Few words can express how excited we were to be travelling to South Africa. It’s been a place that’s sat on our travel bucket list for such a long time, it’s a wonder we haven’t been there before.
The opportunity to see wild places like the Kalahari Desert has been on my mind ever since I was a boy watching those David Attenborough shows.
And the romance and thrill of seeing exotic cities and streets like Johannesburg and Durban – not to mention experiencing real Zulu culture and learning about their history.
Well, it’s all here and we’ve tried to keep it as brief as possible – though there will be a lot more to come, I can promise you!
Masinwabe – Jim & Christina xx
From the tarmac of Johannesburg’s OR Tambo Airport, we’re about to hop on our flight to Upington Airport away in the Northern Cape.
It’s taken us a long time to get to this point. A flight from Sydney to Perth then another from Perth over to Johannesburg – about 15 hours not including transfers. It’s a good job South Africa Airways treats their passengers with an old-school hospitality you don’t see that often anymore.
In a time when the ‘modern airline’ model may mean bigger higher-def screens and wider seats but at the cost of all the things we used to love about flying, SAA is still flying the flag.
No, the planes might not be the newest, the seatback screens are small and seats themselves narrow. But the impressive amount of legroom you get is almost as joy-bringing as the happy, personable service and things like miniatures in the drinks cart, and a friendliness and banter from the attendants you just don’t see anymore.
Our flight to Upington, which takes us across the outskirts of the Kalahari Desert, is only an hour or so. Coming in to land at this tiny airport, which is amazingly an international terminal too, is a welcome reminder that we’re entering quite remote parts of this fascinating country.
Our first official stop on this whirlwind trip is at Upington’s Kalahari-Oranje Museum, which overlooks the Oranje River. It’s an interesting record of this historic town, that’s seen a lot of growth in recent years thanks to the increase of wine produced in the area.
The wine industry here has created the majority of jobs for the 500k+ inhabitants and seasonal workers.
But from here, we leave Upington – the gateway to Namibia, Botswana and – for us – the Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park.
We pass through the barrier protecting the Transfrontier Park, which is also the border control for Botswana, and the first thing we see as we drive along the sealed road north is an ostrich.
I’m dumbfounded. I never expected to see one in the wild… it turns out there are loads here!
Although we’re technically in South Africa still, the Botswana border is now close enough for us to cross on foot. At times it’s just a couple of metres from the side of the road… not that it would be a good idea to get out of the car…
Relaxing by the side of the road is this beautiful creature. A young male black maned lion. He’s with two others, chilling out in the shade of a tree. It’s remarkable to be so close to these beautiful creatures – and we’ve only been in the park about half an hour.
We’re joined by an important member of the local Khomani People – one of the San – called Andres. As we drive, he explains much of what is and has been happening to his community of 1500 people (plus 500 or so unregistered members and kids).
In 2002, the government gave the Khomani 200 hectares of land in the Kalahari back, but it’s not enough for a traditionally nomadic people like the San.
It’s hard to know what they can do, but Andres and his board are working hard to change things.
But even in the middle of this important news, even Andres is stunned into silence as we pass these mighty animals.
It’s a four-and-a-half-hour drive over precisely 91 massive sand dunes to get here, but it’s certainly worth the effort. This is !Xaus Lodge, which is run as a not-for-profit by Transfrontier Parks Destinations and staffed by Khomani.
If you’re wondering why the exclamation mark, it’s because this denotes a ‘pop’ the Khomani and many of the nine tribal languages in South Africa use. Unfortunately, the ‘x’ is also a ‘click’ in the back of the throat, making !Xaus a difficult word to say.
To get by, you can say ‘Kaus’, rhyming with ‘house’. It’s not right, but close enough.
We’ll be running a full review on this beautiful property later.
After a fascinating couple of days here at !Xaus Lodge, it’s almost time to leave. We drive through the dunes until it’s almost sunset for drinks and celebrations.
We’re lucky to be travelling with a small group of travel journalists and South African Tourism. Over the next few days, we’re all going to become such good friends.
Next morning, it’s an early start back from !Xaus Lodge to Upington, where we’re due to catch our next flight to our next destination.
We spot so much wildlife on our way out of the park: multitudes of antelope, wildebeest, African wildcats, goshawks, vultures – even a brown hyena – but all too soon, we’re out of the Transfrontier Park and back to civilisation.
We transfer from Upington to Joburg again, then through to Durban. It’s been a full day’s travel and we reach our hotel late in the afternoon.
The Southern Sun Maharani Hotel is right on the beachfront and all its rooms look out over the water. Best of all, the windows, even the ones on this – the top floor – open right up. It’s something you don’t see everywhere.
Views out across the beach and south down to the port – South Africa’s busiest – are amazing. Sunrise over the water tomorrow will be incredible.
Our new guide, Bheki, explains the city to us as we drive in from the airport. Durban has suffered worse than a lot of South African cities from segregation during the appalling Apartheid.
There’s still a strong sense of separation in Durban in spite of people now being able to move freely to live wherever they want. The three main races – black African, Caucasian and subcontinental Indian – still live in very different parts of the area.
This beach – the main beach of the city – is predominantly a ‘black beach’, which seems so strange to us with Australian beaches being for everyone. It’s a harsh reminder of the terrible times this country has seen.
Just in case you’re wondering, yes, it’s safe here.
Indians came to Durban as slaves to cut cane in the 1800s. Now their population of around 1 million has a strong influence over the KwaZulu Natal region.
Not least their food.
Here on Florida Road in Durban – the restaurant, bar and entertainment district – House of Curries does one of the best versions of a famous Indian South African dish: Bunny chow.
For clarity, no rabbits were or are involved with this dish. It’s basically half a loaf of bread hollowed out and filled with your choice of delicious curry.
Christina’s gone for lamb curry – the meat is tender, and the curry rich and tasty. I, however, have chosen ‘kebab’ not knowing what would come out. It’s a delicious, fine mince in a thick spicy gravy. This one has a real kick to it.
You can choose a quarter or half loaf depending how hungry you are. Not many people can finish a half… but I manage it with no problem. It’s too tasty to waste!
The name bunny chow comes from the name for the Indian chefs – banias – who invented this dish. It was traditionally a meal for the labourers, who would take it with them for their lunch.
This morning we’re off again, driving through some of the most dramatic scenery to the Zulu Village of the PheZulu Safari Park.
The Gasa clan have been performing traditional dances, rituals and ceremonies here for over 30 years. It’s fascinating and beautiful to watch a version of a Zulu wedding.
This is the head of the Gasa clan, who we meet again after the dance in his house. We’re guided through the three main huts of a traditional Zulu property overlooking the Thousand Hills District, which is still inhabited almost exclusively by Zulu people.
We’re heading north to famous Rorke’s Drift now. It’s a long drive, so we pull in to Greytown stop off to grab a Steers burger, recommended by our photographer Grant, who’s from Cape Town.
He’s not wrong. This is no ordinary takeaway. Messy, delicious, saucy, beefy and cheesy – this is a fine burger. And the chips are excellent too.
We arrive in the afternoon at our hotel, which is in the middle of its own private game park – Fugitives’ Drift.
As we enter the park, a giraffe strolls into the road right in front of us. This park doesn’t have any big predators, so we get out and spend about half an hour taking photos not just of this one, but of an entire herd (also known as ‘a tower’) of giraffes. It’s amazing.
Even more amazing is our room. The balcony looks directly out over the game park. In the clearing, antelope graze freely and birds of all kinds fill the trees.
Fugitives’ Drift Lodge is a very special place.
Just as impressive is the bathroom. We have a beautiful clawfoot bath, an outdoor shower and a wonderful rainfall shower inside too.
Staying at Fugitives’ Drift Lodge makes you feel very connected to the area, which is remote, though very close to the important historic site of Isandlwana and Rorke’s Drift.
Don’t worry, we’ll be talking a lot more about this fabulous lodge soon.
As part of our stay at Fugitives’ Drift, we get to tour the battle grounds of the Anglo-Zulu War of 1879. Our morning guide is a direct descendent of one of the Zulu leaders, who fought at Isandlwana.
It was a terrible battle, costing thousands of British and Zulu lives for very little. The guide’s story of what happened is sombre, deep and contemplative. The heroism of the men that fought here is overshadowed by the tragic loss of so many lives.
In this battle, which is the precursor to Rorke’s Drift and the famous 1964 classic, 25,000 Zulu warriors fought and killed 1,300 colonial soldiers in a war provoked by the British. Many Zulus died too.
White stone cairns litter the battleground marking the mass graves of those whose bones still remain here.
In the evening, just before sunset, we travel 10 miles from Isandlwana to the site of Rorke’s Drift with Douglas Rattray, the son of the late David Rattray, founder of Fugitives’ Drift Lodge, storyteller and historian.
From what we can tell, Doug is certainly a chip off the old block – something he should be proud of.
The tale of the defence of Rorke’s Drift, how 4,000 Zulu warriors were held off by 139 British – 35 of whom were incapacitated, is as dramatic and heroic as the movie. Perhaps more so. And Doug catches every element wonderfully, no doubt hearing his father’s voice within him.
The sun sets on this site where 17 survivors watched the remnants of the Zulu attack retreat over the crest and we know we’ve just experienced something truly significant.
It’s taken us quite a while to get here (four hours driving back to Durban for another hour’s flight to Johannesburg) but we’re finally here in Soweto.
Soweto, by the way is short for South Western Township.
This is the biggest township in Johannesburg – originally a slum created by the dreadful Apartheid regime. It’s now a vibrant, proud section of the city. Although poverty is still very much an issue here, Soweto’s residents still remain out of choice.
Our first stop in Soweto is at The Wine Bar, a rather fancy restaurant and not something we were expecting. An extensive wine list pairs with a fascinating menu with both commonly found and more unusual items on offer.
Being on a cultural trip, we order the unusual. Black tripe, lamb’s trotters, hard body chicken, ox tail and braised chicken livers come out. The first piece of tripe I try doesn’t taste great – perhaps not thoroughly soaked enough – but other pieces are good.
The livers and hard body – the kind of lean chicken you see wandering around rather than plump farm chooks – are both excellent.
Of all the parts of Soweto to have a fine-dining spot such as this (they even have a small Cuban cigar selection here), Vilakazi Street is the obvious choice.
It’s the street Nelson Mandela and Desmond Tutu grew up on – the only street in the world to be home to two Nobel Peace Prize winners, so tourists aren’t a rarity here.
Service is superb at The Wine Bar and the food is lovingly prepared. Definitely come here when you visit this fascinating part of South Africa.
We travel down to Lebo’s Hostel deep in the township. Lebo, the owner, has created a wonderful space for visitors to come and locals to work, and is a pillar of the community.
He has also started these tuk tuk tours of Soweto, which gives you a unique way to see life here. Locals wave and say hello as you pass, and although you’re exposed to the poor way of life the denizens of Soweto are living, the tour guide makes it very clear that this is not poverty tourism.
It’s an important exposure of life that terrible things like Apartheid can create. Lessons to be learnt and understood.
The tuk tuk tour culminates in a quick visit to Nelson Mandela’s house – now a museum.
This morning, we’re on the road once more driving out of town to visit the Cradle of Humankind.
The Cradle of Humankind is a massive network of limestone caves which has produced almost half of all humanid fossils ever found. It’s been so prolific that paleoanthropologists have been able to trace the origins of our species and many others before us.
The cave climb is in stark contrast to the easy, fun visitors’ centre. Small groups are brought down 60 metres below the surface through tight cracks and crannies, and up and down many flights of steps. A good level of fitness is important for this experience.
This evening, we’ve travelled to the other side of the city for what will be our last dinner together. We’re at the beautiful Epicure by Chef Coco and the menu has been carefully crafted to represent the best features of African food.
We get to meet Chef Coco, who was brought up in Belgium, shows his talent for French style cuisine and his passion for the taste of Africa.
This tasting plate is called the NEWS plate, with flavours from the north, east, west and south of Africa. My main of ostrich fillet is absolutely superb – this is well worth a visit.
This morning – our last in Africa – we are on a walking tour of the street art of Maboneng. This super-cool part of town is full of amazing art on the city’s towers.
This is by Belgian artist Roa, who paints endangered animals everywhere he goes. It’s side to South Africa I hadn’t expected to see.
The street art walking tour is conducted by Curiocity, a fantastic civic company showing the different sides to places around South Africa.
On from the art tour, we drive to the Apartheid Museum with our guide Tony. He’s from Soweto – still lives there in fact – and was a young activist in the anti-apartheid movement.
It’s a harrowing, shameful experience learning the terrible things that happened and that white people did as a result of stupid racial prejudice.
The museum is a harsh enough lesson, but with Tony beside us, we learn even more from a first-hand survivor of those terrible times.
From the front of the museum, we see the seven pillars of the South African constitution structured by the likes of Nelson Mandela. They hold up what is considered to be the best constitution in the world to date: democracy, equality, reconciliation, diversity, responsibility, respect and freedom.
After such a necessary, confronting experience, it’s a wonder we’re hungry, but lunch beckons us to Moyo at Zoo Lake.
Possibly the best meal we’ve had in South Africa apart from last night’s dinner, we feast on two huge mixed grills of different meat, Mozambican piri piri chicken and prawns, fascinating sides like samp, nhapi dovi and chakalaka, and a bread platter with a chilli chickpea dip.
A fitting end to our trip together.
We do have one last stop before the airport though: the Rosebank Art and Craft Market for some souvenir shopping. This underground market is packed full of pots, masks, blankets and trinkets – almost none of which we’d be allowed to bring back to Australia.
The vendors are friendly, though when we mention where we’re from, they’re a little stumped. They know probably better than we do that trying to get a carved bone object or an exquisite wooden animal into the country is asking for trouble.
We find a few things though and it’s an interesting experience.
There’s time for just one more photo of all of us (minus Alexis, who’s had to catch a different flight) and Grant, who’s behind the camera. What a great crew. We feel very lucky to have travelled with you guys.
We hope you’ve enjoyed this snippet of our time in this remarkable country. There’s plenty more to come, don’t worry. But for now, this is all we’ve got.
Cheers – Jim & Christina xx