There wasn’t enough time to explore Pretoria and Cape Town’s Table Mountain was obscured by cloud when Anna Hyman and friends visited the two cities.
Our overnight flight from the UK touched down at Johannesburg Airport. The airport, located on the High Veld, lies midway between Johannesburg and Pretoria. Waiting for us, ready to take us to Pretoria and the Sheraton, our overnight hotel, was Alan Bilborough (www.africanjourneys.za.net), our charming driver and guide for the next 24 hours.
Within a few miles of Pretoria there was a squeal of delight from Wendy – she had seen one of her favourite animals, a giraffe grazing a few yards from the main road in one of the game reserves. We were to see many more giraffes and plenty more wildlife, including four of the Big Five, during our two weeks in South Africa. But that first sighting for five very weary travellers acted as a tonic.
Realising he now had our full attention Alan regaled us with facts about Pretoria, explaining that it is the third largest city in South Africa and also its administrative capital.
The first Afrikaan settlers arrived in the area about 1840. The town dates back to 1855 and was founded by Voortrekker leader Marthinus Pretorius. He had planned to name the town after his father Andries who had played a significant role in the Voortrekker victory over the Zulus at the Battle of Blood River, but eventually the town became known simply as Pretoria.
It’s an attractive city which in October must be even lovelier when the shimmering blue-purple flowers of 55,000 jacaranda trees are in bloom. Not for nothing is it known as the Jacaranda City.
To put things in context for us Alan took us to the Voortrekker Monument. It’s a sombre looking structure sitting atop a hill on the outskirts of the city. It was completed in 1949 and commemorates the Great Trek of the 1830s when the Voortrekkers in their ox-wagons headed away from the Cape for pastures new. Inside the monument 27 marble friezes depict scenes of the Trek and the Zulu wars, whilst outside can be seen a number of ox-wagons. Don’t be put off by the long flight of stairs to the monument, there is a lift.
In the city we headed for Church Square with its statue of President Paul Kruger. One of the buildings flanking the square is the Palace of Justice where Nelson Mandela and other ANC leaders were tried for treason in 1963-64.
Church Street, Pretoria’s main street, runs dead straight for 18km, making it one of the longest streets in the world. On it visitors can find the Kruger House museum with various Boer War exhibits and a collection of his possessions.
I would have liked longer in Pretoria, but time was against us, and Cape Town beckoned. Next morning bright and early we found ourselves at the Rovos Rail station where we boarded the luxurious residential Rovos train that was to take us to the city by the sea. And it was on that rail journey that took in safari parks and the wild, wide open spaces that I realised that I was captivated by the landscapes of Africa.
As our train approached Cape Town station we caught a glimpse of the iconic Table Mountain. It was just about our last siting of it, as for the next few days the mountain wore a table cloth of cloud.
But luckily our Cape Town guide, the indomitable Caz of African Experience (www.africanexperience.co.za), used her common sense and took us to places suitable for the prevailing weather fronts rather than sticking to a rigid tour-party itinerary.
Our hotel was the luxurious Cape Grace on the V&A Waterfront (Victoria and Alfred, by the way) – a great spot with excellent restaurants and interesting shops – a visitor attraction in its own right.
Initially Caz gave us a familiarisation tour of her much-loved city pointing out various landmarks like St George’s Cathedral, various museums, Heritage Square and the attractive suburbs.
As she drove she would tell us about the fynbos - vegetation that only grows in the Cape Peninsular region; the best time for whale watching – October to February; of the off shore kelp forests; of the Lions Head Mountain – it takes about 2 ½ hours to walk to the top; of Signal Hill. But chiefly she decided to show us what lay beyond the immediate city limits.
Because of the cloud we never did make it to the Table top, but Kaz did take us to Cape Point for the dramatic views – there is a funicular for those who don’t fancy the steep 20 minute walk.
She also drove us to Hout Bay, once upon a time a little fishing village, where we took one of the short cruises out of the harbour and round Duiker Island to watch the large seal colony that call it home. And from there onto the ocean drive known as Chapman’s Peak. It is stunning, but before setting out check the pass is open. It is closed in bad weather or if rock falls are likely.
To enter the Cape of Good Hope National Park, the most south western point of the African continent, there is a fee. But worth it, it is beautiful. Make for False Bay, so named because the early explorers who had sailed into the vast bay thought they were actually in Table Bay. Simon’s Town dates back to 1687 and is South Africa’s third oldest European settlement. It’s an attractive town conveniently close to Boulders Beach and the enchanting penguin colony.
I could understand Wendy being captivated by the slender, elegant giraffes and the boys for longing to see the splendid creatures of the Big Five. But for me it’s penguins. I love these serious, unintentionally comical birds with their Charlie Chaplin-like walk and nonchalant laid back approach to life.
Thanks to a series of interlinking boardwalks above the sand dunes visitors can stroll through the boulders and the colony of African or Jackass Penguins to the beach. (They were given the name ‘jackass’ because of their braying call.) I had had a bad fall a few days earlier and couldn’t walk very far so I settled myself on a bench whilst the others set off for the beach. Actually I think I had the better deal because I sat and bonded with my little group – there was the mother carefully preening her baby; several of them looking as if they were practising for the evening’s choir performance under the guidance of their leader; whilst others stood guard outside their natural or man-provided burrows – one of them furious when her-indoors showered him with the dirt she had just excavated.
Another highlight of our few days in Cape Town was the trip out to the glorious Kirstenbosch Gardens. Allow if you can a full day to explore it. Whilst many trees date back even further some of the trees that we see in the garden today were planted by Cecil Rhodes who bought the land in 1895. It became a garden in 1913.
The gardens, the world’s first botanic garden to feature a country’s indigenous flora, were established in 1913 in an attempt to promote and conserve the southern Africa flora. With its backdrop of Table Mountain it is truly one of the great gardens of the world.
Growing in its 90,000 acres are some 22,000 indigenous plants including medicinal plants, some 250 species of Protea and 860 species of Erica. With its ponds and wide open spaces it has become a haven for wildlife. Paved routes, include a Braille Trail, and a number of paths that are suitable for wheel chairs, lead visitors through the grounds. There is also a conservatory, restaurants and an excellent shop to be enjoyed. Guided walking tours and golf buggy tours are also available.
Robben Island also figured on our itinerary. The island is a half-hour ferry ride away from Cape Town. The choppy crossing on that wild, wet and windy day was no fun – the ferry was small and not very comfortable – and it served to bring home to us the sense of despair that the lepers and prisoners who were sent to the island must have felt.
Since the middle of the 17th century Robben Island has been chiefly used as a prison (though it was used as a training and defence station in World War II) and as a hospital for lepers or the mentally and severely ill. Amongst the recent prisoners (political and common-law) was Nelson Mandela.
Since 1997 it has been used as a museum and heritage site. The tour, including the ferry, takes three and a half hours and provides a bus tour round the tiny island to view the leper graves, the Governer’s House, the lime stone quarry where Mandela and fellow prisoners worked in appalling conditions, and two or three places of worship. There is also a visit to the prison itself conducted by an ex-political prisoner. The island is a somewhat grim place to visit, but it is one which should be made.
The Wine Region
It has to be said that our visit to part of the Western Cape wine region was a much more pleasant affair. The first harvest dates back to 1657 and today there are over 200 wine estates. Set amongst the vineyards is another reminder of Nelson Mandela’s years of imprisonment – his statue at the gate of his final mainland prison, his hand raised in a salute to freedom.
We thoroughly enjoyed our tour, and tastings, at Franschhoek’s Lynx Vineyard run by owner/ winemaker Dieter Sellmeyer. It is great winery to visit – small, informal and friendly. Dieter and his delightful colleagues are only too happy to explain the traditional wine making process they use to make the delicious award-winning wines. www.lynxwines.co.za
We also called in at the Boekenhoutskloof winery where we settled round wooden tables in front of a crackling log fire for more excellent sips. www.boekenhoutskloof.co.za/ A little later we found ourselves at La Petit Ferme enjoying a lunch with the wow factor. The meal was delicious and the view over the vineyards where the vine leaves were turning from yellow to red to the low mountains and beyond was sublime. They have bedrooms as well, should visitors needing a stopover! www.lapetiteferme.co.za
About 15 miles from Stellenbosch we came across the aptly named Yonder Hill, another winery renowned for its wines, which also sells and organises tastings of the award-winning blended olive oil Olyfberg. www.yonderhill.co.za; www.olyfberg.co.za
It was on the Spier Wine Estate that Joseph came into our lives. There are fewer than 1000 cheetahs in South Africa and Joseph is a cheetah-ambassador based at Cheetah Outreach – an organisation designed to raise awareness of the plight of these magnificent animals whilst campaigning for their survival.
Slowly, quietly we took turns to be introduced to Joseph who sat patiently with his keeper whilst we stroked his back. Every now and again he stretched and yawned and turned to look at us, as if to check us out. He was surely not thinking of supper! www.cheetah.co.za
Spending time with Joseph was truly awe-inspiring and a fitting finale to our days not only in Cape Town but also in captivating South Africa.
Cape Grace Hotel: www.capegrace.com
See our review in Simply One Of The Best
Sheraton Pretoria: www.sheratonpretoria.com
Our entire holiday, including Rovos Rail was organised for us by the efficient and excellent South African specialists 2by2holidays. www.2by2holidays.co.uk. Tel:01582 766122.
Unless otherwise stated, article photography by Jacci Ramage of 2by2holidays.
2by2holidays is offering Foody Travellers a 5% discount on any 2by2holidays land arrangements booked within three months of the date of the posting of this article – quoting FOODY to claim their offer. This offer covers any train, city or safari break.