I had wanted to travel to Africa for a couple of decades. The trip was finally scheduled. My expectations were high. Could South Africa live up to this baby boomer’s vision?
Whatever I imagined was exceeded by far when my husband and I visited this magical place. I was moved and inspired in a way that is hard to describe.
The rugged and breathtaking beauty of this untamed land enthralled me.
I was enchanted by the smiles of friendly South Africans eager to share the wonders of their country.
As elephants, lions, zebras, and giraffes casually roamed by our jeep (the photo above was taken without a zoom lens), I had to pinch myself. When we watched hippos floating lazily down a river with a spectacular African sunset in the background, I felt like the luckiest girl alive. Not to mention the the surreal experience of seeing adorable African penguins waddling along the rocky coastline.
And my heart raced as sharks thrashed closely to our cage – oh yeah, did I mention my husband talked me into shark cage diving? (More on that later!)
The natural splendor of Africa is impossible to describe. The stunning views from Table Mountain in Cape Town, the spectacular waves crashing in treacherous waters surrounding the Cape of Good Hope, and the beauty and majesty of animals wandering the dry savanna grasses are priceless moments that cannot be quantified.
Yet, Africa is still a complicated country in tumult. Much like many cities around the world, parts of Africa are corrupt and dangerous. However, with some safety precautions, visiting South Africa can be an amazing experience. We traveled with a tour company and if you’re considering a trip there, I’d highly recommend you do the same. (You’ll also save money – this trip cost us much less than you would imagine – more details on how to find a good deal later.)
Stay tuned and I’ll share tips, photos, videos, along with my personal thoughts and experiences. Without further ado, prepare to be amazed.
DAY #1: CAPE TOWN
From the towering Table Mountain down to the brilliant blue waters of the bay, Cape Town is simply stunning. We started with a cable car to the top of Table Mountain with its spectacular views of the city and its beaches.
We were delighted while admiring the Colonial architecture and strolling through the city center to come upon these singers in the park. Be sure to put your sound on to enjoy their beautiful voices.
We ended the day by a visit to Cape Town’s famous V & A Waterfront.
To end a perfect day, we had a wonderful dinner at Belugas. The beef tips and martini dessert were sumptuous!
Note: Cape Town is absolutely gorgeous, but also known for its crime. You should avoid certain areas and take normal safety precautions as you would in any major city. Always use the hotel safe and do not leave valuables in your room. Do not walk outside after dark. Use purses that strap across your body or, better yet, leave them behind and put some cash in your pocket. When visiting Table Mountain, do not hike alone and stay in groups. Your tour guide can advice you about areas where you may be targeted.
DAY #2: CAPE PENINSULA TOUR
We had spectacular views of the rugged coastline and sweeping beaches on our drive to Cape Point at the southwestern tip of the Cape Peninsula.
Visiting Cape Point, the extreme southern tip of Africa, was a special moment. Watching the waves crash around the Cape of Good Hope, where thousands have died in the treacherous waters was moving.
Hiking to the top of Cape Point, we were warned about clever baboons that become aggressive when searching for food. Beware, if you have food in your purse or backpack. These monkeys are not too proud to pull your hair – hard – to get what they want, our guide instructed us. We listened to the advice and fortunately didn’t not run into any. But the views were stunning!
And finally, the southern most point in Africa.
The following video is our visit to the penguin colonies at Boulders Beach.
On our last stop, we visited the Kirstenbosch National Botanical Gardens, resting at the foot of Table Mountain. And yes, it was a long, action-packed day!
DAY #3: SHARK CAGE DIVING
When my husband said he wanted to go shark cage diving with me, my first reaction was, “No way!” But after some research and watching videos, I was reassured this was a fairly safe adventure.
To be honest, I’m so glad he talked me into it. Seeing these majestic, powerful predators up close was an unforgettable experience.
The staff used fish heads to lure the sharks close to the cage – but thankfully didn’t chum the water with blood causing a frenzy. The sharks were so busy chasing the lures, they didn’t even seem interested in us.
My husband and I are scuba certified; however, you don’t need to be to participate. You’re not totally submersed in the water, in fact, the water only comes up to your shoulders. Yes, the water is cold, but you are in a full wet suit with a hood and booties. You feel a jolt when you first get into the water but, believe me, you don’t even notice once the sharks start swimming by. Using a snorkel mask you can grab a lower bar to go under the water to watch the sharks whenever desired. The cage stays attached closely to the boat. We mostly saw copper sharks (also known as “bronzies”) but one great white swam by while we were in the cage.
Here’s a complete video of our experience for those of you interested:
As a bonus, on the way back we stopped at a place famous for whale watching along the rugged, gorgeous coastline and saw a whale in the distance breaching and two whales closer by mating.
DAY #4: GAME VIEWING RIVER CRUISE ON THE ST. LUCIA ESTUARY
After a flight to Durban, we were privileged to experience a river cruise complete with plenty of hippos – including cute hippo babies – crocodiles, and our first zebra sighting.
While it’s true hippopotamuses are dangerous and territorial creatures, we always felt safe in the boat. It should be noted that hippos are nocturnal by nature so, as you can see in the photos, they are mostly resting in the water during the daytime.
Watching a large pod of hippos with a stunning African sunset – who could ask for more?
DAY #5: GAME DRIVE IN HLUHLUWE-IMFOLOZI GAME RESERVE & SCHOOL VISIT
The first of two safaris, this game reserve is known for its rhinos. One advantage of visiting Africa in the spring (the seasons are opposite from here in the U.S.) is you get to see tons of babies. A wonderful bonus!
By the way, I never felt in danger while on safari. Our guide said that you’re more likely to die driving back to your hotel than while on safari and I tend to believe him. Although viral videos look terrifying, keep in mind, mIllions of people visit Africa and go on safari without incident – myself included. Deaths are so rare, it’s hard to find statistics.
On the other hand, I don’t want to sugar coat the experience. Of course, there’s always an element of risk because of the unpredictability of wild animals. But many of the viral videos are the result of ignorant tourists or guides that took unnecessary risks. Most animals give a warning charge to give humans an opportunity to back off. if you have an experienced safari guide that can “read” an animals behavior and avoid dangerous situations by keeping a respectful distance, you don’t need to allow fear or anxiety keep you from an amazing and surreal experience.
Be patient while watching the video below and you’ll see the zebras cross the road right in front of our jeep.
We saw tons of other animals on our safari, like the warthog pictured below, but not any of the big cats. That came later on safari in Kruger Park.
By the way, much is made of seeing the “big five,” which includes the African lion, leopard, rhino, elephant, and Cape buffalo. Between both of our safaris, I was fortunate to see all of these animals (I briefly saw the elusive leopard from a distance as it ran into the brush – the hardest to find of the big five – but wasn’t fast enough to get a photo.) If there is a sighting of a leopard or lion, guides let each other know and you’ll find yourself suddenly racing down dirt roads with much excitement to the spot. But I was just as thrilled to see beautiful animals like the Nyasaland big horned deer pictured below.
One of the special moments on our trip was visiting a rural school. We had the option of donating school supplies we brought from home, which we were happy to do. The children were so excited to see us, full of hugs and smiles, and curious about us (for example, they kept touching my hair which was different from theirs).
DAY #6: – SWAZILAND (eSwatini) SIGHTSEEING AND VISIT TO MATSAMO VILLAGE
After visiting a glass factory, where we watched talented glass blowers create African animals and glassware made from recycled glass collected by local children, we visited a cultural village to learn more about their traditions and customs.
Note in the video below how grandparents rule in a traditional village. Awesome!
We also enjoyed traditional dance and song performances.
Day #7: – Kruger National Park Game
Pictures speak louder than words when it comes to the wonder of a safari in this famous game reserve.
People ask if we used a zoom lens with the lion pictured below, and the answer is we really didn’t need one. Sure, we zoomed up a bit with our cameras, but in reality the lion was only about 15 feet from our jeep. Once again, we did not feel endangered. Our guide explained that the lion was injured, apparently from fighting over a female. On top of that, it was mating season. Did you know that a lion can mate up to 100 times in one day? Neither did I! Naturally, the lion was very tired and was actually asleep when we first arrived. After waiting for about 10 minutes, he awoke and lazily strolled off to lay down near a female.
Check out the cute baby baboons on their parents’ backs in the video below. Adorable!
These monkeys were cute, but super aggressive when trying to steal your lunch.
Zebras were everywhere.
DAY #8 PANORAMA ROUTE TO JOHANNESBURG
This was our charming breakfast view from Hazyview before we started our long drive to Johannesburg (fondly referred to by Africans as Joburg).
We stopped at Bourke’s Luck Potholes, a series of waterfalls and distinctive rock formations. If you enjoy photography, like my husband in the photo below, Africa is paradise!
My sister, who knows me well, asked if I crossed this bridge. Yes, I’m afraid of heights, but this was a trip of facing down my fears. The only way to see the waterfalls was to cross the bridge. I did so, but very quickly, snapping photos along the way!
This waterfall was one of my rewards for braving the bridge.
Our last stop on the way to Johannesburg and what a view! Reminded me a little bit of Grand Canyon.
DAY #9 JOHANNESBURG
Ah, all good things must come to an end. Johannesburg was our last stop. Known for its glamorous boutique hotels, this is a photo of a sitting area near the bar.
WHAT YOU NEED TO KNOW BEFORE YOU VISIT SOUTH AFRICA
Do these photos and videos tempt you to take a trip to South Africa? If so, here are some things you should know.
Like I mentioned in the beginning, we got a great deal for this once-in-a-lifetime trip. We paid $2,687.00 per person including airfare from New York to Africa, all our hotel rooms, two safaris, one river cruise, transportation, a flight from Cape Town to Durban, and most of our meals. (Only the optional shark cage dive was not included in the price.)
We subscribe to Travelzoo’s newsletter and saw the deal with Gate 1 Travel. This was the second time we’ve traveled with this tour company – the first time was while visiting China – and we were impressed both times. Just know, as you can tell from my photos, this was an action-packed trip with quite a few early morning wake-up calls. There wasn’t a lot of downtime. However, most of our group was aged 50-plus and all managed to keep up with the pace. By the way, I should mention that we were fortunate to have wonderful people, most of which were well-seasoned travelers, to share this awesome experience and compare notes. If you’re interested, keep an eye out for sales. We received an additional $400 off per person if we signed up by a certain date.
Everyone asks me how many shots I had before my trip. You may be surprised to learn that vaccines and malaria pills are not required if you are visiting South Africa from the United States.
The CDC recommends being up to date on routine vaccinations along with hepatitis A and typhoid vaccines for most travelers (which you can get through contaminated food or water). You can use this link to see all of their recommendations. Since we trusted our tour company to take us to safe places to eat (we were careful not to eat at any roadside stands) and alert us when it wasn’t safe to drink the water, we personally chose not to get these vaccinations.
You may choose to take prescription medicine before, during, and after your trip to prevent malaria, depending on your travel plans. Be aware, malaria pills can cause side effects such as nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, headaches, and fever. Because of these risks, my husband and I chose not to take these drugs and instead took other recommended precautions such as wearing long pants, long sleeved shirts, socks, and using mosquito repellent on any exposed skin. This is a personal choice that can be discussed with your doctor.
So, the answer is that other than a tetanus booster and flu shot, I didn’t have any other immunizations before visiting Africa. In full disclosure, I’m a worrier and this choice caused me some anxiety. For example, I panicked after seeing mosquitoes in one of our rooms and practically drowned myself with mosquito repellent. A small insect bite also caused some worry. Then, the day after arriving home, I broke out in a rash. At first, my doctor thought the cause might be a parasitic infection. Of course, I was freaked out by the thought; however, my blood test came back normal. Apparently, the rash was caused by a fungal skin infection (a common type around the world including here in the U.S.) that was easily treated with a topical creme.
Of course, none of these things happened to my husband who skipped through Africa with nary a concern.
At any rate, yes, you always take a chance when you’re traveling. But the way I look at it, I could get bit by a mosquito right here at home in the California desert and get the West Nile virus – which has killed people.
In other words, I’m not going to let any of this stop me from traveling again. Seeing new places and experiencing exotic cultures is a passion of mine that luckily my husband shares. In fact, we’ve visited over 20 countries in six continents. People ask us which trip is our favorite. Our answer? Without question, Africa wins the prize. There is no other place in the world like it.