South Africa is the southern most country in Africa. It’s famous for its mines, wildlife, and culture. It is widely established as a tourist destination, and there are a ton of guides out there. I couldn’t begin to get into the nuances of planning a trip, but below are a few things I picked up during my two week trip.
Flights are surprisingly cheap. Flights from Chicago tend to sit around 1000 USD. If you hunt for a deal, getting to Johannesburg can be as cheap as 750 USD. It’s actually cheaper to get here than to many places in Europe. Direct flights aren’t common. Either you will have to connect through ATL or with a transfer in Europe. This also opens up the opportunity for an extended stopover in London or Amsterdam.
On the ground, transportation is cheap. Uber is huge here and reliable. A trip from OR Tambo airport to Snadton runs about 45 USD for a private car versus 35 USD for an Uber. Getting around Cape Town and Joburg shouldn’t cost much more than 15 USD a trip for most destinations. You will run into private cars that both work for taxi services as well, so don’t be surprised to see Ubers just waiting outside of tourist spots. They are legit. Of course, use the standard precautions as in the States. There have been stories of people getting mugged.
Alternatively, you can use the bus cab system which has a hand signal system for indicating where people are going. I haven’t quite deciphered them yet, but in Joburg, the streets are crowded with them, and they are probably the most cheapest if not the quickest method of getting around.
Where to go
The two major destinations are Kruger National Park and Cape Town. Joburg is the economic center of South Africa, and it would be fair to say Joburg is where you make your money and Cape Town is where you retire. Still, Joburg has some excellent cultural sites, but I wouldn’t spend more than a few days exploring the city. Check out the mall, visit the lion park for a taste of the wildlife, and bike through Soweto to learn about Apartheid.
Kruger is located about 6 hours from Joburg. There is a local airport, but getting a bus from Joburg is much more convenient. Unless you are renting a 4×4 and are familiar with offroading, I wouldn’t risk renting a car and getting a flat on the terrible roads near the park. On the other hand, if you are into overlanding or adventure biking, this is heaven. You will see SUVs and motorcycles that would make any offroader jealous.
At the park, you can spend time at private reserves as well as inside Kruger National Park. Many of the reserves are not separated by any fences from Kruger, so the quality of wildlife is similar if not better. While Kruger has terrific infrastructure, there are lodges like Sabi Sands that put it to shame, and in general, the game reserves will provide better freedom: night drives, getting out of cars to get closer to wildlife, hunting, use of ATVs and horses, etc. For the average visitor, a game lodge will provide the necessary accommodations with opportunities to go on game drives and tour Kruger.
For peak season, book early. During off seasons, you can get some screaming deals if you book last minute. Typically booking directly with the lodge will yield the best deal. There is also the option to camp in Kruger. These are sold out quickly, and much more dangerous, but so is the golf course… did I forget to mention that? There are two golf courses of note. One that is outside of Joburg that has a hole that tees off a cliff, and the other is one in the heart of Kruger where you’ll have to dodge springbok and crocodiles if you take a bad swing. Other options include staying in a treehouse, skydiving, rafting, climbing, visiting Blyde Canyon, playing with baby animals at the rehab center, and a bunch more. Your reception should be very knowledgeable of what is available.
As a general rule, you get what you pay for. The dollar is strong right now, so you won’t get ripped off anywhere. Personally, I was shocked how much I got for my money. It isn’t cheap, but it’s certainly much better than anywhere in Europe and comparable to South America. I suggest the animal encounters at Maholoholo Rehab Center, doing a private game drive, and at least one tour of Kruger to look for the Big 5. Currently, they are suffering a drought, but hopefully a little rain in the next few seasons should revitalize the park.
As a side note, if you have the time, go to Victoria Falls. It’s only a few hours away and while I didn’t get to go, everybody I talked had nothing but good things to say about it. It is considered to be one of the natural wonders of the world for good reason.
The next most talked about thing in South Africa is probably the Garden Route. I don’t have much to say about this other than you will need to rent a car. I’ve gotten mixed messages from both natives and visitors. Durban is a must see for beach goers, and Port Elizabeth is apparently also quite nice. Drop by Swaziland and Lesotho as well if you are doing a road trip. They are definitely worth going to if only to say you’ve been there.
Cape Town was my favorite stop on my trip. Seal diving, wine country, and shark diving. It really is a fantastic city. To start, let’s begin with what I wish I had done. Hermanus and the Cape of Good Hope are a few hours away. If you have the time, spend a few days there simply for convenience. Hermanus is known for some of the best whale watching in the world, and from there, you have much better access to Gansbaai where most of the shark diving outfitters are located. You can also easily reach Cape Agulhas which is actual most southern tip of Africa, not the Cape of Good Hope. This area is quieter, much safer, and cheaper than Cape Town.
On the way to Cape Town from Hermanus, definitely check out False Bay as well as Boulder Beach. There are penguins galore here, and if you go a little past where most people go down to the boardwalk, there is another walkway that will actually go strait the beach where you can actually get right next to the birds. My only warning is that they stink… like a lot.
Once you are in Cape Town, you have the option to hang out near the waterfront or one of the many other areas. The V&A Waterfront is the obvious tourist center while Long Street is where most of the nightlife is near downtown. Other good areas are Hout Bay, Constantia, Camps Bay, and Clifton. Woodstock is the hipster neighborhood of Cape Town and hosts a terrific market for local produce and art called Neighborgoods Market. It’s a must see. I stayed in Green Point which is a safe area with good proximity to Long Street and the stadium, but honestly, if you use Uber or cabs, nothing is really a hike… except Signal Hill, Lions Head, and Table Mountain.
These are your iconic geographic landmarks. I don’t have much to say about them. Table Mountain can be climbed pretty easily. It will take you a few hours, but I accidentally went up half of it just wandering the botanical gardens. It really isn’t very challenging, but if you are lacking on time, take the cable car which is free on your birthday and rather cheap otherwise. Signal Hill, you can drive to. In fact, it shares a parking lot with Lions Head. These are both sub-hour climbs. I say climb because Lions head has some very steep points including a part where you will have to use a chain to assist to basically go vertically up a rock face with only some footholds.
The Kirstenbosch National Botanical Garden is also a must see. It’s easy to get to and is the perfect place for a picnic. Bring a basket of food from the many local markets along with some wine from your wine tour, and you will feel like you are in a movie. As a warning, get a map. The upper region is poorly marked, and you can actually end up climbing up Table Mountain from the gardens. If you reach Skeleton Gorge, you’ve gone too far. If you reach Constantia Nek, you might as well try to hitch a ride back, because you are way too far up.
This bring me to the wine regions. There are three major ones. Constantia is the closest and arguably the most prestigious. The Green House hosts one of the better restaurants in the country there. Franschhoek is the most beautiful. It is quaint with boutique hotels, art galleries, and very European architecture. I believe you can ride a tram through the valley or go on horseback on a tour. Stellenbosche is of course the most well-known. Most tours from Cape Town will go here. It has a bit of everything, and will not leave you wanting for anything.
Bring some cash though. The wine is good, and even better, it is cheap. Check with customs to see how much you can bring back home. South African wine isn’t easily available elsewhere for whatever reason and there are several unique types that make terrific gifts. My favorites were the Pinotage and Chenin Blanc from Villiera.
Other than that, there is visiting Robin Island, watching games at the stadium, going to the spa at the 12 Apstles, and my favorite, diving with seals at Hout Bay. Cape Town has a lot to offer and the weather is great almost year round. I came at the tail end of winter, and was in short or jeans every day.
Safety and Other Matters
Is South Africa safe? I won’t say its sunshine and roses, but if you have any common sense, you won’t have any trouble avoiding any situations that may put you at risk. Avoid sketchy part of town. Travel in groups. Don’t get drunk and wander out at night. Of course, I’m 6 feet tall and a male from Chicago, so my perception of things may be different. You will see aggressive beggars and most likely at least one gun at some point. The number of armed private security at hotels was certainly a new one for me, but for the most part, you should have very little to worry about. I’d rank South Africa safer than Mexico on the list of places I’ve been to.
Communicating is also easy. They speak English and most western countries won’t require a visa for entry. While there are several other native languages, everybody will be able to at least scrape by on English. You will get reception in all major cities, and while some areas might lag a bit behind, most places were at HSPA speeds. If you have Project Fi, you will have no trouble getting service.
So far as money. Things are cheap. Splurge on shopping to help the economy, but don’t flaunt cash. I found that most places didn’t accept American Express, but VISA worked fine. Make sure you have a credit card with fraud protection and no foreign transaction fees. Keep maybe R1000 for tipping and any cash only shops. Many of the stalls at markets don’t accept cards. You will also need an adapter for power. I saw both Type C and Type M.
South Africa is a terrific destination for your first African experience. You will have access to all of the modern amenities you expect and the people are very friendly. Other than bringing a good telephoto lens for wildlife, I would treat a visit to South Africa like any visit to South American or South East Asia. See all the sites and sleep on the flight back
JHB to Sandton Holiday Inn: R530
CPT to Green Point (Atlantic Point Backpackers): R300
4 Day Intrepid Tour : $873 using 10% off from Nomadic Matt
Flight ORD->JHB->CPT->ORD : $1086.26
Holiday Inn 3 nights: R3929.15
Hostel 6 Nights: R2175
Flights: 60 linear inches and 50lbs
Safari: 33lbs total
Telephoto 70-210mm (300mm would have been even better for wildlife)
Wide Angle for astrophotography
GoPro for diving
Batteries and memory cards
Rocket blower for dust
Rain coat and fleece
Tennis shoes for walking and hiking
Flip-flops for water activities
Going out shoes
Extra sheets for lodge
Towel for hostel and diving
Portable battery and cables
Copy of insurance and flight details
Cash for tipping
Credit cards: Visa is the most versatile card
Earplugs and eyemask
2016 – This was my first big trip of the year. I was in between this in Galapagos to hit another major bucket list item. I’m holding off on the Galapagos because I need to get better at diving before going to Darwin and Wolf. Instead, I’ll tick off shark diving and the Big 5 while hitting a new continent. The driver behind these two destinations was the flights. Around $500 for Quito and $850 for Johannesburg. It was actually cheaper to go to Africa than to much of Europe.
I build my schedule around the safari tour which I did through Intrepid. G Adventures offers a similar tour but less frequently. In hindsight, this was probably a mistake and I’ll go into that later. Essentially, I would spend 1.5 days in Joburg, 4 days in Kruger National Park, a night in Joburg, fly to Cape Town, then the rest of my trip in Cape Town.
Booking the flight was a bit frustrating. I used Google Flights to look it up. Unfortunately, the original flight through Virgin didn’t seem to exist. AmEx travel couldn’t find it and calling directly put me on hold for a few hours. In the end, I had to go through Expedia and go through Delta which is fine with me. I get lounge access that way. I’m actually really disappointed with AmEx since I’m paying a $450 annual fee for concierge which has failed me 9 out of 10 times. The good thing it’s helped me with is booking restaurants such as Eleven Madison Park. I’m thinking about canceling the card when I get back.
The Intrepid Tour [Kruger Experience – Lodge (4 Days) tour]
Intrepid offers several packages in South Africa several of which include going to Cape Town. The only issue I have with them is that they are subcontracting with other companies which severely increases the costs and also limits your freedom. For example, the Kruger and Cape Town options offer travel by train or plane. They were about two times what I would have payed and don’t include hotel stays during the wait. The hotel booking option they offer for either end of the tour is also overpriced. I booked the same Holiday Inn room for $90 while they quoted me nearly $140 a night.
I also talked to a few other trip goers about the tour. A couple from Germany payed 500 GBP or about 643 USD through STA travel for the same package as myself. Admittedly, they payed 2X that for the two for them, and I got a room to myself. They also had several mix-ups with tours and such. The American couples I traveled with payed even more. Ideally, you could land, book a hotel, then talk with a local travel agent to book with the lodge directly.
My tour was specifically three nights at the Thornhill Game Lodge (which was upgraded to the Matumi lodge) with a Big 5 game drive, trip to Kruger, and guided nature walk. The last night, we also had a Braai, bonfire, and saw a traditional dance. These all included food and were totally worth it, but if you are trying to get the best deal, below is a good breakdown of the true cost for a DIY safari.
Matumi/Thornhill lodge for a single stay: $150 a night
Big 5 Private Game Drive: $80
Kruger Drive: $80
Walking tour: Free
That totals out for a 4 night stay to around $760
Prices of course are subject to the season. My main issue was that there were other activities that the hostess at the lodge said I could have done if I had booked with Matumi directly. This included rafting, climbing, skydiving, and ATVing. I’m not one to pinch pennies and honestly, I’m incredibly pleased with how the tour went, but these are just some things I learned going through the process.
I got off work at 5:30 AM, finished my packing and was at the airport by 11AM. One thing I’m always thankful for is TSA Pre-Check and lounge access. Not only did I get to skip the lines in security, but I get a quiet area to just wind down with free Wi-Fi. The free snacks and booze helps too. If you travel a ton, getting a credit card with lounge access is well worth it.
I basically passed out on the plane. It was 12-14 hours with a stopover in Atlanta where I got some quality southern food before passing out again. I’m a big fan of ATL. I have nothing against ORD, but ATL has restaurants like One Flew South and Paschal’s Southern Cuisine that are places I would go even outside of the airport.
I had window seats on both legs of the flight. Anybody who says aisle seats are better obviously either doesn’t sleep on flights or has a bladder problem. Controlling the window and getting the wall to lean against is way better than aisle access and some “leg room.” Of course, you also run the risk of smashing your head against the luggage compartment every time you stand up like I did. That actually kind of messed with the beginning of the trip. I had a screaming headache for the first 36 hours after landing.
I got through customs relatively quickly. I actually got through the visa required line faster than the no-visa required line. Just because the US passport enables visa free travel to many countries doesn’t mean you have to stand in that line. I got transferred to my hotel in Sandton in a private car. It took about 35 minutes even with the traffic. My driver gave me several restaurant suggestions, and offered me his card in case I needed any transfers back.
The Holiday Inn in Sandton is pretty nice. It’s relatively new and in a very nice area of town. Sandton is not in Joburg, and is sort of where many of the businesses fled to. There is a huge difference between central Joburg where it is crowded and quite dirty and Sandton which is clean and has a lot of new construction. My room was quite nice with a view over the city. I was also greeted with a fancy plate of cheeses, nuts, and fruits.
My only complaint was that the bathroom seemed a bit musty. I don’t know what was causing it, but it was resolved on my second night there. The Holiday Inn Sandton is just on the other side of the block from Nelson Mandela Square. This is a commerce center with shopping and several restaurants. I dropped by in the morning to grab breakfast. It seems that South Africans like to start their day late because, the staff was still being quizzed on types of liquors when I got seated at Tashas. I ordered myself two entrees because I always seem to forget lunch, and managed to eat both of them. My total came out to under 10 USD.
My next scheduled activity was a tour of Soweto. Soweto is an abbreviation for South West Township and is where some the poorest areas are. I can’t recommend visiting the area enough. It was incredibly interesting to see the massive difference in living standards between the affluent and poor areas. There were steel and glass complexes across the highway from shanties made of aluminum siding and plywood just across the highway. Even stranger were the luxury vehicles in the shantytowns. The way my driver explained it was that the housing was free and geographically in a prime location so many families would stay there even after getting a good job.
Whether this was true or not was really quite hard to determine. Obviously, there was some gaming of the system. Many of the children in the area were wearing school uniforms from elite private schools in the area. Some of the shacks also had satellite dishes for television. At the same time, the living conditions were truly quite shocking. On a bike tour of the area, we saw inside one. They had to use a communal well pump for water and there was no permanent heat source for cooking or heating.
The majority of truly poor residents were immigrants according to my driver. The makeshift used tire and car repair spots were run by Nigerian and Zimbabwean immigrants seeking life in a more prosperous country. This poverty also led to increased crime in these areas. Coming from the US, it was odd hearing such xenophobic opinions being shared so openly. Such comments would be labeled as bigoted and possibly racist, but in Joburg, it was a view shared by quite a few locals.
I sat down for some traditional South African food with the business owner and some locals passing through. We discussed local politics and the US elections. I couldn’t have asked for a more interesting group of people to share a meal with. We had pap which is very similar to thick grits, cow intestines, and boerewors. There were several other things that landed on my plate that were questionable, but I tried everything and liked most of it.
We ended the tour with a visit to the of the Apartheid Museum and iconic Orlando Towers. These two cooling towers had been abandoned and changed into a local meeting place with a bar, paintball field, bungee jumping facility, and local graffiti. I was tempted to jump, but didn’t want to wait in the surprisingly long line. Throughout the whole tour, I was hesitant to take pictures. I was intruding on the lives of real people, and snapping pictures for my Instagram just seemed voyeuristic.
We still had plenty of time in the day and ended up going to Lion Park as well. Lion Park is a preserve with several areas fenced off to help breed lions and rare ungulates. There had been several deaths when visitors were allowed to self-drive through the area, and honestly, the whole facility was basically a fenceless zoo. You could pet cheetahs and play with lion cubs as well as feed the giraffes. I’ve always had a bit of an issue with the concept of fenced in wildlife, but Lion Park seemed to be doing a decent job taking care of abandoned cubs and trying to reestablish the sable population.
I returned to my hotel and finished repacking for my safari. There was a luggage limit and honestly I didn’t want to bring the full two weeks of clothes with me when I would be spending most of my time looking for wildlife. I hadn’t quite turned over so I went to the sky bar for a quick drink and the sunset. There I met a group from Australia. We decided to grab dinner at the Butcher Shop before heading out for a night of partying.
The next day was an early start. I was a bit hungover when I checked out for my 5:30 AM pickup, but somehow made it to the lobby. There I met Joe, Tom, Debbie, and Francis along with his wife. Joe was an ex-Army surgeon who had booked for a 5 day trip, but had missed his original flight due to some TSA shenanigans. Tom and his wife, Debbie, were traveling with Francis and his wife from Pittsburg. Francis and his wife were on their fifth trip to Africa. They were retired and used to work in utilities. Tom was an ex-parole officer who had some seriously amazing stories from his time working with the police department.
Along the way, we also picked up Lena and Alexander, two doctors from Dusseldorf. It was a 6 hour trip to our lodge. Along the way we grabbed breakfast at a service stop overlooking a game reserve with zebras and other wildlife. It was really quite spectacular that a simple gas stop would have animals that I had only seen on television and in zoos before. We got to the first reserve and found out that due to overbooking, Joe, Lena, Alexander, and I would be upgraded to the Matumi lodge while the others remained at Thornhill. These were all on the Guernsey Private Nature reserve where we would be doing our Big 5 game drive.
We arrived around noon and the facilities really blew me away. I was expecting a lame little cabin with some basics for dining, but there was a pool, bar, and several lookouts. My bedroom was a bit basic, but it had all of the necessities, and was honestly way more than I expected. I’ve heard the Sabi Sands lodges are simply stunning, but lack the rawness of some of the more basic lodges. Nearby, there were treehouse lodges, where one of our guides used to work at.
The food was wonderful, and the wait staff was really quite accommodating. We found out that there were only two other groups at the lodge and one of them were leaving soon. We basically had the entire area to ourselves which was amazing. The hostess, Serena, mentioned that impala were a common occurrence and the previous week, some elephants had gotten in the perimeter. One part of me was hoping for wildlife to get into the lodge area, but at the same time, I didn’t really want to have to deal with that in the morning. Luckily, we only had impala and kudu spicing up our walks to the reception and dining area.
We got settled in and then promptly headed out for our game drive. Somehow the drive got overbooked and Lena and Alexander had to wait a day instead. They were honestly lucky. The drive was great but freezing cold. September was the end of winter and it had just rained. While the rain was great for the wildlife, it made the wind and air incredibly cold. I even ended up buying a fleece to keep myself warm. We saw rhinos playing and a lion kill which were the highlight of the trip.
We ended with a snack of biltong, droewors and local beers out in a field where our driver said it was “mostly safe.” He did mention that he had seen a leopard in the area the day before, but that we should worry since it was only interested in the impala that tended to hang out in the area. That honestly wasn’t very assuring. The biltong is cured meat similar to jerky, but much better. Droewors is essentially dried sausage, and the combination of chewy dried meat and beer is something that anybody can get behind.
On our way back, the sun began to set. We used the spotlight to spot a few elephants and a hyena, but quickly noticed that the lights were getting dim quickly. Our driver turned off the spotlight, but the headlights on our 4×4 kept on getting dimmer. Our drive back was almost half an hour, and over the period, we basically lost 90% illumination. We were basically driving by moonlight which was both awesome and a bit terrifying.
When we got back, we determined that the alternator was all messed up. We transferred vehicles to a covered 4×4 for our way back which was another 45 minutes. We were greeted by the lodge staff who had kept dinner warm for us. We had soup and pork chops with some hot rooibos tea. Rooibos tea doesn’t have any caffeine which allowed me to still get to bed after showering.
The water for the lodge is drawn from the river and passed through filters before being piped to the lodge. I didn’t notice anything off about it besides a slight reddishness at first from the shower head from minimal use. It quickly cleared up, and I had a piping hot shower to wash off the dust from riding in an open 4×4 all day. I charged my batteries and cleaned my lenses and hopped on the Wi-Fi to check my emails. I even got a match on Tinder. The next day was another early start, so I went to bed early. The cold had kept the mosquitos at bay, but I still made sure to close my mosquito net.
Next day was our Kruger adventure. The Orpen gate was an hour drive away. This time, it was just Lena, Alexander, me and an Israeli couple. It was freezing cold again especially traveling without the top on the vehicle. Joe decided to skip out on the drive, which might have been the right decision, but we got to see all of the Big 5. The Minolta 70-210 F4 lens I brought with me totally blew with me. I would have like a longer lens a few times, but the clarity was spectacular. There was some light falloff that I noticed, but almost zero color fringing for most focal lengths.
The rarest of the Big 5 was a challenge to find. On the drive, it was quite easy to find rare animals because there would often be a crowd of cars on the road jockeying for position. We eventually drove up on a 5 deep gaggle of cars looking at a river bank. At first we didn’t see anything and had to ask somebody what was going on. Apparently there was leopard nearby. Only after some confused pointing and shouting did I finally get a shot… That’s a lie. Lena got it for me. Only in post processing did I finally find it. Nearby was also a kill hanging up in a tree, and eventually the leopard was scared off by a family of elephants walking by. It was truly a spectacular moment.
We had lunch which was packed by the lodge. It consisted of yogurt, a cheese sandwich, and some fruit. Apparently plain uncooked cheese sandwiches are a thing. I certainly wasn’t complaining, I was famished. My breakfast consisted of a Red Bull and granola bar I had left over from my flight. Our return trip was just as eventful as the main drive. Lena had missed the rhinos on our private reserve drive, so she was really hoping for one on the way back. Fortune favored us and we saw an adult male patrolling his territory right as we began leaving the park.
We got back late again and hand a wonderful meal and just spent an hour and several beers talking about the drive. I also tried my hand at some astrophotography. The clouds were clearing up and I got a decent shot of the Milky Way, but the next night was expected to be even better with a very late moonrise.
Day three was started with a nature walk that was honestly pretty boring. Our guide was great and all, but I would have rather slept in. Maybe I was just unimpressed since the past few days were so amazing, but he talked to us about the local industries and environment. Kruger National Park was suffering a major drought currently, and they park rangers were even considering culling some of the animals if it didn’t rain. On the walk, we also found some spent casings from hunters. Apparently, the hunters pay enough that some lodges cater exclusively to them including the one nearby run by one of the owners of Ferrero SpA. Hunting drives some of the largest sustainability programs because of the profitability.
We returned to a full English breakfast waiting for us. I had a scotch afterwards to keep the mood high and Joe headed off for a panoramic tour of the area. The weather had warmed up, and the pool fountain was turned on. It was really quite pleasant. I greeted a few of the new arrivals including two very friendly German women who I shared beers and lunch with.
I caught a ride with the lodge manager to Maholoholo rehabilitation center which was fantastic. The facility was run by volunteers and had a history of breeding and releasing animals responsibly. I was honestly kind of jealous, because the volunteers caught to directly interact with the animals while the visitors had to sort of ask for permission. We got to play with a baby rhino, feed vultures, pet hawks and cheetahs, and of course meet Stoffel the honey badger who is known internationally as an escape master. More about Stoffel.
Our last full day the staff at Matumi setup a Braai and traditional performance for us. The food was truly delicious, and the performance was even better. It wasn’t some formal getup and complicated production, and that’s what made it so awesome. We could tell the staff were all having a lot of fun and we all chatted afterwards over Malva pudding.
I met an Australian couple who were as boisterous and friendly as expected. I also talked with a Bavarian couple who acted like the world belonged to them. My favorite new friends were of course Lena, Alexander, and a Belgian lady who had traveled the world many times over. Afterwards, I sat down with Rick, the lodge manager, to talk about photography. We set up his tripod and grabbed some truly spectacular sky shots.
He was originally from the area where his father was an ex-air force mechanic. He then transitioned to managing a fruit drying plant nearby. Rick found himself in the tourism industry and was headed off on a two month photo-safari of the Serengeti where he would be the private cook for a group. That’s how I found out most of the recipes for the food at the lodge were his. He also had been gifted a 150 year old Italian recipe book from one of his friends, and was in the process of publishing it.
The warmer weather meant the insect and toads were more active. I had lathered up in 3M slow release insect repellant, but somehow, I had gotten bit on the one place I hadn’t gotten on my stomach since I was wearing a shirt. As a warning, 3M Ultrathon really does work, but remember that DEET is a solvent which can affect a lot of paints and plastics. My flips flops got slightly chewed through when the DEET spilled onto them in my bag.
I woke up early to get a sunrise timelapse. I used an external intervalometer but really needed a better tripod than my GorillaPod. The subsequent timelapse honestly kind of sucked. Not only should I have used a longer focal length, I needed to increase the frequency of shots. Either way, it was good learning experience.
Our trip back was proceeded by another wonderful breakfast and settling our tabs. My bar tab somehow only came out to 20 USD, and left a pretty hefty tip just because everybody was so wonderful. We dropped by Blyde Canyon on the way back from Joburg. It is the third largest canyon on Earth definitely triggered my acrophobia. I still managed to get an only slightly panicked picture with Bongani our driver. His name meant thankful in Zulu, and he had really been quite the helpful resource the entire tour.
I snagged some biltong for a quick lunch, and basically slept the whole way back. We got back to Joburg with time to spare. I unfortunately was too out of it to grab Alexander’s contact detail before they checked into their hotel. Back at Sandton, Joe and I got dinner at The Butcher Shop. I had Kudu carpaccio and an ostrich steak. I can’t say I really enjoyed either. I like gamey meat, but neither really stood out.
On the way back, I ran into some trouble with setting up an Uber ride. Just as we found our driver, Joe asked me to wait for him to go to the restroom. This was out of the blue, and I paid the driver R50 to wait for us, but it was seriously frustrating for some reason. It was most likely a medical issue, but asking me to wait for him despite being so close to the hotel was just a little more needy than I could tolerate at the time. He apologized when he got back in the car, which was appreciated, but once we got back to the hotel, I immediately bailed and went to get a drink. It was probably lack of sleep, but I needed something to calm my nerves.
I went to bed early for my flight. Getting up and flying to Cape Town was one of the easier experiences in my life. Even the transfer to the hostel went smoothly. My driver was studying to be a law enforcement officer and gave me his private number in case I needed anything. At Atlantic Point hostel, I checked in with Emy and Tim, one of the owners of the hostel. I also organized a shark dive for the next day and a seal dive for the day after.
I was in the “garden” room which was a 4 share. When I unpacked nobody was there, but two of my roommates turned out to be there for a two month sailing class. I immediately went down the street to Hudson’s for a burger. I try not to objectify women, but all of the women in Cape Town were gorgeous including my waitress who was super friendly. She was probably just hoping for a big tip though since she wrote “tip not included ” on the receipt.
I ended up taking an Uber to Kirstenbosch Botanical Garden where there were people picnicking everywhere. It was really quite amazing. I was also lucky enough to see the Protea in bloom still. I did my best to explore as much of the garden as possible, but I didn’t bring a map. This ended up with me hiking up to Skeleton Gorge and Constantia Nek where I found out I had basically gone up half of Table Mountain.
Coming back down was much quicker, and I chose to continue my hiking adventure by going to Lion’s Head. That was a great choice considering the next few days were quite cold. The hike was quite short as the parking lot is most of the way up already. I finished it in under an hour and actually didn’t spend much time at the top because I was trying not to panic since there were no railings. None of my pictures even turned up okay because I was shaking too much.
Instead, I made my final way to Table Mountain to finish my trifecta of natural landmarks in Cape Town. The ride to the top was quick and cheap, and at the top, I was glad I wore a jacket. It was incredibly windy, and you could see the storm clouds moving in. Still, I got some great sunset shots before the sirens started blowing indicating high winds.
I got back to my room and checked in with reception to verify my bookings. I talked to Mike who happened to also be from the States and then went to bed early to catch up on some sleep. This lead to me waking up early and grabbing a quick bite at the bakery down the road. Upon my return, I ran into Mike who was confused why I wasn’t shark diving. It turned out that I was supposed to leave at 3:30 AM and not PM. Through some quick shuffling on Mike’s part, I organized a wine tour for that day and a shark dive later in the week.
This ended up being even better. I got pretty tipsy and a free bottle of bubbly since it was my birthday. We visited 5 wineries through Wine Flies, with a chocolate and cheese pairings. We also had a wonderful lunch at one of the Stellenbosch vineyards where I had happy birthday sang to me by our tour group. I managed to stay relatively sober enough to learn about the unique wines to the region. Chenin Blanc and Pinotage are the most popular wines in the cape, and I certainly developed a taste for the Pinotage.
The last winery really got me though. I think it was the bubbles. The “champagne” which was made the same way, but not from the area of France flowed freely and in great amounts. The biltong and crackers did little to keep us sober as the German couple and Australian honeymooners gushed about how they wished they were my age. It would be pretty accurate to say we were a hot mess. The weather was great and we even cracked open a bottle on the drive back which might have been illegal.
To thank Mike, I gave him a bottle of Pinotage. He invited me to go hang out with him at the bar after dinner which I kindly accepted. After a short nap, I used trip advisor to find a nice restaurant to have a birthday dinner by myself. I landed at Dash which was a hotel restaurant, but had a beautiful view over the harbor and the food was actually quite amazing. I kept my buzz going with some Laphroaig before being seated with some bread which quickly disappeared into my belly. The springbok steak and whatever else I ordered evaporated, and while I don’t remember it that well, the receipt said I got out of there spending less than 60 USD on what I think was a fantastic meal.
Next up was a football game. And of course I mean soccer. Two of the bigger teams were playing at the Cape Town Stadium which had hosted the World Cup in 2010. It was honestly a pretty bad game, but the energy in the stadium was amazing. I even grabbed some stadium food just to try it out and let me tell you, South African stadium food is way better than the States’. Biltong, beer, and boerewors for all under 10 USD? How can you beat that?
I left a bit early to get back to my room to shower before going to the bar with Mike. Of course, I met some Aussies, Germans, and Swiss from the hostel and played tons of drinking games. I have to thank Nikola, Maree, Isabella, Lena, Mike, and Emilia for going easy on me. That round of Piccolo was brutal. Unfortunately, I had to leave early and couldn’t go to Long Street with them. Hangovers and diving really don’t mix.
The diving was challenging. I did two that day. One was a wreck dive where the swells really messed with my buoyancy since I’m used to really calm freshwater diving. The other divers on the zodiac included a lawyer, engineer, banker, and a student. My dive buddy, Dominic, was also a newer diver and combined, we had less than a quarter of how many our dive master had. The Swiss girl who was also diving with us on the other hand had over 170 dives and had been a dive master in the Red Sea.
This was definitely different from Egypt though. My dive watch read 8-9C and our dive master said this was the coldest diving he had ever done in Hout Bay. The first dive honestly wasn’t that enjoyable. Getting used to my new dive watch and the gear took up most of my time. We got out and were shivering on our way back. We got some tea and some snacks that we purchased to warm ourselves up. Two German girls joined as snorkelers for our second trip to dive with seals.
This was a relatively shallow dive, and we stayed until 50 bars. I actually consumed the second to least air on this final dive. We started above a kelp forest and slowly made some rounds around a large rock the cape fur seals tended to hang around. The ones on the rock were relatively young, and as we got into the water, we lost sight of most of them. After 5 minutes of just drifting, things completely flipped, and there were seals everywhere. I would be filming a seal swimming away and would turn around to see two seals directly above me playing.
This was easily my favorite experience during my entire trip. I didn’t even capture most of it, instead choosing to just enjoy the ride. We eventually had to get out of the water and changed. It was almost colder being on land than in the water. Of course, all my clothes were covered in sand too. I made arrangements to have dinner with Dominic and the two German girls at Cod Fathers, a sushi place nearby where we stuffed our faces. It was essentially 1 USD a piece and the quality was amazing.
The chefs were of course the only Asians in all of Cape Town and were talking to me in Mandarin. Chinese immigrants making Japanese food… sounds about right. I arrived back and immediately got dragged back out by Mike. It was bar time again. This time, in addition to Piccolo, we played Fingers. Annika and Paulina joined our new group of drinking buddies and somehow we ended up at some Long Street bar playing oldies. It certainly wasn’t my vibe, but I was hanging out with a bunch of new friends and dancing so I couldn’t complain.
I got back late and just decided to stay up until my 4:30 AM pickup for shark diving. I ran into a Chinese tourist named Summer who was also a travel blogger. We discussed photography, and he invited to go with him on his Garden Route trip. I had to decline because of my other obligations, but we polished off a bottle of Sauvignon Blanc before he headed off to bed and I climbed into my transfer to Gansbaai for shark diving.
The ride was long, and I slept through all of it even though we should have passed through the resort town of Hermanus. I honestly wasn’t feeling it when we started trying on wet suits. The Brazilian girls who were also there were super loud and taking so many selfies, and the smell of fish was really not helping my hangover. After a big breakfast at the outfitter shop, though, I got some more energy.
It took us about an hour to get our first shark siting. During the entire time, they kept chumming the waters. Besides the ethics of it, filling the water with fish guts which you then jump into is really kind of gross. The overall experience was sort of meh. We had some sandwiches and lollipops on board while we waited, but the moment we saw a shark, we got into the cage and things picked up. The suits they gave us were all too big which meant we were freezing our butts off. Luckily, the water wat 14-15C so not quite as bad as in Hout Bay.
The water of course tasted like shit. We were basically swimming in rotten fish soup. The girl next to me also kept on getting hit by the fish head they were using to bait the sharks. We got three or four separate sharks come by. One of them actually got right in our faces and I was glad I had the cage for once. The best part of the whole ordeal was getting out of the water and having some soup. I honestly just wanted get back and shower and pass out.
I got back to Cape Town shortly after noon. I slept a few hours after showering and then chilled with Mike. We tried to book a helicopter tour, but everybody was off for Heritage Day otherwise known as National Braai Day. Instead, I headed to the V&A Waterfront for a quick dinner. I chose the longest line and hopped in it. That landed me at Woodies where I had one of the best burgers ever for $5. I actually had two with fries for $10, but the second one better than the first.
At the market, I also got some tea for a souvenir and other snacks. Upon getting back, I ended up playing Ping-Pong with a bunch of cricket player from New Zealand traveling to Cape Town for a Tournament. Just before I was going to head out to the bars, I ran into Andy who I had met the day prior. He was heading to a comedy club, and I decided to join. It was a fantastic decision.
I couldn’t understand half of the jokes, but the energy was terrific and the booze was cheap. After the show, the hostess even dropped by and did tequila shots with us. We had some late night snacks before getting back to crash. The next day would be both of our last, so we were planning on sleeping in late.
Unfortunately, my internal timer got me up at 6AM. I had breakfast with two British girls who personified the skinny white girl stereotype. They were super into travel and had quite an impressive amount of makeup on considering they were in athletic clothes. Luckily, I had to bail on them to do my helicopter tour, but when I got to reception to check on the tour, it had been cancelled due to weather. Mike was very apologetic, and suggested I go on the historical walking tour with Annika and Pauline. We also ended up rounding up Andy, Katarina, and Madeline to join us.
The tour was pretty boring, but it was great getting to know the others. As it ended, I got a message from Ronen saying he had just arrived in Cape Town if I wanted to meet up. I said goodbye to the group and set off for lunch with Ronen where we had an amazing seafood spread. I had two kinds of small lobsters along with the catch of the day and it totaled less than 30 USD at Baia, one of the restaurant at the Victoria Waterfront. We also did some shopping where I realized that the US dollar had an amazing exchange rate.
I got some sweaters for 10 USD and also got some wild game pate to gift to people back home. Ronen and his girlfriend eventually split to look at jewelry, but we traded information since he often did work in New York. I finished up my day at the Aquarium and grabbing a burger with Madeline. Packing was honestly sort of sad, but at the same time, I was incredibly glad to get back home. I really needed to catch up on sleep.
At the Cape Town airport, I was once again incredibly glad to have lounge access. The buffet they offered was actually better than some of the restaurants I had eaten at on my trip. The flight back was uneventful. Luckily the plane was relatively empty and I got all of the space I wanted. I basically slept the entire time, but I spent some time thinking about my next trip to Oceania. Did I really want to do it? This trip had really been exhausting. The people around me were all years younger and I was much more interested in seeing the sites than I had before. At the same time, I couldn’t let my youth go to waste… but that’s a question for another time.