With an extraordinary allure and magnificent terrain, certain destinations within South Africa are so familiar that, generally speaking, they have reached the saturation point and are locked within the usual tourist field of vision.
In fact, tourism to the country has soared to unprecedented levels. According to the annual report of the Tourism Enterprise Partnership, tourism in the country grew at a rate of 10.2 percent in 2012, more than 1 percentage point from the previous year and more than the 4 percent that had been forecast by the U.N. World Tourism Organization.
Those figures aren’t surprising to Sthu Zungu, president of South African Tourism, North America, who says: “Our kaleidoscope of authentic experiences—from heart-pounding adventure to awe-inspiring wildlife to captivating history and cultures, combined with the friendliest people you will ever meet—compels travelers to come back year after year. You peel back the layers of South Africa only to find there is no end to discovery—the experience is transformative.”
But even those who consider themselves “old South Africa hands,” will be astounded by myriad ways to “rediscover” South Africa if the surface is scratched just a little deeper. A galaxy of new experiences await those willing to bypass the usual shark
diving, surfing and game watching cliches associated with travel in South Africa.
Consider exploring the country on a bicycle. That’s probably as close as one can fully realize and come into contact with the full South African experience.
Jens Deister, co-founder of Cape Town-based African Bikers Tours, now celebrating its 20th anniversary of operations, agrees. “A bicycle is the best and most leisurely way to get to know the country,” he says.
The tour company’s most popular package, dating back to when African Bikers Tours began as a small but ambitious enterprise, is an 18-day adventure unwinding along the country’s spectacular Garden Route starting and ending in Cape Town.
There are two options: “Route A” runs in March and October, while “Route B” takes place in February and November. Tours (from approximately $200 per day pp; bike rentals range from $35 to $40 per day) are intentionally scheduled to take place during the South African spring and summer when the weather in that part of the world mirrors California’s and the scenery is at its most splendid.
After pedaling through a natural and striking wonderland, bikers spend nights in quaint inns that reflect the rich South
“We prefer privately run guesthouses rather than large hotels,” Deister says. “The inns are all three- to four-star. Most meals are included, and a chase vehicle with a trailer follows the group for safety and with supplies and equipment.”
How much physical stamina is required for such a trip?
Deister says: “A medium to good level of fitness is necessary. The route goes over mountains and passes varying altitudes.”
African Bikers Tours will custom design a travel itinerary for couples who want to bike independently, but the average group consists of about 10 persons to keep the “intimate” experience personal.
According to Deister, “The average guest is between 35 and 55 years old, single, or traveling with a partner. The average trip includes some climbing, to about 4,000 ft. a day, in distances that run anywhere from 60 to 80 miles a day.”
African Bikers also guides cycling tours to Namibia, Madagascar, Mozambique and other countries in southern Africa.
A similarly priced tour of eastern South Africa and the Kingdom of Swaziland is scheduled for November.
Deister is passionate about the tours, which he says allow visitors a unique perspective. “There’s no better way to explore than on the bike and during some of the walks and hikes that come with the trips,” he says. “Between July and November, around the cool waters of the Cape of Good Hope, visitors can see plenty of the huge southern right whale and other marine creatures, offering one of the best land based whale-watching opportunities in the world.”
Hidden Trails’ 8-day Wild Coast Surf & Turf Safari is a great way for more active clients to travel to an area that is considered a rugged, remote, and fairly unpopulated stretch of South African coastline between East London and Port Edward—from the Mtamvuna River in the north to the Great Kei River in the south. On this itinerary, clients will have the opportunity to explore hidden coves and beaches while game viewing on horseback, not to mention visit rural villages, interact with the Xhosa people, view shipwrecks and spot whales and dolphins in the Indian Ocean.
Accommodations are in small seaside inns, as well as the Endalweni Game Reserve on the first night, which is explored by horseback as many of the areas in the reserve are unreachable by vehicle.
Baviaanskloof Tours offers singular highly personal trips where South Africa’s hidden side comes into clear focus by exploring places outsiders seldom see. Baviaanskloof means “Valley of the Baboons” and it’s a hidden gem in the southwest corner of Eastern Cape Province in an area known as the Kouga-Baviaanskloof Mountain Catchment Complex, a relatively unknown mountain refuge managed by the Cape Nature Conservation since 1987.
Visitors swear that this is South Africa at its best.
Baviaanskloof Tours’ itineraries are arranged on demand, as the company exclusively caters to small groups of no more than four persons. The cost is calculated on a sliding scale depending on the number of persons and the type of accommodations, but generally run from about $200 pp per day, including light refreshments, meals and overnight accommodations.
All tours are customized and even the shortest one will reveal the magical side of the country.
Deon and Sophia van der Merwe operate the firm. “We cover the Baviaanskloof Wilderness Area exclusively on 1- and 2-day trips,” Deon says, adding that the 2-day tour “includes scenic valleys, mountain passes, a hike to a waterfall in a spectacular valley or along a gorge, viewing rock paintings and game watching.”
The 3-day trips originate in Port Elizabeth, the charming city about 200 miles from Cape Town and considered one of the finest in South Africa. Trips cover the area between Port Elizabeth and Willowmore where visitors invariably mingle with the locals, hikes along gardens in the vast nature conservation area and even the option to bask in aromatherapy massages.
According to Deon, all accommodations are in “quaint and picturesque properties that range from two- to four-stars. All are different, from farm guest houses to caves.”
He says that the standard 1-day tour is a roundtrip from Port Elizabeth to Bergplaas, while the 2-day tour covers the wilderness area. There are options to visit relatively unknown places like Grootrivier Poort or the Kouga area.
Baviaanskloof Tours are highly personal and very intimate, and guests have a unique option to enjoy the raw beauty of the South African terrain on 4WD excursions that take them to places that seem stuck in a time warp dating back more than a century.
Those marching to a different drum may choose what’s been labeled as “the ultimate Baviaanskloof getaway” at the Sederkloof Lodge (rates are from approximately $240 pp per night for a mountain chalet), a property consisting of six air-conditioned chalets for couples, four cottages for doubles and two for twin accommodations.
In this remote corner of South Africa, guests can take 4WD trips into the wilderness area that stretches way beyond the well-trodden tourist path.
on the tracks
For those seeking a seldom-seen South Africa, the super-plush Blue Train provides perspectives hard to top. The rail line offers a 27-hour, 994-mile journey from Pretoria to Cape Town, or vice-versa, that includes a couple of unique excursions, depending on whether your clients are on the north- or southbound route. The Cape Town to Pretoria excursion stops at the Victorian village of Matjiesfontein, a tiny outpost of the British Empire that harks back to the 1880s; it’s a true step back in time. Services aboard the Blue Train include boutiques, spas, fine dining, fine linens and private butlers. The line runs on a low- and high-season pricing schedule, the low-season generally stretching from January to August, while the high season is from October to November.
Rates start at approximately $1,500 through Nov. 15. bluetrain.co.za
Archived related articles (available on recommend.com/magazine/issue-archive):
Seeing African Wonders Through a Viewfinder (July 2013)