of opinions about where to go and what to do. I dismissed 95% of the advice i got. It makes me sound like a snob but i had a good reason. My closest circle of friends, when i went to SA, had never been anywhere beyond London. And some of their input was border-line stupid (go to that place, you know, the one the song is about. Really?)

Let me start by saying it’s critical that you spend at least two weeks in South Africa. From the states, it will take two days of vacation time getting there/back. That’s a long flight. Why rush your return?

Starting by planning your safari. Everyone around me was like, “just do three days, that’s plenty of time. It’s only wildlife.” Wrong. Going on a safari, can truly change how you look at globalization and conservation. If that doesn’t motivate you, totally fine with me. I will say, it’s important to remember that animals don’t show up on command. You can easily spend five days walking or driving around your park in search of “the big five.” Sometimes you see them, sometimes you don’t. I wanted my safari to be the highlight of my trip and spent eight days at Phinda. It was phenomenal and i highly recommend it. However, you can probably have a great time on a five-day safari was well.

Next, decide where your “home base” will be. By home base i mean, where is the largest city, and surrounding areas, you want to most of your time. Typically, it’s Cape Town. It’s a better jumping off point for Stellenbosch, the Cape of Good Hope and in general is safer than other major cities. I recommend 3-4 days in Cape Town. Again, people will steer you to a shorter stay here. Don’t be fooled, Cape Town offers a lot and you don’t want to regret missing something.

While in Cape Town, spend a day climbing Table Mountain. Spend a day just exploring the waterfront and being lazy. Finally, spend a day or two visiting Kirstenbosch Gardens and/or Robbins Island and take some deep-sea diving. To this day, i am beyond bummed that i skipped this. I think it’s why ‘cage diving’ is the number to thing on my life list.

Finally, spend at few days in Stellenbosch, enjoy the scenery and wine. I did a whirlwind tour and it wasn’t enough so i strongly recommend 2-3 days here. You won’t regret it!

Happy travels.

PS: Can i get some props for sticking to my commitment to focus on my blog? Two posts this week! And, my SA series is officially done. That means i’ll be sharing Trek Across Maine adventures soon!

Wine Stellenbosch Style

Thank you everyone for your patience with me. I haven’t been writing and posting as often as i would like to or should be. The past seven weeks were a blur but i’m pleased to share that i’m back, i’m aware of my sins and re-committed to my blog. I really want to share my Trek Across Maine adventures but first i need to tend to some unfinished business.

I organize my writing based on series. For example, i write a series of posts on a particular destination. The series can be short or long, it depends on how much i have or want to share. A while ago, i started a series on South Africa which to this day is one of my favorite trips. It’s important to me that i finish that series before getting to my cycling adventures. I really want to share how amazing this country is. And honestly, i’m a linear thinker. It would be really difficult for me to jump into cycling without finishing my SA series. I can’t explain why, just know my brain doesn’t work that way. So here we go… more on South Africa.

And since we are picking up with South Africa, what better way to pick up than with wine? I like to pretend i have a discerning palate but the truth is what i really have are a lot of food texture issues. I also lack a good sense of smell, thanks to a genetic flaw. Lucky for me, you don’t need to be a oenophile to enjoy the Stellenbosch area of South Africa. 

VIews

From Cape Town, you need to hire (aka rent) a car or make tour arrangements to get to Stellenbosch. In my case, i worked through the hotel; they used Cape Capers. I have no real compliants about this group. It’s possible i could have done better but really for a straightforward wine tour, it was great. The driver was low key, took us where we wanted to go and offered suggestions for shipping wine back to the states. That in and of itself was probably worth the trip. I rarely drive overseas because of all the horror stories you hear. If you are in a group or don’t have this psychological bias, then driving yourself might give you more flexibility.

There are numerous winery’s in the Stellenbosch and visiting them all would take a week, possibly longer. I decided to visit the winery’s that were exclusive to South Africa. We started with Neethlingshof Wine Estate.

Stellenbosch

The estate was gorgeous and the owners offered a wonderful tasting of seven different wines. Each was exclusive to South Africa, creating a unique experience. The wine was great but what i enjoyed the most were the views. The estate was well maintained and had stunning views of the countryside.

KMV winery is one of the “leading” wine and spirits producers in South Africa. I requested wineries exclusive to South Africa and technically KMV is but they are pretty well known by foreigners and as a result, they get more more tourist-traffic. The winery was enjoyable but i think we could have pushed our guide for more local, unique experiences like Neethlinshof. One thing KMV does have going for it, they make 3, 5, 10, 15 and 20 year old brandies. If you happen to be a fan, then do put this on your itinerary. I actually purchased two bottles as gifts for family members.

If for some reason you don’t like wine, i would still recommend visiting Stellanbosch. It’s a beautiful part of the country filled with lots of scenery and places to stop and lunch or dinner. The area is a big contrast to Cape Town and from what i’m told places like Jo’berg and Sun City. If you’ve been to Stellanbosch and want to add your vineyard recommendations, please feel free.

Please don’t feed the baboons

One of the most visually stunning things i did in Cape Town was to take a day trip to the Cape of Good Hope or Cape Point. If you’ve ever studied Oceanography, you know this is the place where the Atlantic and Indian Ocean meet. Okay, that’s not true but for years people believed that. The Cape does mark the point where ships would begin to travel more eastward than southward.

If you want to visit The Cape, you’ll need to make this a day trip. It’s a very long ride from Cape Town but there are plenty of scenic stops along the way. Pay attention because we saw lots of wildlife: camels and ostrich as well as Southern Right Whales swimming in the bay.

When you arrive, walk up to the lighthouse for some breathtaking views. The lighthouse has an interesting history, nautically speaking. It was built at the top of the rocks where ironically the fog sits during bad weather. After the lighthouse was built, they couldn’t figure out why ships were still crashing on the rocks below. Once the issue was discovered, a second lighthouse was built much lower on the cliff so ships could see the light and take warning.

The original lighthouse at Cape Point, SA, built too high to actually help ships.
The original lighthouse at Cape Point, SA, built too high to actually help ships.

The Cape itself sits on a conversation area of vegetation. There is a lot of plant life and animals roaming free. Including baboons that are, in fact, as aggressive as the stories you will hear about them. As soon as we got out of our car, we witnessed baboons jumping on buses, running in minivans and running out with whatever loose food or bags they could grab. It sounds comical but baboons, i learned, are pretty stinkin’ big with some scary looking teeth. It’s not so funny when they are running at you screeching.

The guy who brought us here, Bryan, was a straight talking guy and made us put any and all food in sealed bags before we got on the preserve. It kind of blew my mind that not everyone followed the same procedures. It was even more astonishing how many people actually ignored the direction and left food out in the open anyway. Although baboons aren’t my favorite animal, i think this is mean. So please, whatever you do, don’t feed the baboons. If you do, and you get your food stole or you get spit on, i won’t feel sorry for you.

On the way back, be sure to stop at Simonstown to see a flock of South African penguins. When this boulder community was opened, it was home to two breeding pairs of penguins. When i visited, they had more than 3,000. They happened to be molting –dropping their feathers– when i visited. Since penguins have almost no body fat, this means they aren’t moving much.

The penguin flock at Simmons Town, just kinda hanging out because they were molting.
The penguin flock at Simmons Town, just kinda hanging out because they were molting.

To cap off our day, we stopped out at Kirstenbosch Gardens. If you don’t follow gardening, allow me to tell you that these gardens are considered one of the best in Africa. They have something like 22,000 plants throughout the gardens. It was a beautiful stop and a nice walk after spending so much time the car.

Choose Your Safari Wisely, Padawan Learner

As i’ve said before, all travelers and wanderlusts go on a safari at some point. Before you jaunt off to Africa or India for a safari, i beg you to invest a large amount of time looking into your Safari provider. Unless you are fortunate enough to know someone who lives in these countries and can personally escort you around, you’ll be going with a tour operator.

It goes without saying that there are many, many tour operators. After seeing an article in Bon Appetite magazine, i went with a company called CCAfrica. They’ve since become And Beyond Africa. They are considered a “luxury” provider and i’m not lying, it was luxurious (more on that later). But it wasn’t the luxury bit that convinced me to travel to South Africa with them. It was:

  • Restricted access. In South Africa, ABA has several safari parks. Each one limits the number of guests allowed on the property at one time. No horror stories about hoards of tourists descending upon bathing Hippos. 
The privacy afford wildlife at ABA. If you traveled with another operator, this photo would not be possible.
The privacy afford wildlife at ABA. If you traveled with another operator, this photo would not be possible.
  • Local staff. Although guides do come from other countries 60-70% of the staff at Phinda, where i chose to go, lived in the area immediately surrounding the nature preserve. This included security, trackers, cooks, drivers, etc. Visiting this park gave me a wonderful opportunity and provided them with employment that was not detrimental to the wildlife (read: they weren’t poaching animals) or themselves.
  • Accommodations. The accommodations were first class all the way. However, when i say the accommodations were appealing, what i mean is that the owners took great care to build housing that minimized disruption to the wildlife. Huts were constructed to blend in with existing trees and forest area. In some areas of the park, rooms were literally built into the side of a mountain. This is Phinda and you can get a sense for what i mean in the photo. You can see the lodge but notice how it easily blends in with the surroundings.
Only slightly visible, the lodging at Phinda was built to minimize disruption for the wildlife
Only slightly visible, the lodging at Phinda was built to minimize disruption for the wildlife
  • Treatment of the animals. Phinda was a wildlife preserve. Although i don’t read or speak animal, you could tell they were living in a natural habitat. It was such a difference that i have since refused to visit any Zoo’s. Seriously. I’ve had heated arguments with family members when i decline to take nieces and nephews to the Zoo. And again, props to ABA for limiting access to the preserve because i think this makes a huge difference. By limiting the amount of people on the property, the animals are doing what they do and not worrying about cars and hearing foreign human chatter.

That’s what motivated me to visit Phinda. When i got there, i was beyond thrilled with my choice. The staff was absolutely top-notch and made things that sound alarming, easy to understand and fun. Example? Phinda is preserve, animals are permitted to roam freely throughout the entire property. The entire property. Once the sun goes down, guests are not allowed to walk from the common areas back to their room without an escort. Escorts to have tranquilizers in case someone does come ‘visiting’ the lodging area, but thankfully they are rarely used. Instead, our escorts made a point of showing us various star formations or letting us know which animals were talking to each other at night.

The food was amazing and plentiful. I regret not taking photos to share (what can i say, i was a novice traveler!). A typical day consisted of coffee, light breakfast while out on a ride, hot and cold breakfast upon your return, afternoon tea and a three course dinner with or without alcoholic beverages. I accidentally offended our host when i declined the hot breakfast on my first day. I filled up on cold food and didn’t realize i would be expected to eat a second course. Sorry!

Phinda has a variety of activities in addition to Safari rides and walks. This can include airplane trips to see the property, bird watching excursions and possibly assistance with preservation work (if you signed up for that in advance).

Upon booking, ABA can help arrange transportation from major South African airports to Phinda. I would assume this is the same for other preserves and parks.

I’ve traveled with other tour company’s and had pretty good experiences. Generally speaking, you get what you pay for and have a good time. However, what made this trip memorable was the location and the staff. Based on how people treated visitors, it is clear the staff really enjoyed their work and the company. You can’t train that into an employee. It’s either there or it’s not. In marketing we often refer to the “end-to-end” experience. Roughly translated, this means we want customers to have a stellar experience every time they engage with your brand or product. ABA exemplifies this.

Phinda Mt Lodge
The sign signifying one of my favorite holidays of all time.

If you are going to Africa, or on a Safari, i hope you’ll consider this amazing organization. While i have a strict “no repeat travel rule” i do hope to be able to take advantage of their properties in other countries. It was that good and it was worth every single penny. I’m happy to go on and on about ABA so ping me with q’s.

Lions and Tigers and Bears (okay, no bears)

Going on a safari. Every travel blogger, travel enthusiast and lover of adventure does it. And why not? It’s an enriching and possibly rewarding experience. Seeing wildlife in their natural habitat can leave you breathless. Don’t believe me? Here is a sampling of my Safari images.

Rush hour on Phinda Private Game Reserve
Rush hour on Phinda Private Game Reserve
Hiding from the visitors
Attempting to hide from the visitors
This experience alone made me fall in love with elephants. They are beautiful and surprisingly quiet animals.
This experience alone made me fall in love with elephants. They are beautiful and surprisingly quiet animals.
Our jeep broke down here and this buffalo and I had a stare down. He won.
Our jeep broke down here and this buffalo and I had a stare down. He won.
Just sunning themselves in the mud.
Just sunning themselves in the mud.
We followed this cheetah around all week. She was teaching her cubs to hunt.
We followed this cheetah around all week. She was teaching her cubs to hunt.

In Search of Inspiration

I’ve been looking for inspiration lately about what my next series of travel posts should focus on. Looking for inspiration is hard. It’s like waiting for water to boil, it never happens when you really, really, really want it to. Short of being struck by lightning, i decided to stop waiting and just start writing.

I noticed that my social circle, and bloggers i enjoy reading, seem to be buzzing about South Africa and safari’s more generally. Taking a safari was one of the best experiences i have ever had. Beyond that, visiting South Africa was one of the best experiences, like top three, i have ever had. It will take me several attempts to articulate what was so epic about the experience. For now, it boils down to something a local told me: Once Africa gets in your blood, it will never leave.

The "back" of South Africa's famous Table Mountain features a smaller range called the 12 Apostles
The “back” of South Africa’s famous Table Mountain features a smaller range of peaks called the 12 Apostles

Getting to South Africa can be a drag. It’s a loooong flight. When i visited, there were not a lot of International flight options, especially if you were departing from the U.S. Today, there are significantly more routes. But what i did, and what i strongly recommend, is that you break up your flight. I booked VirginAtlanic from JFK New York to London, got off and spent the day wandering around. I’ve been to London a few times and know how to navigate the Tube. This made getting into the city easy. At the end of the day, i went back to Heathrow and 11 +/- hours later, i was in Jo’berg.

Since i spent most of my time on Safari, lodging was not a huge challenge. In Cape Town, i stayed at the Sheraton next to the convention center. The hotel had great amenities and was free to me (cashed in points). The drawback was, after dark the surrounding streets were considered unsafe. The hotel did provide free taxi or water boat services to the Waterfront area which was a great “work around.” 

The Cape Town waterfront with the stunning Table Mountain in the backgroun
The Cape Town waterfront with the stunning Table Mountain in the background

The exchange rate in South Africa is almost always favorable to tourists. You can spend a little or spend more and still enjoy yourself taking in the sites, the food and shopping. And, if you end up spending a lot on wine or furniture (believe me, it happens), ship it home via boat. It takes longer but its much more efficient. 

If you are planning a trip to SA, you can get information from South Africa’s tourism site  and Lonely Planet. For Safari information, i strongly recommend  And Beyond Africa. I promise to elaborate why in future posts. For now, check-it out. I wouldn’t steer you wrong.