By Ron Wetherington, 3-time traveler & Vacation Ambassador, Ocala, Florida
For over a year, I planned a journey to Japan with visions of Bullet Trains and Kabuki performers dancing in my head, but then my trip was cancelled in the wake of the tragic earthquake and tsunami that ravaged the main island in March of this year. I began frantically searching travel brochures for a quick substitute, and found a beautiful, exotic trip to Southern Africa offered by Grand Circle (GCT).
Before I knew it, I was driving from Ocala to Orlando, and beginning a sequence of lengthy flights to Johannesburg, South Africa. Upon my eventual arrival, a friendly representative of GCT met us, our tour director, Tessa Easingwood. She was exceedingly qualified for her position, having been born in Pretoria, South Africa, and a current resident of Cape Town. She has been with GCT since 2005, and she speaks German and Afrikaans in addition to English.
A leopard at Kruger National Park
After checking into the hotel and enjoying dinner, I was thoroughly exhausted from the journey, and I fell into a deep sleep. Tessa called in the morning with the sweetest voice, asking me to please assemble for breakfast, followed by a tour of the city, where I met my fellow intrepid travelers for the first time. Tessa offered infinite patience and support for all of us as she shepherded us around the country. She seemed to me the most informed guide ever. There was not one question she could not handle, right down to the names of local exotic animals, birds, and flowers. Tales of her past and her family history lent credibility and color to the tour.
On Day One, we toured Johannesburg, visiting the Hector Pieterson Memorial & Museum, located near the site where this icon of the 1976 Soweto Uprising was shot and killed. Then we continued on to the Apartheid Museum, devoted to the struggle for independence and including many print, photo, and film exhibits illustrating the life and achievements of Nelson Mandela. I admit that I was surprised by the racism that is prevalent between the Afrikaners, English, and the blacks who are sandwiched in the middle, and by how the terrible slums around Johannesburg looked as bad as anything I have seen in the world. The contrast of tradition and modernity served as a poignant symbol of this country’s continuing struggle with apartheid.
Day Two brought us to Pretoria, the capital of South Africa, only a one-hour drive from Johannesburg, with astonishing views of the Klein Drakensburg escarpment, which exhibits wooded canyons, sheer cliffs, and gorgeous waterfalls. We toured the city, had lunch together, and next drove on towards Kruger Game Park, a natural game reserve established in 1898. We rode in an open safari wagon with a most knowledgeable Afrikaans guide, whose daily wage depended on his spotting game for the photographers aboard. Soon there were noble elephants crossing the road, elegant giraffes nibbling the tops of trees, and exotic zebras pacing the Bush.
A bull elephant in Kruger National Park
Our first early sunrise was aglow in orange yellows, with the scrawny umbrella trees silhouetted on the horizon. Four of the “Big Five” (lion, leopard, elephant, Cape buffalo, and rhinoceros) were spotted on the first day. They are so named because these are the most difficult and dangerous quarry for the hunter, as a miss is probable death. On the second day in the park, we spotted the elusive leopard sitting on an outcropping of a rocky ledge, regarding our safari vehicle with keen interest. In addition to the big game animals, Kruger National Park is home to almost 500 bird species, some found nowhere else in South Africa but here. On a smaller but still impressive scale, we discovered termite hills the height of small bushes, and learned to identify various animal dung and observe the dung beetles carrying out their work of natural disposal. Each day was filled with adventure and discovery, and numerous photo opportunities.
We continued from Kruger National Park to the border of Swaziland, where our passports were examined and stamped. Swaziland has been an independent nation since 1968, having originated as a British protectorate in the 19th century. Today, this peaceful, agricultural country has a population of roughly 800,000. As we followed the Drakensberg Mountains, we passed manicured sugar plantations on our way to Mbabane, the capital of the Kingdom of Swaziland, finally reaching our destination at the Mountain View Inn. That afternoon, we toured the Swazi Glass Craft factory, where the King had sent his Rolls Royce and Indian dignitaries in a police motorcade. The Swedes built the original factory, importing all the machinery and equipment, and training the Swazis in the age-old art of glassblowing. It has become Swaziland’s hottest tourist attraction, now owned by the government.
Schoolchildren at a local primary school in a traditional Swazi village
We continued to Reilly’s Rock Hilltop Lodge, where we had lunch with Ted Reilly, who was being filmed by a national magazine. Mr. Reilly has been a pioneer in conservation efforts in Swaziland since the 1960s, importing game to his private reserve. His efforts were documented in a movie at the beginning of the tour about “Jessabelle,” a Land Rover put through its paces herding game for the reserve.
We drove through several border points and entered Zululand in the KwaZulu Natal province that offers a different face of South Africa, arriving in Shakaland at a hotel that was part of a set created for the 1986 mini-series Shaka Zulu (life imitates art, after all). Shaka Zulu was a ruthless warrior, and the television show made him a household name. His story was vividly brought to life by the sets created here. His mighty tribe was defeated by the British and manipulated by the Boers, and eventually the government banished them to the province of KwaZulu, unwittingly banding them strongly together and giving them a strong sense of identity and community, which led them to create the Inkatha Freedom Party, one of the two largest black African resistance parties.
After filming of Shaka Zulu was complete, funds were raised to buy the property and turn it into Shakaland, combining living history exhibits with hotel accommodations and a conference center Our rooms were traditional beehive style huts made of CBS block, offering all the latest amenities, including flat screen televisions. The experience was more akin to visiting Disneyland, but entertaining and educational, nonetheless.
Continuing our drive to Port Stanley, we checked into a modern, marble faced hotel overlooking the beachfront. A visiting soccer team created a disturbance, but we were eventually left in peace and luxury upon their departure the next morning. The city offers many historical attractions—including the Historic Donkin Heritage Trail, which allows the visitor to follow in the footsteps of the 1820 settlers. The trail winds for several miles past more than 40 historical sites and architectural gems in the Old Hill area of central Port Elizabeth. We chose to stroll St. George’s Park, home to the world-famous Port Elizabeth Cricket Club, and enjoyed afternoon and evening meals.
We toured Addo Elephant National Park, where we enjoyed yet another chance to see South Africa’s most celebrated safari animals. The park protects more than 450 elephants, 400 Cape buffalo, and roughly 50 endangered black rhino, as well as a variety of antelope.
Ron Wetherington with a cheetah at Cango Wildlife Ranch in Oudtshoorn
Continuing our wildlife trek, we traveled to Oudtshoorn, where we visited Cango Wildlife Ranch, the world’s oldest and largest cheetah reserve. The ranch offers a rare opportunity to observe this endangered species and learn about conservation efforts. After a briefing by the staff, I was allowed to enter the cheetah enclosure to interact with the animals. I was understandably leery, but when I patted the male cheetah on the head, he rolled over to let me stroke his chest and stomach, just like a big housecat!
We then changed gears and took a drive to marvel at the turn of the century lavish sandstone mansions built by the “feather barons,” when ostrich feathers were in fashion for hats and clothing. In the early 1900s, only gold, diamonds, and wool exports ranked higher than ostrich feathers. We dined on ostrich steaks at the local restaurant. The game looked and tasted more like beef than anything. Our exhausting day of excursions was capped with a beautiful full moon over the water as we returned to town.
The drive along the “Garden Route” from Port Elizabeth to Cape Town is an easy one on the eyes—impressive mountains, sandy beaches, forests of giant yellowwood, pine, and eucalyptus, not to mention amber-colored lakes, waterfalls, and an abundance of colorful wildflowers. All of this wonder punctuated by monkeys, baboons, and impalas running across the road, while giraffes and ostriches grazed in the distance. This famous stretch of coastline has inspired artists and writers for centuries. Cape Town is a jewel, elegant with beautiful buildings, houses, and wide avenues. The city’s landscape features hills and abundant water, so the vegetation is lush with magnificent trees, tropical plants, and flowers everywhere one looks.
The Garden Route to Cape Town and on to historic Mossel Bay was the most scenic part of the trip. The bay is where Portuguese explorer Bartolomeu Dias was the first European to land in South Africa in 1488. We welcomed a stop in Swellendam for lunch and a tour of the Drostdy Museum. Swellendam is the third oldest town in South Africa after Cape Town and Stellenbosch, and the museum, a former outpost of the Dutch East India Company, is an example of a historic Cape Dutch building, housing historic furniture, art and an old jail. We later took the tram up Table Mountain for a beautiful sunset and a Home-Hosted Dinner.
The next morning, we took the scenic coastal road to Cape Point Nature Reserve, and took many photographs at the Cape of Good Hope. (More sightings of the ghostly Flying Dutchman have been reported there than any other place in the world.) Later we drove along the False Bay coastline to see penguins at Boulders Beach, followed by a seafood lunch at the Black Marlin Restaurant. From there, it was an easy ride to Africa’s wine country, where we explored Stellenbosch and enjoyed a wine tasting with a tour of this historic town. There are many vineyards around Cape Town, and this particular winery offered red and white varietals, as well as a sparkling wine produced in the French “methode.”
Victoria Falls, Zimbabwe
We were up early at 4 am to catch the flight to Victoria Falls via Johannesburg. After a very long day, we arrived at the Elephant Hills Resort Hotel, where we discovered that it was well worth the time and effort.
The thundering Victoria Falls
We continued immediately in the afternoon to Victoria Falls, donning ponchos to protect us from the spray at the fall’s edge. Some thrill seekers are brave enough (or crazy enough) to bungee jump into the canyon from the height of the waterfalls. What a sight, one of the seven Natural Wonders of the World, and I could barely believe I was standing there, feeling transported somehow to another time on another planet.
The next morning, I had a quick breakfast, as the manager of the hotel had arranged for his driver to take me to the border of Zambia. At the border, I continued by taxi, since no one is allowed to cross due to illegal smuggling. Upon reaching Zambia, I had to negotiate with yet another driver to take me to Livingstone about ten miles away, where I wanted to visit the Livingstone Museum. My surreptitious efforts were well worthwhile, as I was given a private tour of the facility that houses original letters from Stanley Livingstone about his travels and discovery of Victoria Falls, which he named for his Queen.
From there, I continued to the Zambia side of Victoria Falls, but it simply did not compare to Zimbabwe side of this natural wonder. I continued my trek, again crossing the border at Zambia, taking another taxi to the border of Zimbabwe, and yet another taxi to my hotel. It was a truly adventurous day, and one that will provide me with great tales to tell.
The final safari of the trip was also the best, in Chobe National Park, Botswana. We came upon a place at the Chobe River, and I felt as though I had stumbled into the Garden of Eden. It was truly the most beautiful spot on Earth that I have ever had the pleasure to witness. According to our tour director Tessa, she came upon a bend in the Chobe River years ago, and found it the most romantic place she has ever seen. She discovered that Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton had been married for the second time on this very spot. No wonder it is considered the most beautiful place in Botswana!
Giraffes in Chobe National Park, Botswana
That night, we closed out our trip’s itinerary with an authentic “boma” dinner, which included a show featuring the culture of the Matabele tribe. We were mesmerized by their elaborate painted masks, ornate costumes, musical instruments, and dancing. After beginning with a sampling of traditional beer and snacks, we enjoyed dining on a variety of game meats and Zimbabwean dishes. The Sangoma (storyteller) entertained us, and the local witchdoctor was available for fortune telling, although I will keep his prophecies to myself.
The population of South Africa is a varied cloth of Afrikaans, woven from the fibers of settlers from Holland, France, Portugal, Britain, and Germany. Indentured servants from exotic locales like Ceylon and Malaysia came to work the sugar cane fields and eventually the gold mines, and left their own patterns on the fabric.
While this was my third trip with Grand Circle Travel and Overseas Adventure Travel, it was by far my favorite tour. I highly recommend taking the post trip to Victoria Falls in Zimbabwe and Chobe National Park in Botswana, as the sights are not to be missed, and not to be forgotten. The lands were spectacular, the people friendly, the animals remarkable, and our tour director, Tessa Easingwood, was absolutely the best. Her knowledge and background gave us so much insight into this special place. She is not just a guide, but someone who is a real part of South Africa and its people. It was a privilege to be so welcomed in this land, and to have the opportunity to make friends and memories that will last my lifetime.
This article first appeared in Ocala Magazine. Photos by Ron Wetherington.
Explore the beauty, history, and wildlife of South Africa on our Highlights of South Africa vacation.