I’d be back visiting Australia and New Zealand as often as finances allowed, if only it wasn’t for the dreaded jet lag. But two weeks of feeling grotty, followed by another two upon returning home does somewhat dampen one’s enthusiasm.
And so with just a two hour time difference, yet the pull of glorious summer sun, South Africa was a bit of a no brainer as a winter destination this year.
With Paul serving in the Royal Navy for many years, it’s not often we find a country that neither of us have previously visited, but South Africa was exciting on this dimension, too. By day three, we were both entirely smitten and Paul could be found head deep in rugby schedule and leave entitlement analysis, planning our next adventure.
So what can I tell you about this extraordinary place?
It’s hard to know where to begin. In fact my head is still in a whirl with all that we saw. I was indulged with five incredible gardens and five breathtaking hikes; I now feel quite intimately acquainted with the highly distinctive fynbos indigenous vegetation of the Cape.
Perhaps I’ll start with an overview of our two weeks, a chronological look at the areas we visited, before looking at the gardens and vegetation in more detail.
Day 1: Kirstenbosch
We commenced the trip in Cape Town, staying just a couple of minutes walk from the world-renowned Kirstenbosch Botanical Gardens. What a surprise to find it just down the road when we arrived at our guesthouse (perhaps more so for Paul, than myself)! Frequently listed as a top ten garden of the world, Kirstenbosch had been on my wish list for a very long time. So far I have filtered my photos of it down to just 68…a little more to do!
Day 2: Table Mountain
On day two we headed up Table Mountain. We thought we’d be adventurous and climb the 1,000 metres to the top, before getting the cable car back down. I’ll share more with you about how this didn’t entirely go to plan, but the summary of the day is that this was where I fell in love with South African fynbos.
Days 3 & 4: Cape Peninsula
Day three saw us discover the Cape Peninsula. Some of the spectacular views reminded me of Australia, others of Greece, but every so often you were re-awoken with unmistakably African sights.
I found it an incredible mix of cultures: strong influences from the Dutch, Brits and indigenous Khoisan people with additional twists from maritime traders, other African tribes, the Portuguese, indentured Indian labourers, the Hugunots (French Protestants fleeing religious persecution) and, even more sadly, slave Malays. The 11 official languages go some way to demonstrating this incredible ethnic and cultural diversity.
I did find the inequality quite confronting. Whilst social mobility is improving, you can’t help but notice a very strong correlation between colour of skin and average wealth. Some of the stories we heard about the time of Apartheid were just impossible to comprehend and there are clearly layers and layers of complexity to the situation which two weeks as a tourist leaves you entirely ill-equipped to make sense of. Yet despite an unemployment rate of over 25% today, there was not a moment when we felt either vulnerable or threatened.
On the contrary, we struggle to think of anywhere that we have received such a warm, friendly and genuine reception. Day after day, our expectations were exceeded, all races seemingly aligned in wanting to go that extra mile to make our holiday the best it possibly could be. Combine this with some of the best food we’ve ever had and the most spectacular natural beauty and this country really does hit the jackpot.
Days 5 & 6: Somerset West
Somerset West was hot, hot, hot but the blue skies made for lovely photos! We were taken around Helderberg Nature Reserve by a very passionate guide who indulged me with all the botanical names. We were also staying just next door to another top ten South Africa garden…so thought it rude not to pop in.
Days 7 & 8: Stellenbosch
Stellenbosch is all about vineyards and historic architecture. It’s the most delightful little town and actually not so very far from another very famous garden! Thank goodness for a tolerant husband.
Days 9, 10 & 11: Hermanus
Hermanus has a beachside holiday town feel about it. We had one of our most relaxing days here, wandering along the beach and watching the kite surfers. This happened to be on Paul’s birthday and we stopped for a celebratory drink: Paul a Pimms and me a water. Both priced at £1.50!
We explored both the magnificient Fernkloof and Kogelberg nature reserves and found that our last hike happened to conveniently finish up in the Harold Porter National Botanical Garden.
Day 12: Betty’s Bay Penguins
Driving back to Cape Town along the scenic coastal road, we stopped to visit the penguins at Betty’s Bay, one of just three mainland penguin colonies in Africa. The drive reminded us of the Great Ocean Road near Melbourne, although amazingly enough, my Melburnian husband offered up the view that Clarence Drive actually beat the Australian version.
Days 13 & 14: Cape Town
Our last two days were spent back in Cape Town, this time based at the historic Victoria and Albert Waterfront. It was somewhat touristy, but very attractive, nonetheless. We braved a pretty rough sea to visit Robben Island, where Jama, a former political inmate, showed us the cell where Nelson Mandela spent all those years. What I didn’t realise was that ‘Mr Mandela’ also had a garden there. It would be a little glib of me to suggest that his garden may have played a role in his almost superhumanly robust spirit, but I’ll admit, I did wonder if it helped, just a bit.
Alas, it was time to leave the Cape and we were hit with a bump by the service and food quality on our flight home with a fairly well known British airline. Now back in freezing temperatures, I’ll keep dreaming and enjoying my photographs until such time that we are able to revisit the very special country that is South Africa.
Note: Piet and Andries from Trails and Travel put together this wonderful itinerary and looked after us like royalty whilst we were there. We can highly recommend them if you are thinking of a South African holiday.