SOUTH AFRICA (Cape Town, Kruger National Park, Blyde River Canyon, Johannesburg)
- When: Cape Town: May 19-21, Hazyview: May 21-24, Johannesburg: May 24-25, May 27-28, June 2
- Where (accommodations): Cape Town: Pepperclub Hotel and Spa, Hazyview: Abangane Guest Lodge, Johannesburg: African Pride Melrose Arch, The View Boutique Hotel
- Transportation: British Airways flight from London to Cape Town. Kulula from Cape Town to Johannesburg, Avis rental car both Cape Town and Johannesburg, British airways round trip from Johannesburg to Livingstone, Zambia and Air Seychelles round trip from Johannesburg to Mahe.
- Sights/attractions: Cape Town: Table Mountain, City Sightseeing tour, V&A Waterfront, Victoria Wharf Shopping Center, Bo- Kaap area, Chapmans Peak drive, Kalk Bay, Boulders Beach; Hazyview– Kruger National Park, Blyde River Canyon (Lisbon Falls, Berlin Falls, Three Rondavels Viewpoint, Bourke’s Luck Potholes, God’s Window); Johannesburg: Apartheid Museum
- Food/drinks: Cape Town: V&A Food Market, Den Anker, Moro gelato, The Brass Bell Restaurants and Pubs, Groot Constantia; Hazyview: Kuka Restaurant & Cocktail Lounge, Erasmushoop Potluck Boskombuis restaurant; Johannesburg: The View Boutique restaurant, Moyo Melrose Arch.
We returned from India/Sri Lanka adventure in the middle of Boston winter. Short days, cold and gloomy weather- you get the picture. One way to combat winter depression and the post vacation blues is to plan another trip! That always lifts my spirits and drives Sean into a slight panic 🙂 . Well, at least we were on the same page as to where the next trip should be- neither of us had been to AFRICA! And that’s how the plan to add a new continent to our travels was born…
It was a lot harder to decide what countries we should visit. We took into account the costs of the flights, weather, visa requirements and decided that South Africa would be a good starting point. USA citizens do not need a visa to South Africa, Lithuanians, on the other hand, have to go to the consulate in person to apply for one. From there on we added a few nights at Victoria Falls in Zambia/Zimbabwe with one day trip to Chobe National Park in Botswana. For those countries we were able to get visa online, so it was a very easy decision. Whenever possible, we aim to end the trip relaxing at the beach. That’s how Seychelles come about. While looking at the flights, we saw an opportunity to have two long layovers in London (see my previous post), so I could explore a city I’ve never been to before . We ended up with a quite complicated 17 day itinerary- Boston- London- Cape Town – Johannesburg – Kruger National Park -Johannesburg – Livingstone, Zambia/Victoria Falls, Zimbabwe – Chobe National Park, Botswana- Johannesburg – Seychelles – Johannesburg- London- Boston. Despite 11 flights, 2 car rentals and a couple of ferry rides it all worked out without a hitch. To avoid information overload, I will separate each segment of the trip into separate posts. This one is just about South Africa.
11 hour overnight flight from London literally flew by. We were so tired after sightseeing the busy city, that we pretty much slept through the entire flight. Pepperclub Hotel is only 20 minutes drive from the airport (we took an Uber) and despite us being there before noon, the staff did everything to speed up the check- in process. The long awaited shower could not come fast enough! Since we got some rest on the flight, we did not waste any time and, after freshening up, we decided to explore the beautiful Mother City- Cape Town.
CITY SIGHTSEEING RED BUS TOUR
Afternoon was quickly approaching and we didn’t have much daylight left, so we bought the tickets to Table Mountain online and went to the nearby City Sightseeing Red Bus stop to do a hop-on hop- off Cape Town tour. If you have limited time, it’s a great way to see the highlights of the city! Their next stop conveniently was Table Mountain– just the place we wanted to go to first.
Unfortunately, the weather is unpredictable (it is highly recommended to go to the Mountain first thing in the morning), and by the time the bus reached the base, the cable cart going to the top had closed. It was way too windy and the clouds completely covered the summit, so even if we made it to the top (it’s 2.5hr hike), we wouldn’t have been able to see anything from above. It was slightly disappointing, but as we say in Lithuania- you cannot blow against the wind 🙂 . We enjoyed the beautiful views from the base, which is still quite high up and hopped back on the bus to continue the tour.
Travel tip: The ticket counter at the base refunded the money for the tickets we bought online, so if you go and the weather changes, getting them in advance is still worth it. You won’t lose anything if it’s closed and will avoid waiting in line if the the cable cart is operating.
The bus took us along the beach, made a few stops, but we were too cold to get off and walk near the ocean. Keep in mind that May is almost winter season in South Africa. It was colder there than at the same time in Boston! It gets pretty warm during the day (around 70F or 21C), but as soon as the sun starts going down it gets quite chilly (55F or 12C)!
We were feeling hungry, so decided to get off the bus at the V&A Waterfront and find something for dinner. This still functioning harbor is mainly known as a Cape Town’s shopping destination, but it’s also full of history. Named after Prince Albert, who began construction on the harbor in 1860 and his mother Queen Victoria, this huge area is divided in the five shopping districts.
Various restaurants and cafes are lining the streets, arts and crafts vendors, designer shops, Chavonnes Battery Museum dating back to 1725- you could spend the whole day here and not get bored. We wandered in the V&A Food Market and could not resist some sweets and of course a few souvenirs.
For dinner we chose Belgian restaurant Den Anker, which had a very long list of beers to choose from- not a typical South African cuisine, but we left full and satisfied.
We only walked through the Victoria Wharf Shopping Center– this state of the art mall would leave a lot of USA malls green with envy! This is a shoppers paradise for sure.
We did not want to wander around late, so hopped back on the bus and got off close to our hotel. During the short walk we came across the best gelato we had in South Africa- Moro Gelato! Pistachio and marqueza (?) flavors were absolutely incredible and we liked it so much, we returned the following night as well! Definitely try their hot chocolate-it’s actually melted chocolate, so it’s thick and creamy, not a hot cocoa drink that we’re used to call ‘hot chocolate’ in the States.
BO-KAAP AND THE CHAPMAN’S PEAK DRIVE
On our second (and last) day in Cape Town (we both wished we had more time in this amazing city), we decided to rent a car and explore the peninsula. Sean also wanted to get some practice in driving on the left side of the road. We stayed close to the colorful Bo-Kaap neighborhood, formerly known as Malay Quarter. Our rental car was just about 15 min walk away, so we decided to check out the area on the way to Avis.
It was absolutely worth visiting and brightened up a rainy morning! We stopped by the tiny museum, then an art gallery and just walked around the colorful houses.
Avis rental, however, was not such a happy experience. There didn’t seem to be that long of a line- maybe five or six people in front of us. But the service was soooo slooow. It took us about an hour to finally get to the counter, then the process of all paperwork, GPS rental, wifi rental and we are ready to get on the road…NOT. As we tried to connect the wifi device it was not working. GPS was set to German language and NOBODY in the whole office could figure out how to change it back to English. So another 30 minutes wasted and we left with no GPS or wifi- luckily Sean’s work phone had a good data plan, so we were able to use Google Maps for directions. Well, now we are on the road, and the day is looking up. Sun came out and the Chapman’s Peak Drive, which was closed in the morning due to rain/fog is now open!
Travel tip: Check online the status of the road before driving towards Chapman’s Peak drive. If it’s closed, which happens often because of weather, you will be wasting your time and will need to find alternate route.
If it is open- ABSOLUTELY take it. It’s winding along the ocean with breathtaking views all the way. Driving on the ‘wrong side’ takes time to get used to. Sean kept driving in and out of the lane, windshield wipers were turned on multiple times instead of turn signals…But we survived. And we are still married 🙂 . It was truly worth the hassle, you don’t see views like this every day. One of our destinations today though, weren’t the ocean views, but the PENGUINS!
BOULDERS BEACH AND KALK BAY
Before coming to South Africa I thought penguins only live in the cold climates. Well, clearly not the African penguins!
The colony settled in the 1980s and are protected by the Cape Nature Conservation. Little guys are on the verge of extinction, but from the looks of them they seemed quite happy and had a lot of babies! They live on the beach and only a low wooden fence separates them from the public. It seems like once in a while they venture out of their protected area, or else there would not be signs like this:
There is a nice wooden path, so we walked around and went all the way down to the beach- sun was shining and it was a beautiful day now! Weather does change quickly in Cape Town.
We continued our drive, but food was becoming a necessity at that point, so we stopped at Kalk Bay– quirky and charming fishing village. I could see it being packed during summer months- restaurants and beach cafes looked very inviting, but empty during this time of year. The Brass Bell Restaurant and Pub had amazing view of the ocean and we were one of the few customers- we did not complain!
Food was absolutely delightful- grilled calamari, chicken and prawns curry, lamb and creme brulee- all was amazing and compared to Boston prices VERY inexpensive! We could get used to this! But before we return the rental car, there is one more stop to make- Groot Constantia Winery.
Located just about thirty minutes from the city, this beautiful winery is a must stop if you like wine and nice views. There are multiple options for wineries around Cape Town, but some are closed on Mondays, so we chose this one based on proximity and the fact that it was open.
I had a paired chocolate and wine tasting and it was SO good! Five wines (heavy pours, I had to tell them to cut it almost in half) and the little chocolates cost only 10 USD! I think my favorite Oyster Bay Sauvignon Blanc from New Zealand has just been replaced by a South African Sauvignon Blanc 🙂 ! With this, we ended our mini Cape Town adventure, barely made it by 6pm to return the rental car and with one more last Moro gelato in hand walked back to our hotel. Pepperclub hotel, besides being super comfortable, also has a great spa, so we got massages and were ready for the flight to Johannesburg the next morning.
KRUGER NATIONAL PARK
The flight from Cape Town to Johannesburg was only two hours and came very reasonably priced. To get to Kruger National Park though, was another story. South African Airways has a monopoly and we simply could not justify the cost. That left us with one logical option- driving. We’ve heard stories of carjacking, on top of that, Sean decided to look up the local news report right before the trip- yes, South Africa gets a lot of negative press if you start reading online. We were a bit nervous for sure, but renting a car and driving was the most convenient and affordable way. Avis car rental experience at O. R. Tambo International airport was completely opposite from the one in Cape Town. It was super fast, pleasant and all their devices worked- we had a functioning WiFi (to keep me occupied during the long drive) and a GPS to make sure we don’t get lost.
To all of those that have doubts about driving from Johannesburg to Hazyview– DO IT. The roads are very well maintained, we had no traffic jams, no issues whatsoever. It was a bit longer than we thought, took us almost six hours and we made it to Abangane Guest Lodge just around sunset. The days in May are quite short, so plan accordingly if you don’t want to drive in the dark. We chose to stay in Hazyview based of its proximity to one of the Kruger National Park entrances (Phabeni Gate). According to our safari guide, Kruger park is the size of Denmark or the state of New Jersey- for a national park it’s HUGE. There are multiple entrances, so it all depends on where you are traveling from, how close you want to be to the park, the budget for your accommodations etc. We wanted to be close (it was about 15 min drive from our lodge to the gate), but we did not want to spend thousands either. There are some luxury lodges in the park that go well over a thousand USD per night. That’s simply not us.
We were very happy with our accommodations. The owners- immigrants from Switzerland, made sure we had everything we needed for a pleasant stay. Spacious room, heated pool outside, plentiful breakfast – they even packed us a cooler full of snacks for the early morning safari, since we left before the crack of dawn. There was no dinner option, but the drive to the great local spot was only 5 minutes. We fell in love with the Kuka Restaurant and Cocktail Lounge and returned there for dinner for three nights in a row 🙂 .
We were so tired after exciting day activities that simply had no energy to look for other options. On the other hand- when the food is delicious, what else do you really need to look for?
This is what we came to Africa for! The long awaited SAFARI experience! We booked the guided excursion through our host and the driver from the Elephant Herd Tours and Safaris was at the lodge to pick us up before dawn- at 5.30 in the morning. The gate to the park this time of year opens at 6am, so we beat the rush and enjoyed a beautiful sunrise.
The driver had a permit to enter a few minutes before all of the private vehicles started pouring in- one of the many benefits of the guided tour. There was only one other couple with us- it was very nice to not be crammed in a car full of people. We were able to take pictures from both sides without getting in each other’s way.
Travel tip: Wear warm clothes or layers! We checked the forecast and it predicted a warm day. What we didn’t account for, is the cold wind driving in the open vehicle. It felt FREEZING. I had a sweater and shorts- rookie mistake. Long pants and a warm jacket would’ve been perfect. You can always take the layers off as the day goes on and it starts getting warmer, but the first few hours I was covered in goosebumps. Regardless, safari was absolutely INCREDIBLE experience.
Within the first hour at the park we already saw one of the Big Five – a couple of lions! They were not super close, but clearly visible and one had just had a kill- he was licking blood off his face like a giant cat. We drove around, guide had a radio and would check in with the other park rangers on the locations of animal sightings- it was a fun day and we saw pretty much every animal we hoped for and more.
Rarely do you see a honey badger or a black mamba- we were lucky to come across those.
Multiple elephants, impalas, giraffes, buffaloes, white rhino from far out, hyena with the babies, blue balled monkeys…We only missed the leopard out of the Big Five.
Considering how enormous this park is, and the fact that we were there for only 8 hours, it’s pretty incredible. We stopped for lunch and continued the tour until 3 pm, but the most sightings were early in the morning. I would highly recommend waking up VERY early if you want to make the most of your safari experience.
BLYDE RIVER CANYON
Believe it or not, this part of the trip was completely unplanned. Shame on me, but I didn’t even know that Hazyview is only about 1.5 hours drive away from one of the top ten largest canyons in the world!
When we decided to stay near Kruger, we planned on doing the guided safari the first day and self drive around the park the second. But during the safari, the couple that was in the vehicle with us, showed us pictures of the Blyde River Canyon and I instantly wanted to make a change of our plans. It took some convincing to persuade Sean, but at the end we had no regrets. The views were so magnificent, and we’ve already seen so many wild animals, that it was a very nice change of scenery. Plus, we realized that driving our little car in unpaved Kruger roads wouldn’t be same as sitting in a high safari vehicle. We would be covered in dust and who knows if we’d been able to find the animals on our own. We will never know, but we are sure that the day at the canyon was amazing!
First stop was Lisbon Falls– nice little waterfall that is easily accessible from the highway. No hike required, but remember to bring cash. Some viewpoint entrances take cards and some are cash only.
Also, you will be tempted to get handmade souvenirs, and the vendors definitely don’t have card reading machines. Only a few minutes drive away from the Lisbon Falls you will find Berlin Falls (starting to feel like we are in Europe here 🙂 ). According to the locals, this waterfall is a lot more impressive after the rainy season when it’s flooding with water. We still found it pretty nice and worth a visit.
Our next stop and in my opinion the crown jewel of Blyde River Canyon was Three Rondavels Viewpoint. We had an absolutely perfect weather and the views were out of this world.
Just for this it was worth taking this day drive!
We continued our tour in sort of a loop and arrived at the Bourke’s Luck Potholes– incredible geological rock formations caused by water erosion.
There are bridges and paths for visitors, but I don’t recommend stepping in the water. Shallow it may be, the rocks are slippery and I nearly face planted posing for a picture (attempted picture never happened ).
We are well into the afternoon now, time to get some food. We have to thank our host for recommending the place- Erasmushoop Potluck Boskombuis. It takes some off roading to get to it, but our little rental car made it with no problem. The place has no electricity, food is made right there on the open fire and served at the tables outside overlooking the river.
It was very inexpensive and absolutely delicious. Cash is certainly needed here, no electricity- no credit card machines! And check out these bathrooms with the view 🙂 !
At this restaurant we realized that we are spending our last ZAR for lunch and have not a single bill left for one last stop- God’s Window. Kindness is not dead- the couple sitting at the next table heard us, and before leaving handed us just enough local currency, so we could enjoy the last planned stop. There ARE good people in the world 🙂 !
We made it to God’s Window just before closing (5pm) and got to enjoy more of the majestic nature. I cannot recommend this day trip enough. If you are visiting Kruger, take the time to visit Blyde River Canyon!
There is not too much to be said about Johannesburg. We flew/drove in and out of this city multiple times during the trip, because of the way flights worked out. We were told by several people (mainly the ones that LIVE in Johannesburg) that we should not be walking around, especially to avoid the CBD (Central Business District) area. Sadly the crime rates are very high, unless you know exactly where you are going and staying in the safe districts. We’ve heard that Sandton is very safe, so is Melrose Arch, so for the first overnight we picked our hotel there. African Pride Melrose Arch is a Marriott Autograph collection hotel and we definitely liked it.
I was not so fond of the area- it was literally in an outside mall, with stores and restaurants, I felt like we are in a bubble. The hotel told us not to leave the guarded perimeter, so in a way it was like a fancy prison 🙂 . Well, we were safe and we were here for only one night, so it was comfortable and convenient.
moyo Melrose Arch restaurant right next door to the hotel served African dishes and had African inspired decor- they even painted our faces! I was afraid the food will be commercialized, but every dish we tasted was delicious. We have not had a bad meal in South Africa period.
The following morning we flew out to Zambia and returned back to Johannesburg two days later for another overnight between the flights. This time we stayed at The View Boutique Hotel in the Auckland Park area. We arrived late in the afternoon, so there was no walking around again- hotel had a big metal gate and told us that we should not leave, unless we are taking Uber/taxi. Back in a luxury prison again 🙂 . Well, we stayed in and REALLY liked this place. It was very different experience from the Melrose Arch.
There was no mall, hotel was in the converted mansion, surrounded by beautiful garden. And I am pretty sure we were the only guests staying the night there. The chef made us dinner and we were the only couple sitting at the entire restaurant.
Then we asked to turn on the fireplace, so they did, and again nobody else joined us in the huge room. It felt like we rented entire hotel for ourselves 🙂 . In the morning, after delicious breakfast made just for us, we got a couples massage in their little garden spa oasis.
The one comment- massage tables were squeaking with every press and push, so even though massages were great, it was not as relaxing experience as it could’ve been. We would stay here again for sure, if not for the hotel itself, then definitely for the amazing meals.
If there is a place in Johannesburg you shouldn’t miss, it’s The Apartheid Museum. We wanted to see it during the previous layovers, but it closes at 5pm and we were never there on time to fully explore it. Our last chance was during a 6 hour layover coming back from Seychelles and on the way to London. Because it was a Sunday, no traffic, we jumped in an Uber at the airport, and reached the museum in about 30 minutes! There we met up with our friend Andrew- south African that we befriended in Zambia. Andrew took his wife for a romantic weekend in Victoria Falls and we happened to share the same ride to the hotel. Lovely couple agreed to visit Apartheid Museum with us during our layover! Andrew’s wife couldn’t make it, but he came with an Australian friend and two bottles of South African wine neatly wrapped for us to bring back home! We really had amazing luck meeting wonderful people on this trip!
Museum took us about two hours to see, you could spend even more time, we just didn’t want to risk missing the flight. It illustrates apartheid and the 20th century history of South Africa, there is a lot of information about Nelson Mandela’s life- we really enjoyed visiting and I would highly recommend it.
It’s quite surreal to see the pictures from not that long ago, illustrating the racial segregation that occurred in South Africa until so recently. Only in 1994 South Africa granted diversity and this museum is a symbol of the democracy.
Very busy, but very rewarding trip. Our first real safari, first time for Sean driving a car on the ‘opposite’ side of the road and me surviving it as his passenger 🙂 . It was not a relaxing vacation by far, but more of adventure and experience to last a lifetime. Both of us would love to go back to South Africa and explore it with more time there. It’s such a beautiful country, with kind people, breathtaking nature and incredible food. Hopefully the economic and safety situation improves, so more tourists are not afraid to visit and experience the magic of South Africa.