South African Adventure
To put it simply, my husband and I have been bitten by the travel bug. We just love exploring new places, immersing ourselves in unique cultures, and meeting new people around the world. So, as we try to do once a year, we went to our favorite bookstore where we sat for hours surrounded by travel books trying to decide where to take our next trip. The criteria were: (1) warmth — which ruled out most of the Northern Hemisphere, (2) international, (3) somewhere neither of us had been, (4) offered both relaxation and adventure, and (5) most importantly — affordability.
We left the book store with two guides — one for Thailand and one for South Africa — and planned to make the tough choice by the end of the week. Little did we know that our decision would be made pretty easily. Thailand’s political unrest would resurface deeming it unsafe to travel and The NY Times would publish an article about South Africa as the new, budget-friendly hot spot with their currency drastically weakened. Done — decision made — Cape Town, South Africa it was! Planning for early March meant we could avoid the worst of the SA sweltering summer and peak tourist season. We could let our toes thaw out from the frigid New York air and still get home just as the cherry blossoms were blooming.
We boarded the plane in Albany, NY…and nearly 40 hours later (including a 12-hour stopover in London) we wearily stumbled off. Immediately, the warm Cape Town wind whirled around us and the surrounding unspoiled beauty of Africa made us forget just how cranky, tired, hungry, and dirty we were. Instantly energized, we were anxious to take on our overly-ambitious agenda of must-sees.
Detailing the entire trip seems an impossible task, but hopefully I’ve captured a few of the highlights.
Exploring Table Mountain — an appropriately named flat-peaked mountain which presides over Cape Town — was one of our first adventures. Having initially planned to hike this Wonder of the World-nominated geological marvel, we used jet lag as the perfect excuse to enjoy the relaxing and scenic cable car that launched us to the summit in minutes. Usually preferring the off-the-beaten-path adventures, Table Mountain is packed with tourists, but we realized it’s iconic for a reason. Known for its tumultuous weather which can shift into a shroud of clouds almost instantaneously, we were treated with a clear day and took in the jaw-dropping views. Rolling, green hills and vast countryside to the North, the Indian and Atlantic oceans meeting in the South created an endless horizon. The stunning view of Africa’s sandy coastline below overwhelmed us. This, coupled with the opportunity to see South-Africa’s celebrity-status professional rugby team filming a commercial, led to quite an exciting afternoon.
Cape Town offered incredible hiking, exploration, beaches, luxurious comfort, safety, and amazing food! But best of all, it’s home to the most friendly and welcoming people I’ve ever met. We could have stayed for years but knowing how much more there was to see, we left the city on a driving adventure along the Southeast coast. Our first stop: the winelands of South Africa. Not being wine connoisseurs, we weren’t quite sure what to expect. But our quick visit to the South Africa wine country was the perfect start to our road trip. It was an afternoon spent drinking good wine and eating scrumptious food (except for the funky cheeses that accompanied each glass) while enjoying the beautiful landscape of rolling vines and Dutch architecture.
En route to Cape Point we made several stops, including The Boulders, to see the colony of African Penguins (aka Jackass Penguins — not due to their behavior but rather due to the similarity in the sound of their call). Thousands of these small but endearing flightless birds flock to this shore. We learned they are quite protective of their young if you get too close!
About an hour later, the rugged, beautiful cliff-side road brought us into the Cape of Good Hope National Park (Cape Point). It was like entering another world as the geography drastically changed and the wildlife became more exotic. We took in the absolutely stunning views, gawked at the enormous ostriches, and enjoyed the hike along the treacherous cliffs of Africa’s southern point that has shipwrecked countless boats. The sites are breathtaking. But, even more indescribable was our “adventure” leaving the park. Greg was adamant about seeing the much talked about baboons that inhabit the park. We drove (for hours) till dusk when they are rumored to emerge. Let me just tell you emerge is an understatement. Before we knew it, the baboons lined the road and our car was covered in claw prints as they tried to get at the food in our backseat.
We continued driving East along the coast which took us onto The Garden Route — a coastal corridor where forests, rivers, wetlands, dunes, stretches of beach, lakes, and tropical mountain scenery form a landscape of spectacular beauty. This is a strip of land like no other I’ve seen in terms of beauty, natural attractions and unique flora and fauna. It truly lives up to its name. The Route took us through countless small beach communities — all offering their unique, local hospitality. In fact, we spent one night lodging in a luxury “tree house” deep in the jungle (monkeys surrounding the exterior). We ended our driving expedition with a visit to a wildlife game reserve where we viewed zebras, lions, giraffes, hippos, buffalo, and much more.
After returning to Cape Town, we experienced the most profound and moving part of our trip — a tour of the townships. These communities were developed for non-whites under the old political system of Apartheid. Still home to a large percentage of Cape Town’s working population today, the walking tour was a life-changing opportunity to see just how little life has changed for many since the demise of Apartheid and how a large proportion of the African population lives.
In the community we visited, families lived in small, unstable shacks that they built from wood, sheet metal and plastic — basically anything that could be found along the road. I worried that bumping into a wall would level someone’s home. Most had no plumbing inside and a shared tap in the road provided a water supply; community outhouses lining the street were their only toilets. Litter was everywhere and children ran through the glass-covered streets without shoes. Yet the beauty was in the happiness of the people that crowded the streets. Laughter, song, and dance seemed to wash away the grit of the living conditions and residents were eager to talk about life in the townships. We were honored to meet such beautiful, inspiring people. It was the perfect end to an incredible trip.
I was humbled and somewhat embarrassed that my expectations of South Africa (at least the Southern portion) did not even remotely capture the reality of the landscape. I was stunned to see lush, green rolling hills — similar to those that I saw in Ireland (minus the roaming zebra); the dense evergreen forests that resembled the NY Adirondacks (again, sans the monkeys); the farmlands that I’ve driven through in Wisconsin; the terrifying cliffs overlooking the turquoise ocean that line Brazil’s coast, and the pristine beaches of Australia. South Africa seemed to encompass the best of many worlds we had previously explored yet transcended them all with its exotic wildlife and vibrant culture. We cannot wait to return!