Africa Adventure: Johannesburg and Sun City

Johannesburg doesn’t have as much of a presence as Cape Town, but then this part of the trip was more about the people – namely my friends A and L who were getting married.

We stayed in a lovely place called Villa Simmone. It’s a huge house that has been converted into separate apartments and rooms, each one modelled and named after a different city around the world. Myself and the three friends I shared with stayed in Mykonos, one of the Greek islands. It was a very interesting apartment – two bedrooms, a living room, kitchen and separate toilet and bathroom, and about a million light switches! Some of the light switches in the living room controlled lights in the main bedroom and vice versa, which caused much confusion!

The first couple of days were spent catching up with friends old and new and meeting A’s family who live in Jo’burg. The second day we were there everyone that was there for the wedding went to a braai at A’s family home. It was fantastic! So much delicious food, great people, music and drinks. It was a wonderful evening.

The following day, which was also the day before the wedding, a big group of us went to Ukutula Lion Park just outside Jo’burg. We originally thought it would be about a half hour drive; whoever told us that was wrong! Two hours later we finally arrived. The price also ended up being a lot more than we expected, however by the end of the day we all agreed it had definitely been worth it.

We started out with a guided tour around the park where we saw white lions, a full grown male lion with his pride of three females, many young ‘teenage’ lions whose paws we could stroke through the fence, two tigers with a tiny three week old cub, two caracals and two cheetahs. Refreshments were then served (fruit juice and scones) before we went to see much younger lion cubs only a few months old. And by see, I mean we went in the enclosure with them and could stroke them and sit with them; amazing! One of the cubs kept nipping the shirt I had on, so I now have permanent lion teeth marks there.

I thought it couldn’t get any better but then we got to hold and play with baby lion cubs that were only two or three weeks old! They were so cute and fluffy, and just adorable. I didn’t want to leave them. So much so that I even asked if I could stay with them instead of doing the next activity; I was told I could but as I would have been the only one staying and I didn’t want to miss out, I decided to go with the others. I almost wish I’d stayed!

The final activity of the day was going on a walk through the grounds of the park with the older male lions. It was quite exciting having four rather large, nearly full grown male lions running around you. Our guides were great and obviously had built up a firm relationship with the lions. We were also told very clearly though that they are still wild animals and they must be treated with respect.

We ended the trip with a drink at the bar before heading back to the villa for dinner, welcoming another friend who had just arrived and a few drinks before bed.

The wedding day, and the reason the whole Africa Adventure happened, finally arrived. It was a perfect day in all regards. A looked stunning, L was very handsome, the ceremony was lovely, the food was delicious, the speeches were both funny and emotional and almost everybody cried (in a good way of course). Perfect.

This wasn’t the end of our adventure, however. The father of the bride had organised a trip to Sun City, a huge resort outside of Jo’burg, beginning the day after the wedding. Which meant getting up at 6.15am as the bus taking all of us was departing at 7am. Of course everyone with a hangover groaned at the time, but again, it was definitely worth it in the end.

Our first port of call was a visit to an elephant sanctuary where we had a guided tour of the sanctuary, including a walk through the monkey enclosure, we met, touched and had an elephant kiss from one elephant then got to walk hand-in-trunk with a different elephant. It was a pretty good start to the day!

We finally arrived at Sun City just after 1pm and had the rest of the day to hang out with people, catch up, chill out, eat yummy food, drink delicious cocktails by the pool and read. Just what we all needed!

Pilanesberg National Park was our destination the following day for a fantastic early morning safari. Even though the safaris we did in Botswana were amazing, we still saw animals we hadn’t seen before – primarily white rhinos, as in Botswana they are under protection and can only be seen in certain areas with a permit. We also saw baboons, giraffes, jackals, lions, wildebeest, zebra, impala, eland, tsessebe, marabou storks, sacred ibis, hippos, elephants, vervet monkeys and a corey bustard. It was a wonderful morning, and we got back just in time for breakfast!

The rest of the day was spent chilling out on the (manmade) beach in the Valley of the Waves, having a bit of a swim, a few cocktails, reading, a foot massage and a wander round the shops before changing for dinner with everyone. We ate at a great African restaurant in Sun City called Shebeen – absolutely delicious food. I had lamb potjie (which is a kind of stew) with koeksisters for dessert (kind of fried doughnut twists in syrup). A few of us decided to try out the casino after dinner and have a few drinks at the bar there (no, I didn’t gamble!). There was a guy playing guitar and singing who was really good, and we met three Afrikaans guys who were contractors renovating some of the rooms at the resort.

At first I thought they were all really friendly, until one of them told me that he hated the English. I told him that I’m English and he didn’t believe me! We almost ended up in an argument until I told him I wasn’t going to talk to him anymore and walked away. I don’t think I’d ever met someone that blatantly racist before in my life. Telling me to my face that he hates the English and they’re all bastards, then not believing that I’m English because we were having a decent conversation up until that point. It really pissed me off, so I left shortly after and went to bed.

Our final full day at Sun City began with something that completely blew the spider webs, hangover and annoyance out of my head – zip lining. We were driven to the top of a mountain then had to climb the last part up some quite steep steps to the platform at the top. An amazing view, but boy was it scary looking down! The zip line was 2 kilometres long and we were told you could reach 120-160kph in the 45 seconds it took to get to the ground. Myself and my friend J went together. We were both terrified at first, especially when they picked our legs up so we were laying face first in the harness, looking down the length of the zip line (of which we couldn’t see the end). After the initial shock of dropping over the edge, it was fantastic! We both laughed all the way down. I would definitely do it again and I’d recommend it to anyone who goes there too. Don’t think about how high it is, do it!

After that we had plenty of chill out time before going for a farewell dinner with everyone at the Crystal Courtyard restaurant in the Lost Palace Hotel. The whole thing was lovely; camembert in filo pastry with caramelised onions and figs to start, followed by butternut squash and parmesan ravioli and finished with three different desserts that I shared with A and L.

That was more or less the end of the Africa Adventure, other than doing a bit of shopping, saying goodbye to everyone and spending a day chilling out in a hotel near the airport with C, who I travelled with for the whole trip.

It’s right up there on my best holidays ever list, and I would thoroughly recommend everywhere I went in South Africa and Botswana.

Next trip: Trans-Siberian Express train from Beijing all the way to London, June, July and August 2015.

Note: I’ll add photos later as I don’t have them with me in the little café in Beijing that I’m sitting in now.

Africa Adventure: Botswana

Botswana is amazing. Stunning landscapes, beautiful animals, welcoming and friendly people.

After lots of back and forth to the travel agent in Cape Town that we (myself and my three friends) booked our safari through, we finally had everything sorted. We had already booked flights back to Johannesburg, so we had one evening chilling out in an airport hotel before the second part of our epic Africa Adventure began.

Upon arrival at Maun Airport, Botswana, we were met by a representative of the lodge we were going to be staying at. Unfortunately the pilot was late, which meant quite a while sitting around in a tiny waiting room with a few fans but no air conditioning in temperatures that were approaching 40°C. Eventually the pilot arrived and introduced himself, and we (our group plus another couple) were driven across the tarmac to our plane – a tiny 8 seater aircraft (for anyone who’s interested, it was a Gippsland GA8 Airvan). We then had a half hour (very bumpy) flight to our first lodge; on the way I spotted my first elephants and giraffes from the plane – it was so exciting!

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We were greeted by our guide for our stay, Ness, who drove us to Khwai River Lodge, our first port of call in Botswana. Having never stayed in an all inclusive resort (which was necessary as we were in the middle of the Okavango Delta with nothing else even remotely close to us) of any type before, let alone a five star one, I found the whole place stunning, as did my friends. It hugely exceeded our expectations. We were met with a drink and a cold towel by a few of the senior staff members, given a brief orientation then shown to our rooms (also stunning!) to sort ourselves out for a bit before high tea was served at 4pm.

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At 4.30pm we went on our first game drive. It was amazing!

Over the course of less than 3 hours, we saw: elephants, giraffes, warthogs, a dozing pack of wild dogs, hippos, more elephants, baboons, red lechwe, impala, open-billed storks, little egrets, red puks, long-tailed starlings, cape turtle doves, lilac-breasted rollers, blacksmith plovers, red-eyed doves and a tree squirrel!

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We then drove to a wide open space and enjoyed a glass of wine and some vegetable spring rolls on the Okavango Delta as the sun set, surrounded by impala and baboons with the sound of hippos laughing in the near distance. Once the sun had set we headed back to the lodge, just in time for a delicious three course dinner.P1150666 comp

The next three and a half days followed roughly the same schedule:

5.30am Wake up call with fresh tea, coffee and biscuits

6am Breakfast

6.30am Morning game drive

11.30am ish Return from game drive

12pm ish Lunch

1.30-3.30pm Siesta/chill out time

3.30pm High tea

4pm Afternoon/evening game drive

7pm ish Sundowner drinks

8pm ish Return from game drive

8.30pm Dinner

10pm Bed

A long day, but also amazing. The staff at the lodge were really helpful and friendly, making an effort to learn all our names and be at our beck and call for anything, as well as sorting out various dietary requirements and going above and beyond on that and every front. Our guide, Ness, also went above and beyond to find the animals we wanted to see. One of the many highlights was seeing a mother leopard with two cubs – they were up a tree, finishing off their meal of fresh impala and were just stunning to see.P1160068 comp

We also saw two male lions up close, as well as many, many other species of bird and animal. I cannot express in words just what a fantastic experience it was.

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If you get the chance – go there!

Next stop: Johannesburg, South Africa.

Africa Adventure: Cape Town

Table Mountain stands guard over Cape Town, assessing everyone who enters the city. It’s much bigger than I imagined from looking at maps and photographs on the internet. It’s imposing, but not in a threatening way. It looks down on its people, protective and caring.

P1140552 compCape Town is a beautiful city, surrounded by watchful mountains and clear green waters. The people are friendly, and although I was told to be careful with my handbag and my money I didn’t feel unsafe at any point, even when myself and my three friends were walking back to the apartment we’d rented quite late at night after dinner and a couple of drinks. I think as long as you’re sensible you’re no more at risk of being mugged or pick-pocketed than in any other tourist destination.

After a lovely dinner at a little Italian restaurant on Greenmarket Square we went for a wander around the local area and Long Street. The morning of our first full day in Cape Town was spent arranging tours and trips for the rest of our visit, including a trip to Botswana to go on safari in Chobe National Park and the Okavanga Delta (we were all so excited about this!). We then had our first Cape Town tour – to the townships that are on the outskirts of the city.

Visiting the townships was a very humbling experience. It really makes you appreciate what you have and how lucky you are to be born into the time and society you are. Langa (which means ‘sun’) township was the first place our guide Mzu took us. We went to a community centre where they have various projects set up for people to learn and make various things – such as pottery, sand paintings, and animals and jewellery made from wire and beads – which can then be sold to visitors. We each bought something small before being introduced to Tami, a local man with an amazing knowledge of the history of Langa, apartheid and South Africa. He led us around Langa, showing us the various types of accommodation people live in there and explaining the stories behind them.

P1140159 compOne such story was that in one area most people used to live in wooden shacks, until one man decided to cook after he came home drunk and fell asleep leaving the fire burning. You can imagine what happened next. Unfortunately many people’s homes as well as a few lives were destroyed by the fire. The ‘short-term’ replacements for the ruined housing were cargo containers. These were adapted by adding two doors, two windows and a partition down the centre so two families could live there. Each family has one tiny room which functions as bedroom, living room and kitchen. The toilets for everyone are portaloos, the blue ones we’re used to seeing at festivals. Washing happens at the public tap.

P1140175 compTami and Mzu then took us to one of the huts made of corrugated iron which served as a local pub of sorts. We all tried the locally brewed beer, which was served in one giant container and passed around everyone there. Traditionally it is brewed by the women and drunk by the men in social gathering places like that. The women can drink it too if they want, but they have their own place where they gather and socialise. We also tried one of the local dishes: sheep’s head.  P1140200 compThey have a saying about the different parts of the sheep’s head – you should eat the ears to become a good listener, the eyes to see well and the tongue to speak well, but don’t eat the brain as then you will think like a sheep and be stupid.  I wasn’t quite brave enough to try the eyeball (Tami’s favourite part) but I ate some of the meat – it tasted very much like lamb.

Next Mzu drove us around and through Khayelitsha township, where he lives now.  We stopped off to say ‘molo’ (which is Xhosa for hello to one person; ‘molweni’ means hello to more than one person) to his mother and have a guided tour of her little guesthouse before taking photos with Mzu and his mother.  We took a short walk to Mzu’s home and office across the road where he showed us a book that he’s written called ‘Introducing Cape Town’s Townships’ (Mzu Lembeni) – and yes, I bought a copy which he signed for me: ‘Thank you very much for booking a township tour with us.  Enkosi kakhulu (which means thank you very much in Xhosa), Cool bananas’.

That evening we ate in a fantastic restaurant called ‘Mama Africa’ – delicious African food and a great live band – before walking back to our apartment via a slightly longer route that took us past some lovely buildings and a little square with a few restaurants around it.

P1140376 comp Wednesday morning was another early start – we were picked up by Mzu to take us to the Robben Island ferry at the waterfront.  After the ferry ride over, we had a bus tour around Robben Island to see the village, the leper’s graveyard (it was a leper colony for many years before it was a prison), the lighthouse and some of the wildlife that lives there – we were lucky enough to see penguins, cormorants and two types of deer.  There are actually four prisons on Robben Island, one of which was solely for Robert Sobukwe, a political prisoner who was in permanent isolation.  We were given a tour of the main prison by a former inmate, who had also been a political prisoner for several years. Talking to him was fascinating, and gave a real insight into what life was like for the people imprisoned there.

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Following a much longer and more rolling journey back to the mainland, we had a very enjoyable lunch at Hildebrand restaurant on the V&A waterfront. A lovely afternoon was spent on top of Table Mountain, wandering around, gazing at the amazing views, spotting various wild animals including a squirrel, two lizards, and lots of dassies (small, cute rodent-like animals, dassie is the Dutch word for badgers and surprisingly its closest relative is the African elephant).

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On Thursday we took a tour to Cape Point, the Cape of Good Hope and Simon’s Town, where the African penguins have permanent residence. On the way through Table Mountain National Park we saw four wild zebra, a wild ostrich & wild baboons. The afternoon consisted of wine tasting in Stellenbosch with a short wander around the town as well. On the way back to Cape Town there were ridiculous traffic jams as it was the opening of parliament that day and they closed all the roads for ‘security’, even though we were nowhere near parliament or the route the president would be taking into the city.

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Our last day in the beautiful city that is Cape Town was mostly spent in Kirstenbosch Botanical Gardens. Sitting at the top of Kirstenbosch botanical gardens with Table Mountain at your back, you can see the whole of Cape Town spread out below you, all the way to the ocean. The view is stunning.

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Next stop: Botswana…

Africa Adventure Summary

I’ve just got back from the most amazing trip!

Over the next few days I’ll write a more detailed description of the places I went and the things I did, but for now here’s a quick summary…

Five days in Cape Town during which myself and my friends went to Robben Island, Table Mountain, Kirstenbosch Botanical Gardens, Stellanbosch for wine tasting, Cape Point and Cape of Good Hope, Simon’s Town (where the penguins live) and also did a township tour.

Five days in Botswana on safari where we saw lions, elephants, giraffes, zebras, leopards, wildebeest, impala, baboons, vervet monkeys, eland, tsessebe, a crocodile, hippos, mongoose and many different types of birds.

Eight days in Johannesburg, including the fantastic wedding of two of my friends and three nights in Sun City where we went on safari in Pilansberg National Park and went on the world’s longest and fastest zipline!

More info and lots of pictures to follow (once I’ve sorted them all out!).