Southern Africa offers a wide range of sights and experiences. If you crave the thrill of being a few feet away from wild beasts, Kruger Park is a must-see. If you are a beach bum at heart, you’ll love South Africa’s white sand beaches and roaring waves. If you savor ambling through picturesque vineyards and tasting the latest vintages, head to the wine country in Stellenbosch, South Africa. To see a spectacular natural wonder and get a first hand look at life in rural Africa, visit Victoria Falls in Zimbabwe.
After two days, five flights, and too many cocktails, Michael and I arrived in Africa to begin our wedding anniversary celebration. When we started to plan the trip it was difficult to decide where go. After tons of research and advice from a South African friend, we decided to concentrate on South Africa and Zimbabwe. In two weeks we sampled a wide mix of experiences including beach combing, wine tasting, viewing natural wonders, and a spectacular safari.
The adventure began in South Africa at Sabi Sands, a private game reserve inside Kruger Park. We arrived in a chartered four-passenger Cesna flown by a friendly baby-faced pilot named James. Our take off was delayed to lightning. (Was it a good idea to wait on the tarmac?) But the 20-minute flight was smooth and the view was magnificent. I felt that I was truly in Africa when I spotted an Impala strolling along the runway. Paul, the lodge’s ranger, picked us up in a Range Rover for the 5-minute drive to the lodge. It was dusk and a light drizzle started to fall.
We spent three days at Chitwa Chitwa Safari Lodge in the heart of the Kruger Park. The intimate property has a few huts and a main indoor/outdoor lounge. A deck with a pool extends from the lounge overlooking a watering hole. When we checked in, the host advised not to wander away from the buildings because we might run into one of the “residents” (there are no fences around the lodge’s grounds).
Days at Chitwa were packed full of activity. Sleepy guests climbed into the open air Range Rover at 6:00 AM for a three-hour game drive. The evening game drive began at 4:00 PM and concluded with a sundowner (happy hour) out in the bush. In between, we napped and relaxed (a side effect of the jet lag). Meals were served outside, communal style, complete with delicious home-baked bread.
Before the game drive, the ranger, Paul, provided a safety briefing. The animals are accustomed to the vehicles and don’t perceive them as a threat. However, it is critical not to break the silhouette of the vehicle – in other words – don’t stand up or wave your arms. “If you stand up to look at an animal, there may be one on the other side looking at you. You might end up wearing a cheetah and become a statistic.” Point well made Paul!
During the game drives, our tracker, Dyke, sat on a seat attached to the front of the vehicle. Dyke and Paul looked for signs of animal activity and communicated with other rangers via walkie talkie. Their expertise paid off – we saw elephants, lions, cheetah, zebras, giraffes, warthogs, buffalo, baboons, monkeys, hippos, wildebeests, impala, kudos, antelope, hyena eagles, and dung beetles (gross but cool). We were often able to park within five feet at times. (We would have preferred to stay a little farther away from the lions.) Paul and Dyke told us about the different animals, including their behavior and family relationships.
Arrival Night – Evening
There was a light rain, so the drive was cut short. There were a lot of impala on the road because when the ground is wet, the scent of their predators is washed away. We drove past a hippo family singing to each other in watering hole. Hippos kill more people in Africa than any other animal. When the people go to the river to swim or get water, the hippos jump out of the water and attack.
Day One – Morning
Within the first five minutes we saw a giant heard of cape buffalo on the runway we landed on the night before – oh my. Paul advised that the Cape buffalo is the most aggressive animal. After a bit of tracking, we drove off the road into the bush and saw two male lions sleeping by a tree. They were four years old and new to the area. One lion didn’t have a mane and because of that is very aggressive (the mane protects the neck). Paul told us that 8% of lions die before 2 years old (80% of those that die are male). They have to fight for a territory before they mate, and then they protect the territory from other males. On the way to view the lions we spotted three giraffes having a snack. They didn’t stay around long when they saw us. Later, we encountered a leopard in the tree. Paul advised that she had just hidden a kill in the nearby bushes – she hid it from her father who regularly stole her food (but when she was young, her father was a good provider). We also ran into a group of antelope and spotted some colorful and interesting birds.
Day One – Evening
We went back to see the female cheetah. She had dragged her kill into the tree – a baby impala, just 11 weeks old. Cheetah lady was sleeping with her butt up on a branch. We saw wildebeest and kudus before enjoying a sundowner on the runway. (Before the game drive, the host asked the guests about their favorite cocktails and packed the cooler with everyone’s preferences.)
Day Two – Evening
What a great drive! We saw a lot of beasties this evening, including an elephant in a small ravine, leopard mom and baby, rhino, and two storks. The highlight was a hyena mom and her cubs. Mom napped while the cubs wrestled. When they saw us, they came over to the vehicle to check us out – sooo cute! We enjoyed the sundowner in a scenic clearing and chatted with fellow guests from Germany, Netherlands, and France.
Day Three – Morning
Another action packed drive! As we rounded a curve in the road we almost ran into an elephant that was standing in the middle of the road relieving himself. The ranger turned the vehicle around and said, “This is his road now.” As we drove I turned around and saw a group of baboons behind us crossing the road. When they saw us, they ran into the bushes. My last vision was of a mom with baby riding on her back. Paul received a radio call from another ranger who had spotted several lions, so we took off and found ourselves below a female lion perched on a seven-foot tall termite hill. Within a few minutes, jeeps from the nearby lodges arrived. As we observed the lioness, a large male lion strolled out from behind the hill. I was a bit surprised and a great deal intimidated. Paul put his hand on the pistol. Later, he told us that there were two other lions in the nearby bushes that we hadn’t seen. As we drove toward the lodge we passed a very large baboon sitting on a hill that appeared to have the attitude, “this is my place.”
When we started planning the trip we weren’t sure which type of safari experience would be best. We could save money by staying outside Kruger and go on day tours or rent a car and explore on our own. I am so glad we stayed at a lodge inside the park. Despite the higher cost, there were so many benefits. Experienced guides take you off road and find the beasties you seek. In addition, there’s nothing like gazing at the animals in the watering hole from your patio.
Before we left Kruger, Michael and the pilot arranged to buzz the lodge so we could wave farewell to the guests and staff. It would have been nice if they had informed me, as it was quite a surprise! See a video of the flight on the Top Travel Memories post, Flights section.
Our next stop was Capetown, South Africa. We spent five nights in Camps Bay, a small beach town close to the city. The house where we stayed was a few blocks from the beach and had a lovely view of Table Mountain and the ocean. The beaches in South Africa are some of the most beautiful in the world. They are large and expansive with pure white sand, clear blue/green water, and lively waves. The restaurant Blues is a great place to eat dinner and watch the sunset.
We didn’t get to explore Capetown as much as we planned because we came down with a nasty flu that lasted a few days. Victoria and Albert Waterfront has a nice array of shops, restaurants, and bars. Greenpoint Market features local crafts. Caveau Wine Bar and Deli is a great place to linger over lunch and yummy wine in a hip, comfy setting. Don’t miss the Table Mountain Aerial Cableway to the top of Table Mountain to see wonderful views of the entire city and coastline.
The road trip down the coast to Cape Point was awesome. The narrow, windy road hugs the mountain, while turquoise waves crash below. Every turn in the road brings a new view. We drove thorough quaint towns nestled into small coves. As we approached the park we passed a sign that said, “don’t feed the baboons.” Within a few minutes we spotted a small group of baboons hanging out on the side of the road. Traffic stopped when we encountered a baboon lounging in the road enjoying a piece of fruit with no real urgency to move. We also visited the penguin colony at Boulders Beach. The colony started in 1983 with just two endangered penguins and has grown to several hundred.
We left Capetown for a short drive to the wine country and stayed in Stellenbosch for three days. Stellenbosch has a small country town atmosphere. We stayed in a flat in the town center – an ideal location for strolling to the shops and restaurants after a day of wine tasting (although shopping after wine tasting can be dangerous). See Top Travel Memories post, Shopping section. There are more than 200 wine producers in the region and visiting them is a breeze. Just print a map from the Stellenbosch Wine Routes website and ask local residents for recommendations. The landscape is beautiful – there are wide-open valleys, colorful wildflowers, sprawling vineyards, and yes – monkeys. For more, See Top Travel Memories post, Wine Tasting section.
The final stop on our journey was Victoria Falls, Zimbabwe. Zimbabwe presents a sharp contrast to modern South Africa with its highways and shopping malls. During the 15-minute drive from the airport to the hotel we passed pedestrians going about their daily activities – a group of children and men with small herds of cows. We stayed at Ilala Lodge, a charming small hotel within walking distance of Victoria Falls.
The first night we went on a sunset cruise on the Zambezi River. During the cruise we saw hippos, a crocodile, an eagle, and a large elephant that took a swim and then rolled around in the mud. We spent most of the ride chatting with the other passengers and befriended two college students from the Netherlands, Casper and Jutta. There was a family from Pretoria, South Africa with a friendly nine-year old boy who was fond of Harry Potter. His two younger cousins sat with us but were very shy. After the cruise we invited Casper and Jutta for drinks at the hotel’s outdoor lounge. Michael was intrigued with the star-gazing and took lots of photos.
The next day we explored Victoria Falls. There is a windy path that leads along the falls with various lookout points along the way. Even though it was dry season, the falls were spectacular – the pure white waves crashing down into the canyon made a loud roar and were a bit hypnotic. We saw few visitors along the way, so it almost felt like we had the falls to ourselves. The falls divide Zimbabwe and Zambia and we could see several fishermen on the Zambia side sitting on the edge (eek). And of course, we saw monkeys…
On the way to the falls several men carrying souvenirs approached us. Each was named George – except one – his name was King George. ? They were friendly but persistent. We liked some of the items but did not want to carry anything around. We asked if they had other items and they said yes. So we told them we would consider shopping on our way back from the falls. When we left the falls, the men were waiting. They were interested in trading souvenirs for Michael’s clothes and shoes (bad timing – Michael had just discarded a pair of old running shoes in Capetown). By that time we were hot and thirsty and not in the mood to shop. In addition, our cash was at the hotel and Michael couldn’t trade the clothes off his back (well, I guess he could have gone streaking in Zimbabwe). So we told the men that we would meet them on the road later in the afternoon. While we were talking, a man started running towards us. When the vendors saw him they took off running into the woods and then three police officers rode up on bicycles. When we returned to the hotel we told the front desk agent about our experience and asked why the police came. He replied that it was illegal to sell goods on the street – all vendors are located in the outdoor market a short walk from the hotel. So, we decided to go to the market to shop.
The market was a large outdoor courtyard with merchandise displayed on the ground – all of the vendors were male – most had similar items made out of wood or stone – animals, bowls, baskets, masks, sculpture of various sizes. As we walked down the road towards the market, several police officers who were in the area walked with us. I don’t know if that was a good thing or a bad thing, but I didn’t mind. The vendors were outgoing, but not pushy. Since all of the vendors had similar items, we picked one of the first that we saw. We found lots of goodies at incredible prices! We chatted with one of the vendors – he told us about his family and that he didn’t know much about the United States but had heard of George Bush (maybe that’s why the street vendors called themselves George).
On our final night we went to a tribal music and dance performance at a small outdoor amphitheater. There were dances from three different tribes. The announcer explained that each has a meaning, e.g., to prepare for war, celebrate victory at war, introduce a boy who was just circumcised back to his mother, cover footprints while out hunting. Here’s a video we took at the show (it is a bit dark, but the music is cool).
Bring cash in small denominations because taxi drivers and vendors don’t carry change. When you visit Victoria Falls, wear breathable clothing, carry a sweat towel, and bring lots of water.
We were enchanted by the wide variety of sights, sounds, and tastes. The people are friendly and we felt safe (except for a few uncomfortable interactions in Zimbabwe). Although Apartheid in South Africa ended in 1994, I noticed some places where the people were predominately one race or another. We only got a small introduction to the region and are eager to return to experience more.