South Africa – Among Lions, sharks and incredible mountains

Here it is – my blog post about our three week long road trip through South Africa in October!

We landed in Johannesburg on Sunday morning after a long and mostly sleepless flight. After passing through immigration, getting money, buying SIM cards and picking up our rental car, we hit the road. We quickly drove to Kruger National Park as there wasn’t much to see on the way. We then entered through Phabeni Gate, which allowed us to enjoy a little bit of a safari on our first day of driving to Skukuza Camp. A really cool start!

We camped in a tent, which was literally hard (referring to the ground) and eventually it also got very cold. Well, we made it through the night and at least that way it was not too hard to get up early in the morning! At 5.30 am the gate opened and we were one of the first ones out there. What can I say? A self-drive safari is fun!!! You cruise around at 20-40km/h looking for animals. All of the sudden you see a giraffe, an elephant, or a group of animals, some warthogs here and hippos grazing there. Simply amazing!

It was quite easy to spot animals, except for wild cats. It’s other people who rather find them for you: You see a bunch of cars parked in one spot and you know: There must be cats around! Sometimes it is quite hard to find a good spot among the cars, but it really pays off to wait and be patient for some people to leave.

This is how we managed to see 4 of the Big 5 on our first day! Only rhinos were missing…

After another cold and uncomfortable night in our tent we started the next day with an organized sunrise drive safari, which ended up being one of our main disappointments. The tour guide didn’t even try hard to find animals and took a road that we knew wouldn’t take us to spot cats (at least there had been nothing to see there the times we drove it). And surely enough, we hardly saw any animals (one giraffe, two zebras, three hyenas – not much for a guide who knows his way around) and we had a flat tire (not the guides fault of course). We waited one hour for a new car in the middle of nowhere and then just speeded back to the camp without continuing our safari. They didn’t make up the lost hour or offered us any other kind of compensation. They didn’t even apologize and the guide behaved strangely afterwards. Back at the office we filled out a form to get our money back. Surprisingly enough, we did get it back in our bank account a couple of weeks later! At least something…

After that we drove around in our own car again and got lucky: After 10 minutes only we saw a bunch of cars and pack of wild dogs close by. As you rarely see wild dogs, we couldn’t believe our eyes. Later that day we even spotted a rhino with its baby – wow!!! They crossed the road in front of us – what an incredible experience!

To sum up: In our opinion, in Kruger Park it makes more sense to take your own car, in particular coming from Skukuza I would never book a tour again…

After a third night in a tent (again on hard and cold ground) we left Kruger National Park. From Orpen Gate we drove towards Blyde River Canyon / Panorama Route, at first to the viewpoint Three Rondavels. The drive was amazing and I can only recommend approaching the panorama route from the North. Shortly after leaving Kruger NP, we had a great view over the mountains and then driving upwards through the rocks. The other viewpoints and waterfalls didn’t impress us that much. We arrived in Barberton, where we finally slept in a bed after four uncomfortable nights – yippie! On top of that we had an incredible view.

Next day, we were on our way to Swaziland. We ended up being quite disappointed and thinking that we should have skipped this little country: Both in Mlilwane NP and Hlane NP we hardly saw any animals. If you get lucky, you may spot an impala. Hlane NP was a big letdown, bad roads and they hardly let you drive around alone. There are lions but the area is blocked for self-drivers. They charge more for a safari than in Kruger – nope, we didn’t want to get ripped off! Unfortunately we couldn’t avoid dinner buffet at the camp restaurant. While they offer a full menu during the day (when no one is around), at night you can only book an expensive package that is not even that great. So we weren’t in the best mood after this day.

What followed next day was a rather boring drive through the rest of Swaziland, before heading back into South Africa and onto Sodwana – we saw nothing special on our drive and it started to rain … Luckily it didn’t rain for long and we were able to go to the beautiful beach of Sodwana! Unfortunately, they allow you to drive your car on the beach and many people use it to park their 4WDs. It doesn’t make sense and just ruins the beach – and there is a parking lot right next to the beach. Some people are just incredibly lazy…

Scuba diving in Sodwana – I was so looking forward to it! But…another disappointment! There had been a storm a couple of days ago which had stirred up the sand and meant that you could hardly see anything. Furthermore, Pisces Divers (I would not recommend them) planned the dives terribly. Ask me for more details…but I was super annoyed with them by the end of it.

Afterwards we enjoyed the beach a little more. Tip: You should also go to the beach at Mseni Resort – you’ll find enormous sand dunes by the sea – spectacular! Unfortunately we didn’t have our camera with us. (We were sometimes probably a little to concerned with safety in SA, but as you hear so many stories, we really didn’t want to risk something such as bringing our expensive camera to a lonely beach.)

It was safari-o’clock again! This time, we went to Hluhluwe-Imfolozi National Park and I can only highly recommend it! The landscape is completely different from Kruger NP: Lots of hills and very green. Finally I had the feeling that animals could find plenty of food. The day had its ups and downs: In the first two hours we saw 4 of the Big 5 (all except for leopards), after that we didn’t see any animals at all anymore and it was pouring down… Bottom line: Two amazing hours, but the rest of day was kind of mehhh.  In Hluhluwe NP we mainly saw rhinos and buffaloes. A great end to our safari time!

…or so we thought! Because next day, while driving from St Lucia to Cape Vidal, we all of the sudden spotted some rhinos right in front of us! We didn’t expect that at all in this area. Overall, we loved Cape Vidal– the beach is also very beautiful and makes you want to spend some time there.

Later that afternoon we continued to drive along the coast towards Durban to reach the Blue Sky Mining Lodge. It’s a bit of a weird place, but they have a nice pool with a view to the ocean and delicious and reasonably priced food. What more can you ask for? 🙂

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What more to ask for?? You could ask for scuba diving in Aliwal Shoal, close to the small town of Umkomaas. So we drove there the next day, hoping to have a better experience than in Sodwana. What can I say? It was simply amazing!!! During our first dive we saw three different kinds of sharks: ragged tooth sharks, black-tips and hammerheads! We loved it! 🙂 Blue Ocean Dive Resort’s organized two great dives – this time we were lucky again. Unfortunately the photos didn’t  turn out that great:

On the next day we drove up North into Drakensberg mountains. The first few hours of the drive it rained cats and dogs. Afterwards the sky gradually cleared but we could still not really see the beauty of mountains. We hiked around a bit and enjoyed the landscape despite the weather. Later in the afternoon the sky cleared and we walked around as long as possible before it got dark…

We slept at Amphitheater Backpackers, which I would never book again! I have never experienced worse service with terrible and overpriced food. Unfortunately, it is the only backpacker accommodation in that region, so you won’t have many alternatives.

We had planned a walk through Tugela Gorge for the next day, but unfortunately it was cloudy with drizzling rain again. Yet, we were very impressed by the landscape! The Drakensberg mountain region is just stunning!! Huge, green mountains with sharp mountain tops… truly amazing. Later that afternoon the sun came out so that we could at least admire the „Amphitheatre“ in all its glory.

On the next day we drove through the Golden Gate national park and Clarens right along the border to Lesotho until the largest border crossing point near Maseru. During the drive we enjoyed some pretty views, but there was quite some traffic near Maseru. This changed completely the farther we drove away from the city – small villages and mountains everywhere. This is why they call Lesotho ‚Kingdom in the Sky‘ 🙂

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Most backpackers stay in Malealea or Semonkong. Yet, for us the first was not that appealing in terms of where it is located and the lodge in Semonkong was too expensive. Luckily we found Ramabanta Trading Post Lodge in Ramabanta. A reasonably priced room, delicious dinner buffet and a stunning view. We had a great stay! 🙂

The best part was, that it is only an hour drive from Semonkong. It is a beautiful drive with amazing views and peeks into village life. And the road is in such good shape! It was probably redone recently as it was broad and new and there was hardly any traffic. The locals unfortunately can only afford riding on horses or donkeys… weird to think that they (= probably some EU project or so?) invested so much money in a street locals can mostly not use. For us of course, it was a bliss to drive there!

We wanted to go to Semonkong mainly because of Maletsunyane Waterfall – one of the most spectacular waterfalls I’ve ever seen! Driving off the main road to get there turned into quite an adventure as we had to drive on a dirt road for quite some time in our 2WD car. At one point we weren’t even sure anymore whether we were on the right track until… Yay! Found it!

Isn’t it amazing?? After enjoying the waterfall we checked out Semonkong, a village with a dusty wild west appearance. Here, you can find one of the few supermarkets in the area, which is why locals from everywhere come here on their horses to do some shopping. There were just so many people!! And they even had ‚parking lots‘ for horses and donkeys!

There was one thing left on our to-do list for Lesotho: Pony trekking! So on our last day in Lesotho, we went on to do that around Ramabanta. It was ok, but not my personal highlight: The weather wasn’t that great that day (misty), we had seen the landscape before and the horses were not really trained, so they didn’t respond to the usual signals. Still, it was a great last day in Lesotho and a different way to explore the area! 🙂

After some ebeautiful days in Lesotho it was time to move on. We drove our car back to the airport in Bloemfontein from where we took a flight to Cape Town. We then rented a new car to go to Gansbaai.

There is only one reason to go to Gansbaai and that is cage diving with great white sharks! We went out to the sea early next morning – and patiently waited for the great whites. In groups of eight people we went into a cage to wait for the shark with our head above water. At any moment, one of the guides would should something like „down, to the right“, „down, down, down“ etc. as they were seeing the sharks approach the cage from their viewing stations. Then it was time to hold your breath and dive down. You only had to go down half a meter or so, so it was easy. The sharks came extremely close. I could have touched their noses, that’s how close they got to the cage!! Of course, you do not touch them for several reasons… 😉 We also had an awesome view over the circling sharks from the boat’s viewing deck when we were not under water anymore. I thought it was a great experience and I didn’t have the feeling that the sharks were being fed too much. Needless to say, it was more spectacular to be in the water with the sharks than watching from the boat. This was a tour that was definitely worth the money!

We drove on towards Cape Town and Simon’s Town. In Betty’s Bay we stopped to see penguins – it was cheaper and less touristy than in Simon’s Town. Unfortunately, the weather wasn’t that great again.

We also stopped in Muizenberg to see the famous colorful houses. Finally we reached our destination and accommodation for the day, near Simon’s Town at Fig Leave Cottage.

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Next day we explored the cape peninsula: Under great weather conditions we drove to the Cape of Good Hope Nature Reserve. Of course we went to see the Cape itself as well as the Cape Point. The view was amazing and the water’s color beautifully turquoise, which we hadn’t had expected!

We also hadn’t expected to see so many animals on our way. The next few hours we basically drove all the roads of the nature reserve and walked around for a bit. We saw many different birds, antelopes, zebras as well as numerous wild ostriches – it was really cool! 🙂

In the afternoon we had some time at our hands, so we went to a vineyard near Cape Town. At the winery Buitenverwachting I tasted five delicious kinds of wine as Mathijs had agreed to be the chauffeur that day. 😉

As the next day was sunny again, we decided to seize the opportunity and drive to Table Mountain. We took the way along Chapman’s Peak Drive, known as one of the prettiest coastal drives in the world. I can only agree: The views are amazing!

Afterwards, we had to wait 1.5h to take the cable car up Table Mountain as there were so many people. Ouuf! Although we had purchased our tickets beforehand online and it was a week day! That’s what you get when it’s nice and sunny and there is no „table cloth“ on the mountain… But it was definitely worth the wait and the Table Mountain is as great as they say! You can hike different routes on top of the mountain, which we did. To be honest though, the best view is from near the cable-way… In hindsight, we should have just hiked up instead of taking the cable car, but then again we did not know that we were going to have to wait 1.5h.

Later on, we relaxed a bit on the beach in Camps Bay. It was getting quite hot, so we were even tempted to take a swim in the water. Yet, a cloud ruined our plans and we put on our clothes again 😉 The water temperature was really cold – about 13-15 degrees. Brrr!

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Our next and last days in South Africa were dedicated to exploring Cape Town. We stayed at the beautiful Rose Lodge in Bo Kaap, surrounded by colorful houses.

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The city itself is not very interesting and truth to be told quite ugly. There are a few nice buildings in colonial style, but most of the time you will find grey concrete buildings. We were also quite disappointed by the waterfront as we had expected something similar to Sydney…

Oh well, what the city lacked in beauty was compensated by the landscape surrounding it. We took some trips to, e.g. to Blouwberg beach, from where you can see the Table Mountain with Cape Town in the back – a great view!

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We also drove up to Signal Hill and climbed Lion’s Head. You can take the car to get on top of Signal Hill to get amazing 360 degrees views.

It is a bit harder to reach Lion’s Head as it involves climbing rocks and ladders – but it was fun! The view was similar to what we had already seen from Table Mountain and Signal Hill – but it was still breathtaking. On Lion’s Head you can also find some spots to take nice pictures of Cape Town: A rock above an abyss with a view over Cape Town… 😉

So that was it…and it was already time to say goodbye to South Africa! We definitely saw and experienced a lot of different things in those three weeks. It left us wanting to see more of Africa. Click on the following link to see more of our pictures: South Africa.

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