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South Africa Solo Summer Sojourn - Ten Days in January 2013

South Africa Solo Summer Sojourn - Ten Days in January 2013

Old Jan 23rd, 2013, 02:04 PM
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South Africa Solo Summer Sojourn - Ten Days in January 2013

So after a whirlwind 16 hour flight and zombie-like day of work upon landing, I’m starting my South Africa trip report! It’s my first for Fodor’s, and it’s really in appreciation of all the posters that field questions, give advice, and report exhaustively that help fellow travelers brainstorm new ideas and add so much value. Here’s hoping I can contribute to that as well. First, the overview, so you can decide if you want to continue reading as I post over the next few days.

After spending 10 days solo in South Africa, I can say that for me, South Africa was one of the most stimulating, emotionally and intellectually challenging, and absolutely gorgeous places I’ve ever been. My quick trip hit most of the tourist highlights, which whet my appetite to return and experience new and different aspects of the country. It was too short a trip to get to know South Africa well, but it was a great length of time to be completely captivated and intrigued by the beauty of its landscapes, people, and way of life. In short, of the 17 countries I’ve now visited, South Africa has moved to my very short list of countries I will definitely plan to return to, and often. (That short list is Japan, South Africa, and Morocco).

I’m a value-oriented traveler in terms of my personal perceived value for money, and because I’m also happen to be female, I tend to eschew backpacker-style places in favor of surroundings with a bit more security when I’m by myself. I like a bit of luxury and comfort and don't mind (and sometimes embrace) a splurge, but I'm also pretty strict with budgeting and like to balance my splurges with more frugal choices: this also helps (I find) with getting a wider variety of perspectives.

While I don’t always agree that demographic information can change the way one views a place (and by contrast, how said place views you), but in the case of this trip, there are two aspects of my traveler background that definitely influenced my experiences and interactions with people:

1. I’m 26 years old, traveling alone. I found that during the time I was visiting, there weren’t many younger travelers about. There were plenty of families, especially domestic families and Brazilian families, and there were a good amount of couples and of course tour groups, but most couples were in their mid-thirties or forties, and the tour groups ranged from mid-thirties to mid-seventies. This ended up making it easier to interact with local South Africans, who were intrigued as to my solo status and genuinely wanted to know why I chose to come alone. It was a great conversation starter and often led to deeper and more interesting discussions.

2. I TWB. Or travel while black (in my case brown would be more accurate). Being black/brown does not often impact my travels negatively, but it does occasionally add an interesting element in addition to my foreign, American status. (For example, I’ve given an earful of irritated Arabic to a guy in Jordan who referred to a passing African man as ‘abd or slave, and was quite surprised and a bit ashamed when he discovered my father was black. In the same country, I’ve been warmly welcomed by various individuals who did not believe I was American and insisted I had an Egyptian father, so we were Arab cousins and family.) In South Africa, I was often mistaken for a local of sorts, and sometimes even speaking still did not settle my national identity. Questions would inevitably lead to my racial background, which usually invoked a positive response of “like Obama!” It especially opened up some really interesting conversations with South Africans of all shades and skin tones about race and identity, which I’ll definitely discuss in my report.

I accumulated just over 80,000 miles with Emirates after living in Dubai for two years. My miles were set to expire in February 2013, so back in early June 2012; I started scouring Emirates and partner airlines for the right reward flight. South African Airways offered roundtrip economy flights from New York to all locations in South Africa for 80,000 miles, and with the help of a very patient and kind Emirates reservations agent, I booked my flights.

I used a ton of internet collating of articles, activities, and trip ideas (from numerous travel magazines, Lonely Planet’s Thorn Tree, the Fodor’s forums, tour operators from OAT and Intrepid to Abercrombie & Kent, and various blogs and websites) to get a sense of what kind of itinerary would be easy to execute in 10 days without completely wearing me down and not giving me enough time to dive in. I finally settled on what seemed to be the tourism “greatest hits” of South Africa, which did appeal to various interests of mine.

Once I settled on Cape Town, the winelands, and safari as my rough itinerary, I decided I wanted to do the Cape Town portion completely independently and ad hoc as I went, but for the winelands and safari, I went with a tour company to build in the air and land transfers and pay upfront. I worked with Devon from Premier Tours in Philadelphia who was extremely professional, had great advice, and worked tirelessly with me on several different itinerary options until we came up with the right one. My final itinerary looked like:

-Cape Town – 4 nights –accommodations: Blackheath Lodge

-Stellenbosch – 2 nights – accommodations: River Manor Hotel & Spa

-Sabi Sands Game Reserve – 3 nights – accommodations: Elephant Plains

I’m a big fan of guidebooks, even with the obsessive internet research I do. I really like the feel of the books in my hand, and for practical things like maps, timetables, basic phone numbers etc, they’re very good on the ground tools as well. I researched with Lonely Planet Southern Africa, Frommer’s South Africa, and Rough Guide to South Africa, but ultimately only took the Rough Guide with me. I actually preferred their maps to Lonely Planet’s, and they had great content for on the ground. Frommer’s was excellent for preplanning and some accommodation comparisons. I didn’t use Lonely Planet much, found it slightly impersonal and information on activities and sights too brief, which is odd considering that I usually quite enjoy Lonely Planet guides.

Because I spent a lot of time talking to South Africans, I made sure to ask almost every person what the one place was that they would travel to for a domestic vacation. With time to kill in the Johannesburg airport (easily filled by the quirky shops, food court, and bookstore) I started thinking about a return trip and the places I’d want to go with a little bit more time. I’d definitely go back to Cape Town: it had such a fabulous vibe. People readily embraced the surrounding nature, sea, and sun and were accordingly welcoming, mellow, active, and generally fun. I’d also self-drive (but I wouldn't be the driver, see next paragraph) the Garden Route to Port Elizabeth. Then I would absolutely go to Phinda Private Game Reserve for a good contrast with the Sabi Sands experience (and an opportunity to see cheetahs in the wild), and follow that up with some time in the St Lucia Wetlands area and snorkel/dive in Sodwana Bay. Stop through Durban to the Drakensberg, then head to Johannesburg to get its full-on urban experience and visit the Apartheid museum (my biggest regret on my current trip). Additional time in Kruger or Swaziland to potentially add on.

But most importantly, I wouldn't go back alone. There were so many moments on this trip in which I really wanted to share places, people, and experiences with various loved ones, family and friends. (And since I do not drive at all, someone else can be the designated driver on the Garden Route!)

I would absolutely return to South Africa, and make it a priority to go back as soon as possible, but I'd require a co-traveler for the return journey. I felt an acute sense of longing for company on this trip, which I hadn't felt on solo travels through Japan or Indonesia, and it wasn't primarily out of loneliness, but out of wanting to bounce the thoughts and ideas that came up off of my boyfriend or sister or mother or friend. South Africa was so intellectually stimulating as well as a physical treat, and I really wanted someone to share the experience with and then later discuss perspectives. But maybe I wouldn't have gotten to have the conversations I had with other travelers and locals if I had indeed had company... so this trip report will be a sort of catharsis and working through that build up of thoughts and experiences.

It might turn out to be a bit free-consciousness style, although I will keep everything outlined by day so it will be easy to follow. Being solo afforded a good amount of time to reflect and keep a journal, which actually ended up being a series of notes and thoughts in two different notebooks and my phone.

I probably won’t comment on everything I ate, but will give general ideas about food and single out specific dishes and establishments where necessary. It’ll be a bit freewheeling, with a lot of my own reflections on things in addition to actual events and activities.
thusspakezara is offline  
Old Jan 23rd, 2013, 06:22 PM
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Excellent! Can't wait!
KathBC is offline  
Old Jan 26th, 2013, 03:59 PM
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Welcome to the board. Looking forward to reading your day by day account.
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Old Jan 28th, 2013, 02:21 AM
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What a wonderful review of our beautiful land.
Being South African http://fb.me/1n8O87R1f
ClaireSaunders is offline  
Old Jan 29th, 2013, 12:39 PM
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Great trip report so far, can't wait to hear more!
xyz99 is offline  
Old Jan 29th, 2013, 06:05 PM
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Definitely looking forward to more! This is a great start.
Femi is offline  
Old Feb 1st, 2013, 02:43 PM
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TWB, made me laugh.

Great strategy of asking the locals what they like to do. Looking forward to Elephant Plains, especially.
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Old Feb 11th, 2013, 11:03 AM
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SHORT OVERVIEW: The Mother City is everything it’s advertised to be and more. I spent 4 nights in Cape Town and while it was a “just right” amount in terms of being able to see the main sights and allow some random exploration, any less time would have been criminal and any more time welcomed thoroughly.

DAY ONE: I do have to admit that after a 13 hour plane flight to Johannesburg, 4 hour layover in JNB while somewhat ill (small wandering anecdote: I don’t recall most of the layover at OR Tambo, mainly because I looked like Gwenyth Paltrow in that freaky movie “Contagion”. My body temperature was all out of wack and I was basically delirious from some mini, fast-tracked bug I probably got from the plane) and connecting flight to Cape Town, I was no longer excited to arrive in Cape Town; I was desperate for a shower and bed, anywhere. I stumbled my way out of the airport, and thought about taking the bus to the city center and finding my way to Sea Point from there. Had a momentary swoon and chill and immediately nixed that notion. I hopped into a cab with a very friendly gentleman at the wheel. The driver immediately cranked his windows down to combat some of the 93 degree heat. I did the same in the back, and as soon as the wind hit my face I was instantaneously refreshed. It was actually a bit of a canine moment, my head cocked and nearly hanging out the window, hair blowing furiously, eyes squinted.

Cape Town is easily the most physically beautiful city I’ve ever been to. I don’t know that I fell in love at first sight, per se, but the ornery, slightly ill from a 13 hour plane ride self was whisked out the window gazing at Table Mountain with a bright blue sky backdrop. The little twinges of nervousness to be visiting South Africa solo also evaporated, and I was content and eager for adventure, thrilled to be exactly where I was in the moment.

The taxi driver knew Sea Point, but didn’t quite know where Blackheath Lodge was: fortunately the Rough Guide map had both cross-streets labeled and I relayed this to him and showed him the map at a red light. With a check-in time of about 2:45 PM, I really wanted nothing more than a long shower and a deep sleep (as previously mentioned). But I knew I'd be better served exploring, to make the most of my minimal time here and to get me fully acclimated to the new day/time. So I spent the afternoon and evening walking primarily. I walked Seapoint Promenade, Beach Road, and other randomly incomplete passages to get from Blackheath Lodge in Sea Point to the Waterfront area. It was a great way to get a feel for how families spend their Saturdays in Cape Town on a nice day: cricket, picnics, strolls, free concerts, dog walking, running.

Ah, the dog walking! My first random observation in Cape Town: almost everyone's dogs run off leash in Cape Town. I saw exactly three dogs being walked with a harness or leash in four hours. The rest were calmly running or trotting about, coming when called and otherwise being well behaved, across all breeds. I’m not used to well-behaved, pet dogs walking off leash: in New York it’s occasional at best (not to mention prohibited outside of fenced areas and park dog runs), and during my travels, I’ve been more used to the scavenging dog packs of Ubud or the random, skinny desert loners in the Empty Quarter of the United Arab Emirates. I don’t have a dog of my own, but I loved this little picture of Cape Town of dog (and dog-owner) paradise, frolicking free on green grass beside the Atlantic Ocean.

It’s nice is being right on the Atlantic seaboard, and getting that kelp-y, earthy feeling when you walk by the shore. It's salt meets rock meets seaweed meets barnacle, the combined smell which is more evocative of life by the seashore to me than anything else. At low tide, families were out hopping the rocks, children scampering about looking for crabs, shells.

And now I'm merely waiting for sunset: apparently another positive of Sea Point is its enviable geographical position affording sweeping sunsets in brilliant reds and oranges. Otherwise known as the African sunsets of my imagination, and I suspect the imaginations of many others as well.
Next time: Day 2: thoughts on Blackheath Lodge, digging into the city, Table Mountain, a Camps Bay Beach Sunday afternoon, and the first of a few funny/quirky TWB experiences.
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Old Feb 21st, 2013, 05:42 PM
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How remarkable! I feel very lucky to have stumbled on your trip report! As a biracial, 27-year-old New Yorker planning a solo vacation in SA in April (after a business trip there), I really couldn't have asked for anything better! It was great hearing your thoughts in general, and I hope you provide more details about your travels. Especially about organizing some of the safari/nature stuff without having to drive yourself.

I'll be in Pretoria for business so I'm trying to figure out what city to tour (probably just one). Cape Town is pretty far, but it may be worth it if it's much more culturally interesting and beautiful than other places. (coming from NYC, I'm not thrilled by the idea of Big City Jo'burg)

Anyway, I hope you come back and post more! I'm really enjoying and benefiting from this trip report!
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Old Feb 22nd, 2013, 04:09 AM
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Excellent trip report so far - can't wait to read more. Kudos for traveling alone. I have as well, but agree with your comments that having a friend to share things with makes it more fun.
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Old Feb 28th, 2013, 02:47 PM
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I can't wait to read more. You are an excellent writer. I found this report because I am going to CPT fro 10 days in August. When I was much younger (20's) I often traveled by myself. My first safari was to Kenya and Tanzania. I went by myself (meaning I didn't know anyone in our tour group of 9) Fabulous experience. I can't wait to read more!
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