Stepping outside Johannesburg airport with a chilly 3 degree Celsius temperature put us in a quandary about how our South African sojourn was going to be. 20 of us, all women- most meeting each other first time as part of the travel group, huddled into our coach which was to take us to the game reserve where we planned to begin our holiday. We were headed towards the Madikwe game reserve was a 6 hour drive from the Jo’burg airport.

The coach driver’s jokes were a pleasant respite during the monotonous drive through arid vegetation, till a zebra suddenly lurked from the side. Caught by surprise at the first game sighting, we all sat up fully alert to our surroundings. The remaining hour, till we reached our destination, was filled with the excitement of spotting giraffes, elephants, deer, wildebeest etc on both sides of the coach. Such was our euphoria that we didn’t even mind losing our way a bit and the exhaustion of a 9 hour flight followed by a 6 hour bus ride.

The Madikwe game reserve is a private reserve with multiple lodges. Being a big group, we had the lodge all to ourselves, which also added to the warm hospitality. Since we had already had our first encounter with the wild and there were only a couple of hours left to enjoy the afternoon safari, we threw on our warm jackets and jumped onto the jeeps with our experienced rangers. Though September is known to be spring weather in South Africa, the first two weeks are still not yet over with the winter chill and one really needs to be warmly clad to take a ride through the game reserve in an open jeep.

The best way to enjoy the safari is to respect the animals and be as quiet as possible when near them. Our rangers briefed us before the drive and also alerted us that animals were used to vehicles but not people on foot. They urged us to remain in the jeep and not get down when near the animals. No amount of briefing could prepare us from being awestruck on our first sight of the lazing cheetahs. Lying right next to the parked jeep, they were not bothered by the clicking cameras and gave us some great shots. This was the case with most of our game sightings, be it the leopard preying on its kill, the zebras crossing the road, the aloof giraffes spotted strolling by themselves or the herd of elephants spraying their bodies with mud spurts!

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We did three safari rides during our stay at Madikwe, one at dawn and the other two in the afternoon. Our rangers made great efforts to ensure that we got to have as many sightings of the big 5 as possible. Other than the safaris, the stay in a jungle lodge is itself a very enjoyable experience. Waking up in the morning to a deer peeping into the window, hearing the trumpet of an elephant when getting into bed, or enjoying a cup of coffee in the serenity with the sound of the river flowing beside your cottage, are all experiences that would make you want to stay more.

The next part of our holiday took us from the parched surroundings of Johannesburg to the lush scenery of Cape Town. The TableMountain looms large as you drive through the legislative capital of the country. A stay in Cape Town would be incomplete without a visit to the top of the Table Mountain. A cable car takes you to the top and the view of the city from there amidst the clouds is mesmerizing.

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If you are in Cape Town do try to stay near the waterfront. The harbor is one of the main attractions of the city and buzzing with activity in the evening. There are plenty of eating joints at the waterfront which seem to be teeming with people throughout the evening.

The Boulders Beach is also must visit. The excited screeches of the penguins greeted us as soon as we went past the entrance. Myriad penguins, waddling in the water or loitering at the beach were an amazing sight to see. Observing their interaction with each other made me make up many stories in my mind.

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This followed by a stopover at the Cape Point, the south east corner of the Cape peninsula, completed the magic of the scenic beauty. A quaint train ride took us upto the light house at Cape Point. Cape Point is at a higher elevation to Cape of Good Hope and it is believed that the currents of the Indian Ocean and the Atlantic Ocean meet here but there is no visible line to the meeting of the two waters. The meeting point actually is supposed to be at the Cape Agulhas about 150 kms away. While returning from Cape Point, one should definitely stop for a while at the The Cape of Good Hope which got its name because its discovery was a good omen that India could be reached by sea from Europe. It is quite picturesque. Surrounded by bright yellow proteas plants, we also came across baboons and ostriches during our drive.

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One of the best things this season offers to a traveler to South Africa is the sight of the Southern right whale which can be seen from the shores from July till December.  The place most known for this is the small town of Hermanus which was our next destination. Still referred to by locals as “the village”, Hermanus is about 115 kms from Cape Town.

In Hermanus, we were lucky to be staying at the Windsor Hotel which is located at the sea shore and we could enjoy the amazing view of the ocean and occasionally a loafing whale just from our room. Tourists and residents throng to Hermanus on weekends to get a view of the whales. There are benches across the shore for people to sit and enjoy the view. There is an official whale crier as well who announces it across the village as soon as a whale is spotted. Away from the hustling cities, with the mountains on one side and the lapping waters of the sea on the other, Hermanus is an absolute paradise for a leisure holiday. Just grab a place for yourself at any of the joints across the market square and you wouldn’t need to think of how to spend the day.

Gaansbai, which is 40 kms from Hermanus, is a famous spot for cage diving with the great white sharks. For the adventurous this is a treat not to be missed in South Africa, the first country to protect the Great White Sharks which led to the cage diving industry. The entire cage diving experience takes about a half a day and it is better to do it in the morning which is what we did so that we had the rest of the day to relax in the peaceful surroundings of Hermanus. The cage diving with the sharks is a once in a lifetime experience and a great opportunity to overcome the fear of sharks ingrained by the legendary movie “Jaws”. There a few licensed operators for this in South Africa. We went through one of them who were recommended by our tour operator. This needs to be booked a day in advance if you want the morning trip.

Our shark cage diving operator’s team came to pick us up from our hotel exactly at 6 a.m. At their office in Kleinbaai, about 40 people, including 8 of us were provided with a sumptuous breakfast followed by insights into the world of shark cage diving to alleviate our fears. We were provided with waterproof jackets for the boat ride and wet suits for the dive.  Even though it was one of the brighter days for the activity the sea was rough enough for most of us to get sea sick. But that did not dampen our spirits and the first call of shark sighting had us rushing to the sides of the boat to get a view. The cage could take 8 people together. Each group got an opportunity to be in the water for about 25 minutes during which we had 6-7 encounters with sharks. Chum, made of fish products, is used as a bait to attract the sharks towards the cage. Once the shark approaches, the crew shouts out to the divers in the cage to dive down into the water and get a closer under water view. The water was chilly but once in, the excitement of overcoming one of our biggest fears was enough to make us forget the chill. And if that wasn’t enough the crew also tried humorous stunts to scare us. Once we were out of the water, we could still enjoy some great views of the sharks from the boat while others went in. The shark tour operators take videos of the entire tour which are available for purchase. Since we knew about this, we had decided to buy the video so that we could enjoy our experience more than bothering about pictures. We came back very tired but ecstatic!

While in the Cape Town vicinity, we also went for a cheese and wine tasting experience at the Anura wine estate where we got to know of the intricacies of wine making as well as tasted 6 different wines. There are quite a few farm stalls on this route as well selling fresh hand-made food products which are a must try.  Our stay at a resort on this garden route was divine! Our eyes devoured the scenic beauty, as we strolled around. Whether it was the vibrant colors of the fields on one side and the smoky mountains on the other, crossing a dainty little bridge over the brook or admiring the flowers blossoming around, it was all so picture-perfect!  The grand finale was an African special evening with lots of food, wine, music, dancing and a huge dose of the African sense of humor which is an integral part of their culture as we discovered throughout our trip.

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We flew back to Jo’burg from Cape Town and the last day of our holiday was spent at Sun City which is about 3 hours’ drive from Johannesburg airport. The place was definitely alive with casinos and restaurants open all night, but it wasn’t as thrilling as the rest of the natural beauty we had enjoyed so far. Most of the other entertainment at Sun City closes by 6 p.m. I still recall our guide’s words that Sun City should pay royalty to Aishwarya Rai to increase tourism there! I guess another reason for it doing well may also be the apprehensions around safety in Johannesburg which make people move to Sun City instead for a stay over.

If we had thought we were done with the humorous flavor of South Africa, a parting anecdote at the airport refreshed it for us. We all broke into a laugh as the person checking our luggage weight played a prank on one of the women in our group scaring her of having excessive baggage. Cracking jokes, playing pranks and laughing it off come naturally to the people of that country and rubs off as easily on the visitors. Not to miss the fancy for Bollywood music. The staff of our lodge at the game reserve was willing to dance all night if we shared some Bollywood numbers with them. I didn’t realize how the 9 days of my holiday went by. Do plan to spend more than a week if you really want to enjoy this destination. An experience beyond words, South Africa is a beautiful country, natural and still so wild. We went as a group of strangers, came back as friends with fond memories, fantastic pictures and lots of humor…