A free six-week holiday in one of the mostamazing countries in the world? Yes please!
As the winner of TNT’s travel blogging competition, I found myself in the enviable position of taking an all-expenses-paid trip to South Africa, sponsored by the South Africa Youth Travel Confederation. This meant an epic journey from Cape Town to Soweto, taking on such tasks as shark diving, bungee jumping and conservation projects.
My mission was simple: give everything a goand let you all know what it’s like. So here are some the highlights of what really was the trip of a lifetime.
The top of Table Mountain
I touch down in Cape Town with the sun shining and just the gentlest of breezes blowing. That means one thing – the notoriously weather sensitivecable car atop Table Mountain is up and running, so I waste no time in heading straight to this iconic world wonder. Once I’m at the peak off this iconic landmark, I take the Skeleton Gorge hiking route, which means scrambling over waterfalls, streams and giant ladders on my way to some spectacular views over the city.
DO IT YOURSELF: Park entrance £3.40; cable car £14.70.
Diving with sharks
The next adventure on my list is shark diving – I’ll be in a cage but I’m feeling a little queasy as my boat departs from Hermanus. Maybe it’s butterflies or perhaps I don’t quite have my sea legs yet, but I know this is a treat – the waters here, an hour’s drive from Cape Town, are famous for being among the world’s best for whale watching. So, when we arrive at Shark Alley – an area of sea between two densely populated seal colonies – I volunteer to enter the water first, eager to get off the rocky boat. I don a wet suit and climb into the cage. The water, carried by Antarctic currents, is freezing. I bob up and down while the crew throw lines of bait to the sharks and then duck underwater. There’s a Great White Shark only metres away and with the worst possible timing, my seasickness suddenly returns with a vengeance. The cage, latched firmly to the boat, rocks backwards and forwards in a sadistic motion. A puking disaster seems imminent and it’s only with sheer force of will that I make it back on to the boat before throwing up over the side. I sink to the ground and peer into the water, wondering, do sharks eat vomit? The answer it seems is no … but fish do. Yuck.
DO IT YOURSELF: Shark cage diving costs £100 with Marine Dynamics Shark Tours.
Garden Route tour
A few days later I head north along Route 62 on a five-day tour of the Garden Route, a lush and green stretch of the south-eastern coast of South Africa. One memorable stop is Ronnie’s Sex Shop. This was once a normal bar until Ronnie’s friends got drunk one night and decided to add the word ‘sex’ between ‘Ronnie’s’ and ‘shop’ on the wall outside. Almost overnight it became acompulsory stopping point for bikers, tourists and anyone willing to donate a bra to hang behind the bar. Things gets even more surreal when we drive on to Oudtshoorn for a spot of ostrich riding – what else? I find my trusty steed standing perfectly still in the middle of a dusty paddock with a bag over its head, safe in the belief that if it can’t see me, I can’t see it – an ostrich’s brain is one-quarter the size of its eye. I hoist myself up, tuck my legs beneath its wings and hold on tight. As the bag is removed and it bounds around the field with me on top. Not a mode of transport I’d chose every day, but an experience for sure.
DO IT YOURSELF: A five-day Garden Route tour with Cape To Addo Safari costs £330.
Bloukrans Bridge, also on the Garden Route, is the site off the world’s highest bridge bungee jump. I arrive via a rickety metal gangway which sags with every step, allowing me to ‘fully appreciate’ the massive 216m drop – ‘This is a walkway of doom,’ I think to myself.
As I kit up, musicis pounding, which helps to get my adrenaline going, and when it’s finally my turn I step to the edge and force a smile. ‘My god it’s high’ is my last clear thought before I flop forward into the abyss. The music vanishes and the only sound is the rushing air. I plummet at breakneck speed, until suddenly I feel the sensation of rain drops from the river on my face and realise I’m shooting back up again. I bounce and sway as the cord creaks and groans. It’s all over and as I’m brought back up to the bridge, I’m completely exhilarated.
DO IT YOURSELF: Jumps cost from £54 with Face Adrenalin.
After all this excitement, it’s time to take part in some more selfless activities, so we head for Shamwari, the largest privately owned game reserve in the Eastern Cape. Shamwari sponsor and run eco-projects at the local school and today the children have been asked to bring in bags of cow dung for the vegetable patch – the class with the most manure is rewarded with a huge cake. I’m about to start work on the vegetable patch with the kids, but before I can get stuck in, I’m whisked off for a drive around the reserve.
Gardening with brighteyedchildren would have been a joy, but how often do you encounter a pride of lions and a 40-strong herd of elephants? The next day I visit the Born Free Centre, a refuge for mistreated animals from around the world. I see a malnourished lion which was kept in a nightclub in the Canary Islands, and another with its teeth filed away that was a photographer’s prop in Romania. The sorriest sight of all is a lion that was kept at the bottom of a well. It walks with a limp and its neck is twisted from years of looking up.
DO IT YOURSELF: Shamwari offers a range of volunteering options that involve working with children and animals.
Surfing in Coffee Bay
The next day we hurtle up the coast to Coffee Bay, a laid back paradise on the Indian Ocean between Port Elizabeth and Durban. To get there, though, we pass through the Transkei, one of the poorest parts of South Africa and a world away from the picture-perfect Garden Route.
The landscape consists of rugged hills broken into tiny plots of land, with thatched mud huts that have no electricity – seeing them is like stepping back in time. I stay at a vibrant backpacker hostel called Coffee Shack, the ideal base for four days’ surfing lessons. With a typical day involving getting up at 8am, hitting the waves, a walking tour at 11am, more surfing in the afternoon, then dinner and, of course, drinks in the evening, I’m the good kind of exhausted. Maybe that’s why they call this the Wild Coast.
DO IT YOURSELF: Coffee Shack surf lessons cost £3.60.
Wild dog tracking
North of Durban is Hluhluwe-iMfolozi, a 120,000ha reserve where I’m to spend two weeks with conservation organisation Wildlife ACT. With four other volunteers, I camp out and monitor the lives of wild dogs, one of the most endangered animals in South Africa. We work to the dogs’ timetable, rising at 4am and tracking them for the morning before returning to our camp around 10am. We stay put while the dogs sleep through the mid-day heat, then head back out from 3pm until sunset as they hunt. Each night I go to sleep in my tent to the sound of the wind and the occasional cry of a hyena, a predator of the wild dog.
DO IT YOURSELF: Joining the Wildlife ACT volunteer programme costs £850 for two weeks.
The fortnight flies by and I find myself on the move again, this time inland to the spectacular Drakensberg Mountains. A long hike takes me from a steep beginning to level terrain, to lush grassy plains with the mountain peaks looming on the horizon and I spend all day wandering through a mass of trails and admiring the views.
DO IT YOURSELF: The staff at Inkosana Lodge provide trail maps and offer advice on the best routes.
The final leg of my trip takes me further inland to Soweto, a township of four million people on the outskirts of Johannesburg. I take a bicycle tour, learning about the history of Nelson Mandela’s home town and seeing the meadowlands and streets. Children wave, shout hello and try to soak me with water. Today is the first day of summerand it seems Soweto is one big water fight, which feels like a suitably celebratory end to my amazing trip.
DO IT YOURSELF: A Soweto bike tour costs from £27.
Brian’s trip was sponsored by South Africa Youth Travel Confederation.