I've travelled from Zimbabwe to South Africa in a truck on one of the great classic overland routes: Victoria Falls to Cape Town, through Botswana and Namibia in a truck. There are 12 passengers. We have crossed the border from Namibia at the Orange River, singing Jonny Clegg’s’ Great Heart’ as we go. The river was named in honour of the Dutch ruling family, the House of Orange, by the Dutch explorer Robert Jacob Gordon. And here, we have a canoeing expedition. The others get kitted up and splash frenetically. I plead a bad back and am excused active duty. I am paddled along serenely, like the Queen of Sheba. The sunsets here are as blood red as the Namibian dunes.
So, here I am finally back in South Africa, after a brief trip to Johannesburg and Pretoria, the first time I visited Zimbabwe. My next night is spent at Olifants River Valley, after a long day on the road, in the mountains of Western Cape. The Olifant (elephant) is a tributary of the (great, grey, green greasy) Limpopo River. It's gentle and green and very relaxing. This is where all those oranges and lemons come from. And of course, one area is named Citrusdal. There're also honey, rooibos tea and wineries.
Wonderful Cape Town, tourist mecca, one of the three capital cities of South Africa. This is the seat of the Parliament of South Africa, the legislative capital of the country, the oldest city in the country, and the second largest (after Johannesburg). It's known as the Mother City.
Glorious weather, fantastic restaurants and bars, (ostrich, thick tenderloin steaks, sea food and so on) very cheap, laid back, amazing beaches, mountains, vineyards; it’s one of the great cosmopolitan cities. The must see is the iconic giant mesa that is Table Mountain, although you can’t really miss it, as it provides the backdrop, protecting the Mother City. It's one of the oldest mountains in the world. Strangely, photos don’t do it justice.
Before the truckies depart, we take the cable cars to the mountain’s flat top, for 360 degree views of the city, the numerous gorgeous beaches, the busy harbour and Robben Island, the infamous prison that once held Nelson Mandela. There's a Lion's Head formation, to one side and then, to the other, the range of ravines, peaks and gorges that is dubbed the Twelve Apostles. (There are, arguably,18 peaks). These create the stunning backdrop to the city. There is an option to abseil down, but I think not. Instead, we take the spectacular road through the mountains from Chapman's Peak to Hout Bay.
As if the magic city itself isn’t enough, the Cape Peninsula offers a host of attractions. Past the brightly painted facades bathing boxes of Fish Hoek, south to the Cape of Good Hope, which sadly, is not the southernmost tip of Africa after all. Antelope are grazing peacefully on the slopes here. Rock hyrax scamper away. The black and white Boulders Beach, on closer inspection is white sand, jam-packed with penguins waddling and turning somersaults in the water.
Rugged terrain takes us on to Cape Point. but that's not the African extremity either. That honour belongs to Cape Agulhas, approximately 93 miles east-southeast.
The truckies leave, but I’m not yet alone. I have a great little hotel on the beach at Bantry Bay and a hire car. I eat kingfish and chips by the waterfront (lots of upmarket hotels, boats, of course and other tourist attractions), along with the seals and a Pretorian called Johannes. And I still have other companions lined up. A South African friend has put me in touch with Ann Gail and Chris.
Ann Gail has a delightfully old fashioned town house and three cats, Sebastian, Sobranie and Tai-Lu, each with their own feeding bowl and scratching post. She takes me to Christmas lunch at the iconic pink Mount Nelson Hotel, nestling at the bottom of Table Mountain. Then, Newlands (the cricket grounds), concerts, theatre, the IMAX (suitably, the Lion King) and a New Year’s Eve concert in the Kirstenbosch Gardens. I wind a few South Africans up talking about rugby, but duck if they mention cricket.
Chris, originally South African and visiting his family for Christmas provides holiday romance. We spend two weeks around the city sampling its Afro-chic delights and its numerous beautiful beaches, Bikini , Camps Bay, Fourth, Clifton, Llandudno, Melkbosstrand, Mnandi and Muizenberg, before driving out for a few days at at Hermanus. This is the African whale-watching location and whale themes abound through to museums and huge skeletons. It’s not whale season, but I am lucky enough to catch a mother and calf motor past. The sea is stunningly azure, and inviting, but it's deceptive, the Atlantic currents are numbingly cold,
Romance number one fairly predictably bites the dust, as it transpires that Chris has been entertaining ‘an old friend from England’ in-between seeing me, and forgetting to tell me about her. ‘But it was a prior engagement , of course I felt obliged to sleep with her’.
To the east, it’s an easy journey to the picturesque Winelands destinations, such as Stellenbosch, Paarl and Franschoek. Stellenbosch and Paarl are the two oldest large settlements in South Africa after Cape Town. Picture perfect Cape Dutch architecture: green shuttered colonial mansions, whitewashed houses, tiny turrets and cottage gardens. Huge agapanthus flowers contrasting wonderfully. Plenty of boutiques and cafes too.
Ann Gail works in Paarl and provides a tour of the very modern and efficient, steel drummed wine estate. And Franschoek, which was settled by French Huguenot refugees who of course brought their French experience in viticulture. Franschoek is Dutch for 'French Corner'.
Some of the estates provide gorgeous up market accommodation and restaurants. They abound at Franschoek, where I spend one expensive, but very pampered night.
I’m aware I’m beginning to sound like a travel advert - it’s all so gorgeous (except for the romance), but the townships sprawling each side of the main highway are a sobering counterpoint. I’ve been warned to watch out for objects being thrown from the bridges. In fact I’ve been told by numerous people that I’m mad to even contemplate travelling round South Africa on my own.
South Africa is the third-largest economy in Africa and the most industrialized, technologically advanced economy in Africa overall. Since the end of apartheid, government accountability and quality of life have substantially improved. The country is rich in minerals. But poverty and inequality remain widespread, with about a quarter of the population unemployed and living on an inadequate wage. Crime rates and especially, violent crime are high. There have been countless media stories in the UK about tourists here being attacked and robbed, or worse.
I've been driving around in a hire car, with no problems so far, except the very steep hills and a very small engine. And now I'm departing gorgeous Cape Town for Lesotho.
My journey back to South Africa from Lesotho is far too eventful. The starter batteries on the much-too-little-prop-plane are refusing to comply. The pilot eventually announces that he will start the left one manually. This all sounds much too alarming to me, but we make it to Jo’ burg, though very late. There is a stroke inducing transfer to my next plane and I get bundled into business class (not all bad) and arrive in Durban to find that whilst I’ve made it on time my luggage hasn’t.
So, another late start in a hired VW. Maybe I am mad, driving in South Africa, on my own. It’s raining (again), and I’m fumbling with the map, along the Durban Highway and into the mountain wilderness of Zululand. Twelve kilometres down a dirt road hill composed almost entirely of one foot deep mud. Over a rumble strip and the radio jolts. It’s dead. And the right windscreen wiper is stuck in the middle of screen. Why the right one? Dusk fades into dark, and the cell phone signal disappears too. There is nothing moving in the African bush. Am I glad or not? Finally, slithering downhill to discover my isolated lodge. Survive! Luggage arrives. All’s well.
A thirty five year old American bond broker, pleasant face, six two (not bad then), girlfriend (um), Brian shares wine and jokes. Would I like to tour the battle fields with him tomorrow? It’ll save me driving.
Close by is Isandlwana, where the British were heavily defeated by the Zulus in 1879. The site is marked by white cairns and a church. Six miles away from there is Rorke's Drift. Here, Lieutenants John Chard (of the Royal Engineers) and Gonville Bromhead, (24th Regiment of Foot) successfully defended their station of just over 150 troops against an 24 hour attack by 3-4,000 Zulu warriors. The Zulus had broken off from their main force at the day-long Battle of Isandlwana. A host of decorations, including eleven Victoria Crosses, were awarded to the defenders.
Rorke's Drift is really interesting, with its distinctive rocky outcrop and monuments. It’s even more entertaining trying to imagine Stanley and Michael re-enacting their scenes from the epic film Zulu, which re-tells the tale. How accurately the detail is I'm not sure, though the main story is certainly true. The Zulus don't get much dialogue, even though the film bears their name.
There's a memorial at Ulundi. This is where the British inflicted the final defeat on the Zulu nation. Close by, at Ondini, is a reconstruction of the Zulu Royal kraal., built in traditional manner. The last one was burnt to the ground by the British
Over picnic lunch and in the car, my chauffeur reveals his philosophies and dating etiquette. He is not in love with his girlfriend. Well he's not sure. They now live apart. She comes from Essex but is called Antonia, not Tracey. Dating in England is so much more complex than the States. In the UK girls put out quickly, you shag someone and then decide if you like them. In the States you have sex on the fifth date. If you're lucky the third. You might compromise on the fourth, but definitely the fifth. After that you're going steady. However, girls who have sex on a first date are sluts.
Back at the Lodge we drink champagne and giggle in the garden. Dinner is even louder.
“You're welcome to crash in my room tonight” Brian offers magnanimously. I decline (graciously of course).
“I don't do one night stands.”
He escorts me to my room. A slightly undignified fumble while I reinforce my answer. He leaves muttering:
“Well a guy has to try doesn't he? “
“A case of too much information.”
As I’m drifting off my cell phone beeps.
DBL BED IN MY ROOM. THINK ABOUT IT.
The Age of Romance is not dead.
Brian departs, and I spend a lazy day by the pool, (temporarily the only guest) and walking, escorted by three dogs and a pig. in between our slow ambles they manage to stampede a herd of cattle, and chase a troupe of monkeys.
And then there’s Hluhluwe-Imfolozi Park too. This is the oldest nature reserve in South Africa. It's supposedly home to Africa's Big Five, but all of those, except the buffalo, are elusive. Nevertheless, it's spring, so the park is full of lovely babies - impala, warthogs, kudu and wobbly giraffes blinking in the grass.
Through velvety hills to Uhmlanga, north of Durban. I'd hoped for some beach time, but I haven't chosen my spot very well. The beach is disappointingly dirty and the roads are full of hitchhikers wandering all over the inside lanes. My bed and breakfast establishment is decidedly seedy. The fridge smells and I can't work out how to turn the TV off. So I turn the sound right down and put a towel over it.
My epic South African journey ends with another iconic African destination. The Garden Route proper is a glorious 190-mile stretch of coastline running from the small town of Mossel Bay (Mussel Bay) to the mouth of the Storms River. It’s called the Garden Route because of the lush coastal forests which line the wide sandy beaches. I'm doing what most folk do and travelling the longer distance from Port Elizabeth to Cape Town, though most people do it the other way round.
My car and I meander along. More stunning scenery from the thatched cottages of St Francis Bay, to Jeffries Bay with its Disneyesque bridge, to the tourist mecca that is Plettenberg Bay, the oyster bars and beaches of Knysna, to the Tsitsikamma National Park and the adjacent, aptly named town of Wilderness, with its own park.
At Tsitsikamma I wander the beautiful Otter Trail. along the edge of the wild seashore, past the Storm River and a terrifying suspension bridge. There are waterfalls and a diminutive cave turned into a shrine. – Tsitsikamma (pronounced ‘Titzee-car-mah’) is rumoured to still have rare forest elephants walking among the huge old trees.
I’m writing this overlooking the most amazing huge sandy beach, at Sedgefield. Here, there's the Kingfisher Trail to tackle. I had calamari and crayfish by candlelight on the beach last night.
I'm going to catch the 20 million year old Cango Caves, with their stalactite formations, on my way back to Cape Town. Admire the ostrich farms. Then, it's time to go home.
(And read more about South Africa here.)
Stay in touch. Get travel tips, updates on my latest adventures and posts on out of the way places, straight to your Inbox.