South Africa review 2013 – a tourist in my motherland

Posted in: Trip reports- Oct 05, 2013 Comments Off
Greg Hung World explorer, film-maker & entrepreneur

Greg Hung World explorer, film-maker & entrepreneur



Greg is a former corporate  IT Manager and Business Lead from Vancouver, BC in Canada inspired during his MBA program to take a risk and follow his heart and passions. He is a modern World Explorer, Film-maker, Mobile & Google friendly Website producer, & Entrepreneur at the intersection of travel and technology. He has directed, shot, edited, and produced over 30 high definition travel and lifestyle related videos on Youtube in addition to producing ChicVoyage in Asia – modern travel adventures on the Amazon.com store in 2012. He has been instructed by globally renown SLR Director and film-maker Phillip Bloom. His 4 month 2013 journey took him to Hawaii, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, Singapore, Indonesia, and Malaysia. The next journey is currently in progress with a return to Asia where is currently living and studying Mandarin in Taiwan. His vision for his family of travel companies called Chicvoyagegroup is to “inspire the world to travel and explore”

South Africa review 2013 – a tourist in my motherland (trailer)

full version currently available at the end of the post

 

As someone who was originally born in South Africa with local relatives, but who has spent more of their adult life being raised in Canada I plan to offer a unique perspective on my homeland.

After 2 months of filming and traveling in Hawaii and Australia I would have been happy with the video and pictures I had captured for the year. Fortunately shortly before I left for Australia I was invited to accompany my grandmother from Singapore to South Africa.  This would be a great opportunity to help my grandmother and revisit my home country at an age where I could appreciate it.

My last trip to South Africa was in 2001. I had spent time with my good family South African friends Leanne and Melissa while traveling through Australia. They had armed me with some inside information and suggested I turn on my South African accent to blend in with the locals.

South Africa review 2013

Capetown Table mountain

2 perspectives on South Africa

Leading up to this trip I had heard two different perceptions of South Africa. The first was the romanticized perception of South Africa that some non South African friends and colleagues seemed to have. Some envisioned exotic animal safari’s while others pictured the beautiful mountains of Capetown. Trip advisor had also recognized Capetown as a travel’s choice 2013 winner.

On the other hand I had heard about stories of fear and violence over the years from South African relatives and other South Africans I had come across. I really didn’t know what to actually expect, but I thought I would be cautious to begin with.

First week – pushing the comfort zone

At the Johannesburg Tambo airport I recall the customs officers were dressed in street clothes and where having casual conversation amongst themselves while they stamped our passports.  My cousin’s husband would be there to take us from the airport to our family house in Pretoria.

South Africa review 2013

Relaxing by the pool. South Africa can offer a comfortable lifestyle

My first week was spent playing it safe from our gated electric fenced house in Pretoria.  I would be spending some time in Pretoria & Johannesburg before taking a 3 day trip to Capetown and then a 2 day trip to the town of Nelspruit to visit the Kruger National Park for an wildlife animal adventure.

Pretoria is one of the other 3 capital cities about an hour away from the city of Johannesburg.  South Africa has been very much a car city since my childhood and it still is. Driving in Johannesburg is more dangerous compared in North America.  There is the potential to get mobbed at a traffic light and the crazy drivers on the highway think they are on a race track. South Africa had introduced a new train system before the 2010 World cup called the Guatrain that now links some of the main destinations like Pretoria, Sandton, Rosebank, and the Tambo Airport.

South Africa review 2013

A view from the South Africa’s modern Gautrain train system

For my first trip outside of the house I would have a chance to sample the new Gaut train from Pretoria to Sandton, Johannesburg. Taking no chances I was on high alert on this ride to the Sandton station traveling alone. I didn’t take my camera out of my bag unless it was safe and I traveled during the day. I was renting a telephoto (long lens for wildlife photography) camera lens for my upcoming safari trip to Kruger national park. I came out of the Sandton train station and saw a parked white BMW across the street. I picked up my camera from Peter and he advised not to take footage unless accompanied with someone. With all the expensive equipment I had on me I wasn’t ready to take any chances.  On this day I decided to resist the temptation to film Sandton City, one of the main malls and attractions in Johannesburg and took the train back.  I would eventually develop enough comfort to film Sandton later on in my trip. The Gaut train has good security and people that ride the train are mostly a professional looking crowd. Some even had their laptops out on the train so it couldn’t be that bad.

I had a chance to help my grandmother by driving her to the local grocery store. I got my feet wet driving standard on the right side of the road. I had to get used to someone ushering the car and volunteering to help with shopping bags in the parking lot even though I really didn’t need their help. They expect a tip as well. This would just be the beginning of this type of solicitation from parking to porters at the airport.

After a couple of days of honing my skills with the super telephoto lens behind fenced walls I was ready to make a short trip to get some aerial views of Pretoria. I was warned by my relatives to be careful once it gets dark. Since an hour before sunset is a good time to get footage I had to take some risk here to get good shots.

South Africa review 2013

An aerial view of Pretoria

I got to the viewpoint overlooking Pretoria and immediately attracted attention with my gopro camera attached to the car hood from a group of white afrikaaner teenagers. A group of police came to say hi and see what I was up to.  I did my work just as it was getting dark and a luxury sedan playing loud music with a shady black driver started to pull up. I sensed it was time to go.  At the time I took these photos Nelson Mandela was in critical condition in one of the Pretoria hospitals and US president Obama was en route to South Africa as well.

South Africa review 2013

An aerial view of downtown Pretoria

I was taking baby steps and pushing my comfort zone in my birth country. I was crawling now it was time to walk. It certainly does feel strange to feel like a tourist in ones birthland, but after so much time away that’s what the the situation was. To take my independence to another level especially for my mini trips from within South Africa I would need internet access on my phone. I was told by my local relatives that proof of residency would be needed to obtain such a card.

A sim card was my key to google map navigation, communication, and internet research. I managed to get my sim card at a local Pretoria mall by being nice and describing myself as a visitor from Canada. I signed up with Virgin but even the staff recommended I choose Cellc.

Tip: You may be able to get a sim car for your unlocked mobile phone using your passport as your id. I recommend the provider called Cellc.

 Johannesburg (Joburg) Explorations

South Africa review 2013

Dim sum in South Africa’s Chinatown district Cyrildene

South Africa review 2013

A view inside Sandton City, one of the most popular malls and destinations in Johannesburg

I had my accommodation, car rental, and sim cards and was ready for my trip to Capetown and Kruger. I had a couple of days before my trip and had a chance to visit and eat at Cyrildene, the current Chinatown of Johannesburg. I had a chance to try a nice dim sum restaurant and a local restaurant there. The Chinatown is relatively small to be fair and the quality is okay compared to Vancouver and Australian standards. I also had a chance to drive through the dangerous neighborhood of Hillbrow near the Ponte building. Here I had a chance to experience the chaos of local black people crossing the streets at random. I really did not feel safe, but to come away unscathed from Hillbrow is seen as quite courageous or perhaps foolish by the locals.  Check out the video to see how crazy this was driving around in a BMW filming one of the more dangerous areas in Johannesburg.

ponte-tower

a view of the Ponte Tower in Johannesburg

Capetown – Time to unwind in natural beauty

I got excited the moment I caught my first view of Capetown from the plane. It outshines Johannesburg in terms of it’s natural beauty and is blessed with the mountains and close proximity to the coast. I would say the only city I’ve been to that can match Capetown in this aspect is Vancouver BC Canada. I took a cheap 2 hour flight from Joburg to Capetown with Kulula airlines for about 1669 ZAR ( $166 US). I hired a car to get around and planned to live the bachelor lifestyle staying in a private set of apartments called Flatrock located on Long Street recommended by my uncle Edmund. I had 3 days to get around and sample Capetown. I was really excited at a chance to sample Table mountain and Robben island and reclaim my bachelor independence in a modern apartment. I drove from the airport to downtown and found the check-in for my apartment. My uncle Edmund surprised me by meeting me there with his beautiful daughter. I quickly dropped off my stuff in my beautiful suite that was large enough for at least 6 people. We went for a drive to Chapman’s peak to have lunch and take some footage of the beautiful views along the coast.

South Africa review 2013

A view from Chapmans Peak, Capetown South Africa

I arrived in Capetown at the beginning of July, which is considered their winter. You wouldn’t think so with the great sunny weather I had during the day.  However, it does get chilly and windy at night. I decided to drive up to Table Mountain on a nice clear day; however it was extremely windy once I got up to the parking area and they shut down the cable car going up to the top. There is also a hike, which you can do up the mountain that involves most of your day. I decided to take some footage from the parking area instead, which still offers a great view of the city. I had time to drive down the mountain and experience the café culture of Capetown. I enjoyed a filet (tender steak) and cheese sandwich and coffee sitting by the patio with the sun shining on me and imagined what it might be like to live here.

South Africa 2013

A view of the city of Capetown from the base of Table Mountain

 

Stellenbosch – Capetown Wine Country

My Uncle Edmund was going to take me to Capetown’s well known wine country called Stellenbosch, which is about 50 km east of Capetown. The drive is quite scenic and my Uncle told me that Stellenbosh is a popular location to film. We had a chance to visit the Ernie El’s winery, owned by the well-known South African golf player. The estate is beautiful and a great experience. Walking outside on the patio offers breathtaking vista’s that look like they are straight out of a movie.  Check out the video if you don’t believe me. We enjoyed a wine flight and I picked up a couple of bottles for later.

Tip: A 750ml Bottle of Ernie Els Big easy red goes for 125 ZAR or $12 US. The flagship bottle goes for 600 ZAR or $60 US. More info here

South Africa review 2013

The epic vista views from Ernie El’s wine estate in Stellenbosch wine country, Capetown South Africa

Robben Island Experience

Robben Island is a South African National Heritage and a UNESCO heritage site. I wanted to visit this island as this was where former South African President Nelson Mandela spent 18 of the 27 years he served behind bars before the fall of apartheid.  President Obama had visited Robben island several days before my planned visit. I had trouble purchasing tickets on-line and my strategy was to wake up early to catch an early tour at the V & A waterfront. Unfortunately the tickets were sold out and I went to go find a travel clinic to get mosquito repellent for the Kruger National park and take some footage of the V & A waterfront. I went back to the ticket office and somehow one ticket had opened up, which I bought right away.

South Africa review 2013

A nice boat ride from Capetown’s waterfront to Robben Island

Tip: tours are a great way to meet good people while you are traveling

I made a couple of friends in the line to the tour. One from New York and the other from Germany. This made my experience at Robben island a whole lot better. The boat ride from Capetown to Robben island is beautiful. You have a chance to take some great photos of Table Mountain. Once we arrived we were taken to the prison where a former inmate took us around and explained what life was like here. We also got to take a look at Mandela’s former cell. A great experience overall, and one that reminded me of my visit to Alcatraz prison in San Francisco. I exchanged contacts with my new friends. We would be go for some drinks on Long street later that night.

tip: Plan ahead and book your tickets on-line well in advance. Plan to invest the entire day and bring your camera.

Nightlife in Capetown

It was a great day at Robben Island, and I had some good plans for my last night in Capetown. My cousin Lisa flew in from Johannesburg so we would meet for dinner and then I would meet my new Robben island friends to head to a bar on Long street. I packed everything before I went out for the next day.

As my apartment was located just a minute walk away from the popular Long street I had a chance to experience the different personalities it has during the day and night. My uncle has a restaurant called the dim sum bar on Long street, so I had a chance to visit it. Long street is clustered with restaurants, bars, and lounges. During the evening the nightlife comes alive and I could hear bar crowds partying all the way until the early hours of the morning.

South Africa review 2013

Nice ambience at Asoka Asian fusion restaurant

Lisa picked me up from my apartment and we had a good meal at a trendy asian restaurant called asoka located on 68 Kloof street. Lisa dropped me off at my apartment and I had a chance to meet my friends at Dubliner for some drinks. It was a friendly young crowd and featured some live music. It was getting late and it was time to part ways and get some sleep. I took some shots with my camera just outside the Dubliner and immediately attracted the attention of some people on the street. One woman even followed me all the way to my apartment.  Good thing the security chased her away. My cousin had warned me before and now I had the actual experience of being harassed on long street.

tip: Play it safe if you party on Long street. Don’t stop to talk to people on the street and try not to show any valuables

Neilspruit – The destination for your Africa Safari at Kruger National Park

The Kruger national park was one of the highlights of my South Africa trip. The goal was to capture some amazing footage of the animals in the wild and experience life inside the park. I hired a self drive compact car with transmission from the Neilspruit airport website and booked accommodation in the park at the Olifant and Satara camp Kruger national park in advance.

South Africa review 2013

kruger-national airport arrivals at Neilspruit

tip: I rented a 5 speed compact for $60 US for 3 days from Avis on-line using the Neilspruit airport website

It was a short flight and from the moment we touched down at the airport I had a feeling that this was going to be a special trip. The décor of the Neilspruit airport had an African theme that got me in the spirit for a wild life safari. I elected to use my iphone GPS instead of the car gps to save 160 rand. That was mistake one and hiring a standard transmission was mistake two. Using the GPS on your iphone really drains the battery fast and without my cigarette adaptor to keep it powered I resorted to charging the phone with my laptop open connected to my iphone. The standard transmission ended up being super inconvenient for the stop and start traffic in the park.

I started my journey from the airport to my gate and made a few stops for some snacks, pies, and water along the way. I underestimated how long it would take me to arrive at the gate. I was scheduled to stay at the Olifant with a river view of the Sabi river. From what I read the river views offered the best opportunities to get footage of the animals while they came to drink water. The drive seemed to take forever and I arrived at 5:30pm. I parked my car at the gate to see reception and was bitterly disappointed when I was turned back with no refund. I had to find accommodation outside the park and fast. Luckily I found a bed and breakfast not far from the gate before it got too dark.

 

south africa review 2013

When you book accommodation inside the park from www.sansparks.org read it carefully. Allow plenty of time to arrive at your gate

Tip: you can book your own accommodation directly with the Kruger national park. The benefit is that it will cost less and you will be staying inside the park saving you time and opportunities to do a night safari.

South Africa review 2013

An elephant up close and personal at Kruger National Park

I woke up early the next morning as soon as the gate opened to make up for the prior day. I drove in the park not knowing what to expect. There was only one road to drive on surrounded by dry savanna on both sides. It wasn’t more than 20 minutes until I saw a large elephant less than 10 meters away from my car. The park forbids you from getting out of your car for safety reasons. Most of the experience would involve driving through the savanna until I would see parked cars or spot an animal.  I spotted many suv cars and it is not uncommon for other park guests to trade tips on animal sightings. I felt a bit of excitement by how close I did get to the animals.  I made it to the Olifant camp to enjoy a good breakfast outside by the terrace. The terrace offers a good view of the Sabi rivers and perhaps some hippos if you are lucky.

South Africa review 2013

A night safari from the Satara Camp at Kruger National Park

After a good meal I was off to the Satara Camp. I manage to check in my bungalow and book myself in for a nighttime safari. It was clean, comfortable and had air conditioning and a private bathroom.  The night safari was an exciting idea, but during the actual safari we didn’t see too many animals. We had a driver and tour guide with a half full truck. Blankets and comfortable seating are provided and there are several flashlights to allow passengers to see the animals in the dark. The ride is several hours and there is no bathroom onboard as you ride in the dark.  The most rare animals to spot of the big five game are the leopard and the rhino. If you get a chance to see them then consider yourself lucky. The main camps will post maps with animal sightings throughout the park to help increase your chances to finding them.

South Africa review 2013

My Satara bungalow in the park for 988 ZAR a night

 

A special Q & A with Greg about Kruger National Park

South Africa review 2013

World Explorer Greg at Olifant Camp, Kruger National Park, South Africa

Do I need to hire an SUV

No not really. The roads in the park are well paved, but the highway roads leading to the park will have you dodging potholes like you are in a video game except the stakes are higher if you get stuck in them. It is hard to dodge at high speeds and this may reason alone to get a car with larger tires and more elevation. Inside the park I think that over 70% of the cars I saw were SUV, but you really don’t need once unless you will be doing offroading or want the safety or more space.

Do I need to go on a tour?

The answer is not really if you are comfortable driving on the left side of the road in potholes and dealing with some fast South African drivers. If you have a GPS and have a sharp eye I don’t see why one would need to hire a tour guide. There are tours available at the actual camps inside the park. Some of these tours include the morning ride, sunset ride, and night right. I decided to do a self drive, but because you are no allowed to be on the road after 5:30pm I decided to do the sunset tour which begins at 4:30pm and runs for 3 hours for about $200 rand. This allows you to extend you sightseeing time into the evening with the safety of a safari vehicle, a tour guide, and lets. some other benefits include the opportunity to meet some other people at your camp and you can focus on taking photos.  I met a young Afrikaan’s kid that was probably  around 8-10 years old. His family vacations regularly in the park and on this trip he was on his second week. He ended up helping us spot many of the animals at night. There are some animals like the leopard (member of the big 5) that are nocturnal so this will allow you a chance to get photos of them. Unfortunately we didn’t spot a leopard, but I would still recommend trying the sunset tours offered at the camps.

tip: you will need to be a guest at the camp in order to participate on the sunset tours

Where should I stay?

I would recommend you stay in the park and do your research on which camp you want to stay at. The largest camp is skukuza , which I heard offers many opportunities to see game. Olifant is a centrally located camp known for offering a terrace with a view of the Sabie river and chances to game spot. I missed my first nights camp as I arrived at the Pholoborwa gate 30 minutes before the gate closed.

Learn from my mistake and plan ahead giving yourself enough time to arrive from the airport to your campsite. I stayed my second night at the Satara camp, which is about less than 2 hours from the Olifant camp. Satara is known as a well-maintained site with game seeing opportunities, but I didn’t see game during the night safari at Satara.

South Africa review 2013

Kruger National Park

Tip: If you are close to the sabie river you have a good chance of seeing animals as it is their source of water

I stayed at a bungalow in Satara. It was basic but was more than sufficient for my needs. For about rand 1000 night I got two single beds, broken a/c, a fan, power points, private bathroom, parking spot, a veranda with table and outdoor kitchen and fridge.

The actual animal spotting experience is exhilarating. You may drive for hours without spotting anything interesting, but it was exciting to spot large elephants and giraffe that can be just several feet away from you. Most of the animals are not shy and will go about feeding or staring at you. There are strict rules about driving at 50km and staying in your car. It is generally safe to game watch, but I recommend not stopping the car and not getting out of the car. If you do stop the car I suggest keeping the engine running in case you need to move quickly.

Tip: When you see cars pulled over pay close attention. Good chance they have spotted some game

Tip: Look at the game sightings map at the camp before you head out. They color code areas that certain animals have been sighted.

Tip: hire a camera and a telephoto lens from Johannesburg. This will let you take good close-up pictures without being too close to the animals.

Tip: Make sure when you are turning that your gps is set to the new Nelspruit airport called Kruger Mpumalanga. If you don’t your gps may take you to the old airport , which is 23 minutes away.

South Africa review 2013

The journey in South Africa 2013

 

A usable 10 day itinerary to South Africa

Day 1

  • check in at hotel near Sandton City, Johannesburg. The Radisson blu offers a convenient location
  • Have dinner at hotel or Sandton

Day 2

  • Have breakfast and coffee at Mugg and Bean at Sandton City
  • Take the Gautrain to Rosebank Mall and have lunch
  • Back to Sandton City for dinner

Day 3

  • Do a big bus tour to take you around Johannesburg

Day 4

  • Fly from Joburg to Neilspruit for Kruger National Park Safari
  • Self-drive to skukuza camp for 1 night

Day 5

  • Drive to Olifant Camp and sight see along the way
  • Stay at Olifant Camp and check in
  • Do a night safari

Day 6

  • Self drive to Sight see

Day 7

  • Drive to Neilspruit Airport from Kruger national Park
  • Fly out to Capetown from Kruger National Park

Day 8

  • Check in at the your accommodation. Suggestion for view of Table Mountain (Flatrock Apartments) or Airbnb

Day 9

  • Breakfast at the V & A Waterfront
  • Do the Robben Island Tour

Day 10

  • Visit Table Mountain to sight-see
  • Drive out to Stellenbosch to visit Wine country and do a wine-tasting

Day 11

  • Take a drive out to Camps Bay and Chapmans Peak to enjoy the beach and the scenery

Day 12

  • Flight back to Tambo airport in Joburg and home

Conclusion

For me this was a special trip and I believe that right time to do so.  At this stage I’m mature enough to savor the experiences and I had the right tools and skills to capture that excellent quality footage of my South Africa experiences.  I had an opportunity as an adult to see the country that I’m from and the home that I grew up in.  It is strange to return to a country and feel like you’re a visitor. It feels like this country has changed so much in the 23 years since I’ve left.

Every visitor will have to deal with the issue of safety and how much it will let it affect what you do and how you spend time in South Africa. There is a fear and raised awareness of safety with local South Africans that doesn’t deter them from coming out in the day in the safe areas. In Johannesburg it is the safe suburb areas of Rosebank and Sandton that locals prefer to spend their time. Once the sun sets most locals take extra caution and are more careful where they spend time.  In an environment where you see just about every house or apartment with high walls and barbed wire electric fences, bars on windows and doors with several locks and a security guard it tends to motivate caution from locals and visitors. In Capetown it is safe but there are some areas such as Long street in the evening that may not be as safe for visitors as I experienced myself. For the most part I was never physically harmed and I think as long as you don’t showcase your valuables and be careful at night you will be fine.

Johannesburg offers excellent weather and great lifestyle in terms of quality food and drinks at reasonable cost. As the local currency the rand is weak is not unusual to get good value compared to Western Standards. For example beers at a restaurant can be had for $2-3 CDN or even cheaper.  Capetown offers an even better lifestyle in terms of the natural beauty of Table mountain and the beaches that it has. There are plenty of attractions to visit and there are trendy restaurants and cafes.

South Africa is a country that can offer a great lifestyle, weather, and value to visitors. There are some friendly down to earth people that I met while I this country. The tradeoff is the safety that comes with a huge gap between the poor and wealthy. Nelson Mandela has done much for this country and put South Africa on the map. I hope you enjoyed this original coverage of South Africa 2013, which I dedicate to my late Grand mother on my mother’s side who passed away days before I arrived on this trip. Thanks to my Dad’s mother (my Grand mother) for making this trip possible, my parents, my cousins in Pretoria & Sandton, my uncle Edmund, and family friends for their help during this trip. If you read down this far then wait until you see the video. I guarantee I’m going to show you something special!

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