I had been briefly to South Africa before but was looking forward to visiting Kruger National Park for the first time. The trip was only 5 days but I set off with high expectations and enthusiasm. Once we arrived at Jo’burg, our tour organisers had laid on a private plane to get us to Kruger and we then checked into our lodge, the Lions Sands - fantastic! Service - excellent, rooms - amazing and food also top notch.
On arrival we had a short time to freshen up and then straight off for our first game drive. I stayed in the Ivory Lodge and took the boardwalk to reach it. I turned the key and walked in the door to be greeted by the sight of two sun loungers, a parasol and my private plunge pool right in front of me. All of this came with a river backdrop with animals coming down for water continually. I looked right to see my huge lounge and left for my bedroom and bathroom. As rooms go, one of the best.
Although I had done a safari game drive before and this was to be one of the highlights of the trip, so much depends on your driver and tracker. We were delighted to have Kruger (yes, Kruger was his name!) as our tracker and Demay as our guide - they were both to prove to be excellent. We set off and headed into the bush and within 15 minutes we had hit the jackpot with our first sighting from the "Big 5", a herd of elephants. You might have seen them at Longleat but nothing is quite as exciting as seeing these wonderful animals where they should be, in the wild.
First a large female came through, then another, followed by a 6-month year old youngster. We then had a small nervous moment as the next one, turned to face us head on! Will he charge or turn and go? This is what makes the excitement and thrill of a game drive a wholly different experience from a safari park. Firstly, nothing is guaranteed to be seen and secondly, what you do see is wild and will behave and do what it wants to do with no choreography, brilliant.
These majestic beasts crashed their way past us, eating as they went, around 15 of them, a great start. We set off again in search of whatever came our way. It was to be lions, three males relaxing around a watering hole, two younger ones and one with a huge mane - quite a sight.
This is where your guide can make the difference, seeing the animals is amazing but the knowledge given by a top guide makes a great experience a wonderful one. A lot of the drive consisted of simply driving through the bush, no big animals but during this the knowledgeable Demay tells us about every bird we see or even hear. The trees, the flora and flora - in fact pretty much anything. He even stopped at a pile of rhino faeces to tell us all about it! Black rhino eat all their food by chopping it at a 45-degree angle, so a quick search of the rhino poo will reveal which rhino you are following - ideal for tracking in the African bush, not quite as useful at home in Chepstow! Fascinating all the same.
We then visit one of the Lodge’s truly amazing tree houses. Each is a mile or so away from the lodge. You are taken there at a time of your choice and left for the night with a dinner on the terrace, drinks of your choice and a radio, just in case you panic in the night. The staff simply pulls up the drawbridge and leave you at one with nature. The setting is simply stunning overlooking the tree canopies and wildlife below. The accommodation is equally good - this really is a room with a view. On the way home from our drive we met up with another jeep that had spotted a group of lions on the dirt road. Our lights picked out the animals as they walked along and passed our jeep, a wonderful end to the day.
My biggest choice of the day now lay ahead. Should I use the huge inside shower, the even bigger oval bath or the biggest of them all, the outside shower? This was an indulgent choice that sums up all that is great about Lion Sands. Dinner varies night by night at the lodge, from formal silver service a la carte dining to the selection for our evening, a bouma, an al fresco barbecue experience around a roaring campfire. The food consisted of local specialities including Springbok as the main course, which is a bit like a minute steak. The evening concluded with some songs from the local choir, made up of some staff from the property, excellent again.
Sadly, we now had only one more game drive left before our flight at 11.15. As is usual with this morning drives, the wake up call is at 5.30 for a 6am departure. This might sound like torture but the excitement ensures it is not. I have coffee delivered to my room by my butler Rodnick, who bangs a wooden shell to indicate it's arrival - different!
We set off and find my personal highlight of the drives, rhino. They were a good 100 metres away so Demay decides we should go on foot for a closer look - cue nervous but excited looks around the vehicle. After a briefing including "don't run away"!!! we set off. This worked and got us closer until the rhino spotted us and a gracious retreat was required. Thankfully the animals made their way along the dirt track and we could drive up to them. As the animals see no threat in the jeeps, you can get incredibly close to the wildlife - these rhinos I could almost touch.
More sightings continue and a walking trip down to see the hippos, the biggest killer of man in Africa, not an obvious choice! Whilst down there a croc cruises by for a final sighting before we are away. We fail in our efforts to see the Big 5 with the buffalo and giraffe escaping us, but not bad in just two drives. Now it’s off to Cape Town.
A 2 hour or so flight takes us to southern South Africa and Cape Town, arguably the city with the best backdrop in the world. Table Mountain looms over the whole city giving it a very special feel. We are staying in Camps Bay, a palm tree, beach clad suburb just 10 minutes from the city centre. This might be something you had not thought about with a city stay, but Cape Town has bright white sand beaches as well as weather to match. The sea is cold all year around from the Atlantic currents but it is a mecca for surfers and kite surfers alike. The Bay Hotel is our base. Not sure I would quite rate this hotel the 5 stars it claims, an excellent 4 star, yes. Rooms are very nice, public areas ok and, the main highlight; the room for breakfast has stunning beachfront views.
After an overnight stay we set off to tick the biggest box on the Cape Town list, the cable car up Table Mountain. Two words of caution to start, the cable car is often shut due to high winds so make sure you get your trip in early during your stay, just in case. Secondly, the weather can be very very different up there so jumpers and jackets are very often needed, as they were on the day of our visit. The view from the top is one of the best on a clear day - from Camps Bay, Robben Island, past Lions Head, the V&A Waterfront to the whole city spread before you. Two circular walks are available and we were blown very swiftly around one of them! We then hit the coast road.
We’re off southbound aiming for the Cape of Good Hope. En route we pass Houte Bay (great for whales at the right time of year) and the breath-taking Chapmans Peak, a road built out the rock above the sea - well worth the journey. We arrive to survey the Cape, scene of many a maritime disaster, but not for us. We head for the 2 Oceans restaurant - it was packed with it being Sunday lunchtime, and with the views it has I am not surprised. The other surprise was the price of the meal. With this kind of setting you expect to pay for it, but helped by a good rate against the rand, it worked out at £10 for the main courses including the locally caught seafood specials.
We make our way back via Newlands, the home of rugby in that part of the world and then the V&A Waterfront, a newish waterfront development of top hotels and shops, right on the water in the heart of the city. The shopping is vast with fashion shops seemingly on every corner. Definitely worth a visit and good few hours for a shopaholic.
Safety is a question often raised about visits to South Africa and the General Manager at the Taj Hotel summed it up well. He would not bring his children to a country that was not safe, but would always get a cab and not walk after dark in the city - good and important advice.
The final part of our whistle stop trip takes us for dinner at the Taj Hotel. A newish hotel in the city centre, it retains loads of its original features from its heritage as a bank in the commercial district. The rooms were excellent and it warranted its 5 star billing. Food was interesting and for the first and probably last time, I savoured Ostrich Neck - different...
A trip to this part of South Africa cannot be done without a visit to the wine lands. En route to the airport we stopped to sample some local flavours from a vineyard in Stellenbosch. With a bit of a twist they were all done in combination with speciality chocolate, which was different, and, I have to say, it worked.
So, all in all, an excellent trip and country, with my highlights being Lions Sands, my room there and the game drives.