By: Maggie Young
Weeks quickly turn to months while abroad and when I first showed up in Stellenbosch, South Africa, I had grand plans for ways to pack as much as I could into every single moment. With 26 weekends to work with, I was confident I would wear holes in my shoes before I ran out of things to do.
So what’s the hardest part about all of this? Deciding what activities and places would make the list of ‘Top 26 Things to do in South Africa.’
Within my first few weeks I managed Cape Town, Gansbaai, and several day trips to places around town. Cape Town is about a 45-minute drive, or one-hour train ride from Stellies. Gansbaai, known for its whale watching and shark cage diving, was an amazing endeavor that lasted for a weekend.
Contrary to common belief, South Africa happens to be wine country and there are multiple wine farms within driving distance of my campus. So, naturally, there were some wine tastings in the mix — a great way to experience a part of South African culture!
The big endeavor was going to be spring break. I have to say, getting to plan a second spring break in 2015 was interesting, especially since it was occurring in September. But, of course, I’m not complaining.
At first wildly impractical ideas were thrown around, like a cruise to Mozambique, or a cruise to Namibia, or a cruise to Western Europe. Basically, we were a group of girls fantasizing about lying on a boat bound for some magical destination where all we’d have to worry about was sunscreen and cocktails.
Much to our disappointment a cruise to, well anywhere, was just a bit out of our “rice-and-PB&J” budget. Nevertheless, we were determined to plan the trip of a lifetime, even if it didn’t involve floating at sea.
Then the idea came to us: road trip.
What better way to see a country than to get in a car and drive? Sure, South Africans drives on the left side of the road, the steering wheel is on the right and most of the cars are manual, but really, what could be more perfect?
South Africa is known for the Garden Route. It’s 3,000 kilometers that wind through towns such as Montagu, Knysna, Mossel Bay and Plettenberg Bay, which boasts the world’s second most mild climate just after Hawaii.
The route is bordered by two oceans and spans a wide variety of landscapes, from rocky mountains to white-sand beaches to gorges.
So, we had our route. All we needed was a car, lodging, maps, activities and meals. But that wouldn’t be too difficult to decide on, right?
If you’re chuckling to yourself at the idea of three girls trying to agree on where to go, what to do and how to do it, it gets better. We came to the Garden Route decision a mere week and a half before our break started. As you can probably tell, procrastination has always been a bit of an issue for me.
Fortunately, you’ll be happy to know that if you ever find yourself in South Africa, or anywhere abroad for that matter, successful trips can, in fact, be pulled from thin air. Granted, you’ll have the help of a travel agent, of course.
We went through a company called Tourism that Cares, which had already run a trip for students to Boulders Beach, home of the famous African penguins.
After getting in touch with an agent named Joel, we had a tentative itinerary, car rental and budget for a ten-day Garden Route trip by the next day. Joel even included an itinerary for a trip to Namibia, if we decided on an alternative route.
In a nutshell: Joel was our savior.
The Friday morning, our trip began, we picked up the car, loaded in our suitcases and filled the one empty seat with a mountain of snacks, complete with a cooler full of South African wines and ciders.
We took a few group pictures in front of the Honda; then, I hopped in the driver’s seat and so began our journey through one of South Africa’s most scenic routes.
After nearly running off the edge of the road, picking up South Africa’s “cultural” traffic laws (I say cultural as they’re practiced by the people, not the police) and figuring out how to deal with roundabouts, driving became smooth sailing.
The best thing about doing a road trip is the freedom to stop whenever you feel like stopping.
See your first Ostrich farm? Pull over. See a herd of Elephants? Definitely pull over. Sign for fresh biltong (South Africa’s famous jerky)? Don’t hesitate. Pull over.
From Stellenbosch to Port Elizabeth, we stopped in every single town along the way. Sometimes we spent the night, other places we just stopped for a meal, while at some we just drove straight through and bought post cards.
The range of activities we were able to accomplish was enough to make even Hemingway jealous.
In Oudtshoorn we visited the famous old Cango Caves, a series of caves that wind over 3 miles into a mountain. The largest chamber is over 50 feet high and used to house classical music concerts.
We had the opportunity to crawl through spaces just over 25 centimeters tall; claustrophobics are not advised to participate in the “adventure tour.”
Days three to five consisted of a walk with lions and a tour through “Monkeyland,” the first free-roam, multi-specie primate facility in the world.
The lion walk is not for the faint of heart as the only thing between you and some very large canines is a thick walking stick.
Monkeyland is simply an opportunity to see adorable fluffy creatures bounce, climb and play all around you. But be careful, a few of the less cautious monkeys came up to our group and rummaged through pockets!
Day five, six and seven were probably my favorite days.
On the way to the Eastern Cape is Bloukrans Bridge — home to the world’s highest bungee jump; again, this is not an activity for the faint-hearted.
If you’ve ever wondered what your answer is to the age-old question “if your friends jumped off a bridge, would you?” this is a good way to find out. Turns out, I would.
For those of you who get dizzy at just the idea of standing on the edge of a bridge over a 700-feet drop, there’s a flat screen TV in the safety of a restaurant overlooking the bridge where you can watch your friends and family members as they look death in the face.
The sixth day consisted of a self-drive safari through the 450,000 acres of Addo Elephant Park. Replete with elephants, zebra, rhino and nyala (including multitudinous others that we didn’t see) this day was one for the books.
A second day of safari was day seven, which included a boat safari and a drive through Sibuya game reserve where we saw lions, rhino, zebra, giraffe, nyala, impala and buffalo.
The remainder of the trip we spent in Tsitsikamma National Park, a place not to be missed if ever in South Africa. There we did a zip line canopy tour, sea kayaking and liloing through gorges where the sea meets Storms River mouth.
We drove back the following Monday and I was dropped abruptly back into reality when, on Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday I had midterm exams — not exactly an easy transition back into classes.
Fortunately, for those of you going abroad or considering it, classes are pass-fail. So, never give up an opportunity for adventure.