By Arlene Larsen / Photos by Thor A. Larsen
The thrill of standing right at the bottom of the African continent,(Cape of Good Hope), where 500 years ago Bartolomeu Diaz first experienced the wind and fury of the Atlantic and the Indian Oceans’ coming together makes the thirty hours round trip to South Africa bearable.
We signed up for the ‘South Africa Highlights and Safari Tour’ offered by smarTours, and opted for the ‘tour extension’ that included Zimbabwe with a visit to Victoria Falls and a safari in Chobe National Park in Botswana.
Cape Town is one of the most beautiful cities in the world, located on the edge of the Atlantic Ocean with a back drop of dramatic mountains. This is a neat, clean and contemporary-looking city, with a large university, modern hospitals, office buildings and hotels. A colorful and historical area of the city is known as Bo-Kaap where people paint their houses in very bright and vibrant colors. This area is home to the Cape Town Muslim community.
Cape Town is especially stunning when approached from the sea. We took a boat to Robben Island to visit the ‘prison’ museum and nature park. This Island used as a prison since the 1600’swas the location of the infamous prison that held Nelson Mandela for over 20 years. Experiencing the walk-through of this prison with a former prisoner was a riveting experience. The Robben Island boat returned to the Victoria and Alfred Waterfront, Cape Town’s main attraction. The Waterfront has several wharfs containing shops, restaurants, hotels, a world class aquarium, open plazas for entertainment and quays for yacht and tour boats. With temperatures in the low 70’s, the Waterfront is a perfect place to enjoy African music, a meal of fresh fish and local wine, with a view of the sea and the mountains in the background.
The visit to the Cape of Good Hope and Cape Point with high winds and churning seas was as dramatic and exciting as expected. On the way back to Cape Town we made a lunch stop at Boulders Beach where their famous inhabitants, the jackass penguins hold court so all the tourists can snap photos of the only land-breeding colony of jackass penguins. Later in the morning, we traveled up a winding road into the hills to visit the famous Boschendal Winery. We toured this historic estate and sipped samples of their well-known wines.
We flew to Durban, a port city on the Indian Ocean, and drove along the coastline. This area is known for its beach communities and is very popular as a holiday destination for South Africans that have filled the shore line with condos and hotels. Heading north, we traveled through sugar cane, pineapple and pine tree farms (with thatched huts scattered about) as we headed into Kwazulu Natal Province and the Safari Park of Hluhluhue Umfolozi.
After two exciting safari outings in Hluhluhue Park where we encountered Cape buffalos, rhinos, baboons, hyenas, zebras, countless kudus, wart hogs, impalas, and many species of beautifully-colored birds, we pressed north through Swaziland to Kruger National Park . In Kruger, we had our first glimpses of lion cubs, elephants and giraffes. It was here that we experienced an amazing encounter with a ‘den’ of ten lions that had managed to surround our jeep as we came around a bend in the road. They were not at all intimidated by this group of 10 stunned tourists and virtually ignored us as they strolled past our jeep no more than six feet away!
Safari Chobe National Park
Arriving in Johannesburg, we stayed at a hotel in Sandton. The next day, we briefly toured a blighted down-town Johannesburg and later visited the home of Nelson Mandela and a museum in the suburbs of Soweto that focused on the black uprisings that erupted when black schools were told to only teach in the Afrikaner language. This excursion did give us some insight into the pain suffered by blacks during the Apartheid period.
We spent an afternoon in the attractive city of Pretoria, the former Afrikaans capital and still the administrative center of South Africa. A city that abounds with historical monuments, classical buildings and flower-filled parks.
On leaving Johannesburg, we flew to Zimbabwe to visit Victoria Falls and the Chobe National Park in Botswana. Our hotel was situated on a high plateau overlooking the plains of Zambezi National Park. Built on eleven levels, the hotel looks like a thatched tree house. In the back of the hotel, each private balcony faces a productive watering hole where we watched elephants, baboons, kudus, crocodiles and birds of many species enjoying their refreshments. It was like watching the nature channel.
Victoria Falls is situated on the Zambezi River, and drops into a steep narrow chasm of 300 feet (twice the height of Niagara Falls). You view the falls from the opposite side of the chasm where the path goes along the entire width of the 2 km falls. The ground literally shakes from its power and its roar is so deafening it can be heard 25 miles away. The mist of the falling water sprays upward and can be seen four miles away.
The journey to the Chobe National Park in Botswana was our last outing of the tour and the excitement it generated surpassed all the other safaris we had experienced. The day began with the boarding of a boat to cruise the Chobe River, in a region where Botswana, Zimbabwe, Zambia and Namibia come together. Wildlife in and near the river was full and varied and we had three knowledgeable young men as guides for this cruise. Not long after launching, we spotted a couple of crocodiles, outdone only by a large group of hippopotamus that popped their heads out of the water to eye us. Then the elephants showed up and the boat went wild! At first we spied one elephant, then two, then more and still more; males, females, young ones, babies (two-months old), some drinking, some bathing, some rolling around on the river bank. An incredible sight!! This was the best African experience we had.
Unlike the other parks, the roads here were very uneven and hence, very bumpy as well as fast. But, we may have had to move fast because there were so many animals around us. There were times we thought the many massive elephants around us would just bowl us over as we blocked their walking paths. We also saw a rather large number of giraffes, zebras, kudus and impalas and even a large (3-4 ft) lizard that fortunately kept his distance. At the end of the day, we joyfully said, ‘we had seen it all’ and enjoyed a couple of glasses of wine with our new friends as we watched the sunset from our outdoor restaurant, signaling the end of a marvelous journey.
Sharing the tour with 40 other friendly and engaging people who were from different parts of the US and Canada helped make this tour more than just visiting phenomenal sites, it enhanced the whole experience. Our tour guide was exceptional. He was not only very knowledgeable on the sites we were visiting, but also had an exceptional background on the history and culture of South Africa that he shared with us on the bus rides. In fact, he has written a book on South Africa.