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Trip Report South Africa Solo Summer Sojourn - Ten Days in January 2013

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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.

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