South Africa

This post is a little different in that it isn’t going to be about a single city, but rather an entire country. We spent 3 weeks in South Africa and traveled around within it quite a bit, so we feel it’s fair to talk about the country rather than just Cape Town, even though that is where we spent the majority of our time.

First thing to get out of the way: South Africa is INCREDIBLE. It was our favourite stop on the trip so far, by a long shot. Practically everything about it was enjoyable, and we liked it so much that we’re already (loosely) planning a return trip.

This is going to be a long post, so here’s a quick overview of what we did before we dive into things:

  • Flew into Cape Town and stayed about 5 days.
  • Flew from Cape Town to Port Elizabeth, shuttled to Kichaka and stayed for 3 days.
  • Shuttled from Kichaka back to the Port Elizabeth airport and rented a car.
  • Drove the Garden Route back to Cape Town, with overnight stops in Knysna, Mossel Bay, and Stellenbosch.
  • Stayed in the Camps Bay neighborhood of Cape Town for 4 more days.
  • Took a 3-day train from Cape Town to Pretoria, stopping in Matjiesfontein and Kimberley.
  • Shuttled from Pretoria to the Johannesburg airport and flew out!

Cape Town

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Table Mountain from Cape Town Center

After a 10 hour flight from Dubai, we landed in Cape Town in the evening and nearly didn’t make it past immigration. Because we knew we’d be in the country for a few weeks, we hadn’t yet booked our exit flight, and that didn’t sit well with the immigration officer! Luckily she was chill about it and allowed us to book an exit flight on the spot. We booked something refundable so we were able to cancel it later – it seemed they are more interested in making sure you can leave rather than if you actually will, which makes sense. After that somewhat scary moment (never again!) we took a quick cab into the city, marveling at Table Mountain at sunset on the way.

Our 5 days in Cape Town blew by. We were lucky enough to meet up with local gentleman Aaron Marshall who provided us with a damn near overwhelming list of things to see, eat and do. Some highlights:

We ate amazing food at Loading Bay, The Company’s GardenThe Potluck Club, Kloof Street House, and Chefs Warehouse & Canteen. We had some of the best pizza on the trip at Bocca. We got fantastic coffee at Origin and elsewhere. Nearly everywhere we went and at every meal we had, people were friendly and helpful, offering even more recommendations for places we had to go. This is part of why we are already planning another trip.

When we weren’t stomping around Bree St. we spent a fair bit of time at the V&A Waterfront, which is sort of like if San Francisco’s Fisherman’s Wharf area wasn’t overpopulated with huge chain restaurants and souvenir shops. While still touristy, and yes, there are still souvenir shops, it has a much more relaxed vibe and is filled with decent restaurants at which to grab a drink and relax by the water. There’s also a mixed-use building called the Watershed which houses a rotating market on the ground floor and a co-working space and coffee shop above. We bought postcards here and snacked and drank and wrote to our friends back home. It was highly enjoyable.

While in Cape Town we also used took the opportunity to visit Robben Island, which was totally cool. It’s their Alcatraz, basically, but instead of housing scumbags like Al Capone or George Kelly, it held political prisoners like Nelson Mandela and Kgalema Motlanthe. While our guide (a former inmate himself) was a bit difficult to understand through his heavy accent, he was super friendly and answered all kinds of questions from the group. The tour was long, but the views of Cape Town from the island were spectacular, as was being out on the water in general.

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Patrick on Robben Island

We had a lot of fun in our first five days and it went by super quick! Before we knew it, we were off to…

Kichaka

After a short 45 minute flight, we landed in Port Elizabeth and we took a car about an hour and a half northeast towards the outskirts of Grahamstown, to Kichaka, a game reserve that came highly recommended by friends. We spoiled ourselves for this particular part of the trip, both because it was Maja’s birthday and because we couldn’t turn down a such exceptional testimony from friends on what is supposed to be an amazing experience. We were not disappointed.

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The pool and watering hole at Kichaka, where hippos hang out.

The way a game lodge works is like this: It’s basically a nice resort hotel with usual resort hotel amenities: pool, restaurant, areas to relax, exceptional service, etc. The big difference is that it’s located inside a huge park (the reserve) with wild animals roaming everywhere. The actual lodge grounds are cordoned off so you’re not in any danger of being eaten while on your way to the pool, but it’s more a “keep everything out” then a “cage everything in” sort of feeling.

Kichaka is special in that aside from being amazing and luxurious, it sits on a very large game reserve. The story we were told was that some years ago, the owner made an agreement with the owners of the adjacent game lodges (Lalibela and Bayeti) to remove the fences between them and share the land. This means that the acreage is huge – it took us 45 minutes by land cruiser to get across some parts of it, but more on that later. Some game reserves do hunting, but not Kichaka. That shit is rude as hell.

The big thing to do on the the game reserve is go on game drives. They’re included as part of your stay (it’s the whole reason people go, really) and there are two per day, both around 2-3 hours in length: One at 6AM and one at 4PM, to optimize your time around sunrise and sunset. This happens to be the best time to view animals since both the nocturnal and diurnal ones will be waking up or going to sleep. Although you may be thinking “6AM? eff that!” you would quickly realize once you’re there that you very much want to get up to do this. The landscape and environment is such that if there’s any time in your life you’d want to see a sunrise – it’s there and then.

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Sunrise Giraffe

We arrived in the early afternoon which meant we were able to hop on the afternoon game drive. Our driver, Ashley, who would be our driver for every drive during our stay, was the lead ranger and awesomely chill. A former electrician, he gave up the daily grind to spend his life with animals, which is pretty damn cool. He had encyclopedic knowledge of every animal we saw, from termites to birds to the big game. And man, did we see some big game.

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It’s lit fam

One of the advantages to going when we did (late April) was that it was low season – Fall was just kicking up and so there were very few other people at the lodge. In fact, our very first drive, we had Ashley all to ourselves in a Land Cruiser designed for 6-10 people. It was hot (haha, we hadn’t yet been to the Desert at this point and thought 90F was “hot”) but we lucked out and got to see a male Lion only about 30 minutes into the ride.

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Just Waking Up

Shortly after sunset, Ashley pulled over and broke out the cooler and prepared snacks and drinks for us. “Sundowners” would soon become a staple of our trip. (He also did this on the morning drives, but with tea and coffee an biscuits. A+.)

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Ash with the Morning Snack

Although each drive was special in it’s own way, it would be silly to recount the details of each ones, so I’m just going to share a ton of photos and let those do the talking.

Here’s some video, too:

We were extremely sad to leave, but we know for sure we’ll come back. Kichaka remains one of the most amazing experiences we’ve had on our trip.

Garden Route

After getting a ride back to the Port Elizabeth airport, we decided that instead of flying back to Cape Town, we would drive the acclaimed Garden Route, which is sort of similar to California’s Highway 1. We rented a car at the PE Airport, and I was surprised to learned that not only could I still drive a manual transmission car pretty well, I could do it on the opposite side of the road as well! I did have a few hiccups – using my left hand to shift felt extremely unnatural at first, and I may have grabbed my door-handle by accident at one point, but overall everything worked out better than expected!

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Garden Route Views

Driving in South Africa is pretty interesting. First, it’s important to note that highway driving in South Africa was quite a bit different than driving state-side. The speed limit is 130km/h, but even that seems to be only a suggestion, as we were routinely passed by cars doing 150+. Second, the shoulders are all paved and clean, and they get used. It’s customary to move aside, into the shoulder, to allow cars behind you to pass, and this happens frequently on the many single-lane stretches of the garden route. Third, and finally, you have to watch out for baboons. Seriously. We witnessed a huge family cross the highway with luckily enough visibility that we were able to slow down and avoid them, but they seem to be a major problem for drivers, as there are warning signs about them everywhere.

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Maja at the Knysna Heads

The drive itself was quite beautiful. The route is about 750km, which we split up over about 3 days, so only about 2-4 hours of driving a day. We saw massive mountains and fjords (can I use that word in the southern hemisphere?) early on, and rolling hillsides and wind farms later on. We stopped to stay in Knysna, Mossel Bay, and Stellenbosch, where we stayed 2 nights so that we could do some wine tasting.

Stellenbosch itself was fantastic. It felt like Berkeley combined with a less pretentious Napa Valley. It’s a college town, with a huge university anchoring the city in the wine country just outside of Cape Town to the east.

Our BnB host was kind enough to arrange a wine tasting tour for us which worked out wonderfully. We visited Kanonkop, Rustenberg, Oldenberg, and Camberley, all of which had alarmingl heavy pours. We tried the South African-native Pinotage varietal at nearly all of them, which if I remember correctly (I probably don’t) was surprisingly dry and fruitful. Rustenberg was probably our favourite due to it’s beautiful gardens and architecture, though Oldenberg had some fantastic mountain views as well.

Camps Bay

After our short stay in Stellenbosch we drove the quick 30 minutes back into Cape Town to drop off our rental car and cab to our next AirBnb. We decided to stay in Camps Bay suburb due to it’s proximity to the beach and the fact that we really just wanted to hang out for a few days. And hang out we did. Our place was right on the main strip of Camps Bay and we had breakfast at the same little restaurant every day, and didn’t do a whole lot over the next few days. We finally got to see Zootopia (or as it’s known in South Africa, Zootropolis) and Maja went to a bird sanctuary while I downloaded Xcode updates and did laundry. It was a great time.

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The beach at Camps Bay

One interesting thing we did was visit the 12 Apostles Hotel. Located roughly 10 minutes drive south of Camps Bay, this insanely lavish hotel has an awesome bar with patio that’s perfect for sundowners. Visiting cool bars inside fancy hotels we’re not staying at really seems to be our special move on this trip.

Rovos

While we were sad to leave Cape Town again, we were pretty excited by our method of transport: our first train! And what a train it was. Maja had arranged for us to take the Rovos journey from Cape Town to Pretoria, just outside of Johannesburg.

It was a trip on many levels.

We walked up to the Rovos building next to the train station with our backpacks on and were greeted with puzzled looks – surely, we couldn’t be passengers, the small fleet of porters must have thought. But yep when we told them “we’re checking in”, they quickly grabbed our bags and assisted us into the private waiting area where we started to realize what we had gotten ourselves into. There were huge couches everywhere, tiffany lamps on side tables, champagne, and even live music – a string quartet, natch. The crowd was… a little older than us. I believe we were the youngest passengers by about a decade, maybe more. The average passenger age was easily 65, and we were really weighing that down.

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The Train stopped at Kimberley

The train was beautiful, even nicer than the Lilly Belle, Walt Disney’s (once) private Disneyland train car, which is the only thing I can even think to compare it to. Our room had a private bathroom and shower, queen bed, and a mini bar. The lounge car was the best though, with it’s beautiful bar, huge windows, and dark wood everywhere. It was all super over the top.

Sleeping on the train was somewhat of a challenge. The train, while beautiful, is essentially an antique, and as such doesn’t have the smoothest or most comfortable ride. The train purposely stops for about 4 hours in the middle of the night to let people get some rest, but this seemed counter-productive to me. Starting and stopping was the most jarring part – the entire car would shake violently, so if you did fall asleep before the scheduled stop, you’d almost certainly be woken up by it, and then again when it would start moving again.

The train made two stops during the days, once in Matjiesfonten, which I’m fairly certain is simply an used Wes Anderson movie set, and Kimberley, the former diamond industry headquarters. Both were sort of interesting, but not especially stop-worthy. The train was so nice, I would have rather stayed aboard.

Our last night aboard we successfully got drunk with the staff, who were all much closer to our age and quite a lot of fun. They even gave me an honorary bowtie. Good times.

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Goodbye ZA

Note: If you’ve ever wondered why South Africa is abbreviated as ZA: It’s not because Saudi Arabia got dibs on “SA” or because they “ran out of letters by the time they got to the bottom of the world.” The shorthand is derived from the fact that Dutch name for “South Africa” is “Zuid-Afrika”, and with dutch colonization being a part of South Africa’s history, the unique abbreviation stuck.

When we arrived in Pretoria we disembarked to an equally fancy and ridiculous private train station and took a cab to Johannesburg. We flew out early the next day, so we took the opportunity to crash at our airport hotel and have proper showers and get ready for the long flight back to Dubai and onward to Morocco.

Our time in South Africa, just about 3 weeks, was amazing throughout. We didn’t really know what to expect but we couldn’t have been happier with our investment of time there. We really can’t wait to go back.

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