South Africa - From Vineyards to Wildlife Safaris, The Trip of a Lifetime

Elephant Safari South Africa Vana Carmona

Africa!   I had always wanted to go to Africa.  Here was my chance. A whole week of lions and leopards and hippos.  Oh my!  Plus a chance to see first hand some of those gorgeous safari camps.  All of this punctuated with those fabulous South African wines.  It was perfect.

Even the flight over to Cape Town was an experience.  I flew from New York through Dubai on Emirates.  Not just any Emirates because I got upgraded to their new business class.  These are the ones with the flat-bed seats.  It was like having my own flying condo. Wow!  It was just the best.  How wonderful to arrive at one’s destination without having full-body pain and being delirious with fatigue.  Even the food was edible.

Once in Cape Town, we went directly to the wine country and a gorgeous accommodation for the night with views of the vineyards. Not that we got to enjoy them for long.  We did lunch and took off to Stellenbosch, a most charming town in the Winelands.  Here we spent our afternoon and evening doing what we like best:  inspecting hotels and restaurants.  We ate yet again and got back to our hotel in time for a few hours sleep before taking off on our next leg.

We spent day #2 in Franschhoek, the other enticing town in the wine country.  We even had a free few minutes to shop and we certainly made the most of it. Lots of great little boutiques selling everything from African art to kitchenwares.  We met up and toured more hotels and restaurants and ended up out in the countryside again for lunch and wine tasting at another fabulous establishment.

No trip to Cape Town would be complete without a trip up Table Mountain.  Soaring majestically, it is a spectacular backdrop to the City.  The cable car ride up to the top is brief (thank goodness, since I don’t like heights) and the journey is well worth it.  The views are spectacular.  You can see the city itself, the oceans, and the extent of the rocky peninsula.  Since weather can be unpredictable, don’t try to schedule this.  Stay flexible and go as soon as the weather permits so that you are not disappointed.

Following our excursion to Table Mountain, we settled into our next hotel where we stayed for two nights and enjoyed a spa treatment as well.  The ocean views from the hotel were lovely.  Since the sun sets in the west from Cape Town, the sunset over the water was a special benefit.  And then we were eating again!

During our Cape Town stay, we took in some of the major sites and visited yet more hotels. We discovered that the city is quite sprawling and each neighborhood has a distinct character.  One of our favorites was the Malay Quarter where all the houses are small and painted vibrant colors.  We had lunch and as soon as we finished, headed off to the Mount Nelson Hotel for its famous high tea.  Yes, lunch followed by high tea.  We were just eating our way through South Africa. Good thing I brought “comfortable clothing.”  We all know what that means: not “form-fitting,” aka, “baggy.”

Believe it or not, we were so stuffed, we decided not to do dinner.  Not that it stopped us from eating.  We just filled up later on those so-called small plates in the bar area.  A lot of small plates equals a couple big ones in the end.

Next day, the real fun began:  we were off on safari!   We flew to Hoedspruit and headed out to the Kapama Game Preserve in one of those open Land Rovers.  This encompasses 27,000 acres filled with the whole spectrum of game near the Kruger National Park. Our accommodations were fabulous with our individual rooms tucked into the trees and brush.  I so hoped to see monkeys tapping at my windows but alas, it didn’t happen.  Instead we went out on our first game drive in search of the Big 5.  But wait, no, it wasn’t a game drive.  It was a game ride…on elephants!   Oh, this was such a blast.  We not only had the ones we were riding.  We had a few extras and babies as well.  It was like riding with a whole herd through the brush. 

This resident herd was made up of local orphans and injured elephants that had been rescued but could not be rehabilitated and returned to the wild.  They now had a new life at the camp.  They lived as much as they could in a natural habitat, including daily bathing at a local watering hole.  But at night they were stabled and fed by experienced handlers.

On our elephant trek, we saw water buffalo, giraffe, and the usual assortment of impala (which we learned, are just everywhere).  We ended up meeting our camp staff near a pond where they had set up a little refreshment table while we watched the sun set.  Not done by any means, as soon as it was dark, we set out in the Land Rovers in search of game.   We found some white rhinos, zebras and hippos before we retired for the evening.  How perfect an African day was this?

I awoke to my alarm and not to monkeys at my window.  Another great day was dawning.  We set off to the Endangered Species Centre, which had been started by one of the camp’s owners to commemorate an orphaned cheetah from her childhood.  This impressive organization now is home to a number of species including birds, zebras and wild dogs as well as a large array of cheetah.  The big highlight was the opportunity to go into a contained area and be up close and personal with 3 of them.  What a treat to actually touch them and have them lick my arms and act like, well, cats.  Albeit large ones.  But so very cat-like it felt like playing with my regular-sized, domestic kitties back home.  Just don’t touch tails, tummies or paws. I wasn’t sure what the reaction would be if I did touch the off-limits spots, but I didn’t really want to find out either.  So I stuck with head pats and ear scratches.

We were there at feeding time for some of the animals.  We witnessed the feeding frenzy of a huge flock of vultures as they descended on a heap of raw meat.  Interesting but not pretty.  The wild dogs were no less enthusiastic about their victuals. They battled over every chunk and left the less fortunate to forage for scraps.  I did hear, however, that the pack does make sure that everyone gets fed one way or another in the end.  This was a pleasant testament to a type of animal that has a much-maligned reputation.

Once back at the camp, we had an extensive lunch and then off again with our elephant herd.  I felt like an old hand now, mounting, dismounting, going up and down the terrain and pushing branches out of my face. 

We were on the move again the next morning although we were sad to say goodbye.  Our next stop was a short plane ride away, farther south at an area called Sabi Sands, but still near Kruger.  Our destination was another private reserve teaming with wildlife.  We couldn’t help but wonder what unique experiences would await us here.  We didn’t have to wonder long.  

Our first game drive turned up a group of lions basking in the afternoon sun.  I love the on-the-back-feet-up positions.  Those paws are just huge and look so soft and inviting.  There is a reason why we have to stay in the Land Rovers.  There is a reason why the tracker jumps off the hood of the vehicle and gets in with us when we are near them.  “Predators” they are called.  The furry feet are deceptive.  I’ll stay in the jeep.

We then asked for a wild herd of elephants and no sooner did we place our order then one appeared beside the road.  In no time they were IN the road, blocking our way, as they systematically demolished a sizeable tree.  As they foraged for the choice pieces, the undesirably remnants were scattered around and left in their wake. It took a while, but eventually we seized our moment and were able to pass them.

The highlights of the evening were the leopards.  First we found the big male resting in a gully.  He had been around for many years and was well known to the locals.  But he was in his decline.  Two younger and fitter fellows had moved into the area and the old guy was in danger of a sudden demise.  Yet, he looked quite self-assured sitting there and I enjoyed seeing him in all his glory.  He perked up when he sensed a young female nearby.  Our tracker immediately backed away and we drove off through the bush in search of her.  She was lovely.  So sleek and trim…and had no interest in such an old guy.  She turned tail and moved off, presumably to find someone more her own age. And the chase was on. We followed her quite a distance through the bush and around the enormous termite mounds.  Eventually we backtracked hoping to see how far back the male was, but we could not find him again.  Once down in the grass, they virtually disappear.  It was time to leave them to their own devices.  We headed back to camp.

How could we top that?  Well, get up the next morning and go on a game drive at dawn.  Find a pride of lions in the mists.  Two big males, 5 females, one with 3 young’uns, and 2 adolescent girlies about 8 months old.  Actually, it was even more special than it seemed on the surface.  Apparently the presence that morning of the 2 young ladies was cause for much excitement.  Their mother had been killed in an accident two weeks earlier and her daughters had simply left the pride and wandered off into the bush.  They had not been seen since.  Everyone assumed they had not survived. But here they were, active and well-fed.  The pride seemed to accept them and this was critical to their survival.

We followed them as they meandered down the road.  Suddenly they stopped and the ears pricked up.  A kill was imminent.  The lionesses split up, one going one way around the area and the other circling the other way.  The two males sat down in the road and waited. The young motherless cubs wanted to follow, as they knew they had to stay close to the adults or perish.  But the lioness turned and made some lion-type noises and the little ones stopped dutifully and waited.  Timed passed.  Eventually it was clear that the kill did not happen.  The males got up and wandered after the females.  The young girlies obediently got up and tagged behind.  They all disappeared into the bush. We had experienced the quiet drama of the African bush.

With that, it was time to move on to the next camp.  We had another small plane ride due north and still in the Sabi Sands/Kruger area.  It was another wonderful lodge with superb views over a river.  Here it was not uncommon to find elephants looking at you over your deck.  But, like the monkeys, they never showed at my room.  We had instead to go out and find them on the drives.  Our evening outing turned up lions, hippos, elephants, zebras and water buffalo among others.  And of course the ever-present impalas.  We stopped to watch the sun go down behind the South African horizon for the last time of our visit. The next day we would be on our way home.

We spent the next day in transit.  First leg was to Johannesburg where we had a layover long enough to visit another hotel and have lunch.  Then we had a long flight to Dubai and an even longer one to the States. 

For me, there was one last leg to get all the way home from there. 

Yes, the journey was long but worth every minute.  I found another country to love and was already plotting my return while still in flight.  I look forward to planning a trip for  you too.  It would please me no end to have you experience the kinds of things I had, and would love to be a part of arranging that.