By: Luis M. Herrera, Senior Travel Consultant and CTC
I never thought I’d visit South Africa due to its complex history of Apartheid but the opportunity came up and I’m so grateful that it did. South Africa taught me what it means to be resilient and the power of forgiveness. I visited South Africa and Zimbabwe on a Cosmos 17 day tour called South Africa: From the Cape to Kruger with Victoria Falls extension. This is a fairly new program offered by Cosmos and designed to hit all the major sites one would want to visit. Our group size was 22 guests total which made for a very nice experience.
Our group set off from the Inn On Market Square (our centrally located hotel) and we drove a very short distance to the Castle of Good Hope where we began our walking tour of the city. The Castle of Good Hope was a 17th century colonial fortress originally located on the coastline of Table Bay but is now located inland due to land reclamation and is the oldest surviving building in South Africa. It now houses the William Fehr Collection and a military museum. City Hall and the Grand Parade Is located across the street. It was here where Nelson Mandela addressed a crowd of thousands on February 11th, 1990 after his release from prison earlier that day. The event is commemorated by a statue of his likeness on a balcony overlooking the Grand Parade.
We then visited the Company’s Gardens, St. George’s Cathedral and the Parliament. After our walking tour, we visited Table Mountain (one of the New 7 Wonders of Nature) and ascended to the top on one of two cable cars that rotates to allow travelers 360 degree views of the city. The views of Cape Town & Table Bay from the top of the mountain were incredible. I was surprised by the vastness of the mountain which has over 1,460 different species of plants and an array of lizards, insects and birdlife. After a few hours (and lunch) at the top of Table Mountain, we made our way back down and took a scenic drive through Hout Bay. We had a pit stop at the Cape of Good Hope and Cape Point where we took a funicular ride to the old lighthouse.
Day 3 was a full leisure day for independent activities. I chose to visit the Slave Lodge in the morning which was a short walk from our hotel. It now houses a museum focusing on the social history of South Africa and of course slavery. There was a group of school children on a field trip being taught about the slave trade. It was interesting listening in to the lecture since I’ve been taught about the Trans-Atlantic slave trade. The exhibits and lectures here however were focused on the African slave trade to Asia and the Indian Ocean Island as well as the East coast of Africa. I had the chance to talk to one of the staff about his childhood growing up in Cape Town during the Apartheid era and his hopes for the future of his country. It was a very informative talk and gave me an insight into the personal struggles of the past.
Afterwards I paid a visit to the District Six Museum which is a memorial to the forced removal of over 60,000 citizens in the 1970s from the area. District Six was established as a mixed community of freed slaves, merchants, artisans, laborers and immigrants which was a threat to the Apartheid government. Declared a white area on February 11th 1966 under the Group Areas Act of 1950, the residents were forcibly removed to outlying areas known as the Cape Flats and the homes left behind were flattened and largely destroyed by the early 1980s. Houses of worship however where not destroyed.
Later that day I visited the Victoria & Alfred Waterfront, which is located on South Africa’s oldest working harbor. This is a lively part of the city that has been developed for mixed-use with both commercial and residential real estate. With over 450 retail shops on 300 acres this is great place to visit and just people watch, shop or eat with extensive dining, leisure and entertainment facilities. The view of Table Mountain was also very impressive from this location as well.
Our group met up after breakfast on our 4th day. We departed Cape Town this day to Mossel Bay with a stop at the Stony Point Nature Reserve to see the endangered African Penguins. We also continued on to Hermanus, which is a town on the southern coast of the Western Cape province. The town is famous for whale watching during the winter and spring periods and can be seen from the cliffs along the town beginning in June through December.
We visited the Cango Caves on the following day of our tour. These caves are located in Precambrian limestones at the foothills of the Swartberg mountains. The caves are famous for its dripstone caverns with their vast halls and towering formations. That afternoon we spent some time at a local ostrich farm to learn about the history of these animals and how they were beneficial to the region. We had the opportunity to feed them as well, which was a great experience and in a strange way, bonded us so you can understand our concerns when lunch time came around and we were given ostrich meat to try. When in Rome…. (it was very good and very high in protein, low in fat and easy to digest). We continued on to Knysna for a 2 night stay in the city of George named after King George III.
The next day (Day 6) was spent on a relaxing cruise on the Knysna Lagoon with a glimpse of the Indian Ocean. This was more of a leisure day as we had time for shopping after an included lunch. We left the city of George the following morning and had a stop at the Tsitsikamma National Park. It is located in the coastal region known as the Garden Route due to the indigenous Fynobs, which is the world’s smallest and most diverse of all floral kingdoms. The park is home to The Big Tree, an 800 year old Yellowwood which towers over the rest of the canopy standing at a height of over 36 meters.
We continued on to Port Elizabeth for our included flight to Durban. Upon arrival in Durban we were given the opportunity to hang out at the beach (Granny’s Pool and salt rocks) before continuing on to our hotel. This was my first time seeing the Indian Ocean and with its beautiful clear blue water. The city had a Miami Beach vibe that was very welcoming. Our hotel (the Gateway Hotel Umhlanga) was located in a very trendy part of town with lots of restaurants, bars and had a great vibe to it. There was also a mall located next to the hotel which allowed us to stock up on some items. While you don’t really think about visiting a mall while on vacation, it was a great way to interact with the locals and see how they live their lives. The city of Durban and Umhlanga has a rich diverse population with people from various racial backgrounds and ethnic groups. The city also has a large Portuguese population as well.
We only had one night in Umhlanga (I could have stayed a lot longer quite honestly) but that was fine because I’d have to admit that the following day was one of the many highlights of our tour. We visited Shakaland Zulu Cultural Village on Day 8 of the tour. This is a replica of a traditional Zulu homestead which was part of the film set for the Shaka Zulu miniseries filmed in 1986. We were greeted upon arrival by a group of Zulu tribe members as they sang for us and lead us into the village.
Here we learned about King Shaka and how he played an important role in fighting the British and the Boers. We learned about the history and customs of the Zulus and had interactions with a natural herbalist (inyanga) and a “witch doctor” (sangoma) who had us sample some of the homemade beer made onsite. After a beautiful lunch overlooking Lake Phobane we were invited to attend (and some of us participated) in a traditional dance ceremony.
Our next two nights were spent in Hluhluwe which is where we had our first game drive in Hluhluwe-iMfolozi Park. Hluhluwe-iMfolozi was originally three separate reserves which joined together in 1989 to create what is considered to be the largest game park in all of Africa. We were divided into three groups for the game drive and as luck would have it my group saw all of the Big 5 (lion, cape buffalo, elephant, rhino and leopard) in addition to the zebras, giraffes, wildebeest and gazelles.
After an entire morning of game viewing we visited the town of St. Lucia on an included boat ride on Lake St. Lucia for our hippo safari. This was an amazing experience as well as we were able to spot numerous hippos in their natural environment as well as a few crocodiles and bird wild life.
We continued on the next day to the Eswatini (formally known as Swaziland). The country gained independence from the United Kingdom on September 6th, 1968 and is an absolute diarchy. The head of state is King Mswati III who, by tradition, rules with his mother. The political aspects of Eswatini are pretty complicated and it was interesting talking with the locals about their lives and hopes for the future. The country is relatively poor but the king is known to live an extravagant lifestyle. We only spent one night here before crossing the border back to South Africa, but not before a pit stop at the Ngwenya Glass factory. Started in 1979 by Swedish Aid the factory has been run entirely by Swazi’s since 1987. All products are hand made from 100% recycled glass.
It was quite a long drive from Eswatini to our next destination, Kruger National Park where we spent 2 nights at the Protea Hotel by Marriott Kruger Gate, located at the entrance of the park. This hotel was very impressive and overlooked the park with wildlife roaming throughout the property.
The following day was a full day of game drives which began early in the morning. We spotted more giraffes, gazelles and elephants, as well as monkeys and zebras. But it was during our afternoon game drive that we spotted the elusive leopards. After dinner that night, we went out for an evening game drive. This experience was yet another highlight as we had to search for the animals in complete darkness with the use of two flood lights. It was an entirely different experience than viewing the wildlife during the day.
After our 2 nights in Kruger National Park we continued onward to Mpumalanga along the Panoramic Route and stopped at the Three Rondavels which are 3 ancient geological peaks shaped like traditional beehive huts. They’re known as the Three Sisters and are located in the Blyde River Canyon region. It was a beautiful site to see however the next stop was the one that blew me away.
Our next stop was Bourke’s Luck Potholes. Situated at the confluence of the Treur and Blyde Rivers, thousands of years of water erosion have created these unique geological cylindrical potholes in the sandstone bedrock with networks of tunnels and interconnecting whirling pools. There are various bridges and viewing platforms that allow visitors to see the rock features from a variety of angles.
This was our last night together as a whole group as the main tour ended the following day. We visited Pretoria and drove by the Voortrekker Monument and the Union Buildings. Pretoria is one of the three capitals of South Africa and serves as the seat of the administrative branch of the government. The other two are Cape Town (the legislative capital) and Bloemfontein (the judicial capital). Pretoria is known for their three universities and is a hub city for research. It is definitely a very beautiful city, one that I would like to return to and spend more time in, however we had to continue on to Johannesburg were the tour came to an end with a majority of our group departing home that evening. A few of us were continuing on to Zimbabwe the next day for the three day extension to Victoria Falls.
Later that afternoon I had the opportunity to visit the Apartheid Museum in Johannesburg which was something I really wanted to do. I met up with a guide who drove me and two other friends of mine to the museum and explained the complex history of Apartheid in the limited amount of time he had. He prepared us for what we were going to experience and what an eye-opener it was. The Apartheid Museum takes you back to what it was like to live in South Africa during the days before, during and after Apartheid. Each visitor is given an entry ticket with the words Blankes (Whites) and Nie-Blankes (Non-Whites). The ticket you receive is how you enter the museum and that in itself is an awakening experience. The museum is quite large and we needed more time but we arrived about 2 hours before closing so we didn’t have a chance to see it all. I highly recommend visiting this museum for anyone visiting Johannesburg.
We then drove to Soweto, which is a large township within the city and site of the horrendous Soweto uprising that led to the deaths of up to 700 citizens (mostly students) on June 16th, 1976. It was a day I’m most grateful because it made me realize just how fortunate I am and the hardships that most others have to endure.
We had a very short flight to Victoria Falls the next morning and was greeted at the airport by our new Tour Director Sim. Our centrally located hotel (The Kingdom at Victoria Falls) was located no more than a 30 minute drive from the airport so we had time to check in and rest before an evening cruise on the Zambezi River. In a tour that had so many highlights, you would never think that taking a cruise on a river would be one of them, but yes it was. Just imagine sailing on a river in Zimbabwe with Zambia on the other bank and elephants, hippos and zebras all around you just as the sun is about to set in the distance, while you’re enjoying a few good cocktails. Even the sunsets are spectacular here. The experience was one of those once in a lifetime events that you can never forget.
We woke up early the next morning to catch the sunrise because we were told that the sunrises are also something to see. They weren’t lying either. I can honestly say the best sunrises and sunsets I’ve ever witnessed were in Africa and nowhere else. This day (Day 16) was our last full day on tour and the best was saved for last, a visit to the beautiful Victoria Falls. Roughly twice the height of Niagara Falls, the thunderous roar can be heard from miles around. We spent a good part of the morning visiting the falls from all angles. While the water level was not at its full level (June to August is the best time of year to visit) we still had an incredible experience, one that makes you appreciate the natural wonders located worldwide. The perfect end to a beautiful continent. One that deserves more respect and greater appreciation. I highly recommend Africa (Egypt, South Africa, Zimbabwe, Morocco, Kenya, Tanzania……..) to anyone who would like to explore a destination that will force them to view the world in ways they never thought possible.
Luis M. Herrera
Senior Travel Consultant, CTC
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