South Africa: Third time's a charm | The Gap Life Diaries
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South Africa: Third time’s a charm

My first visit to South Africa was back in the ’90s and my first ever long-haul family holiday. We’d gone for Christmas, using the excuse that we had family there, a.k.a. my dad’s long-lost Uncle Alan and his South African wife, Shirley – a tenuous link at best, but one my parents were keen to exploit.

For a kid, especially a kid growing up in the UK, South Africa feels like the most exciting place on earth. You can’t swim with penguins at the beach in Essex, after all. I have some of my most vivid holiday memories from that trip; spending what felt like (and probably was) hours shoving as many pretty-coloured gemstones into a plastic bag as I possibly could at Simon’s Town’s Mineral World, climbing on the Just Nuisance dog statue in the town centre, playing in the road with my brother outside the house or with my Aunt’s old, blind, deaf daschhund Schnappsie in the living room, sitting in the bath watching bath beads dissolve and reveal exotic animal-shaped sponges, and feeling all warm inside when Shirley, who I’d met for the first time just hours before, called me “my beautiful girl” in her lovely Afrikaner accent. We spent our first summer Christmas at my Aunt and Uncle’s house, before heading to the Kruger National Park for a safari which, apart from being sick as a dog from the malaria tablets and looking like a corpse in every photo, really was the most amazing thing to do – for the first time possibly ever, my brother and I sat in a car together and didn’t hurt each other. Truly a Christmas miracle.

The penguins at Boulder’s Beach – my favourite thing about SA the first time around…


We returned to South Africa when I was about 13, this time in their winter. Windy days prevented us from taking the cable car to the top of Table Mountain, as they had done also the previous time, but we were so busy with other activities that it didn’t really matter. This time, both I and my brother were old enough to appreciate other aspects of South Africa, and as well as another amazing safari (this time in a place called the Shamwari Game Reserve – the most beautiful tented lodges, and incredible food – who knew warthog could be so juicy?), we took a ferry to Robben Island to be guided around the prison by an ex-detainee (a unsettling tourist experience, but a must), we drove down the Garden Route to Knysna and the elephant sanctuary there, we went horse riding on the beach, and even went wine tasting – fairly irresponsible on my parents’ part but good fun as it seems that, in South Africa, if you’re old enough to be able to hold a wine glass, you’re considered old enough to drink whatever is poured into it.

My third time in Cape Town was as an adult, and so desperate was I to go back that I actually sold my car to pay for the flights (“YOLO”, or something?).

The original plan was to go with a South African friend and his wife, but in the end they couldn’t come along so the Greek and I decided to go it alone. His Mediterranean approach to holiday organisation meant we had to book our hotel from our phones using the WiFi at Dubai airport during our stopover, but other than that small glitch it all went very well indeed. It was his first time outside Europe, so I took it upon myself to act as tour guide.

We did go back to a couple of my old haunts – to Simon’s Town to see the Boulder’s Beach penguins (10 years on, you can’t swim with them any more, but they’re probably happier as a result) and the Just Nuisance statue – but we managed to squeeze in quite a lot of more exciting things too.

The highlights this time included:

Shark cage diving at Gansbaai

Despite a full-on and mainly unfounded shark/general sea phobia, I’d decided I really, really wanted to go cage diving, and found a place in Gansbaai which ran trips. Apart from my fear of underwater creatures and the ocean itself, I also get quite seasick, so all in all this was potentially a fairly terrible idea. The smell of bloody, fishy chum being lobbed into the water around the boat while we bobbed around in the swell did not help the situation, but after restraining myself from being sick for an incredibly long time (comforting, in a way, that it took this long for the sharks to arrive) it was finally time to jump into the cage. Basically, you put on a snorkel mask, and pull yourself underwater as the sharks approach, keeping fingers and toes tucked safely inside the cage, of course. In the winter, the water is clearer, but in summer the sharks just seem to come out of nowhere and whoosh past your face. The water is freezing, and you feel it more because, as our guide told us, wetsuits are available in only two sizes: too big, or too small.

Sandboarding at Atlantis Dunes

We booked a sandboarding adventure through Downhill Adventures and spent one day at the Atlantis dunes north of the city with our guide, incidentally the most chilled out man I’ve ever met. Sandboarding is all the fun of snowboarding, with the opposite temperature issues and quadruple the effort (no chair lifts in the desert, you guys!). Unlike on snow, you have to really lean forwards to get going, which does feel like the wrong thing to do, but it somehow works. Incredibly, I didn’t end up with a mouthful of sand, but good lord if my bum muscles didn’t ache the next day.

Would’ve looked significantly cooler without the awkward double peace sign, but hey ho.

The cheetah sanctuary

One unexpected highlight of the trip was visiting the cheetah sanctuary, Cheetah Outreach centre near Paardevlei – a conservation and breeding centre where you can hang out up close with some very happy cheetahs and some very loving keepers. We didn’t really know this was a thing, and had been pointed in the direction of the place by our friend’so dad. We were able to go and pet some cheetah cubs, and discovered that they actually purr like house cats. The most amazing thing was watching the cheetahs’ reactions when children were around – I’ve never seen an animal look at a human as if it were lunch like that.

The views. Oh, the views!

The panoramas in this place are something else.

We drove down the most beautiful road in the world (according to the BBC, anyway) – the Chapman’s Peak Drive – to go down south to the Cape of Good Hope, a stunning place which is probably quite unique in boasting a risk of carjacking by baboon. We stopped so many times along the way to take photos – each time you turn a corner and think that the view is the most beautiful you’ve ever seen, and then you turn the next corner and think the same thing all over again.

Driving down the Chapman’s Peak road…


Another one for the amazing view list is Blouberg beach, which had been pointed out to us by the sand boarding instructor on the way to Atlantis. It’s a lovely long, wide, sandy beach but the real reason to visit is for the view across the bay to Table Mountain – the best in the city, I reckon.

Table Mountain from Blouberg beach.


And if you can’t be bothered to go that far, actually some of the scenery inside the city is pretty breathtaking too – the so-called Twelve Apostles mountains are an incredible backdrop to the Camps Bay beaches (see the photo at the top of this post!).

The wine country

We tried a lot of wine in South Africa, and drove out to two “real wine places”. One was Stellenbosch, where we actually went more for the Dutch-influenced town as a whole, but which is famed for its wine production (so obviously, we had some over lunch). This place is quite touristy, but for good reason, as it’s adorable, so was worth a stop.

For an actual wine tasting experience, we chose Spier, again on the recommendation of our friend’s family. The wine was honestly incredible, and after a scenic walk around the vineyards, we loaded up the car with bottles to bring back to Italy with us.

The top of Table Mountain

Last but not least… I finally made it to the top of South Africa’s most famous landmark, third time lucky. The cable car stops running at a moment’s notice if the wind picks up (as my family had found out the hard way the previous times)  so you can’t ever be 100% sure when you’ll be able to go – we kept an eye on the situation whenever we were in Cape Town and drove on over as soon as we saw the weather was right. 20 years after the first attempt, I finally managed to take the cable car to the top of Table Mountain, and the view at sunset was well worth the wait.

I’ve never been so sad to leave a place as I was at the end of my last trip: South Africa is safely my favourite destination so far. The flights from Europe are pricey, but the cost of living once you’re there is mind blowingly cheap, so on balance its no more expensive than somewhere closer to home. The white wine is the best in the world, and the people are among the friendliest. Yes, it can be dangerous, but not for you as a tourist as long as you behave sensibly. Our friend’s dad seemed pretty sure I could find a job in Cape Town, and I have to admit the idea has passed through my mind a few times since.

There’s just something about the place that I find irresistible.

Maybe next time I’ll be able to put my finger on what it is…


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