Que The Lion King soundtrack! I think we were singing “The Lion Sleeps Tonight” for about 2 months leading up to our trip to South Africa. A group of 7 of us from Nashville decided to partake in a Gate 1 Travel expedition to South Africa, a destination that ranked very high on many of our bucket lists. People always say ‘getting there is half the fun’…I beg to differ. We had to fly to Boston, then London, then Cape Town. If I did this trip again, I would try to find a direct flight from the U.S. to either Johannesburg or Cape Town. It cuts down on overall travel time and will give you a bit more time to experience the country. But I digress. Upon arrival into Cape Town, we check in to Protea Hotel Sea Point, a beautiful hotel just 1 block from the Atlantic Ocean. After a quick nap, we decided to explore the city. Walking along the beach, it felt a little bit like Miami, lined with dozens of brightly colored boutique hotels all with unobstructed views of the ocean.
During our first city excursion, we passed famous landmarks including Castle of Good Hope built in 1666 by the Dutch East India Company, City Hall, and St. George's Cathedral, the Anglican Diocese of Nobel Peace Laureate Archbishop Desmond Tutu. While in Cape Town, venture to the top of Table Mountain via cable car for one of the most beautiful views of the city. South Africa is known for their wine, so we would be remiss to have not visited a winery. A short 30 minute Uber ride away from city center is Beau Constantia, a lovely vineyard tucked away in the hillside with some of the steepest agricultural slopes in the Cape. Beau Constantia offers breathtaking views of the Stellenbosch and Helderberg mountain ranges. Jesse, Rusty and I spent the next two hours sipping delicious wine and noshing on local meats and cheeses in what was one of the most memorable and relaxing parts of our trip.
The next day, despite threats of severe weather, we opted to go great white shark cage diving…yes, you read that correctly and yes, we are all a bit crazy. We boarded a small vessel and headed out into the sea in hopes to come face to face with a great white shark. Our guide was quick to inform us that although the cage is safe, we needed to be aware of our surroundings. The illusive sharks seemed to not bother with us for the first part of the trip.
Nevertheless, 4 of us suited up, jumped into the cage and hoped for the best. Within minutes, a 10-foot long great white swam about 5 yards from our cage. You don’t realize how enormous these animals are until you come this close. It happened all too quick to even be scared. The next group into the cage got to see multiple sharks up close as we viewed from the boat. The excursion is a little expensive, especially if you are traveling with a family. Of course there is no guarantee that you will see a shark, but if not, seeing Cape Town’s coast line from the water is worth the money. Early the next morning, we flew to Johannesburg, known as "Gauteng: the City of Gold" and immediately boarded a coach en route to the Limpopo Province and the Mabula Game Lodge. Ever since I was young, the cheetah was always my favorite animal, so of course I was anxious to see one. I also knew that cheetah are hard to find in the wild and they camouflage themselves really well in the brush. Keep in mind, this is not a zoo. There are no enclosed habitats where specific animals are placed and people look on from the other side of the glass. This was a wild game reserve and seeing animals here is all about the lucky roll of the dice. We immediately checked-in to our room and rushed to our safari vehicles for what was the first of 4 game drives included in our tour. As luck would have it, the first animals we saw on the drive were a family of cheetah enjoying a hearty meal. It was hard to control my emotions and not break down in tears in front of the group, but being this close to these breathtaking animals was a dream come true. I could never have imagined cheetah would be the first thing we saw. The trip could have ended right then and there and I would have been happy. I could have stayed there for hours watching the cheetah, but we had to move on if we wanted to catch a glimpse of other animals before night fall.
Within minutes we were amongst herds of buffalo, rhino and wildebeest. They seemed to not mind us at all. Some would stop and stare as we snapped photos, others just carried on with their daily business. It was quite remarkable to see. One of most beautiful animals we saw on this drive were giraffe. They look so different in the wild and being this close to them, you can truly appreciate their grandeur and beauty. Towering over the trees, these gentle giants are definitely a highlight of the trip.
The following morning, before sunrise, we boarded our vehicles and ventured to the part of the reserve where the lions live. After playing a game of hide-and-seek, we stumbled upon a pride. Under a tree, we were able to see a cub perched on the back of its father. Within seconds we spotted a lioness emerging from the brush. And then another male, who came within petting distance of our vehicle.
Later that afternoon, we spotted zebra, hippo and about half-dozen elephants snacking on some leaves. The best thing about this adventure were the surprises. We never knew if we were going to round the corner and see something magical.
For our final adventure, a group of us decided to venture to the adjacent property for an interactive cheetah experience. For about $20 per person, we were able to get in a cage with two adult cheetah. These two had been raised since childhood, so they were very comfortable being around and interacting with humans. Being able to touch the cheetah and hear it purr was absolutely breathtaking. I never would have thought I’d be able to partake in an experience such as this. What an unforgettable way to end an unforgettable journey. To book your South African adventure, visit http://gate1travel.com/