As a family destination, culturally diverse South Africa has it all – from bustling cities and quaint villages to magnificent scenery and amazing wildlife. Here, 15-year-old Tori Herbert shares her amazing journey of adventure and discovery.
Awaking early at Shamwari Game Reserve near Port Elizabeth, I’m hungry to discover my first taste of South Africa on safari. And, as the morning sun peeks over the mountains, we fall upon our first animal encounter - a giraffe. Then water buffalo, zebra, warthogs, orex, springbuck, bushbuck and even a hippo roaming across our path. These are animals I would view with disbelief on TV right in front of me!
At Shamwari’s Wildlife Rehabilitation Centre we feed Zoe, an orphaned Burchell’s zebra (who stops at nothing for a scratch), and the caracals - two hand-raised orphaned kittens with alarming red fur and striking blue eyes. We also stop at Born Free, a conservation centre that provides long-term humane care for big cats that cannot be returned to the wild where we meet Glen, their caretaker, who makes us laugh even as he shares their sad stories.
On our next safari we spot enormous white rhinos grazing, two leopards resting, and colossal African elephants within reaching distant as they chomp carelessly on the thorn-covered trees surrounding our car. As we drive back with a soundtrack of animal sounds, I am falling under the spell of South Africa’s charms.
The following day, we head to Addo Elephant National Park and the Gorah Elephant Camp; our accommodation is a luxurious tent facing the mountains. A waterhole less than 200m away allows perfect vision of warthogs, water buffalo and zebra quenching their thirst. Five lions sprawl lazily. In awe, mum and I watch, captivated, squealing at every yawn and stretch.
On another safari the next day I’m dumbfounded by the destruction of trees - the result, I discover, of elephants using them for scratching posts and the testosterone-fueled frustration of younger males. The highlight is the sighting of two black rhinos thrashing head to head.
We arrive back at the camp to canapés and drinks by the campfire. After dinner we are escorted to our tents (to protect us from wild animals that may or may not be lurking in the dark). We understand the point of this when we're woken by the roar of lions unnervingly close to the tent.
We lie in bed as the roars echo from one mountain to another until we finally work up the courage to sit on the deck and watch the sunrise. It is with great reluctance that we drag ourselves away for our last game drive where five meerkats race us before diving into a sanctuary underground.
We head for our next destination of Tsitsikamma and the lovely At The Woods Guest House, at the base of the colossal mountains. The Tsitsikamma Canopy Tour is first on our agenda. Flying over the forest seemed like a fun idea, but reality hits as I catch a glimpse of the distance between my feet and the forest floor - it’s a long way down.
I take the leap of faith into the air and soar through the forest canopy. Behind me, mum reluctantly steps onto the platform, her fear of heights written on her face. She screeches as she takes the plunge and reaching safety declares, “I didn’t open my eyes”. We leave with our heads held high.
A quick stop at Bloukrans Bridge and we witness the highest bungy in the world. We watch thrill-seekers whoop as they fall into the gorge below, dangling by a piece of elastic. I flirt briefly with the idea of joining them but can’t face the extreme deed. I leave with a hint of regret.
At Tenikwa Wildlife Awareness Centre furry faces eye my every movement. We pass cervals, caracals and leopards on our way to the cheetahs. Born in captivity, these cats can’t be returned to the wild. The guides harness two cheetah brothers and after a briefing on the basics we’re walking them! We follow cautiously, aware that they're still wild animals. To see them so close is extraordinary.
Farewelling At the Woods we head to the Cango Caves, a monumental showcase of nature’s incredible architecture. Intense darkness envelops us as we enter with only our guide’s whistling penetrating the silence. The lights switch and unveil a mesmerising underground world. As we exit, the familiar South African heat overcomes me and I crave, once more, the cool relief of the caves.
Instead it’s on to the Safari Ostrich Farm for ostrich riding. I ride horses it can’t be that hard, I figure before hearing the instructions. “Keep your legs locked around its waist,” shouts our guide Daniel. “You MUST grab its wings,” screams another man. “VERY TIGHT! Lean back,” interjects another. “FURTHER!” screams Daniel.
The Ostrich takes off and I hold on for dear life until it stops and I step (or fall) off. This is definitely a once-in-a lifetime experience.
Soon after, we arrive at the luxurious De Zeekoe Guesthouse. The gorgeous rooms provide the perfect peaceful end to the day.