“Traveling – It leaves you speechless, then turns you into a storyteller”  –  Ibn Battuta

 

I’ve always loved this quote, but even more so now that I’ve experienced South Africa. My recent visit was educational, inspiring, surprising, memorable and transformative —  and I can’t stop talking about it!

 

If you want to jump right to the photos {and I wouldn’t blame you} here’s the link.

 

And if you’re ready to hear all about my new favorite destination, read on!

 

South Africa has long been on my bucket list, so I was beyond excited to receive an invitation from South Africa Tourism to attend this year’s Indaba Conference in Durban. One of the largest tourism events in southern Africa, Indaba is a three-day whirlwind of networking and education, and an amazing opportunity to make connections with some of the continent’s premier travel suppliers. Before the conference, our group of about thirty travel agents enjoyed a few days in Johannesburg, and after the conference we split up into three smaller groups and went on safari. All in all, I was there for about two weeks, and I barely scratched the surface of this fascinating country!

 

Johannesburg

 

We flew nonstop from New York to Johannesburg (about a 14-hour flight) and while I didn’t love South African Airways (outdated aircraft and poor customer service), the O.R. Tambo International Airport in Johannesburg was a pleasant surprise. Big and modern, it was quite easy to navigate and we had no problems meeting up with our group and our tour guide, obtaining some local currency, and getting underway.  We spent four nights in total in Johannesburg, at three different hotels, and my favorite was the Intercontinental Hotel right at the airport – it’s an easy stroll from the terminal, perfect for a quick overnight before or after a long international flight, and the rooms and the food were top notch!

 

I really was not sure what to expect of the city itself, as I’ve always just viewed it as a stopover en route to somewhere more exciting, but I have to say I was extremely impressed with the sightseeing that we did. We spent our first day learning about Nelson Mandela, apartheid, and the townships – we visited Walter Sisulu Square, the Hector Pieterson Museum, Nelson Mandela’s home, and Liliesleaf Farm (which is a major historic landmark in the struggle). It was the perfect way to begin our trip, and it provided much-needed context for those of us making our first visit to South Africa. The second day was spent outside the city, learning about more distant history, at the Cradle of Humankind and the Sterkfontein Caves. We toured an active dig site, examined fossils, spelunked through underground caves, and got a crash course in anthropology. All throughout, our fabulous guide filled us in on South African culture, history, language, food, and more.

 

 

In the evenings, we enjoyed a jazz club, and a traditional South African restaurant, and some of the group even had the energy to go out dancing and to a local casino!  Like most big cities, Johannesburg has some areas where you shouldn’t walk alone, or wander around at night, but I have to say that I did not feel unsafe, and I really enjoyed its vibrant urban feel.

 

Durban

 

After Johannesburg, we were off to Durban, about 350 miles to the southeast (an easy one-hour flight). Durban is on the eastern coast in the KwaZulu Natal province, and our modern high-rise hotel (the Tsogo Sun Elangeni) overlooked the Indian Ocean and some spectacular sunrises. Durban is the third-largest city in South Africa (after Johannesburg and Cape Town), the busiest port in the country, and has the largest Indian population outside of India itself (many of them descendants of the indentured sugar cane workers from the 1800s).  Unfortunately, that’s about all I can tell you about Durban, because we were so busy at the conference while we were there!

 

Indaba was three jam-packed days that included nearly forty one-to-one meetings with hoteliers, tour operators, local attractions, and safari operators. I discovered some amazing luxury hotels, unique experiences (swimming with whale sharks, balloon safaris) and hidden gems (literally…you can have a private diamond shopping experience in Cape Town) and I made valuable connections with local experts who can help me create totally custom itineraries for my clients.

 

We did find time to sneak out for a couple of special dinners in the evenings, and the best by far was at the Oyster Box, where we enjoyed a fabulous curry feast in their al fresco restaurant overlooking the sea. The hotel is an historic gem, a member of the Leading Hotels of the World, and sister property to one of my favorite London hotels (the Rubens at the Palace). It was definitely a night to remember.

 

Safari

 

Like a sweet treat at the end of a fabulous meal, we all looked forward to our safari experience as the culmination of our South African adventure. My group flew from Durban, through Johannesburg, to Hoedspruit airport, just outside Kruger National Park. I should note that the journey had its “wrinkles” (including delayed and cancelled flights and an unexpected overnight in Johannesburg), but all was quickly forgotten when we arrived at the Kapama Private Game Reserve.

Sitting at the edge of Kruger Park, and encompassing 13,000 hectares (about 50 square miles),  Kapama is the largest family-owned property in the area. It’s home to more than 40 species of mammals (including the “Big Five” – lions, rhinos, elephants, leopards, and Cape Buffalo), and 350 species of birds, and there are four separate lodges on the premises. We stayed in the largest one – the Kapama River Lodge – but we were fortunate enough to tour the other three as well, including the luxurious Karula Lodge, the charming 15-suite Southern Camp, and the lovely tented Buffalo Camp.

 

My “spa suite” at the River Lodge was spacious and modern, with a walk-in rain shower, free-standing soaking tub, air conditioning, WiFi, and a private balcony. The lodge has a decadent spa that overlooks a watering hole (one of the agents watched hippos soaking while she enjoyed her massage!), a pool, a cozy lounge/bar, and a main restaurant for breakfast/lunch. Dinners are done al fresco, when possible, in the “Boma” (an outdoor gathering area), or a dry river bed lit with torches.

 

Game drives take place in the morning and afternoon, and the days quickly took on a soothing rhythm. Early morning wake-up call and a quick cup of coffee followed by a morning game drive. Back to the lodge for breakfast around 9:30-10:00 am. Free time to relax mid-day (or, in our case, tour one of the other lodges) and then lunch and/or “tea” before the afternoon game drive. A scenic stop for “sundowners” along the way, and then back to the lodge for dinner around a communal table with our safari guides. Perhaps a drink in the bar, and then back to bed so we could do it all again the next day.

 

We did four game drives in total and managed to see four of the Big Five (the leopard eluded us!) We also saw giraffes, zebra, warthogs, hippos, monkeys, and countless impala. The guides were fantastic, the trackers were amazing (ours spotted a tiny chameleon, at night, inside a thicket of trees) and the lodge staff were friendly and attentive. They even popped up unexpectedly in the bush one morning to wish us a happy Mother’s Day and hand out flowers!

 

Some of the highlights were the sightings of mothers/babies (including a four- or five-day old rhinoceros!), the lioness who stared us in the eye from just a few feet away, and gazing up at the Southern Cross and the Milky Way from the middle of the African bush.

 

 

NOTE: I’m not including any photos of the rhinos in this blog or my photo gallery, because posting photos can potentially help poachers who are decimating these beautiful animals. If you want to see my photos of the rhino mothers/babies, you can email me and I’ll share them privately.

 

Mpumalanga

 

After we left Kapama, we had one last day of touring in the nearby Mpumalanga area. This part of the trip might actually have been the biggest surprise for me, because I had no idea that there were mountains and canyons right near Kruger Park. We wound our way along twisty roads through the Drakensberg Mountains to Blyde River Canyon, and then paid a visit to the Graskop Gorge, and hiked down into what felt like a Costa Rican rain forest (complete with waterfalls and a suspension bridge).

The next morning, before we caught our flight, we visited an authentic Shangaan Village to learn about their culture, shop for handicrafts, meet the chief, consult with a wisewoman/healer, and enjoy a traditional lunch. It could have been a totally touristy experience, but was actually really interesting and authentic, and the perfect way to end our trip.

If you’ve read this far, you’re obviously pretty interested in South Africa, so here are some key takeaways from this trip:

 

  • South Africa is much more than just a safari destination. If you’re going to fly all the way there, you owe it to yourself to spend some time and get out and enjoy more of the country. Visit Cape Town or Johannesburg, drive the Garden Route, get out into the mountains, or wine country, or add on a visit to another nearby country like Botswana or Mozambique.

 

  • Their seasons are the opposite of ours. In May, it was fall in South Africa and they were about to come into the wetter/cooler winter season. Summers can be quite hot, but it’s really a year-round destination, and worth visiting at any time of year.

 

  • Your buying power is strong in South Africa (the US dollar is worth about 12 South African Rand right now), and things like dining out are surprisingly affordable. On that note, South African wine is both delicious AND affordable. I am now in love with their Pinotage wines.

 

  • This is not a destination where you should just “wing it” and fly in and rent a car to explore on your own. Distances are large, driving is on the wrong side of the road, and the experience will be much better if you rely on local experts (drivers, guides, etc.)

 

  • Safaris come in all shapes and sizes. Work with a professional to help you determine your wish list and priorities, and to find the safari lodge that’s perfect for you. Accommodations range from tents to luxury villas, and there’s truly something for everyone. NOTE: Stand by for a future blog post dedicated to just this topic.

 

Please feel free to reach out with any questions about the destination. And, of course, I would be MORE than happy to help you plan your own South African adventure!