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Five Unforgettable Adventures in South Africa

Sunrise in Kruger National Park, South Africa
Sunrise in Kruger National Park.

Every day in South Africa, an elephant family drinks from a murky pond where hippo and crocodile nostrils poke out of the water. A deep red sunset falls behind scraggly, leafless trees. In Johannesburg, barefoot children play soccer on a dusty street of boxy brick homes. Women in colorful robes carry duffle bags on their heads down a busy sidewalk, where Laundromats and fried-fish restaurants share the street with African Muti shops of herbs and spears.

Street scene in downtown Johannesburg
Street scene in downtown Johannesburg.

Of course, like anywhere in the world, South Africa on the ground is different from South Africa in the imagination. Not content to simply exceed expectations, the country offers countless discoveries: friendly people in hip neighborhood markets, penguin colonies on white-sand beaches, dramatic cliff-and-valley landscapes, and of course food: enormous cuts of perfectly cooked meat, traditional pap (corn-meal porridge) eaten with your fingers, and an excellent two-dollar bottle of wine.

Unfortunately, because of high crime rates, compounded by racial and economic divisions from a painful recent history of apartheid and tense reconciliation, many travelers take a safari or two and go nowhere else. Or they take a fully guided tour, which may hit several countries and last weeks or months. The truth is that these are good options, both to save money and because of such safety concerns.

But my wife and I wanted those moments of discovery, those days when we had no idea what would happen or what we would do. So we planned and traveled on our own. Instead of squeezing in every destination from the tip of a continent, we spent a week or more in and around three places: Johannesburg, Cape Town, and Kruger National Park.

Spending more time in these places gave us opportunities for memorable experiences not on the top-tier of most travel itineraries. Yes, we visited Soweto in Johannesburg, the 1.3-million person township (black neighborhood) famous for actions during the struggle against apartheid. But we also rode bicycles through the smaller and less-visited township of Alexandra, meeting locals and eating pap with the only tour company in town, whose guide said he averaged one group every two weeks.

Yes, we spent an afternoon on the red, double-decker tourist bus in Johannesburg, but we also took an overnight train across the country, and later rented a car to explore the Cape Peninsula and the wine country outside of Cape Town. And when we went up iconic Table Mountain, we didn’t take the cable car but climbed through lush valleys and over exposed rock.

Managing limited time in a country as fascinating as South Africa can be tricky, but having extra days everywhere we went provided us the freedom to experience it our own way. Rather than try to see it all, which is impossible anyway, we chose to slow down and enjoy what we could see. Here are five highlights from an adventurous month in South Africa.

Walking Safari in Kruger National Park

Walking in Kruger National Park is an outstanding alternative to racing around in a safari vehicle. Both are great fun, but on foot you feel like an explorer, like part of the landscape, as the only thing between you and the biggest land animals in the world are a couple of bushes and a few hundred feet.

In July, the middle of winter, Kruger is a sandy, sun-beaten place. Sprawling trees break the glare of the horizon across the rolling highlands of the veld, the Afrikaner word for savannah—not a forest, but not nearly a desert.

Winter means no rain and no leaves on the trees, so the animals are easier to see on their regular visits to concrete watering holes constructed around the park. The conditions allow up-close viewings of rhino, elephant, buffalo, zebra, giraffe, kudu, and dozens of more species of animals.

Walking through the veld in Kruger National Park
Walking through the veld in Kruger National Park.

Named after President Paul Kruger, who first designated the area as a wildlife park in 1898 in response to rampant overhunting, this long strip of land in eastern South Africa on the Mozambique border is one of the largest reserves in Africa, about the size of New Jersey. Nine concessions—areas that are officially part of the park, but where a safari lodge is allowed to operate—are located around the park with no intervening fences.

Built on one of these concessions in a particularly animal-rich part of Kruger, the Rhino Post Lodge specializes in walking tours. For permission to walk freely through these 12,000 hectares of untouched wilderness, the maximum amount of walkers is eight, plus two rifle-carrying guides.

My wife and I were strapping on our boots within an hour of arriving at Rhino Post, getting ready for a three-hour walk across the veld to their sleep-out camp. The lodging consisted of four screen tents up on wooden platforms, where after a dinner of grilled boerewors sausage and wine we slept under the stars to the sounds of grunting, rooting, and rustling below.

The Rhino Post sleep-out camp
The Rhino Post sleep-out camp.

Rhino Post also offers game drives in safari vehicles, the typical way to experience Kruger. You can see more animals more quickly from a vehicle, including those too cautious to see while walking: lions, leopards, smaller cats, and the endangered African wild dogs. Again, staying at a lodge in a concession is an advantage because of their locations inside the park, with access to park roads before and after park closing times.

But nothing can compare to seeing your guide’s hand come up, telling you to stop walking, and watching a mother rhino and her baby turn to look at you before returning to snuffling in the bushes. Or breathing in the cold morning air in utter silence while scanning the open veld, and suddenly spotting an ostrich at a distance and then quietly following it to get a closer look.

The morning after the sleep-out we saw our first giraffe, its head bobbing among the high branches of the trees 200 yards away. It came into a clearing, obviously looking at us. We stood quiet and still, holding our breath. After a moment it turned back and continued gliding along, slowly, through the bony trees, sometimes stopping to strip branches of what winter leaves were left, with the endless African sky behind.

I remember thinking, now that’s the way to see a giraffe.

A solitary giraffe in Kruger National Park
A solitary giraffe in Kruger National Park.

Alexandra Township Bicycle Tour

The guides and other South Africans we met at the Rhino Post Lodge couldn’t believe we would spend almost two weeks in Johannesburg. To them, it’s a dirty, dangerous, crowded place, especially when compared to world-class Cape Town on the other side of the country.

But Johannesburg is fascinating—a once-crumbling, now-revitalizing downtown scattered with prime specimens of three architectural styles: British colonial, art-deco, and brutalist. Outside the city center are the modern malls and fancy restaurants of Sandton and Rosebank, connected to downtown by the fast and safe Gautrain mass transit system, built for the World Cup in 2010, which also goes to the airport. And natural areas surround the city on all sides, including the Cradle of Humankind, a region of rolling hills where evidence of some of the first humans and pre-humans have been discovered.

Townships in South Africa

But no visit to Johannesburg, long or short, is complete without a visit to a township. Townships are the African neighborhoods where black, mixed-race, and Indian people were forced to live during apartheid. The largest and most famous is Soweto, the name coming from South West Township. It’s like a separate city, divided by the dusty, yellow mounds of waste from the gold mines. The red bus tour takes you past all the important sights, including the monument to the 1976 massacre of protesting students and the former homes of Nelson Mandela and Desmond Tutu.

You can see Soweto on one of these tours, but you can truly experience the older, smaller, and less-visited township Alexandra with Jeff Mulaudzi’s bicycle tours, which offer two- or four-hour rides with him or another local guide.

Stops on the ride include a school, the house where Nelson Mandela lived when he first moved to Johannesburg, a colorful gym run by an artist who calls himself the African Picasso, a modest home whose owner serves the local corn-brewed “beer,” and a lunch of grilled meat and pap in the restaurant that was once the headquarters of the infamous Msomi gang, which was named after an axe murderer and ruled Alexandra in the mid to late ‘50s.

But Alexandra’s people are the real pleasure. As our guide (with an unpronounceable Zulu name full of clicks) said, the people are friendly. Very friendly. Nearly everyone we passed smiled, waved, or greeted us in Zulu. One man told me, in English, “Welcome, welcome, you look comfortable, alright, cool.”

Taking a break from the bike ride in Alexandra township, Johannesburg
Taking a break from the bike ride in Alexandra township, Johannesburg.

The children were the friendliest, from whom we learned a new word: “mlungu,” which means “white person.” Groups of them chased our bikes, reaching out to touch the handlebars and give high-fives, crying “mlungu, mlungu!” And how could I forget the old woman sitting on her front stoop, who called into the house for the kids to come out and see us, and the shy little girl who grinned and said, “Hello mlungu.”

Overnight Train from Johannesburg to Cape Town

You can fly from Johannesburg to Cape Town fast and cheap, and in fact, we flew one-way with Kulula, a domestic airline, for 900 rand ($60 USD). The flight was less than an hour and hassle-free.

For a bit less ($46 USD, or 600 rand) you can get a ticket on the Shosholoza Meyl train, which without delays takes 27 hours, leaving Johannesburg at 12:30 pm and arriving in Cape Town at 3:30 pm the next day.

The Shosholoza Meyl train from Johannesburg to Cape Town
The Shosholoza Meyl train from Johannesburg to Cape Town.

There are fancier and more expensive options, like the Premier Class train and the luxurious Blue Train, but the real fun of taking a train is what’s outside, not inside.

Leaving Johannesburg, we passed cities, shantytowns, ranches, rolling hills and massive mines. A penetrating darkness filled the long night, and after we finished our wine we enjoyed a peaceful sleep on comfortable bunks rocked by the swaying train.

In the early morning when the sun came up, we were surrounded by a wide flat expanse of bush similar to the veld in Kruger, but much of it parceled into farms. Besides the expected cows and horses, we saw impala and ostrich grazing, drinking, or staring off into space.

As the morning became afternoon, a landscape emerged that would rival the prettiest postcard: high cliffs and rocky mountains, sun-baked valleys full of vineyards, and finally the unmistakable form of flat Table Mountain in the distance as we approached Cape Town.

Wine country outside Cape Town as seen from the train
Wine country outside Cape Town as seen from the train.

If you look at TripAdvisor reviews of the train, the most common complaint is that it may arrive very late. Ours did not; it pulled into the downtown Cape Town train station in the afternoon, and from there our hotel was a 10-minute walk away—easier than haggling for a taxi at the airport.

The Shosholoza Meyl train provides private cabins for two people, bedding and blankets, clean shared bathrooms, and food service. Some advice: If you’re going to take this trip, remember your camera, extra water, and snacks. And lots of wine.

Table Mountain National Park

The Cape Peninsula points south like a gnarly, knobby index finger. Table Mountain is the knuckle, dented and scarred, with the urban blemish of cosmopolitan Cape Town off to one side. At the fingertip is the Cape of Good Hope, looming large in the imaginations of fans of mariner adventure tales, or at least those who paid attention in middle school geography class.

All along this 52-km finger are dramatic views of the Table Mountain-type—tall cliffs of granite and sandstone dotted with patches of clinging green, with turquoise bays and white-sand beaches below.

Bluffs and beaches between Cape Point and the Cape of Good Hope.

It’s a hiker’s dream, but the route closest to Cape Town under the Table Mountain cable car might be a little steep for most knees. A good first hike is right next door on the dome-shaped Lion’s Head, perhaps second to Table Mountain in its distinction. The trail spirals up the rounded peak, passing the largest strand of silver trees in the world, which only grow on the slopes of the Cape Peninsula.

Table Mountain and the Lion’s Head above Cape Town
Table Mountain and the Lionís Head above Cape Town.

A popular route that goes to the top of Table Mountain, Kasteelspoort (Castle’s Gate) is clearly marked and, though steep, not too treacherous for those afraid of heights. This trail begins above Camps Bay, a swanky beachside neighborhood on the other side of the mountains from Cape Town, and it weaves between two of the Twelve Apostles, the huge broken buttresses that tower over the bay.

Another good route up Table Mountain begins in the world-famous Kirstenbosch Botanical Gardens, which specializes in fynbos, the diverse species of bushes and flowers native to the Cape, among them South Africa’s national flower the King Protea.

The Skeleton Gorge trail from Kirstenbosch is less exposed than Kasteelspoort, but it’s strenuous hiking nonetheless. During one section the trail disappears among the rocks and flowing water of Skeleton Stream, requiring some scrambling. At the top, a short walk leads to a powdery mini-beach facing a reservoir. The plateau is crisscrossed with trails that pass reservoirs and camping huts, leading to Kasteelspoort on the Camps Bay side or north to Maclear's Beacon, the highest point on Table Mountain.

Finally, the Cape of Good Hope section of Table Mountain National Park provides more than a fabulous photo opportunity, but also the chance to hike over rugged terrain with panoramic views of two oceans. While the steep walk to the main attraction Cape Point certainly feels like hiking and takes about 30 minutes, several routes begin on the other side of the parking lot: one over the higher promontory behind, which goes along the coast on the False Bay side, and one that passes the beaches on the Atlantic Ocean side and leads toward the Cape of Good Hope itself. All can be combined as part of a three- or four-hour loop. During our hike we saw several eland (South Africa’s largest antelope, with a body like a cow) and an ostrich that was the exact colors as the surrounding bush.

An eland grazing in the bush near the Cape of Good Hope
An eland grazing in the bush near the Cape of Good Hope.

Other than for Lion’s Head, which can be reached by bus from downtown, you’ll need a car to get to these places and still have time to hike. Driving around the Cape Peninsula is fun in its own right. In addition to mountains, the area is dotted with beaches, vineyards, and pretty fishing villages. There are numerous rental car companies in Cape Town, and with the strong dollar our rental was only about $20 USD a day. The roads are good, though twisty, the rain can pound the car, and it takes time to get used to driving on the left side of the road. It’s all part of the adventure.

Stellenbosch: Wine Country near Cape Town

A suitable climate and a long history of cultivation means that good grapes grow all over South Africa. But the most famous wine region is Stellenbosch.

About two hours from Cape Town, Stellenbosch is a lovely university town in the heart of wine country. Its historic center of well-maintained, Cape Dutch-style buildings contains tasteful tourist shops, relaxing restaurants, and attractions like the Botanical Gardens on Plien Street, which is thick with all kinds of colorful, tropical and native plants, including a whole section of large bonsai trees. Entrance is free.

Away from downtown and past the buildings of Stellenbosch University, the Jan Marais Nature Reserve is a birdwatcher’s paradise, with sculptures, groves of flowers, and walking paths going around a pond.

But now to the important part—wine. Every road in every direction from Stellenbosch leads to a valley, and every valley contains vineyard after vineyard. So the first decision is to pick a direction and drive.

We went northeast toward the village of Franschhoek, passing stands of stone pines, towering cliffs, and a tall waterfall off in the distance. In fact, when we saw signs for a vineyard on the little road that went in the direction of the waterfall, we decided to take it, thus allowing nature to choose our wine-tasting spot for us.

A dirt road framed by spindly trees led us to the L’Ormarins Estate on the slopes of the Groot Drakenstein Mountains. Here is the home of Anthonij Rupert wines, whose tasting room occupies the spacious first floor of a classic white farmhouse. We took seats at the long wooden table in the dining room, where you could imagine a big family dinner after a hard day tending the vines a hundred years ago.

The road to a wine tasting at the L’Ormarins Estate near Franschhoek
The road to a wine tasting at the LíOrmarins Estate near Franschhoek.

My wife chose the reds, and I chose the whites. Our wine tasting guru began with the whites, describing each wine with such precision that the flavor jumped right out at me as the liquid hit my tongue—the first, guava and passion fruit; the second, peach and apricot; the third, lemon and lime; and so forth.

Before this, my wine tasting vocabulary consisted of two words: good and ok. I don’t know if it was a trick of suggestion, but hearing such rich descriptions while tasting each wine made me realize what a wine tasting is supposed to be.

Sampling South African reds and whites by Anthonij Rupert wines.

Afterward, we were free to explore the large restored home and the grounds. The tasting wasn’t expensive, neither were the wines—a bottle to go of one of the better reds cost about $20 USD.

Stellenbosch was one of our final days, and more wine tastings would have been fun, but the hundreds of vineyards reminded us of our basic travel philosophy—when you try to see too much, you end up seeing less. I’d much rather spend the morning in town and the afternoon slowly experiencing only one excellent wine tasting, than race all over the valley squeezing in as many tastings as possible. And besides, after all that wine, how could we drive back to Cape Town in the heavy rain and fog?

When traveling, a month can be both a long time and a short time. It depends on how you manage your trip. With that in mind, we didn’t try to see everything there is to see in a country overflowing with highlights like South Africa. We didn’t rush, and thanks to that, images of South Africa have been transformed into timeless memories.

For More Info

Rhino Post Lodge

Booking safaris

Gautrain, Johannesburg mass transit

Alexandra bicycle tours

Johannesburg walking tours

Shosholoza Meyl train

Kulula airlines

Table Mountain National Park

Kirstenbosch National Botanical Garden

Cape Peninsula hiking guide

Stellenbosch Wine Routes

Anthonij Rupert wine estate


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