Relay: South Africa Beckoned

   I had never really thought about traveling to South Africa. Cape Town wasn’t on my bucket list. But . . .    
    Kate, my daughter, a junior at Fairfield University, decided to do her semester abroad in Cape Town this spring through a Marquette University program. She is living in a house with 19 other students from various colleges in the United States. She volunteers two days a week teaching sixth graders, just started helping in an after-school program at a day care center, and goes to school at the University of the Western Cape three days a week. The program doesn’t encourage family visits, as everyone is very busy between their service sites and their work at the university, but Marquette did suggest that if you really wanted to visit, the ideal time to do so would be at the end of March, when the students returned from their holiday tour of South Africa.
    We began our adventure on March 27. A 15-hour flight to Johannesburg followed by another 2-hour flight took us to Cape Town. Flying in, the mountains are outstanding, running right down to the beautiful white, sandy beaches. What a huge, sprawling city! At the waterfront, hundreds of cranes were loading and unloading cargo from all over the world. There were some high-rise buildings, but not too many. It was a wonderful, clean, bustling city with so much to see and do.
    Our first trip was to the waterfront, where there are lovely hotels and restaurants, shops, and boats of every size and shape, many for hire, even a huge Ferris wheel, the Wheel of Excellence. We went to the Robben Island Museum and took a fast ferry over to the island to see where Nelson Mandela was imprisoned for 20 years starting in 1964 for sabotage and treason.
    The ferry was packed with 600 people from all over the world — people from Nigeria, the Netherlands, Germany, England, Zimbabwe, Japan, and China — but we were the only Americans on our bus when we got to the island. We heard about the conditions at the prison and why people were jailed there — mostly because they were black and their political beliefs were being questioned. What a somber, moving experience touring the island, seeing the limestone pit where the men were put to work seven days a week, and hearing about the horrible, squalid conditions they lived in, all told to us by an ex-inmate. Unimaginable. Truly sobering.
    Another day we took a drive to Cape Peninsula National Park. We headed first to Muizenberg, a quaint little surf town with a wide sandy beach and wildly colored cabanas. Kalk Bay was next, with the railroad running right along the beach, colorful fishing boats, and charming touristy shops. Then came Simons Town, home to the South African Navy, a bustling little city right on the water; Boulder Beach, with its huge population of African penguins, and finally Cape Point, with miles of scrubland, ostriches and baboons roaming wild, and a beautiful lighthouse built in 1919.
    The scenery is breathtaking — steep cliffs and rugged terrain, with beautiful rocky beaches. Heading back toward Cape Town, we went through Noordhoek and onto Chapman’s Peak, an extremely high toll road overlooking the Atlantic with a straight, vertical drop. Not for those afraid of heights (like me). The road is closed when it is extremely windy and when rocks are falling!
    In Hout Bay, where we stopped for a late afternoon dinner on the waterfront, seals swam around the harbor and there was a jumping seal that a boy fed with fish held in his mouth. We were in Camps Bay for sunset, with the Twelve Apostles mountain range looming overhead. Incredible.
    We also spent a day in the wine region of Stellenbosch touring wineries and tasting wine and cheese. There are over 150 vineyards in the area and you can see vines for miles. The architecture of the town is Cape Dutch, beautiful houses with gabling and thatched roofs. The amazing botanical gardens of Kirstenbosch have thousands of acres of manicured gardens and sculpture gardens, hundreds of flower beds filled with native South African plants, including the protea, the national flower of South Africa.
    When it was time to say goodbye to Kate, her friends, our lovely hotel, and wonderful staff and head off on our safari adventure, we flew back to Johannesburg, then took a 35-minute jet ride to Hoedspruit. As short as it was, we were even offered drinks and a sandwich on the flight! Looking down on the rivers and shrubland and Klein Drakensberg mountain range, we saw no signs of humans. A hotel shuttle bus met us at the tiny airport to take us to Chapungu, a private game reserve and our home for the next three days.
    The road from the airport is paved for about three miles, then turns to red dirt. In the bushveld along the way, we saw wart hogs and guinea hens.
    At the game lodge, where everything is outdoors, Jennifer, the manager, sat us down to tell us the rules: The sound of a drum means that meals are being served. No walking around at night without a night watchman. There was no telephone service, so if we needed to contact someone, we should use the whistle and horn in our tent.
    We stayed in a luxury tent, one of eight tents, each very private. Along with four other people that had arrived the day before, we prepared for our first game drive after lunch, loading into a four-tiered Range Rover with Sipps, our driver, and Aubrey, our tracker. Every time we came upon some animals, Sipps stopped the truck so we could observe them and take photos. There were Cape buffalo, impalas, zebras, baboons, spring­­bok, and giraffes.
    Jennifer met us back at the game lodge that evening with warm towels to wipe the dirt from our hands and faces, then a glass of port to warm up. After a buffet dinner, we were all walked back to our tents for the night.
    The wake-up call the next morning came at 5. By 5:45 we were at the lodge for tea, coffee, and juice, and then it was off again in search of elephants, hippos, rhinos, leopards, and lions. This time, when we returned from the drive, there was a giraffe, standing all alone 50 feet away from us. After two more game drives that evening and the next morning, we headed back Johannesburg to begin our journey home.
    We met a couple from Johannesburg on our way to the airport who told us that we had to come back, fly into Jo’burg, then down to Port Elizabeth to take the garden route along the coast to Cape Town. What an amazing place! Everyone that I had spoken to about South Africa before we left all said that they couldn’t wait to go back again.
    Now I know why!

    Jane Bimson is an advertising sales representative at The Star.