What To Do in South Africa for 3 Weeks

What To Do in South Africa for 3 Weeks post image

I’ve not posted anything on this blog for a while, the reason is that I’ve just got back from a 3 week holiday in sunny South Africa, and a jolly good time it was too.

The primary reason for not posting about my holiday before now, is that has never struck me as particularly sensible to announce on this great interwebs that you’re going to be away from home. Of course we had someone looking after the house, but all the same.

In a nut shell, here are the highlights:

  • Flew on the new double decker A380 from Paris to Johannesburg (Jo’burg)
  • Surfed in the Indian ocean off Durban
  • Dived in a shark pool
  • Saw buffalo, rhino, elephant and a leopard on a game reserve
  • Saw crocs and hippos from a boat
  • Held a baby croc in a Crocodile Centre
  • Drove a 4×4 in the Drakonsburg mountains
  • Rode horses in the mountains
  • Went shooting in the woods
  • Saw rock paintings at Giant’s Castle
  • Stroked a baby lion
  • Visited the Apartheid Museum in Johannesburg
  • Visited the Cradle of Humankind
  • Visited the Wonder Cave

Flights and the A380

Would you believe that it’s no longer and significantly cheaper to fly from Manchester to Jo’burg via Paris with Air France, than to fly direct from Heathrow. When I say cheaper, it’s £240 cheaper per ticket!

An unexpected plus was that Air France fly the new double decker A380 from Paris to Jo’burg. It’s a very impressive plane and no mistake. I particularly liked the webcam feed from the tail during take off and landing, and that there were nearly 100 films served up by Video On Demand to your personal screen.

Surfing in Durban

I’ve never tried surfing before but where best to try than in the permanently warm waters of the Indian ocean? A hour’s lesson was never going to be enough, but me and the nipper both managed to get up… if only briefly!

Shark Diving

Not quite as adventurous as it sounds, the shark diving experience at uShaka Marine World in Durban was exciting nonetheless, and very cold. Me and the nipper were put in a shark cage and roped into the centre of the pool, from where we could dive under water and see the several sharks that shared the pool.

There’s loads to do at uShaka including some awesome water slides and live entertainment and snorkelling and aquariums etc.

Umhalanga Game Reserve

Umhalanga Game Reserve RhinoDriving through a game reserve would always be an exciting an rewarding experience, but when you have a trained and very experienced game ranger (my very talented cousin) in the car with you, rewarding becomes exceptional, not just for knowing where to go and what to look for, but also for the background information.

Did you know for example that when spooked, all animals will run into the wind? So knowing which way the wind is blowing at all times, is rather important when walking out in a game trail.

Crocs and Hippos

St Lucia Lake Hippos Possibly a rather touristy move, but taking a guided tour boat ride on the 70km St Lucius lake was a very nice way to see mostly hippos and some crocodiles in their natural environment.

Most concerning though was the news the following day that there had been a fatal crocodile attack on the very stretch of lake we’d been on! It turns out that the crazy woman had been fishing in croc territory and had waded into the water to retrieve her caught fishing line. A croc grabbed her arm and pulled her under, drowning her. Unbelievable stupidity.

Baby Crocodiles

Baby Crocodiles at the Crocodile Centre in St LuciusAnother unexpected benefit of having a ranger as a cousin is that you get personal tours of the local crocodile centre by the owner and his family. Which included the opportunity to handle one of the baby crocs. Much like snakes are not slimy as people think, crocs are much softer than they appear, especially their underside and surprisingly under their feet, which is incredibly soft and supple. It was very cool to get to hold one.

4×4 Mountain Driving

4x4 Mountain DrivingMy cousin runs an educational facility in the Drakensburg mountains and on the first day staying with him, him tossed me the keys to one of his 4×4 “baccies” and said I should take the family on a drive up into the mountains, on our own no less. Driving a kind of car I’d never driven before, on a road surface I’d never driven on before (using the word “road” here is being rather generous), up a mountain I’d never been on before, without help or guidance, with an hour till nightfall… what could possibly go wrong?!? 😉

As it turns out it was fine. Better than fine actually, it was a whole lot of fun and I grinned all the way up and down. It also gave me an insight into my cousin’s mindset as an educator. Whilst the perceived risk as I outlined above may have been high, the reality is that the actual risk was considerably lower; it allowed my family and I get the feeling of independent adventure, in a relatively managed and controlled way. A clever guy that cousin of mine.

Mountain Horse Riding

Horse riding in the Drakansburg mountains of South AfricaHorses (otherwise known as super strong masses of muscles that kick and bite) scare me. Well they did, they don’t any more.

I’m struggling to know where to start to describe the experience of riding horses that are generally free to roam a 30km x 170km fenceless stretch of the Drakensburg mountains, but choose to come home every night! The whole Natural Horsemanship (or Horse Gentling if you prefer) approach to training horses is in stark contrast to the traditional methods used to “break” a horse.

To put this into context, my 11 year old daughter who is virtually a total novice rider, rode a horse that had been declared “unrideable” by experienced riders after going through traditional training, and was going to be shot before my cousin rescued it and rehabilitated it using natural horsemanship techniques (he doesn’t like the term “horse whispering” as it mystifies something that isn’t a mystery).

Riding Western rather than English style, makes a lot more sense in the mountains too, if for no other reason than the saddles are a lot more comfortable. The whole experience of riding amazing horses, where it would be impossible to go in a vehicle (even with my new found 4×4 skillz!), in beautiful mountain scenery, was breath taking.

Shooting in the woods

Shooting in the woodsOk this was only with a 9mm semi-automatic Czech made pistol at targets stuck to trees, but coming from England, where all handguns, pistols and any rifle with calibre greater than .22 are completely banned, this was a rare opportunity.

I’ve only ever shot a proper gun once before, when I was a teenager, and was told I was pretty good for a first timer; I’m happy to report that I don’t appear to have lost my touch. This was 2 shots into a target 14m away for example.

Rock paintings at Giant’s Castle

San / Bushman Rock Art at Giant's CastleGiant’s Castle is one of the Drakensberg Peaks where native South African Bushmen (or the San people) used to live, stretching back thousands of years. Apart from archaeological finds, the obvious evidence is in the hundreds of rock paintings depicting their lives and mythology, and places where smoke has stain the rock roofs for example.

It’s pretty humbling to drive some distance into the mountains, far from anything you could call civilisation, hike for over a mile into the peaks, and discover ancient rock art and places where people lived long before the Western world ever found them, and see their thoughts and experiences depicted in art drawn on rocks.

Baby Lions!

Lion Cubs at Lion Park, JohannesburgIt’s impossible to go to Johannesburg and not visit the Lion Park.
It’s impossible to visit the Lion Park and not stoke lion cubs!
Here’s a picture of me, stroking a baby lion.
There’s nothing more to say here. Do it!

We also drove through the lion enclosures, which was pretty cool. Check out the surprise at 0:55: 😉

The Apartheid Museum in Johannesburg

Aparthied Museum in JohannesburgHow can you go to South Africa and not learn about Apartheid? Alarming, humbling and upsetting, the history of apartheid and Nelson Mandela engenders a broad spectrum of emotions and an insight into one of the most recent examples of the shame of mankind.

The Cradle of Humankind

Marapeng the Cradle of Human KindThe area to the North West of Johannesburg has produced about a third of the world’s hominid fossil finds, including Mrs Ples, who has been called the fabled Missing Link. She (or possibly He, if the male skeleton found nearby belongs to the skull) lived 2 million years ago is the most complete skull from Australopithecus Africanus ever found, which is believed to be the common ancestor of all humankind.

In the same Sterkfontein caves, Little Foot was also found only 15 years ago. Contrary to the name, this find is unique as it’s the only complete Australopithecus Africanus skeleton ever found. Little Foot refers to the fact they found a few bones from the foot first, and have had to chisel the rest of the skeleton out of solid rock. In fact this process is still ongoing as there’s about 5% of Little Foot’s skeleton left to retrieve.

Maropeng Museum is the place to go that brings the whole experience together. A practical hands on museum, it’s interesting, educational and great fun to visit. It’s by far the best presented facility of any we visited in South Africa. If I had to go back and could only do 1 thing, this is where I’d go.

The Wonder Cave at Kromdraai

The Praying Mary at the Wonder Cave in KoomdraaiOther than the archaeology, the above Sterkfontein caves are a fine example of how man can obliterate areas of natural beauty, as all the mineral formations have long been mined for their limestone and little remains to look at.

The Wonder Cave in the nearby Lion and Rhino reserve however is another matter entirely. At an estimated 2.2 billion years old(!) it’s full of amazing stalactites, stalagmites and columns, having only been partially mined 100+ years ago, before being abandoned and lost until the new land owner decided to walk his property tossing a rock onto every hole he found. Well worth a visit.


There were many other things we did, but those were the main highlights and points I’d recommend. Altogether a fine way to spend 3 weeks, and that’s not to mention the quality family time we got, including extended family too. The last time we went to South Africa was 12 years ago and I sincerely hope it’s not another 12 years before we get out again.

Having said all that, it’s always nice to get home and sleep in your own bed. 🙂

{ 6 comments… add one }
  • Jeannie 13 September 2012, 5:03 am

    Hey, Colin, I started reading your blog from the Golf Elbow page, and – Wow! Great writing and topics. Coincidentally, I was just trying to figure out what to do for Christmas two weeks, and happened upon this blog post. Hmmmm, intriguing. It’d be by myself solo, so what do you think? Would that be safe enough for a woman?

    BTW – Your Blue Steak recipe is great – I’ve known about it, but never heard it called that before.

  • Colin McNulty 13 September 2012, 7:28 am

    Hi Jeannie, carful, you’ll make me blush! 😉 But thank you, I’m glad you like my blog.

    My experience of South Africa may differ from yours as I was visiting family there, but we felt it was quite safe. Even when we found ourselves very much in the black part of a remote town, and I took my 11 year old daughter walking round several all black shops, we got lots of stares but felt quite safe and were never threatened.

    Just to be clear, I’m not suggesting that a black person would be any more threatening than a white person, but that’s the stereotype some people have. I later discovered that there was a different part of town where all the white people shopped. SA is still quite segregated in that way.

    In the 3 weeks there, there was only 1 time I felt concerned. That was when we parked up in a car park to go site seeing and upon our return walked past some homeless people who were sleeping next to the car park. One of them saw us get into car and came over to peer in the driver’s window as I was fiddling with the sat nav. I drove away quickly and nothing happened.

    My conclusion is that SA is much safer than the ews headlines would have you believe, but that’s true of any place as the headlines only ever show extremely bad events.

    I would qualify that by saying I teach self defence classes in Manchester as taught by Tony Blauer from California, who is an expert in detecting, preventing and surviving violent encounters, so I perhaps have a slight advantage over some.

    I’m sure you’d have a great time.

  • The Dame Intl 19 September 2012, 8:43 pm

    Hey Colin!
    Im glad you had a great time in my home country. I now live in the UK but I recently went back to volunteer on a guest farm taking guests on trail rides! I plan on going back before the end of the year, to Natal this time, where I grew up and would love to visit your cousin and pick his brains on his technique with his horses as I tried with little success with the horses in my care on the guest farm.
    Looking forward to hearing from you!

  • Colin McNulty 20 September 2012, 9:28 am

    Hi Lisa, my cousin’s facility is http://www.enviroed.co.za/ and he practices “natural horsemanship”. Principles that I learned from him were things like:

    – Never look a horse in the eye (with your binocular predator eyes).
    – Don’t pat a horse, stroke it.
    – The Ask, Tell, Promise approach to controlling the horse.
    – Behave more like prey and less like a predator.
    – Getting a horse’s mind used to paying attention to you before riding it.

  • Jeannie 24 September 2012, 7:40 am

    I’ve traveled with my two kids (well, one was 10 and the other 17) around the world – and despite the many dire warnings of rape, kidnapping, theft, pick pockets, etc. – we didn’t meet up with anything to write home (or blog) about. Well, okay, so someone broke into our dorm room in Alice Springs, Central Australia and stole my iPhone (there goes ALL of my contacts!), and a Blackberry, but we lost the iPad on our own in Barcelona months later.

    The most intimidating moments were at a toll stop, and while our driver was at the office handling the passage, we were accosted by merchants, and a fellow who had a monkey to help him beg. My daughter and I were specifically told by our driver to NOT OPEN our windows for any reason, and didn’t pay for anything, but did take pictures of the merchants selling their wares, including the guy with the monkey. When we didn’t pay the man with the monkey, he began banging on the car, and trying to enter the car. Luckily, the driver came back at that time, and chased him away.

    I think your travel advice is sound. I look forward to seeing SA sometime soon!

  • Colin McNulty 25 September 2012, 6:54 am

    Sounds interesting Jeannie, my daughter is 11 and I’ve considered the same issues re travelling with her.

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