South Africa: More Than I Ever Imagined

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I’ve been in South Africa for two weeks, and I am still in disbelief at how much this country has amazed me.

Is South Africa what I thought it would be?  It was BETTER.

I knew I would enjoy it, but I had no idea I would enjoy it this much.  Here are some of the ways that South Africa surprised me:

Johannesburg is actually a lot of fun.

Few cities have worse reputations than Johannesburg — most people describe it as boring at best and dangerous at worst, but I was shocked at how much I enjoyed this city.

Johannesburg is home to wonderful historical and cultural sites, cool neighborhoods, so many chic hotels, bars, and restaurants — and most importantly, Joburg actually has style.  Many people here dress SO well, especially the men, and that reflects when you walk around the high-end shopping areas.

Most travel agents tell people that they should skip Johannesburg.  I disagree wholeheartedly.

Seeing animals on safari will move you to tears.

I was looking forward to our Kruger safari, but I had no idea how deeply moved I was — whether it was seeing a family of rhinos crashing through the woods, or watching a cheetah feast on its kill as vultures and a little jackal fought for the remains, or laughing as an adorable baby elephant tried to scare us off, or seeing an elusive honeybadger dodge through the brush, probably looking for a snake to eat.

It nearly made me weep.  Seeing animals like these in their natural environment is incredibly moving.

Going on safari is something that every serious traveler should prioritize doing at least once in his or her life.

Townships are eye-opening — and much safer to visit than you think.

While in Joburg, we didn’t just go to Soweto, the most famous township — we went to Alexandra, which our excellent guide, Robin, told us is “where people from Soweto go when they want a township experience.”

I had no idea whether it would be safe for me to bring my iPhone, or whether I would have to walk around clutching my purse like I do in Barcelona, or whether everyone would be walking around with guns.

But it wasn’t the frightening place I imagined.  Alex was bright, it was colorful, it was filled with so much life, and I didn’t feel unsafe for a moment.  Rather than being targets, we were welcomed quite literally with open arms.  (Essential note: ONLY visit townships with a guide who knows what he or she is doing.)

The Blue Train is kind of like a rap video.

Riding one of the world’s most luxurious trains was an incredible experience.  There is no better way to travel the world than by luxury train!  I actually had my own butler!

And everything is included.  Which means that for 27 hours, we were given virtually everything our hearts desired.

And so we spent the evening in the cigar lounge, dressed in our finest clothes, smoking Cubans and drinking Remy Martin.

The food is amazing — and so is the wine.

I ate like royalty in South Africa.  Among the foods I’ve tried here, ostrich, kudu, springbok (pictured above), langoustines, and oysters are among the most memorable.  Some of the haute offerings?  Green tea panna cotta, pears poached in port, quail veloute with pork and quail eggs…

It doesn’t have to be fancy, though.  South Africans live for beer and barbecue.  I don’t know what they put in their boerewors (sausages) but they are SO good here.

And the WINES.  South Africa has some delicious Pinotages, made in the winelands region just outside Cape Town.  My favorite: Hamilton Russell Pinotage.  I need to bring some of that back to England.

Cape Town has the world’s most beautiful natural setting.

One of the world’s most dramatic coastlines, Table Mountain seen from every direction, a unique array of flora that you won’t find anywhere else in the world, vineyards, penguin-filled beaches, and so much sunshine — could any city be more beautiful than this?

Cape Town just begs to be photographed from every angle.  You won’t be able to keep your hands off your camera.

(For the record, I hear Rio de Janeiro is up there as well, but I haven’t been to Rio!)

South Africa is home to so much cultural diversity.

South Africa has 11 official languages and dozens of ethnic groups.  It’s not just black, white, and colored (mixed race) people — white is divided between the Afrikaners and the English speakers; there are many African ethnic groups, including Xhosa and Zulu, and there is a sizable Indian population as well.

And yes, this diversity has led to quite a bit of turmoil in South Africa in the last century, and not only from apartheid.  I can’t even begin to put the history of South Africa into a single post.  But today, it adds so much culture, especially when traveling from one end of the country to the other.

South Africa has come SO far in a relatively short time.  

South Africa struggled under apartheid until 1990, when it began to be dismantled.  Nelson Mandela was elected after a long reform process and took office in 1994.

In those past 18 years, the death penalty was abolished; prisoners regained the right to vote; healthcare was revolutionized, and same-sex marriage became legal.  And as one of the BRICS nations (Brazil, Russia, India, China, South Africa), it’s poised to become one of the leading new economic powers.

In just 18 years!

Don’t get me wrong — South Africa has its share of serious problems.  AIDS.  Crime.  Violence.  Economic disparity.  It would be naive not to acknowledge this.  But while South Africa has a way to go, the country’s progress is still incredibly impressive.

South Africa will amaze you, too.

Visit South Africa is giving you the chance to experience South Africa as I did!  Enter this contest and you can win a trip for two to South Africa almost exactly like mine.  (US and Canada residents only.)

I cannot recommend South Africa as a destination enough — and I’ll be telling you why.  This post is the tiniest teaser of what’s to come.  Stay tuned for much, much more coverage of South Africa over the next few weeks.

Many thanks to Visit South Africa for introducing me to this wonderful part of the world.  All opinions, as always, are my own.

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98 thoughts on “South Africa: More Than I Ever Imagined”

  1. You sum up so many of my thoughts on South Africa. It will forever be one of my favourite trips and I often think back on it with wonder – seriously, was it real? Well you confirmed it again – it is definitely real!

  2. I have wanted to visit South Africa for about 10 years now. My ex-bf was from Pretoria and just hearing about his life and getting close to his family made me realize how much I want to explore his homeland. That relationship is long over but my desire to live in South Africa for awhile will never go away – I’ll have to book a ticket soon. Or here’s hoping I win that prize! 🙂

  3. I stumbled upon your blog a while ago and have pretty much been addicted to it ever since. (Must be because I am an attorney who just wants to travel!) As a South African, I cannot be more proud of my country after reading your blog post! Thank you so much!

  4. Thank you thank you for saying such lovely things about our gorgeous country, and for those fabulous photos! I hope the rest of your stay here gets better by the day!

    Don’t forget to include Route 62 on your travels in the Western Cape – it’s our secret treasure.

    1. The Garden Route is a stunning area. Picturesque and so many activities.

      I truly am so proud when seeing how so many people from around the world enjoy our amazing country, as much as we do.

      Gay tourism is also becoming a big thing for Cape Town, so gays… come ready for a party!!

      Thanks, Wes from Cape Town

  5. Wow South Africa looks amazing! I met a girl at a hostel a while ago who was about to move there to work on a Great White Shark boat and I’ve wanted to go to Cape Town ever since. I entered the contest a while ago so fingers crossed 🙂

  6. You’ve just wet my whistle for heading back to South Africa Feb and March. Will look into the Blue Train. Kruger absolutely blew me away. Thought I might have a heart attack because I was constantly SO excited. Look forward to more of your trip, and mine.

  7. I completely know what you mean about falling in love with South Africa. I did too during my trip in May/June. I can’t wait to get back there, next year.

    The animal encounters brought me to tears as well – theres something so moving about seeing these animals you’ve only seen in zoos or on the NatGeo channel up close and FREE… It makes me a little misty eyed just thinking about it.

    And I wasn’t expecting to get world-class sushi in Johannesburg, but I did – which amuses me to no end since right now I’m living on the ocean in NZ and can’t get any bloody sushi… but in landlocked Jo’burg in AFRICA I could! haha go figure.

  8. We lived in South Africa 1953-1957. Visited it in 1977 and the change was staggering even then. Apartheid was a thing of the past and to see all races in the airport waiting room was a shock. No “white only” seats, doors or restrooms! It was joy to see and something had hoped would happen, but could not then see any possibility. We visited that same “mall” in Jo’burg in ’77! Glad you could visit there and thankful for the pictures–brought back memories!

  9. I remember a friend of my mom’s went to South Africa when I was young, and hearing about her trip always made me want to go there myself. I’m glad to know that South Africa surprised you and that you had such a great time. South Africa looks like an incredible country, one I’m sure to visit.

    Also that last photo is just awesomesauce.

  10. Wow, this trip sounds (and looks!) just amazing! I’m so excited to hear more about your experiences and see more of that gorgeous South African landscape!

      1. Hi Kate,

        Hope you’re enjoying our Mother city!!!! If u still in CPT, visit Mzoli for the best Braai meat You’l ever have….

        Mzanzi ROCKS…tell the world(“,)…

  11. Great post – I’m lucky enough that my other half is South African, so I’ve been a few times and will keep going back. Amazing country and it’s such a shame that the violence is as far as people can see, so stay away.

    Looking forward to reading more posts on S.A as they come!

  12. I visited 2 years ago now for 6 weeks, was the best thing I have ever done – I worked in an orphanage there. 2 years later i’m hooked to travel but nothing compares to SA still! Glad you enjoyed it and felt like your eyes had been opened like i did! 🙂

  13. What a wonderful post! I haven’t been to South Africa yet, but this just moved it up a few notches on my wish list! Isn’t it awesome when a place turns out to be better than you expected? I look forward to reading all about your trip!

  14. My wife and I have debated on whether or not to travel to Suth Africa for a while now. Our biggest reason for not going there has been how dangerous it is. I’m glad t hear not all the rumors are true. The safari sounds amazing! A big addition to the ‘go to South Africa’ column…

    1. Brian, South Africa certainly has its unique dangers, but I find that if you research them in advance you can figure out how to best avoid them. And the safari? Beyond safe, and beyond amazing!

    2. It is only dangerous if you go into the slum area’s (townships). If i went to Los Angeles, i wouldn’t go into South Central….

      Yes, our country has issue’s, but they are slowly being ironed out. People were safe when they came for the 2010 Soccer World Cup.

      Don’t be scared of us. Just be street smart and you will be fine 🙂

  15. Woohoo this is my homeland you are talking about! So glad you are able to experience our wonderful country!
    You should come say “hollaaaaa”!
    I’m in johannesburg!

  16. A well written post about my country – very tastefully done. honest about our problems but also our often understated beauty I think thats a true reflection of where we are at….enjoy your time left….I’ll be home in 4 months and I can’t wait…

  17. I’ve really enjoyed reading your article about my incredible country. I live in Cape Town and try not to take this beautiful place for granted, because I know how lucky I am to live here.

    Visitors to Cape Town should really try to fit in a hike in Table Mountain National Park if they have the time. The diversity of fauna and flora on the mountain is amazing, not to mention the panoramic views. There are so many safe and easy trails to choose from, it’s totally worth doing!

    Enjoy the rest of your time here, have a fantastic trip!

    1. Yeah….

      Been living in Cape Town for 4 years now and i’m only fitting it in now…i’m Hiking table mountain tomorrow…!!!!

      (‘ ‘,)Excited….I hiked Lions Head 3 weeks ago…. it was awesome ….hopefully tomorrow will be even more awesome…

  18. Cape Town was one of the only places in the world where you could hitch a ride in a military fighter jet. It was called Thunder city. Unfortunately it’s closed down now.

  19. I’ve wanted to visit South Africa for such a long time now, and posts like this remind me why! It’s such an interesting country, and I have no doubt that I’ll fall in love with it, too!

  20. YAY! This post makes my heart SO happy! I’ve been living as an expat in South Africa for 5 years now (the first 2 in Cape Town, the past three in Joburg) and I love both areas of the country so much! I’m so glad you enjoyed your trip, I don’t the the beauty and diversity of this country 🙂


  21. Sorry, I meant – I don’t think I’ll ever get tired of the beauty and diversity of this country* Still need to have my morning cup of coffee 😉


  22. I have heard that South Africa is absolutely beautiful. What child growing up didn’t desire to see the animals on safari? I would be moved to tears too. Just seeing elephants around here almost has me crying

  23. Well you’ve sold me on wanting to visit South Africa – although the accents had me wanting to visit it already! Great post on a lesser-blogged-about country!

  24. South Africa was on my list for a very long time. I didn’t get there yet, but I’ve heard so many stories about this country from friends and from people I met on my travels, people who lived there for several months, or even years. So many perspectives! Most of them were about the beautiful nature, the high level of racism, the overall inequality, and the poverty. I’m glad to find out here a more optimistic view on South Africa 🙂

  25. I visit Johannesburg often and the locals never take me into the centre. They always say it is unsafe. I’m glad to hear that it was safe for you and you were able to appreciate some of the nicer sides. Sandton is indeed lovely and posh!

    I’ve been to Pretoria a few times and that is beautiful when in bloom. Kruger is great too yet I can’t believe it is now 9 years since I went.

    Whilst I’ve never been I’ve heard that St George is a wonderful place to visit too.

  26. I studied abroad in South Africa for five and a half months and I would not change that experience for anything! I lived in Pietermaritzburg (an hour west of Durban) and was able to go on safari, visit the penguins near Cape Point, horseback riding in mountains at Sani Pass, wine tours in Cape Town, go to the top of the World Cup stadium in Durban, Johannesburg, St. Lucia, and so much more! I am truly glad that you were also able to experience some of those sightings and opportunities!

  27. Thanks for this, Kate! I am a South African living in South Korea and as much as I love to travel, your posts about SA have reminded me that there is good reason to go home 🙂

  28. Hi Kate
    I am a south African living in the uk and have been away from home lately. I follow your blog and love reading up on your adventures I was so thrilled with what you said about Vietnam that I travelled there myself and was amazed . As a south African reading about what you have to say about my home you have truelly brought me to tears thank you for being so honest and real about what you experienced I can see that you have really got to know it well enough to recognise what we see in her . It is a lovely land and your posts have done it so much of justice .

  29. A person effectively help to make severely blogposts We would point out. Which is the beginer My spouse and i visited your internet-site website thereby considerably? I actually shocked while using research you’ve made to produce this type of upload incredible. Amazing procedure!

  30. Hello Kate!
    Here is Alessandra. First of all thanks for your blog, it’s amazing and the pictures are fantastic.
    I’m planning my own trip in South Africa and I’d like ask to you some suggestions, I’m 25 years old and I need to know the best way to organise my travel in safe:

    do you know some place where can I sleep in CT and Durban?
    do you know any TO to organize a visit to see the big 5?
    Are there any places that I have to visit?

    Thanks a million!

      1. Great, thank you Kate.
        Just a question more: I will be alone, do you think that I can rent a car and travel alone? Or is it better find a Sud african T.O to do it in safe?

        Really thanks and if you will come in Italy it will my pleasure give you some suggestion 🙂 (specially about Piedmont- food and wine)

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