South Africa in 2 Weeks

I’ve been a tour guide in Iceland for nearly 10 years, but I was still a little surprised when a tour company called Farvel asked me to be a tour guide in South Africa for a group of 20 Icelanders. But of course I said yes, with a big grin of confidence, and a few weeks later, I was sent off, all expenses paid (and a salary!) to Cape Town.

Welcome to Cape Town

I’ve been to South Africa 4 or 5 times before, but only as a broke student or cheap backpacker. Now our accommodation and meals were all pre-planned, at plush places like the Cape Town Hollow, Mama Africa, and vineyards in Stellenbosch, with a private truck, driver and local guide always taking us from A to Z. I was more like a tour leader, only making sure everything went according to plan, but I mostly felt guilty about being paid to be on this wonderful vacation.

The view from Table Mountain

In Cape Town, we visited the Waterfront and Table Mountain, took a day trip to Cape Point and Kirstenbosch gardens, and in the vine region we visited Stellenbosch and Franschoek for city tours and wine tasting. I always got a private room, with hot water, electricity, wifi, and even those little soaps and cosmetics I so love collecting and giving away to cute kids.

Riding past some llamas at Rozendal Guest farm, our home in Stellenbosch

After some time in the Cape, we flew to Durban, and the feeling of arriving within the tropics hit us immediately, with hot humidity and thunder showers. From there we had another private car, driver and local guide, and roadtripped from the beach to St. Lucia. We took a day drive to Hluluwe National park, which was nearly everyone else’s first safari. We spent one morning on the iSimangaliso Wetland lake sailing among hippos and crocs, and the birdwatchers couldn’t get enough of the bright yellow weavers, African Fish eagles and Kingfishers.

So many hippos at iSimangaliso

We carried on north thru Swaziland, which Icelanders actually need a visa to travel to (it was an expensive pain in the ass to get in Cape Town since we had to courier our passports with rush applications to their only embassy in Johannesburg), and only stopped for a day.

Our overland truck with Nomads

A lot changes when you pass the border – the road quality deteriorates but the safety increases – but for the most part, it fit right into the feeling of our overland journey. We stayed at some 5 star, former King’s residence, which wasn’t much to write home about, but a walking safari and village visit in Mlilwane Wildlife Sanctuary were the highlight.

Learning how to grind flour on our Swazi village visit

Another long day of driving took us to Kruger, where we stayed just outside the park at Hulala Lodge. It’s a slice of heaven in the middle of nowhere, and high enough up in elevation to enjoy cool nights again. We entered Kruger for a walking safari and a couple of drive safari’s, and were usually split into 3 groups. One of them nearly got trampled by an elephant and another one walked right up to a her of wild buffalo during the walk, and during the game drives, one truck saw all the big 5 (the other two missed seeing a rhinoceros, but we had all already seen one in Hluluwe). We left Kruger with stops at Blyde River Canyon, visiting Bourke’s Luck Potholes and taking in the incredible views at the Three Rondavels and God’s Window.

One last “HUH!” at God’s Window

We ended our journey in Johannesburg, which most people thought would be in an anti-climax, but our accommodation there was again wonderfully cozy, and a SOWETO township day trip became much more meaningful after visitng the country and hearing of Mandela’s struggles to create the South Africa we got to see. Two weeks had passed an we had become one big family, and my role was confusingly just as much a mother as a daughter. We said goodbye at OR Tambo, as I set the group off on their flight back to Keflavik. An hour later I boarded a plane to Dar Es Salaam, and had the wonderful feeling that my journey in Africa was just beginning

Cape Town Touristic Highlights

My younger sister Ruth went on a trip to southern Africa a few years ago with her classmates on a charitable/missionary-work trip, and when I mentioned South Africa to her once, she insisted there was no such country and it only referred to a region of Africa. But, after a small argument ensued, we established she was wrong, and I can now assure her of its existence as I started my own trip to Africa in (The Republic of) South Africa.

My first week in South Africa was amazing, full of all the sights and activities a good tourist should do in Cape Town. I flew directly from London to Cape Town on a very luxurious, entertainment-filled, all-you-can-drink, 12 hr, overnight flight with British Airways. I arrived at 8 am to an airport that was surprisingly small for an international airport to what I would consider one of the major African airport hubs, but it was a delightful surprise to clear baggage and customs within 15 minutes.

Muizenberg, the sleepy beach town I called home

Muizenberg, the sleepy beach town I called home

There’s only a 1 hr time difference between Reykjavik and Cape Town so jet-lag dismissed we made the most of our glorious, sunny Sunday by doing all the most stereotypical tourist things one should do in a day in Cape Town. Steve, who I met a few months ago at UC Berkeley and was staying 3 weeks in Cape Town for an Applied Mathematics/Public Health workshop – he can explain to you very well how they’re related but I won’t try – picked me up in our $17/day Suzuki rental. In South Africa you drive on the left side of the road in the right side of the car and it took some adjusting, but now I’m not sure I even register the difference since its quite easy just to follow the car in front of you and not even think about which side you’re supposed to be on… although parking lots are tricky.

Hyrax enjoying the view of Camps Bay from table Mountain

Hyrax – considered the closest living relative to the elephant – enjoying the view of Camps Bay from table Mountain

First we visited Table Mountain; we took the cable car up and walked around the plateau with a free guided tour led by a presumably retired old lady who could barely talk faster than she walked. After losing patience with her, we wandered around with the most beautiful view of Cape Town on one side and Camps Bay to the north, and were super amused by all the little hyrax’s sitting on cliff ledges, also enjoying the view. On the way down, we saw a (slightly suicidal) rock climber ascending the sheer cliff face without any safety ropes and decided we were glad we didn’t walk down.

The cliff-top entrance for Table Mountain Cable Cars, and the death defying rock face you can see a ropeless rockclimber ascending

The cliff-top entrance for Table Mountain Cable Cars, and on the death defying rock face you can see a ropeless rockclimber ascending

We took lunch on Long Street, the main drag in town, at a delicious café called Pickwicks, and carried on to drive Chapmans Peak to Cape Point Vineyards for a little wine tasting. That ocean view drive is definitely one of the most beautiful roads you can imagine – and an amazing representation of road engineering genius.  We ended the day at Simon’s Town and went to visit the penguin colony there. What a sight to see hundreds of little grumbling penguins swimming in on the waves, avoiding all the boulders on the appropriately named Boulders Beach, and then scurrying up into the bushes and low lying forest all around  where they’ve hidden their nests and young ones. They were extremely habituated to human presence, barely even noticing your foot inches away from them and thus, allowing for some great, up-close encounters.

Friendly Penguins

Friendly Penguins

The weather all week was glorious, rare for mid-winter days, and the sun kept the temperature above 20`C almost every day. I made it to Robben Island and the Waterfront with a fellow traveler from Antarctica, also considered must-do Cape Town tourist stops, and was very impressed by the Pier 39/Fishermans Wharf inspired boardwalk offering an endless selection of shopping and dining. On the way home we also drove through the University of Cape Town main campus, the nearby Rhodes Memorial (he endowed all the land to the state where the university is currently located), and the Botanical Gardens.

Robben Island prison cell, similar to Nelson Mandela's

Robben Island prison cell, similar to Nelson Mandela’s

I stayed south of Cape Town in a suburb called Muizenberg, right on the beach with a corner store a block away that sold the most delicious, cheap eats. I was already impressed enough that you could find good meat pie and ginger beer, a luxury I haven’t indulged in since living in Brisbane years ago, but even more excited about their banana bacon burger (don’t knock it til you try it) and calamari bun – a burger filled with huge, deep-fried squid. The town is famous for some of the best surf in the world which apparently holds the Guinness World record for most surfers on one wave (circa 100+). Even though the water was almost too cold, I wanted to be cool and tried surfing in a full wet-suit, and not until I was in the water trying to catch my first few waves did Steve tell me these were some of the most shark infested waters around. To make matters worse, the day after, a small, badly bruised pigmy sperm whale washed up on shore, and after hours of failed attempts by some 20-odd surfers to push it back out repeatedly (it kept getting drawn back in with the waves since it could barely swim), shark spotters set of a siren to alarm everyone sharks were on their way in, probably from the scent of its blood.

struggling to help the beached pigmy whale before sharks got to it

struggling to help the beached pigmy whale before sharks got to it

I also spent some time visiting my good friend Yashar, a fellow UBC alumni who is on a rotary scholarship to complete his masters in international relations at the University of Cape Town.  With proper Persian hospitality, we enjoyed hookah and drinks on his balcony with an amazing view of Table Mountain, and also made it to Cape Point National Park later in the week to have some intimate encounters with baboons and ostriches. Ironically enough, after I left Yashar, I attended a Rotary Club meeting, and two friends of mine, retired South African men who sailed to Antarctica on the same cruise as me, were Rotary Members of that same club and they made the connection that only 2 degrees of separation existed between them – it really is a small world.

an ostrich strolling along in Cape Point National Park

an ostrich strolling along in Cape Point National Park

Links: For more information on Yashar’s Charity, the beneficiary of his hard work and Rotary Club’s generous scholarship – Peace and Love: