Touring The South Africa You Don’t See In The News

I did not come to South Africa to investigate claims of blacks killing whites or rampant race-based injustices.

Sure the country’s got its problems, but I wanted to see the beautiful and exotic sides of South Africa — its coast, its backcountry, its wildlife and its bizarre signage and caves, all while mixing in a bit of city life. And I hoped to do so without getting mugged, beaten or murdered… for whatever reason.

The truth is, despite being warned about the danger of traveling around South Africa, I had no problems… well next to no problems. But I should also disclose that my friend Sergio (you Lesotho blog readers now get to learn his name) and I traveled predominantly in tourist areas, albeit some posed a (stated) danger risk. And when we were in cities, we were playing it safe by staying in a villa or scrambling to get away from drivers who wanted to run us off the road. So, South Africa was safe enough, but not so safe it was boring.

Sergio and I started our three-week South African adventure in Cape Town. We covered the southern coast of the country, headed north, stopped in Lesotho (Read about it if you haven’t already — it pertains to this trip), veered northeast into Swaziland, safaried in a nearby national park and made stops in the capital and the country’s largest city before departing.

To get your South Africans bearings straight, we started in the southwest and finished in the northwest. Actually, I returned to Cape Town before leaving. You’ll see why that came in handy…

The town and the cape

After Sergio greeted me at the airport, we proceeded to our apartment, which was located behind multiple gates and walls within a villa in the Constantia region of Cape Town. I had never before seen a villa with so much security — it was as well protected as the Princess hotel in Acapulco. Upon arriving at the villa, not only did we need to get through multiple gates to get to our apartment, we needed to listen to a 10-minute security briefing.

Our villa

But the villa was perfectly situated. Amid wine country and below both Constantiaberg Mountain and Cape Town’s iconic Table Mountain, it felt like a completely different place than the rest of Cape Town.

We could also go swimming at our villa. Our villa had a pool tucked away, hidden from the public by walls and trees, so there wouldn’t be a revolt. Apparently, in contemporary drought-stricken Cape Town, it is quite a luxury to have a pool — an excess that can anger locals. But, at the time, this area of the city was receiving an unusual amount of rain. Look how green everything was! I didn’t feel any guilt for going for a dip.

The pool

The highlight of our Cape Town visit was expected to be going up Table Mountain. But that plan went awry when we reached the cable car station and found the lift was not operating on schedule. We settled for some views of the city and Table Bay from the stations. Also, at the beaches down below, we got some beautiful views looking up at the mountains. Plus, I would return…

The view from the station

A view from below

From Cape Town, we went to the actual cape – the Cape of Good Hope. Many people think it’s the southern tip of Africa. It’s not. It is a beautiful hiking destination, though. Going back hundreds of years, it was a huge achievement to get a ship around the Cape of Good Hope. I guess it was somewhat of an achievement that we visited this overvalued, yet historical place.

Cape Point by the Cape of Good Hope

Coastal zig-zagging

For days, we zigged and zagged, weaving away from and back toward the coast. Our first inland stop was Stellenbosch, a very nice and lively university town. We partied with students and actually found them to be quite interesting people.


Back along the coast, we got lost upon arrival in the town of Hermanus. We had booked a flat, but we could not find it. The flat address had three street names. We went to all three streets within a 20 km radius. No one was expecting us at any of the places we went. Eventually, we got a room in a hotel for the night and visited the penguin-packed Betty’s Bay (Who needs Antarctica?) before moving onto the more exciting coastal destination of Gansbaai.

The penguins of Betty’s Bay

On the way to Gansbaai, streets were closed due to wildfires. But we really wanted to take the scenic route. Determined to find a way, we took backroads until, suddenly, we were back on the coast and driving all alone on a road that was otherwise completely closed. No one stopped us as we indulged in this picturesque coastal drive with a mountain backdrop and plenty of greenery. If the police every noticed us, they paid no attention.

Coastal scenery all to ourselves

The point of visiting Gansbaii was to see a great white shark. Unfortunately, we failed on that mission. Nonetheless, the experience was bit nerve-racking.

This experience was cage diving (Remember what I did with the saltwater crocodile in Australia?). We were placed inside a cage that was attached to the side of a boat. For a few seconds at a time, we would duck under water, holding our breath, and then pop back up. Sharks were swimming close to the cage — about 4 or 5 meters away. Things got scary when some of the sharks approached us and actually bumped into the cage. Sometimes our arms or feet would be dangling out of the cage due to the current of the water. A shark could easily take a bite out of one of our limbs. While we did not spot any great whites, we did see some large bronze whalers, which were swimming in our direction. That gets your adrenaline rushing, whether or not your limbs are being served up as a snack for the sharks.


A bronze whaler

Though not as famous as the Cape of Good Hope, Cape Agulhas is the real southern tip of Africa. It also neighbors the dividing line between the Atlantic and Indian oceans. Climbing the lighthouse at Cape Agulhas makes for good fun and adds a pleasant view to the feat of reaching the very bottom of the African continent. Unlike explorers of the past, we knew this was the spot you had to reach to sail around Africa.

Cape Agulhas

Zig-zagging from and to the coast, we found ourselves cruising along what is known as the Garden Route, a 300-kilometer drive stretching from South Africa’s Western Cape to its Eastern Cape. Along this route it wasn’t so much the driving, as it was the walking, that was exciting.

In the town of Wilderness (yes, that is the name of the town) around the start of the Garden Route, you can head to the beach and find an old railroad track. Along the track there are signs telling pedestrians not to go farther. Why? Because it is a “HIGH MUGGING AREA.”

Entering a high mugging area!!

Undeterred, but proceeding with caution we hired a guide. Our guide informed us that a gang — apparently of Nigerians — had been hiding behind rocks and ambushing and robbing a lot of tourists walking along the railroad tracks. Some of the victims were even killed.  The gang got caught a few years ago, and since then the area has become safer, but there can still be robbers lurking.

Accompanied by our guide, we walked on the tracks for a few hundred meters. At one point, the tracks lay atop a decaying bridge that stands about 20 meters above water below. We were brave enough to cross the bridge without any sort of harness to prevent us from falling to our death.

Would you walk across?

The other part of this coastal foot journey was a trip to a hippy colony located inside a colorful cave adorned with a lot of artwork. Basically, an old hippy built his own cave, and he allows visitors to stay inside it for free with him. We gave it a look, but we had more important things to do than smoke out and draw on walls for a week.

Into the wild

Inland a bit, I embarked upon my very first safari (Now I am a safari veteran). In Addo Elephant National Park, we did manage to see a lot of elephants, including one that came close and nearly attacked us (Again, think Nepal, but with an elephant instead of a rhino). We were too fast for the elephant, so we survived the encounter. But one shouldn’t downplay the threat of these elephants to human life. Incidents like these can occur.

Addo Elephant elephants

My second safari came just days later…

But before we visited Kruger National Park in the northwest of the country, we spent a few days in Transkei, where I was nearly killed by lightning strikes, followed by the stay — outside yet surrounded by South Africa — in Lesotho. We then headed to Swaziland and then back into South Africa, where I returned to wild animal watching.

In Kruger National Park, I saw my first wild giraffe, as well as a rare hyena. Likewise, there were lot of elephants and wild dogs, which are rare in Africa, and on the way out I spotted a buffalo. But we did not see any big cats during our three-day road trip around the national park.

My first wild giraffe

Kruger elephants

Onto the wild motorways

To round out our trip in South Africa, finally came the biggest city, Johannesburg, and the capital, Pretoria. After traveling through regions with a lot of white people and tourists, Johannesburg came as a culture shock. There were many, many people and very few light-skinned individuals in the city.

Our stay in Johannesburg involved doing very little, yet being involved in a lot of action.  We parked in a shopping center and had lunch there (exciting, huh?). We wanted to go up a tower, but it was closed.

The action came while we were driving around town. The roads in Johannesburg were wide — some had 12 lanes. We almost got into two accidents.

Johannesburg traffic

One was a very close call. A bus nearly crashed into us. It was the bus’s fault, not ours.

But angry people were screaming at us and causing commotion. Then other drivers started following us. The other cars stayed on our tail as I tried to drive away in a hurry. The cars tailed us all the way until we entered the motorway going to Pretoria. Had we not started heading out of Johannesburg and had this angry mob caught us, the situation really could have escalated. We, a couple of whites, would have been in line for a major beating.

In Pretoria, we played games in a casino and visited a night club at 11 am (it was still open from the night before) to drink some beers. And since it is the capital, we visited the Union Buildings, which house the government and the presidency and are nicely situated on a hilltop.

The Union Buildings

Sergio departed South Africa. I flew from back to Cape Town.

On my return trip to Table Mountain, the cable car was operating. I went up the mountain and enjoyed the beautiful views.

View from Table Mountain

That evening I met a girl. We bonded because we were both German nomads. My impromptu evening with her, following the trip up Table Mountain, made for a pleasant ending to my three weeks in South Africa.

Looking back

Despite nearly being run off the road in Johannesburg, almost getting hit by lightning in Transkei and failing to see a great white shark in Gansbaai, South Africa was a blast. We swam with bronze sharks, crossed deadly railroad tracks and ventured into adjacent countries with sky-high AIDS rates. So I satisfied my fix for adventure and danger. And no real or perceived danger stopped us from enjoying beautiful coastal views, watching wild animals in their habitats and visiting the place where two of the world’s four oceans meet. This South Africa trip was a success. Feel free to copy it.


Stay: We mostly stayed at guest houses and private rooms in hostels. Particular recommendable was my hotel in Capetown, Villa Sunshine. Perfectly located with great hosts it was a great gateway to explore the city in my last 2 days.


Eat: Prices are cheap and cooking is good. Trying some wild animals like kudu or buffalo was a nice culinary feast. Plenty of steak was the main option.


Drink: Go partying on Long Street in Downtown Capetown with a endless numbers of bars and clubs.


Connect: Good Google Fi connections everywhere, even on remote roads. Rarely blackouts.


See: Have a look at our route which was perfect in my eyes. South Africa offers great landscapes, diverse wildlife and a ecletic mix of cultural experiences. I need to come back much more often to see it all.


Do: Do what I did not do – the highest bungee jump on a bridge along the Garden Route. Jumping at Bloukrans is not for the faint hearted. Even if you have been swimming with Great White Sharks. We did not have luck, but the experience with Brian McFarlane was still great (we got a 50% refund for not encountering any great whites)


Go there: I had the cheapest business class flight of my life, flying Oslo-Stockholm-Addis Abeba-Capetown return for just 600€ in Ethiopian Airlines Business Class. Certainly the best African airline out there, although not being able to compete with the Asian carriers. Both Cape Town and Johannesburg offer plenty of easy flight connections.


Go next: Venture into Lesotho and Swaziland like us – or the other neighboring countries like Namibia, Botswana or Mosambique.