Five Reasons to Visit South Africa

Hello readers!  I wanted to explain my sudden break in blogging.  I was off to a good start but even the newest bloggers need a holiday every now and then, and I am no exception.  I am just back from an incredible, life-changing and thought-provoking experience and whilst it has nothing to do with Hamburg, my head is still too full of magic to ponder issues with the Standesamt and the fact asparagus is in season.  So instead I’m going to give you five reasons why you should visit South Africa, which is where I’ve just been.

Number 1:  It will give you perspective on your life.

There’s nothing like taking a stroll through a township to remind you that a vast cultural divide still exists in South Africa, more than twenty years after Apartheid ended.  We were shown around Langa Township in Cape Town by Sam and it was a humbling four hours, especially the moment when we visited a ‘hostel’ (a communal accommodation), where we met a lovely lady who was living in a tiny room with her three children.  The dark, basic kitchen was shared with the many other families living in the hostel, yet mattresses lined every wall – so many people are squeezed into these cramped living conditions that many are forced to sleep on the kitchen floor.   Young children playing outside used bits of rubbish as toys.  The poorest people don’t even have a mattress in a hostel; they just sleep in shacks made of corrugated iron and cardboard they’ve erected wherever they could find space.  Our guide told us that because living conditions in the townships are generally so poor, most daily life is spent outside, surrounded by litter, stray dogs and makeshift buildings.

And yet there is a distinct sense of both community and pride in Langa.  Men meet in the shebeen to drink beer together, and welcomed us when we dropped in to try the local brew.  Someone dressed as the Easter Bunny delivered chocolate to the pre-school.   Curious children waved at us from across the street.  Small businesses are thriving, enjoying a steady stream of customers.  We arrived back in Cape Town with a new perspective on our own lives and a very mixed feeling towards how South Africa treats its people.

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Langa Township, Cape Town
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Langa Township, Cape Town
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Langa Township, Cape Town

Number 2.  You probably know less about South Africa than you think.

I’m going to be honest here and say I didn’t know a great deal about South Africa before I actually went there.  My political knowledge – embarrassingly – consisted of knowing Apartheid happened, that Nelson Mandela had been imprisoned, and that there was some sort of Dutch influence.  Wondering around Cape Town, we discovered so much more.  Talking with locals gave us a wider understanding of the difficulties of Apartheid and its continued repercussions, such as the forced removals of Blacks and Coloureds from District Six and the promises of the current government to build housing there to get people out of the townships – a promise that is being very slowly realised.  A visit to Robben Island shed new light on Nelson Mandela’s long struggle against oppression, and also taught us about many of his comrades from the ANC who were also imprisoned there, forced to complete back-breaking and eye-damaging work in the island’s quarry. The controversial current President Jacob Zuma was imprisoned there too – a surprising fact, given that he seems to have forgotten what his predecessor Mandela set out to achieve.  We learned about the classification of races; Whites, descending from Cape settlers who came over from Holland, France and Germany in the 1600s, Blacks, from the many indigenous peoples of South Africa, and Coloureds, people who traditionally came from a mixing of White with Black, Malay or Indonesian, who through the centuries have never  been able to fit in one group or the other.  We learned about how the Dutch ended up in the Cape in the first place, as part of the Dutch East India Company outpost.  We learned that there are eleven official languages, reflecting the huge mixture of people within the country, and we spent much of our trip practicing saying ‘Xhosa’ with the correct clicking sound.  The Rainbow Nation has a fascinating past and a perhaps uncertain future, and you can really appreciate this when you’re right there, drinking it all in.

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Meeting a former political prisoner at Robben Island

Number 3. Wine Glorious Wine (and beautiful surroundings to drink it in!)

I don’t pretend to be a wine connoisseur – I have my favourites, but I’m no expert on grape varieties.  I just enjoy drinking the stuff.  However, even a wine philistine like me knows that South Africa has some of the best wines in the world, from gorgeous, buttery Chardonnays and super dry Sauv Blancs to the famous, indigenous Pinotage.  And not only is the wine from South Africa delicious, the scenery where the grapes are grown is so overwhelmingly beautiful, you just want to weep when you’re there (real tears, not drunken ones!) A visit to the Cape Winelands is an absolute must.  We visited two wine areas, the utterly spectacular, greener-than-green Franschhoek and the vastly different and extremely dramatic Hemel en Aarde valley, near Hermanus.  In Franschhoek we took the wine tram and spent the day hopping from vineyard to vineyard.  We had a romantic picnic under a tree at Grande Provence and sampled the delectable wines at Richard Branson’s Mont Rochelle estate.  Our favourite was the relaxed La Bourgogne farm, where we enjoyed the setting sun in the garden surrounded by the family dogs.  And in Hemel en Aarde, we loved Creations chardonnay so much that we had to buy some to take with us!

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Grande Provence Wine Estate
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Wine Tram, Franschhoek
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Rickety Bridge Wine Estate
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Enjoying our fabulous Creation chardonnay!

4.  Africa is synonymous with Adventure

You really can have as much adventure as you want!  For the real adrenaline junkies, the Garden Route offers everything from skydiving to bungee jumping to shark cage diving to canyoning (or kloofing, as they call it.)  We settled for hiking over the Cape of Good Hope, paddling with wild penguins, canoeing in Wilderness, sleeping in a tree house full of giant termites and cuddling rescued elephants, but you get the idea.  Whatever you have on your bucket list, you can probably cross half of it off in South Africa.

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Wilderness National Park
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Knysna Elephant Park
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Cape Point
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Boulders Beach

5.  Going on safari is a game changer.

It was always at the very top of my own bucket list to go on an African safari and now that I’ve done it, I just want to do it over and over again.  I’m one of those reclusive weirdos who likes animals more than people, so to have the chance to observe the natural behaviours of these magnificent creatures in the wild really was a dream come true.  There was something so thrilling about laying in bed at night listening to the hippos in the watering hole outside, and then getting up at 5am to go on a game drive.  We were at the wonderful Chitwa Chitwa in Sabi Sands, a private game reserve that shares a fenceless border with Kruger.  We had three days packed with unforgettable moments, from seeing a lioness stalk a kudu in the dark to watching a young leopard surviving without her mother, from having gin and tonics in the bush as a herd of elephants casually strolled past to interrupting a pair of mating lions.  One night we even had a BBQ in the middle of nowhere surrounded by baying hyenas.  The only thing that could have made these experiences even better would have been David Attenborough narrating from the back seat.

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If you were ever in doubt as to whether South Africa is the destination for you, I hope I could shed some light on why this diverse, culturally rich and fascinating country should be on your list.  As for me, I’m still not ready to return to reality, so I’m off to plan our next adventure in Africa!

South Africa reading suggestions:

The Covenant by James Michener

The Long Walk to Freedom by Nelson Mandela

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