Just back from…South Africa

After a few weeks of jet-setting in the southern hemisphere we finally pinned down Clare, our South Africa guru, to get her insider recommendations on her favourite country in Africa.

Clare in Cape Town

Why do you love South Africa? Or do you? We can’t just assume….

There’s so much to do here from the city buzz to rolling valleys, rugged coastline and safari, and they’re all spectacular.  Being a true foodie, wine lover, and outdoor enthusiast (with admittedly, a distinct love of the odd bit of R&R) South Africa truly ticks all of the boxes, and much, much more.

What’s your favourite part of visiting SA?

I’d really have to say the people.  Everyone was so incredibly warm and welcoming wherever I went.  Some of my friends and family were sceptical about my travel to this part of the world having read some less than glowing news articles, but I couldn’t have been more swayed by the charm of South Africans.  Absolutely nothing is too much for them to organise, and they really will go out their way to make visitors feel completely at home – utter bliss when you’re travelling solo and ready for a good natter!

Cape Grace and Table Mountain, Cape Town

We’re yet to meet anyone who doesn’t love Cape Town, but where’s your favourite place to stay?

Arriving in Cape Town after an 18 hour flight, I couldn’t have been more excited to sink into my large and seriously inviting bed at the Cape Grace.  It’s on the bustling Waterfront (albeit tucked away enough to still be peaceful) and is the ideal spot to head out for an evening stroll and dinner at one of the nearby seafood restaurants.  The day beds in the spa are the perfect place to read a good book and take in the glorious views up to Table Mountain. For something a bit livelier I’d probably head down to the hotel’s Bascule Bar for a cocktail, or try to choose from one of their 400 whiskies.

Top tip: every evening the Cape Grace offers complimentary wine tasting hosted by one of the hugely informative sommeliers – it’s a great way to meet other guests and to swot up on your wine facts.

If you had to give a personal recommendation for family trips to South Africa, where would you suggest?

If you’re headed to the Winelands then Boschendal caters for even the fussiest family member.  There’s a wonderful farm school where children are looked after by qualified childminders and taught all about foraging, outdoor cooking and upcycling – maybe even enough to teach the parents a trick or two!  Each child receives their pair of wellies and hat, ready to explore the greater countryside.  For the more active, there are mountain bike and hiking trails galore as well as horse riding and plenty of farm tours.  If you’re craving some adult time, ask for a babysitter and sample some of the seriously good food in their fine-dining restaurant, the Werf.

Top Tip: If you’re there on a Friday during the summer, be sure to check out the evening market.

Tree House School at Boschendal

Where’s your secret hotspot that no-one really knows about?

Morukuru Beach Lodge is one of those gems that you don’t want to shout too much about for fear of it being fully booked for evermore.  The drive there isn’t for the faint hearted but boy is it worth it!  Spend the day doing nature drives (in a safari vehicle with heated seats no less!) and ocean walks along the beach, before arriving back to warming hot chocolates laced with Amarula. Afterwards enjoy drinks and delicious food with your fellow guests, all whilst lapping up the most incredible sea views.  I was too busy watching the whales out the window to eat my breakfast – I think I counted 8 at one time, incredible!

Top Tip: Take an early morning stroll over the sand dunes and you will more than likely find the place to yourself to really appreciate the stunning views.

Dunes at Morukuru Beach Lodge

This is a hotly debated topic at Extraordinary Africa HQ, but where would you choose to go for safari?

Tanda Tula. Set in the Timbavati Nature Reserve on the edge of Kruger, it epitomises the rustic safari camp vibe.  All rooms here are tented but seriously well kitted out.  There’s something rather romantic (with possibly some nervousness mixed in) about lying in bed, looking straight out of your tent and knowing that any form of wildlife could quite happily wander up to within a few feet of where you’re lying.  Rest assured though, the wonderful staff here will ensure that your nerves are kept well under control!

Top tip: Keep your eyes peeled for the elusive white lion, known to be seen from time to time in the Timbavati

White lion in the Timbavati

As an outdoors lover, where would you go for an active adventure?

Set just outside Plettenberg Bay, Hog Hollow is the perfect place for lovers of the outdoors.  The huge rooms here are perched amongst the trees with large decks offering sweeping views over the valley.   There are a wealth of activities to choose from whilst staying at Hog Hollow; hikes for even the most serious of walkers, adventure playgrounds for the younger members of the family, various animal sanctuaries to visit, horse riding (which Hog Hollow are well known for), or for those wanting to put their feet up, a quiet day on the beach. And the best bit after a busy day of exploring is to curl up by the warming fire pit for a sundowner with your fellow guests.

Top tip: There’s a great walk down the valley and up the other side (not for the faint hearted!) to Birds of Eden or the Monkey Sanctuary and once you’re finished, you can ask for a complimentary lift back to save those weary feet.

Knysna Turaco at Birds of Eden

If you were sending a friend on honeymoon to South Africa, where would you recommend for romance?

For a serious dose of romance, I couldn’t help but fall in love with Dulini River Lodge.  Sleeping just twelve guests in six suites, this is the perfect place to escape the rat race and indulge in some well-earned R&R.  Each suite is vast, with the sort of bed you could easily get lost in.  The shower and bath make the most of the wonderful views out to the river bed, and on warm days there’s a hugely inviting (heated) plunge pool out on deck where I happily spent a few minutes lapping up the peaceful surroundings while watching a herd of elephants slowly walking past. There was so much love in the air that one of the other guests assumed the manager, who had kindly offered to eat with me, must have been my newlywed husband…

Top tip: Do try their ChocaMocharula (hot chocolate, coffee, amarula) mix as a sundowner on a chilly game drive, it certainly warms those cockles.

Private dining in suite at Dulini River Lodge

You’re known in the EA office for your love of good food: where would you recommend to fellow foodies?

The winelands (and Cape Town for that matter) are renowned for seriously good food, and drink.  So picking one is an arduous task, however, Babylonstoren is just one of those places that oozes foodie charm in the bucket loads.  There’s a serious ethos here encompassing ‘from nature to plate’, and nearly everything found on the menu in the various restaurants, and for sale in the farm shop, comes direct from the farm.  Not only is the main restaurant here (Babel) award winning and with utterly scrummy food, their harvest tables at breakfast are also a true work of art. If you’re lucky enough to be staying here in one of their charming cottages, we’d highly recommend scouting out some goodies in the farm shop to take back to your private state of the art kitchen via the chefs in the main restaurant who will more than happily provide you with some top notch cooking tips.  If you’re after a bit of an Italian twist, do be sure to head to the bakery on a Monday or Friday for their Italian inspired homemade pasta and wood-fired pizzas.  After all that eating, walk it off with an informative tour of the farm grounds to see exactly where all their delicious food originates from, followed by a warming glass of red in the tasting room…

Top tip: If you’re looking for somewhere to propose, there’s an island in the middle of the lake which is called the “yes spot”, and staff will do everything to make it magical.

The breakfast spread at Babylonstoren

Elephants on the Runway…Jenny’s Trip Report

Lovely feedback from our guests who visited South Africa.

Dear Alexandra

As you know we got home on Friday and because we launched straight into a busy weekend I haven’t written sooner to say an enormous thank you to you for arranging what was a truly wonderful holiday.  We really did have the most amazing time – everything worked like clockwork ( apart from the elephant on the runway at Shukuza!!!!!!) and we said so many times while we were there how clever you had been to send us to all the different places which we loved in all their different ways.

Montusi Mountain Lodge

It was lovely when we first arrived to have three days at Montusi to switch off and revel in those views – we thought we couldn’t go better!

Leopard

Three Tree Hill lodge was perfect, Fugitives Drift even better and then the joy of seeing all the animals at the next two places (Notten’s and Makakatana [ed]).  We felt incredibly lucky seeing so many animals although I think the highlight had to be seeing a female leopard one day sleeping and then the following day up a tree with her kill!  We also saw a fabulous male leopard who strolled by the jeep so close we could have just reached out and stroked him!

Notten’s Bush Camp

There is a danger I could get far too carried away with superlatives but we did just want to say a really big thank you.  We saw so much…….. scenery, culture, animals, not to mention being thoroughly pampered everywhere we went with fabulous food and drink as well as meeting so many lovely people in the lodges.  The staff couldn’t have looked after us better giving us such welcomes either on arrival or when we got back from our various expeditions.

Makakatana Bay Lodge

We can understand how you love it!

If we can ever recommend anyone to come your way we will…..

With love Jenny

Why owner-run lodges really matter

A holiday in Africa’s about the animals right? Well, to an extent- but it’s also about the people. Africa attracts some pretty wonderful characters and the owner of your safari lodge can make as much of a difference to your trip as the wildlife can.

The owner’s the person who can ignore the rules, who can give you the fun, because, frankly, she’s enjoying your company and wants you to have a great time. The owner’s the guy who can help you meet an elephant because he’s been here for 20 years and knows them. The owners’ the guide who tells you the outrageous stories that you’ll tell your friends for 20 years to come. And the owner’s the person who might just say “Ah, you’re travelling with Alex. We had a few drinks in Durban a while back- have an upgrade.”

So, I’d like to introduce some people who made my most recent holiday in South Africa especially wonderful:

Lindsay and Catherine (pictured here with their Dad, Anthony) owners of Montusi Mountain Lodge

Owner run Montusi Mountain Lodge

Lindsay, Catherine and Anthony in the hills

Montusi Mountain Lodge was the surprise treat of my road trip around KwaZulu Natal. I arrived mid thunderstorm, and was the only guest eating in that night. “We’ll bring dinner to you”, I was told. So instead of trudging to the rain to sit in a lonely restaurant, I snuggled up on my sofa beside the fire, with the curtains drawn wide watching the lightening crackle across the top of the Drakensberg. Would a hotel manager have done the same? Maybe….

Ant and Tessa, owners of Ant’s Nest and Ant’s Hill

Ant and Tessa

Ant and Tessa

Visiting Ant’s Nest is very much like visiting someone’s home (in fact, when we visited the lodge was so full we actually stayed in Ant and Tessa’s home, and couldn’t have been made more welcome).  Meals at are eaten around one big jolly table and the rapport between the staff is so strong Ant’s been heard to joke that he’s running a marriage bureau as a well as a safari lodge.  Having Ant and his wife Tessa on site creates an incredibly fun and welcoming atmosphere for a family safari one that we think would be impossible to recreate without themOn top of this, as Ant’s family first settled here over a century ago, taking it from cattle ranch to wildlife conservancy, chatting to Ant and Tessa is a fantastic way to properly understand the land and the challenges they face- not something you’d find in an every day hotel. We learnt more about rhino conservation in our stay here than I have done in 10 years of taking safaris in Africa.

And, of course, there’s the safari camp owner who told us the tale of the unfortunate guest found roaming the camp the nude in the wee small hours, but he’d better remain nameless…

Flying South for the Winter: Winter Sun in Africa

It’s no surprise than when the weather turns cold, phones start ringing at Extraordinary Africa HQ. As much as we love snuggling up beside a blazing fire and listening to the windows rattle, sometimes we’d really just rather feel the sun on our skin and the warmth breathing out of the sand. So, if we could fly south with the swallows for summer, this is where we’d pick.

Cape Town: Food, wine, and African sunshine…

For an easy winter break with reliable sunshine, an incredible gourmet scene, and barely any time difference Cape Town would be difficult to beat. During the chilly northern hemisphere winter, there are direct flights from London to Cape Town, so you as you leave work on a Friday evening,you can wave goodbye to your colleagues, safe in the knowledge that tomorrow be eating lunch with a glass of rosé on the Waterfront. Hotels in Cape Town are boutique and effortlessly chic, the glamorous beaches of Clifton and Camp’s Bay are the perfect place to spend a few days snoozing, Table Mountain provides incredible views and fabulous hiking if you really must, and there are world class restaurants scattered throughout the city (just ask us to book early for you- many of them fill up months in advance).

If you have longer to spare, hire a car (we love whizzing around in a soft-top mini) and head out to the Winelands, where you can ride from vineyard to languorous lunch, or head down to Cape Point to see the utterly adorable penguins.

Tanzania’s Tropical beaches

For something a little more remote and wild, Tanzania’s beaches are incredibly low-profile, but utterly gorgeous.  During our winter temperatures are hovering at a balmy 30 degrees, conditions are perfect for diving and snorkelling and deep-sea fishermen will have a serious challenge on their hands.

Zanzibar’s beaches are the real show stopper, and perfect if you want to combine your beach with island life- exploring the ancient streets of Stone Town, being guided through spice plantations, and cycling through the fishing villages. There are some seriously lovely 5* hotels here, as well as some adorable boutique options, so we can almost always find a perfect option for you somewhere.

For divers and snorkelers there’s really only one choice: Mafia. We probably wouldn’t rate the beaches on Mafia Island as highly as those on Zanzibar, but if you want somewhere utterly unspoilt and charming and impossibly laid back, this is it.  If you want to cut yourself of from a frenetic job and the rest of the world, Mafia is the place to be.  Plus there’s the chance to dive with whale sharks. And if that’s not worth travelling for, we don’t know what is.

Finally, over on Tanzania’s mainland coast, visiting Pangani is like stepping back in time to a Zanzibar of 40 or 50 years ago.  You’re more likely to see a fisherman, pushing his bike along the beach with a cheery wave, than you are to see another tourists. Ladies sing as they wade into the sea to haul in the nets, and dhows potter past, sailing gently by as they have for centuries. Bliss.

My latest crush: Montusi Mountain Lodge

If you have a temper tantrum because you have to leave your lodge, it’s got to be pretty good right? To be fair, my sulks on leaving Montusi were between me, the grasses and the birds,  but I couldn’t help resenting the long drive and the perfectly blameless hire car that were to break me and Montusi apart. Why couldn’t the irritatingly efficient machine break down and leave me stranded, just for a day or two?

Night time at Montusi Mountain Lodge

Starlight at Montusi Mountain Lodge

My most recent trip to South Africa had got off to something of a rocky start, with unseasonal storms in almost every place I visited.  After a long drive through rural KwaZulu Natal  Montusi welcomed me with a cosy fire and vast windows that framed the lightening crackling along the top of the Drakensberg.

Opening my eyes the next morning to glorious sunshine and the sort of view you have to photograph (just so you can show off about it later) I headed for the peak of Mount Montusi. Hiking through meadows that smelled of wild mint and listening to the clanking cowbells only cemented my love for Montusi. Sadly, it seemed as if I had just a few brief stolen moments to admire the view and the bushman rock art (in the UK it’d be behind glass and a velvet rope, here it’s on an open cave wall), and then I had to leave.

Au Revoir Montusi, I’ll be back!

The signs of modern South Africa: A Road Trip around Kwa Zulu Natal

We love visiting Africa, especially on a self drive trip- it’s the best way to experience a country as locals do, rather than flying into remote luxury resorts and never seeing a local village or experiencing an elephant firmly blocking the road. Sometimes it can be exhausting, at others frustrating (a huge thank you to our wonderful client Calynne for putting up with crackly phone calls from deep in the bush), but generally, it’s just wonderful. Most recently we took a road trip around Kwa Zulu Natal and felt as if we’d finally discovered the soul of South Africa (as someone else said- “KZN is where Africa starts…”) Rather than droning on ourselves, just click to let the signs of modern South African speak for themselves…

 

Where to spot… Leopards

There’s something about spotting a leopard on safari that sets people’s pulses racing.  It’s often men that fall passionately for this slinky cat (sorry boys!)- it’s the ultimate predator, perfectly designed for the silent stalk, the stealthy hunt and the efficient kill.

Luxury Safari in the Sabi Sands

Leopard at Singita Sabi Sand

It’s possible to spot leopards on safari all over Africa, but they’re notoriously elusive. Stories abound about leopards successfully disguising themselves, even amongst large human populations. Legend holds that when a lone leopard was spotted on Nairobi railway station, the storyteller was rubbished. 3 years later, the bones of a recently deceased leopardess was spotted under a rarely used platform… Well, so the story goes.

For those who want more reliable leopard sightings there are a number of places to visit in Africa where a safari of two or three days should give you a very reliable chance of seeing a leopard. We’ve put some effort into personally checking these out, so do ask us if you have any questions.

Okonjima Safari

Okonjima Leopard

3. Okonjima, Central Highlands, Namibia

The AfriCat Foundation at Okonjima is utterly absorbing for anyone who’s ever been fascinated by the big cats. It’s important to stress- these cats aren’t wild. They’ve been collared and are closely monitored by the research team. This makes it possible to get up close to leopard (also cheetah and wild dog) in a way that’s just not possible elsewhere, and learn more about hands on research and conservation than you would in 10 safaris.

2. South Luangwa, Zambia

I’ve had phenomenal sightings in the South Luangwa and a colleague who (though good at rather tall tales) claims to have spotted 7 leopard in one night drive. The leopard here are often spotted on night game drives with spotlights- this is the time of day when leopard are most active, as they’re on the hunt for fresh food. By day, look for the flicker of a tail up in the sausage trees, where leopards like to lounge on long flat branches.

Luxury Safari in the South Luangwa

Leopard spotted with Bushcamps on safari in the South Luangwa

1. Sabi Sands, South Africa

Without a shadow of a doubt, of all the places I’ve done safari in Africa (and there have been a few) the Sabi Sands has been by far and away the best place to spot leopards.  I’ve tracked adults through the grasses at Lion Sands, watched leopards lounging in trees from Nottens, and most satisfyingly of all, clocked a spotted face stalking me through the reeds over breakfast at Singita Ebony. If you’re a leopard lover, go tomorrow, take my camera, and never look back.

African titbits: the Cullinan Diamond

To be honest, I only read about the Cullinan Diamond for a quiz I was setting. Jewellery’s pretty to look at, but it doesn’t really hold the same fascination as watching an elephant for half an hour.  When I started reading about the Diamond however, I was sucked in by Wikipedia, passed through numerous anonymous websites and spat out the other end by the Daily Mail. I was fascinated.

The Cullinan Diamond was discovered in South Africa in 1905, and (according to the Daily Mail, though no other sources I can reference) was so implausibly large, it was nearly thrown out with the rubbish. The superintendent rescued it and recognised the diamond for what it was:  3,106 carats and thought to be the largest diamond ever discovered. In fact, a smooth fracture down one side suggests this is only a small portion of an even larger diamond.  The diamond was named after Sir Thomas Cullinan the owner of the mine, and purchased by the Transvaal Government for £150,000. They voted to send it to King Edward VII as a token of their loyalty, and although this was shortly after the end of the Boer war, this was mainly driven by the Boer population and opposed by English settlers.

The Cullinan Diamond was so valuable it had to be sent to London from South Africa by roundabout means. A parcel was ceremonially placed on a steamer ship in the captain’s safe, and guarded by detectives all of the way to London. Meanwhile the real diamond was sent in an unmarked box by normal post. The Cullinan Diamond was presented to the king, but without modern precision cutting tools, cutting it was another challenge. Eventually, Asscher and Co, after many months of studying the diamond, faced up to the task. Legend holds that Mr Asscher had a doctor and nurse on standby, and after breaking one blade successfully cut the diamond straight through. He then fainted clean away.

Today the Cullinan Diamond has been cut into 9 large stones (amongst them the Star of Africa), and numerous smaller ones, which form a significant part of the British crown jewels. Their value is priceless, but one estimate puts the combined value at well over £100 million in today’s prices.

Proposing this Valentine’s Day? We have just the idea for you….

Let’s face it – we’ve all sat through a thousand boring ‘and then, suddenly, he was down on one knee!’ stories. A 2014 Valentine’s proposal demands something a little more interesting. Paris is passé, and New York is just a tiny bit naff ­- with direct flights, just an hour’s time difference (two in the winter), Cape Town has world-class food and wine, Valentine’s Day sunshine, and a certain understated cool that makes your moment all yours.

Luxury holidays in Cape Town

The Mother City: what girl could say no?

If you’re waiting for the right time to propose, a long weekend in Cape Town will leave you spoiled for choice. Take a helicopter flight over the city or spirit your beloved away on a speedboat ride in the bay. Whisk her (or him) up to the Winelands for a gentle horseback trot through the vineyards and a glass of award-winning local fizz.  Cycle through the Mother City by night, or hike up Table Mountain and then, when the timing’s just right…

And – assuming the answer’s “Yes”- celebrate with canapés and sundowners on the Waterfront, a picnic amongst the penguins at Cape Point or dinner in the private art gallery at Ellerman House. So much more interesting than a glass of champagne at the Eiffel Tower – and, once you’re factoring in African prices, not that much more expensive. Who could fail to fall in love with that?

Where would you go if you were flying to Africa tonight? Or, holidays worth going to work for.

A few years ago I used to work in a large office of safari experts, all passionate Africa lovers. Our favourite game on a quiet Friday afternoon was to plan our fantasy African adventure. We discussed the safaris that we’d sell our souls to get to, the remote beaches that our bones ached for, and the game reserves we lost afternoons dreaming of. We talked about lodges, camps, and game reserves that made coming to work worthwhile, if only because it meant each paycheque brought us closer to another African adventure.

Time and again, the same names came up, the places that were so magical we all adored them.  And here they are, our ultimate African experiences.