Welcomed by an unfamiliar, yet sweet, warm smell engulfing my senses, I was led through Johannesburg airport to meet our Dutch/South African guide, Bert – a family friend and local. Our first stop in South Africa was the prestigious Michelangelo hotel in the capital’s centre. A hotel encrusted with gold furnishing and maid service, this didn’t seem like the Africa I’d known on television. Instead of swatting away mozzies and encountering corruption as my naive 11-year-old self had been led to believe, I spent the afternoon wandering around the plush hotel and extensive mall – a world away from the apartheid and famine Africa has been made famous for.
Soon enough, however, I was to get my first taste of Africa’s true self. After a bumpy and hysterical descent into the valley on horseback, our first two days were spent at a secluded and traditional Zulu Lodge in Simunye. The evenings were wiled away with locally made beer – a mazey gloup I wasn’t quite old enough to appreciate, a feast of local meats and traditional dance displays, the days spent atop a horse, roaming in the bush and exploring the lakes. Finally, I was getting my first glimpse of South Africa’s heritage and culture.
Two days later we left the chief and his many wives for what I remember to be the epitome of a tropical paradise. Rocktail Bay, located in the Matputaland Coastal Forest Reserve, exuded every sun worshipers dream. Kwazulu Natal lodges set in tree houses, showers on the balcony and sandy, shrub-ridden pathways, there are none of the usual luxuries of 4* accommodation: no tele, no internet, no nothing. Instead, guests are left to their own devices blanketed by a Tarzan-esque backdrop.
During the day, we were taken by rickety jeep to the privately owned beaches, accompanied by our guide, Graham. White sand, coral, palm trees and crystal blue sea, there was no sign of life, not even a footprint before us. It wasn’t until our third day that we saw a Rastafarian wander along past our chosen spot with a boogie box and (what I now recognise as) a rather large spliff that it even occurred to us that there may be other people within our secluded paradise.
Whale watching at Black Rock, feasting on fresh king fish and snorkelling in shark-infested waters – Robinson Crusoe would have been in his element. It is more than just an understatement to say that I was reluctant to leave the ‘bush tv’ (locally known as a ‘boma’ – a camp fire on wheels), meal times spent with sand ticking my toes and dolphin spotting at sunrise.
Brief, though, was my upset as we soon headed up into the Drakensburg Mountains to Kaapschehoop: a cosy horse ranch available for family holidays. Just as I was beginning to suss out South Africa, yet again it threw my complacency back in my face. An accomplished chameleon, the landscape had this time changed to blood red dust and spiky cactus plants shallowed by tall, elegant pines. A daylong ride around the mountain trails, you would be forgiven for mistaking the location for the Grand Canyon, so great were the cliffs and drops. Accompanied by the live-in dogs, Chloe and Max, we explored the forests, mingled with our new four legged friends and soon settled into what seemed to be a home-from-home, spending our evenings lazing under the stars – brighter and clearer than I had ever seen – whilst the waft of sizzling meat aggravated our rumbling bellies after a hard days hike.
The last week of our holiday was spent in amidst the epitome of South Africa’s tourist attractions – the dry, dusty planes of the South African bush in the search of the famous big five.
Our first stop was Kruger National Park. A pay as you go reserve, the public are left to find their own route and able to drive through the park without guidance. Luckily for us, Bert had been before and proceeded to sneak us off to big five hot spots. The park did little to disappoint as countless buffalos, impala, elephant and rhino crossed our path. It wasn’t until our third day, however, that the king of the jungle made his grand entrance – and what an entrance it was. We had been dawdling along another deserted strip of gravel only to be affronted by what appeared to be a traffic jam. Patience dwindling, my restless father decided he’d had enough and took to the dirt, edging our van around the parked cars. Charged with disapproving glares from the other bumper-to-bumper drivers, it soon became clear that we were accidentally queue jumping to what was a rare and coveted sight. A large, handsome and muscular lion patrolled the ground before us, guarding his sleeping lioness from the ever-increasing crowd. Our only way round was to creep past the lion’s viciously snarling nose. Gently, the van edged forward, my father filming the scene through his window. Hearts in our throats, it wasn’t until we were face to face with the beast that we realised our windows were still open, our faces mere inches from the grumbling lions epic jaws – if he had felt necessary, he could have killed us at any moment – and his growl warned us so. Needless to say, my first encounter with safari’s most sought after animal, was as gripping and terrifying as I had hoped.
Ending our trip in style, we visited Richard Branson’s Ulusaba Game Reserve, a privately owned Park neighbouring the Kruger reserve. Set atop a cliff face, the five star resort emanates luxury in its grand, antlered chairs, deep leather couches and panoramic pool. Overlooking the waterhole, the reserve is often penetrated by the surrounding animals. Guests are awoken from their king sized beds by ‘Stumpy’, a tailless elephant, stripping the bark off of branches outside their windows, and escorted around the hotel in the evenings by a torch bearing guide on the lookout for thirsty cats prowling the pool’s edge.
At dusk and dawn, guests gather excitedly in the reserve’s entrance waiting to be sorted. Clustering together, the groups clamber into the open top jeeps ready for the ride ahead. Each vehicle feels highly exposed with an open roof and low cut doors, accompanied by a driver and a brave tracker perched on the bonnet, his legs dangling like strips of meat, teasing the watching wildlife. On the evening excursions, you are encouraged to step out of your comfort zone, off of the jeep and onto the soil, wandering about the bush, sipping on complimentary drinks and nibbling on biltong (a popular local snack somewhat like beef jerky). For those brave enough, walking safaris are available and bound to excite adrenaline-junkies. Alternatively, the cliff top pool and spa treatments will relax the more laid-back holidaymaker.
It was this trip that gave me the travel bug – a hankering for the different and new. Since then I have been lucky enough to venture to Rwanda, trekking with the mountain gorillas, walking with tigers in Thailand and quad-biking through the jungle in Malaysia; each adventure stirring up a burning desire to see and do more. The life of a backpacker – a childhood dream.