South Africa and Me: Safaris, Sports Tours, Honeymoons and so Much More - Part Two
I knew before leaving South Africa in 1999 that the bug had bitten, and it wasn’t too long before I was back on South African soil, this time with my partner and now wife. In 2002, we enjoyed an unbelievable adventure in South Africa staring in Kwazulu Natal in Durban before moving north to the Hluhluwe National Park, continuing south to the Eastern Cape and moving west along the Garden Route to Cape Town before ending our South African Stay with two unforgettable safari experiences in the Timbavati game reserve and the Sabi Sands. Our adventure began with a short stay on Durban’s Golden Mile overlooking the sea before moving north. I remember an evening meal where I cooked my own steak on a hot stone at the table, something I’d not experienced at the time and thought very impressive!
To travel further north into Kwazulu Natal, we had pre-booked an overland tour that saw us explore the Hluhluwe iMfolozi National Park and St Lucia Wetlands. Our base was a South African Parks Board property called Hilltop Camp that had the most amazing views out over the escarpment. This style of accommodation is a great way to enjoy a game experience when operating to a budget; clean comfortable but without the frills of a private game lodge. The game viewing was amazing! An area renowned for white and black rhino and did not disappoint. Early morning game drives, boat trips and exciting night drives provided a fantastic game viewing experience and seeing my first wild rhino was a huge buzz. As this is not a private reserve you can self-drive in the national park, so you do see cars and minibuses whilst on your game drives, so if you are looking for a more authentic experience some of our later bases may be better suited to you, but for a cost effective and an unforgettable game experience, this format certainly provides.
A short flight from Durban to Port Elizabeth saw us in the Eastern Cape where we picked up a car and began our self-driven journey west along the famous Garden Route. First stop was a slight deviation north east to the Shamwari Private Game Reserve and wow was it impressive! This was my first experience of a private reserve; the absolute luxury and attention to detail making their guests feel unbelievably welcome. The accommodation, dining and game viewing from their traditional safari vehicles was a fantastic experience and sitting back with wide eyes watching a 2-day old baby elephant find its feet will stay with me forever. The evening game drive sundowner was also a first for me; I watched in amazement as the pristine white table cloth appears and is laid out with snacks and drinks for guests to enjoy whilst taking in the vistas of that famous African sunset; we felt both privileged and spoilt. Conservation is also a priority at Shamwari and an introduction to the Born Free Foundation and the value of its work was extremely enlightening and added another dimension to the experience.
With our mediocre hire car washed and stocked with water, (we felt a little embarrassed about that!) and after a hearty breakfast we reluctantly waved goodbye to Shamwari and were back on the road for a short journey, (approx. one hour) to our next stop at Gorah Elephant Camp in the heart of the Addo National Park. Our reluctance to leave Shamwari soon dissipated as we checked into our tented accommodation. Now I’d been on cub and scout camps before so was ok with the idea of sleeping in a tent, but I was not expecting a tent with a four-poster bed in it! The luxury tents were perfect; no attention to detail missed and the view from the veranda across the valley and watering hole in front of the main lodge was simply stunning and really made you feel like you were in Africa. At the time of our visit, the Addo National Park did not offer ‘Big 5’ game viewing, and even though this has since changed, if certainly did not detract from our experience. Famous for its elephants, it did not disappoint with some remarkable sightings. Our guide was brilliant; a fellow rugby player who I quickly bonded with. He was a birder and his knowledge knew no limits. He introduced us to the colours and sounds of the birdlife of the area and something that I hadn’t expected to have enjoyed.
Other highlights of our stay at Gorah were a deafening crunch from just outside the main lodge over dinner where we were all ushered outside to witness to big bull elephants taking exception to each other at the watering hole. The pinnacle of our stay was on our last morning. I can vividly remember sitting with a coffee overlooking the valley and seeing tiny dots appear from the trees that covered the hillside opposite the lodge as if ants were emerging from their nest. Slowly but surely, the dots grew bigger and bigger, but kept on coming! We had the pleasure of seeing a herd of over 100 elephants of all ages take their turn to drink from the waterhole and continue their journey away to our left and meander off into the distance. Check out time soon became insignificant as we enjoyed this visual fest and the hotel were nothing but accommodating. A fantastic place to stay, exceptional dining on an all-inclusive basis, luxurious tented accommodation that should not pose any apprehension and fantastic game viewing; how would we beat that?
Our journey west along the Garden Route continued via Jeffreys Bay and Storms River where we took some time to visit the rugged coastline and natural beauty of the Tsitsikamma National Park. Our destination was Plettenberg Bay and the Tsala Tree Top Lodge where we were treated to more luxurious surroundings in our very own treetop hideaway complete with bedroom, living area, bathroom with freestanding bath and outdoor bucket shower and private plunge pool; even tough that was a bit cold! The accommodation was simply stunning and provided a more than adequate base to explore the picturesque coastal locality. We enjoyed a stunning walk around the Robberg Nature reserve where we watched seals frolicking in the waves and an exciting whale and dolphin watching boat trip where we were lucky enough to see numerous southern right whales from our boat. Knysna; where I had visited on my previous rugby tour, was just 20 mins from Plettenberg by car, which presented the perfect opportunity to share the beauty of the Featherbed Nature Reserve, the lagoon and the quaint town with my partner over a delicious lunch.