Mention South Africa and the conversation usually goes something like this…South Africa was your first stop? Wait you took your kid, are you crazy? Absolutely, but not because we chose South Africa as our first stop.
Cape Town was a non-negotiable stop for Issy. She wanted to see Table Mountain for herself, I needed no encouragement having and I’ve been threatening to take Doug ever since we met. It just never quite made the top of the destination priorities.
There is no denying that the rainbow nation has its issues; poverty, racism, crime and the “water crisis of 2018” to name a few. However, it’s English speaking, has a great year round climate, little or no time difference from the UK and they drive on the left. That’s before I even get to the people, mountains, beaches and wildlife that you greet you when you get there. It definitely remains one of my all-time favourite destinations.
The "S" word...safety
To date the only person to make me feel genuinely uncomfortable in South Africa is tourist in 2003. Bad things do happen in South Africa and I’d be naive if I didn’t address the issue of safety in this post. Yes, you need to be alive to it but don’t overthink it. We took sensible precautions; we didn’t drive after dark, never left our stuff in the car unattended, weren’t flashy with jewellery, watches, phones or cameras and followed our instincts. To date this approach has kept us safe wherever our travels have taken us.
Whilst I never felt unsafe there were two incidents which bought the safety issue home. The first was in Plettenberg Bay where Issy had been playing with a child who cut his foot. Having called the ambulance his mother took him to the ambulance and then came back for her handgun which she’d left on unattended on a rock at the beach. I was gobsmacked. The other was a fight between locals in Gordon’s Bay but the shopkeeper asked us to stay inside until it was resolved.
With 3 of us it made financial sense to hire a car and we had the freedom to travel where and when we wanted. They drive on the left and broadly speaking the road rules are the same as the UK which meant that driving was easy.
In 2003, I used the Baz Bus which provides a viable alternative for independent travellers and those who want a door-to-door service between hostels.
We stayed in a mixture of hostels, farmstays and budget hotels. We used a mixture of the booking.com, hotels.com and recommendations to find and book our accommodation. We were travelling off season and therefore other than our first 5 nights in Cape Town we didn’t pre-book our accommodation more than 24 hours in advance.
It’s worth picking up a copy of the Coast to Coast Backpackers Guide from any hostel or tourist information.
Like many before us, we followed the Garden Route between Cape Town and Port Elizabeth taking in some of South Africa’s finest beaches, wineries and forests. We extended our trip in both directions heading down to the Cape Peninsula and up to Cinsta on the Wild Coast.
We took 4 weeks but you can certainly do the Garden Route in 7-10 days and visit the major attractions.
I love Cape Town and all she has to offer. I could write an entire post just on Cape Town but many have set off down that path before me and so I’ll keep it brief.
The partying antics of Long Street were swapped for the more family friendly area of Green Point and Big Blue Backpackers. Situated a short walk from the V&A Waterfront, the Urban Park and the aquarium. The backpackers has a pool, bar, great staff and it’s one of the stops for the Baz Bus.
We grabbed a combi-ticket for the Table Mountain cable car and 2-day big red bus tour and set about finding out what makes Cape Town’s heart beat. We took in the beautiful vistas from the top of Table Mountain, visited the District 6 museum and Bo-Kaap, had lunch at Mama Africa and ran around the playgrounds at the Victoria and Albert Dock and the Urban Park, the beaches at Camps Bay and so much more. Our splashout experience was a helicopter ride over Table Mountain (thanks Uncle Chris!) and if you can I’d definitely recommend doing it.
SIMONSTOWN, BOULDERS BEACH AND CAPE PENINSULA
You can do this as a day trip from Cape Town but if time allows I recommend that you stay in Simonstown and drive out to the Cape Peninsula National Park.
We arrived in Simonstown with no accommodation. The place we were supposed to be staying didn’t have a bed for Issy so with other guests saying run whilst you have the chance, we scarpered. As luck would have it, we stumbled on The Blue Lantern (www.bluelantern.co.za) with it’s quaint little holiday cabins overlooking the Ocean and was perfect. We sat watching the whales, albeit a long way out at sea (my track record for whale watching currently stands at 5 attempts – 0 sightings) and enjoying the tranquillity and lack of Wi-Fi.
Boulders Beach houses the South African penguins (aka Jackass penguins). Although we visited the sanctuary, nobody seemed to have told the penguins they were supposed to stay in the sanctuary so we saw just as many whilst we were out bouldering, rock pooling and clambering over the cliffs. There was even a sign at the entrance to the holiday park saying please close the gates to keep the penguins out ( a source of great amusement for Issy).
Within the Cape Peninsula National Park you will find the Cape of Good Hope (most South-Western Point of Africa) where the Indian Ocean and the Atlantic Ocean meet and Cape Point as well as an array of wildlife and fauna. It was definitely worth the early start and for all you geography geeks we parked in the most southerly car park space in Africa #winning #geographygeek
Hermanus is synonymous with one thing, whale watching but alas not in late April. There was not a whale boat in sight so we had to occupy ourselves with more land-based activities.
Issy completed her first proper hike round Fernkloof Nature Reserve which has a variety of well marked trails which offer spectacular views overWalker Bay.
Hermanus is also home to SANSA (South African National Space Agency) which runs various events and tours. Unfortunately there wasn’t a tour during our stay but if you are interested the best thing to do is to check out their web-site (www.sansa.org.za).
We stayed at the Hermanus Backpackers which provided a nice rest stop with a pool (not that anyone apart from Issy and Doug were using it) and a friendly Chameleon on the washing line.
We picked Swellendam purely as we needed a stopping point between Hermanus and George and it had really cheap accommodation little did we know what an effect it would have on us from the little farm stay to the fairy sanctuary; it quite literally fed our souls.
The farmstay was incredible. Situated just outside Swellendam and with the nearest neighbours being the cows that had produced the fresh milk in the fridge when we arrived and no wi-fi it was glorious. The house itself had a quaint, rustic style but the large open fire provided the perfect backdrop to toast marshmallows, chat and play cards. We also had a little visitor in the form of a pipistrelle bat which had taken up residence in Issy’s room which added a little bit of excitement at bedtime.
I can’t explain to people the effect the Fairy Sanctuary had on me. A lot of the messages we kept seeing were things that mum had said and I left with a renewed feeling of peace and acceptance about her death.
George, Oudtshoorn and Knysna
We used George as a base whilst going out and doing a lot of day trips. The only things that we did in George itself were the Transport Museum, Red Berry Farm and the beach at Herolds Bay.
Redberry Farm was a firm favourite with Issy and we visited on several occassions. Situated just outside George it boasts the largest permanent hedge maze in the Southern Hemisphere. About an hour and several choice words later we had seen every centimetre of the 10,000m of pathway, some on more than one occassion, we escaped triumphant.
We took a day trip from George to Outdtshoorn to see the Cango Caves (www.cango-caves.co.za).
For the more adventurous amongst you there is the option of doing the Adventure Tour which takes you deeper into the cave system and requires some nifty manoeuvring through holes as small as 27cm but this was a little too much for us. We decided on the more sedate but equally beautiful Heritage Trail.
Our other day trip was to Knysna Elephant Park. Had I planned it better we could have done it on the way to Jeffrey’s Bay as you drive past the door. Issy and I love our elephants and so the opportunity to get up close and personal with one was too much to pass on. Although, it is very much staged I’m still glad we did it.
Colchester and Addo Elephant Park
Colchester is one of those non-descript places that you drive through when driving the Garden Route but I can’t recommend stopping here enough if you want to do Addo. We did a self-drive round Addo and for us it was the fact that it was only 10 minutes from the Colchester Gate meaning that we could arrive as the entrance gates opened.
Addo Elephant Park is perfectly accessible and driveable without a guide. We saw everything that the guided tours saw but we were on our timescale and for an incredible ZAR210 (approximately £12.00) per adult we had park access for the day. I still get emotional when I talk about the family of about 30 elephants walked metres from the car.
The only other thing to do in Colchester is the river cruise which we duly did. We were busy cruising down the river nearing the sunset when the captain said “we’ve made good time, anyone fancy some sandboarding?” Well you can imagine whose hand went up faster than a firework on Guy Fawkes. Twenty minutes later she’d climbed the dune and was hurtling in the direction of the river!
The first thing Issy will tell you about Cinsta is that it’s where mummy got her leg stuck in a bridge. When I say stuck in a bridge, I mean totally stuck; it took 3 adults and 2 dogs to get her out and we had to pull up the wooden slats.
However, there is so much more from the views over the lagoon, kayaking to the sea, and the soup kitchen project which is funded by Buccaneers to support the local Xhosa village to feed the local children and support education.
It wasn’t long before Issy discovered that there was very little difference between her and the local girls and she sat laughing and joking about school, comparing who had the strictest teacher and playing dodgeball. Having initially been a bit hesitant, we literally had to drag her away so we could beat the tide back to the hostel.
After nearly 14 years, I finally got to take Doug and Issy to my favourite backpackers. Whilst a lot had changed, I still believe there are fairies at the end of the garden. After all they caught me when I decided to fall 4 feet into the Madonna and Child waterfall. Unbelievably, I didn’t break my hip or hit my head. The worst injury was my severely bruised pride!
With it’s hobbit-theme, friendly staff and bath-tub views over Hogsback Away with the Fairies is one of the backpacking gems of South Africa. For us, it was another opportunity to go hiking and we did several long hikes over the course of our stay.
East LONDON and KIDD'S BEACH
This marked the end of our South African leg and we couldn’t have asked for a better way to finish than our stay at Villa Panorama. This guesthouse is great if you need to be near the airport.
Sharon and her menagerie of dogs, geese and peacocks were so welcoming. Let’s face it, it’s not every day you can say that you’ve driven on a race track and cuddled a goose!
Rather than head into East London, we headed out to Kidd’s beach, which we loved so much we went as far as looking at houses. We met up with some other home educators and Issy spent the afternoon playing in the lagoon and searching out the Leopard that reportedly lives nearby.
OTHER PLACES TO VISIT WHILST YOU ARE IN SOUTH AFRICA
We stopped at so many places it would be impossible to put them all in but if you are in Gordon’s Bay, Elouise and her team at 47 Gypsies gave us some great recommendations and made us feel very welcome.
Jeffrey’s Bay was great for a stop to tick it off but as we’re not into surfing it’s a bit lost on us.
Unbelievably it is 18 months since our South African adventure but I can’t help thinking that there will be more South Africa adventures to come.