On May 10, 1994, South Africa emerged back onto the world scene, as the man known as Madiba, stood atop the dais, waiting to be sworn in to become the first democratically elected African president of the Rainbow Nation. He was a man that captured the world with the way he carried himself as much as by what he said. We’d learned a lot about South Africa in history class, the good, the bad and the ugly. Mark had watched the All Blacks go toe to toe with the Springboks since he was a young tike, and there feels a kinship has been forged between the 2 countries as a result. We both had heard so much about the country, we were both aflutter about the opportunity to explore Africa’s Southern land.
Arriving in Jo’burg, it was straight to the rental company where our chariot awaited. We headed with urgency to purchase our accommodation and bedding for the night, threw them in the thimble sized trunk, and set off. Not everything went to plan as we were…..”delayed” reaching our campsite for our first night, before our week long adventure cruising the world’s most famous National Park. In case you missed it, here’s where you can savour our blog on exploring Kruger National Park.
After being amateur National Geographic photographers we set course south towards the nations famed Garden Route, and on to Cape Town. Out next port of call was to cross into Swaziland, officially Eswatini, for a couple of days. It was nice to not be in the car for a day finally, as we wandered around through the outskirts of the capital, Mbabane. Leaving the little country, and continuing south, Mark was quietly impressed by the roads themselves, despite the apparent love affair with speed humps, they were pretty good. What he didn’t like though, was a disconcerting dearth of speed signs. At one point, definitely following the speed of the locals, he was pulled over, stern words where given, and a ticket begun its production. Clearly concerned by the fact we were roughly 30km/h over the limit, visions of bribes were being courted, huge sums of money sought flashed through our heads. Fortuitously, another local pulled over, leaned in and gave the instruction with a wink “Get out 60 rand, look like you know what you’re doing, and say sorry”. The princely sum of AUD$6, gave Mark a souvenir wall hanging, just after he’d been saying he wanted something a bit unique – problem solved.
Entering South Africa again, we quickly began to observe the KMs driven rise, but the map distance towards our end goal, Cape Town, seemingly not getting any closer. We had severely underestimated the distances, while not impossible in the time we had, the prospect of driving the Cape Town, and then back to Jo’burg to drop off the car, meant more time driving our glorified matchbox car, than enjoying the country. So we canned that and headed to the wild coast, better known as the Garden Route.
The scenery of the drive is beautiful. As we stopped in little coastal towns for lunch, coffees (or craft beer tastings) you could have easily convinced yourself you were about to come across the 12 apostles in Victoria’s south. Some off the inland towns on the other hand, let’s just say we were glad to have filled the car and that we didn’t get a flat tire on some of the pot holes. On one part of the road, dubbed rather ominously “The Highway To Hell”, the locals that apparently liked playing chicken with cars going 120 km/h, looking with incredulity that you hadn’t stopped as they strode out onto a national highway. Plenty of animals had lost that battle, with us narrowly missing a dog, and the car behind clipping it. Outside that couple of hours, we enjoyed it.
Our first day in Plettenberg Bay, we were treated to a stunning sunset over the bay, with around 100 dolphins putting on a show, playfully jumping and spinning, catching waves and even playing with a couple of people taking their evening swim. It was a spectacular welcome, and we looked forward to more of the same over the next week or so. Unfortunately, our luck with the weather had evidently run its course. Unperturbed we tried our best to get out in nature as best we could, where at times the wild weather added to the imposing rocky cliffs and shoreline of Robberg Nature Reserve. While seals played in the pounding waves, we did our best not to find out from personal experience what the ambiguously named “freak waves” were. All this whilst courageously saving a little baby turtle trying to get back into the sea. We moved on via a couple of days in a small town called Wilderness, before heading back inland, away from the dreary weather that allowed the abundant forests to flourish, and into a more desert-like landscape, dry and flat with the odd case of a Meerkat popping its head up from the side of the road.
We visited the Cango caves, which were highly impressive in structure, and quite fun to squeeze ourselves through the narrow passages or slide down natural rock slides. We spoiled ourselves with a stopover in a town universally heralded by every South African we met as a “….bit…weird” (Nieu-Bethesda). Despite this fact, the town also had a deli/craft brewery where we could get a fix of the cheesy and craft beery persuasion, before heading onto Lesotho the next day.
Upon entering Maseru we were a little taken back, it’s in stark contrast to the modernity of South Africa. The roads in the capital seemed to have escaped the wrath of any meaningful roadworks in a while, and the locals appeared to have escaped any driver training. Despite the fact that the weather was a little grim, people couldn’t drive, and there were potholes that could actually swallow our car, at least they sold alcohol on Easter Sunday, so they’ve one upped most countries there. Our first night we spent mostly hunkered down in the Faraday’s cage of our car, as an intense storm lashed out overhead. Surprisingly, and after jumping out a couple of times to prevent the tent from flying away, it preformed admirably, but we weren’t to spend any longer at this campsite, which makes funerals appear to have a cheery feel, and headed out of the city for the hills. We ended up lucking out with a beautiful hostel/lodge, where even the king of Lesotho himself enjoyed to have holidays, this time beside a cozy fireplace as the weather closed in.
Dodging potholes again on the way out it was back to Jo’burg. It has a bit of a bum wrap as a city, but the significant presence of the Apartheid Museum means there is another site, and our lack of time meant we couldn’t get to Soweto to check that out. Our trip through the city to reach the hostel revealed why Johannesburg not only has the reputation, but the statistics to back it up. The situation looks dire, and never have we seen an inner city so derelict and bereft of any saving grace, it was bleak. Thankfully the street our hostel was on, and one or 2 streets surrounding it, were in the state of regeneration, and safe to walk around, get amazing coffee and look at the incredible street art on mostly industrial looking buildings. As far as must see cities go, Johannesburg probably doesn’t rate that highly, but at least there is a small pocket giving it some spark, hopefully it continues to spread.
South Africa is a country blessed with natural beauty that stretches from coast to coast, the national park system is set up fantastically for patrons and animals alike. This certainly won’t be our last time here with so much left to explore (including more of Kruger). But from here we get the feet off the gas pedal and into the sand, heading to Mozambique and Malawi to continue to explore what Africa has to offer, including our first swim on the continent.
Remember to @catchustravelling on Instagram.