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5 Favorites on the "Big 5" Trail – It is a country of contrasts: plains fringed by orchards, mountains ever present as a backdrop, lush green vegetation in the south, dry savanna shrubs in the north, affluent suburbs and shanty-town settlements… This is a fascinating and moving trip through South Africa trailing the “Big 5” and history! 

By the way, did you know that the term “Big 5” doesn’t refer to the five biggest animals, but rather those who had once been the most hunted: the elephant, the buffalo, the lion, the leopard and the rhinoceros. It excludes the giraffe and the hippopotamus, which are also very spectacular when admired in their natural environment. 

First Favorite: Table Mountain 

Imposing and spectacular, Table Mountain completely dominates the scenery no matter where you are in Cape Town or in its surroundings. Of course, its name comes from its huge flat summit. We were really taken by the site.

Looking out at this massive summit from the city is already impressive. But reaching it on a beautiful sunny day after a cable car ride really leaves you in awe. On this immense, flat mountain that is over 1,086 m high, pathways have been carefully designed, respectful of wild and indigenous nature, where Proteas and Leucacendrons grow through Ericaceaes, dwarf South African shrubs. 360-degree spectacular views of the Cape and the scenic mountainous spine that juts 40 km into the Atlantic and ends at Cape Point were offered to us, without obstructions, for the pure pleasure of our eyes!

Some of the 70 peaks that are within the city limits that we could see include Signal Hill, Lion’s Head and Devil’s Peak, and also in sight were the sea, the white sandy beaches, the huge, dramatic white new stadium – the main venue of the 2010 FIFA World Cup - city districts such as the Victoria and Alfred Waterfront with docks turned into a very modern commercial center and apartment and office towers sprouting all around… all of this just lay below. Absolutely fabulous! 

Reaching the top of the peak is also possible by hiking up, which seems to be quite a challenge!

Listed on the UNESCO World Heritage list and since 2011 recognized as one of the New7Wonders of Nature, together with Halong Bay, Iguaçu Falls and the Amazonia, Table Mountain is certainly one of the reasons why Cape Town was voted the number one destination in the world in 2011 by millions of travelers who were members of Trip Advisor. 

Second Favorite: Our first safari 

The Hluhluwe Reserve (pronounce it chlou-chlou-wé) in Zululand, north of Durban, will be the site of this first for us.

This is the oldest African reserve, created more than 100 years ago, and it is responsible for the preservation of the white rhinoceros. Unsurprisingly, we could see a few specimens quietly crossing the savanna or taking a bath in one of the water ponds created by the Hluhluwe River.

In the middle of the lavish vegetation of palm trees and acacias, white rhinos, elephants, giraffes, zebras, baboons, warthogs, herds of impalas, kudus, nyalas and buffalos create stunningly beautiful choreography. Even a small dung beetle rolling dung on the road into round balls as a source of food seduces us. Do we even need to say more about the state of exhilaration we felt in our 4x4?

The spell lasted until the end of the day, when we settled down for the night at the Zulu Nyala Game and Heritage Lodge. Perched on a hill in the heart of the Zulu Nyala Private Game Reserve, the lodge combines luxury accommodations with lush nature. The beautiful suites are decorated in the spirit of the cultural heritage of KwaZulu-Natal, the most populated province in South Africa with 10 million Zulus, the most important ethnic group in the country.

How exhilarating it was to stroll the paths of the garden in the early morning when a light fog still envelops the scenery! The Drakensberg Mountain range can just be made out behind this fragile curtain that also allows a few male and female nyalas to surprise us at a sharp turn of the path, so taken were we by a symphony of birds singing from the leafless trees filled with what at first sight seems to be cocoons. In fact, they are Masked Weaver nests. The yellow birds really “weave” their nests, sticking straw with their beaks into the inside of the nest, then from inside to outside, just like a real weaver.

This was such an entrancing show, providing such memorable moments, carrying all of the magic of the Zulu nation! 

Third Favorite: The Blyde Canyon  

As an appetizer to the Canyon, just before seeing its impressive fracture in the rock, we couldn’t miss the three massive round mountains that remind us of the traditional Zulu round huts. They are called the Three Rondavels and dominate the Blyde River with the Mariepskio, the highest summit of the Drakensberg Mountain range.

At the foot of the mountains, the Blyde River dug a 600 to 900 meter depression in the argillite and the quartz creating this 30 km long canyon whose culminating points of interest are Bourke’s Luck Potholes, immense holes dug by pebbles carried by the Blyde. Very popular with gold diggers in the first half of the 20th century, today those “potholes” are a sight for the sore eyes of visitors who are in awe of the huge, pierced walls where shades of yellow, grey and rust compete with the blue of the water that attacks them and the pale green of the vegetation that is trying to hang on. Breathtaking!

How about another spectacular view a little further along? Well, we have to take the word of a few residents we met on site, claiming that they were able to immortalize the view promised to us from God’s Window. Unfortunately, on that day, God did not think it was appropriate to wipe the window clean from its cloudy blanket, depriving us from what is supposed to be one of the most beautiful and stunning views of the valley. We will have to keep faith… and come back. 

Fourth Favorite: Soweto and the Apartheid Museum  

Quite another range of emotions awaited us here! A voyage through tragedy, heroism, tyranny and liberty, chaos and peace: in summary, it took us through the history of South Africa, where such turning points took place less than 30 years ago.

Let’s begin with a visit to Robben Island, where Nelson Mandela spent 18 of his 27 years in prison. To be able to stand in his cell, to see the corner of the courtyard where he sat for so many years, meditating and writing and where he broke the rock used for the construction of the prison, is quite moving. It was here where he learned to master the Afrikaans language, completed a law degree and enticed his co-prisoners to share their knowledge in this prison that became a university of the people. It is also there that he nurtured a true spirit of reconciliation on which he based his actions and policies when he became the first Black Prime Minister of South Africa in 1994. He is still considered a hero in the country and talked about with much respect, affection and admiration.

Then, a visit to the Apartheid Museum in Johannesburg to relive, thanks to video editing, the Soweto uprising of 1976, the liberation of Mandela in 1990, the first democratic elections in 1994, the inauguration of Mandela as president and the adoption of a Constitution for the country in 1996. An emotional experience, this is a “must” to understand the history of the country! It is also possible to follow the journey of the man who was engaged in the liberation of his people in the 40s, 50s and 60s during the era of Apartheid when he had to go underground before being imprisoned. Listening to the first TV interview Mandela ever gave while in hiding shows every aspect of a young anarchist, while talking about reconciliation, persuasion and forgiveness are among those touching images of South Africa en route towards its liberation.

Then, there is Soweto! This is a total surprise! This immense township, 15 km from Johannesburg covering 120 square kilometers and divided in 120 districts where two million people live, is quite far from what we were expecting according to what we had read and seen.

Created in the 50s to ghettoize black Africans as per Apartheid philosophy, this township came to the world’s attention in 1976 when the population protested over the government’s policy to enforce education in Afrikaans. Soweto became the symbol of the black people’s resistance to Apartheid. Remember those moving images broadcast around the world of police forces opening fire on the population, mostly young students?

Today in Soweto, affluent neighborhoods with lovely houses surrounded by well-groomed gardens are built alongside more humble “matchbox” houses, immense rows of “hostels” with asbestos roofs originally built for migrant gold mine workers and transformed over time by the government into dwellings for families, replacing them with social housing. Yes, there are still slums and shantytown settlements in Soweto, with cardboard houses and sheet iron roofs and no access to potable water or electricity. But there is hope…

Mama Elizabeth, who lived here her whole life, guides us through the streets and talks of her city with warmth and hope. The small houses that were bought for 20,000 rands a few years ago are now worth 1 million rands. The health system is accessible and even free for the unemployed. A social and family allocation system guarantees minimum revenue to single-parent families, invalids and retired persons and the government accelerates the construction of social housing.

Other problems still have to be addressed, such as air quality. Soweto is surrounded by immense mountains of terrils, remnants from gold mines stocked around Johannesburg. Whenever the wind blows, clouds of dust terrils are pushed over Soweto, badly affecting the quality of the air. 

Fifth Favorite: Chobe National Park in Botswana  

Another safari, you might ask? Yes, but it is THE African safari just like the one we had dreamt of! This is in a desert savanna, with very few trees and dry and shriveled shrubs and sand, sometimes yellow, sometimes red. 

The Kalahari Desert covers almost 70% of Botswana. It is in a landscape that leans towards total desert, the more lush banks of the River Chobe where we follow the trail of herds of elephants is responsible for the numerous uprooted trees that we see everywhere. Our guide and ranger told us that elephants even destroyed a whole banana plantation in one single night.

On the national highway leading to the park, warthogs, elephants and buffalos roam the area and cross the road without giving any thought to traffic, giving us a first taste of our safari.

It is in this absolute fabulous scenery - as we crisscross the small paths of the park, never very far from the Chobe River that is worthy of the Lion King, which by the way we will soon see in all of his glory - that we meet impalas, kudus, giraffes, buffalos, elephants and birds of all sorts and colors, including cranes and vultures enjoying the left-overs from a lion or leopard’s meal.

Later in the afternoon, a safari on the Chobe River completes this absolutely perfect day. Crocodiles, rhinoceros, a family of elephants (very rare since males are usually solitary), buffaloes and giraffes in the golden light of a sunset are part of the unforgettable images that we will be bringing home.

Our night at the Mowana Safari Resort & Spa, a beautiful wood and stone resort with multiple gardens and fountains on the banks of the river built around a one thousand year old baobab also adds to our memories and can without hesitation be qualified as magical! 

A few other areas of interest

On The Wine Route: a small part of France  

Stellenbosch, the second oldest city in South Africa and 30 km from Cape Town, is an area worth visiting for its Victorian and Cape Dutch houses built along streets planted with secular oaks. Set in the heart of the gray Papegaaiberg Mountain range, this university town, classified as a historical monument, vibrates with many cafes, boutiques and art galleries, combining modernity with its history. 

This is the cradle of the Afrikaans culture and has been an important wine producing center for 300 years.  

Many wines are destined to a large spectrum of consumers, others are from more refined vintages developed in vineyards, such as the Marianne Vineyard, where a small top-of-the-range production is carefully managed. We tasted a remarkable sauvignon blanc, a red cabernet sauvignon and a very interesting pinotage that was just waiting to accompany game, not so rare in this part of Africa.

A stop at Franschhoek proves to be a good idea. Founded by French Huguenot refugees in 1688, it is a lovely small town surrounded by vineyards and orchards with massive mountains in the background. Its houses are testament to French and Dutch influences. The Huguenot Monument, with its museum, gardens and cemetery, chronicles the history of those first 200 settlers that ran away from France following the revocation of the Edict of Nantes with their families and a few wine crops.

Today, more than 100 wineries, about 60 cooperatives and more than one hundred cellars profit from the limestone and clayish soil of the region and the exceptional number of days of sunshine it gets.

Franschhoek is often described as the “food and wine capital” of South Africa. Why not try one of its top restaurants? We had lunch at The French Connection and were quite impressed by the quality of its food and service. 

What about cities? 

Cape Town

The city is built on the southern shore of the African continent with the Atlantic Ocean lapping at its shores not far from where it meets the Indian Ocean. The city backs up against a scenic mountainous spine with steep cliffs. With a population estimated at 4 million, it houses the National Parliament and was named the World Design Capital for 2014 by the International Council of Societies of Industrial Design. 

Many gardens and public squares testify to the fact that Cape Town is known to have one of the highest levels of biodiversity in the world. The Kirstenbosch National Botanical Garden is certainly one of the loveliest that we have seen. It is a real enchanted forest! With Table Mountain as a backdrop, it spreads over 36 hectares with a mix of 7,000 indigenous plants and crops. The Spring bloom is quite spectacular, with bushes of Birds of Paradise, the Cape marigolds opening their shimmering petals in the sun, the serrurias and leucadendrons unveil their palette of colors, from pastel to darker shades, and where the Protea, the national flower, can be found in all tones of pale pink, vibrant pink and yellow.

The Cape Malay Bo-Kapp area with its houses painted in varied bright colors – pink, green, orange, lilac, - is a curiosity…. We learn that this tradition dates back to when house numbers were non-existent. Without a street name and civic number, the house was designated by its color.

Many excursions also use Cape Town as a starting point:

Hout Bay - take a close look at the cape fur seal colonies on Seal and Duiker Islands, which is overlooked by the impressive “Sentinel” mountain.

Cape of Good Hope - Bartolommeo Dias sailed around it before setting foot at Mossel Bay, believing (or hoping) he had discovered India.

Cape Point, south of Cape of Good Hope - from the lighthouse on top of the cape are spectacular views of the windswept coastline where waves end in a huge spray of foam on sandy beaches, which could otherwise be inviting…

Boulders Bay - a beach housing a colony of 2,000 African Penguins (an endangered species; only 20 to 25,000 remain in Africa) that can be observed in close proximity on this small bay, delimited by granite rocks that date back many hundreds of millions of years and are a part of the protected reserve for the Penguins. 

Durban

With a population of 3.5 million, a huge part of the city is of Indian origin and is the third most important city in the country. A modern city with glass and steel high-rises, its centre has kept a few remarkable historical buildings such as its City Hall, which face a beautiful square. Also worth visiting is its public beach and waterfront, beautifully landscaped and offering very comfortable waters to some of us who dare to join the local crowds.

Pretoria

An administrative capital and seat of the government, modern buildings stand among historical ones. Its large downtown avenues bordered by Jacaranda and Flamboyant in full bloom with their blue and orange flowers in this early spring offer quite a view!

Johannesburg 

A financial and commercial capital, this is the country’s largest city and the continent’s second largest after Cairo. Here there are also modern buildings and high-rises, just like in any other large city in the world.

While its northern districts are full of affluent houses protected by walls, and where you can work out in pools, tennis courts and luxurious and well-kept gardens, residents enjoy a standard of life that is among the highest in the world. In other districts, in townships and shanty towns, houses with tin roofs and walls that are open to the winds testify of a great social disparity. 

One last must: Kruger Park 

One of the largest natural reserves in South Africa and the world, this park is now a part of a huge trans frontier project: the Great Limpopo Trans Frontier Park, extending from Mozambique to South Africa, crossing Zimbabwe and covering 35,000 square km. An ecotourism policy that includes local indigenous populations is built in this immense project. 

Vast plains and a territory of rivers where palm trees and acacias form lush green vegetation in early spring that is so dense that animals can easily hide.

Traveling on the paved, well-maintained and marked paths, we look in awe at a leopard languorously stretched on a Marula tree, at a family of lions lazing about near the road, not even disturbed by our 4 x 4 or the clicks of our cameras; we see slender impalas on the lookout with their ears pointing, not to mention the giraffes, elephants, rhinos, hippopotamus, kudus and springboks. Quite a feast for the eyes! 

What about Victoria Falls? 

Located in Zimbabwe, a small flat country where the vegetation seems to be unaware that spring has arrived, this is a real contrast with the so-very-green South Africa. 

We were told that during the rainy season the Zambezi River carries an average of 9,100 m3 of water per second. During the dry season, the falls may be reduced to small cascades of water and the thundering and spray from the falls almost disappear. This is what we saw!

The falls, known to be the largest waterfall in the world, were only 30% of their size and flow rate. On the 1,700 meter wide cliff, we could only see a few trickles of water, except for Devil’s Falls, the lowest but nonetheless very violent, where we could see a few rainbows in the spray.

We have to admit we were disappointed especially since we had to wait a few hours at the Zimbabwe border to pay for visas and complete other formalities on our way in as well as on our way out.

And food? 

You almost feel at home with the food offered in South Africa: chicken, fish, calamari, mussels, lamb. Once in a while, you will be served biltong (strips of salted and dried meat), game (impala, rhino, zebra, kudu) or ostrich, and boboti (a sort of African meat pâté). A few marinated caterpillars can even be served as an appetizer.  Maybe a bit salty... 

Talking, a national sport! 

A fascinating country from many points of view, South Africa is inhabited by a population whose smiles are never far and for whom the pleasure of conversation can never be denied.  After all the country has eleven official languages!

Just try saying “sawubona” (hello in Zulu) and you will receive a reply in the form of “kunjani “ (how are you?), to which you can answer “ngiybonga” (I am well)… and then you are off on a long conversation in which your limited knowledge of Zulu will soon be used up. Might be better to use “siabonga” (thank you) and to switch to English to continue the conversation, since everyone speaks English with more or less fluency.

Sala kahle (goodbye)!

Christiane Théberge

Yes, we have seen the "Big 5" from close, together with many other animals! We would like to share our euphoria and complement this piece with a photo reportage.  A special treat just for you! 


We joined a Voyages Traditours' group to travel to South Africa and would like to thank them for their cooperation.

 

Table Mountain seen from Victoria and Albert Waterfront in Cape Town

Lion's Head seen from Table Mountain

Cape Town and its stadium seen from Table Mountain

White rhino at bath

Dung beetle rolling dung

Suite at the Zulu Nyala Game & Heritage Lodge

Kudus at the Zulu Nyala Game & Heritage Lodge

Young Zoulou

The Three Rondavels and the Mariepskio

Bourke's Luck Potholes, Blyde Canyon

Mandela's favorite meditation spot in Robben Island

Lovely district in Soweto

 "Hostels" with new social housing built around, Soweto

Terril near Soweto

Car wash in Soweto

Lions in the Chobe National Park

Giraffe in the Chobe National Park

Elephant int the Chobe National Park

Hippo in the Chobe National Park

At sunset on the Chobe river

Room at the Mowana Safari Resort & Spa

Church in Franschhoek 

Boulders Bay

Malay Bo-Kapp district, Cape Town

Jacarandas in bloom in Pretoria

Victoria Falls

Appetizer with the Swazi, caterpillars included 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


  

 

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