Dean Taylor finds South Africa the perfect place to visit on a budget
Let's face facts — Johannesburg is not a safe place to visit, yet my wife Robyn and I chose it as our gateway to South Africa and the starting point of a journey that had been a very long time coming.
Part of the purpose of this story is to share our DIY South African experience, taking advantage of South Africa's affordability to plan top-notch travel on a budget. We had virtually given up on ever getting to South Africa, but last year Qantas advertised very low airfares, so it was an opportunity not to be missed. Looking forward there are still some excellent fares on offer for 2019 and 2020 travel.
An extra bonus is that Kiwis no longer need a visa for South Africa. We had to go through the rigorous process, and can see why it put some travellers off. So if South Africa is on your wishlist you should go. But plan everything first — that's the best way to stay safe.
Our main reason for the trip was family-related — Robyn is a keen genealogist and has family ties to Barberton, a town in the Mpumalanga province, 360km east of Johannesburg.
Almost 100 years after her grandfather died, she was the first in her family to return, with me in tow.
Robyn's family are Kiwis, but her grandfather fell in love with South Africa after fighting in the Boer War, and moved there with his wife and first child in the early 1910s.
Four children were born in South Africa, including Robyn's father. In 1924 her grandfather died suddenly from a burst appendix and after he was laid to rest the family moved back to New Zealand.
Barberton became famous in the 1880s because of the discovery of gold — the mountains around it are the oldest in the world, dating back 3.5 billion years. A Geo Trail has recently been developed, which explains the visible rock formations and dates them back to the earliest times.
Our goal was to visit Barberton to find out what we could about the family and to find the grave of her grandfather and an uncle who died at the age of 2. We were only there for three days, but it was mission accomplished and an important goal for Robyn had been achieved.
We visited Barberton in the second half of our trip — hiring a car from Johannesburg and driving east out of the city for about four-and-a-half hours. Driving in any overseas country can be a challenge, and in South Africa the main issue was safety.
"Lock yourself in."
"Don't stop for anyone, not even police."
"Don't upset other drivers."
These were the words of advice we received before and during our trip — but they weren't really issues at all. We did lock ourselves in — in fact the car did it automatically — but we didn't put ourselves in any dodgy situations, so we never felt threatened.
No officers of the law, or impersonators (which is also an issue) tried to stop us. In fact at a major roadblock on a busy highway where cars, vans and buses were being emptied and searched by officials we were waved through. It seems rental vehicles have an identifiable registration plate and we obviously weren't the target.
And in terms of upsetting other drivers, although I have known to be a bit aggressive and impatient at times, there wasn't much to get upset about.
We had been on a couple of full-day guided tours before we picked up our rental and I quizzed our guides on local rules. One was the "stop" rule. It worked like in the United States — first in, first served no matter if you are turning or not. There are no complicated "give way to the right unless..." rules to worry about.
Everyone stops, nearly, has a quick look to work out their place and then off they go. It works — even better than a roundabout I thought because like many places, indicating seems to be optional, but it doesn't matter.
The other "rule" was that if someone behind you is going faster than you, pull over if you can and let them through. Wow — there's a thought. The passee pulled over, the passer went on their way and flicked their hazard lights in appreciation, the passee flicked their lights in appreciation of the appreciation. Wonderful.
However, indicating you want to change lanes in rush hour Johannesburg is a waste of time. The international rule of "close the gap" applies. But if you just start changing lanes you'll get through — even if you want to cross five lanes just for fun.
What was good was the cost of the rental — not much over $100 for five days — and fuel was about $1.60 for 97 octane. We spent over $50 on tolls though. The national and regional roads are great and have a 120km/h speed limit.
The Toyota Corolla Quest we hired, however, had an old-school 1.6 engine and six-speed manual gearbox. The engine was underwhelming enough without the added problem of South Africa's smoke from numerous fires and endless coal-fired power stations, and altitude. Accelerating in any of the top three gears was pointless, maintaining 120km/h a challenge — but it was roomy, cheap and reliable.
We had covered a lot of the same countryside in the days prior to driving to Barberton when we undertook a Kruger Park Safari — the undoubted highlight of the trip from the perspective of a tourist. Robyn and I rated our three-day safari one of our top overseas experiences.
We bravely organised most of our tours, trips, events and transfers in South Africa ourselves. Robyn did all the work, putting together an itinerary that went like clockwork.
She found Kurt Safari, a company that offered a great value experience. If we had gone with the safaris from the glossy book from the travel agency, we were looking at between $1000 to $2000 each for a three-day tour. Kurt's budget package was about $700, including transfers from Johannesburg, two nights' accommodation in nearby Hazyview with dinner and breakfast, pickups from the accommodation and an experienced guide.
Our guide for the three days was Franky, who was knowledgeable and accommodating, with sharp eyes and a good sense of humour.
We started with an afternoon safari, leaving the park after a stunning African sunset.
Riding in an open 4WD Toyota we were only a few hundred metres into the park when we were rewarded with the first sightings. On the first day we saw elephants, antelope, an eagle, zebra, amazing birds, and monkeys.
A highlight was seeing wild dogs. Franky said there were just 201 dogs in the park, which is the size of Wales. Some people come regularly and never see them. We saw 11 in a pack heading out to hunt. On day three we saw four more lazing in the sun.
After the first day we were buzzing — but day two was exceptional. "One of the top three tours so far this year," said Franky.
We started before sunrise and had seven on board, two old Kiwis, younger couples from Belgium and Malta and an American student undertaking an internship in Cape Town and taking the chance for a bit of sightseeing before heading home.
Before we even took a break for breakfast we had sightings of the Big Five — the lion, African elephant, water buffalo, leopard, and rhinoceros.
As the day went on the sightings got even better; another close-up rhino sighting, plenty of close-up elephants, as well as large herds at the river, and more big cats.
One involved watching as a sleeping lioness woke, popped her head above the log she was resting by and startled a herd of water buffalo, sending them charging across the river.
The second was the best leopard sighting. As we followed him through the reeds and bushes anticipating that he was about to attack a small herd of impala, we positioned ourselves for a great view - and out walked a male lion. He followed the edge of the road beside us for some time before ambling casually across the road in front of us, into the bushes and out of sight.
We had also seen hippos and crocodiles at the water holes, amazing birdlife and visited a kill site. Vultures marked the spot where lions had taken down a giraffe and started feeding. The lions were all resting under the shade of bushes when we arrived, but a dead hyena near the kill showed they hadn't finished and weren't ready to share just yet.
Day three also started early, and we spent a bit of time trying to find a cheetah. There had been a few sightings over the three days, but the cheetah was the one that got away.
Because we had enjoyed such a productive safari, and by then it was just us and the American intern, we spent more time sightseeing in the hills and looking at the amazing rock formations and vast views. And this reaped rewards as well, with viewings of elephants, kudu, zebras and giraffes.
There had been a real buzz about the park when we were there — lots of visitors were having great safaris and it seemed a good decision to visit in winter, the dry season in South Africa when the bush is also less sparse.
Robyn and I thought Kruger was amazing, and can thoroughly recommend it. If you go, don't forget to take thermals, a warm jacket, beanie, lip balm and anything to help with sniffles, sinus and coughing. Safaris can be harsh.
In Johannesburg, we based ourselves out of Sandton — an affluent and safe area of the city, but even so we did not wander the streets alone at night.
Next door was a huge mall with amazing shops and food. Visit the mall at night and you may even catch the glitteratti at a store event.
Food and drinks everywhere we went, from our hotel, to the mall food chains, to our B&Bs, to a couple of local restaurants, was good, and in some cases, excellent. It was certainly great value. Some meals were included with accommodation, and the total cost was $100 per day or less, on nearly all occasions.
A great meal could be got for under $20 and a bottle of good chardonnay was as little as R50 — about $5.50. If you are into craft beers, there were some fine choices, often in 500ml cans or 440ml bottles — for about R20 to R40.
Though you don't wander the streets to go shopping, the mall in Sandton and another in Nelspruit provided a bit of retail therapy.
We looked after our food and beverage needs in Barberton at an outdoor mall with supermarket, liquor store, pharmacy, clothing etc. which was recommended as being safe by our host.
Other shopping opportunities came as part of our tours of Johannesburg, Soweto and eSwatini (formerly Swaziland) and the lodges on safari where stops are made for meal and toilet breaks.
Robyn loves fruit and was taken with both the price and quality of avocados, cara cara oranges, with their pink flesh, and papaya.
We visited a glass factory, candle and wax studio, roadside stalls and agreed these are the best places to buy. You won't find cheaper prices for the arts and crafts - in most cases the people are desperately trying to eke out a meagre living.
We wished when we visited Soweto that we had thought to take crayons, paper, toys and the like for the children — none of us are comfortable being asked for money, which is exactly what happened.
There is always a worry with DIY tourism that something will go wrong, but our experience was that everything we had arranged went as planned. Drivers, tour guides, hotel staff, lodge and B&B owners and staff were all on task, on time and made us feel welcome.
We especially enjoyed all our tours and safari — they were small enough to enable two-way interaction. Sometimes it was just me and Robyn on a tour; the most we had was seven. It meant we could ask questions, veer off the beaten track, such as visiting the Pretoria Courthouse where Robyn's grandfather would have conducted his business, and everyone could get to know each other.
I always find tipping tricky, and it is a practice in South Africa, but there was no pressure to spend a lot of money. About 10 per cent was recommended, and with everything being so affordable, it meant R20 or R50 wasn't a lot to tip, but it was warmly received and appreciated.
The country is huge and there is obviously a lot to see and do — we only experienced the tip of the iceberg — but it was important and memorable for us and we'll never regret or forget going to South Africa.
Qantas, code sharing on the Auckland/Sydney leg with Latam Airlines, flies regularly to South Africa.