Find out all the things that South African holidays have to offer in this quick romp around this diverse country with travel writer Carrie Hampton. Expect a bit of sun-seeking, wildlife watching, every kind of adventure sport, cultural diversity and a spot of wine tasting.
They say a buffalo looks at you as if you owe it money, and when it comes to collect, you had better have an escape route. I didnít appreciate the full meaning of this until I became a spectator in a real life nature documentary; two male lions stalked through long grass towards an unsuspecting herd of very dozy-looking buffalo. Then all hell broke loose. The lions leaped on top of one snoozing beast and instead of starting a stampede in the opposite direction, the herd came at full speed towards the lions. It was the kings of the African bush that had to high tail it out of there in fear of their lives.
I wasnít expecting to see a lion hunt every day, or even the Big Five most dangerous animals (lion, leopard, buffalo, elephant and rhino), but I got them all - and more - in a safari that took in the public domain of Kruger National Park and a more pricey alternative in nearby Thornybush Private Game Reserve. The difference that sets the two areas apart is the sheer luxury of private safari lodge accommodation and the personal guiding by a qualified ranger, who bushwhacks his way through thickets for the best view of animals like lion and leopard. KGuests on South African holidays should explore Kruger Park, which is a self-drive reserve. It leaves amateurs missing all the best bits, or not really knowing what they are looking at.
I ended my South African safari with the scent of wild sage in my nostrils and newly attained knowledge that I should climb a tree if needing to escape from a buffalo, and stand my ground if charged by a lion. I didnít feel like putting either to the test, but thought these tips might come in useful for my next safari because I was hooked!
Driving away from the Mpumalanga safari area, I hardly noticed that the scenery had changed dramatically and that Kruger Park was far behind and below me. I was brought back into my senses with a jolt when the earth suddenly disappeared. The little track leading to Godís Window viewpoint gave no indication that a giant ravine was up ahead. The immensity of the view across Blyde River Canyon was shocking, like being winded by an ice-cold ocean. Aptly named the Panorama Route, each viewpoint around the gorge gives an alternative perspective, all of which incited gasps of admiration in me, and a bizarre desire to jump.
Where there are tourists on South African holidays, there are buying opportunities and I had the crazy notion of returning home with a tall wooden giraffe. No packaging, just a fragile sticker dangling from its neck. I found just the right one in the little land-locked Kingdom of Swaziland, a short drive from the southern end of Kruger Park. Curios are cheap here and the people heart-warmingly friendly. The southern border of this Kingdom - surrounded entirely by South Africa - adjoins the province of KwaZulu Natal, home of the mighty Zulu tribe. When Zulu impis (warriors) enact a war dance, as they do at Shakaland Zulu Cultural Centre, it is easy to understand why other tribes ran in terror away from Shakaís fearsome war parties. The earth shook with the vibrations of their pounding feet and rhythmic drums.
KwaZulu Natal presented more safari possibilities and I went in search of rare black rhino in Hluhluwe Imfolozi Game Reserve. This undulating safari destination has plenty of game and a sub-tropical terrain quite different from Kruger. On a good day from Hilltop Camp, you can see right across Hluhluwe to the Greater St Lucia Wetland Park and all the way to the Indian Ocean. In a single day, it is possible to see elephant and rhino from a safari 4x4, and loggerhead turtles laying their eggs on the beach in the moonlight.
The KwaZulu Natal coast is renowned for its bath-temperature ocean - the envy of Capetonians who can only dream about warm water. I braved a quick dip in the Atlantic Ocean at Camps Bay in Cape Town, and emerged zinging as if my skin had absorbed the active ingredients of extra-strong mentholated mints. I scolded myself for not noticing that I was the only person in the water and realised that this beach is not really for swimming; itís for getting a tan and strutting around looking beautiful.