Our image of South Africa is all too often skewed by the desperate actions of a few. The portrait is overshadowed by darkness, her grand beauty all but forgotten.
A wavering economy and outpouring of skilled migrants, South Africa has struggled to find its feet. But if you know the right places to go, the rainbow nation can be a traveller's paradise as you make the most of the low rand*, friendly locals, and generous sights to behold, as Michelle Robinson discovered.
LOCATION, LOCATION, LOCATION
A rhino crosses the road at Schotia Private Game Reserve.
To me, South Africa has always been about the Cape. The colourful history and exquisite beauty under the watchful eye of Table Mountain.
My father's family reluctantly fled its shores to escape Apartheid, 45 years ago. This year I took my Kiwi mother, husband, and 18-month-old to explore the places we had only heard about.
Situated on the western side of the southern coast, Cape Town is home to some 3.5 million citizens and, along with its spectacular scenery, its considered to be one of South Africa's safer destinations. Port Elizabeth, about a 1.5-hour flight on the eastern coast, or a stunning drive via the Garden Route, is also host to plenty of exquisite wildlife. About an hour's drive from Port Elizabeth's centre is where we enjoy three days of safari at Addo Elephant National Park and Schotia Private Game Reserve.
August has a bird's eye view of the elephants.
HOW TO GET THERE
It's possible to fly directly into Cape Town but many flights offer stops in Perth, Singapore, or Dubai. We stop in the latter, from which the flight is eight hours and the time difference a mere two hours. A near-cloudless day offers stunning vistas down the coast of Africa before the all-enveloping Table Mountain and historic penal colony of Robben Island bid us welcome. We fly to Port Elizabeth and then drive north for about an hour to enter Addo.
King of the Schotia Private Game Reserve relaxes in the sun.
WINE AND DINE
Our son August shamelessly learns this phrase (I've no idea how … ) along with cocktail, golf course, plane, bus and, somehow, walrus while we are away.
A glorious sunset at Addo Elephant National Park.
Seafood is plentiful and we enjoy the local catch of hake and snook with our chips. The chefs at our game park accommodation, Zuurberg Mountain Inn, make a memorable beef and blue cheese burger, which pairs nicely with a dry local cider. But the highlight of our culinary experience would have to be our very first South African meal at The Verde Hotel in Cape Town. Here we eat the game before we spot it. Yes, the springbok, kudu, and ostrich are delicious in a rich sauce. That night we also learn tasty comes cheap when three mains, two glasses of good local wine, and a margarita set us back just NZ$60.
WHEN IN CAPE TOWN ...
We rent an Airbnb bach in picturesque Simonstown on the peninsula, where there is plenty of natural beauty to behold. Nearby Boulders Beach boasts a boardwalk viewing platform from where you can see scores of African penguins gathering to rest, mate, and nest. The entrance fee is R60 for adults and R30 for kids. There is a swimming beach close by but it pays to check with the locals first. The crystal Atlantic waters are also inviting to great white sharks.
Who's in a rush? Lions hold up traffic in the Schotia Private Game Reserve.
Simonstown village is worth a visit itself, with well-priced boutiques and trendy cafes. Pop in to see the lovely staff at The Pantry, 132 St Georges St, and enjoy a chicken pie and toffee coffee but ask for a double shot. It seems only us Kiwis like our coffee strong.
Around the peninsula lies Cape Point Nature Reserve, long considered to be the southernmost point of Africa, where the Atlantic and Indian Oceans meet. An easy three-kilometre return walk to the clifftop gives stellar views above the clouds. This is the place you will most likely spot baboons and, for that reason, keep your food in the car or eat at Two Oceans Restaurant. Entrance to the reserve is R125.
You can't go to Cape Town without visiting Table Mountain. Check the weather forecast as many travellers have missed out due to fog. While tempting to climb, the safest option is to arrive early, park beside the box office, and take the cable car at R240 return. The summit is huge so there are plenty of gorgeous views. In summer you will need sunscreen and water but there is also a cafe at the summit. The wildlife you will most likely see up are the dassie, or rock hyrax, a cute rodent type creature the size of a rabbit and, remarkably, related to elephants.
Elegant giraffes at the Schotia Private Game Reserve.
For a spectacular scenic drive, check out Chapman's Peak. This is on the way home from Table Mountain for us, after stopping at beautiful Camps Bay beach. The sun starts to set as we drive along the cliffs and under a hairy stretch of tunnel on the drive between Noordhoek and Hout Bay. The small toll fee of R30 is well worth it.
While the rest of our trip is largely focused on nature, Robben Island is where we discover the human spirit of South Africa. For outsiders, the penal colony was where South Africa's former president Nelson Mandela was held captive for 27 years. For locals, it's one of the strongest symbols of Apartheid. Our tour guide, Itumeleng Makhwela, was imprisoned between 1980-87 for being part of the ANC during a time of guerrilla warfare. "I was tortured in the electric chair," he tells us. There were no options for parole, and the Bantu (an African ethnic group he is a part of) received less meat and lower quality bread than Coloureds and Indians.
After this insightful experience we spy another local treasure, a whale breaching near our ferry on our return to the "Mother City". Here in Cape Town, we enjoy the culinary delights of the V&A (Victoria & Alfred) Waterfront, courtesy of the Cape Town Fish Market. We enjoy a prawn curry, mussels, hake, calamari, and good old fish 'n' chips. The picturesque waterfront is a destination in its own right with the Cape Wheel (a baby version of the London Eye), pretty heritage buildings, and swanky places to eat and drink. Earlier in the day August enjoyed a memorable apple pie-flavoured milk fluffy at Tribakery, the deliciousness of which we have not found a match for back home.
An elephant and baby at the Addo Elephant National Park.
PARADISE, YES, WARZONE? MAYBE
Arriving in Port Elizabeth, we are concerned to see spiked fences everywhere except for our hotel. A cluster of men drinking stubbies on the porch at 2pm only adds to our unease. But I'm glad I don't read the paper until the next morning - "We Want Soldiers on Our Streets", reads the front page headline, with an article detailing locals' lack of faith in the police. Perhaps this is what our South African friends meant when they warned our visit would be an "eye opener"?
On the highway we see our first township, Motherwell. Trash litters the wide grass verges, while a handful of people do their best to pick it up. The little shacks with corrugated iron roofs stretch out for kilometres. Women wearing headscarves transport goods on their heads. Mothers carry swaddled babies on their backs. There is a gathering outside the police station. Further into our trip, in Cape Town, we pass a road sign warning - "smash and grab hotspot". The stereo in our rented SUV plays Zayn Malik's Pillowtalk, and the lyrics It's our paradise and it's our warzone ring out. The next time we drive past a township, which government websites warn us against visiting, we are less nervous and more curious about another way of life.
The drive around Chapmans Peak is breathtaking.
The sanitising wipes ... on hand at supermarkets, are necessary in wiping down your trolley before you start your shop.
Look out for entrepreneurs ... with folks regularly approaching your car doors at intersections to entice you with a magazine or crafty trinket. Some like to direct you while you park your car, others - like the shades-wearing dude who loitered near us at the Thrifty car rentals depot - want to help load your luggage. Then thereare the service station attendants who did an excellent job washing our car by hand. It was a shame it was the attendant who ran around flapping her arms at incoming cars who demanded a tip.
The service station attendants did an excellent job washing our car by hand.
Immunisations are recommended ... on our GP's advice we receive Hepatitis C vaccinations and anti-malaria medication as a precaution. August is too young to take anything so we wash fresh fruit and vegetables before he eats them, avoid street food, and keep baby wipes handy. We keep a stash of prescription medicine on hand too, though we don't end up needing it. On safari we use repellent with 80 per cent deet for ourselves, and a natural one with lemon for August. We dress him in long clothes and socks, and place a mosquito net over his bed to prevent him from being bitten.
It's recommended you avoid contact with animals ... as rabies is present in South Africa. Domestic dogs are trained to protect their owners too, so it pays to keep your distance.
It's wise to avoid driving at night ... though occasionally we wanted to stay out, so that was inevitable. There was only one gang shooting scare during our stay, but we didn't see anything.
*The exchange rate is 10 rand to NZ$1.
My Son, My Hopes, My Fears
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