Last night, I was flipping through twitter and came across Nomadic Matt’s live tweets from South Africa. His safari photos were enough to prompt me to open up a bottle of South African wine and begin reminiscing about the amazing trip we took to Africa earlier this summer. In June of 2017, my husband and I celebrated our tenth anniversary with a nearly 2.5 week-long vacation in Africa. It began with three nights in Cape Town, one night in the Cape Winelands, three nights at Umlani Bushcamp in the Timbavati Private Nature Reserve just outside Kruger National Park, two nights in Victoria Falls, Zimbabwe, and finally, three nights at Muchenje Safari Lodge in Chobe National Park. Although this was a rare kid-free vacation for us, I did spend most of the trip missing my eight-year-old, who I think would have enjoyed the trip tremendously, while at the same time keeping an eye towards just how quickly we could return with both kids (because the trip was not ideal for toddlers and I know the “baby” won’t want to be left behind when we go!).
Neither of us had ever been to Africa and knowing we had just over two weeks of time, it seemed like a great place to explore for the first time without kids. Our decision to travel to Africa was cinched by the fact that I was able to book two round-trip business class flights from Washington, DC to Cape Town and then from Johannesburg back to Washington, DC for 320,000 United miles (which we transferred from our Chase Ultimate Awards account) and $150.72. Knowing that we would could make the trip to and from Africa in relative comfort for almost nothing out of pocket was a major factor in deciding on Africa.
A second major factor in our decision to go to Africa was that it would be winter in Africa during our summer! Living and working in Washington, DC, I was adamant against going somewhere where it would be hot and humid. That meant most of Asia was out of the question, as was much of Central America. Although we briefly considered a walking tour of Switzerland, it did not come to fruition as my husband (who lived in Switzerland one summer in college) had no time to plan the trip and I quickly lost interest in the notion of taking a nomadic journey across Switzerland on foot. Traveling to South Africa in June ended up being perfect. Because it is the middle of winter, the climate was generally in the mid-60’s and thus, perfectly comfortable for the hiking and walking we wanted to do. Moreover, the biggest tourist season is during their summer – which spans December and Christmas. According to one of our guides, it would be a 90 minute wait to get down to the Cape of Good Hope during high tourist season. We were able to pop in and out without any trouble.
Travel Logistics / Itinerary:
The logistics of travelling to Africa were slightly overwhelming at first as neither of us had been and there was a lot to figure out – immunizations, transfers from one side of the country / continent to another, visas, etc. Luckily, I had a coworker who had just returned from a trip a few years prior who had a few recommendations. Initially, the thought was to spend a few days in Cape Town, a few days in the Winelands, and then travel to Kruger for a safari. However, as I researched, I realized that given the length of time we had reserved for the trip, we could easily squeeze in a second safari. This decision was reinforced by a travel agent, who based on our interest, was able to recommend a few different medium-priced safari lodges. Ultimately, we decided to stay at Umlani Bush Camp in the Timbavati, which billed itself as a “rustic” three-star safari lodge, followed by a stay at Muchenje Safari Lodge which was recommended by our travel agent as a medium-high end safari experience. The two stays at the safari lodges and the transfers to/from each lodge were booked by the travel agent, who was able to secure a cheaper rate than had we booked it directly ourselves, but I was able to book everything else myself, including our three intracontinent flights and hotels in Cape Town / the Winelands / Johannesburg / Victoria Falls.
Our itinerary was as follows:
Day 1 & 2 – 5:30pm arrival in Cape Town, followed by two nights at the Protea Hotel Cape Town Victoria Junction
- Private Hike up Table Mountain via Skeleton Gorge with Table Mountain Walks
- Private Cape Peninsula Tour with Vineyard Ventures
Day 3 – Babylonstoren
- Private wine tour with Tsiba Tsiba Wine Tours
Day 4 – Overnight stay at Protea Hotel Cape Town Mowbray, in preparation for next day flight to Hoedspruit, South Africa
Days 5-7 – Morning three-hour flight from Cape Town to Hoedspruit
- three days, two nights all-inclusive food/drinks/game drives at Umlani Bushcamp in Timbavati Private Nature Reserve
Day 8 – Transfer from Johannesburg Airport to Protea Hotel O.R. Tambo Airport, in preparation for next day flight to Victoria Falls
Days 9&10 – Morning two-hour flight from Johannesburg to Victoria Falls, Zimbabwe on day 9 and then two night stay at Batonka Guest Lodge
- Batoka Gorge walk and village tour with Shearwater Victoria Falls
Victoria Falls walking tour with Shearwater Victoria Falls
- three days, two nights all-inclusive food/drinks/game drives
Day 15 – Two-hour flight from Kasane, Botswana to Johannesburg Airport, overnight stay at Ten Bompas Hotel in Johannesburg
Day 16 – Fly home
My husband and I were both blown away by Cape Town. It is easily one of the most beautiful cities we have ever been to, easily rivaling San Francisco in terms of its beauty, climate (at least while we were there in the middle of their “winter!”), and devotion to good food and wine.
Our first full day in Cape Town was spent hiking up Table Mountain via Skeleton’s Gorge. Our hike was led by Pietro of Table Mountain Walks and his style of guiding and pace was a perfect match for what we were looking for. Despite our late arrival at the hotel the prior night, he called to confirm our meeting time the next morning and also to suggest what shoes/clothing to wear given the weather. We met Pietro the next morning in the hotel lobby after a light breakfast and proceeded to Kirstenbosch National Botanical Gardens, the designated starting point for our five-hour adventure. Although my husband and I greatly enjoyed our hike Skeleton’s Gorge, it does involve climbing ladders and a very wet rock gorge. Since it had rained the few days preceding our planned hike, there was so much water actively streaming down the gorge that I simply thought it was a waterfall and asked Pietro when we got to the landing, “now what?”
Although we had a blast climbing up the gorge and then walking across Table Mountain before taking the cable car back down, this is not something I would recommend with young children. If I were to return with young children (not yet teenagers), I would recommend riding the cable car to the top of the mountain and then walking the flat part of Table Mountain, Smuts Track. You can spend as much time as you want walking the flat trail and there’s plenty of views and rocks to see – just be cautious, in adverse weather conditions, the cable car will stop running and if that happens, you will be left with the option of sitting and waiting for it to reopen or a near vertical climb down.
Our second full day in Cape Town was spent with Andrew at Vineyard Ventures. Vineyard Ventures offers only private tours and can custom tailor the tour based on your particular needs and interests. Our tour began with an early hotel pick up, and we immediately proceeded down to the Cape Peninsula, the Cape of Good Hope, and the penguins at Boulders, before dropping us off at our hotel. Along the way, Andrew drove us through Constantia, Cape Town’s “wine country” and provided us with tons of information regarding the local architecture, political climate, and other historical insights that we would not have been privy to without his company.
Unfortunately for us, my husband and I came down with a mild stomach bug the morning of our planned Cape Peninsula Tour. Although the stomach bug was short lived and well-managed with antibiotics and other medications we picked up from the pharmacy, it still affected our ability to really engage and fully appreciate the day. I will say, however, that having hired a private tour for the day (and a private wine tour the next day) really saved those two days we were down with the stomach virus in Cape Town / Winelands. If we did not have pre-arranged transport and someone else to do the driving, there is almost no chance we would have attempted to do it ourselves. Overall, I was thrilled with the quality of the guiding offered by every single company/vendor we engaged in Cape Town / Winelands and would not hesitate to recommend them going forward.
Andrew conveniently dropped us off after our Cape Peninsula tour at our accommodations for the evening – Babylonstoren, the highlight of my time in Cape Town. Babylonstoren is a Cape Dutch Farm that has an operating fruit and vegetable garden, bee hive, winery, restaurant, spa… Although our stay was too short to arrange for a spa treatment, our accommodations (a single room with bath in a free-standing dutch home) were exceptionally well appointed and dinner was also lovely. We took a quick tour of the gardens the next morning and loved seeing the different fruits and vegetables and, my personal favorite, the jumping chickens.
From Babylonstoren, Eileen from Tsiba Tsiba Wine Tours took us on a private tour of six different wineries. Although Eileen chose the wineries, she did so with prior information regarding our tastes and preferences and chose a wide variety of wineries – some that we would be able to find in the United States and others that we could only enjoy in South Africa.
Would I recommend Cape Town / Winelands for those traveling with children?
It depends. If you’re planning on traveling with young pre-teen children, I suggest that your time would be better spent on safari than in Cape Town and the Winelands. Although there are definitely things to do with young children in both areas, the real attractions – to me – in Cape Town and the Winelands are the food, the hiking, and the wine. Of course, if you’re not someone who is called to four course meals* with wine pairings and/or full day wine tasting adventures, by all means, enjoy the small hikes in Cape Town and the surrounding mountains and even take your kids to Babylonstoren – they likely would love to spend a day in the gardens, learning about harvesting, growing, and jumping chickens. But, my husband and I both agreed that given the opportunity to travel to South Africa again alone, we would spend a long weekend or a week in Cape Town / Winelands, saving the kids for the big game safari adventures.
Regardless of the age of your traveling dependents, however, South Africa was an ideal place to visit in mid-late June. School age children will be on summer break, the temperature will be moderate (for us East Coasters used to extreme fluctuations), and the crowds were practically nonexistent – we encountered no other climbers on our hike up Skeleton’s Gorge, and there were very few people on the cable car and/or touring the Peninsula. I wouldn’t hesitate to plan a summer vacation next time, but I would not recommend going in our summer (their winter) if you are not keen on crowds.
* we had numerous, amazing fine dining experiences that blew our minds during our stay in South Africa. Not only was the food and wine inventive and delicious, but the portions were huge, and the checks were not! Our four-course dinner for two with wine pairings on our last night in South Africa came out to $140 total, tax and gratuity inclusive – cheaper than what we usually pay for a four-course meal with no wine pairings for one! If you’re interested in specific dining recommendations for South Africa, let me know. I’d be happy to share our experiences and send along recommendations.