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Published: February 7th 2012
My Favorite Destination….
People are always asking me what my favorite destination is. I usually give some general answer like “I’ve never met a destination I didn’t like!” Which is true, but in reality, my trips are part of who I am. So, like a mother that may have a favorite child but never admits it out loud, I’ve always been hesitant to name a favorite. The closest I come is sometimes I’ll give a top 5 list, but this list always changes with my mood…
So, I’m finally ready to put it out there – I’m finally ready to admit which trip was my favorite! If I could only take only one trip and I knew what I know now, I would choose a destination at the far end of the earth. I would choose South Africa. Well, there it is, it’s out there. I said it. Now, I’ll try to explain what makes this country, in a world of countries, special. The flora and the fauna:
OK – it’s not really about the fauna. My enjoyment of plants doesn’t go much beyond the appreciation of lovely tropical flowers, but South Africa contains the world’s smallest ecosystem,
in the area around Cape Town. You will see plants and flowers there that don’t exist anywhere else on the planet. But, no one goes all that way to see the plants. It’s all about the animals – and have they got animals!
On my first trip, my first stop was a private game reserve just outside the fenceless border of Kruger National Park. I landed at the adorable Hoedspruit airport and was picked up by my guide. Before we even arrived at the lodge, I saw my first game. I will never forget the sight of those first giraffes ambling out of the bushes. There they were, right in front of me, just wandering free like common deer or gophers. They were so elegant, so graceful, and so tall! I have never gotten tired of the sight of giraffes.
The safari schedule included waking up at 5:00 AM, munching on some crunchy, coffee-dipped rusks, and heading out for the first game drive of the day. This was followed by breakfast fit for kings, several hours of rest, lunch, and an afternoon game drive, to be followed by another feast. The afternoon game drive included one of my
favorite parts – sundowners! This is where they take you to a view point, mix up some cool gin and tonics. While sipping, we all watch the sun set over the astounding scenery. The first day we didn’t see many animals and I remember thinking, “I’m going to do this twice a day for a week – I think I might get a little tired of it.” How wrong I was. After the first 24 hours, I couldn’t wait to get up and head for the jeep. There was something exciting in the tracking of wild animals. We never knew what we would see. We followed footprints, animal sounds, and yes – even poop. The guide was the best I’ve ever had. He was born in “the bush” and had a passion for the area that was infectious. I learned more about animals, their mating habits, eating habits, and how they raise their young that week than in my whole life combined.
We spent several days tracking some male lions that were hunting in the area. We would follow buffalo and other herds, because as the guide told me, “they will try to separate one from the herd before
attacking.” At one point, I was the only guest in the jeep. The guide and tracker decided to go down to the dry river bed to see if the lions had been there. They grabbed the rifles and disappeared into the tall grass. As I was sitting there watching the minutes tick by, by myself, all I could think was, “uhhh guys……they separated one from the herd….” Over the next few days, we would see one or two of them periodically. I would go to sleep each night with the sounds of their roars. Finally, one morning as the sun was rising; we saw all 4 male lion together, wrestling and playing. How cute! Well, a few minutes later, as we were circling the jeep around – they pounced! No, no, no - not on us - but on an unsuspecting buffalo that had lagged behind. What I saw next was amazing. The entire herd of buffalo came stampeding back at as fast as their legs would carry them to scare off the lions. There had to be hundreds! We had a front row seat for the whole thing. In fact, if our jeep had been a few meters forward,
we may have ended up with permanently etched buffalo tracks…
Of course this is just one anecdote. The whole week was filled with interesting sightings. I had made a list. In the end, I had seen about 35 different species of mammals. I also saw birds and reptiles. On the last day, as we were leaving the reserve, there was a huge snake slithering toward the jeep. The guide warned, “Look away – that is a Mozambique Spitting Cobra. It gets you by spitting in your eyes!” I tried to look away, but I only managed to shield my eyes a bit. After all, when would I next be so close to a Mozambique spitting cobra?
After my week-long safari, I went to Cape Town. I’ve now been there several times. It is well worth a visit for so many reasons, but this brings me to the next reason for visiting South Africa: Culture and History:
South Africa is a country with 11 official languages. Regional art and music abound. Everyone has a story, an identity, a unique history. Going to South Africa doesn’t involve ancient history. There is quite a lot of older history of explorers
and settlers, but it is the recent history that is amazing. History that has been made in my lifetime makes it more interesting to me. When I was growing up, South Africa always seemed to be in the news. First there were stories of apartheid – unfair elections and which celebrities were performing for the white minority at Sun City. Next came the stories of Nelson Mandela and his election as president. I couldn’t believe that change was happening before my eyes. This was history that I had lived, which made it more real to me. I visited the small, but excellent District 6 Museum. I visited Robben Island and saw where Mandela had been imprisoned and performed hard labor for 19 years. It is also a living history. For the most part, I found that many South Africans, black and white, had put the past well behind them in an inspiring way. But, one thing you don’t read about or see in movies is that racism and hatred still exists. It is whispered in quiet rooms, but is occasionally evident. There is something about a history that is still evolving, that hasn’t been completely written, that I found most
Cape Town is a beautiful city. It has an interesting downtown with craft markets, a wonderful waterfront with shops, restaurants, and a particularly enjoyable jazz club. Table Mountain is unique place in so many ways and should not be missed. For a taste of local living, the beachfront area south of the city has lovely houses and ocean vistas. I always recommend the hop-on, hop-off bus – which, although it seems touristy, will give you information, transportation, and take you straight to all the best sights for less than one taxi fare.
After a few days exploring one of the world’s most beautiful cities, I rented a car and took off for the high desert. My first stop was the wine region of the Western Cape. This brings me to the next reason to visit South Africa: The food and wine:
For food, you can have any cuisine you desire. Within a block of my hotel there were Belgian, Italian, Japanese, and Brazilian restaurants. Since Cape Town is a coastal city, plenty of fresh seafood was available. But, if it is South African cuisine you desire, plan on meat…along with more meat. This is not a
cuisine for vegetarians. Meat is roasted, barbequed (called a braai), and dried (biltong). When I looked to see what species was used in the biltong, the ingredient list simply said “meat”. Plan to watch the skittish kudu frolicking during the day and be eating them that evening. However, all meals come with the condiment of choice in South Africa, the delicious Mrs. Ball’s chutney. It works on any food at any meal and I always ship a couple of bottles for my own home use.
But, food aside – it is the wine and the wine region that is fantastic. Besides being one of the most beautiful wine regions that I’ve been to, the wines are damned good. They do ship to most countries, but it was at the smaller wineries that don’t ship that I found various elixirs of the gods. I’ve been there several times and, whether it was an overnight stop or a daytrip from Cape Town, a local guide of worth his weight in gold. They will take you to the best places - the small, unknown places. Plus, they’ll arrange transportation, which leaves you free to taste to your heart’s content…
drive through the high desert, which had a real Route 66 feels to it, I came back along the southern coast of Africa. This is a drive known as the garden route. This is only for people who love charming seaside towns, whale sightings, penguins and stunning scenery. I guess I should add that to the list of reasons to visit: Breathtaking scenery!
Finally, if this hasn’t been enough, there is another attraction in South Africa: Sporty activities:
My sporting adventures are pretty much limited to some light hiking and scuba diving. The thing with sports in South Africa is they have everything, in spades. You like hiking? What do you want? A gentle walk or rock climbing? Diving? Will that be regular diving in the warm waters of the Indian Ocean or to see great whites from the safety of a cage? Surfing? Cape St. Francis is where Bruce Brown filmed his 1966 surfing film “The Endless Summer”, which documents a world search for the perfect wave. Don’t like the water? How about golf? Want adventure? How about paragliding? Don’t like to participate? How about watching some rugby? There truly is something for everyone.
So, am I
saying that South Africa has the best of everything? I am not. I’ve been to many lovely wine regions. I saw more animals in Kenya, although the guide wasn’t nearly as good. New Zealand is one big fitness and adventure camp and no one can argue with the cuisines of Italy and Thailand. But, South Africa is one-stop shopping. Every day I was there was a journey of discovery. I can’t remember when I was in such a state of perfect, sustained bliss when traveling. I still have many places to visit in this huge country, but I know it is one country that I know I will go back to again and again.
Of course, it isn’t all rosy. You will see shantytowns that stretch as far as the eye can see. I learned that these “towns” are actually filled with many refuges, people would rather live in a tin lean-to in South Africa than in places like the Congo. Also, South Africa can be dangerous. Car-jacking and muggings are common. I avoided Johannesburg because of the dangers. I also listened to advice such as locking my car doors at all times and never walking anywhere at night.
I always asked at each hotel what special precautions I should take. I never wore any jewelry or anything that looked like it was worth stealing. Listening to the advice of locals, I’ve never had a problem with safety.
There are a lot of special places on this planet. But, if you want a lot of bang for your buck, if you want many varied travel experiences, if you want memories that will last a lifetime – I suggest magical South Africa!
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