Some of the top attractions in the Cape Town area – Kirstenbosch Botanical Gardens, Cape Point, and Boulders Bay – are not easily accessible by public transportation. In order to reach them, one must generally take a tour, hire a taxi, or rent a car. Having already familiarized ourselves with the rules of the South African road, we opted to rent a car for the day, which provided us maximum flexibility and minimum cost.
Kirstenbosch Botantical Gardens
Our first stop was the Kirstenbosch Botantical Gardens. Our guidebook proclaimed the gardens to be “among the most beautiful in the world.” It’s not hard to believe that to be true: the gardens are set among lush green lawns against the dramatic backdrop of Table Mountain. Approximately 9,000 of Southern Africa’s plant species are found there, ranging from the distinctive blossoms of the protea, South Africa’s national flower, to the welwitschia, a two-leaved plant endemic to only the northern Namib Desert that can live for up to 2,000 years, and including gardens dedicated to useful, medicinal, and edible plants.
Climbing Table Mountain is one of the most iconic things to do in Cape Town, and it was high on our list of must-dos.1 Our visit to Cape Town was punctuated by occasional drizzling rain and fog, and, because climbing the mountain is a multi-hour outdoor endeavor, we put off our climb until the forecast showed little chance of precipitation.
Ever since we announced our plans to travel in Africa, people have been singing Cape Town’s praises. Nearly every person we met along the way – including South Africans from other parts of the country – effused over Cape Town, promising us that we were going to love it. We had heard so much about Cape Town, in fact, that I worried the city wasn’t going to be able to live up to its reputation.
Happily, I was wrong.
After having logged 5,192.7 kilometers across three countries, it was a bittersweet moment when we dropped off our Toyota Corolla at the Avis location in downtown Cape Town – it left like a lifetime ago when we first picked it up at the railway station in Johannesburg. To a certain extent, the car had become our one constant over the course of the past thirty days, and it was strange to suddenly be without it. We quickly adjusted, however, and returned to our roots of urban exploring on foot, which is honestly the best way to experience nearly any city. Continue reading Tourism-Lite in Cape Town→
After we left the berry farm in Swellendam, we moved to a vineyard in Stellenbosch. (I know, we were really roughing it in South Africa.)
Our drive along the Garden Route and through the Western Cape had been a constant stream of activity (there were beaches to explore and ostriches to ride!), and we were looking forward to a few leisurely days in Stellenbosch in the Cape Winelands. We splurged for three nights at a hotel located on a vineyard – in a room with a view overlooking the surrounding hills, no less.1
After we finished with the Garden Route, we continued our tour of the Western Cape by first swinging inland through the Klein Karoo desert and then heading back to the coast.
Oudtshoorn, while not physically on the Garden Route, has the spirit of a Garden Route town. There are plenty of organized adventures available, the two most popular being a visit to an ostrich farm or the Cango Caves.
On our way into Oudtshoorn, we stopped at the Highgate Ostrich Show Farm. We signed up for a tour, which I cynically thought would be 10% seeing the ostriches and 90% hard sell of their ostrich products. As it turned out, the tour was amazing. It might have looped through the workshops to show off their products and ended in the gift shop, but our tour guide was a wealth of information about ostriches. The highlights of the tour were obviously when we got to interact with the ostriches. We held two-week-old ostriches, which were almost as large as full-grown chickens and covered in spiky not-quite-feathers that almost looked like soft porcupine quills.
After we left Lesotho, we made our way to the Garden Route, a string of mostly seaside towns along the southern section of South Africa’s Indian Ocean coast, and one of the country’s most famous tourist trails.1 The Garden Route officially stretches around 300 kilometers from Mossel Bay to just beyond Plettenberg Bay, and is dotted with dramatic scenery, countless beaches, and more opportunities to engage in adventure tourism than anyone could possibly utilize. We took a relaxed approach to the Garden Route, taking in the scenery as we drove along and stopping at various points and towns along the way, mostly eschewing the adventure tourism.2
April is full of South African holidays,1 and all parties (from our guidebooks and the internet, to guesthouse hosts and kindly strangers) warned us to book our accommodation during and around these dates well in advance.
We intended to follow this advice (honest, we did), but we have been enjoying planning our African adventure as we go, oftentimes only booking a hotel room an hour or two before arrival. Not having everything planned out allows us the freedom to stay longer in places that are unexpectedly amazing, duck out earlier than planned if there’s bad weather or the area turns out to be overly touristy, and make use of advice from fellow travelers we meet along the way.
And it’s also how we found ourselves heading for the Drakensberg,2 an UNESCO World Heritage site and, more importantly, a popular vacation destination, on the Thursday before the long Easter weekend without any accommodation arranged.
After we left Hluhluwe-Imfolozi Park, we set off for the nearby town of St. Lucia, which our guidebook noted is popular with “angling fanatics.” Although Marc likes to think of himself as an aspiring fly-fishing fanatic, we didn’t linger for long. We briefly checked out the beach in the morning (the town of St. Lucia lies at the mouth of an estuary on Lake St. Lucia, the largest inland body of water in South Africa), but it was a dreary morning, threatening rain with a strong wind and lots of blowing sand. In nicer weather, however, it would have been a great area to explore, as the town is surrounded by the massive iSimangaliso Wetland Park, an UNESCO World Heritage site.
While in St. Lucia, We also kept our eyes open for wandering hippos, as we had heard that it wasn’t unusual for hippos to stroll the city streets (see, e.g., this very recent article on St. Lucia), but, alas fortunately, we left St. Lucia without seeing a single hippo.
Hluhluwe-Imfolozi1 Park is the oldest proclaimed national park in Africa, and is widely regarded as one of the best. Although it is much smaller than Kruger, covering only 960 square kilometers, and, strangely, a public road runs through it, 2 the park is allegedly a great spot to sight animals – it is also much less crowded than Kruger, and set in an arguably more beautiful setting, which covers large hills and river valleys. Everything we had read about the place sounded awesome, and we couldn’t wait to visit.
We arrived from Swaziland late on Sunday afternoon, only to learn at the entrance gate that there were no accommodation vacancies at Hilltop Camp in the park. Having naively hoped to simply turn up and be able to stay in the park, we hadn’t arranged alternate accommodation (a fact which, once revealed to the park staff at the entrance gate, elicited a few raised eyebrows), and so we decided to cut our losses and return to the park first thing in the morning.
We backtracked into Hluhluwe village and found a room at the Bushbaby Lodge & Camping. True to its name, bushbabies2 lived in the trees surrounding the lodge, and the owner of the lodge sets out a plate of bananas for the bushbabies each night.
After two amazing – but also tiring – days of animal-spotting in Kruger National Park, we were ready for a rest back in civilization and headed for Nelspruit, the nearby provincial capital of Mpumalanga.1 With a population of around a quarter of a million residents, Nelspruit has some of the amenities of the larger South African cities, without as much of the traffic and general congestion.
Exiting Kruger at the Crocodile Bridge gate – which lies less than 10 kilometers from Mozambican border2 – we began driving towards Nelspruit just as the sun was setting. We drove past seas of massive, green sugar cane plantations as we made our way back to the N4 toll road, the main route between Johannesburg and Maputo, and along which Nelspruit lies. The drive, which should have only taken about an hour and a half, unfortunately ballooned into a nearly three hour affair, due to slower night driving conditions and an elongated stretch of road work.
About 30 kilometers east of Nelspruit, in an otherwise nondescript part of the route, we found ourselves pulling up to an endless line of stopped cars. Unbeknownst to us at this point, construction had reduced a six kilometer section of the highway ahead to one-way, alternating traffic. After five minutes we turned off the engine. After another five minutes we turned off the headlights.3 After nearly an hour – which felt more like two – of watching traffic in the eastbound direction fly past us, and trying to surmise what was occurring ahead and when, or if, we would be moving forward again, there was a break in the action and our endless line of cars started plodding west towards Nelspruit. Continue reading Nelspruit and Hanging Out at the Mall→