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Trip Report Craig & Jeane Visit South Africa Feb 2016

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Jeane and I are a late 50’s - early 60’s couple from the Hartford, CT area in the US. I have been posting on Fodor’s since 2000 and if you click on my name you can bring up previous reports on our 2 to 2-1/2 week trips, which have focused mainly on Asia. Having almost exhausted the possibilities there, we have started to branch out and explore other places. We had heard great things about South Africa. So after our trip to Australia and Bali in the fall of 2014, Jeane and I decided that a trip to Cape Town, the Winelands, the Garden Route and a safari at a southern private reserve would be a perfect respite from the cold New England winter in 2016.

We generally begin our planning about a year in advance of a trip, first by redeeming frequent flyer miles for our flights. Our loyalty for many years has been to United and the Star Alliance airlines. After a careful search, I found that our best options for business class seats were United and South African Airways flights from Hartford to Cape Town via Washington Dulles and Johannesburg and from Port Elizabeth to Hartford via Johannesburg and Washington Dulles. We are fortunate in that we are able to charge all of our personal and business expenses to rapidly accumulate miles with our United Mileage Plus credit cards.

With the flights in place, I next had to map out a suitable itinerary. Since we didn’t want to move around a lot and didn’t want to do any internal flights we settled on 4 destinations, all in the south: 4 nights in Cape Town, 2 nights in the Winelands at Franschhoek, 3 nights along the Garden Route in Knysna and 3 nights on safari at Shamwari Private Reserve. We would rent a car in Cape Town on our last day there and drop it off in Port Elizabeth after our safari. Now that the basic itinerary has been laid out, I am ready to start my trip report.

For a winter trip, our biggest anxiety is always that the weather might mess up our flight plans, but we were lucky this time. There had been a huge blizzard which shut down Washington Dulles a couple of weeks prior to our trip but with just some rain and light snow, the weather was fine for flying. Our connection was tight so there was no time to relax in the business lounge in Washington.

Boarding and our 5:40 pm departure on the South African Airways flight were prompt and soon thereafter we were being served one of the most delicious entrees we have ever had on a flight - a flavorful African beef stew. Wines and spirits were good. The flight from Washington Dulles was billed as “direct” but there was a stop in Ghana to refuel and pick up/drop off passengers after about 10 hours. Since we knew this in advance, we lay down to sleep right after our meal on the comfortable mattress pads South African provides, along with their comfy duvets. The Business class section was about 1/2 full.

Shortly before arrival in Ghana, we were awakened and the flight attendants stashed the duvets, allowing us to keep the mattress pads. If a meal was served, we slept through it. Our stay on the ground was about an hour - pretty painless. Before we departed again, the interior of the cabin was sprayed - not sure with what, but it was supposed to be environmentally friendly. After another 6 hours with some additional sleep we were on the ground in Johannesburg. Customs and immigration were similar to the US with pick-up and recheck of bags. The business lounge before the connection to Cape Town was not conveniently located, so we endured a short wait before our flight.

The domestic flight to Cape Town was full and we enjoyed a light meal and drinks. We were met on arrival by a driver arranged through Four Rosmead, our B&B and taken directly there - about 20 minutes. Since it was approaching 11 pm, we were taken directly to our suite, spent some time unpacking and slept until morning.

Four Rosmead is located in “the Gardens”, a residential area below Table Mountain. It is a small but luxurious B&B with a small pool and an excellent buffet and hot breakfast combo. Our suite had a sleeping area and a living area with many amenities including an outdoor shower (which I used every day), double sinks in the bath, internet access, mini bar, coffee maker and all of the comforts that you would expect from a luxury property except the price (about $200/nt).

Our plan for our first day was fairly light - just an 11 am tour of Robben Island where Nelson Mandela was incarcerated and then we would go on from there. We bought our tickets in advance, which is a good idea as they sell out. The Robben Island Museum and departure point is located at the V&A Waterfront and they ask that you arrive by 10:30 for the tour. Four Rosmead arranged a taxi for us and we arrived shortly after 10:30. There was already a long line of folks waiting to board the ferry to the island. We waited until 11 to board, which I considered a total waste of time as there was plenty of room on the ferry. We sat downstairs and on the journey, which lasted about an hour, we observed some dolphins in the distance.

The tour of the Robben Island prison is rather controlled and on arrival we were herded onto several buses for our tour. The focus of the tour is not so much Nelson Mandela but the conditions under which all of the political prisoners had to live, which were far worse than for those that were held at “normal” prisons. The buses circumvent the island and various sites are pointed out - there is a brief stop for refreshments and bathroom midway. The tour concludes at the part of the prison where Nelson Mandela was held and is guided by a former inmate of the prison. We got a very clear idea of how the prisoners were treated as well as how Nelson Mandela negotiated the process for their release. While many of the individual cells have displays about those that were incarcerated there, not much time is allotted for guests to explore and read about them.

Our group reached the ferry just as it was about to depart and we arrived back at the V&A around 4 pm. We had a difficult time finding a taxi near where we were dropped off so we walked over to the mall near the Victoria and Alfred hotel where there was a taxi stand outside. From there, we took a taxi to Prins and Prins, a jewelry shop near Long Street that Jeane wanted to check out. Jeane had a specific diamond necklace in mind that she had already received a quote for in the US. She wanted to see if the folks in Cape Town could do better. Because it was near 5 pm, the shop was just about to close and we were only able to get the process started. The sales associate agreed to be in touch with Jeane via e-mail with some details about what she was looking for. They arranged for a taxi to take us back to Four Rosmead.

Dinner that night was at Miller’s Thumb, a funky kind of place which specializes in fresh fish, prepared in numerous ways. The highlight for me was their grilled calamari appetizer - very light and delicious. We asked the staff to call us a taxi, which would be the last traditional taxi we would take during our stay in Cape Town. We arrived back at our B&B relatively early and an early bedtime after a long day.

Next: Day 2, Cape Town

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    Thanks for sharing, Craig. With my own trip to South Africa about six weeks away, I awaited in eager anticipation of your report, especially of Cape Town and Franschhoek, and am glad it's finally here. My first day is planned to be very similar to yours.

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    Day 2, Cape Town

    The staff at Four Rosmead were all mostly helpful with their recommendations, one of which was to have an early breakfast and head to the Table Mountain gondola before the mountain clouded over. Breakfast at the B&B normally starts at 7:30 am, but the staff were willing to serve us at 7 so we could get going.

    My intent was to use the Uber app on my phone to arrange a taxi but I was having difficulty getting it to accept my credit card. So at the last minute I reluctantly asked Jade, one of the managers, to summon a taxi for us, which she did willingly. About 10 minutes later the taxi showed up and we headed toward the gondola. While it was a totally clear morning, there was a sign at the entrance indicating that the gondola was not running due to high winds. Time for a new plan - Kirstenbosch Botanical Gardens. We asked the driver to take us back to Four Rosmead first and wait for us, so Jeane could pick up her camera lens that she uses for close-ups of flowers. Then we set off for the Kirstenbosch, about a 20 minute drive.

    The Gardens are in a gorgeous setting with Table Mountain looming over them. We wandered around for about 2 hours, exploring the paths through the various sections of the property, trying to picture how nice the Gardens would be at spring time. We would rank Kirstenbosch among the top botanical gardens in the world - comparable to those in Sydney or Singapore.

    Just before we were ready to leave, Jeane headed for the gift shop. While she was there, I managed to figure out how to get my phone to verify my credit card card on the Uber app. At the gift shop, Jeane bought some pretty throw pillow cases and I picked up some African coffee beans for my office assistant back home. Afterwards, I used the Uber app for the first time to hail a taxi. Three minutes later we were being taken back to our B&B so that Jeane could drop off her camera before we headed out again for some shopping.

    While waiting for Jeane at Four Rosmead, Jade showed me how I could check the Table Mountain gondola operating status on the website. She also showed me how to exchange the morning pass that I had purchased online before arriving, for an all-day pass that would give us greater flexibility. Afterward an Uber driver came to pick us up to take us to the Long Street shopping area. Jade had recommended our first stop, AVOOVA on the corner of Shortmarket and Bree streets, which is a purveyor of handcrafted ostrich eggshell gifts and accessories. Jeane saw several items that she liked, including an aluminum Nambe-type bowl decorated with ostrich eggshell pieces. She decided to think about it while we checked out some other recommended shops on Long Street. This area turned out to be disappointing for the most part - not for anyone looking for an abundance of upscale shopping.

    Jeane was having trouble picking up her e-mail and had not heard from Prins and Prins. Since it was only a couple of blocks away on Loop Street, we decided to pop in. As it turned out, the sales associate had indeed sent an e-mail to Jeane. He had received some information from his contact at the flagship store in Johannesburg which he could now share with her in person. What they had come up with was not quite what Jeane was looking for and to make a long story short, we spent a couple of hours going back and forth with the sales associate and his contact in Johannesburg to try and get her what she wanted. At one point, while waiting for a return call from Johannesburg, Jeane and I returned to AVOOVA and picked up the bowl that she liked. During another lull we toured the small diamond museum in the shop’s basement.

    Meanwhile, it was a totally clear day and now the Table Mountain website said the gondola was operating. It was almost 3 in the afternoon, so I told the sales associate that we needed to get going and that he could e-mail us both with any final details. He agreed and arranged for a cab to take us to Table Mountain. I should mention that Prins and Prins picked up our cab fare on both visits.

    The Table Mountain website had also indicated that the wait for the gondola would be about 10 minutes. It turned out to be twice that, but it was well worth it. The gondola ride itself is short - about 5 minutes each way. Interestingly, the gondola floor revolves 360 degrees so that everyone on it can enjoy all of the scenery while ascending and descending. The views of the city and its surroundings were truly spectacular once we arrived at the top. We spent about a half an hour checking it all out before getting in a much shorter line for the ride down. An Uber driver was very nearby to return us to Four Rosmead.

    Dinner that night was at Bistro Bizerca, which returned us to the same Long Street neighborhood we were in earlier in the day. This reminds me that I was incorrect about taking a taxi for dinner at Miller’s Thumb on day one. Miller’s Thumb is a short walk from Four Rosmead and we did not need a taxi. We did however use Uber to get to and from Bizerca, where we enjoyed gnocchi appetizers, two different beef mains and apple tarts for dessert. Upon returning to the B&B, we headed straight to bed.

    Next, Day 3 Cape Town: District Six and Heart of Cape Town museums

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    so glad you posted the link to this, else I might not have found it, Craig,

    We did a very similar trip a few years ago with our kids so I'm very interested to read what you thought about SA, some 8 or so years later.

    I enjoyed your first day, particularly about Kirstenbosch, which we loved too. We were lucky enough to be able to go up to the top of Table Mountain on our first morning on Cape Town and followed that up with a trip to the gardens so my first day in SA is still pretty vivid.

    keep it coming!

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    Craig, your description of Kirstenbosch has me more excited about our visit there than we have been; for some reason, it did not feature high in my mind even though we planned on visiting. Did you do any walks on top Table Mountain? We intend it scale it and take the cable car down. Also taking notes on your dining and shopping choices for our visit.

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    tripplanner - we didn't do any walks per se on Table Mountain. Timing was the problem and we didn't have a lot. Hiking up would be an interesting challenge as it is quite steep, but keep in mind that conditions change constantly and could very well result in disappointment when you actually reach the top. Personally, I would not do this hike, even if I had the time. There are wonderful hikes at Cape Point and further on near Plettenberg which I will be reporting on in future posts.

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    Day 3, Cape Town

    Every day at Four Rosmead began with an excellent full breakfast comprised of a choice of hot entrees plus a buffet of deli meats, cheeses, a wide variety of fruit, cereals, pastries, breads and jams. The breakfasts were included in the rate and served either indoors or outdoors, depending on one’s preference. We found that this was the standard at every place we stayed. Our plan today was to arrive at the District Six Museum when it opened at 9 AM and then head to the Heart of Cape Town Museum for an 11 AM tour.

    The District Six Museum was established in 1994 to honor the memories of those 60,000 people of black and mixed race who were forcibly removed from the Sixth Municipal District of Cape Town in the 1960’s and 1970’s in the name of “urban renewal”. While tours were offered, we chose to explore the two-story museum on our own as it was well-organized and the displays were clearly labeled. The experience was highly educational and a must-do, in my opinion. We spent about an hour and a half there before using Uber to take us to the Heart of Cape Town Museum.

    The Groote Schuur Hospital was the site of the world’s first heart transplant, performed by Christiaan Barnard. The Heart of Cape Town Museum is located within the hospital in the original rooms where the heart transplant occurred. The excellent two-hour tour was conducted by the late Christiaan Barnard’s personal photographer and provided insight into Barnard’s rise to international acclaim, the donor of the heart, the recipient, and the ethical and moral implications that came up at the time. This was a particularly interesting experience for Jeane with her medical background. While I do not consider it a “must do”, I found it to be an extremely worthwhile experience.

    The taxi stand that we used after our Robben Island tour was near an upscale mall that had looked promising, so after the Heart of Cape Town tour, we returned to the V&A Waterfront using Uber. The mall is attached to the Victoria & Alfred Hotel and proved to be a worthwhile stop for Jeane. She purchased a stylish African-themed jacket at one store and a matching handbag at another. Afterward, we walked toward the Two Oceans Aquarium through another mall that was a little less upscale, but no less promising. Jeane bought some cute Christmas ornaments and some other small items. At the aquarium, Jeane checked out the gift shop and afterward we decided to contact Uber and call it a day.

    Our final Dinner in Cape Town was at Savoy Cabbage Restaurant, which is located quite close to Bizerca Bistro. It was here that we enjoyed our first African game. After a small appetizer salad, Jeane had the springbok loin and I had the warthog loin. Springbok and other antelope are often referred to as “venison” in South Africa and the taste is similar. I had never had warthog before, but the taste was similar to our pork. Both of our mains were quite good. We finished with a tasty peach cobbler and an apple tart. Afterward, we went back to the B&B to do some packing before our drive to Franschhoek via Cape Point the next day.

    Day 4 (Valentine’s Day) Cape Town to Franschhoek via Cape Point

    We rose early to finish packing, have breakfast and check-out before heading to Dollar-Thrifty to pick up our rental car at 9 AM. After breakfast I requested and received an envelope so that I could leave a general gratuity for the excellent staff. Uber has an option to request a larger (SUV- type) vehicle at a slightly higher cost and because we had several bags, we took advantage. Our driver arrived quickly as usual and afterward we bid Jade and the staff good-bye.

    Dollar Thrifty was located about 10 minutes from Four Rosmead. When we arrived, we saw a big sign saying “Open at 11 AM Sundays”. After a momentary panic, we realized that the sign belonged to the liquor store next to Dollar Thrifty. We unloaded all of our bags and brought them inside the rental office. After signing all of the paperwork, I crammed our bags into the trunk of a brand new (only 1000 km on the odometer) Infiniti Q50, which we rented for $35/day with unlimited mileage and a drop-off in Port Elizabeth. I chose a “Premium class” vehicle because we wanted all of our luggage to fit in the trunk so as not to be visible and subject to theft.

    The M62 is located quite close to Dollar Thrifty and, with the help of Google Maps, we headed to Chapman’s Peak Drive. There had been a passing shower as I was loading the bags, but the rain had now stopped and the sun was coming out. Chapman’s Peak Drive is a toll road, but it hugs the coast and is very scenic. From there we continued to head south, arriving at Cape Point by 11 AM. Prior to arriving at the Point there is a gate where we paid a small fee to enter the park. I had heard that there could be a wait as traffic can back up here, but we sailed right through and were able to park fairly close to the visitor’s center.

    The funicular to the lighthouse was not operating that day, but there was a shuttle bus running up and down on a regular basis. While the climb would not have been particularly difficult, our time was short so we opted for the shuttle. After spending some time admiring the views around the lighthouse, we headed back down to the parking lot. We could have also hiked down to the new lighthouse which is closer to the Point, but we opted not to, again in the interest of time.

    Off to the side of the parking lot, near the rest rooms, there is a trailhead for the trail that leads to the Cape of Good Hope. One can also drive there, but this is a worthwhile hike with fabulous views, if you are fit and have sturdy shoes. We hiked to the look-out point above the Cape of Good Hope parking lot, about a 1-1/2 hour round trip. The trail continues down to the parking lot but it is a steep hike back up to return. There is no protection from the sun on this trail, so a hat and sunscreen are necessary. After the hike, we headed out of the park, passing a fairly long line of vehicles at the park entrance.

    Our next stop was Boulders Beach and its penguin colony in Simon’s Town, about 1/2 hour north. This is a very touristy place, but the penguins are absolutely adorable. There are plenty of great photograph opportunities, but it does get crowded - worth 20 or 30 minutes.

    We finished up the day with a 2 hour drive to Franschhoek via the M3, N1 and R45. There is a coastal route but we had been informed that it was slow and not particularly scenic. We arrived at Franschhoek Manor in the late afternoon and were greeted by Wolfgang, the owner and his dogs. The B&B is located in a quiet area about a 5 minute drive from the town’s center. We stayed in the Black room, which was nicely furnished with all of the comforts. There was a pool that we shared with one other room plus a main pool for all of the guests. The public living and indoor dining areas were huge. The views from the outside dining area were lovely.

    About a month before departing for our trip, I contacted our hotels in Cape Town, Franschhoek and Knysna and asked each of them to make dinner reservations for us so that we would avoid any disappointment. I had also asked Wolfgang for recommendations for Valentine’s Day. He suggested dinner at the Grand Provence Wine Estate and that is what we reserved.

    Grand Provence offered a special Valentine’s menu and seating in our own private luxuriously draped outdoor pavilion under the stars. It was quite romantic. The dinner included a canape platter and a bottle of sparkling wine on arrival, followed by a choice of marsala marinated quail or smoked trout gravlax and then a chef’s taster of poached lobster followed by a candied lychee sorbet. For the mains the choice was baked sea bass or slow-cooked Karoo lamb neck. This was followed by a pre-dessert chocolate custard and a choice of a hot chocolate fondant (rich pudding cake) or Turkish delight ice cream with summer berries. Lastly, mini rose and white chocolate macarons were served with coffee. Needless to say, it was a fabulous evening for both of us.

    One of the niceties provided by Franschhoek Manor was a shuttle service to and from dinner - no worries about driving or getting lost. When Jeane and I returned to our B&B it was rather late, so we agreed to “sleep in” a bit the next morning.

    Next: Day 5 Franschhoek and the Wine Tram

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    Did you do any walks on top Table Mountain? We intend it scale it and take the cable car down. Also taking notes on your dining and shopping choices for our visit.>>

    tripplanner - when we went, albeit quite a long time ago, there were free guided walks around the top of Table Mountain offered twice a day, at [I think] 10 am and 12 noon, led by local volunteers. It is possible to walk down from the top into Kirstenbosch Gardens and people who were on the guided walk that we did did just that, as we saw them in the gardens later [we had driven round].

    Although we were there in the SA winter the gardens were a highlight of our trip for us but as an additional sweetener, there is an exceptional gift shop. Unfortunately we were there at the beginning of our trip and saved our souvenir and present buying for later which turned out to be a shame.

    Personally I would get the c/c up and walk down but perhaps that's just me!

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    ann - while we did walk around the top of Table Mountain, we did not follow any trails, nor did we take any of the free guided walks (which are still offered, by the way).

    I did not know that you could walk down to Kirstenbosch - that would have been pretty cool to do...

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    Craig - we did the same sort of day trip to the Cape as you, except the other way round - we went to Simon's Town, Boulder's Beach, and then the Cape. Enjoying your account of your trip very much.

    on our way back from the Cape we tried to do Chapman's drive but it was blocked because of road works/bad weather but I believe that we managed to get up to Chapman's Peak and see the sunset which was quite early, it being winter.

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    TP - in my naivity I thought it would be the other way round, but then when we were in Cuba, walking back up the muddy trails we were on was infinitely easier than walking [or rather slithering an sliding] down them.

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    Hi Craig. We are going to SA for my 60th b-day. Like you, my husband and I take 2 1/2 week vacations every year. We live in Chicago. We have done mostly Europe so far. The beginning of our trip is much the same as yours. I'm enjoying your trip report and looking forward to more. Thanks for sharing!

    Annhig, I have been on many forums over the past 10 years and see your postings quite often. Apparently we like similar destinations. My husband and I were discussing a trip to Cuba and I see that you've been there as well. I'd love to hear about your trip there. Can you email me so we can chat? [email protected] Appreciate it!

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    hi soods,

    if you click on my screen name you'll see the beginning of my TR on Cuba, which has rather hit the buffers at the moment but I am intending to go back to it when I've got time.

    but I'll gladly e-mail you - just going to do so now.

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    Day 5 Franschhoek

    By the time Jeane and I had awakened, showered and dressed, breakfast was almost over. However, we managed to enjoy the wide buffet assortment and a hot entree before heading into the village on foot, a 15 or 20 minute walk. That gave Jeane and hour or so to shop before our 12:15 PM Wine Tram reservation. The shopping in Franschhoek is pretty upscale and seemed to be targeted at persons of “a certain age”, which suited Jeane just fine. Unfortunately, she was unable to tackle it all in the time allotted. Since most of the stores close at 5 PM and would not open until after we had departed the next day, she was a bit frustrated. While she managed to purchase a summer dress, by 12:15 she had only visited about half of the stores on the main shopping street.

    The Franschhoek Wine Tram is really an old-fashioned train that runs between two of the area wineries and a fleet of buses that runs between the other area wineries. There are 4 different routes with starting times as early as 10 AM and finishing times between 5 and 6 PM. In theory, one could visit as many as 6 wineries in the course of a day. Wine Tram tickets include complimentary wine tastings at some of the wineries. We chose the latest starting time on the “Green Line”, which would allow us to visit 4 wineries, spending an hour at each one.

    As we sat outside the Rickety Bridge Winery enjoying a selection of whites and reds, I mentioned to Jeane that one of our stops would be back at the village. We could skip one winery, and she could use that hour to finish up her shopping. While she didn’t want to deprive me of a winery visit, this seemed to be a good solution and it ended up working out perfectly. In that hour, Jeane managed to visit the remaining shops and purchase a blue ostrich-skin handbag and couple of other items. Afterward we continued on the Wine Tram to the Holden Manz and La Bourgogne Wineries and took advantage of their complimentary tastings. Of the two, we preferred La Bourgogne which had much friendlier service and olive oil tastings in addition to the wine. I purchased a bottle of Malbec there.

    We returned to the village and walked back to our B&B to drop off our purchases. Our dinner that night was at Foliage, a contemporary bistro with an open kitchen. It was fun to watch the staff, led by a very energetic and creative head chef in action. While I don’t recall exactly what we had, I remember it being quite good and beautifully presented. Afterward we headed back to Franschhoek Manor to do some packing in advance of our departure the next day.

    Day 6 Franschhoek to Knysna via Cango Wildlife Ranch

    Breakfast at Franschhoek Manor is normally served from 8:30 to 10 AM. Since we needed to get an early start, with a long drive ahead of us, I asked Wolfgang if could eat at 8 AM. He was fine with that, but the staff would not arrive early enough to prepare us a hot entree. This was not a problem for us and thus we were on our way before 9.

    The R45 out of Franschhoek ascends quickly and has turnoffs that afford amazing views of the village below. It continues on through the Mont Rochelle Nature Reserve and eventually hooks up with the R60 and R62 to Oudtshoorn and the Cango Wildlife Ranch. Along the way, we were forced to detour as part of the R62 was completely closed for blasting. Fortunately, Google Maps saved the day and guided us to a parallel route that cost us very little extra time. This was a spectacular drive through rugged terrain somewhat reminiscent of southwest Colorado or perhaps somewhere in Australia, but unique in its own way.

    We arrived at the Cango Wildlife Ranch at mid-afternoon. Our sole reason for going there was because Jeane wanted to pet a cheetah while she was in South Africa. Cango is a wildlife conservation center with an excellent reputation for rescuing animals from the wild and rehabilitating them. It’s mission is to save animals such as the cheetah from extinction and to educate people about the vulnerability and importance of wildlife diversity. The admission fee includes a 1-hour tour but there are additional fees for interaction with the animals.

    We were under the impression that the tour was mandatory and we were given a time when it was to begin. In the meantime, we would be free to view the various animals within and they would call us when the tour started. Cango’s website lists the animals on display. It is a bit of a glorified zoo, really. Anyway, the time came with no announcement, but we found our way over to where the tour was just getting underway. The first thing the tour guide announced was that the tour might run up to 2 hours - not good as we just wanted to meet the cheetahs and move on, so we could check into our hotel and get to dinner on time for our reservation. Fortunately, a couple nearby told us that they had already interacted with the cheetahs and that it would take only about 10 minutes. We said goodbye to the tour and made our way to the cheetahs.

    Our visit with the cheetahs was highly controlled, but professional and well-done. We were warned to touch them only in certain places. We were required to put our backpacks (sans cameras) in a locker. There was a guide and a photographer. We were also allowed to take our own photographs. We started with the adult cheetahs and got some great photos with both Jeane and I petting a cheetah. They actually purr! Jeane also interacted with the baby cheetahs, 3 months old. Since I did not participate this time and was not allowed inside the cage with the cheetahs, the photographer got some more excellent photos of Jeane with the babies.

    When we were done, we headed to Knysna, about 2 hours away. On arrival at Villa Afrikana, we were asked if we wanted to push back our restaurant reservation by half an hour. Since we needed some time to settle in, we enthusiastically agreed. We were greeted with a bottle of South African Merlot Cabernet blend in our spacious room on the top floor of the B&B. The views of the lagoon from our deck were awesome.

    There is no Uber presence in Knysna so we arranged for a taxi for the short ride to Caffe Mario, an Italian restaurant in the Waterfront area. The restaurant was very busy, but we were seated immediately. We chose to sit outdoors, since it was quite warm inside. Outside it was breezy, but manageable. Our wine and drink orders came quickly, but it took an hour for our entrees to arrive. Jeane had ordered a vegetarian pasta and I ordered their signature pizza with bacon, avocado, peppers and banana. I complained to the server about the wait time. Jeane loved her vegetarian dish, but I thought the pizza was mediocre at best. No worries - the server arrived with the check, less than US$12 with the management comping us on our beverages on account of the slow service.

    Our server arranged for a taxi to return to Villa Afrikana and we headed to bed on arrival. This is an ideal time to talk about tipping in South Africa. The standard tip for good service in restaurants is 10% (cash only), maybe a little bit more if service is exceptional. I tipped R100 per day for staff at our B&B’s and safari (not including safari guide), R2 for the parking guys, R2 for the gas (petrol) station attendants and rounded up for taxis (but not Uber which does not require tips).

    Next: Day 7 Knysna - a Horseback Ride in the Forest, the Emzini Township Tour and Cook & Look at Kilzer’s Kitchen

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    Day 7 Knysna

    Our 2 hour horseback ride at Southern Comfort Ranch was scheduled for 8:30 AM on our first morning in Knysna. Looking back, we probably could have asked for a later time, but since an early breakfast was not a viable option, we decided to arrange for it to be delivered to our room after we returned. Villa Africana and all of the other places we stayed had Nespresso machines in the rooms, so I did not have to go without my morning coffee before heading out.

    Southern Comfort was about 20-25 minutes east of our B&B along a dirt road. There are probably better rides along the Garden Route, but those would have required us to go significantly out of our way. The ride through the forest was pleasant, but if we hadn’t wanted to do a horseback ride in South Africa, we could have easily skipped this. Our guide was friendly and interested in learning about life in the USA. The owner, Magriet was very talkative and frustrated about growing older with no retirement in sight. We were surprised that she could only take cash and thus we only had R600 of the R800 cost with us plus a little extra for our guide. We must have looked honest however, as Magriet told us we could return the next day with the balance.

    Afterwards, we returned to Villa Afrikana and enjoyed a brunch, delivered to our room, that far exceeded our expectations. After relaxing for a while, Penny from Emzini Tours arrived to pick us up for our 2 PM township tour. We were joined by Ella, who grew up in the township and 4 other guests. The township we visited was just outside of Knysna. It was small by South African standards, about 25,000 people. We saw some very basic shacks as well as their replacements that were currently being provided by the Government. Our tour included visits to a hair salon and a cobbler. We heard about the relocations that occurred a few decades ago. Also on our tour was a modern library, also provided by the government. We were unable visit any health facilities as those were apparently off-limits to Emzini Tours. The tour ended at a group home for abused children. We had tea and biscuits, attempted to learn Xhosa, the local language of clicks and other sounds, that for us were impossible to reproduce. Lastly, we participated in a fun sing-along with the children, mostly helping with the African drums. In all, good photo ops and a worthwhile afternoon.

    After an afternoon cocktail at Villa Afrikana, we took a very short taxi ride to Kilzer’s Kitchen, a cooking school where the owners host a once-a-week “Cook ‘n Look” dinner. This was an outstanding experience as we were seated right in front of the kitchen. There were several other groups of couples there, most seated away from the action, and unable to see what was going on. Meanwhile we had a great view as the energetic staff led by a husband and wife team prepared our 3-course meal. We started with spring rolls, moved on to Kudu fillet with mango sauce, and finished with a beautifully presented chocolate tart. While we had brought our own wine, we were served a homemade limoncello liquor on arrival. Jeane managed to persuade them to part with a bottle, with the excuse that her birthday was upcoming in a few days. Total cost of the meal: $40 for two. Our server called a taxi for us and we headed straight to bed upon arriving at Villa Afrikana.

    Day 8 Knysna

    We enjoyed another fabulous breakfast in our room along with a hot entree today. The fruits at our breakfasts everywhere have been amazing: pineapple, mango, peaches, nectarines, strawberries, blueberries, melons, etc. Our plan was to drive toward Plettenberg, stopping at Southern Comfort to drop off the money we owed them and then do a hike at Robberg Nature Reserve. At Robberg, one can do a 2 hour hike as we did, cutting across the peninsula on the trail at the Witsand sand dune or do a 4 hour hike that encompasses the entire peninsula. Either way, the views of the crystal clear blue water, sandy beaches and rugged coastline are amazing. We also encountered a seal colony along the north side of the peninsula. After the hike, we returned to Villa Afrikana to prepare for our cruise on the lagoon to Featherbed Nature Reserve.

    The Featherbed cruise has several departure times, some that include lunch and some that don’t. We opted for a 2:30 PM departure without the meal. The entire tour took about 3 hours. There was a 1/2 hour ferry cruise out to the Western Head on the Knysna Lagoon, where the private Featherbed Reserve is located. After exiting the boat, a 4X4 vehicle took us up the headland and into the reserve to a terrific viewpoint where we could see the confluence of the lagoon and the Indian Ocean between the Eastern and Western heads. From there, we had an easy downhill hike through coastal forest back to our starting point, an outdoor restaurant and bar, where we had time for a beer before returning to the ferry for the 1/2 hour cruise back. Throughout the tour, our guide provided us with a running commentary on the history of “our little town of Kynsna” and the flora and fauna in the area. While this was a nice way to spend the afternoon and learn more about this particular part of South Africa, I would not consider it a “must-do”.

    Dinner that night was at JJ’s back at the Waterfront. We had the “Millionaire’s Salad" and split a generous South African game platter with chili sauce. We skipped dessert because we had been eating so much. It was a pleasant meal at a nice location overlooking the lagoon. Afterward we returned to Villa Afrikana and a very restful sleep.

    Next: Day 9 Knysna to Shamwari Game Reserve

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    Day 9 Kynsna to Shamwari Game Reserve
    Days 10 and 11 Shamwari Game Reserve
    Day 12 Shamwari and home

    Jeane and I enjoyed a very leisurely breakfast before packing and checking out of Villa Afrikana. We had had some laundry done while we were there, which was the only additional (and quite reasonable) charge we had. Before leaving we were able to chat with the owners Ross and Bianca about how much we enjoyed our stay.

    The drive along the N2 to Shamwari Game Reserve took about 4 hours. Much of it is a very well-kept toll road and around Port Elizabeth it is a 4-lane divided highway. Although the roads are consistently good, driving in South Africa requires constant attention as there are frequent lane drops and speed limit changes. Passing should be done with extreme caution as accidents are not uncommon.

    Our lodging at Shamwari was at Eagle’s Crag - 9 roomy bungalows, each with its own plunge pool and outdoor shower. Like the other properties where we stayed, it was extremely well-appointed. We arrived at mid-afternoon and were directed to park our car in a carport near the reception area. By the time we had checked in and made our way to our bungalow, our bags had been delivered. We were offered lunch but saw no need for it and would continue to pass on the mid-day meal throughout our stay, opting instead to take a short nap. Our afternoon game drive was scheduled to start at 3:30 PM so we went about settling in until then. I checked out the plunge pool - it was cool, but refreshing.

    Shamwari is a privately-owned reserve. It began operations in the early ‘90’s and was the first in the south to do so. Prior to becoming a game reserve, the area had been farmland since the mid-1800’s when the animals we could see today roamed free. Eagle’s Crag and Shamwari’s five other lodges share guides and operate on the same schedule which is similar to how most game parks and reserves operate. A wake-up call comes at 5 AM with 5:30 coffee at reception and departure for the morning game drive at about 5:45. A very hearty breakfast is served between 9 and 11 and a light lunch is served between 1 and 3. The afternoon game drive departs at 3:30 or 4 and then dinner is served starting at 7:30 PM. All meals are very casual. At breakfast, guests generally sit with their guides and the others in their group. Dinners at Shamwari alternate between individual indoor table service and an outdoor group braai (barbecue), where guests are seated in a circle next to their guides and the others in their group.

    We found the food to be quite good, although the one individual dinner we had was better than either of the braais. The breakfasts were of the same excellent standard we experienced elsewhere in South Africa. Meals were included in the price of the lodging. Wine and alcoholic beverages were extra, but not unreasonable.

    The safari vehicles are modified Toyota Land Cruisers that are open, but covered for protection from the sun and rain. They seat a ranger (guide/driver) plus 6 guests quite comfortably and are equipped with blankets and ponchos in case of bad weather. Our excellent ranger Franz took us on 6 game drives in all. The mix of people varied from drive to drive, but once guests are assigned to a guide, they have him for the entire stay. On two of our drives, there were 3 couples. On our second drive, it was just Jeane and I. On the other 3, there were 2 couples. Almost all of our safari partners hailed from England except for one of the couples who came from Ireland.

    The weather was mostly mild but it was chilly in the mornings, especially starting out. There was rain for a time on two mornings and one afternoon. Our best game sighting occurred during a rainy period though, as we observed several herds of elephants (adults, teenagers and babies) playing and frolicking with each other in and around a lake. Our ranger Frans described it as a once-in-a-lifetime event. During the course of our stay we saw male and female lions, several white rhinos, a herd of cape buffalo, several cheetahs, lots of tortoises, giraffes, and zebras, hippos, jackals, mongooses, monkeys, and a wide variety of antelopes and birds.

    On our final day, we needed extra time to pack and get ready for our flight time and were allowed to check out an hour later. When I came to settle the bill, the staff person asked me if I wanted my rental car washed before we departed - a nice touch. During the breakfast after our final game drive I pulled Franz aside and gave him an envelope with R900 (about US$10 per person per day) for making our visit so pleasurable.

    The drive to the Port Elizabeth airport took about an hour and 15 minutes. There was a petrol station near the airport entrance where I was able to top off our gas tank. The car rental return is located right in the airport, so it was an easy walk to check in. The rental return went smoothly with no problems. The Port Elizabeth airport is small and check in went quickly as did the security check. We checked our bags through to Hartford, although we would have to pick them up at Washington Dulles and recheck them. There is a South African Airways business class lounge which we took advantage of until our flight to Johannesburg was called.

    The flight to Johannesburg was on time and lasted about an hour and a half. We were served a meal on the flight which was inedible, but otherwise it was a good flight. It is kind of annoying that the airline hasn’t gotten the memo that using electronic devices during takeoff and landing is harmless. On the ground in Johannesburg we went through an exit immigration check and then another security check. Right after security, is an escalator that leads to the VAT refund office. Since Jeane had made a lot of purchases, it made sense to try to get the 14% tax back. We were fortunate that we had plenty of time between flights as the queue moves slowly. It is necessary to have all purchases available for inspection (in one’s carry-on), in addition to tax receipts in order to get a refund. The refund comes in the form of a debit card, which is not activated for 60 days. We think we will be notified via e-mail when it is active. All in all, a lot of hassle for about $100.

    While boarding for our overseas flight was on-time, our departure was delayed in order to remove bags that belonged to passengers that had not boarded the flight. Dinner was served, but it was not as good as what we had on the flight over. We slept for a couple of hours afterward but were woken up for our landing in Ghana before continuing on to Washington Dulles. We spent two hours on the ground this time, with security going over the aircraft with a fine toothed comb and lots of flashing lights on the tarmac but no explanation of what it was all about.

    After the delayed takeoff, we immediately went back to sleep. I rose about 6 hours later for good and asked for some coffee. I had to do this in person because the entertainment system, including the ability to summon a flight attendant and to charge my phone had been disabled. Don’t know what the deal was with that. We had to wait an awfully long time for breakfast to be served. It came just 1-1/2 hours before we landed and we were starving. It was filling, but that is about it. We landed very late in Washington. I had lamented not being able to get a 2 hour connection with FF miles, but now was overjoyed that we would make our last flight home with ease.

    We were one of the first off the aircraft but we had to take a shuttle to immigration and customs so we were one of the last in line at immigration. It didn’t matter, we eventually got through, picked up our bags and rechecked them after customs with no problems. We still had a long layover and headed for the tired United lounge to wait for our next flight. In the lounge I was able to shave. The wifi worked and the selection of food and drink were actually decent, so we were content. Our Hartford flight was on time and we arrived home in mid-afternoon.

    If you have made it this far, thanks for “listening”. I’ll check back for the next week or so and answer questions. I’ll also post a link to our photos when they are ready. If you read this several months from now, don’t expect a rapid response to your post as I don’t regularly frequent this board.

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    Hi Craig - we too did a stint at Shamwari and liked it a lot, though it was a bit "high end" for us; we only ended up there because our travel company pointed out that we got 3 nights free at the Raddison in Cape Town if we booked 2 at Shamwari so it was a done deal!

    We also did a half day at Addo, and a night at another one nearby which was much more "down market" - it was lots of fun with a great night safari and we slept in huts that had no electricity which the kids loved.

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    Hi Craig, your trip report was very interesting to read! Just a note: tipping in South African restaurants is not cash only, if you are able to pay with a card you can usually write down the tip (gratuity) on the bill and it will be added to the total amount deducted from your card, no cash needed. There might be exceptions, but this is the way it usually works.

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    Lidia, I actually did tip on the bill occasionally, but my understanding is that restaurants only distribute tips to servers once a month. With cash there is no waiting...

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    Hi Craig,
    I just caught up with your TR as we were away for a month.

    We too had to try twice to get to the top of Table Mountain. Wind closes the gondola frequently. We were told that 75% of the tourists trying to get to the top of Table Mountain by gondola are unsucessful, so I guess we should consider ourselves lucky.

    Instead of going to the District 6 Museum, we took a tour of a township which proved to be interesting and revealing of the fact that regardless of the race of the people in power, a lot of the underclass seems to get left behind.

    Thanks for posting. Your TR brought back great memories of our trip.

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    Hi Craig,

    Fantastic trip report. I really enjoyed the country from your viewpoint. I am back again in July and will use your TR to visit some places that I have never been, so thank you!

    One last thing. I have been to SA numerous times, and have always been driven by drivers, taxis or Uber. No matter what part of the country I have been in, I have been scared to self-drive due to the high level of crime and accidents. And this is from a person who gladly drives throughout Europe, the Caribbean and even other parts of Africa. So how was it? From your report, it sounds like you did not have any troubles whatsoever....

    Thanks in advance.

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    Lola, you are correct in that we had no troubles. Regarding crime and by that I assume you mean theft - we were careful to to keep all of our bags locked in our trunk and left nothing visible in the passenger compartment when the car was parked. The potential for an accident was definitely there. While the roads are in great condition, most highways are a single lane in each direction with a lot of slow moving vehicles, which increases the need to pass and the possibility of colliding with an oncoming vehicle. On hills there are passing lanes and at intersections there are turning lanes, all which require a degree of concentration to navigate. And of course, If you are used to driving on the right when the South Africans drive on the left, that further complicates things. Driving in SA is not for everyone and I personally would never drive at night.

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    Lola, we also hired a car in SA, and apart from our first day, it was pretty well without incident. Most places where you park have self-appointed guardians who for a small amount will keep an eye on your car - we never had any troubles.

    However despite being very familiar with driving on the left, we [or rather DH] managed to burst a tyre on our first day, and we had to sit by the side of the road with all our luggage while DH changed the wheel. I have to say that I was a bit [ok, more than a bit] nervous while he did so, but no-one stopped, either to help or hinder.

    The only other problem I remember was the huge bull that suddenly appeared on the road in front of us as we were driving along the Garden Route, but even he proved pretty benign in the end.

    We did not drive at night very much - fortunately we didn't have the need to do so.

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