Africa Abounds in Spectacular Scenery and Wildlife

Like the old MGM movie mascot, a lion parades in front of you and growls as a signal to his mate in the African bush. Giraffes poke their heads atop of trees and pluck off leaves to eat and a long and lean leopard chases after his prey. A colony of deer forage for food. All of these scenes are in South Africa awaiting visitors to this cosmopolitan country that offers a variety of experiences in addition to the wildlife.

Leopard | Larger
Giraffes | Larger
Deer family
Deer family | Larger

But let's start with the wildlife and the way I experienced it. I stayed at Mala Mala Game Reserve located adjacent to Kruger National Park. The Reserve provides unimpeded access to wildlife and members of the Big Five: lions, leopards, buffalo, rhinoceros and elephants can be viewed on a daily basis.

The day at Mala Mala begins with a hearty breakfast and is followed by a game drive. Guests at Mala Mala board jeeps with a maximum of six passengers and are guided by an experienced rangers who know where to find wildlife and are familiar with all aspects of bush ecology. 

Jeep at Mala Mala
Jeep at Mala Mala | Larger

Passengers get as close as possible with the inhabitants of the African bush until lunchtime. A luncheon feast of African special dishes is served to guests on the patio overlooking the luscious landscape of Mala Mala. A second game drive is in the evening. The resort also offers massages to guests in between the drives, provides daily laundry service and luxurious accommodations for guests. Dinner follows the afternoon game drive and is followed by a sundowner ceremony with refreshments as the sun sets.

Guest room at Mala Mala
Guest room at Mala Mala | Larger

Walking tours on the reserve give guests a chance to see several varieties of birds including the martial eagle and the ground hornbill.

A visit to the African bush is what draws tourists to South Africa, but the trip to the Bush was just one of many highlights on my visit.

I flew into Johannesburg, the main gateway from America to South Africa. The posh DaVinci Hotel was a welcoming sight after the long flight from New York. The DaVinci is located on Nelson Mandela Square with many shops and restaurants. I enjoyed dinner at Trumps which serves up American style plates, such as steaks and burgers as well as yummy desserts. The hotel has many amenities including a spa, infinity swimming pool, gym and restaurant.

Nelson Mandela Square
Nelson Mandela Square | Larger

Nelson Mandela, the first democratically elected president of South Africa in 1994 and winner of the Nobel Peace Prize, passed away in 2013. He is one of most beloved rulers of the African nation and a potent symbol of the resistance to the anti-apartheid movement in the nation. He was imprisoned on Robben Island for his resistance to the Apartheid government for 20 years and released from prison in 1990. His presence is felt throughout the country and there are several monuments in his honor. Visitors stand in long lines to visit his modest former home in Soweto. While I was in Soweto, I enjoyed a tasty meal at Sakhumzi. The restaurant has outside tables for a nice view of the area, great for people watching as well as for the tasty native dishes.

In front of Mandela's home in Soweto
In front of Mandela's home in Soweto

The Apartheid Museum is a must to enhance a visitors understanding of South Africa and the struggles that the people had before the country become a democracy. It was a 20-minute ride from Johannesburg and worth the trip. The museum takes visitors on a journey beginning with segregation, the basis of the apartheid period and through the history of the pre-apartheid era and the liberation of the country. The exhibits are innovative using multi-sensory visuals and are a lesson in understanding freedom and equality.

Located about an hour from Johannesburg is Bill Harrop's Balloon Safari. Weather permitting this experience is not to be missed! Arriving at sunrise, balloons are inflated and take a maximum of four passengers for a magical ride above Johannesburg's northern suburbs. The ride is punctuated by incredible scenery and the sounds of birds and animals below. Bill Harrop has been manning the balloon ride since 1981 and is as much a show as the scenery. Following the champagne toast at touchdown, passengers enjoy a gourmet South African bountiful buffet breakfast.

Balloons | Larger
Bill Harrop and Phyllis
Bill Harrop and Phyllis | Larger

History buffs and travelers wishing to learn more about the world and the continent of Africa, will certainly enjoy a day visiting The Cradle of Human Kind, declared a World Heritage Site in 1999 because of the its exceptional contribution to the understanding of the history of humanity spanning a period of more than three million years. The Cradle is about an hour's drive from Johannesburg and in the area of Bill Harrop's Balloon Safari.

There are 15 major fossil sites in the Cradle. The Sterkfontein Caves is the most well known and is where the hominid fossils Mrs. Ples and Little Foot were discovered. Visitors can also take a guided tour of the caves and take a boat ride through history at the Cradle exhibit. The complex also includes a top floor restaurant with a yummy buffet of exceptional African cuisine and spectacular views of the area. The Maropeng Hotel at the site is available for visitors that want to stay overnight. Specialized tours supervised by a scientist can be arranged on request.

Lion Park in Gauteng ia about 30 minutes from Johannesburg. It invites visitors to view lions and leopards and a variety of African animals in their habitats. Guests drive through the park in enclosed vans and visitors can also walk in marked areas. Strolling the park are giraffes. The park also offers the unique opportunity to pet baby cubs. Of course, the cubs are manned by experienced attendants.

Petting a lion cub
Petting a lion cub | Larger

I also had the opportunity to get up close and personal with an elephant on my trip at the Elephant Sanctuary, about an hour's ride from Johannesburg. Here, the sanctuary nurses ailing elephants and allows guests to ride them as well as touch and feel them. Visitors are allowed to get in a ring with them just like being in a circus show. Three tours are offered daily and an overnight lodge accommodates guests adjoining the elephant stables.

Phyllis with an elephant
Phyllis with an elephant

Next, I was off to Capetown, perhaps one of the most picturesque cities in the world. Located at the southwestern tip of Africa, it is uniquely nestled between Robben Island and Table Mountain. Home to about 3.6 million people, Table Mountain resides over the city and the sea with a cable car that takes visitors to the top of the mountain. Each rotating car takes 65 visitors to the top of the mountain where they can walk among the clouds. On a clear day you can see for miles.

View from Table Mountain
View from Table Mountain | Larger

There is also a restaurant at the top which is open for breakfast and lunch and a souvenir shop. The view of the city below is spectacular, but the lines are long for this attraction. It is best to reserve tickets ahead of time.

I enjoyed the view of Table Mountain and of magnificent yachts at Cape Grace, an elegant hotel in the heart of Cape Town. The hotel was walking distance to the ferry, which takes tourists and locals to Robben Island where Nelson Mandela and other political prisoners were incarcerated for many years during the Appartheid. A former prisoner takes visitors for a tour of the prison. The excursion to Robben Island is also a popular attraction, so advance purchase of tickets is advised. Plan a day to do the ferry boat and tour of the island.

Phyllis at Cape of Good Hope
Phyllis at Cape of Good Hope | Larger

Table Mountain National Park is another natural wonder in South Africa. The Park with its diverse habitats, ranging from mountain tops to the sea and the Cape of Good Hope at the apex, is situated at the junction of the Atlantic and Indian Oceans. Perfect for bird, game and whale watching, there are more than 250 species of birds, 1,1100 species of indigenous plants and small animals in the park. The park has many walking and hiking trails. For those that can't make the climb, a tram takes visitors to the top. There are levels that can provide a respite from the climb. A picturesque Two Oceans Restaurant is located on the second level for dining and relaxing half way up the mountain.

My favorite experience at Table Mountain National Park was Boulders. Nestled in a sheltered cove between Simon's town and Cape Point, Boulders has a thriving colony of African Penguins. From just two breeding pairs in 1982, the colony has grown to about to 2,200 in recent years. The most popular recreational spot is Boulders Beach, but the penguins can best be viewed from Foxy Beach, where boardwalks take visitors within a few feet of the birds.

Phyllis and penguins
Phyllis and penguins | Larger

For a day of relaxing, I recommend a visit to the Winelands with a stop at one of the wineries. The Waterford Wine Estate is a good choice. Here, I enjoyed ar a chocolate and wine pairing that was sweet and savory.

Wine pairings at Waterford Estate
Wine pairings at Waterford Estate

Another optional tour I enjoyed was the whale watching cruise at the Hermanus New Harbor. An experienced skipper and whale specialist guides passengers on the two hour cruise to just the right place to see these magnificent mammals.

How to get there. South African Airways provides direct service to Johannesburg from JFK and Washington Dulles. The flight is about 15 hours. Traveling in business class, I took pleasure in noticing that the seats reclined flat. The comfy plush comforters and pillows I received were another amenity that enabled me to rest prior to my visit to the amazing country of South Africa.

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