More than a safari: South Africa’s flora, fauna and culture

Photo: Thor A. Larsen Cape Town from the ocean, with Table Mountain behind it.

Photo: Thor A. Larsen
Cape Town from the ocean, with Table Mountain behind it.

Arlene & Thor Larsen
Fishkill, N.Y.

When you first consider the 30 hours it takes to fly round-trip from N.Y. to South Africa, you might think one would have to be a really big animal lover to withstand that much trans-Atlantic torture. However, the thrill of standing right at the bottom of the African continent (Cape of Good Hope), where 500 years ago Bartolomeu Dias first experienced the wind and fury of the Atlantic and the Indian Oceans coming together to battle it out turns out to be worthy of such discomfort!

Since we are not getting any younger, we signed up for the “South Africa Highlights and Safari Tour” offered by smar­Tours (our fifth trip with this firm). We also opted for the extension that included Zimbabwe’s Victoria Falls plus a safari in Chobe National Park in Botswana.

Once you have seen Cape Town, you have to agree with the popular opinion that the city is one of the most beautiful in the world, located on the edge of the Atlantic Ocean with a backdrop of dramatic mountains. This is a neat, clean, and contemporary-looking city, with a large university, modern hospitals, office buildings, and hotels. A colorful and historical area of the city is known as Bo-Kaap, where people paint their houses in vibrant colors. This area is home to the Cape Town Muslim community.

Cape Town is especially stunning when approached from the sea. We took a boat to Robben Island to visit the prison museum and nature park. This island was used as a prison since the 1600s; it was the infamous prison that held Nelson Mandela for over 20 years. Experiencing the walk-through with a former prisoner was a riveting experience. The Robben Island boat left and returned to the Victoria and Alfred Waterfront, Cape Town’s main attraction. The waterfront encompasses several wharfs containing shops, restaurants, hotels, a world-class aquarium, open plazas for entertainment, and quays for yacht and tour boats. With balmy temperatures in the low 70s, the waterfront is a perfect place to enjoy African music, a meal of fresh fish and local wine, and a view of the sea and mountains in the background.

Visitors to South Africa may be filled with uplifting notions of the end of apartheid and the beginning of a “rainbow” nation where black people will be able to realize a better future. While major improvements have occurred, as your bus leaves the airport and starts the road down to Cape Town, you can’t help but notice the “townships,” (the black suburbs) of Langa and Khyalitsha and others adjacent to the highway. They are the shantytowns we see on TV, nothing but jury-rigged shacks of discarded metal, plastic, and cardboard. Our guide explained that as the government builds new homes for poor black people, newer, more desperate people from adjacent countries move into these townships to take their place. The slums are outside of Cape Town and visitors are advised only to travel there with guides.

Our visit to the Cape of Good Hope and Cape Point with high winds and churning seas was as dramatic and exciting as expected. On the way back to Cape Town, we made a lunch stop at Boulders Beach where their famous inhabitants, the jackass penguins (also known as the African penguin or black-footed penguin), hold court so all the tourists can snap photos of the only land-breeding colony of jackass penguins. So cute!

Photo: Thor A. Larsen A pair of South Africa’s famous  jackass penguins.

Photo: Thor A. Larsen
A pair of South Africa’s famous jackass penguins.

Of course, when we think of Africa, we think of exotic plants, trees, and flowers, so we were looking forward to getting a glimpse of the Kistenbosch Botanical Gardens, near Cape Town, with its 8,000 species of plants. Especially exciting was the Protea flower, the country’s national flower, in bloom, and attracting the Cape sugarbird. We enjoyed the rich array of flowering trees and plants plus a large variety of birds with our guide providing a continuous lecture as we proceeded through the park.

While wine and South Africa may not seem synonymous, in 1688, French Huguenots arrived with grapevine clippings from home and settled in the mountainous region 30 miles east of Cape Town. We visited the historical city of Stellenbosch, in the center of this wine country. Stellenbosch is known as the City of Oaks for the trees that line the streets of this charming Afrikaans University town with many historical Cape Dutch houses and churches that have been pain­stakingly restored. This was the perfect setting to enjoy coffee and biscuits on a patio of a busy café, shaded by one of those healthy oak trees. Later in the morning, we traveled a winding road up into the hills to visit the famous Boschendal Winery.

We then flew to Durban, a port city on the Indian Ocean, and drove along the coastline. Heading north, we traveled through sugar cane, pineapple, and pine tree farms (with thatched huts scattered about) as we headed into Kwazulu Natal Province and the Safari Park of Hluhluhue Umfolozi.

After two exciting safari outings in Hluhluhue Park where we encountered Cape buffalos, rhinos, baboons, hyenas, zebras, countless kudus, wart hogs, impalas, and many species of beautifully colored birds, we pressed north through Swaziland to Kruger National Park to enjoy more safaris. In Kruger, we had our first glimpses of lion cubs, elephants, and giraffes. It was here that we experienced an amazing encounter with a den of 10 lions that had managed to surround our jeep as we came around a bend in the road. They were not at all intimidated by this group of 10 stunned tourists and virtually ignored us as they strolled past our jeep no more than six feet away! (This lion encounter will always be our “Safari Moment”!)

Photo: Thor A. Larsen Lounging lions in Kruger National Park.

Photo: Thor A. Larsen
Lounging lions in Kruger National Park.

The attractive safari hotels in Hluhluhue and Kruger were constructed of natural woods, reeds, and stone. They created the feeling of being outdoors in the jungle. In fact, the lobbies were totally open to the outside. One evening, we were surprised by a Vervet monkey as he walked through the lobby.

After leaving Kruger Park, we traveled west towards Johannesburg via the “Drakensberg escarpment,” a region of fascinating natural wonders, including the Blyde River Canyon and the Three Rondavels. (The Zulus live in huts known as Rondavels.) This elevated region is a dramatic part of the country where the mountains have sheer drops to the floor of the Bushveld Plains, creating deep canyons, waterfalls, and interesting rock formations. When the sky is clear, the views are almost infinite from the mountain peaks. This region became very important to the European settlers that came through in the 1830s during the “Great Trek” and again in the 1870s when gold was discovered.

Arriving in Johannesburg, we stayed at a hotel in the well-to-do suburb of Sandton. The next day, we briefly toured a rather blighted downtown and later visited the home of Nelson Mandela and a museum in the suburbs of Soweto that focused on the dramatic black uprisings created when the black schools were told to only teach in the Afrikaner language. This excursion did give us some insight into the pain suffered by black people during the apartheid period.

We spent an afternoon in the attractive city of Pretoria, the former Afrikaans capital and still the administrative center of South Africa. Although the city abounds with historical monuments, classical buildings, and flower-filled parks, its appearance suffers some because of the large number of illegal immigrants from neighboring countries. One highlight in Pretoria was to see the courtroom and cell where Nelson Mandela was originally tried and sentenced.

On leaving Johannesburg, we flew to Zimbabwe to visit Victoria Falls and the Chobe National Park in Botswana. Our hotel was situated on a high plateau overlooking the plains of Zambezi National Park. Built on 11 levels, the hotel looks like a thatched tree house. In the back of the hotel, private balconies face a productive watering hole where we watched elephants, baboons, kudus, crocodiles, and birds of many species. It was like watching the nature channel.

Victoria Falls is situated on the Zambezi River and drops into a steep narrow chasm of 300 feet (twice the height of Niagara Falls). You view the falls from the opposite side, where the path goes along the entire two-kilometer width of the falls. The ground literally shakes from its power and its deafening roar can be heard 25 miles away. Mist can be seen four miles away.

The journey to the Chobe National Park in Botswana was our last outing of the tour and the excitement it generated surpassed all the other safaris we had experienced. The day began with a cruise on the Chobe River, in a region where Botswana, Zimbabwe, Zambia, and Namibia come together. Wildlife in and near the river was varied, and we had three knowledgeable young men as guides for this cruise. Not long after launching, we spotted a couple of crocodiles, outdone only by a large group of hippopotamuses that popped their heads out of the water to eye us. Then the elephants showed up, and the boat went wild! At first we spied one elephant, then two, then more and still more: males, females, young ones, babies (two-months old), some drinking, some bathing, some rolling around on the river bank. This was the best African experience we had.

After a sumptuous buffet lunch on a deck overlooking the river, we boarded the safari jeeps for the wildest ride of all. Unlike the other parks, the roads here were very uneven and hence, very bumpy as well as fast. There were times we thought the many massive elephants would just bowl us over as we blocked their walking paths. We also saw a rather large number of giraffes, zebras, kudus, and impalas, and even a three- or four-foot-long lizard that fortunately kept his distance. At the end of the day, we joyfully said we had “seen it all” and enjoyed a couple of glasses of wine with our new friends as we watched the sunset from our outdoor restaurant.

Sharing the tour with 40 other friendly and engaging people from different parts of the U.S. and Canada helped make this tour more than just visiting phenomenal sites. Our tour guide not only was very knowledgeable on the sites we were visiting but also had an exceptional background on the history and culture of South Africa that he shared with us on the bus rides. In fact, he has written a book on South Africa.

Our tour was much more than a series of journeys between safari stops. It was an excellently planned journey to provide the visitor with a broad perspective of modern South Africa as well as its wildlife. That goal was accomplished in spades!

This article originally appeared in the Jan. 29, 2016, issue of the Norwegian American Weekly.

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