Africa specialist sophie visited South Africa in August this year on a two-week research trip.
I came to Audley two years ago, having long held a passion for travel. At 19 I moved to Luxembourg to teach and explore the rest of Europe. After three and a half years I decided I needed to see the rest of the world in style, so I joined Virgin Atlantic as a crew member. I came back down to earth two years ago and travel was the only option for me. I’ve always particularly liked South Africa, so it made perfect sense to focus on a country I was so passionate about.
In August I spent two weeks in South Africa, taking the kind of trips my clients experience whilst also testing out a few new ideas. What an incredible time I had. I started in Cape Town and after the 16-hour business class flight with Qatar I was well rested and raring to go.
After landing we were transferred to our lovely guest house just off of Kloof Street and were left with the afternoon to explore at our leisure. My colleague Louise and I headed off on foot to explore the highlights of Cape Town in the sunshine, moseying along Kloof Street and Bree Street, filled with stylish cafes, bars and boutique shops. Our wander took us through the Bo Kaap region of the city, famous for the brightly painted houses that exude the Cape Malay culture. Having finished our exploration we headed back to the hotel to freshen up before hitting one of Cape Town’s hotspots for dinner, The Shortmarket Club. I naturally opted for the fillet steak which was to die for, accompanied by a lovely bottle of South African Pinotage.
We embarked on a tour of one of the most popular tourist attractions in Cape Town, Robben Island. The three-hour excursion provided an insight into the history of racial segregation within South Africa whilst highlighting the struggles of Nelson Mandela. The trip began with a 25-minute boat trip to the island which provides good views of Cape Town.
After completing the tour we moved into the impressive One&Only hotel on the V&A Waterfront, giving us a chance to relax and discover this edgy, stylish quarter of Cape Town. In the evening we had a delicious meal at the Silo, Cape Town’s new hotel. The food was presented in exquisite morsels which simply melted in your mouth. After dinner, we headed to the rooftop bar for a cocktail and views over Cape Town.
Louise and I split up after a large breakfast that included everything you could ever imagine. She headed off down the Cape Peninsula and I met a private guide to explore Cape Town’s culinary delights on the Cape Eats tour. The tour provided an insight into the variety of cultures in Cape Town and allowed me to head into some of the city’s less explored areas to hear stories of the locals and try some traditional food.
We started on Bree Street, with a few stops at some chic cafes and restaurants for a cheese tasting platter and coffee. The tour continued through Bo Kaap, where we ate samosas from a stall at the side of the road made by a local woman who had put her three children through university. The tour continued and we tried chocolate cocoa cake and bunny chow coffee at the magnificent Truth Coffee and ate on the roof of the train station. Top tip — do not eat breakfast before a food tour!
Day four & five
I have a special place in my heart for Franschhoek, a valley in the Winelands. Everywhere you look there are grapevines ready for harvesting. We headed off to visit some of our properties and then spent the rest of our time exploring the Winelands on bikes with a guide.
The cycling itself was not too strenuous and we stopped off for a couple of well-earned wine tastings, one at the beautiful Grande Provence Estate, set amongst gardens, and the second at Rickety Bridge. The servings were generous which made the excursion more amusing as we continued on our travels.
Day six & seven
Today we headed out to Hermanus for a night at Birkenhead House. Perched on the cliffs, the hotel offers a snug feel and whilst it was blowing a gale, the fires were lit and the sofa was positioned so we could watch the whales breaching in the bay. We enjoyed a relaxing afternoon massage followed by a candlelit dinner in the restaurant with sea views. The next morning we took a walk along the beach to Hermanus after the whale tour was cancelled due to the weather. We sat upon the rocks and continued to watch whales frolic in the bay.
Day eight & nine
We left Hermanus and spent the night in Swellendam, one of South Africa’s oldest towns. Arriving late, we spent time relaxing in our room before heading out to dinner at a superb family-run restaurant. In the morning we made our way further along the Garden Route to Knysna.
After a wonderful evening meal at Lairds Lodge we had an early night. We began the next day with a 90-minute cycle ride from Thiesen Island to Leisure Isle. En route we talked about the ferns and the lagoon itself, which is, in fact, an estuary.
We then made the short drive to Knysna Forest to begin our education on South Africa’s plant and tree life. We took the 8 km (5 miles) walking tour through the heart of the forest with huge trees surrounding us on each side. In the afternoon we were lucky enough to get onto a whale watching excursion. Our captain smoothly navigated the incredible swells on the trip out of Knysna.
We bobbed over the waves to battle our way out into the smooth open waters where we searched for the dolphins and whales that had been so plentiful in Hermanus. The sun began to set and the captain and his hand, who was positioned on a hill with binoculars, seemed to be giving up. Another ten minutes passed and as the sun set we caught a glimpse of a huge humpback whale. A few seconds later it descended and was gone, but the experience was superb overall, despite few sightings.
Day eleven & twelve
The next morning we flew from the Southern Cape coast to Durban. After an evening to relax and repack, we headed off early to make our way to Phinda, a game reserve that I had dreamed of visiting since joining Audley. We had two nights at the reserve, the first in the northern part and the second in the south.
The lodges were incredible, and on the first night we stayed in the depths of the forest in a secluded private suite. During our first game drive we saw a huge bull elephant ripping up a tree.
The wind was cold and wrapped in a selection of blankets we headed off to find a spot to enjoy our sundowners. Driving into the darkness, the guide suddenly perked up and drew our attention to glowing lights in the distance and got excited saying they were fireflies. However, on arrival at the spot, I realised I had been had! The staff had set up a sundowner spot for us with lanterns and glasses, with each of our names hung from cotton in the branches of the tree. It was beautiful.
The second lodge of our stay, Rock Lodge, took my breath away. The accommodation is on a suspended platform with views over the African bush. That evening we headed out on our first game drive in the south, which turned out to be my best game drive to date. We set off and within moments we spotted two male cheetah less than 6 m (20 ft) away. They seemed unfazed by our presence, scanning the plains for food and lolloping in the evening sun.
After 30 minutes spent with the majestic animals, we headed off to respond to a radio call about two female lions. We made our way to the site and spotted them as one female took to her feet and began to saunter towards the road. We followed just feet behind as she began to assume a predatory position. She had caught the scent of a wildebeest that was out of sight to both me and the team on the jeep. As she stalked through the grass we all watched on slightly perplexed whilst following her at minimum speed. Moments later we caught sight of the wildebeest ahead and everything became clear.
We were witnessing a lion hunt, a first for me and for my tracker, who had been working in the bush for four years. Within a moment the wind changed and the wildebeest caught scent of his predator and took off in a panic — in the wrong direction. He ran straight to her and within seconds she had taken the wildebeest to the ground, where it thrashed, fighting for survival.
A few minutes later it was over. I felt a mixture of feelings, from panic and sadness, to relief and happiness for the hungry lioness. Within ten minutes the rest of the pride appeared in the distance in response to the scuffle.
The lioness padded off into the undergrowth and we watched the rest of the pride feast on the kill. I wondered why she hadn’t joined them, until a few minutes later she appeared across the long grass and made her way back to her kill with three tiny cubs she had collected from the safety of the bush.
In awe and feeling emotional, we sat with the lions until night fell before heading back to the lodge, passing elephant grazing and giraffe silhouetted against the sky. On arrival we were greeted by hot towels to wipe the dust from our faces and hot chocolate to warm us. We then headed out onto the candlelit deck for our final dinner on safari. We sat around with our guide and group from the jeep and laughed about our experiences over the most delicious feast. It was simply perfect.
The next morning saw another early start for our final game drive. I love sunrise in Africa, there’s nothing like it. Daylight brings the most incredible sense of relief to the antelope who are in danger throughout the night-time hours. We grabbed a coffee and made our way to the jeep.
I hadn’t yet seen my beloved leopard, and though I knew chances were slim, I reminded my ranger of my love for them. We set off in the dark and began the search. An hour passed, we saw rhino and continued on. We headed into the dense thicket and suddenly my tracker stood up silently and began to gesture in an animated manner. I frantically searched for a glimpse of what I could only assume was a leopard. He was right, we had found one! A huge majestic male slinking through the trees.
We stopped the vehicle and there he was, standing directly next to my seat. I sat silent and frozen. He stared at me before making his way up the tree just metres away. I have never felt so privileged.
After breakfast, we left Phinda for the Isimangaliso Wetlands Park — an unknown gem on the Elephant Coast. On arriving at Makakatana we were shown to our lovely rustic suite. The next two days included a game drive with a focus on the creatures of the wetlands; birds and hippo and a huge herd of giraffe.
In the evening the rain came down but it was also sunny, revealing the most incredible array of rainbows. At the lake, we saw hippo bobbing up and down in the water with huge belly flopping displays of power. The day finished with a delicious meal under the stars and the forest canopy. After an early night we thanked our hosts and headed back to the main town for our flight home.
Why do you like working at Audley?
Having worked at Audley for two years, the main thing I love is my team. We have fun on a daily basis and always take the time to share tips and experiences. Being passionate about the place I work is essential to me and the feedback from clients is incredible. It’s so nice to feel valued and appreciated and to be part of creating a dream for someone. I also enjoy the social aspect — I play Frisbee with the team twice a week, do circuits and make the occasional trip to the pub.