I welcomed in 2017 in the middle of the African bush. We were halfway through our trip to South Africa and though there was a lack of fireworks (you mustn't scare the animals!), it was one of the most amazing experiences of my life. I wrote an article for Cosmopolitan Philippines on the things you need to keep in mind when planning a trip to South Africa. But I've had many people asking about my actual itinerary, so I thought about creating this useful and simple guide to help you out. As always, if you have any questions or want more details, leave a comment below or send me an e-mail.
How long should you stay?
Our trip to SA lasted for 12 days. I know that most people aren't able to take that much time off of work, but take note that within these 12 days my family and I were able to do Johannesburg, Cape Town, two different safari camps, Cape Point, and Boulders Beach. If you're happy to remove a few stops on your journey, then it's definitely possible to do a shorter trip.
Many people claim that they've experienced a big culture shock upon arriving in SA. Coming from the Philippines, the poverty and sometimes bloody history of the country wasn't one that I was unfamiliar with, so I have to say that the culture shock wasn't a problem for me. I think that when it comes to Johannesburg especially, if you simply do what you would in any other place around the world -- err on the side of caution, not walk alone, especially at night, keep an eye on your belongings-- you'll be fine. Language is another reason why I didn't feel the culture shock that some say they experienced. English is one of South Africa's eleven official languages, and I found that every person I met during our trip spoke it either fluently, or at least well enough to answer any questions I may have had, or give me directions.
Johannesburg -- should you skip it?
I've heard many people say that Johannesburg is a dangerous place (crime stats show that this is, in fact, true) and that it's a city that you can easily skip. On that point, I'd have to disagree. When we were there, even the locals told us that it isn't safe to walk around at night, and that you're better of taking taxis or Ubers to and from different areas of the city. The fact that the boutique hotel we stayed in was inside a gated community with a security guard says a lot too. But one of my favourite parts of our trip to South Africa was our visit to Soweto, which is a township in Johannesburg which was once home to Nobel Prize winners Desmond Tutu and Nelson Mandela (Vilakazi Street in the township is often called "Nobel Street" because it was where both Tutu and Mandela lived).
Soweto is home to over 1.2 million people. It was at the epicentre of the apartheid movement in the late 1940s til the early 1990s and reminders of this violent era can be seen everywhere in the city.
The Hector Pieterson Memorial was built as a reminder of the death of 12-year-old Hector who was killed by policemen during a protest against making Afrikaans the official language of instruction in schools. It is said that over 560 children were killed in the protests.
One of the best stops on our tour, and the main reason why I do not think you should write Johannesburg off your itinerary, is the Apartheid Museum. Despite showcasing the horrible events that happened throughout the time of apartheid, I think that it is an incredibly important part of South Africa's history. I do not think that I would have enjoyed the animals we saw on safari or the views from Cape Point as much as I did if I did not first appreciate the struggle that the people of South Africa went through and how it is this spirit that you can so easily feel throughout the rest of the country and its people.
You start your tour of the museum by entering through one of two doors -- whites and non-whites. Your ticket lets you know which classification you've been assigned. Each entrance leads you into a hall where you'll get to see what the treatment was like for a person of your designated class during the time of apartheid. This, along with many extremely interesting videos, sound bites, and artefacts, brought each visitor back in time to a phase in modern history that was full of hate, violence, but also bravery and strength. It amazed me how I was born in 1989 yet did not know much about the apartheid, which only ended in 1991. Going through the museum made me want to do my own research and learn more about South Africa's history, beyond the safaris and vineyards, and I truly believe that it is impossible for any visitor to leave the museum unmoved.
Another stop on our trip was the Cradle of Humankind in the Gauteng province, which is about 50 km from Johannesburg. I can't say this was a stop that I found particularly memorable (if you're a science and history nerd like my brother though, then trust me you'll love it!), but it is a World Heritage Site, and I have to say that crawling around the Sterkfontein caves where they found famous skeletons and fossils.
Where to stay in Johannesburg: We picked the Athol Place Boutique Hotel, which is part of the Morukuru Family of hotels. It has nine beautiful and airy suites (all with private balconies), a swimming pool, manicured gardens, and an in-house restaurant and bar, which served superb meals.
Let's go on safari
A big reason why many people travel to South Africa is to go on safari, and we weren't much different. It was suggested that if you have enough time, it's always best to divide your time between two different base camps because this lets you increase your chances of seeing more types of animals.
The first base camp we chose was the Simbavati River Lodge located in the Timbavati Private Nature Reserve and situated along Nhalaralumi River. We were lucky that we got to see the Big 5 right off the bat from this first camp, so there wasn't so much pressure when we moved to our second one. Because the lodge was right next to the river (hence the name), we were greeted by a hippo walking up along the bank to munch on some greens while we were having dinner one evening!
The second camp we stayed at was the Narina Lodge inside the Sabi Sands Game Reserve. The Narina Lodge is described as "organic chic" and is designed like a luxury treehouse.
Both base camps offer game drives (two a day -- one at 5am and the other at 4pm, which allows you to see animals that prefer being up and about either in the morning or evening) as well as bush walks where you follow your guide on foot as he gives you a close-up look at the different plants, flowers, and small animals in the reserve.
Game drives are great, but you'll have to make sure your outfits are weather-appropriate (dependent on the time of the year you're going) and that you aren't wearing any flashy colours (the goal is for the animals to see the vehicle and everyone in it as one solid unit, so you don't want to wear anything that'll make you stand out). Some highlights of our drives were seeing a herd of elephants crossing and bathing in a river, a couple of leopards mating, and a newborn wildebeest.
Cape Town & Cape Point
A trip to South Africa will not be complete without a visit to the wonderful cosmopolitan city that is Cape Town. The city sits beneath the looming Table Mountain, which gets its name from its almost perfect plateau. Next to it is Lion's Head, which is a popular hiking location with an incredible view once you reach the top. Because it's next to the Atlantic Ocean, Cape Town residents benefit from having access to year-round water sports while still being close enough to a bustling city.
The V&A Waterfront is a popular tourist destination in downtown Cape Town. Aside from souvenir shops, restaurants, and live music, one of my favourite parts about it was the Watershed indoor market. The Watershed is home to different stalls celebrating local African designers. You'll find everything from beaded wine bottle toppers made by an indigenous women's tribe to hand-carved ostrich eggs (I bought one of each).
Once you've have had enough of the city, rent a car or hire a driver and head on out to Cape Point (part of the Cape of Good Hope nature reserve), which is on the southern tip of the continent.
Take the Flying Dutchman funicular and then hike up to the top of the hill towards the lighthouse and you'll be greeted with an intricate labyrinth as you look down below.
We stopped for lunch at the Two Oceans restaurant nearby and had the most amazing seafood platter. It's also where I discovered the tom kha soup (a Thai dish, funnily enough) and have been seeking it out in every Thai restaurant since.
Since you're in the area, why not take a detour and stroll through Boulders Beach, which is a known sanctuary for the African penguin?
Where to stay in Cape Town: We stayed at Kensington Place, which is an award-winning luxury hotel in the Higgovale suburb. The neighbourhood is very well-located and we walked to the lively Kloof Street often for meals. It had great views of Table Mountain from the balcony too.
For this trip and our trip to Zimbabwe, we used A2A Safaris, which is a full-service travel agency who organises trips to Africa, Latin America, and Antarctica. I'd highly recommend them!