South Africa is one of the most challenging countries to travel to. I’m not talking visa requirements or the conditions on arrival, but about overall cost and mental health en route! To me, the cost was worth it. The dream of volunteering on an animal conservation had been one of my goals for years.
I didn’t want to wind up on some random, elaborate, tourist tour. I wanted to see what life was like on an actual reserve. I wanted to be hands-on. I wanted to be part of the action.
After a lot of research, I chose to go with Siyafunda on their Makalali Reserve west of Kruger Kruger National Park for one week. The majority of the cost of the programs are a donation, not actual incurred fees. The exorbitant costs probably also help deter casual tourists that aren’t serious about the programs.
Depending where you’re travelling from, and also your budget, round-trip flights can often run around one-thousand to fifteen hundred dollars. My best advice is to be flexible with your dates, and plan well ahead. Make good use of the graph on Google Flights or SkyScanner to pick the best dates for travel.
There’s a very good chance you’ll wind up having at least a couple layovers with time to kill. If you’re like me, and opted for the rock bottom price, you’ll have a thirty-plus hour flight and layovers upwards of ten hours!
Occasionally, you’ll come across airports with sleeping chambers and even showers. But, more often than not, I find myself cozying up into a dark corner somewhere, or in the airport lounges. Bring a sleeping mask and ear plugs. It will help save your sanity. And, course, an activity that you know will keep your mind entertained and satisfied while fatigued for a prolonged period of time.
Johannesburg & Animal Reserve
Cradle of Humankind
My first stop was the Cradle of Humankind which was about 50 km north west of Johannesburg. The museum contains numerous skulls and artifacts from our distant ancestors. One nicknamed Mrs. Ples which is apparently over two million years old.
I’ve never been a huge fan of museums and reading signage, so the real fun began when we suited up and headed into the Sterkfontein caves. These caves are pretty special because they’ve produced more than a third of the the hominid fossils found before 2010. The original discovery can be attributed to Robert Broom in 1935, a Scottish South African doctor and palaeontologist.
Arriving at camp, we all had a chance to unload and then were assigned our teams and bunkmate for the week. The camp was very simple. Two-person rooms with a shower each, a fire pit, and a communal eating area with kitchen. Off in the distance, there was a lookout platform that peered over the valley. A great place to watch the sunrise or sunset. But, given that the camp wasn’t fenced in, we did get a rather stern safety briefing — even if it was oddly a few days into the trip already.
A year prior, and despite safety regulations, a group of women decided they had wanted to say on the roof of their hut and sleep under the African stars. Not smart. All but one of them wisened up and went inside. By the morning, only a carcass of humans remains was left behind. Not an ending I wanted to my journey, so I played it safe and kept indoors when darkness began to loom.
Our days would primarily consist of driving around the reserve and making note of where each animal was located on the GPS, its health status, who it was with, if it was eating, how full it looked, and if it was injured in any way. We each got to take our turn taking these notes. There really wasn’t a lot to do aside from stay on the lookout. Our other duties included cooking, camp maintenance, and clearing the access roads as necessary.
Some of the animals were also tagged so we could pick them up on a responder. We’d hold up a huge antenna and hope. Sometimes hours would go by without the sighting we were hoping for. The device sort of worked sort of like a sonar. We’d tune into a certain frequency, and the closer we got to the animal, the louder the beeps would be.
One of the most exciting spottings that we had on the first day was a lion and his pride chowing down on some fresh kill. We were only a few meters from him! These were wild animals. This isn’t a zoo. There was no humanizing done these creatures.
The guide explained that as long as we were in the jeep, we appeared as one large animal like an elephant. Had we exited, the lion could quickly identify us as prey. They will rarely attack other predators, and will only chase after prey.
Memories of the Lion King came crashing down when we made our first Hyena sighting at sunset. Their arched spines and evil-like grimaces were just like the movie. They are incredibly versatile hunters, and, despite being scavengers for leftovers from other predators, up to 90% of what they eat will be something they had killed themselves. They’re not picky, and will eat everything from lizards and snakes to insects and birds.
The Giraffes were pretty shy. We crept up on one with the Jeep, and when it realized what we were doing, it bolted around the corner and into the bush on the other side. Then, just as quickly as it had been startled, it went back to munching down on some leaves.
They looked like they’d trip over their own legs when they were running. They’re not the most eloquent creatures by any stretch of the imagination. However, despite their awkwardness in a jaunt, a single kick from a Giraffe can be powerful enough to kill an unsuspecting predator. Because of this, they’re not a first choice for most predators.
We were lectured not to geotag our photos with the Rhino when we finally came across it. Apparently there was only one on the reserve at the time, and they had pre-meditatively removed its horn to make it less appealing to illegal poachers. They’re unique in the African kingdom because they have no natural predators. This is partly due to their huge bodies, but also their strong horns and industrious skin. Humans truly are the only great threat to these animals.
The hippos were incredibly elusive and we barely caught more than a glimpse of them below the waterline. Weighing up to 3200 kg, they also can come with impressively huge teeth up to 1.3 feet in length. In a given night they chow down on up to 40 kg of grass. While they are herbivores, they can also be incredibly territorial and have been known to kill humans and other animals.
It had been a long day, and we were tired. As the sun set, we found a herd of docile buffalo grazing in a nearby field. This one truly felt like a postcard moment, and we hung around until the sun had completely gone down, just admiring them.
Cruising around in dark also meant a variety of new and exciting sets of animals. We hauled our our spotlight, and our guides would occasionally motion for us t get ready to with our cameras. I had no idea how they could spot these creatures in the dark. I certainly couldn’t see them. Now those were some impressive skills. While I didn’t catch many of their names, they usually were the meeker varieties of animals that would’ve made easier prey.
The elephants were marching around in big groups with quite a few babies in tow. The cuteness factor was off the scale. One of the oldest males of the group was in heat. This means they have up to ten times as much testosterone flooding their system. He was also dribbling a constant trail of urine, which apparently is supposed to advertise their sexual availability. One of the females in the group wasn’t taking well to his advances, but that didn’t seem to deter him…
Zebras were as common as horses are in Canada. They were everywhere. We were literally “Dazzled” every time when they’d make appearances, though. After-all, that’s what you’ll call a group of them – a Dazzle! While we didn’t see an attack in person, Zebras will run in a zig-zag pattern if being pursued to make it more difficult for the predator to catch them.
One of the most majestic looking animals is the Gazelle. They’re a type of antelope, along with the impalas. They’re easy prey. While they were quite skittish, their giant uniform horns and faces that almost look like they’ve been done up by a makeup artist, commands a powerful visage. If you have a keen eye for horn shapes, you have a much better chance at telling them apart than I did.
Blyde River Canyon
After my week of sunburns, fire pits, card games, and all the dream animals drew to a close, I imparted some words of wisdom with chalk on the dining table as those before me had done.
Around Johannesburg there are a number of amazing natural wonders. I booked a private Blyde River Canyon tour and headed out for the day.
After meandering through gorgeous mountain passes, we arrived at the lookout of the Three Rondavels. They are named after the Chief’s three wives.
Back in Canada, there’s a place called the Sooke Pot Holes on Vancouver Island. Bourke’s Luck Potholes looked like a super-sized version of these. Massive rock canyons with countless tiny pools etched into them over time. I strode along the network of inter-connecting bridges, admiring waterfall after waterfall.
A quick stop over at Lisbon Falls before lunch for the steep descent to view the 94 meter natural wonder. While undoubtedly nothing compared to the wonder of Victoria Falls in Zambia, it was still refreshing to have the mist cool me down during the scorching days.
God’s Window is a view 900 meters above the forested indigenous valley below. The cliff faces looked sheered off by some massive force long since forgotten. The tribal homes in the movie The Time Machine could have easily been filmed here. Or, perhaps a scene from Pirates of the Carribbean. It looks like the stereotypical spot where the Hero gets stuck at the precipice with the bad guys in tow.
Cape Peninsula Tour
While crime throughout all of South Africa is quite bad, Cape Town is quite a bit safer to trek around than Johannesburg as long as you’re not out after dark.
Just like the UK, drivers are on the left side of the road. But after recently coming off the craziness of Italian roads, and not wanting to worry about car jackings, I booked myself in for a nice relaxing tour of the Cape Peninsula. This is the best way to “see it all” because there are only a few highlights and it’s quite the drive!
The first adventure was a boat tour to Seal Island. Now, maybe it’s just because I grew up outside of Vancouver, Canada where sea life is abundant, but I wasn’t quite as pumped as the other tourists! The better views were as we continued en route through Chapman’s Peak for a view of Simon’s Town.
The Cape of Good Hope is located at the most southern part of South Africa. Monkeys and ostriches are hanging out just like the other gawkers. I didn’t dare to get too close incase they decided they wanted to duke it out.
I booked it up the stone pathway for a view from the peak at the lighthouse before rejoining my tour.
As we got closer to Boulder’s Beach Penguin colony, I made friends with another tourist flying solo and we embraced the massive smorgasboard of African wild game. It was a gout attack waiting to happen!
She made good on the tourist top 10 poses as we strolled down the board walk to the beach where the penguins were… ummm… sunbathing. Many of them even looked like they were intentionally posing. As we all know, they mate for life, but did you know that the African penguins dig nests-burrows with guano… which is the feces of sea birds and seals. So that’s how you win over a mate…
Gardens and Gisha
Kirstenbosch National Botanical Garden was a festival of colour, winding pathways, and wide open green spaces. The perfect chance to see some local foliage. It was substantially bigger than planned, so I had to book it out of there to meet Gisha on time.
Every time I travel solo, I use Tinder, or other dating apps to meet locals. My philosophy is that you can’t easily just go up to a random stranger and invite them to join you for a day. But, that works almost 100% of the time on Tinder — you just have to ensure they know that you’re only round for a few days and that you’re not looking for a hookup!
I wanted that postcard shot of Cape Town, so we booked ourself a private helicopter tour and took off for a painfully scenic panoramic flight around Table Mountain — the iconic hill that I’d be trekking up later that day — despite the weather beginning to turn sour. She was a lot of fun, and provided some cautionary insight into not doing the trek solo due to the potential for muggings.
Having run a hiking club for ten years, I had some experience on my side. I loaded up AllTrails for the route and bolted up to the summit. Despite the wildly exaggerated trip times online, it only took me two hours round-trip.
The clouds rolled in and began to cover the top of the mountain. I was beginning to worry I’d have another repeat of Blue Mountain in Jamaica where I’d get to the top and there wouldn’t be any view.
Luckily the clouds actually provided an aura of mystery and beauty to my photos in the end, and I did manage to get a view of the coastline. The path was increasingly steep, uneven, and potentially dangerous for any non-hikers. If you’re not in the mood to break a sweat, take the gondola ride to the top instead.
Paarl, Stellenbosch, and Swartland Wine Tour
As usual, it was time for my luxury ending to the trip! South Africa is famous for its Paarl, Stellenbosch, and Swartland areas. And with my friends, I’m famous for making my own home-brew wine!
I absolutely wasn’t prepared for the amount of driving time. In the end, I think we only hit up three or four wineries and had over an hour to sample at each. Anyone familiar with tasting tours know that usually about twenty minutes is more than enough.
I spent the free time kicking back in the sun, relaxing, wandering the towns, and doing my best to squeeze in a few last stellar photo ops to remember the lush countryside.
Would I go back? While I had one of the most memorable experiences of my life, and it was another amazing adventure in the books, I don’t feel like I really left anything out and looked forward to the next destination…