End of the Road

For our very last stop on our travels (not ever, just this jaunt), we ended up at Plettenberg Bay. These final days on South Africa’s Garden Route continued to impress with green rolling hills and deep canyons.

On the way in, we paused for lunch in the town of Knysna. East Head Café was in a beautiful little location, with a wonderful view of the sea cliffs guarding the lagoon’s entrance. We savored it all over some local craft beers and tasty food.

As if Africa was expressing its sadness about our imminent departure, the weather turned dark and Plettenberg Bay greeted us with torrential rains and some of the loudest lightning we’ve ever heard.

The weather was much better the next morning, but the skies were still threatening more rain. Nevertheless, we decided to try our luck one last time with some African animal sightings by heading out on a whale watching tour. What a disaster. Despite the very iffy forecast, the boat went out. No sooner than we had left the shelter of the bay, the rains starting coming down, the winds picked up, and we all held on for dear life as we were rocked around the growing swells while getting pelted with cold salt water and rain. If there were any whales to be seen, nobody could open their eyes to see them.

On the bright side, we did get to briefly glimpse the Cape fur seal colony on Robberg Peninsula before the weather turned. Oh, and we got about half of our money back when the passengers all revolted post-ride.

Thankfully, the weather cleared for our last day of round the world travel. We made the most of the day by taking a hike on the Robberg Nature Reserve, where we got to see the seal colony from above (and hear their nasty grunts and barks!).

The views were absolutely spectacular.

And we even spotted these beautiful blue lizards on our walk back.

To cap off the day, the South Africa trip, the Africa trip, the whole damn thing, we headed over to Keurboomstrand for our final supper on the road. We had a fantastic meal at Ristorante Enrico, knocking back a few Red Bridge Golden Ales and fresh wild oysters.

We ate outside and enjoyed the picturesque view, which was reminiscent of Stinson Beach in California. Call me sentimental but I was incredibly moved by what happened next: an enormous school of dolphins came out to swim across the bay. It was such a magical way to end our journey, watching as literally hundreds of dolphins swam by, jumping in and out of the surf and riding the waves.

From there we made the long, long journey home to LAX. For good! (more or less)

Practical Info

Plettenberg Bay is a popular holiday destination along the Garden Route. It was not swimming weather for our visit, but Plett sports some gorgeous sweeping beaches. It was a toss up whether to end our trip in Plett or Knysna. I don’t think you’d go wrong either way, but we were happy with our choice. We arrived a little too late in the year to catch the Southern Right Whales in the bay.

Transportation: We drove from Oudtshoorn, taking the N9/N12 through the Outeniqua Pass down to George. From there we took N2 through Wilderness, Sedgefield etc., and we had lunch at the Knysna Heads. We departed by car to Port Elizabeth airport, from where we flew to Johannesburg on Mango Air (budget, but perfectly fine). From Johannesburg, we took British Airways via London Heathrow back home to Los Angeles!

Accommodation: We stayed at Christiana Lodge. It is a beautiful guesthouse with attractive furnishings. It is located a short walk from Robberg Beach, and the drive to town takes ~10 minutes. Breakfast is included and very good. Dinner is served onsite only certain nights; I think Tuesday and Thursday.

Food and Drinks: We thoroughly enjoyed our seafood and pasta at Ristorante Enrico, overlooking Keurboomstrand. The great service and hundreds of dolphins surfing the waves nearby didn’t hurt. Lunch at The Fat Fish was good. We ate dinner one night at our guesthouse, and it was very good (R325 for three courses).

Lunch at East Head Cafe at the Knysna Heads was great. Some other places recommended to us include Zinzi, Nguni, The Table and Emily’s Moon River Lodge.

Activities: Hiking on Robberg Peninsula was fantastic. There are three loop options, we chose the middle one called Witsand (it took us 2 hours and 15 minutes with plenty of time for snacks and photos). The overall elevation doesn’t change that much, but there is a bit of up and down, some large steps, uneven rocks, sand, etc. It is not an easy stroll. The views are excellent, and from some points you can look down at the Cape fur seal colony. Entry to the Nature Reserve costs R40 each.

Whale watching with Ocean Blue Adventures was a lowlight. The weather was spotty and they probably should not have sent the boat out. We saw the Cape fur seal colony at Robberg Peninsula, and that was nice; the rest of the time was choppy seas and getting pelted in the face with cold water. Normally it costs R700 each, they discounted ours to R400 when we got back. Many thought a full refund was in order.

There are various places for hiking, kayaking, canoeing etc. in the area. We were sorry to miss Tsitsikamma National Park and the Storms River Mouth. There are also some animal activities, like Tenikwa, Monkeyland, Birds of Eden, etc.

November 3-6, 2014 (Monday-Thursday)

Oudtshoorn

To my delight we discovered that South African road trips also involve kitschy roadside attractions. Case in point: burgers and shakes at Diesel and Crème! The perfect stop on our ride into Oudtshoorn.

Given that Oudtshoorn is the ostrich capital of the world, it seemed only fitting to begin our stay with a visit to an ostrich farm. We took a fun, informative tour, where we got to feed the ostriches, stand on their eggs, and I even sat on one! I wasn’t as brave as the others who actually went for a ride on them…

…but I did subject myself to the ostrich neck massage!

I think I took it better than this lady though:

(and here’s a little video of the ostrich riding, if you’re interested…)

Of course, we went out to dinner that night to cap it all off with a little taste of ostrich steak.

Oudtshoorn isn’t all about the ostriches, however, there are a plethora of animals to enjoy. Next up for us was a morning with the meerkats. We woke bright and early (4:40!) to drive out and meet Devey, the so-called meerkat whisperer.

Before getting to the meerkats, we gathered for coffee and rusks, where we were joined by some striped grass mice and a Karoo bush rat. Apparently they come out every morning looking for Devey’s rusk crumbs, and he even spoon feeds some coffee to one of them(!). I was excited because it was wildlife I was allowed to touch. :)

After the snacks we walked a short ways and set up our camp chairs around a little area that looked no different than any other. But Devey, the meerkat whisperer, comes out every night to track the meerkats and see which burrow they sleep in for the night. Then he brings groups of people in the mornings to watch them as they wake up. (Over some years he’s gotten a few groups of meerkats habituated to human presence since he studies them and is very focused on meerkat conservation, but he never touches, feeds or interferes with them.) So after a wait of maybe 20 minutes, the meerkats started crawling out of their holes and warming themselves up in the sun.

These tiny creatures are only about a foot tall, weighing 600-800 grams apiece. And their behavior is oddly human-like. It’s super fun to watch as they play and sun themselves before they venture out to forage.

We stayed and observed them as long as they let us, and once they hit the open range to begin the foraging, we watched them until they’d disappeared out of sight. It was a most wonderful way to spend a morning. Plus, we even saw a steenbok and a grey duiker while out there! Solid.

The highlight of the animal sightings might also have been the cheesiest. We paid a visit to the Cango Wildlife Ranch. This is definitely much more zoo-like than the rest of our animal encounters in Africa, but I for one have nothing against zoos. We loved walking around and seeing the animals – everything from peacocks to pygmy hippos, crocodiles to bush pigs, lorikeets to leopards, African white lions to white tigers, and marmoset monkeys to wallabies.

But the highlight? We got to touch the animals!!! All the self-restraint you have to exercise on safari is unneeded at Cango, because here you can pet the cats. And pet we did. We hung out with the serval cats, the baby cheetah cubs, and the lemurs. And I’m going to go ahead and let these photos showing the sheer joy on my face speak for themselves.

The lemurs were a surprising highlight. They are super lively, playful and interactive. The padding on their feet and hands is so soft and it’s really neat to have them crawling all over you. I also thought it was the most adorable thing that they play with their tails when they are nervous!

There was also a little bit of impromptu animal interaction with the lorikeets that helped themselves to pecking at our clothes, and even Alan’s hair!

When we weren’t checking out the wildlife Oudtshoorn has to offer, we were exploring its natural beauty. Cango Caves had some seriously impressive chambers. We considered doing an adventure tour where you army crawl through super narrow spaces, but the claustrophobes in us said to skip it for the tamer exploration.

We continued past the caves to drive up the Swartberg Pass dirt road. Not going to lie, it was pretty scary going up there. Especially in our dinky little Ford Figo rental car.

But we made it, and it did not disappoint. Great views and fascinating fynbos, including abundant proteas.

We stopped at nearby Meiringspoort Waterfall where lots of people hang out and swim, and we even spotted some frogs and a bunch of fish.

Of course, this being South Africa, there were loads of baboons in the roads as well. Luckily this time we managed to avoid having any sneak into our car.

Overall, for a town with not much happening, Oudtshoorn offers a lot of really fun activities nearby, and it was a highlight of our two weeks in South Africa.

Practical Info

Oudtshoorn (pronounced close enough to Oats-Horn) is the ostrich capital of the world and a tourism hub for the Klein Karoo. The town itself is not very exciting, but there are several worthwhile activities and sights nearby.

Transportation: We drove from Franschhoek, taking the pass (R45) towards Villiersdorp (R43) then bypassing Worcester for the R60 stopping briefly in Montagu and then continuing onto the R62 and lunch in Barrydale at Diesel and Crème. We stayed on the R62 all the way into Oudtshoorn, and we did not stop in Calitzdorp but you might want to if you like port wine. I believe it’s the regional capital, and the grape juice may be called Cape Ruby instead of Port.

We departed for Plettenberg Bay via the N9/N12 and the Outeniqua Pass to George, from where we joined the N2 and drove east along the coast. We had lunch at the Knysna Heads, about 30-45 minutes west of Plett.

Accommodation: We stayed at 88 Baron van Reede Guesthouse, which is in town. It is comfortable, breakfast is very good, Zoe and Huw are supremely friendly and helpful, and it is a super short walk to some of the best restaurants. There are some other properties outside town that might offer more of a wilderness experience (luxury-style) and perhaps star-gazing, etc.

Food and Drinks: Ostrich is ubiquitous, as one might expect in the ostrich capital. We had very good dinners at Nostalgie and at Jemima’s. If you are coming from the wine region and want to bring your own bottle(s) to dinner, corkage at the former was a mere R25 and at the latter R45. We enjoyed lunch at the Swartberg Hotel in Prince Albert.

Activities: Our brief time in the Karoo was filled with enjoyable activities. Just after arriving we visited the Cango Ostrich Farm. Standard admission is R80, but we paid R65 with our hotel’s discount voucher. The tour lasted about 45 minutes and there are some interactive moments like having an ostrich aggressively pluck food out of your hand or give Jenni a neck massage. I stood on some eggs and Jenni sat on an ostrich. Neither of us was brave enough to ride one.

We woke pre-dawn on Sunday to meet Devey Glinster at 5:15 am and follow him to De Zeekoe Guest Farm for his awesome Meerkat Adventures. Devey goes out the prior evening and figures out which burrow the meerkats are using that night. We parked the car and he supplied coffee and rusks. Then we walked a short distance and set up camp chairs in a semi-circle around the burrow and waited for the meerkat family to emerge. Soon they did, and we spent 20-30 minutes observing their utter cuteness. It costs R550 each (cash only), or R450 if you stay at De Zeekoe.

Next we drove up to Cango Caves for the Heritage Tour, which lasts about an hour. There are several impressive caverns, and the whole thing is well done. It costs R80 each. They also offer an Adventure Tour, but it sounded pretty hard-core if you have any hints of claustrophobia.

From the caves we began the “Two Passes Loop,” ascending the Swartberg Pass, visiting Prince Albert and then returning via the Meiringspoort Pass. The Swartberg Pass is unpaved and quite spectacular, in terms of views, rocks, flora, etc. I think everyone else we saw had a 4×4, but our little Ford Figo made it (in about 1 hour 45 minutes). Prince Albert has a few restaurants and probably some other activities, but we just had lunch at the Swartberg Hotel and enjoyed the amazing flora all over. Heading to and within the Meiringspoort Pass, we saw so many baboons in the middle of and beside the road. Very cool. This Pass is paved and more level, following the river that cuts through the mountains. We stopped at the Meiringspoort Waterfall, which is very pretty.

Our last morning, we visited the Cango Wildlife Ranch just outside town (Oudtshoorn). It cost R145 each to enter, which includes an hour-long tour. The up-close animal encounters cost extra, and there is a 15% discount for each person that does two or more. Petting the serval cats, cheetahs and lemurs cost us R467.5 each.

November 1-3, 2014 (Saturday-Monday)

Grapes on the Cape

If you know us, then you know we wouldn’t dream of passing up an opportunity to do some wine tasting in South Africa, so we of course took a few days to explore the wine region in and around Franschhoek.

On the drive from Cape Town we stopped in Stellenbosch to visit Thelema winery, which definitely had our favorite wines of all the vineyards we tasted at. We arrived in the fog, but as it lifted it became increasingly evident how beautiful this area is. And all that flora contributes not only to the views, but also the wines. They have a cab that legit tastes like mint because of the eucalyptus nearby the vines. It is such a strange influence on the wine. We ate lunch down the road at Tokara. The window table afforded us a superb view of the rolling hills of grapes while we wined and dined.

We stopped on our way into Franschhoek town to visit a couple more tasting rooms, with Lynx being first. Their wines are admittedly less complex, though they claim their intent is to produce a more “quaffable” drink. The jury’s still out on that one, though we did find it interesting that here and a few other spots they blend in a bit of viognier to cut the syrah.

Next up was La Motte. The property is flat out stunning. And the tasting room is fit for a visit from the queen. The wines, however, left a lot to be desired.

After this we headed to our hotel to relax in anticipation of a full day of wine tasting on the Wine Tram. Our spot was situated just outside of town, and it was charming and lovely. It even had its own vineyard and olive grove. We were smitten with the scenery and surprised to see that the surrounding environment included beautiful, steep, rugged mountains rather than the rolling hills you typically find in many wine regions.

We were up bright and early on a perfectly sunny, blue-sky morning to hop on the first wine tram of the day. Can I just say that this is the most brilliant invention ever? It’s essentially an organized party bus that takes wine tasters around to a number of the local wineries so they can taste and enjoy without driving. It’s partly trolley, partly train, and all awesome.

Maison was the first stop on our tram. What a chic place. We opted to go with the full tasting of six wines plus paired accoutrements, including biltong, blue cheese and truffles. The wines were decent, but the visit worth it for the experience alone. Tasting outside, surrounded by the mountains in their beautifully manicured lawn? Yes, please.

Dieu Donné had the most amazing views of the valley and mountains. We tasted near the vines there and then walked over to Roca for lunch. The pork belly and duck were delicious!

By the time we got to Chamonix our tasting notes took a turn for the worse. This is what our discerning palates had to say about the wines at Chamonix:

We finally boarded the actual tram portion (i.e. on rails and not the trolley/bus) and headed to Grande Provence to finish out our day. I adored their “Grande” red blend, and also the big elephant statue out front. Solid end to a wonderful day exploring South Africa’s wine country!

Practical Info

The Cape Peninsula itself has several wineries, but a greater concentration can be found about an hour away in the vicinity of Stellenbosch, Paarl, Franschhoek, etc. We chose Franschhoek on a couple of recommendations. Stellenbosch has a university and I believe more Dutch influence. French Huguenots settled in the valley of Franschhoek, which is why there are so many French-named wineries and restaurants.

Our overall impression of Franschhoek is that it is a very beautiful and pleasant place to spend a day or two. The wines in general are reasonably good, but very few will “wow” you. The value, on the other hand, is superb. Very drinkable wines cost R50-100 per bottle. Tastings tend to be generous and cost R25-50. The food is also good value, with most nice restaurants charging R70-100 for appetizers and R120-200 for entrees.

Our favorite winery was Thelema, which is at the top of the Helshoogte Pass in Stellenbosch. Note that some of the wines we enjoyed there actually come from the sister property, Sutherland, which is in the cooler coastal region of Elgin. The best views among wineries we visited in Franschhoek were had from Dieu Donné. Maison is the most stylish, and it seemed like a meal there might be nice.

Transportation: We drove from Cape Town, taking N2 to M9 to R44 to Helshoogte Road to visit Thelema and Tokara. From there, we stopped at Lynx then La Motte on the way into Franschhoek. If you stay right in town, you can walk to several restaurants and perhaps even some wineries. For our full day here, we took the Wine Tram to visit several wineries without needing to drive.

Accommodation: We stayed at Auberge Clermont. We wanted to be walking distance to town, which we sort of were and sort of weren’t. You could walk, but it’d certainly be iffy at night. The property is lovely, with vineyards, an olive grove, some orchards, etc. Our room was very spacious and breakfast was great. There are several places to stay in town if you want to be able to walk to restaurants and the Wine Tram.

Other places I considered include Centre-Ville, Les Chambres and Fransvliet (just outside town). My mom had been before and stayed at Babylonstoren (further outside town), and she loved it.

Food and Drinks: Lunch at Roca Restaurant at Dieu Donné was my favorite meal in the area. The pork belly starter was amazing, the risotto was plentiful and yummy, and the duck duo was on point. Dinner at Reuben’s was good. We had a dinner reservation at Allora but ended up just doing takeout after a full day of wine tasting. Not ideal judging conditions, but we were disappointed.

On the drive from Cape Town, we ate lunch at the restaurant (not deli) at Tokara. The setting was lovely, but we were a tad underwhelmed with the food. It is good, but it felt like maybe they’re trying a little too hard to be avant-garde. If you want to dine at the Tasting Room at Le Quartier Francais, book well in advance. I tried three weeks ahead and it was full both nights we were in town. We tried to walk into Cafe Des Arts; it was full but looked cozy and tasty. My mother stayed at Babylonstoren on a prior visit and loved the food.

The wineries we visited for tasting were Thelema, Lynx, La Motte, Maison, Eikehof, Dieu Donné, Chamonix and Grande Provence.

Activities: For our full day of wine tasting, we took the Franschhoek Wine Tram. More specifically, the Red Line Bus First 10:30 am departure. It is basically a hop-on hop-off wine tour. You have to choose the Red Line or Blue Line, and it was sort of a toss up for us. Tickets cost R170 each. The main advantage is not having to drive, but you also get some free tastings at certain wineries and the tram will hold wine you buy to be picked up at the end of the day.

You could visit the Huguenot Memorial Museum, and I think there is hiking in the Mont Rochelle Nature Reserve.

October 30 – November 1, 2014 (Thursday-Saturday)

Cape Town

Cape Town gets a lot of hype. At least it felt like everyone we know (and all of their mothers) jocked Cape Town, hard. So, I was a little worried it would be one of those places that couldn’t live up to its preceding reputation. Not so. Cape Town deserves a lot of hype. It is stunning.

Case in point, the view from our hotel in Camps Bay. (I will have you know by the way, that for the longest time I thought this area was called Camp Spay, and when I first saw it written down, I was flabbergasted).

The property at our guesthouse was just awesome. You could hear the waves from below (a quick walk from the beach) and look up from the patio to Table Mountain soaring 3,000 feet straight up behind us.

Hard as it was to not park ourselves in front of that pool and delicious view, we got out the door and headed up to hike what is likely Cape Town’s most famous attraction: Table Mountain.

Pro tip: do not begin hiking Table Mountain at high noon on a cloudless 90°+ day. Be smart. Don’t be like us. The route we took was only about 3km but on that short walk you ascend something like 2,000 feet, so you get a workout, for sure. Oh my goodness, so overheated and way too much sun exposure. But damn if it wasn’t spectacularly beautiful.

Also, the people hiking were super friendly, which kind of was an early indicator of our overall experience in South Africa. Good people! This was especially comforting to me given that there are apparently issues with people getting mugged on this hike. Can you imagine?! In general I feel like we either had really good luck/avoided the sketchier areas, or crime is not such a big issue in Cape Town. Probably a bit of both.

Scorched and exhausted, we opted to take the tram down (even though this meant we had to walk a mile from the base of the tram back to our car). While the tram was a little scary for me given the heights, the views were terrific.

It’s a good thing we fit in the Table Mountain hike early, because by the day we got around to hiking Lion’s Head, the weather was not in our favor. We started our walk with a bit of fog, but by the time we neared the top, the visibility was horrible, and the rocky trail was damp from the moisture-laden air. As a result, we sadly never did get to enjoy the views from the peak of Lion’s Head, but I did conquer my fear of heights a bit with the portion of the hike that requires the use of metal ladders and chains.

Part of what makes Cape Town so special is the proximity of all these amazing amenities. The hiking is phenomenal, the beaches are beautiful, and to top it off, there is even wine! We stopped at Groot Constantia vineyard for lunch one day, and savored some duck liver parfait and a divine peri peri chicken dish while sampling the local wines.

The downtown area, on the other side of Lion’s Head from Camps Bay, was nice, though we definitely felt we made the right decision in choosing to stay where we did. The waterfront is pretty much a very nice mall with an outdoor promenade type of area with lots of shops and restaurants. It is enjoyable, but we probably would not deem it a must-see.

The colorful houses in Bo-Kaap were beautiful, but some of the streets around here were noticeably grittier and I doubt I’d want to be walking around there at night.

Greenmarket Square had a nice collection of craft stalls, and the nearby buildings were very New Orleans feeling with their wrought iron balconies and second floor bars.

We loved Company’s Garden with its funky swings, great old trees, and rose garden, all benefiting from the backdrop of Table Mountain behind it.

We didn’t explore too much of the dining scene downtown, but we did fit in a dinner at 95 Keerom. They seemed to think we were on our honeymoon, giving us the prime table and bringing out a free meringue at the end of our meal. We didn’t set the record straight and it wasn’t un-fun ;) Hey, this could be considered a really long honeymoon, right?

Nearby Hout Bay was also very fun. The coastline is again amazing, and the Bay Harbour Market had a hip, young vibe with its crafty art and clothing vendors and the eclectic food court boasting everything from BBQ and sushi to Mexican and Tunisian, to German sausages and craft beer. It had an Austin-esque feel.

We spent the better part of a day driving the peninsula. This is an absolutely breathtaking drive. In a lot of ways, the scenery here reminded me of Australia, and things reminding me of Australia are generally pretty awesome.

The views of Hout Bay were superb.

Noordhoek Beach, with its wide sandy expanse and gorgeous turquoise water was hard to leave.

We walked up to the old lighthouse at Cape Point. The views were great, but it was so windy that we opted to skip the other walks and beaches.

Wildlife made some appearances along the way, as we drove by a few ostrich farms and saw loads of baboons in the roads.

We even pulled over so that Alan could save a turtle that was in dire risk of getting run over trying to cross the road.

And we may or may not have made a little bit of a rookie mistake when it came to the baboons. We had been so careful, so nervous about the baboons that we even stopped before the Cape Point parking lot to get our snacks and cover our food, but then, in a moment of lapsed judgment, we opened the trunk of our car in the popular tourist parking lot to grab the snacks. We were so oblivious that I even joked to Alan, “careful there’s a baboon behind you,” when, suddenly, there was a baboon behind him. While Alan smartly backed away, the baboon hopped up into the trunk, rifled through our backpack and helped himself to a granola bar. I, the aggressive-under-pressure person that I’m discovering myself to be, started waving my hands (FULL OF SNACKS) at the baboon to scare him out of the car. By some sheer stroke of luck, the baboon did not attack me, but crossed the parking lot to enjoy his healthy bar while we slammed the trunk shut, jumped in the car and locked the doors. I should also mention that in this time a large group of tourists had somehow collected around us and several children were laughing hysterically as I screamed and waved my arms at this furry beast.

Heading back north we stopped to visit the penguins at Boulders Beach. How cute!?

Lastly, we enjoyed lunch at Live Bait in Kalk Bay and then hopped out of the car to catch a glimpse of the brightly colored beach huts at St. James before setting back for Camps Bay.

On our last day in town we paid a visit to the Imizamo Yethu township. After a bit of confusion trying to find a legit guide and a safe place to park, we were able to join a group for a short, informative tour. It is really amazing to see the conditions these people are still living in, despite the fact that apartheid ended 20 years ago. The contrast between the primarily white neighborhood of Camps Bay and the conditions in Imizamo Yethu is striking.

We were, however, pleased to see the bright, shiny, beautiful faces of the local kids at the community school.

Practical Info

Cape Town’s latitude of ~33º is nearly the same as Los Angeles, Sydney and Buenos Aires. The central area is known as the City Bowl, bound by Table Bay in the Atlantic Ocean and backed by Table Mountain, Devil’s Peak, Signal Hill, etc. The Cape Peninsula is a mountainous spine running south to Cape Point. Table Mountain is both a mountain, and the name of the national park that encompasses many more mountains. This map may get you more comfortable with the layout: http://www.mappery.com/map-of/Cape-Town-Birds-Eye-View-Map (thanks to Barbra for sharing this map and lots of helpful tips!).

It is a strikingly beautiful and diverse area. Just a short drive from a major metropolis you’ll find excellent hiking, several wineries, and many upscale and/or funky beachside communities. Crime is a hot topic for South Africa. We generally felt safe in and around Cape Town, but we spent minimal time in the city after dark. It is nice to keep some small bills and/or change handy as all over South Africa there are often “guards” who will watch your car and expect a tip. Also, the plug adapter sets we own do not have adapters that work in Africa. You need a triangle three-prong where the prongs are circular and thick.

The currency is the South African Rand, aka ZAR but we’ll just use “R.” At time of travel, 1 USD = R11. We bought a SIM card on arrival at Johannesburg airport. Word is that Vodacom has the best coverage, and MTN is the other major. The SIM cost R115 + R149 for 1GB of data + R220 for ~100 minutes calling in South Africa (or fewer minutes if calling internationally).

Transportation: We arrived on an Air Namibia flight from Windhoek. Most international flights go through Johannesburg. We rented a car with Hertz, which is located on-site along with several other brands. The drive to Camps Bay took ~half an hour. Having a car is nice, especially if you’re not staying downtown. Otherwise, e.g. to see the peninsula you’d have to join a tour or hire a car and driver for the day.

The City Sightseeing (aka Hop On Hop Off) buses are very popular. There are routes covering the city and/or the less urban attractions. We took a MyCiti bus one day, which is very inexpensive. The manager of our guesthouse loaned us her MyCiti cards, and I think it cost R7 from Camps Bay to the V&A Waterfront. But at many times the bus only runs twice/hour and transfers are usually required, so it is not that efficient. Taxis are cheap and easy. When you see the meter clicking up at hyper-speed, fear not. Those are effectively penny increments. Getting from 95 Keerom to Camps Bay cost R100 with a generous tip. Unicab comes recommended, and they have an app where you can request pick-up. Uber is here, and we did not use it but a friend said it’s as great as you’d expect. There are some trains, but I don’t know much about these.

Accommodation: We stayed at Bay Atlantic Guest House in Camps Bay, which is southwest of the City Bowl. It was perfect for us. Note they offer a 10% discount if you pay the balance in cash, and I believe a free bottle of wine if you stay three or more nights.

Camps Bay is a wealthy beach community only ~10-15 minutes from downtown. There are many bars and restaurants on the beachfront Victoria Road, though these tend to be pricier and some feel sort of like South Beach in Cape Town. Camps Bay is very convenient for hiking Table Mountain and Lion’s Head, and also for visiting the Atlantic side of the peninsula.

If you plan to visit many museums and/or focus more on nightlife and the urban experience in general, then you might prefer staying in the City Bowl. I read a Forbes article in which the writer raves about One & Only at the V&A Waterfront, and also about Reuben’s restaurant there. Ellerman House is another well-reviewed high-end property, which I think is closer to the action than Camps Bay but maybe farther than the Waterfront.

Food and Drinks: Dinner at Blues in Camps Bay was good. We found the pasta at 95 Keerom so-so but the lamb chops and chocolate fondant were excellent. Lunch at Sevruga at the V&A Waterfront was uninspiring. Live Bait in Kalk Bay was solid. We also had lunch at Simon’s at Groot Constantia. The salad was so-so, the peri peri chicken was phenomenal. The food court (and overall scene) at Bay Harbour Market in Hout Bay was on point. We got pizza delivered from Col’Cacchio, and it did not disappoint.

In general, we have been impressed by the seafood in South Africa, and by the value of the food and wine. There are endless dining options in and around Cape Town, I’ll just mention a smattering that folks recommended: high tea at Mount Nelson Hotel; La Colombe; Fork (on Long Street); The Roundhouse; Carne (same owner as 95 Keerom); Bizerca; The Codfather; The Test Kitchen.

Activities: We spent only one day exploring the city proper, when we visited the V&A Waterfront, Bo-Kaap, Long Street, Greenmarket Square and Company’s Garden. Most of the rest of our time was some combo of the peninsula and/or hiking.

Table Mountain is the flagship attraction, certainly for the outdoors. We hiked up the most common route, which is Platteklip Gorge. It is very steep (I think the trail is less than 2 miles and ascends more than 2k feet). The views for much of the hike and from the top are fantastic. We took the tram down to save time and knees. It costs R115 each to descend. Note that if you park at the trailhead and take the tram down, you have to walk about a mile back to your car (which you will have parked about a mile past the tram station when driving up Tafelberg Road). Apparently there have been some muggings on the mountain and thus folks advise joining up with others (unless your group is already 3+ I guess), but there were so many other hikers during our visit that this was irrelevant. There are lots of other routes on Table Mountain, including India Venster, some options from Constantia (I think), and even a five-day trek on the Hoerikwaggo Trail.

We hiked Lion’s Head another day. It is much easier and often includes stunning views of Camps Bay, Clifton, the City Bowl, etc. So we’re told. It was entirely covered in fog for us. The round-trip took us about 1 hour 45 minutes. There is a metal ladder and some narrow, exposed parts on the upper reaches. There is also a near-vertical stretch with chains and holds, but you can circumvent this if you want…both ways are marked.

A full-day tour of the peninsula is highly recommended. We went counter-clockwise, from Camps Bay to Hout Bay; taking the Chapman’s Peak Drive toll road over to Noordhoek, which has a beautiful long beach and we stopped at Noordhoek Farm Village; continuing to Kommetjie and then all the way down to Cape Point; then back up the eastern side to Simon’s Town and the penguins at Boulders Beach; through Fish Hoek to a very late lunch at Live Bait in Kalk Bay; snapping a couple pics of the colorful beach shacks at St. James; then breezing through Muizenberg and back around Table Mountain to Camps Bay.

Some more detail on some of these places on the peninsula drive: in Hout Bay, see if the Bay Harbour Market will be open as it’s quite cool, and you can also take a boat from Hout Bay to visit a seal colony; the toll for Chapman’s Peak was R38; entry to Cape of Good Hope costs R105/adult…there are many things to see/do there, but it was windy and we had a lot of ground to cover so we only walked up the dirt path alongside the Flying Dutchman Funicular to the original lighthouse at Cape Point (it was too high and often covered in fog, the newer one is lower); entry to the penguins at Boulders Beach costs R55/adult; we didn’t take it, but Boyes Drive (aka M75) is an elevated and perhaps more scenic route between Kalk Bay and Muizenberg. Beware the baboons! We tried to prepare by reorganizing our food and backpack, but as we were leaving the Cape Point parking area we had a momentary lapse in focus and a baboon climbed into our trunk and thankfully took only a granola bar.

We did an informal township tour of Imizamo Yethu, which is by Hout Bay. We simply joined a local woman who was leading some other tourists, and this included some info and visiting a couple houses/shacks and the community center etc. for R70 each. Afrika Moni is a known guide for Imizamo Yethu, so you might look him up. Other popular places for township tours include Khayelitsha, Gugulethu and Langa.

There are many activities and attractions we considered but didn’t get to. Top of that list would probably be Kirstenbosch Botanical Gardens as well as Robben Island. You might also consider District Six Museum (and various Iziko Museums), Two Oceans Aquarium, various crafts markets, etc.

October 25-30, 2014 (Saturday-Thursday)

Okonjima

Our last stop in Namibia was Okonjima, home to The AfriCat Foundation. We only spent one night here, but we sincerely wished we had two (or more!). It was a fantastic and extraordinarily interactive wildlife experience. This property is different than most safari camps in that many of the animals living there are semi-wild, since The AfriCat Foundation works to rehabilitate wild cats (and wild dogs). Because the leopards, cheetahs, and dogs in the park are tagged, sightings are more or less guaranteed. The guides carry tracking devices that beep when in close proximity to the receptor on the animals’ collar.

And the smaller game living right on the campgrounds are much more accustomed to human contact. They even permit (and encourage) feeding of the birds and warthogs, by providing a jar of seeds in your room to share with them. Fair warning though, there is no wall, window or screen separating your room from the great outdoors. Well, there can be, but the canvas siding is rolled up for your arrival. Also, it is a flap of canvas, so… And hence your first impression is that of no separation between you and the animals.

While (somewhat surprisingly) no animals tried to come through the gigantic open walkway into our room, we did have one hornbill that scared the bejeebies out of me by repeatedly jumping into our actual glass window, and Alan came dangerously close to getting head-butted by a warthog that grew jealous of Alan’s feeding his rivals.

We had the opportunity to go out on two game drives during our stay at Okonjima. Because you go out with a tracker device to try and spot one of the specific monitored animals, each game drive is focused on one of those four species: leopards, cheetahs, hyenas or wild dogs. On our first drive, we chose to search for the leopards. We saw several in Botswana, but they are so beautiful one can never really tire of admiring these precious cats. In not too long we spotted one and followed her down the dry riverbed for a ways. Maybe the most exquisite animal, I think.

We said goodbye to the leopard and headed to a beautiful spot for sundowners. En route we spotted several baboons, a hare, some giraffes, and warthogs. Cats and dogs aren’t the only game to be seen!

We were treated to a stunning sunset as we sipped our G&T’s, and as we imbibed we even spotted a dassie rat (a very rare sighting) that chose to join us for happy hour!

The drive closed with a bang as we passed the most adorable baby jackals on our way home! Oh god, the urge to cuddle was almost irresistible. Of course, we knew the mother had to be somewhere near, so snuggling was not an option.

At night, after dinner, we went out for a second excursion to visit what Okonjima calls the night hide. The jeep takes you back through the Jurassic Park-style gates (the lodging is outside the massive fenced area where the predators live) and then you hop out and walk a bit with your flashlights into this little protective enclosure with a small opening for viewing. On the other side, the guide drops a bunch of food scraps and lo and behold, out come these badass little animals: porcupines and honey badgers! Things are seriously hard-core. And honey badgers, as anyone with internet access knows, just don’t care. We were even lucky enough to spot a brown hyena on the drive home when our headlights caught the glow of its eyes. Too dark for pictures though, and bummer because it was our first and only brown hyena sighting on the trip.

And here’s a little video showing the porcupine putting those quills to action.

For our final drive the next morning, we went out in search of the cheetahs. It was starting to look futile as we neared the end of the property with no beeps from the tracking device. But soon enough, we parked the jeep, and WALKED off in the direction of some identified cheetah activity. Crazy right? I mean, they are only semi-wild cheetahs, but they are still wild enough to require that Rohan (the fantastic resident guide) pack a 9mm and Jimmy (our Namibia guide) carry this big old stick in case of attack. So the fear factor really does get your adrenaline going.

We were maybe 15 feet away from these beautiful creatures. I think we were most surprised by how long and slender they are. Their bodies are like slinkies.

Of course, the cats are not alone. There are many wild animals roaming the property, and we saw lots during the course of our stay. The variety of antelopes here was the greatest out of all our stops in Africa: eland, impala, kudu, oryx (including the tiniest baby oryx!), duiker, steenbok, and red hartebeest.

And just as we were grabbing our bags to leave, we spotted an elephant shrew hanging out in a termite mound just outside of our room! Some epic animal sightings here at Okonjima, that is for sure. We were sad to leave this camp and sad to say goodbye to Namibia, but ready for the final nation of our round-the-world voyage: South Africa!

Practical Info

Okonjima is a 55k acre private game reserve and home to The AfriCat Foundation, which rehabilitates cheetahs, wild dogs, hyenas and leopards.

To recap our Namibia itinerary: we spent a transit night in Windhoek; then we drove southwest to the Sossusvlei area and stayed two nights at Hoodia Desert Lodge; then we drove northwest to Swakopmund and stayed two nights at Organic Square Guesthouse; then we drove north to Damaraland and stayed two nights at Doro !Nawas; then we drove east to Okonjima where we stayed one night before departing the next day via Windhoek. With the benefit of hindsight we might have altered this slightly. Driving times may be long and traveling at night is not advised (mainly for the risk of hitting animals), so you may need to spend two nights somewhere to have just one day. That said, we would probably have spent one night in Swakopmund and two at Okonjima, and we might have visited Etosha National Park to top up our wild safari bucket.

Transportation: We drove from Doro !Nawas, I think passing Khorixas, Outjo and maybe Otjiwarongo. The road was dirt at times and paved at others. We departed for Windhoek and our international flights onward: Mom and Rich to Johannesburg, we to Cape Town.

Accommodation: Much like most places we’ve stayed in Botswana and Namibia, the setup here is a central “lodge” area that is covered and open-sided where you gather, eat meals, etc. A small but nice pool is there. Then there are several very spacious cabins set apart from each other. At least this is the case in the Bush Camp, where we stayed. One of the awesome things about this place is there are animals hanging out nearby. There were a couple warthogs right by the main area, and our cabin had rolled up front windows open to warthogs, guinea fowl and some others within a few feet of us. Plus, of course, the insane hornbill who kept jumping into our side glass window. There is no WiFi in the rooms, but it works quite well in the main area.

Food and Drinks: We ate all our meals at the lodge, and the food was very good. At least for our package, certain wine was included but generally alcohol was not.

Activities: We participated in three great activities. First was leopard tracking, and we got quite a bit of reasonably up close time with Shanti, a female leopard. After dinner that night, we visited the night hide. The guide laid out some food scraps and immediately three porcupines and two honey badgers joined us. Very cool. The next morning we did cheetah tracking, and for these somewhat smaller and less dangerous cats (vs. leopards or of course lions) we actually got out of the vehicle and walked over to them. We stood/kneeled about 15 feet away from Spud and Coco Chanel (bro and sis) plus their buddy Bones. Super neat.

We did not have enough time to try wild dog or hyena tracking, nor to visit The AfriCat Foundation education center.

October 24-25, 2014 (Friday-Saturday)

Doro !Nawas

We left the dunes of Sossusvlei and Swakopmund, but we were still surrounded by a lot of sand, a lot of beauty, and it was still really dry. Doro !Nawas Camp in Damaraland is another middle-of-nowhere, stunning Namibian property.

The drive up took us through mile after mile of wide-open expanses. The only signs of human life were the tiny communities of huts constructed from what looks like the remains of the recycle bin: pieces of tin, stone, brick, wood, plastic, some combination of the above.

Doro !Nawas itself sits upon the dry Aba-Huab River Valley, within the Doro !Nawas Conservancy in central Damaraland. Its location affords stunning views of the mountains and red sandstone cliffs.

And you might notice the exclamation point in Dora !Nawas. It is, in fact, a click language. The staff at the camp would read the menu each night in English and in the local click language (I think it’s called Khoekhoe?) and it is seriously impressive. I wish I could make all those click sounds! Here’s a little video, if you’re interested:

And after dinner the staff would sing and dance. It was good fun. We were particularly fond of the Amarula dance (and the Amurula! – a delicious liqueur made from the marula fruit that grows in Africa).

A short drive from Doro !Nawas is Twyfelfontein, which translates to doubtful spring. This area is full of ancient petroglyphs. There are lots of animals depicted, and our guide explained that these were used for education (e.g. to teach the young about footprints of animals to hunt, and those to run away from).

There are also some beautiful rock formations, including these “Organ Pipes.”

But the highlight of this expedition was the epic sundowner spot. Our guide pulled out a veritable spread, complete with biltong, nuts, crackers and the obligatory G&T’s. So many beautiful sunsets in Africa. And because it gets very chilly there as the sun goes down, they have fleece-lined ponchos on hand! Fleece-lined ponchos! Keep your eyes open for fleece-lined ponchos as the next Snuggie. Calling it.

Also, I sincerely wish I had video or at least photos, but we finally saw springboks in action. It’s clear to us now how they got their name. They literally spring across fields – apparently in an effort to convince predators that they’re super fit and hard to catch or something. And the best part? This move is called pronking.

Alan and I woke early one morning to head out with Jimmy in search of the elusive rhinoceros. The 4:30 am wake up call was a little brutal, but when we turned off the road and a few minutes later saw a large group of desert-adapted elephants, we knew it had been worth it.

Our luck continued on the drive as we spotted some kudu, springboks, oryx, Hartmann’s mountain zebras, and steenbok.

Jimmy even made an epic spot of a spotted hyena in the distance.

And then some jackals! Not to mention the scrub hare we saw on the drive in.

And then we thought our luck was going to culminate in some really big sightings when Jimmy spotted lion prints, rhino poop and flattened euphorbia bushes – evidence that a rhino had trampled them recently. We traced the tracks for what felt like miles and certainly hours. We were impressed with Jimmy’s tracking skills, but the rhinos and the lion were sneaky that morning. Despite our best efforts, they eluded us. Though we did learn a fun fact about rhinos. You may have heard of black rhinos and white rhinos. These distinctions have nothing to do with their color. Rather, it is the shape of their mouths. The misleading “white” designation derives from the Afrikaans word “weid,” which describes the flat, wide lip of “white” rhinos which is better adapted to grazing vs. the pointed lip black rhinos use to pick fruit and leaves off branches and twigs.

In the hopes we might spot some, we kept driving on, deeper into the wilderness, and on a seriously bumpy road. The landscape was absolutely spectacular, and the geodes lying all around sparkled beautifully in the sun.

To make up for the lack of a rhino sighting, some giraffes appeared on the side of the road as we began heading back to camp. All in all a solid day of game viewing in an area not that geared towards safaris.

Practical Info

Damaraland is best known for the collection of San rock engravings at Twyfelfontein. The region’s scenery is gorgeous and reminiscent of the Southwestern US. Other attractions include desert-adapted elephants, possible black rhino sightings, assorted other wildlife and terrific stargazing.

Note that we were booked at Doro !Nawas on a dinner, bed and breakfast basis. If you book on a fully inclusive basis, then alcoholic beverages and laundry service would be included.

Transportation: We drove from Swakopmund, which took at least a few hours and was largely on unpaved roads. We departed for Okonjima.

Accommodation: We stayed at Doro !Nawas, which is a Wilderness Safaris property. The setting is beautiful, offering vast views of the landscape and epic stargazing. The main building has cozy lounge spaces and all meals are taken there (including lunch on the deck). The infinity pool is small but refreshing. The thatched roof cabins are enormous and nicely appointed. There is no WiFi, though there is a computer in the lodge area that works fine for email.

Food and Drinks: We ate all our meals at the lodge. The food was fine, but not quite as good as many other places we’ve stayed thus far in Africa. The after dinner singing and dancing, however, was delightful.

Activities: A visit to Twyfelfontein is pretty much mandatory. We also stopped to observe the Organ Pipes and Burnt Mountain, which frankly were a bit underwhelming. I think there are some hikes in the area. It was neat to see desert-adapted elephants and other animals.

October 22-24, 2014 (Wednesday-Friday)

Swakopmund

Our next stop in Namibia had us driving through even more barren land towards the coast. The landscape got downright otherworldly at points.

We spotted the occasional wildlife, including desert zebras in the distance, some ostriches and a cool hawk-like bird.

Among the strange things encountered on our drives in and out of Swakopmund was a shipwreck…

…and weirder still, the Free Republic of Wlotzkasbaken, a cluster of homes not connected to government systems. Thus, their water is supplied by personal water tanks on the roofs, and their power from generators. Our guide thinks it might be entirely inhabited by white people. What a weird little commune.

And our drive in even took us across the Tropic of Capricorn!

The town of Swakopmund itself is maybe not as exciting as the drives in and out, though it did provide a lovely place for us to do some souvenir shopping and enjoy some fresh seafood (who knew we’d be eating delicious raw oysters in Namibia?). Also, it was much, much cooler – an extremely welcome respite from the heat we’d been enduring so far in Africa.

But the big attraction in Swakopmund seems to be the adventure sports. So, naturally, we set off to check them out. (Alan and I, that is, while Ronnie and Rich enjoyed a more tame boat cruise.) First up was some fun in the sand dunes. Not that adventurous, and figuring our skiing skills might not translate so easily to sand boarding, we opted for the lie down boarding, which is pretty much like sledding, but instead of quickly going down a snowy hill, you fly down a giant sand dune at speeds of up to 72 km/h. (!!!!!!!!!) I know, because they whipped out a speed gun (like the ones that cops use) and tested our speeds and that was Alan’s fastest. That is fast, people. Very fast. Even with the “brakes” (read: dragging my feet in the sand in a semi-futile attempt to control my velocity), I reached a max of 54 km/h. To which our guide responded, “dude, why did you go so slow?” Ha! I may be adventurous, but I am still afraid of nearly everything in the world, so I have my limits.

The boards are pretty much just a piece of laminate board, super smooth on one side. You lie down on it, lift up the front, and WHEEEE! SO MUCH FUN! Not to mention the view of the landscape up there is awesome. Plus, you get a nice workout from climbing up the dunes in between runs.

To top off our day of desert adventure, we tried sand quad-biking. Um, horrible. Maybe I’m scarred from the memory of the time my brother and I rode a quad into a tree as little kids in Virginia, but I could not do it. I totally freaked out. One of the guides stayed behind with me to try to help me figure it out, but I got stuck going up hills that were maybe two feet high, despite his constant encouragement that “it’s so easy, it’s so easy. You just, go…” I wound up ditching my bike in the middle of the desert and riding on the back of his, and it wasn’t that much better. On the bright side, Alan loved it! He tore up those dunes like a sand badass.

Practical Info

Swakopmund is a coastal town with a fair amount of German colonial architecture and many German-speaking residents and visitors. It is the adventure capital of Namibia. There is skydiving, sand-boarding, quad-biking, surfing and more. Plus tamer options like boat trips to view dolphins, birds, a seal colony, etc.

Transportation: We drove from Hoodia Desert Lodge/Sossusvlei via Kuiseb Pass, and we stopped to view Kuiseb Canyon where our guide told us about the two German geologists who hid here during World War II. There is a book and a film called The Sheltering Desert that tells their story. We continued towards the coast and stopped for lunch in Walvis Bay before arriving in Swakopmund. You would not need a car to get around the central part of town, and I believe many of the activity vendors offer free pick-up and drop-off. There is also an airport and a train line. We departed for Doro Nawas/Damaraland, stopping at a shipwreck and for petrol in Uis.

Accommodation: We stayed at Organic Square Guesthouse, which is a few blocks outside the center of town. Decor is modern with concrete floors and such. Breakfast was fine though mostly cold options.

Food and Drinks: We had nice dinners at Tug (in town) and The Wreck (outside town), and we preferred the latter. Thus began our streak of being impressed by the seafood in Namibia (and later South Africa). Calamari and oysters were consistently excellent, and I enjoyed kingklip many times. We did not venture out for nightlife, but a friend mentioned Napolitana.

Activities: Jenni and I did a combo day of sand-boarding and quad-biking. I believe the name of the sand-boarding operation is Alter-Action. Quad-biking was at Desert Explorers. The cost for the package was NAD650/person, which included sand-boarding, a video thereof, an hour on the quad bikes, transportation and lunch. I found this to be excellent value.

My mom and Rich enjoyed their boat trip, which I think included onboard champagne and oysters. The town has plenty of craft shops, cafes, etc. and is nice to walk around. There is an outdoor, informal craft market by the beach. Skydiving is popular here. The aquarium in town is said to be nice. There is also Kristall Galerie, which holds some special crystal formations.

October 20-22, 2014 (Monday-Wednesday)

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