Sensational South Africa

Sarah Bolton on 06 June 2015
In June I was part of a small group of Travel Counsellors to be hosted by Africa Collection on a wonderful educational trip to South Africa and Mauritius.

We flew into Johannesburg with Virgin Atlantic, and transferred to our own privately chartered light aircraft for the 50 minute flight to Madikwe East airstrip. You can drive to Madikwe Game Reserve, but this takes 4.5 hours, so flying is the best option. Although little known to many first-time safari-goers, Madikwe is a great game drive destination, including the Big 5 - and is malaria-free.

We stayed three nights in Madikwe, at three lodges in different areas of the reserve: Madikwe Hills Game Lodge, Tuningi Safari Lodge and Thakadu River Camp. All three are of a high standard, but give a different experience. Madikwe Hills is built onto a hillside, with huge rooms incorporating the rocks. All rooms have large verandahs with plunge pools, and overlook the waterholes. The main lodge houses the bar/sitting area and dining room, along with an outdoor eating area, pool, fire pit and views to the main waterhole. Tuningi has thatched lodges with outdoor showers to give an authentic (but luxury) feel - especially if you shower in the dark in the rain, which I did one morning! Tuningi has a wonderful boma under an ancient fig tree (from which the lodge takes its name), overlooking the waterhole. The lodge is designed to be family-friendly and has great family accommodation, as well as specific children's activities and babysitters.

And then Thakadu River Camp gives a real authentic experience, in luxury "tents", listening to the animals at night; and cheeky monkeys stealing bananas from the breakfast buffet!

Having been on many safaris and game drives over the years there's always been one animal that's eluded me - but not this time. Finally I got to see the elusive leopard, and it didn't disappoint - I sat in the vehicle with the most silly grin on my face. Having also seen the rare African wild dog the same morning, another one I'd been desperate to see, I was overjoyed.

Over the three days we were very lucky to see all of the Big 5 (lion, leopard, elephant, buffalo and rhino), along with many other species including the African wild dog, giraffe, zebra, and all sorts of antelope and bird life.

After our time in Madikwe we drove down to Johannesburg, stopping off for lunch at the 5* De Hoek Country House Hotel in Magaliesburg. The hotel to me seemed to have two personalities - the traditional country house with old world charm, and a new annexe that is highly modern in concrete grey with a very corporate feel.

And so to Johannesburg, where we stayed at the Protea Fire and Ice Hotel in Marble Arch - a great district to stay with a real café culture feel. The hotel is very modern and quirky where the staff will bend over backwards to look after you. "Black, white and bling" with a Hollywood glamour are the themes, and it is known for its Smoothie Bar.

Johannesburg was a real surprise for me. Having transited through the airport several times previously, or having landed there and immediately driven out of the city, I have never visited Jo'burg properly before. And we all admitted that we had gone with pre-held misconceptions - probably the ones that everyone has ie that it would be unsafe, poor, dirty etc etc. However we were very pleasantly surprised.

We had one full day in the city, and first of all we went to the Soweto Museum - a wonderful and moving place, in which I would happily have spent much longer to really read and understand the history of the country and the Apartheid system, along with Nelson Mandela's story. From there we did a cycling tour in Soweto with the fascinating guide Jazz. I think this is where we got our biggest shock - we'd expected the Soweto of several years ago as seen in photos ie as a poor township with shacks, dirt roads, litter and people living in poverty. Instead we saw a proper town, with a real positive energy and friendly people. Far from feeling unsafe, we felt welcomed. Seeing Nelson Mandela and Archbishop Desmond Tutu's homes (if only from the outside) was very moving.

From there we went to the 5* Four Seasons The Westcliff Hotel for a site inspection and lunch. This hotel sits in a prominent position overlooking Johannesburg Zoo, with great views. The rooms are very elegant and stylish, and the food was amazing (although the portion sizes were gigantic!)

In the afternoon we then did a short walking tour of downtown Johannesburg with graffiti art expert Jo, who gave us just a sample of the sort of tours she does. We covered areas such as Nelson Mandela's original law practice opposite the Courts, as well as visiting some well known graffiti art works (for which Johannesburg is renowned in the art world).

And then in the evening we went to Moyo African restaurant in Marble Arch for dinner, to experience African dining (including my favourite South African dish "bobotie") and entertainment in the form of Gumboot Dancing (originating in the mines of Johannesburg) and Zulu singing.

I was very sad to end my time in South Africa, and would loved to have stayed longer... but it was time to go... and if you have to move on, then Mauritius isn't a bad place to go!

See my Mauritius blog for the second part of this adventure.