Africa is a big continent. I knew that, but you don’t get a handle on the size until two hours into the flight from Heathrow when – having crossed the English Channel, flown the length of France and zipped across the Mediterranean sea at 500mph in your Virgin Atlantic A340-600 – the screen in front of you informs you that you have entered African airspace, and there are another nine hours until you reach Cape Town.
We fly overnight, a gentle upgrade to Premium Economy taking the sting out of the long flight, screaming south into the night. Dawn rises at 40,000 feet and at 4am over Botswana; only another six hours to go.
This trip is my partner Andrea’s lifelong dream and when better to turn it into reality than in celebration of her half-century? She planned it down to the last detail: hire car, four nights in Cape Town, then head east and join the Garden Route along the south coast.
Friend’s comments varied from “The most beautiful country I’ve ever been to” to “You’re not driving are you? Lock the car doors and never stop at a red light!”
South Africa has a strong reputation, good and bad. Nervous? Let’s just say that we’re not disappointed to discover that our hire car is a silver Toyota Corolla, a vehicle so anonymous that you could lose it in an empty car park.
Driving out from the airport, heading for Cape Town, we spy townships left and right, immense ranges of tightly packed shacks, incongruously dotted with satellite dishes. The peaceful villa tucked into the quiet suburbs of the city that is to be our home has six-feet-high walls topped with spikes and bars on the windows.
Signs confirm links to armed response companies (surely the business to have in Cape Town?). But also, no one actually is running red lights and there are plenty of expensive open-top cars cruising with the roof down.
Do I think the poverty and the underlying threat should stop you visiting, either ethically or practically?
In a word, no, and for two reasons. Tourism is big business here and any foreign cash input has to be positive for the area and its inhabitants. And Cape Town is an absolutely stunning destination.
Boulders Beach and Table Mountain
Boulders Beach is first on the agenda, an hour’s drive south over the mountains to the east shoreline. It’s staggeringly beautiful, huge slabs of rock surrounding smooth white sand lapped by turquoise sea.
What makes this area particularly fascinating are the African penguins. You can get quite close to them, while they carry on their day, nonplussed. We are so entranced by the place it’s hard to tear ourselves away.
Next day the wind has dropped and there’s not a cloud in the sky. Perfect for a visit to the roof of South Africa: Table Mountain. You can drive about halfway up the ascent, park, and take a cable car that seems to rise almost vertically from base station to summit.
The view across Cape Town from 3,500 feet above sea level is spectacular. At one tenth the cruising altitude of a commercial jet, the incredible surrounding topography comes thick and fast. You could easily spend an afternoon up here and we do exactly that.
Cape Point (and a better alternative)
Referring to Cape Point, the following day’s destination, as ‘rather windy’ is like calling the African continent ‘quite big’. A funicular railway then an easy ten-minute climb gains you access to the peak and a viewing platform with amazing views of the rocky coastline.
But there’s no doubt you’re on the tourist trail, with car parks full of coaches, so take a tip from me: head back out along the winding road, and bear left after about a mile toward the Cape of Good Hope, the most south-westerly point of Africa.
You have to get to the summit the hard way here, along well-trodden paths and rickety wooden steps. It’s worth it, though: with no railings, let alone gift shops, you gaze across an unspoilt view of miles of deep blue sea, beneath clear azure skies, pounding the rugged coastline in a white slash of broken foam.
With the wind buffeting you and the world stretching into the distance forever, I’ve never felt closer to nature and the elements.
Cape Town to Oudtshoorn
After leaving Cape Town we make an overnight stop in Stellenbosch, an hour away; a pretty university town of tree-lined streets and pavement culture. It’s a different feel, the malevolent undercurrent gone.
From there, we transit to Oudtshoorn, 400km from Cape Town. The changing landscapes make the six-hour drive feel as if we’re passing through what feels like a plethora of countries from Swiss Alps to the Australian Outback. The scenery is spectacular and the driving easy.
I note how Anglicised South Africa is. Apart from driving on the ‘correct’ side of the road all the signposts are in English and most of the road signs are familiar. Ironically, this huge land mass in the southern hemisphere, 6,000 miles from the UK, feels less foreign than France.
After a relaxing weekend on an ostrich farm we’re back in the car, air con battling temperatures in the high thirties. We’re heading east and south, dipping down toward the coast along Route 62 across typical ‘multi-country’ Africa, from desert (with added zebra content) through mountains and on to the Garden Route proper.
The landscape switches from rich tans and browns to lush verdant greens and the exterior temperature gauge drops from a scorching high thirties to a more palatable mid-20s.
Plettenberg Bay and Robberg Nature Reserve
At Plattenberg Bay on Sunday afternoon the beach is packed with families, kids playing happily in the surf, colourful tripper boats pulled up above the high-water mark. This is the holiday destination of Johannesburg’s rich and famous, teeming in December and quieter in late January.
The following day we head for Robberg Nature Reserve, a wild and desolate outcrop of rocks and dunes teaming with wildlife. Literally, as it turns out: the ground is carpeted with ants like something from an Indiana Jones film.
The views back toward Plettenburg are spectacular, though, and steep steps carved into the rock eventually lead us breathlessly to directly over a large seal colony at the base of the cliffs upon which we’re standing.
Seal life seems to consist of ten per cent fishing, 30 per cent fooling about in the water and 60 per cent lying on the rocks snoozing. It doesn’t seem a bad existence to me.
After a few days here, we embark on the last leg to the grand finale: Kariega Game Reserve. The 300-kilometre trek takes about four hours and the, as usual, varied terrain takes in, oddly, a section with a striking resemblance to Norfolk.
We arrive mid-afternoon. Our accommodation on the reserve is a spacious two-bedroomed wooden lodge with grand views out across the valley. After inspecting, unpacking and eating, we head out on to our first safari drive. But that’s another story… (Next week: read Nick’s safari guide.)