Down south. Way down south.
Updated: Sep 23, 2019
Scouring the vibrant and diverse beauty of South Africa and the Entabeni Game Reserve.
How I got there: I got a call one day from my travel buddy and dear friend, Cody. We had talked about taking a trip, but South Africa had never been on my radar. #Groupon, via #IndusTravel, everyone's favorite online deal website, offers an entire section of travel deals and getaways. After a bit of scrolling and back-and-forth between me and Cody, we stumbled upon what looked to be an unbelievable deal. Nine days in South Africa, including a safari in a well-known game reserve, at an affordable rate, including airfare and hotels. Now before you drop the skepticism on me, let me assure you I was very reserved about the idea of traveling to the other side of the planet via Groupon. I figured one of two things: (1) it would be wildly amazing or (2) we would land and immediately be sold into sex slavery. To my great surprise, it was not the latter.
How much it cost: For nine days, including airfare, lodging and safari, the whole trip was $1,700.00 USD.
Is English widely spoken? Yup! We never encountered a single person who did not speak English. South Africans are very friendly and welcoming folks.
“Nineteen hours in the air, in economy, is not a fun experience. But much like labor, I am told, you forget the pain and agony once it's over. I'd go back to South Africa anytime.”
We flew South African Air which is a part of the "sky team" with Delta and the other usual suspects. The flight was long. Very long. Nine hours from Washington DC to Senegal...about a one hour layover...then nine more hours to Johannesburg...and final hour or so to Cape Town. The experience with South African Air was generally a good one. They offered much of the same conveniences of their sister airlines with one difference...you don't. control. your. own. air conditioning vent. (GASP!) I was not aware of this little peculiarity prior to boarding or I would have spent some time in deep meditation before takeoff. I am one of the most hot natured individuals you will ever meet, so imagine my panic when I noticed there was no round little nodule overhead to keep me cool, calm and collected. After my usual seat nesting period was over, I reached up to adjust the airflow and get ready to hit the sky. Nothing. There was nothing. With beads of sweat gathering around my brow, I did find out from a nice flight attendant that there was air flow, it was just controlled by them. As you can imagine that offered little comfort as I envisioned roasting in an inferno for the next nineteen hours with no escape. I will say, however, they kept the cabin mostly comfortable for the entire flight and were very courteous to my numerous requests for the air to be turned down. At any rate, it wasn't a trip killer, but do keep that in mind if you ever fly South African Air.
We arrived very late. If I remember correctly it was around 11:30 pm when we finally arrived at our hotel. Also, just a tidbit of info to keep you from thinking you are being taken advantage of, there is a 1% Tourist Levy issued by South Africa to each non-resident entering the country. It amounts to around $50, so it's affordable and something you have to pay before you can even get your luggage. Like any airport, there are taxis and vans offering to take you to your hotel for the best rate. Luckily our trip included travel from the airport to the hotel, something that was very welcomed as I was in no state-of-mind to be brokering a taxi ride.
Our hotel, which was included in the $1,700, was the SunSquare Cape Town Gardens. Now Groupon isn't going to put you up in the Ritz Carlton, but our accommodations were very nice, clean and centrally located. I compare it to a Holiday Inn Express. It had everything we needed and the staff was very friendly and helpful. Plus, I am in my hotel for sleep and showers. I don't need all the bells and whistles. Cody and I shared a room with two double beds and a nice sized bathroom.
Being that is was so late when we got to the hotel, we of course crash landed in our respective beds. I typically consider myself a pretty seasoned traveler, but we made the classic newbie mistake and slept in the next day. Jet lag is a "you-know-what", but you've got to power through it. I could still kick myself for sleeping in until 11:00 am and missing a whole half day of adventure, but alas my body took control and slept the hours it felt it needed.
Once we were up and at 'em, the days flew by. Cape Town is full of things to keep you occupied and awestruck. Major plus, too, is the availability of #Uber in the city. That makes it incredibly easy to zip around, on the cheap, and not deal with cash. South Africa's currency is the Rand, and 1 Rand equals about 0.60 cents in USD. I found most items to be comparable in price to the US, with nothing seeming to be ungodly expensive.
If you are compiling a list of places to see, here are the stops I recommend:
1. Table Mountain - the huge mountain that serves as the backdrop for Cape Town. You can take a bus, car or cable car to the summit and gaze out over the city. It's a postcard and a place you can't not see. You'll even see a cute little rodent native to South Africa called the Rock Hyrax. They are like a giant gerbil and quietly keep to themselves.
2. Kirstenbosch National Botanical Gardens - I swear it's the Garden of Eden. Gorgeous views of the mountains, flowers and plants like I have never seen and a short drive from the city center. Well worth it.
3. V&A Waterfront - right down by the water with views of the city behind you and the enormous Atlantic Ocean in front of you. It's bustling with shopping, restaurants and it is where you'll board the ferry for Robben Island. Robben Island is the place where Nelson Mandela was jailed for 18 years. We didn't take the time to go and I regret it.
4. South African Penguin - you heard me. There is a tiny, adorable penguin found only in South Africa. An Uber ride gets you there in about 30 minutes and, while you can't touch them (I tried stuffing one in my bag) they are the coolest things to watch and uniquely South African...and endangered :(
5. The Cape of Good Hope - you've learned about it in school and now here it is. I am a huge history buff, so going to the spot where not only the Atlantic Ocean meets the Indian Ocean, but where thousands of ships have passed over hundreds of years, was something I was not going to miss. It's better to take this trek as part of a guided tour since it is a couple hours from Cape Town. You do get to see lots of other things along the way, including the fun but stinky, Seal Island. Plus, who doesn't want to stand on the South-Western most point of the African continent?
A little advice, beware of the monkeys. They are very entitled and will snatch your bag right out of your hand. And they are everywhere along the Cape and the trip to it.
6. The Food - the cuisine in South Africa wasn't much different than our own food. Lots of meats and potatoes. It was very good and I must say I never found something I didn't like. We made reservations at a place called Kloof Street House and it did not disappoint. Cody is very good at finding the little local places that serve up authentic foods, so I must give her the nod for this find. Since I was somewhere out of my element, I decided to go for it and order the ostrich filet. Well, I'll be darned if it wasn't delicious! Very similar to a steak with a little more chew, but still a good earthy flavor.
After we hiked all over Cape Town it was time to pack and shuttle off to the Nature Preserve for our Safari, also included in our trip price. We headed out by bus to the Entabeni Game Preserve for three days of game watching. It took about 4 hours to get there and you get to see the African countryside along the way. We stayed in small cabins along the mountain side with a central lodge where we would meet for drinks and our meals (also included).
It is truly an experience. The cabins were nice, exactly what I would expect to stay in during a safari. We were in South Africa during May, so it was their autumn and mornings/nights would be quite chilly. I was pleasantly surprised to find that our bed came with a bed warmer to keep our tooshies nice and toasty. Each morning we would get picked up for breakfast before heading out for the day. As you imagine, we were in open air Jeep-like vehicles capable of handling the often rough terrain. Each day we saw something different. Lions, cheetahs, monkeys, giraffes, rhinos, elephants, gazelles, hippos, zebras and unforgettable views. The preserve sits in a valley and the sunsets were like none I had ever seen. It made stopping for a glass of wine before heading back to the lodge even more of a treat.
So, after a whirlwind week of once-in-a-lifetime experiences, our journey down south came to an end. As far as our experience with Groupon, I have to say I have no complaints. And I will admit I was expecting to have a few. Everything was well organized, efficient and just as advertised.
South Africa is a beautiful place, full of natural beauty and friendly locals. I highly recommend it as a destination if the opportunity arises for you. It seems like a long way off, and it is, but it is a place I will never regret going!
Enjoy the journey folks, it's never over.
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