South Africa April ’17

Day 1   Welcome to Jozi

Johannesburg, Jo’Burg, Jozi. The locals have several names for it, our driver George informed us. He collected us from the airport and waited while we collected our SIM cards. He even managed to teach us some Zulu as we drove to the hotel. The Faircity Quartermain was a good first day stop. They let us have the room early and had a free minibus shuttle to the Nelson Mandela Square shopping mall. Even though it was Easter Sunday everything was open and buzzing. We had a walk around around and then enjoyed an excellent meal in The Big Mouth. It would have been a good place to explore for longer but one afternoon and evening was our lot and there was an early start tomorrow.

DAY 2   We meet our Ilios family

The trip was the 16 day Grand Tour of South Africa booked via Travelbag and supplied by a local company, Ilios travel. We chose this as we wanted a small group and we ended up as 12 which was ideal. 8 of us had booked via UK and there were two Aussie couples. We all got on well which was a blessing as we travelled for hours together across our clockwise circuit of South Africa. Our guide for Part 1 was Nelson with Alfred as the driver. Off we went leaving Jo’burg for the Kruger with a stop on the way to enjoy the scenery of Blyde Canyon, the Three Rondavels and Bourke’s Luck Potholes.

The first of these was our lunch stop and a chance to get to know our fellow travellers over some welcome beers. The Potholes allowed us a chance for a walk and to cool our feet in the stream on a hot afternoon.

We arrived at Perry’s Bridge Hollow in Hazyview at dusk.

The hotel looked not very promising from the road but inside it was a sleek boutique-style property with huge rooms and a peaceful garden. We had an included dinner at the Kuku restaurant. There was a reasonable choice and the food was good.

Day 3   Safari means a journey

The wake-up call was 0430 and it was a tough start. Breakfast was a cardboard pack of sandwiches and snacks which we were supposed to have collected the night before. One of our group had kindly taken ours for us. We were at the Kruger gates by 530am and were a bit cross that we did not actually set off in the jeeps until 615am when the sun was rising.  A lot of waiting around. Still, our guide Franky was spotting animals for us right from the start and it was an exciting morning with lots of sightings.

We had a coffee break in the visitor’s centre and then more animals, including a leopardess and her cubs. In the afternoon we had rest time and then an optional evening safari which cost an extra 750 rand and started at 430pm. I was glad I did this as we saw a pride of lionesses and their cubs.

We also saw hyenas and several huge eagle owls. It was magical being in the park in the evening and our guide Mas was excellent. A very tiring day though.

Day 4  We don’t talk about Swaziland

It is fair to say that Dad and I knew precisely nothing about Swaziland before we went there. We learnt a lot in two days. The king is the absolute ruler and all businesses have to give him a 50% tax. The population is poor and 60% of the people live on less than £1 per day and are subsistence farmers. The life expectancy is among the lowest in the world with age 50 for men. 27% of the population are HIV positive and many die from TB. The king however enjoys life to the full and has 14 wives. He took his last wife last autumn and she is only 13 years old. All the unmarried women in the country are expected to dance bare-breasted for him in an annual ceremony called the Reed Dance and the girls are all physically examined to verify that they are virgins.

It was all quite horrible and it really did affect our stay in the outwardly swanky Royal Swazi Spa hotel, owned by the king, of course. Before we arrived in the hotel we had a stop in a rather bizarre Disney-esque cultural “village” where we were entertained by song and dance and a lunch. The young woman who greeted us would not budge from insisting that it was a real village and she was the daughter of the chief but it was all absolute nonsense for the tourists and cheesy in the extreme.

We had a brief stop in the obligatory Swazi glass factory before our arrival at the hotel. It was a very strange place, like an American casino hotel in lavish grounds and beautiful scenery. The staff were very sweet and the food was actually of a high standard. I had delicious fresh Mozambique prawns and Dad had kingklip fish. Breakfast was one of the best ones of the trip. But overall our group were uncomfortable with Swaziland and vowed that we would try not to mention it for the rest of the trip.

Day 5  The Ghost Mountain of Zululand

Across KwaZulu Natal to Mkuze. I loved this part of the trip. The weather was hot and it felt like real Africa and away from the tourist buses. Our hotel was Ghost Mountain Inn which was in a beautiful spot. We were handed over to Jean and her team who organise the trips from the inn. We had a short rest to enjoy the gardens and the lovely swimming pool before we were off by jeep to visit a real Zulu house.

Our host was Justice, a former employee of the hotel who now runs his own catering business. He showed us around his homestead and explained the daily and spiritual life of the people.

We also had Becky, a local wildlife guide as the jeep driver and he loved to talk politics. The combination of insights was a great learning experience. This felt like real travel instead of tourism, learning about the people and the place. We had a sunset climb up to a viewpoint where we were served drinks to watch the sunset over the lake.

Day 6  Crocodile Rock

A free morning to enjoy Ghost Mountain Inn. I went to the end of the jetty to watch birds and crocodiles with my binoculars. Not another person in sight.


Then time to have a swim before lunch and our evening jeep safari. We went with Becky again and he took us off to see rhinos in the nearby Hluhluwe Game reserve. We felt lucky to see so many rhinos in the wild and hear about the continuing threats they face from poachers. The reserve was much quieter than the Kruger. Red earth and acacia trees of Africa.  Clouds of butterflies when you walk over grass. The hotel had nature in bucketloads including stick insects and preying mantises by doorways and two bedrooms had to be de-frogged on the second night. I loved this hotel.

Day 7  Follow me follow

It was all about the hippos in St Lucia, or more correctly called iSimangaliso. Like all other tourists we took the boat trip on the muddy river to see the pods of hippos which were indeed plentiful. I would have liked to have stayed in the town and seen how the hippos wander at night and eat the lawns. But hippos are dangerous and guests cannot go out at night in case they meet one of the Townies ( wandering hippos). It looked like a pleasant place to stay anyway.

We arrived in Durban late afternoon and stayed in The Benjamin which is what I would call a Small and Friendly hotel. No complaints at all especially after they showed us the free self-serve drinks cupboard.

The hotel was on Florida Road which was vibrant in the evening. Dad and I had the best meal of our trip at The Butcher’s Boy. We could happily have spent a couple of nights in The Benjamin which also did excellent fresh homemade style breakfasts.

Day 8  Durbs spice

Nelson took us on a mini city tour of Durban. The beachfront area was full of Sunday strollers and a surfing competition.

We wandered around a local tourist market which was uncrowded and the stall holders were friendly and not pushy. It felt very relaxed and multicultural. Dad and I enjoyed seeing Durban’s replica of Belfast City Hall. The architect simply copied the design because he liked it. It seemed to work better with sunshine and palm trees around it.

Off to the airport and our flight to Port Elizabeth. It was still sunny when we arrived and we were able to stroll along the beautiful beach before the rain started. We stayed at the functional and modern Radisson Blu hotel.

Day 9  The Southern Cape

Our new guide, Zelda and driver Ashley met us at the Radisson Port Elizabeth. The south felt very different from the KwaZula Natal we had just left. It was cooler weather and everything was much more modern and commercial. It didn’t feel like Africa any more. Only the Ilios minibus looked the same. Zelda was very enthusiastic and bubbly and soon had us on our way to explore the charms of the Cape and Garden Route. First stop was Storms River Mouth Gorge and the Tsisikamma National Park. The area was indeed very pretty and we enjoyed the walks along the suspension bridges.

Then we had a boat trip just outside Plettenberg where we pootered along the Keurbooms river and saw Sea Eagles, kingfishers and seals.

We arrived at Hunter’s Country House Hotel at dusk and in the rain. Log fires burned in the reception room and in our individual cottage rooms. It felt like a Scottish country house and had lots of charming little touches which made it a very unique place to stay. Our group dined by firelight and candles with excellent food in a private dining area.

Day 10  Crazy Animal Day

Which is what Zelda called it.  Our group of 12 were all people far more used to independent travel and most of us had an aversion to touristy attractions. I was torn in this as I really wanted to see the animals. The group was resigned to having no choice in the three venues of the day. The first was Tenikwa wildlife centre which cost each of us an additional £45 approx but included being able to groom a tame cheetah. I was amazed at how much she purred.

Then we had a walk through at the Birds of Eden aviary and finally we met the elephants at the Elephant Sanctuary.

Overall, I think I left with a guilty feeling that I would rather not have done these activities and worried about what they meant for the animals. It did feel exploitative as well as touristy and cheesy. We enjoyed drinks and dinner back at Hunter’s and celebrated the birthday of one of our group.

Day 11  Route 62 : The road less travelled

Zelda allowed us a late start which I used to walk around the grounds at Hunter’s and visit their sister property Tsala Treetop Lodges. Even more luxurious than Hunter’s but I did get chased by a monkey.

We had a morning visit to the harbour at Kynsna which was not very interesting and rather grey and cold. We then went to the Cango caves.

The guide told us about the fat woman who got wedged in doing the Adventure Cave tour option. He did not know what to call the people who broke off stalactites as souvenirs. “ Gobshites?” was the suggestion of a young woman from the other Ilios group.

We continued along Route 62 and the Klein Karoo. It was interesting to see the Dutch influences and the fields of curly-haired sheep. Lots of hipster and artisan type businesses and a different atmosphere compared to the more commercial Garden Route. Zelda said we had not experienced hospitality until we had it in the Little Karoo and indeed the welcome was warm in the quirky Da Opstal Lodge. Dad really enjoyed chatting to Matilda and her husband who owned the property. Once again it was the people who made the travel experience rather than the big ticket sights.

Another random thought- South Africans really love retro desserts like apple crumble and lemon meringue pie.

Day 12  The Outrageous Ostriches

Another touristy attraction this morning and even an attempt at a mini-mutiny but poor Zelda had to bring us to the Ostrich Safari so off we went. It was actually better than the previous birds and elephants with a very good gift shop and ostriches who did not look very exploited. Well, apart from when one was ridden by a brave young woman from another Ilios tour group. The ostriches were fairly intimidating overall which made me less guilty about the various products they end up in.

We wound our way further through the Karoo and on to Cape Town and our new home-from-home, the Southern Sun Waterfront hotel. A total of 6 nights here so at last we could unpack.

Day 13   Points, Peaks and Penguins

A day of ticking off the major attractions of the Cape and peninsula. We saw the surfers on the beaches and the warden who looks out for sharks. The obligatory stop for the photo at the Cape of Good Hope. It was sunny but breezy and although busy with tourist buses it was overall a good day tour. We had an excellent fishy lunch at the Harbour View in Simon’s Town.

I really loved the beautiful Boulder’s Beach and the super-cute penguins.

By the time we arrived at the botanic gardens of Kirstenbosch it was hot and we were all a little weary. Such a lot packed in today.

Dinner at Den Anker, a good choice among the blandish offerings of the V and A Waterfront.

Day 14  Wine o’clock starts early

We lined our tummies at breakfast and were sipping our first wine just before 12. The first winery was Anura and the best of the three as we got a tour and an informative tasting. It was also very pretty with the vine leaves turning autumnal and the surrounding hills were scenic.

The second was Boschendal which felt like a conveyer belt of tourism although it was beautiful with lush gardens and old whitewashed farm buildings. No real information, just a set of glasses poured and we were more or less left to it.

We had lunch at the Blue Crane and Butterfly in a sleepy street in Stellenbosch. Almost no energy for tasting number 3 which was chocolates with Bilton wines. But we saw it through to the end and our return to Cape Town.

Dad and I went to the swanky One And Only Hotel to have cocktails in the bar before dinner.

Dinner at Willoughby’s & Co. By far the best food we had in Cape Town and we ate here twice. Loved the whole experience of chatting to staff and our fellow diners.

Day 15   Above and below the Table cloth

The last day of the Ilios tour and an early start to get to Table Mountain cable car before wind and rain threatened closure. Zelda arranged for us to buy our cable car tickets via the hotel as oddly these are not included in the tour costs. We made it up to the top and admired the greyish views. I never think cable car rides are very interesting in themselves.

Then the city tour with the colourful Bo Kaap houses. I loved these and decided to return on my free day to take more photos.

We walked around the castle and the city buildings of interest ending in Company’s Gardens where people feed grey squirrels. Zelda thought they were cute but I explained that in the UK we were as likely to hand feed them as we were the huge grey rats which were also more than visible in the flower beds of the gardens. A final farewell to Zelda and Ashley and our Ilios family was finally broken up.

Before I came on the trip I read this blog by an Irish lady who had done the same tour a few months before. It has a lot more detail than this one. It was very useful as a “what are we doing today ?” reference. Or alternatively, “What Did Fionnuala think ?”.

Dinner at Mondiall.

Day  16   We take a walk on the other side

This morning Dad and I were met by Gladstone from Camissa Travel who took us on a tour of the Cape Town townships. Our main tour was in the Langa but we started off with a drive to District 6 and some background history. In the Langa itself we walked around with Nelson, a local and colourful resident. I reviewed the tour on Trip Advisor. Overall, I think it was a very interesting learning experience and I feel much more informed about how people live away from the tourist façade of Cape Town.

We had a few hours to walk around the Long and Bree Street area and I went to take more photos of Bo Kaap.  Then we relaxed and I enjoyed a swim in the heated pool of The Cullinan Hotel adjacent to our Southern Sun.



Day 17   A short walk to freedom

Camissa Travel had arranged our tickets to Robben Island which were for 9am. We discovered that the queue started at 830am so no time to read the introduction display in the Gateway Centre. I enjoyed seeing the dolphin pod which swam alongside the boat and the penguins which greeted the island tour buses. The format is very simple with a bus ride around the key buildings and then a tour of the cells with some fairly brief guiding from a former prisoner. Dad and I thought they could do more to educate and bring the history of the place alive for tourists but perhaps the sparseness and bleakness is the whole point.

Lunch at Cape Town Fish Market and final souvenir shopping in the Waterfront craft market.

Then Ilios sent a driver to take us to the airport and our adventure came to an end with the long flight home through the night.

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