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indiancouple Dec 11th, 2015 08:22 AM

2015: South Africa for a fortnight
We returned a few weeks ago from a nice trip to South Africa. We were travelling with another couple friend of ours, with whom we have travelled earlier too. They had left all the planning to me, as everyone was aware that I was passionate about this part ! I always enjoy the planning as much as the travel itself.

We were all vegetarians, which limited our food choices somewhat, although it was never difficult to find vegetarian food anywhere. Both couples were in their late 50’s, and diehard independent travellers. We had selected November as the period of travel, as it is one of the better months to be visiting South Africa…not too warm and not very crowded.

Our broad itinerary was :
Cape Town : 3 days
Garden Route : 3 days
Sabi Sands : 2 days
Kruger National Park : 2 days
Panorama Route : 1 day

Will be posting the Trip Report in several instalments. Here goes the first.

Day 1 : Thursday, November 12th :
This was our travel day, as connections from India to South Africa are not the best. We had an early morning 4:15 am flight out of Mumbai to Abu Dhabi on Etihad, with onward connection to Johannesburg, and another connection thereon to Cape Town. We were ready for the ordeal. We had a 3-hour drive to Mumbai airport, where we reached by 12:30 am, and checked in. Pleasant surprise, as we got upgraded to Business Class for the first segment to Abu Dhabi. Guess they were slightly overbooked on Economy, and they bumped us up. Nice start to the journey.

The flight was on time. Wonderful flat beds. Had a round of drinks, a light breakfast, and slept for about 90 minutes. It was a short 2.5 hour flight to Abu Dhabi, and alas we could not get to sleep more. Freshened up at Abu Dhabi airport, and whiled away time as we had a long 4 hour wait till our next flight for Johannesburg.

It was a long flight to Johannesburg, over 8 hours. The flight was fairly empty, so we could all stretch out on 3 seats each. Managed 4-5 hours of sleep. As I was walking down the aircraft aisle, I tripped on someone’s outstretched leg, and fell down and hurt myself. Fortunately, no major damage. Average food and drinks on the Etihad flight. Reached Johannesburg on time at 4 pm local time.

We had another 5 hour wait at Johannesburg, before our flight left for Cape Town. We had to clear Customs and Immigration, and then just strolled around the airport terminal, which was very average. Had dinner at the airport foodcourt – some Thai food and pizzas, which was not bad at all. Boarded our flight at 9pm, and finally reached Cape Town at 11:30 pm local time. We were pooped by then.

Our B&B had sent a vehicle to pick us up. We reached our B&B Underberg Guest House on Tamboerskloof Road at about midnight. Checked into a lovely suite that we had booked, and crashed out. Entire day spent in transit.

indiancouple Dec 11th, 2015 08:51 AM

Day 2 : Friday, November 13th :
We slept very peacefully, and got up at about 7 am. Reported for breakfast at 8:30 am, and were greeted with a lovely spread of eggs, fruits, breads, mushrooms, cereals, tomatoes, juices and coffee. We had wonderful hosts in Anne & Bruce, who were super friendly and helpful. The property was lovely, very well maintained, and a short walk to city centre.

First discovery of the day was that Table Mountain was shrouded in clouds, and was ruled out for the day. Otherwise the weather was lovely, with highs of 22 C and lows of 13 C. We left at about 9:30 am, and ambled over to Company Gardens. We had a nice stroll through the well laid out park, where we fed pigeons and squirrels, and walked along the street to the side, where all the government buildings were located.

That done, we walked over to Long Street, and started the stroll down this interesting street. Nice shops everywhere, and we poked into most of them. Lovely architecture on the street, with very quaint buildings in old Dutch design. We made a stop at Greenmarket Square, where we allowed the ladies to wander through the pavement stalls to their heart’s content, while we men rested our legs. Then walked further on Long Street till we hit Strand Road.

Here we cut across to the Bo Kaap area, which was extremely picturesque. Very pretty and photogenic, with bright vibrant coloured buildings everywhere. Clicked lots of pictures, and that is what everyone was doing. Portions of the area felt a bit desolate, and not very comfortable. When we were done with our camera clicking, we took a taxi to the V&A Waterfront area. This was a great place to wander around, with a lovely atmosphere. We sat down at an Italian restaurant for lunch. Nice meal of salads, raviolis and lasagnes, with great South African wine.

We had pre-booked tickets online for the 3 pm Robben Island tour, where we reported next. Boarded the ferry for the island at about 2:45pm. It was a lovely ride on the water to Robben Island, and the views of Cape Town from the water are excellent. At Robben Island we were first taken around on a bus for an hour. The high point was a stop at the stone quarries, where even Nelson Mandela had done hard labour for many years, and the view of the cave in the quarry, which had served as the prisoners’ toilet while they broke stones in the quarry. It was wonderful to learn about the history of this place.

Then followed the prison tour on foot, where the guide was an ex-convict of the prison. His English was weak, and it was difficult to follow him. But the moving part was to see the cell where Nelson Mandela had been kept, where cameras clicked from every direction.

We finally returned to the boat. On the return ride, the sea was slightly rough, with large swells, and made for a bumpy ride. We were back at the Waterfront by 7 pm. We dined on some Thai food at the Wharf Foodcourt, had lovely ice-creams, and took a taxi back to our B&B. Went to bed early by 9:30pm, to shake off the exhaustion of the long air travel.

tripplanner001 Dec 11th, 2015 09:24 AM

Thanks for sharing, Indiancouple. I'm enjoying your report so far. Will be going to South Africa for the first time in April ourselves.

thursdaysd Dec 11th, 2015 04:31 PM

Signing on - always enjoy your reports, and South Africa is moving up my "places to visit" list.

Pity you didn't get upgraded on the second flight, that was an awfully long "day".

indiancouple Dec 11th, 2015 05:55 PM

Thanks tripplanner and thursdayd, for following the TR so early on. Next installment coming soon.

We did try our luck to get upgraded on the Abu Dhabi - Joburg sector; went to Etihad counter and told them that we had been spoilt by the upgrade in the first sector and needed one in the next sector too ! Did not work.

Craig Dec 12th, 2015 07:52 AM

Looking forward to more - we are doing a similar trip in February.

indiancouple Dec 12th, 2015 09:29 AM

Thanks Craig. Next installments coming up in minutes !

indiancouple Dec 12th, 2015 09:37 AM

Day 3 : Saturday, November 14th :

We were all up by 6 am, and felt properly rested for a change. We tiptoed out of the room onto the street in our pyjamas, and were delighted to see the Table Mountain in full view, with not a speck of cloud in sight.

We had an early breakfast at 7:30am, as we wanted to leave early for the Table Mountain. We had been told that early mornings and late evenings were best for the Table Mountain, and that one should rush up whenever it was clear, as there was no telling when the clouds would roll in. We were in a taxi and on our way by 8:15 am. We had already purchased online tickets in advance, which were valid for 7 days. We reached the Cable car base station at 8:30 am. The lines were short at this hour, and we reached the top by 9 am.

It was a lovely clear day, and the views from the top were spectacular. There is a nice circular walkway at the top, which we took, and roamed around for over an hour. We enjoyed every bit of it, and soaked in the views from all sides and angles. Then, a little after 10am, we came down, and took a taxi to downtown, to our car rental office, where we had pre-booked an automatic vehicle. Got a brand new VW Polo sedan, and drove off.

We first went to our B&B nearby, and freshened up. Then off to the Old Biscuit Mill. Saturday is the day to go here, and the place was really crowded. However, there were many “parking boys” who helped us get suitable parking, and we were inside by noon. We were taken back by the spectacle that we saw. The atmosphere was fabulous everywhere inside. Ladies went berserk looking up all the cute shops and temporary stalls for shopping, while we men sat down for a round of beer.

When the ladies tired out doing window shopping, we went over to the food section, and went crazy deciding as to which “designer food” to try. Everything was fresh and cooked in a novel way, which looked very appealing. We started out with some pureed fruits and veggies served on a paper boat, which was excellent. Next for some fresh sushi, which was truly divine. Then a Lebanese dish with lots of couscous in it, which was quite nice. Next some Jalapeno cheese poppers which were dynamite and mouth-watering good ! Freshly made caramelized nuts of all kinds, and juice combos to die for. How much could one eat after all, and this was a very small sample of the variety which was on offer.

Finally, at about 2 pm, we left with a heavy heart. I had read various conflicting reports about the Old Biscuit Mill, and many posters on travel sites had discouraged me from going there (although there were an equal number of rave reviews). In my opinion, it was a high point of our Cape Town visit, and if anyone is in Cape Town on a Saturday, it would be most unwise to skip the Old Biscuit Mill. Very enjoyable indeed.

We drove to Stellenbosch, and as we approached the town, I must say the scenery and landscape was stunningly beautiful. In fact, too pretty for words. We made it to the Tokara winery by 3:15 pm, but they had just closed their tasting room a few minutes earlier. Too bad.

Nearby was the Dellaire Graff winery, and as we entered the gates, we knew we were somewhere special. The landscaping of the estate was exquisite. The views as we drove in were unbelievable, and the whole place had a touch of class about it.

We sat in their lovely tasting room with gorgeous views, and tried a selection of their Red wines – the Merlot, the Botmaskop, and their Port Vintage. Loved all three of them ! I bought a bottle each of the Merlot and the Port, and I sip a glass of their Port as I write this TR right now ! Delicious stuff.

We next drove into Stellenbosch town, and wandered through many cute craft shops. We bought various African cushion covers, and some local art. Had coffee somewhere. Very cute town, worth spending some time in. The jacaranda trees were in full bloom everywhere, and they made the place look even prettier. I must say I fell in love with Stellenbosch.

At about 5:30 pm we drove off to Franshoek, and parked on the Main Street, near all the restaurants. Walked up and down, to see what gastronomic delights were on offer. We settled on a French restaurant, aptly called “French Connection”, which seemed very popular, and had decent veg choices. The place was full, and it was difficult to secure a table. But the food was divine. We had Linguini, Mushrooms, Risotto, Aubergines, and some Chickpeas curry, which we all shared. Everything was extremely well cooked, and the Franshoek Red Cabernet Shiraz wine was an excellent complement.

We finally left at about 8 pm, and reached back at Cape Town by 9:15 pm. Went to bed by 11 pm, slowly reminiscing about the day, which had been a fabulous one, right from the start.

tripplanner001 Dec 12th, 2015 09:56 AM

Putting Old Biscuit Mill on our list.

Which did you like more: Stellenbosch or Franschhoek? We're leaning towards Franschhoek for our trip because of the nearby hiking trails.

indiancouple Dec 12th, 2015 10:05 AM

Day 4 : Sunday, November 15th :

Got up to another good weather day, with mild clouds. Had a leisurely breakfast, and were off for Cape peninsula by 8:45 am. Our host advised us to drive the loop in the direction opposite to what most people and tour buses take, so that we could avoid road traffic. Very sound advice.

Our first stop was Camps Bay, which is a neighbourhood of Cape Town itself. Lovely section of town, with a nice beach, where we strolled for a bit. Then over to Hout Bay, where we found two different Sunday markets in progress. One was indoors, in a large covered shed, selling all kinds of souvenirs and local art. The other was outdoors, a little more classy, with some quality stuff on offer. Ladies had a field day with shopping at both markets, and it was difficult to pull them away.

As we drove on towards the Cape Point, we were suddenly on Chapman’s Peak Drive, which more than lived up to its hype. It was truly a majestic drive with sublime beauty. Excellent while it lasted.

As we reached the entrance of the Cape Point National Park, there was a long queue of cars waiting to go in. There was some ridiculous paperwork to be filled, which took for ever, followed by a stiff fee of ZAR 125 per person. Just could not understand the purpose of the stupid forms that everyone had to fill out. Took almost 45-60 min to get past the gate. We drove straight to the Cape Point Lighthouse. We were not up for the uphill walk, so we bought return tickets on the furnicular, and took the gentle ride up. On reaching there, we still had to negotiate a lot of steps before we reached the top of the lighthouse. Oh, it was so worth it !

One of the high points of this entire trip – to be at Cape Point on a lovely warm and clear day, and to enjoy the vistas on all sides. Took a while to have our heart’s fill, and we finally came down on the furnicular at 2:30 pm. From the carpark, the ladies decided to take the walking track to the Cape of Good Hope. We men drove down, and waited in the carpark below, while the ladies worked their way on foot. They took an hour, and we all clicked the mandatory pictures before the sign which announced that we were at the Cape of Good Hope ! Finally, time to leave.

Reached Simon’s Town at about 4:15 pm, and had a late “lunch” at a harbourside restaurant. The food was very good, and the portions were huge. We were hungry, and enjoyed our food and the beers. Then we went over to nearby Boulders Beach, where we went in to see the penguins. Hundreds of them, all waddling about. Very cute.

As we proceeded driving, we crossed Kalk Bay, but could not stop due to some construction going on. We had hoped to visit the Kirstenbosch Botanical Gardens during the return, but it was too late for that. So we skipped that, and drove straight to the top of Signal Hill, making it there at 7:15 pm, just before sunset. Watched a beautiful sunset a few minutes later, and returned to our B&B. Helped ourselves to some drinks at the honesty bar, feasted on some homemade snacks that we were carrying, and went to bed. There was no room for dinner, having finished lunch at about 5 pm !

We were done with Cape Town, as we were due to leave the next morning. Cape Town had been excellent, and we felt sad it was over.

indiancouple Dec 12th, 2015 10:09 AM

tripplanner, I think we liked Stellenbosch much more, but we were not looking for hiking trails. The scenery around Stellenbosch is much prettier, and the town has a lot of cute art and craft shops. Franshoek is known for its restaurants and food. Both have great wineries. So I guess it really depends upon what you are looking for.

tripplanner001 Dec 12th, 2015 11:32 AM

Thanks for the feedback, Indiancouple. The Cape Peninsula tour sounds perfect.

indiancouple Dec 13th, 2015 04:10 AM

Day 5 : Monday, November 16th :

We had a really long day ahead of us, so we were up early. Loaded our luggage in the car, completed the check-out formalities, and had an early breakfast at 7:30 am. By 8 am we were on our way.

We had a long drive to Worcester. On recommendation of some bloggers, we avoided taking the tunnel enroute, and took the slightly longer route via Du Toits Kloof Pass, which was very scenic, and worth the extra 11 km of driving. From Worcester, we were on the scenic Route 62 all the way to Oudtshoorn. First stop was for coffee at Robertson, at “Strictly Coffee” café.

The drive from Robertson to Montagu and beyond was truly beautiful, apparently the longest wine trail in the world. After crossing Barrydale, we kept a lookout for a weird bar which had been recommended in guidebooks, called “Ronnie’s Sex Shop” – a very unusual name for a bar ! We found it quite some distance away, and made a stop for beer. The bar is strewn with thousands of ladies’ bras handing from above, and makes for a bizarre sight. We asked the wily owner as to how he had built up such a collection, and his response was : “Whenever a lady walks in, I just say – PLEASE, and she obliges “ !!!

We were carrying a lot of homemade foodstuffs with us, and we kept munching them in the car, avoiding unnecessary stops. We finally reached Oudtshoorn and headed straight for the Cango Caves, making it just in time to catch their 3 pm tour. Although we had seen several stalactite & stalagmite caves earlier, I must say that this tour was excellent, with a super guide whose English was impeccable and easy to follow. I liked the fact that they had avoided using multi-coloured artificial lighting, and the place looked far more natural than others.

From here we went to the Cango Ostrich Farm nearby, and caught their 4:30 pm tour. This was also great fun, and very well conducted. You could sit on the back of an ostrich, even ride them if you were courageous enough, and feed multiple ostriches with your hands. An informative and uniquely enjoyable experience.

From here we started our drive to Knysna, across the Outeniqua Pass. This drive was even better than R 62, and the vista points along the way were breathtaking, where we made repeated stops. We crossed the picture postcard town of George, and reached Knysna by 7:30 pm. Checked into our B&B, The Waterfront Lodge, which was immaculate and tastefully adorned.

Drove a short distance to the Knysna Quays for dinner, where we selected the Italian restaurant “Caffé Maria”, which seemed the most crowded establishment. Good choice, as the food was super, and we all loved our meal. Drove back to the B&B and went to bed, after a really long driving day.

indiancouple Dec 13th, 2015 04:36 AM

Day 6 : Tuesday, November 17th :

By now we had become habituated to getting up early and going to bed early. We were up early, and went for a short stroll towards the back of the property, to the Knysna Lagoon and a private jetty. The B&B was extremely well maintained, and its backgardens were immaculate.

Breakfast time was a short window from 8am to 9:30 am. We were there at 8 am sharp, but so were all the other guests. They were woefully understaffed to serve hot breakfast to so many people, and we had to wait over an hour for our orders to be taken and to be served. Giving this feedback to the hosts politely was of no avail, as they did not think it was a problem.

We left at 9:30 am for the famed “Garden Route” drive eastwards. Drove past Plettenberg Bay, and made a detour to Nature’s Valley on R 102. Decent place, but nothing over the top. We were bored soon, and moved on.

Continued driving on the N2 to Tsitsikamma National Park. We had expected the drive to be pretty, with the coastline visible everywhere (like the Highway 1 in California, or the Great Ocean Road outside Melbourne). But we were disappointed, as nothing but trees were visible on both sides of the road all the way. The Garden Route is just a fanciful name to a very ordinary drive, which can be found anywhere on the planet. At the entry to the Tsitsikamma National Park, once again there was a long 45 minute wait to get in, with stupid paperwork and red-tape, which was extremely annoying.

The main parking lot near the restaurant was apparently full, so we were asked to park on the roadside, about a kilometre earlier, and walk. On reaching the restaurant, we undertook the walk all the way to Storms River Mouth, with its two suspension bridges. It was nice and scenic, but again nowhere near the hype we had expected. We had not come halfway across the world to see fairly ordinary stuff. Since this was supposed to be one of the high points of the Garden Route, we were rather underwhelmed.

We walked back to the restaurant, had lunch, and walked back to our car. On the return journey we stopped at Plettenberg Bay and strolled around. We were getting bored with whatever was there to see, and we headed back to Knysna, reaching there at 5 pm. We had booked a sunset cruise on the Knysna Lagoon for the evening, but it had started raining heavily. We had our booking changed to the next morning’s tour of Featherbed Nature Reserve, as there was no point in taking a sunset cruise in pounding rain.

We briefly wandered around the shops at Knysna Quays, then had a repeat dinner at Caffe Maria, and returned home. It had been a boring day for us. We now understood that the “Garden Route” has nothing scenic about it really – there are lots of places for adventure activities like bungee jumping, shark cage diving, walking trails etc. If you are interested in those things, it is probably a good place. But if you are looking for scenic drives and vistas, this is the wrong place to be in. Very misleading title.

indiancouple Dec 13th, 2015 05:31 AM

Day 7 : Wednesday, November 18th :

We were ready early, and brought our bags downstairs. We made sure that we were the first to enter the breakfast room at 8 am, and we were served promptly today ! We completed the check-out process, and left our bags at the reception, to be picked up later.

We left at 9 am, and drove straight to the Knysna Heads (East Heads). The views were gorgeous; certainly beat the view at Storms River Mouth the previous day. We wanted to linger around for longer, but we were getting late for our Featherbed Nature Tour, so we had to speed back to the Lagoon, and board our boat at the Featherbed office.

What followed was a lovely 30 minute boat ride to the Featherbed Nature Reserve, on the West Head of Knysna. The views of Knysna Heads from the water was spectacular in itself. On reaching the jetty at Featherbed, we were transferred onto tractor trailers, which drove us up to the top, with an informative commentary enroute. The views from the top were super, and from now on we started a gentle downhill walk of slightly over 2 km. They supplied strong walking sticks to help us, which were very useful. It was a very pleasant walk, with excellent vista points on the way, first at Needle Point, and then at Ocean Cove, finally terminating back at the jetty. I must say I thoroughly enjoyed the walk and the views.

Had some super chilled beer at the jetty, followed by a good lunch, which was part of the tour. Then again the lovely boat ride back, returning us at Knysna at 2 pm. We allowed the ladies to poke around the Knysna shops for an hour, after which we returned to our B&B, picked up our bags, and headed off to George. We filled up fuel at George, and drove to the airport. Returned the car, had some snacks at the Wimpy’s airport restaurant, and boarded the 6:10 pm flight to Johannesburg.

At Johannesburg, we boarded the hotel shuttle at the airport, and promptly reached the Premier Hotel, where we were spending the night. We had selected a hotel very close to the airport, and it was fairly decent. The wi-fi was not working properly that night, which caused some problems. We received a call from our daughter in the US, to wish us, as today was our wedding anniversary. We had a light dinner at the hotel restaurant, and retired to bed.

indiancouple Dec 13th, 2015 05:33 AM

I may be travelling on work the next 3 days, so the remaining installments of the TR may follow a few days later.

tripplanner001 Dec 13th, 2015 07:00 AM

Sorry that the Garden Route did not turn out better than you expected. We were debating whether or not to include it on our trip, but given that we don't drive and wanted more time on safari, we put it off for our first trip.

thursdaysd Dec 13th, 2015 07:40 AM

Congratulations on the anniversary!

Thanks for the warning about the Garden Route.

Craig Dec 14th, 2015 02:18 PM

We will be traveling from Franschhoek to Kynsna via R62, stopping at Cango Wildlife Ranch (my wife wants to pet cheetahs). Is there any point in detouring to Mossel Bay and taking the Garden Route from there, rather than driving directly to Knysna?

Glad you liked Featherbed - that's on our list.

Also, I believe the restaurant in Kynsna is Caffe Mario, not Caffe Maria - please confirm - the Mario is also on our list...

christabir Dec 14th, 2015 05:49 PM

Every time we pet a cheetah, it guarantees their death by canned hunting and more cheetahs bred to also be used for petting and then sold for canned hunting. Please do not pet cheetah, walk with lions or ride elephants. All human/animal interaction results in unnecessary death and/or cruelty. If we tourists stop doing it, it will stop.

I'm enjoying your report. Looking forward to more.

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