About a year ago, on a typically grey, overcast Vancouver Island morning, one just made for browsing through the travel section of the paper, we came upon the perfect antidote - an adventure trek through South Africa! It's a country we've always wanted to visit, so after exploring a few websites and making some phone calls, the bookings were done. Just like that! It was easy, exciting, invigorating, and a portent of how well the actual trip would turn out. Not only did the fall departure provide plenty of time for preparation, research, reading and packing, but it also became an endlessly fascinating topic of conversation. From the start, we speculated on the likes of Zululand, Swaziland, the Great Karoo, leopards and braais.
Along with the thrilling prospect of viewing wildlife, exploring South Africa from Johannesburg to Cape Town by safari truck and experiencing a country in the throes of creating a new fascinating history, was the comfort of knowing we'd be travelling with a peer group. Ranging in age from 57-69, the 15 Canadian trekkers on our tour hailed from east and west coasts and points in between.
Enquiring minds, a zest for life, a willingness to pitch in with the travel chores, good conversationalists, a love of hiking and walking, an appreciation of sights, sounds and scenery plus a certain amount of flexibility and a sense of adventure - we had it all! Forming a fine basis upon which to explore this fascinating part of the world was the good humour, compassion, openness and desire to learn and understand all we would encounter - including ourselves.
Our first challenge was finding a weight-restricted soft-sided bag to hold our gear for an 18-day trek, plus some extra days spent in a completely different environment at the start and end of the trip. That, along with a daypack, would be it for luggage. Next, was finding footwear suitable for a total of five weeks in such diverse places as Paris, the bushveld, mountains, beach, rain, heat and London in November. Although not campers, we're active people and learned even more about the incredible array of equipment available for nearly any type of active trip, from sleeping bags to quick-dry towels and underwear.
Would our choice of light beige, easy-wash, quick-dry, roughing-it, many-pocketed, sun/water/mud resistant activewear make us look like escapees from Raiders of the Lost Ark we wondered, or would it be practical and live up to its labels? Indeed it did: easy wash and dry, useful pockets and zips, but most of all very comfortable.
Fast forward to Johannesburg: We've had the necessary shots, packed the medical supplies, purchased the trekking gear, cameras and binoculars, now we have to do the best we can with what we've got - this is, after all, an adventure trek, not a five-star glide through the wilderness. A couple of fellow trekkers from Vancouver Island join us and we all head off to meet the others and experience our first night in a South African lodge.
It's a 5:30 a.m. start the next day, heading northeast in the 4x4 fully equipped [but not air conditioned] safari truck to the Lowveld bushveld for a two-night stay at a bush camp adjacent to Kruger Park. A three-hour guide and tracker-led game walk wipes away the last vestiges of images of life outside of Africa and envelops us in the marvels, rhythms and secrets of nature in the bush, so we could open our eyes and actually see the surrounding landscape. From then on, the real adventure unfolded. We delighted in spotting elephants, giraffes, cape buffalos, hippos, monkeys, baboons, zebras, rhinos and just about every creature you'd expect to see on a National Geographic African special. Seeing the animals against the wide vista of their natural habitat, hearing the thundering of hooves, seeing the interaction between them, we felt so privileged to be there. We eagerly consulted our wildlife books and maps and shared the information with each other. Along with our seasoned guide, a few in the group discovered they had hidden talents as spotters, so cameras and binoculars were constantly at the ready.
Sightings of wildlife were continuous throughout the trip and our licensed Drifters guide, Petrie, provided thorough information on the flora and fauna, history, geography and customs of the country; he drove, shopped, managed the schedule and cooked our dinners and breakfasts, if we weren't staying at a lodge. But, we pitched in and did the extras: clearing up and preparing picnic lunches when on the road.
The food was hearty, featured plenty of meat and was often cooked in one big iron pot, sometimes over the hot coals of a campfire; always plentiful, tasty and served against a stunning backdrop - a sunset over the veld or in the dining room of a stately stone farmhouse. While the local wines were instantly popular, the fluorescent pink salami and wieners never became favourites. On our trip, most of the food was included in the price. But in some areas, we were left to our own devices and made arrangements for our own meals.
We continued on our trip of contrasts and went through the wild animal-filled vastness of Kruger and the humidity of the Sabie River area. At Kruger, we stayed in the national park's rondavels [traditional African-style house], where monkeys happily made their early morning rounds of the garbage containers; and in Hazyview, at a log cabin on stilts in an indigenous subtropical forest. It's here we met the lodge manager's resident menagerie consisting of an ostrich, a zebra and two warthogs named Rosie and Meatloaf. The latter two were photogenic but had a penchant for nibbling on eyeglasses, locking themselves in the toilets and mistakenly chasing newcomers off the property as they enthusiastically rushed up to greet them!
The Kingdom of the Swazi was most memorable because of the border-crossings in and out of the country: rules, regulations, passports, line-ups, intriguing notices, vehicles and people crossing back and forth, police, armed military and others on the look out for who knows what. We travelled through endless acres of agricultural and forested land to the magnificent coast and a chance to dip a toe in the wild Indian Ocean.
We made a pit stop at the urban port city of Durban, and then took a long drive into the Drakensberg mountain range. Our lodge and log cabins were so remote that we repacked in order to reduce our luggage by half and transferred into an open sided 4x4 vehicle, which hauled us over streams and up rugged mountain tracks. At a height of 6,000 feet, was an incredible unimpeded view and our hikes took us further into the mountains via an ancient San rock art gallery; those who decided to shorten their hike were entertained by the baboons that played their way through and around the lodging.
Hugging the border of Lesotho, we passed through Golden Gate National Park with its magnificent sandstone cliffs and breathtaking views to a working, traditional style farm near the town of Ladybrand. It's in the rather grand dining room that we sat at a massive table and enjoyed the lasagna; cooked in the big black pot over and under the glowing coals of the braai.
Next was the Great Karoo, where we reached the stone cottages and traditional farmstead nestled in the Sneeuberg Mountains on, as the guidebook says, "lesser-known gravel roads." Indeed, that is an understatement as we hurtled through the unending grandeur of the Karoo on red dust roads, stopping only to view leopard tortoises and pass through the gated areas of grazing sheep. Lit by oil lamps and solar panels, the coziness of the dwellings glowed warm in the magnificence of its seclusion. Hiking here felt like being the only people in the world as we emerged on rocky shelves to view endless valleys with their herds of wild animals. Thunderstorms rolled around the area throwing up unbroken rainbows.
Before crossing the Outeniqua Mountains towards Knysna on the coast via the Garden route, we encountered the town of Graaf-Reinet. Founded in 1786, it's also known as the gem of the Karoo with its Cape Dutch architectural style. With some 200 of its buildings designated national monuments, its museums are informative and depict the various histories and lifestyles of the people in the area.
Hiking along the famed Otter Trail in the Tsitsikamma coastal National Park is not for the faint of heart, but we decided to tackle the first leg. We all made it over the boulders, enjoying the waves crashing up on the rocks and beach below us, but not all were tempted to tackle the knife-edge shards of cliff that made up the next stretch. Nobody wanted to try the world's highest (216 metres) bungee jump, but we all went out through Knysna Heads on a boat trip.
On the way to Cape Town, we stopped at Hermanus to watch the massive Right Whales. That breathtaking scene was only one part of a magnificent coastal drive to the Cape. Then, it was onward to the Cape Town area and all it has to offer: the wine area of Stellenbosch, French-influenced Franschhoek, Boulders Beach Penguin colony, the Cape of Good Hope, Table Mountain with its revolving-floored cable cars for a good all-around view, and the new and vibrant Victoria and Alfred Waterfront with restaurants, shops and a variety of performers. A rollicking boat trip takes visitors from there to Robben Island, where Nelson Mandela and others were incarcerated; the history of the island is thoroughly presented and well documented.
South Africa is sometimes called a "rainbow nation" or "a land of impossible contrasts." And it is. Just as a stunning view might take your breath away, so too do sights of sprawling townships and crowded dwellings, overwhelmingly busy market areas, ubiquitous razor wire schools that need simple basics, and startling views of people in their daily struggles. Cellphones abound in the most unexpected places, cattle graze along highways, wild animals wander across roads, the Cape Town Opera performs at the V&A Waterfront and a Sangoma will look into the future using shells and bones. And, a few other highlights that can add to this richness of experience are places such as Soweto, Nelson Mandela's house, Winnie Mandela's house, the Apartheid Museum and Pretoria; but that's another story.
If You Go:
- Consider groups made up of people similar in age.
- Check with travel agents who specialize in adventure travel.
- You don't need to be super human to tackle all adventure holidays.
- Cameras and binoculars should always be handy.
- Your mantra must be "flexibility and a sense of adventure."
- Sometimes travel agents will customize focus group travel i.e. photography or birdwatching.
- Many adventure tours don't add a single supplement charge, but check to see if you'll be asked to share accommodation from time to time on the trip.
- Book well in advance, if you want to visit Robben Island.
- Get all necessary travel inoculations; there is malaria in some areas.
- Safety - keep your wits about you and rely on the knowledge of your guide, concierge, or local travel professional.
- Food and supplies - huge supermarkets carry everything and more.
- Many languages are spoken - English is ubiquitous.