A warthog gatecrashing a camping breakfast; breathtaking stargazing in South Africa’s coldest town; discovering otherworldly rock formations; and losing yourself in a sea of green forest… these are just some of my best travel memories in South Africa and its more remote, yet fiercely beautiful places.
My Best Travel Memories in South Africa
In a time when we cannot travel due to COVID-19, I am finding myself remembering more and more special travel moments.
So, for this post, I decided to share some of my special experiences across SA. Included is also a special travel memory from my friend and travel partner, Alicia Chamaillé.
Many of the places I have not been to since I was a child – but the memories have stuck with me and changed how I view South Africa and its diverse provinces.
Let’s revisit these travel memories together:
Stars to Remind Us How Small We Are
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Photo by: Alex De Kock via Instagram
Sutherland, the coldest place in South Africa, is perhaps not the first place on many travellers’ lists – but it should be.
This unsuspecting Northern Cape town might seem as far-flung and quiet as they come… but it is a pretty magical place.
If you travel from the Western Cape like we did, the scenery changes around you with a fascinating variation. It is the small subtleties that stick out most, even to the most untrained of eyes.
Scenery aside, its high altitude (1 450 metres (4 760 ft) above sea level), remoteness and vast skies make it one of the best places on earth for stargazing. And when I say it’s epic, I think that is an understatement.
In 2006, a small school group travelled on a day trip from Montagu to Sutherland and back. It was a memorable day in November: a time when South Africa is heating up. It is also one of the coldest nights of my life… (More on that later.)
Sutherland feels small in the context of people and habitation. Yet, in terms of terrain and big sky country, it is king. You can see the Milky Way in the most minute detail at night. Particularly if you visit the astronomical station where SALT is found.
That is: the Southern African Large Telescope. SALT is “the largest single optical telescope in the southern hemisphere and among the largest in the world. It has a hexagonal primary mirror array 11 metres across, comprising 91 individual 1-metre hexagonal mirrors.”
It is amazing in and of itself but honestly, even with a tiny telescope, Sutherland will blow your mind.
We had to while away the hours in town (which was, admittedly, pretty hard as Sutherland made Montagu, a small town, look like a busy city…) but as soon as the day began to wan, we made our way up the hill to the SALT station.
After a brief tour, we waited for nightfall and the magic to happen… And boy, did it.
I can still remember how, even as the temperature dropped from warm to freezing in the space of a few hours, as the light faded, and we huddled in a ball for warmth, the stars danced into view and I was utterly spellbound.
As part of our guided night tour, we took turns peering through one of the smaller, impressive on-site telescopes.
A Glimpse of Heaven From Afar
But after a while, I stood apart from the others for a few moments and just drank it in with my naked eye… And it was like looking through the threshold of this earth and glimpsing a sliver of Heaven.
The Milky Way was so vivid and clear, the stars innumerable and bright and the air chill enough on a November night to have us breathing steam… Needless to say, I suddenly felt incredibly small.
At the time, I was dealing with some pretty big problems for a 12-year-old – my first year of high school and my mum battling recently diagnosed cancer – but it’s like all of my problems, emotions and fears melted away. And in that moment, I could only focus on the beauty and the majesty of the big sky above.
It was a completely moving, intimate experience and certainly one that has made me feel more alive than any other… Even 12 years later, it is still one of my greatest life experiences.
And maybe, just maybe, Sutherland will leave you starstruck for life too.
Whatever the case, it is a small town worth visiting at least once in your lifetime.
For more information on SALT and its visitor rules, please visit: www.salt.ac.za.
Hiking in an Otherworldly Landscape
The Cederberg is one of my favourite places in the whole of South Africa. And to date, I have only spent a single weekend exploring this unique, nature-rich region.
Known for its spectacular mountains, strange rock formations and vast natural spaces, the Cederberg Region is one of the most freeing places to explore.
The fauna and flora are intensely beautiful and dense (you know things get wild when you see signs proclaiming it as Cape Mountain leopard country) – and that’s no surprise given how it forms a special part of the Cape Floral Kingdom.
The Cederberg Wilderness Area is a World Heritage Site filled with beautiful fynbos, proteas, wildlife and amazing hiking opportunities.
The Cederberg: A Place of Immense Natural Beauty
With its jagged rocks, Khoisan rock art, burnt-orange cliffs and impressive, towering mountains, divided by crystal rivers and streams, the Cederberg is a place of immense natural beauty.
It is, if any place is, a nature lover’s paradise in every sense of the word.
Whether you go rustic ‘glamping’ like we did or decide to camp out in the wild, it will be a memorable experience, affording you the chance to enjoy breathtaking hikes and walks, rich historical rock art, unique rock formations (like the Maltese Cross and Wolfberg Arch) – and above all, serenity with nature.
We travelled there in October so the springtime weather was lovely – not too hot, not too cold. The days were warm and the nights were chilly. (And, like Sutherland, its high altitude lends it well to beautiful stargazing come nightfall… After Sutherland, it is definitely my best stargazing experience in SA.)
Ignore Your Phone and Recharge Your Own Batteries
Best of all, signal is limited so we were essentially able to ignore our phones and simply be in the moment for the whole weekend.
I haven’t enjoyed many weekends away as much as I did this one and it is safe to say that the Cederberg is great for groups of friends, couples or families to enjoy together. There is enough history, natural beauty and outdoor fun to keep everyone entertained and mesmerised.
For some handy travel tips, I recommend that you:
- pack in comfortable hiking shoes, warm clothes, plenty of water and sunscreen;
- and make sure your vehicle of choice is better suited to off-road adventuring than your MINI Cooper because the rugged roads are, by and large, something to encounter… (And I say this as a reformed farm girl, well-acquainted with the most rural of farm roads!)
If you have not explored this incredible region, add the Cederberg Region to your travel bucket list for one day… Because it’s unlike anywhere else in SA.
For more information on the Cederberg, please visit: www.cederberg.com.
A Warthog Gatecrashing Our Camp Breakfast
Not many people can say they have had a warthog join them for breakfast. Although, I think if you live in South Africa, your chances of wildlife gatecrashing your outdoor gatherings do go up significantly.
When I was little, KwaZulu-Natal’s Lake Saint Lucia was a popular family haunt. We would take our boat and camp out – and even though I was very young, I still have beautiful, yet fuzzy memories of those days.
On one particular overnight boating trip, as we were sitting down for breakfast (I still remember which mini Kelloggs mini cereal box I wanted!)… a lone, curious warthog decided to gatecrash our meal.
The details are a bit sketchy because I was around 4 or 5 then – but I do have a photograph in our family album as physical proof (sadly not with me at the time of writing) and I clearly remember my childish excitement and laughing at what I probably thought was a very funny and silly warthog.
While this is undoubtedly a pretty unique memory, St Lucia and indeed Lake St Lucia, is an incredible area for nature encounters and once-in-a-lifetime wildlife opportunities.
Southern Africa’s Largest Lake: Lake St Lucia
Lake St Lucia, an estuarine lake system in northern KZN, is the largest lake in Southern Africa and covers approximately 350 square kilometres. It falls within the iSimangaliso Wetland Park, itself a haven of undisturbed beauty.
As a UNESCO World Heritage Site, it is understandably one of the most incredible, wild places on earth. It is considered one of the richest mammal conservation areas in South Africa and is also a wonderful place for birdwatchers to visit, given how it is blessed with rich bird life.
Admittedly though, when visiting iSimangaliso Wetland Park and St Lucia, you do have to be cautious, as the region is home to some incredible, yet dangerous wildlife, including hippos, Nile crocodiles and several venomous snakes to name a few. Lake St Lucia alone is estimated to be home to +/- 1200 Nile crocs… So things can get snappy fast!
As such, I feel I must stress that, as with any nature haven and wildlife region, care and respect for the planet and its creatures is essential.
Please do not take unnecessary risks, break rules or purposefully get in any animal’s way. Let us appreciate these glorious beasts and creatures and observe the quiet respect and caution due to them.
As a whole though, Lake St Lucia and its surrounds are a unique experience for families, couples and friends.
And, provided you keep your wits about you and obey the park laws, it will leave you with lasting wildlife memories…
For more information on St Lucia, please visit: stluciasa.com.
Encountering the Giants of the Garden Route
Travel memory from: Alicia Chamaillé
Every summer holiday for the last five years, I venture down the Cape’s breathtaking Garden Route to Knysna where my boyfriend’s family live.
The summer of 2017/2018, I got the idea from his grandmother to spend a few extra days and drive to Addo Elephant National Park, home to over six hundred elephants, and so my planning began.
The first issue was finding a place to stay… While Addo has plenty of accommodation, from rest camps to luxury lodges, we were on a tight budget. So I searched online for a spot just outside the 1 640 square-kilometre nature reserve. (It’s South Africa’s third-largest national park).
Unearthing Lovely Private Accommodation
After a couple of months of sleuthing, I came across Tracey’s Room. A lovely private room (with an en-suite) for two available at Avoca River Cabins.
The room was cheap compared to most places in the vicinity and a short, 20-minute drive from Addo. (R600 per night for two, excluding breakfast, which we could have had for an extra R85 each.)
We arrived not expecting much at all and found a beautiful farm with cottages, a bush camp, mud huts and private rooms available.
Tracey’s Room is attached to the main house but with a separate entrance and private courtyard. The room features two single beds pushed together, a tea and coffee station and a large shower in the bathroom. It’s private and comfortable. But, because it’s attached to the main house, you can hear people walking and talking on the other side of the wall.
After getting the key to our room and dropping our bags off we headed to the nearest town, Kirkwood, for some extra provisions. It was a short, 20-minute drive and we found a large SPAR with everything we needed for the hodgepodge picnic we planned to have at Addo.
Once back at Avoca, we explored the grounds, took photos of the river and stunning flowers, said hello to the resident dogs and swam in their pristine pool.
Exploring Addo: South Africa’s Third-Largest National Park
So, as 2018 drew to a close, we spent the better part of the 28th December driving around Addo. We left Avoca early and arrived at Addo around 08:30 am. Already there was a queue at the information office to get in.
As locals, it cost us only R76 each for a day pass. As soon as we had paid, received the road map with information and gotten my camera photo-ready, we were off.
I’d been promised elephants around every corner (there weren’t) and my boyfriend was eager to see the lions. (There are six and we, sadly, didn’t see any.)
We drove around for the first 40 minutes with only herds of zebras, warthogs and meerkats (hello, Timon and Pumbaa), some of the four hundred Cape buffalo in the park and a variety of buck in sight.
Success at Last
I began to despair slightly when we suddenly arrived at our third watering hole and were met with a line of cars… We immediately cast our gaze to the horizon and there they were: a whole herd of about 20 elephants with several calves – and they were coming to us!
They spent some time at the watering hole, enjoying drinking water and splashing mud on their backs before turning around to leave. We watched them go before starting our engine and continuing in search of more elephants.
My excitement over every baby animal (it was the beginning of summer, so there were quite a few still) and every elephant sighting (nothing quite as spectacular as the first) never died down. We didn’t come across the lions, rhinos or leopards. But we saw elephants, zebras and buck aplenty.
At lunch, we picnicked from the safety of our car in front of another watering hole with three elephants and another calf.
We left the park about 15:30 pm. And, while there were many paths we did not take and we would need a few days to explore the whole park, I left with a feeling of wonder and a yearning to return.
For more information on Addo Elephant National Park, please visit: www.sanparks.org.
A Sea of Green, a Tidal Wave and a Very Big Tree
In 2004, over the July school holidays, my parents and I travelled from just outside Montagu to Durban. Our journey took us via the beautiful Garden Route, introducing me to the gorgeous region for the first time.
And it was definitely love at first sight… It might even be when my love for road trips truly began.
Even as a fairly easily bored 10-year-old, I remember feeling captivated by the Garden Route and its ever-changing landscape.
The Garden Route: Home to Coastal-Lying Towns and Abundant Natural Vegetation
Starting in Mossel Bay and ending in Storms River, with Knysna in its centre, this is the land of beautiful coastal towns, impressive, abundant natural vegetation and of course, a wealth of wildlife… What’s not to love?
There were many highlights – including Knysna and Wilderness; the Tsitsikamma Forest; Storms River and Storms River Mouth Rest Camp and of course, The Big Tree, an 800-year-old Yellowwood, which stands 36 metres+ high, with a trunk circumference of 9 metres… It is absolutely incredible!
Our journey – which saw both good and bad weather alike – even included a rather terrifying glimpse of a tidal wave. (Or mini tsunami… I am still not sure which but it nearly reached up to the cliff road and it was a sight to see.)
Yes, this was certainly the trip that made me fall in love with the sea of green paradise and untamed coastal beauty that is the Garden Route – and beyond.
As I mentioned before, Tsitsikamma and Storms River were two of the stand-out attractions. (I have a thing for both forests and bridges, what can I say.)
Both attractions feel like a wonderful crossover of the Western Cape into the Eastern Cape, another province I found fascinating to drive through.
While the Bloukrans Bridge – famed for its bungee jumping (I’m good, thanks) – and Storms River Suspension Bridge are perhaps more popular, I really liked driving over the Storms River Bridge, officially known as the Paul Sauer Bridge.
This mammoth concrete bridge is 120 metres high and 100 metres long – and the views of the gorge down below are jaw-dropping indeed.
If you want to one day do a proper South African road trip and go on to explore several of country’s diverse provinces, traversing the Garden Route is a great place to start.
For more information on the Garden Route, please visit: www.gardenroute.co.za.
With COVID-19 still raging across the world, I hope our nostalgia has been enjoyable for you to read about in this time of no travel. 🙂
These are just a handful of beautiful memories, enjoyed in the Western Cape, Eastern Cape, Northern Cape and KwaZulu-Natal.
Someday, I hope to revisit these incredible places and explore other new destinations across more of South Africa’s wonderful provinces… and I hope you will too.
Photo Credits and Thanks:
Many thanks to Alicia Chamaillé for sharing her beautiful travel memory and for the accompanying photos.
And a special thanks to Alex De Kock for allowing me to use his incredible shot from Sutherland.
I would also like to thank the photo contributors from Unsplash and Pixabay for their beautiful imagery used in this post. (Any additional images that have not been credited are my own.)
Note: For best accuracy, some of the Unsplash photos are from the towns/regions themselves, while the wildlife shots were taken in South Africa – but may not necessarily be from the exact place I am describing.
Author: Tamlyn Ryan
Content writer by day and blogger by night, Tamlyn Ryan passionately runs her own travel blog, called Tamlyn Amber Wanderlust, from her home base of Cape Town, South Africa. And, despite a national diploma in Journalism, in her free time, Tamlyn’s preferred niche remains travel writing.
Tamlyn is a hopeless wanderer, equipped with an endless passion for road trips, carefully planned, holiday itineraries and, above all else, an innate love for the great outdoors.