I’ll be honest. I was a little nervous setting off for South Africa. I’d booked onto an organised trip so I knew the chances of trouble were slim but there are horror stories on the internet about tourists being robbed at gunpoint. However, in the two weeks I spent in this wonderful country, I never once felt uneasy or unsafe.
For a nation which has endured so many turbulent times, I was greeted by a modern, vibrant country. From Cape Town up to Port Elizabeth and then from Johannesburg to Kruger National Park, we met a seemingly endless supply of people who were pleased to welcome us and show us where they live.
Of course, the man always on the periphery is the late Nelson Mandela. He has achieved a mythical status and rightly so. We take for granted the humanity he brought with his insistence on forgiveness. That isn’t to say there isn’t still a huge poverty problem. As part of the tour we visited townships in Cape Town and Soweto in Johannesburg. At first, I was uncomfortable with this. It felt like poverty tourism but our guide explained that, if we didn’t make these visits, we would spend money in large chain hotels rather than with the people who needed it. As it turned out, they were two highlights of a highlight-filled tour. I grew up in the 1980s and never dreamed that I would find myself stood in the heart of Soweto on a sunny September day watching the world go by.
The most moving part of the trip was visiting the Constitutional Court in Johannesburg, built using the bricks of the prison which formally sat on the site. This is a must-see: the public area is full of art works made in response to Apartheid and also reflecting how South Africa is looking to the future. To rewrite a country is no mean feat and standing where all the decisions are made was very humbling.
Of course, South Africa isn’t defined by its political past; it’s a sensationally beautiful country. Long days on the coach flew by as we witnessed endlessly changing environments. In a single day we went from woodland to alpine vistas to desert. It was a bit disconcerting for a lad from the North of England.
Another moment I will never forget was the feeling outside Kruger National Park at six in the morning, knowing that, when the gates opened, the greats of the animal kingdom were waiting to be discovered. Before long we were cooing over a rhino and her calf and, if I start on the elephants, I will run out of words. You’re not guaranteed to see anything in a national park the size of Wales but we saw lions, hippos, elephants, zebra, white rhino and the super rare black rhino. We also saw more impala than you can shake a stick at.
When travelling around the Cape Town area, we had a day driving down to the peninsula to visit the Cape of Good Hope. But when we reached Boulders Beach and the penguin colony, I fell in love. They weren’t phased by the tourists and went about their business like lethargic businessmen in their black and white suits. I could have sat there all day.
Every day was packed with things to do from an ostrich farm where a bird called Suzie the Stripper got a little close for comfort, the Cango Caves to see the million-year-old stalagmites and stalactites, the beautiful town of Knysna and, as a grand finale, on the way to the airport, we stopped at Pretoria to see Mandela’s statue. And, purely in the interests of learning about local culture, we participated in two wine tastings in the vineyard region of Stellenbosch. It felt extremely decadent sitting outside a manor house in the warm sunshine, sipping locally produced vino.
If South Africa is a place on your bucket list, get it booked. But it wouldn’t have been anything without our guide, Darryl, who was so knowledgeable and positive about the country that it was infectious. It’s nice to do independent travel but if you want to learn everything you can about a country then a guided tour is a must.
I’m a strong believer that travel should change you. When I set off I was expecting to see some sights and animals, but the country worked its way into my soul and changed the way I look at the world.
Chris Park travelled with Just You Holidays