Have you always dreamed of seeing the Big 5 in Africa? Christian Dean shares his experience travelling through Southern Africa with Intrepid Travel where he sampled the best of three stunning southern African countries on an eye-popping tour like no other:
Making your way to the other side of the world is a daunting task for most people. Doing so while leaving your pregnant wife and two year old daughter at home (of course, with your wife’s complete blessing) is a whole other thing. In June of 2014, I was fortunate enough to take a tour of Southern Africa with Intrepid Travel. Twenty-three hours of time in the air and an overnight in Dubai was all that stood between me and realizing a long standing dream of traveling to Southern Africa to see the scenery, people and the incredible wildlife of one of the world’s most exotic and extraordinary locales. Despite my trepidation, there was no way I was being held back from this opportunity.
Tips for Getting There
If you are planning a trip to South Africa, there are countless pieces of advice that people will give you about personal safety, places to visit, time of year to go, restaurants to eat in (endless excellent opportunities there) and/or hotels or lodges to stay in. My first, and perhaps most important, tip is to include a stopover in each direction on your flights. Nobody likes to arrive in their destination and spoil a day because they can’t keep their eyes open for longer than 30 seconds. There is only so much that a Starbucks triple shot espresso can achieve. You can get to Johannesburg, my port of arrival, or Cape Town through London, Frankfurt, Amsterdam or Dubai quite easily from the West Coast. If you are a glutton for punishment, you can even go directly from Washington, DC or Atlanta, Georgia with one of the longest flights known to man. I chose an overnight in Dubai on my way there to take the opportunity to travel with Emirates Airlines, the finest economy travel I can imagine, and to catch a glimpse of the famed city of Dubai with it’s immense skyscrapers and reputation for luxurious living. A glimpse is all I got, as I spent the majority of my 15 hours there sleeping in an airport area hotel due to a complete inability to sleep on planes. That being said, the stop over saved the first three days of my trip, each of which I was very happy to be rested for.
Johannesburg shares a reputation with many cities in South Africa of being dangerous. I spent three nights in this city, albeit based in the decidedly well-to-do suburb of Sandton, and never felt in any more danger than I have in any city in Canada or the US that I have visited. However, like almost any city in the world, there are dangerous areas of Johannesburg, but you can easily avoid them as they will generally not add anything to your travels. Based on my experiences, Sandton and Soweto are the two key spots to visit in Johannesburg. Sandton for shopping and excellent dining and Soweto to experience the recent history of this country. Apartheid was broken 20 years ago in 1994, but its mark has been left throughout the country. Soweto (short for South Western Townships) was the centre of a decades long fight for equality and the home to South Africas two most famous icons, Bishop Desmond Tutu and the great Nelson Mandela. Their homes still stand here and the region is well worth a visit to experience the culture, witness the strength of the people and eat some fantastic food. If you are feeling brave, they ”brew” a particular kind of beer here, Joburg Beer. It’s really a fermented maize-based beverage that tastes somewhat like a beer and has a reputation for getting more potent the longer it is left to ferment. Tempted?
Kruger National Park
From Johannesburg, most itineraries will take you to the incredible Kruger National Park. If you are travelling with a tour company as I was, you can expect to get there via the Drakensberg, the mountain range between Johannesburg and the coast. Though this drive seems rather lengthy, when you look at the distance between Johannesburg and Kruger on the map, it is extremely worthwhile. The scenery is breathtaking and this drive has two absolute “must sees” in Bourkes Luck Potholes and The Three Rondovals. Each of these sights are located in the Blyde River Canyon, one of the worlds largest green canyons. The view over the Three Rondovals inspires countless photographs and each of them is well deserved.
Kruger National Park is incredible. If it is not on your bucket list already, you need to add it. Now. Stop reading this and write it down. The immense array of animals here is outstanding. Over a 24 hour period, I was able to see the famed “Big Five” (thus named by hunters who came from Europe in the 1800’s for being the five most dangerous animals to hunt and kill); lions, white rhinos, leopards, water buffalo and elephants, in addition to hyenas, jackal, baboon, Wildebeest, African Wild Dogs and numerous varieties of antelope.
The best time to visit Kruger is from June to August when the park is at it’s driest and the vegetation lowest. This gives you the advantage of better visibility and many of the animals will gather at the waterholes, most of which have strategically placed roadways overlooking them.
You may choose a number of paths to take from this point. Our group headed into the Kingdom of Swaziland, a small country with an incredible culture and home to a number of national parks, created by Swaziland’s king in the mid 1990’s amidst a successful effort to halt rampant hunting of rhinos and elephant for their tusks. I was able to spend a day and night in Swaziland’s Hlane National Park where I had the unbelievable experience of coming within 15 feet of four rhino while on a walking safari in the bush. While not intentional, it was definitely remarkable.
The following day took us to the Southern coast of Mozambique and the beautiful Punta Malangone. The coastline of Mozambique covers about 1/3 of Africa’s East Coast and it is stunning. Expansive beaches backed by massive sand dunes spotted with beach homes for the many vacationing South Africans made for great scenery in which to spend 2 days relaxing and enjoying the friendly people and delicious cuisine of Mozambique. This was definitely a part of my journey that I wished I could have extended.
From Mozambique, we headed back to South Africa to the coastal town of St Lucia. Backed by an incredible estuary, the focus of our time here was to take a boat trip on the salt water lake and get up close with an sizeable number of hippos and crocodiles that line its shores. Following this extremely worthwhile cruise, our group spent the evening comparing photos over a top-notch seafood meal at one of the many fantastic St. Lucian dining establishments.
Our tour moved onwards to KwaZulu-Natal, the home of the people of the Zulu Nation and the beautiful Valley of 1,000 Hills. We were treated to an immersion in Zulu culture here, meeting with a Sangoma, a practitioner of traditional Zulu medicine, some youth at an orphanage that was sponsored by our hosts, a local not-for-profit group, and a group of Zulu dancers (very impressive and an absolute highlight of the trip) and treated to an incredible evening in a home stay with one of the local families.
Southern Africa offers some of the most incredible landscapes, cultures and animal habitats that our world has to offer. The places we visited and the people we met will never be forgotten and the experiences cherished forever.
Though it may be some time before I have the opportunity to visit Africa again, it will absolutely happen. My fears were unfounded and my expectations exceeded at every turn. I cannot wait to share the complete splendour of Africa with my wife and children. Is it your time to experience Africa?
Looking for more information travelling to Africa or with Intrepid Travel? Christian Dean is a Team Leader at the Flight Centre Saanich location in Victoria, BC and can be reached online or by calling 1-866-788-3159.