There is something so magical and alluring about South Africa that’s almost impossible to put into words. The enchanting sunsets, hospitality of its people, and vast landscapes take hold of you; and change you forever. I vividly remember stepping out of the safari vehicle on our last evening game drive to enjoy my pink gin and tonic and I watch the most vivid sunset of my life. Off in the distance I could see the silhouette of a giraffe through the haze of the blazing sun as it slowly dipped below the horizon. The earth below my feet felt so sacred in that moment. This land was home to many walks of life before I had the privilege of being there. At that moment I felt so small, yet so connected to the world.
When my husband and I sat down to think about our honeymoon, we weren’t sure where we wanted to go, but we knew it had to be epic. Somewhere with adventure, luxury and relaxation all wrapped up into one. I don’t remember how we settled on it, but we decided we wanted to go to South Africa. I wanted our honeymoon to be a long trip because when else in your life would you have an excuse to take three weeks of vacation?
Planning was overwhelming at first. My husband and I are both avid travelers but planning a three-week trip and a wedding at the same time was a daunting task. Andrew happened to get an email one day from Travel Zoo that showcased deals for various vacation packages and one of them was a South African tour company, Lion World Travel. The trip was for five days in Cape Town and four days on Safari. We were sold. We had never used a travel company before to book a trip because we prefer to plan everything ourselves, but this was perfect to take some of the burden off planning our honeymoon off our plate. Lion World Travel is an industry leader for African safaris and their staff was so helpful in ensuring we got everything out of this trip that we wanted.
Once we started digging into the trip and getting serious about booking, I told Andrew I wanted to extend our honeymoon and go park it on a beach somewhere. After all, we were flying halfway across the world and I wanted to see what all the fuss was about the Indian ocean. So, we settled on hopping over to the island of Mauritius for six days after our safari. I’ll go into details on our experience in Mauritius in a separate post.
This trip was a bucket-list-worthy dream come true for both of us. We still reference how incredible it was and how much we miss Africa at least once a week.
We both had a feeling we would love Cape Town before even stepping foot off the plane, but we didn’t have any idea just how much we would fall in love with this city. We stayed at the charming Table Bay Hotel nestled right in the harbor with magnificent views of Table Mountain. This was one of the rare occurrences where photos of this property did not do it justice. It’s bright, airy and charming atmosphere coupled with outstanding service made for one of the most enjoyable hotel stays we’ve ever had.
The first thing we did after checking in was to drop off our bags and jump in a taxi to Table Mountain. We knew this was our only opportunity to see this natural beauty and we couldn’t pass it up. Normally we would have hiked, but due to our lack of time, we opted to take the cable car to the top. If you have time I implore you to do at least one of the hikes! The cable car is fairly cheap and gets you to the top in record time. The area atop Table Mountain is HUGE! I did not expect so many different viewpoints and walking paths once you’re up top. I recommend grabbing a drink from the cafe and walking around up top to check out the views of Cape Town from above. If you’re doing the hike I recommend going first thing in the morning to see the sunrise or going for sunset.
One of the best parts of our time in Cape Town was all of the great good we had. The dining scene in Cape Town is both incredible and affordable compared to other cities. We had just come from NYC where we dropped a pretty penny on meals at Cosme and Misi (totally worth it). So, we were shocked when our first dinner bill in South Africa was $70 USD with tip.
Here are my top restaurant recommendations in Cape Town:
- Test Kitchen: Sadly we weren’t able to get a reservation here, but I don’t want any of you to make the same mistake! The #1 restaurant in Africa, this place dishes out modern cuisine with an Asian flare via two seatings of a tasting style menu.
- Pot Luck Club: Just next door to Test Kitchen in the Old Biscuit Mill, the same chef/owner has another spot that does not disappoint. Pot Luck Club is serving up South African dishes with a modern twist.
- Kloof Street House: I found this place before we left and it was the first meal we ate in Cape Town. What drew me here was the charming atmosphere of the old victorian home sprinkled with twinkling lights and upbeat music. Kloof Street House had a phenomenal craft cocktail list and we had a great meal.
- Codfather: A local recommended this place to us, but sadly we couldn’t snag a reservation. This is located in Camps Bay, about 15 minutes from our hotel in downtown Cape Town. They specialize is fresh seafood and sushi. What makes this place great is you can go up to the live tank and pick your fish out for meal – can’t get any more fresh than that!
On our first full day we signed up for a wine tour in the nearby Franschoek region. My husband and I love wine (we got engaged in Napa!) and can’t pass up the opportunity to taste some local wines. Franschoek was an extremely charming town with loads shops and cute cafes. South Africa is known for it’s Pinotage varietal of grape and is slowly becoming more popular on the international wine circuit. We were with a private tour, but they have this adorable wine train that you can hop on and off while visiting the top wineries in the region.
If you would have asked me one thing that came to mind about South Africa before this trip it would have been penguins. For my husband, it was sharks. Great whites specifically. When in Rome, right? We booked a shark cage diving tour and I was terrified. I envisioned us out in the deep water, no land in sight and a tiny cage dangling from a chain with miles of ocean below. I could not have been more wrong. Our tour picked us up and we drove about 2 hours from Cape Town to Gansbaai aka “Shark Alley” We were the first tour out that morning and had a windy, but gorgeous blue-sky day. The boat ride out took about 15 minutes, but we could still very much see land – PHEW!
The company we booked through focused on shark awareness and species preservation; with nearly all profits going back to protecting the sharks. Apparently within the last 18-months there have been Orcas coming into the bay closer than ever before, likely due to climate change. When the Orcas are around, the great whites are nowhere to be seen and unfortunately, we didn’t see any on our dive. However, we did see about eight big copper sharks which are cousins of the great white (about 3.5 meters long).
The crew on-board bated the lures and chummed the water close to the cage; so we got some incredible up close views of these magnificent creatures. Even if this is ten steps outside of your comfort zone I’d still recommend going (and taking some Dramamine before) because even watching the sharks from the boat was an amazing experience.
The next day we also got a taste of South African wildlife, but this time on my terms. We got up early and beat the traffic to the Cape Point lighthouse trail near the Cape of Good Hope. This was not even on my radar and we probably wouldn’t have gone had our private guide not suggested it, but it was stunning. These were some of the most picturesque views the entire trip. We booked it to the top of the paved trail, stopping here and there to take pictures of the breathtaking view. By the time we got back down to the bottom huge tour buses had started filing in; leaving us ecstatic we arrived early and rapidly hurried it to the top – even if I was a sweaty mess the rest of the day.
Next we headed to one of my most anticipated activities of the trip and my entire bucket list – Penguin Beach! This has been top three on my bucket list for a long time and I was beyond excited to finally see penguins in their natural habitat. There was a nice little boardwalk that got you really close to the penguins without disturbing them. I’ve seen lots of people on social media posting pictures of themselves really close to the penguins and it makes me so mad! Their colony’s habitat is already shrinking and they deserve some space. If you’re going to visit, please stay on the boardwalk and respect the penguins’ habitat.
After an hour of taking pictures and fawning over the penguins I was finally able to control myself; I promise I didn’t sob uncontrollable tears of pure joy. and we made a last-minute decision to head over to the Kristenbosch Botanical Gardens. We had the best afternoon frolicking all over this wonderland-like garden. Before we got too far into the garden we had lunch in the restaurant on-site, which was surprisingly not very touristy and had amazing authentic food. During lunch a group performed traditional dances; which was a cool way to learn and experience new things about the local culture. After lunch we got a chance to explore the enormous gardens. It honestly reminded me a lot of Hawaii; due to the lush green landscapes and sharp contrast of the mountains. Wandering throughout the garden I fell in love with South Africa’s nation flower, the protea; which grows in a variety of colors and shapes.
Cape Town was one of the most magical places I’ve ever visited. Everywhere you turn there is more to discover. I would have been content spending all 12 days we had in South Africa right in Cape Town. In fact, I cried the morning of our departure because I didn’t want to leave the city! It was bittersweet knowing we were going on a safari, but I felt like I left a piece of my heart in Cape Town.
KRUGER NATIONAL PARK
We hopped on a quick flight to Johannesburg to catch our connecting flight to Hoedspruit (the closest airport to Kruger National Park). It didn’t hit me until we were about to board just how small the plane would be. If you read my previous blog post, then you know I am an anxious flyer. So, when the airport bus arrived at the plane and I saw the propellers, I had a mild panic attack. I had never been on a propeller plane before. We boarded the plane and of course I am in the seat RIGHT next to the propeller. Once we got in the air, it wasn’t nearly as bad as I thought. Like most things in life, I had psyched myself out for no reason.
When we landed in Hoedspruit a pack of baboons ran across the runway, officially welcoming us to the African bush. We stayed at a small lodge on the Thornybush private game reserve; which has 35,000 acres and is a part of greater Kruger National Park. The drive to the lodge was eye opening and provided a glimpse into the struggles the area has with poaching. We were stopped a few times at poaching check points and you could see watch towers off into the distance.
We arrived at Jackalberry Lodge around lunch time and were greeted by the family who runs the property. The second we stepped out of the air-conditioned vehicle, we were hit with the intensity of the African heat during the hottest part of the day. The lodge was charming and inviting with incredible views of the African bush. What I loved about Jackalberry was how small and quaint it was. There was only room to accommodate 16 people total, and by the end of our stay we had bonded with all of the staff and felt so comfortable there.
We were showed to our room (which really felt like our own private villa), and we were absolutely blown away by how spacious and luxurious it was! Our room was on the edge of the property and when you walked out onto our back deck there was nothing between us and the African bush – magical, yet slightly terrifying, but we will get to that later.
We immediately changed into some cooler clothes for lunch and our first game drive. Near the main lodge, there is a perfectly placed watering hole that draws all different types of wildlife to it for an escape from the African heat. While we were enjoying our lunch, a family of elephants casually strolled up to the watering hole. I couldn’t believe it! We hadn’t even left the lodge and had already seen the animal I was most excited about. I tried not to cry of joy and excitement (again) in front of the strangers that I barely knew. Then we were off on our first game drive.
A great part about staying at a lodge on the Thornybush collection property was that the staff from the various lodges talk to one another about where to find the animals on the 35,000 acres. The safari vehicles are open air Land Rovers. That can make the afternoon drives really hot because we would leave the lodge about 4 PM every afternoon. The vehicles are cool because you can literally drive straight into the bush to get really close to the animals. As long as you’re seated in the vehicle and don’t make any sudden movements, the animals will let you get really close. They have become accustomed to the shape of the Land Rovers and see it as a non-threatening presence. Although we drove all over and got really close to the animals, the park is left nearly untouched. They let nature take its course and rarely interfere unless there is an endangered animal that was injured due to human interference (usually poachers).
The first animal we saw was a white rhino and her baby. I had no idea what to expect because all I knew about rhinos was how endangered they are. It was an amazing feeling to look into this prehistoric-looking animals eyes in their natural habitat. We sat and watched the rhino for awhile because we were so in awe of this creature ( and because it was the first animal we got to see up close)! Then we took off and found two black rhinos not too far away. Black rhinos are more endangered than the white rhinos and a bit more territorial, so we kept our distance. I couldn’t believe that we saw both species of rhino within an hour of leaving the lodge.
The sun was starting to go down and when we approached one of the bigger watering holes in the area we saw a young male elephant swimming to cool off from the afternoon sun. Elephants will often swim during the day or cover themselves in sand and mud to avoid getting sunburned. This elephant was completely submerged besides his trunk. I didn’t think that happened outside of the movies or cartoons. We watched as he finished his swim and walked out of the water to a nearby tree. Then he stood on his hind legs to try and eat some of the vegetation from the higher branches with no luck.
All of the vegetation was so dry when we went due to the lack of rain. I didn’t know this, but when we were supposed to be there in November its usually their rainy season. The rains typically come in October, but they were nearly two months late. I was selfishly glad that it hadn’t rained because there were almost no mosquitoes (AKA little risk of Malaria), but it was so sad to see the animals suffering and in need of water and food. Many of the smaller deer-like creatures were pregnant. Our guide said that its almost like they hold their babies in for as long as possible, and then as soon as the rains come they all give birth and there are baby animals everywhere.
As if our first game drive couldn’t get more eventful, we had the most amazing experience with one of the lion prides. We stopped for our nightly cocktail to watch the sunset. The guide had gotten a tip from another group about a pride of lions, so we headed that way. It was just about dusk and we pulled up to this small clearing. At first I didn’t see anything, then when I looked past some brush I realized we were about 15 feet away from 18+ lions, including a male. We sat there absolutely stunned while the lions slowly stirred from their slumber. There were adult females, young lions and even cubs. I tried so hard not to squeal! Then one-by-one the lions slowly got up to head out on their nightly hunt. It was as if our vehicle was just a rock sitting there in the middle of the bush and they walked right around us. My husband was in the back right-side of the vehicle, and at one point was 18 inches from them. We thought they had all gotten up and then all of a sudden this giant male lion emerged from the darkness. It was one of the coolest moments of my life. To be so close to this powerful creature that you normally only see on T.V. or caged in a zoo. It’s a moment that I will never forget.
That first drive was hard to top, and If I wrote about every single game drive this blog post would be about 15 pages long. Over the course of five more drives we saw all of the big five plus some other amazing animals. I wanted to see a leopard so badly, and when we found the illusive leopard with the blue eyes I could barely contain my excitement. We found him sleeping during the late afternoon, but he opened his eyes just enough to see his piercing blue eyes. The light blue was such a stark contrast to his golden coat. He was truly the most beautiful animal I have ever seen in real life. Another amazing experience with a leopard was when we saw a female leopard drag her kill up into a tree. It’s amazing how much their movements and mannerisms are just like my house cat.
The African wild dog is another illusive animal that is surprisingly just as endangered as the black rhino. We found a pack of them howling and prancing up and down the dirt path. A lot of the other people we talked to didn’t get to see the wild dogs and that made us feel really lucky.
One day in between game drives I was reading about wildlife in the African bush, and I stumbled upon this paragraph about the African crocodile. I was INTRIGUED. I was also that annoying person in my safari group who asked a million questions about the animals and their habits, diet, lifestyle, etc. I love animals, I can’t help it! So I threw out the idea to our guide about this crocodile and he mentioned there was one we could hopefully see. We headed to the far edge of the property and this guy is just loafing in this hole minding his own business. He has one eye. ONE EYE. You can’t make this stuff up and my husband and I referenced Happy Gillmore about a million times after this encounter. Our guide told me he lived for two years during the drought without food or water. I couldn’t believe it, but apparently he just sat in that hole not using any of his energy. Perplexed, I asked how that was even possible, but then I was quickly reminded me that they’ve been around for millions of years for a reason.
Our time spent in the African bush outside of the game drives was so relaxing. It gets extremely hot during the day, which means you can’t do much more than sit in the pool, read and take naps. The woman who runs the lodge was also able to coordinate a massage for me one day, which was one of the best massages I’ve ever had!
I had to work in a daily nap, because despite how relaxing the bush is, I was TERRIFIED of black mambas. I’m talking irrationally terrified. I convinced myself they would sneak in through a crack in our room and attack me in my sleep. I also made the mistake of reading some pages out of a wildlife book in the main lodge about them. Here are some not so fun facts: 1. They are called black mambas because their mouths are black on the inside and the last thing you see before they bite you is the blackness of their mouth. 2. Black mambas can move with only 1/3 of their body on the ground. That’s right. These things can be about as tall as a middle school child when they are slithering toward you. No thank you. I also made the mistake of asking a question about snakes on the Jackalberry property and one of the concierges told me that they found a spitting cobra in the bar area once. So yeah, didn’t sleep well.
For our dinners we got to try some really amazing local cuisine. We had Kudu filet two of the nights and it was actually really good. Think of it like venison, but less gamy. After dinner, my husband and I would sit around and talk to the staff from the lodge while the other guests went to bed. They were some of the sweetest, kindest people I’ve ever met and we wanted to take the opportunity to learn more about their life in the African bush. I also learned that the locals hate snakes as much as I do. So we were instant friends. On our last night the elephants even made another appearance for our last dinner by campfire in the bush. You could hear the crackling of the small trees under the weight of the elephants feet before you can see them.
We went on our last game drive the morning we left Jackalberry, and saw two storks perched in a tree near the lodge. When we got back after our drive, we ate breakfast and then walked back to our room to grab our stuff to head to the airport. I looked out the back door wall and saw the two storks from earlier about 15 feet away from our deck. When I walked out there to take a picture, I noticed that one (or both) of the storks took a giant poop on our deck. I am talking GIANT poop. On your honeymoon that has to be either a fertility blessing or an omen.
Even if we have some weird African curse on our fertility from our honeymoon, I am still madly in love with South Africa. I had no idea what to expect about this country going into this trip. Nowadays when my mind wanders, I find that it goes back to South Africa. Usually, as soon as a trip is over I am reflecting on how amazing it is and thinking about my next adventure. Not with South Africa. I’m longing to get back there as soon as I can. There is something so different about Africa. It takes a hold of you and leaves you wanting more. I even had a moment where I thought I could live in the bush and run a game lodge with Andrew. Little babies running around while elephants stroll by in the background. Ah, the simple life. Then I remembered the black mambas and spitting cobras. So, I think I will just go back for another visit.
TIPS AND TRICKS
Tips & Tricks
- I’d recommend booking through a travel company or agency that has experience in Africa. They can usually get you some really good deals on the lodging for your safari. We usually book everything ourselves, but for this I’m really glad we went with a travel package.
- If you’re only visiting South Africa, you don’t need to get many vaccines before your trip. However, you should always check with your doctor or a travel clinic before you make any of those decisions. For us personally, we just ensured we were up to date on the usual shots.
- I would recommend getting anti-malaria pills if you will be in or near Kruger National Park. The rainy season is from September – March and this is when you will see the highest number of mosquitoes. We ended up getting an anti-malaria medication at the pharmacy in the Johannesburg airport. It was safe, easy and took only ten minutes to get everything for both of us. Bonus: we only paid about $20 USD for both sets of pills. For comparison, we just paid over $100 USD each for the same pills for our trip to Thailand.
- Ubering around Cape Town was very easy and affordable. We went to dinner about ten minutes from our hotel and our Uber ride one way was $4 USD. I felt completely safe and never had a bad experience.
- Make sure to bring cash to tip out the staff at the lodge. Usually they will give you a recommended ballpark for how much to tip each person. We spent about $300 USD tipping the staff and we were really generous because we had a great experience.
- Most game lodges provide transportation to and from the airport in their packages whether you book through an agency or directly
- Most safari packages include full room and board with the price of your stay. For our stay we had all meals included and a concierge assigned to us for when we were relaxing at the resort.