The plan was to have a big holiday between Cate's primary and high school years. The choice came down to a tour of lots of amusement parks in Florida, or seeing lots of animals in Africa. Animals won out.
So South Africa it is. Cape Town, followed by Hermanus, Plettenburg Bay and a safari lodge. The lady at Trailfinders sorted us out with a full itinerary and all we had to do was pay up and turn up.
First up is a short flight to Heathrow, followed by a massive flight to Cape Town. We were on a BA 747 but unfortunately weren't upstairs or in the fancy cubicles, making do with slightly cramped economy. And 11 hours sitting next to a restless Cate and occasionally nauseous Claire isn't much fun let me tell you (I, of course, was the perfect travelling companion).
Still, we made it through the night and getting off at Cape Town and driven to our apartment was nice and easy. We had a lovely place on the V&A waterfront area, with our own balcony and view over the dock. Table Mountain was right behind us. Best of all Cate had her own bedroom, so we didn't have that holiday routine of putting her to bed in the lounge, then having to go live in the bedroom.
Our first day was just a chance to explore a bit, get some groceries in, and catch up on some of the sleep we missed out on during the journey. The day started off misty but brightened up and it was warmer here in mid-winter than Scotland had been in mid-summer. It did get dark pretty early, and the mist came in again, but that didn't dampen the spirits in the harbour area, which was really busy, full of music and people eating and drinking. We saw some stunning paintings in the Watershed market, and got plenty of ideas for trinkets to take home.
The pound has been pretty strong against the rand recently (at least it was before the Brexit vote) so even the overpriced stuff aimed at tourists didn't turn out too bad when converted back into pounds. Our lunch at a restaurant in the Wharf shopping centre only came to about £17 for the three of us, while a similar meal at Heathrow had cost that much for each of us.
Well it is winter here, so I suppose it's allowed a rainy day every so often. Friday was a bit cold and wet, and Table Mountain was covered in cloud so we reckoned a trip up there today wasn't a good idea. And Cate was so tired from missing sleep during travel day that she slept until 11, while I went out and bought a local SIM card for my phone and got rained on.
Once we were all up and had sent the cleaning lady away for a second time, we walked over to the aquarium. It doesn't look too big from the outside but actually had loads to see, even though the big shark tank was under repair. The giant spider crabs were especially impressive.
After the aquarium, and a lunch at Cooked in the Watershed, we went to see Finding Dory at the cinema in the shopping centre. Then it was a tour round the tourist shops to buy some gifts for the folk back home, including some lovely prints of animal paintings.
Going past the harbour we noticed some sea lions playing in the water. Nobody seemed bothered by them so I guess it must be a regular occurrence. But we were impressed. Back home for pizza, Hotel Transylvania 2 on the telly and an early night. Tomorrow we need to be up early for our peninsula trip.
Saturday was the day we booked for our excursion, a day long Cape Peninsula trip. We were picked up at 8.30 in a mini bus along with 11 other intrepid travellers and started on our route down the coast.
First stop was by a local beach, to get a nice view of the breakers and the local birds. Then over to Hout Bay, where we all hopped on a boat which took us out to seal island. Cate barely managed to contain her excitement at seeing the seals and Claire barely managed to contain her breakfast as the boat lunged up and down the waves.
Back on shore again and it was up the Chapman's Peak drive, where the opening scene of Skyfall was shot. A quick pause for a photo and we were off again, down the peninsula and into the national park. We kept our eyes peeled for animals (well, Claire had her eyes closed mostly) but just managed to see a few ostriches and some elands at a distance.
Eventually we made it down to the Cape of Good Hope. We spent a few minutes at the point itself, including an encounter with some local wildlife, the intrepid Dassie, then a bit more time around the cape at the lighthouse, where we climbed a lot of steps. Cate got herself a jumper at the shop and the family of 6 in our group got themselves matching fleeces.
Next stop was Simon's Town, obviously named after a very humble man from the 1800s, where we had our lunch. Claire and Cate had ribs and I had a game curry. Not sure what was in it but I hope it wasn't Dassie.
Backtracking about a mile we stopped again at Boulders Beach, where there just happens to be a colony of African penguins. It might seem a bit out of place, but they seem to like it there and we had a chance to take lots of pictures as they waddled about and went for swims. We waddled back to the minibus where some of the local girls were putting on an impromptu performance of tribal dancing.
The final stop was back in Cape Town, at the Kirstenbosch botanical gardens, which was basically a walk around some plants, but with pretty good views, including Table Mountain from the other side from what we were used to. Everyone was dropped off at their hotels and it was half past six when we got back, and dark already. A quick visit to the supermarket to restock on milk, orange juice and the lovely honey and oat flavoured bread, and it was time to settle down and delete all the blurry penguin pictures. No dinner tonight as lunch was so big.
Incidentally, travelling to South Africa with a child can be a bit of an ordeal. We were OK as long as we remembered to bring Cate's (full) birth certificate. But a lady on our trip had brought her daughter from Denmark, and they had all sorts of trouble trying to fly in from London. Her daughter's father had to fly out to fill out some papers, she had to fly to Stockholm because Denmark doesn't have a South African embassy, and it basically took them a whole weekend and huge extra expense to get here. And then their luggage had been lost. So any single parents, check you have all the right paperwork before you go, and even then it might be tricky.
The cable car was shut yesterday due to the high winds, so it was a relief to see gentle breezes in the forecasts for today. And sunshine. It was warmer here than it had been back home during the summer so far. In fact Cate had her breakfast out on the balcony. Not something we normally do in midwinter back home. And not just because we don't have a balcony. So, today was the day to attack Table Mountain.
I was going to book the cable car online, but booked the tour bus tickets first and their web site said we could pick up cable car tickets at their office. Then the girl at the bus office said we could just get them at the cable car station - the wait wouldn't be long. However when we got to the cable car station there was a 45 minute queue for the cars, plus an extra 45 minute queue for tickets :-( Thankfully with Internet on the phone, I could buy the tickets online and jump over to the "we have tickets" queue.
The cable car took us up to the top corner of Table Mountain, at around 3500 feet. It was a bit breezier up there but still fairly warm in the sun. Some folk had big coats and woolly hats on, but t-shirt and shorts were fine for us. We took plenty of photos, and a walk around the top, spotting a few more dassies on the way. After a couple of hours up there we joined the queue to come back down again.
The tour bus was waiting at the stop when we got to the bottom, so we hopped on and got off at the next stop, Camps Bay. First thing was to get something to eat, so we found a Mexican place and had some excellent tapas and tacos. Full of food we went down to the beach for a while. Cate had a bit of a paddle while I failed to fend off a painting seller. Back to the tour bus and we had a bit of excitement on the way into town when its air suspension blew up with a sound like a gunshot. We had to wait for the next one to come along, but still got home a little before sunset. Pizza for supper. Cate must have been tired out by the day as she actually asked to go to bed about 9.
The next day was lovely and sunny again, but we didn't have anything planned. Cate wanted to go paragliding but I didn't fancy the idea. We went for a walk along the front and visited the shops again, picking up the last of the presents for folk back home, and stopping at KFC for lunch. Back at the apartment, Cate and I tried out the swimming pool in the complex. It's on the roof of the gym building, and "heated" so wasn't too bad as long as we kept moving. After we got back we took a walk to the clock tower to have a look around that area, and got to see the swing bridge in action. It's been nice that most times we've been down along the harbour side we've been able to see sea lions playing in the water. Sausage pasta for tea, a bit of packing and a game of Stop the Bus before bed.
It was time to leave Cape Town, after five nights in our apartment. I walked into town to find the Avis place, and drove a brand new RAV4 back to the waterfront. We packed our cases aboard and set off for Hermanus.
We didn't want to get there too quickly, so took the coast road, and stopped at a place called Betty's Bay. There is another penguin colony here and the setup was similar to Boulders Beach, with a wooden walkway taking us along the beach to where the Penguins nest, feed, play and generally hang out. It was blowing a gale while we were there and I asked the lady in the pay hut if it's often like that. "Nearly every day" she said. Anyway, the Penguins seemed happy enough.
After some sandwiches in the car we carried on and soon got to Hermanus. We're in the Harbour House hotel for a couple of nights. It's still very windy and I don't think we'll be using the pool while we're here. We did a little shopping and had a walk along the front in the afternoon, keeping our eyes out for any whales that might decide to turn up, but no luck so far. We did see a mongoose on the cliff path, and we saw a baboon in a lay-by on the journey in earlier, so our count of African animals is rising. And we saw some dassies at the penguin beach, so we've now seen dassies at Cape Point, on Table Mountain and down on the beach.
After our walk we stopped at the Paradiso restaurant to take advantage of their 50 rand menu: I had a great big fish supper for the equivalent of £2.50. Then it was back to our hotel. Cate has a sofa bed in the lounge, so we're banished to our bedroom once her bed time comes around.
We were kept awake most of the night by the high winds, so had a late start today. But that was OK as it was a fairly quiet day anyway. After breakfast at Harbour House we went down to the front to see if we could see any whales. No luck! So we walked along the cliff path for a way. There's a series of glass cases with models of the Sun and the planets along the way, proportionately sized and spread apart. The first few planets are just around 30-50m apart, but then we had to walk about a half km to get to Jupiter. We turned back just afterwards but it was about another 4km to eventually reach Pluto. Anyway, despite the wind we enjoyed our walk. It was nice and warm when we found sheltered sections, and we were able to spot a few dassies on the way too.
For a quick excursion we took the car down the coast a little to a couple of the local beaches. But the gales meant huge breakers on the first beach and stinging sand storms on the next, so we didn't stay long, instead heading back to town and taking lunch at Fishermans Cottage. I recommend the roti.
The rain came on, but Cate and I managed to get out for an ice cream and a wander round the town. We ended up at the front for a last search for whales, but had to content ourselves with the ever-faithful dassies.
Up and over for breakfast early, we found the restaurant crowded with an Indian group that had stayed the night. For some reason that meant we also had the choice of some crispy pancake things with spicy oil, and some tasty rice for breakfast. Anyway, they all left on their bus and we checked out and set up the GPS for Plettenburg Bay. It was a four and a half hour journey, plus a bit more for a couple of stops, in Swellendam and Mossel Bay.
The driving was pleasant, with fairly quiet roads. At one point we had to slow down as some springboks crossed the road in front of us. Lots of birds flew out of our way and we passed some ostriches once, but it was mostly sheep, cows and vineyards that we passed. We were stopped by the police at one point for a random check, but made it to Plettenburg Bay without any major incident.
The GPS found the Robberg for us and the host showed us round, giving us a room right at the front, facing the beach and with a great viewing balcony. The waves were rolling in and breaking onto the shore with great pounding blows. The rainy weather had cleared up too and we had a nice walk on the beach before our complimentary meal: curry for me and Cate, fish for Claire, followed by sticky toffee pudding or chocolate pudding. Delicious!
I'm starting to worry about all this food, and we've only been for a swim once. Anyway, elephant riding tomorrow.
Today was the big animal day, in more ways than one. We started the day off with a short trip to the Plettenburg Elephant Sanctuary, where they have five elephants rescued from various bad situations. We were lucky we made it in time as one of the residents had blocked us from getting out and we needed the help of another man moving his car to allow us to back out properly. We were booked in a group with a French family from Marseilles and we were introduced to three of the elephants (the other two aren't keen on contact with people) who allowed us to lead them trunk in hand, feed them, examine their tough skin and finally ride them around a circuit. It was a great experience and we even shelled out for a DVD at the end.
Our next stop was just round the corner, where we bought tickets for Monkeyland, Birds of Eden and Jukani in a triple-ticket deal. First was Monkeyland, where they have eleven types of primate. We were lucky enough to see ten of the eleven, and one of the group was unlucky enough to have his glasses snatched off his face by a vervet monkey. We were taken through the forest by our guide Ricardo, who was very knowledgable and did a great job describing the different monkeys and their habits.
Next up was Birds of Eden, where we were allowed to follow the wooden pathway through the enclosed area and admire the birds on the way. There was lots of colour, but we're not so interested in birds so we didn't take too long. Besides we were hungry and looking forward to a sandwich once we came out.
Finally we drove about 5 miles down the road to Jukani, which is a sanctuary for mostly big cats, rescued from zoos, Safari parks and private owners that have mistreated them or aren't able to look after them any more. Our guide was Melody, and this time it was just us in the group. He taught us a lot about the individual animals, from the white tiger Angelo, who is going blind, to the serval cat (the only one we didn't see) who is too traumatised to face people and hides inside most of the time. Most of the animals were out and about, and pretty close to us, though the fences for their compounds prevented us getting good pictures some of the time. There are a number of viewing platforms but not for all the animals and they don't always stray out into viewable territory. Anyway, Melody proved a good guide despite us taking a fair chunk more than our allotted hour to go round.
After our full day we had dinner at the Lookout Deck, which our host had recommended the night before. Again we had a lovely dinner, though we had to drive back to our hotel in the dark. The African stars were bright tonight.
Wherever we go on holiday, Claire always wants to visit a market. There's a local one here on Saturdays so we popped over to see what they had. It had been rainy early on so the place was a bit muddy, but a bit of straw made it navigable. The stalls were mostly food stalls, plus some arts and crafts. A few folk tried to sell us pictures while Claire splashed out on a garlic mincer and Cate made a sand picture and bought a bracelet. We escaped without too much damage.
We wanted to visit the other big cat place nearby, called Tenikwa, but weren't sure if we'd just get a repeat of yesterday's visit to Jukani, and we're off to Cango Wildlife Ranch tomorrow. Can you get too much of big cats?
No, obviously not! And we were in for a bit of a surprise here. Tenikwa has an animal hospital, and also holds some big cats for educating the public and funding their work. We paid our entrance fee and waited for our guide, Peter, who just had the three of us to show round as it wasn't busy at all. He took us round to see their leopard first, and we got some better pictures than yesterday. Next he took us into the wild cats' enclosure, where we got close to some of these African cats, just slightly bigger than domestic cats. Then we went into the serval cat enclosure, and walked among their 4 servals. Cate did a talk at school on serval cats but hadn't ever seen one in real life so she was delighted.
But the highlight was when we visited the cheetahs and again were taken in to their enclosure. We had a chance to watch and photograph Chester and Zimbala, just a couple of feet away from us. They got up and wandered about too, so it was a real treat.
The lion enclosure was off limits of course, but we had a viewing platform to get a good look at the two young lions. And finally the caracals were also behind a fence, since they're a bit unpredictable. So we'd been shown all the big cats native to Africa, and really enjoyed our visit.
Back at the hotel, Cate and I visited the Robberg nature reserve and had a walk along the cliff path, getting thoroughly rained on, before we had an excellent dinner at the Off the Hook cafe nearby.
It was early for breakfast today as we had a longish drive to make. It was a two and a half hour journey back along the Garden Route and then north into the mountains to Oudtshoorn, home of the ostrich farm (which we didn't visit), the Cango Wildlife Ranch and Cango Caves (which we did). The drive was scenic, especially the road north over a mountain pass and across the plateau towards even higher (and snow/frost capped) mountains. Some places we passed had gotten frosty overnight and were steaming as the sun reached them.
Cango Wildlife Ranch was first, and we came because of the promise of some animal experiences, where you get to touch some of the big cats. We checked in and were taken round on a tour first. The place is very professionally laid out with walkways to follow and view the animals, but I couldn't help feeling they had noticeably less space than at the two previous places we'd visited. We then had our wildlife experiences. Claire and Cate went in with the baby cheetahs and got to stroke one, Cate then went in with a serval cat, and I had a shot with one of the adult cheetahs. I had mixed feelings about this - while it was nice being able to touch the animals, and my cheetah was purring noisily, they were just lying down (the serval cat was sat up right enough), and I think I preferred Tenikwa, where we were in with the cats but didn't touch them, and they were more active around us. That didn't stop us buying the photos though.
Next was Cango Caves, and no difficult moral dilemmas about interacting with animals, just a guided tour around some pretty impressive caves with lots of formations made from years of dripping water. Our group had about 20 members, a dozen or so being a family of Muslim folk, some of whom had brought their own chairs, a great idea for the next long guided tour I go on. They were a bit noisy though, while the guide was trying to talk and seemed to take an awful long time coming out at the end.
On the road back we came over the pass again, and started back down, only to come across a horrible accident, with an upturned car. The police were there directing traffic around it, but it was a reminder of what can happen in a moment of carelessness or even just a bit of bad luck. We made it back to Plettenburg just before dark, and found a Mozambique restaurant that served us ribs (me), chicken wings (Claire) and the seafood platter for one (guess who) before we retired for our last night at the Robberg.
Shamwari was always going to be the highlight of our holiday, seeing the animals in their natural habitat, properly wild and living in a luxury safari lodge for 4 days (us, not the animals). So it was with excitement that we got up, had our final breakfast (more waffles) at the Robberg and started driving.
It took two and a half hours to get to Port Elizabeth, where we dropped off the car and got our connection to Shamwari, another hour or so north. It rained pretty much all morning, but when we got here it soon dried up, we were given a big lunch and then sent out on our first safari drive. Alex took us round the reserve, and she spotted the animals where I would have blithely driven by. Some were close enough to the tracks, though, that even I'd have spotted them, and we got close to giraffes, springbok, zebras, impalas, warthog, hartebeest and even a mother and baby white rhino. No sign of any lions yet, and we saw an elephant in the distance but it had moved on by the time we got to where it was.
We were freezing by the time our drive was done, so bought some hats and gloves from the lodge when we got back, and tried to have a light dinner to make up for the big lunch.
Shamwari is a real luxury place. We are greeted with hot towels and hot chocolate every time we return from a safari drive, the menus are very posh and they even have the same taps as we have back at home.
This was our first full day here, and we had two safari drives. The first began right after our 7am breakfast, and Alex took us out to where one of the male cheetahs has his territory. We looked in his favourite hideouts without luck, but then Alex spotted him out in the brush. We got fairly close as he sat up and watched us.
Next we drove round to where a lion had made a recent kill, and he was standing guard over it. We got in really close to get a great view, and some good shots, of the lion, plus a good look at the poor zebra who was going to make him a decent dinner over the next few days.
In the afternoon we met our new ranger, Abel, and he took us out for our second drive. We stopped off at Mr lion to see him still guarding his kill, and a few jackals trying to get close to nab a bit for themselves. We also stopped to see the rhino mum and cub that we saw last night, and get some better photos as they munched their way towards us. We stopped on a ridge for a sundowner tea/hot chocolate/Sprite and snacks, then were on our way back down when Abel spotted an aardwolf. Apparently very rare, he said he'd only seen about three in his ten years as a ranger.
Up early again and we had breakfast with Abel, before our safari drive, which this morning was to include a visit to the Born Free big cat sanctuary. Here we learned the story of the foundation and were taken round to see the enclosures used to house the dozen lions and leopards that have been rescued from various zoos, circuses and private owners and are too tame or damaged to make it in the wild. Each pair or trio have a good couple of acres to roam around in, and don't have to show their faces when people come to visit - in fact we saw six of the twelve cats while we were there.
Our safari drive after this mostly consisted of finding a cheetah mother and cub who were resting near our lodge and observing them as they watched for potential prey. They seemed interested in a couple of baby zebras among a herd about a quarter mile away, but ended up losing interest and flopping down for a sleep.
For our afternoon drive we were joined by a mum and two kids from Liverpool who had had trouble getting here due to the strict rules on single parents travelling with kids, and were two days late in arriving. So they only had the one safari drive before having to leave again the next morning. Abel did his bit to fit as much in as possible and we visited the lion with his catch, the mother cheetah and cub, the jackals hoping for a bite, some zebra, springbok, impala, giraffe and finally some elephants. We had to wait a while for the elephants to make it out of the bushes, but they did so just as it was getting properly dark, passing very close to us, including a couple of babies. On the way back to the lodge in the dark Abel shone his spotlight on the sides as we went to see if we could see anything else, and found a lioness roaming down the road ahead of us.
It's our last day in South Africa, and it's come round all too soon of course. Abel took us out for our morning drive and we found the cheetahs again. This time the mother and cub were out walking towards some kudu up on a hill. They looked full, so he reckoned they must have made a kill, but possibly were robbed of it before they could finish, and so were still keen on more food if they could get it. We left them to look for the female lions that had moved the night before, but they seemed to be hiding in some dense shrubbery. Moving on we came across a hippo, making its way through the brush towards the river, and some vervet monkeys, plus our old friend the yellow mongoose, who generously posed for a while.
We had a booking to visit the rehabilitation centre at 11:30 so we drove over that way, on the other side of the road from the main reserve. Here we stopped off to see some buffalo, and a few ostriches before getting to the centre. This is where they look after animals that are sick or abandoned, with a view to reintroducing them into the wild. They had a black eagle, a couple of springboks (one pure white), a duiker, some sable antelopes and two baby rhinos.
On our afternoon drive we were joined by an American family from New Jersey, who had just arrived. We stopped off at the cheetahs first, sunning themselves, then found a young elephant. Not long after we came across a rhino mum and baby, a different pair from the ones we had previously seen. And then we were inundated with elephants, which took up most of the rest of our time. They did well seeing cheetah, elephant and rhino on their first trip, and haven't even seen any springbok anywhere, which is hard considering how numerous they are. I'm sure they'll see them tomorrow. For us it's just the long journey home.
We had a leisurely start on our travel day with a late breakfast, getting there just in time to say goodbye to Abel. After that it was the long drudge home: a car to Port Elizabeth Airport, a long wait there, a flight to Johannesburg, a shortish wait there, a 12 hour flight to Heathrow, then the short hop back to Glasgow Airport for a taxi home. 10am to 10am door to door, and we arrived home very tired, but happy with our holiday.
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