* This piece originally appeared here in EXPLORE Life Magazine
Seven provinces, 3800kms, six unique locations, and countless Mzanzi experiences… In an unashamed celebration of our beloved South Africa, I set out on a 23-day trip around the country. From budget to luxury hotels, and from countryside to ocean, I’d be interviewing people and places, helping show that South Africa is indeed travel-ready.
Ngala Tented Camp, Kruger National Park
South Africa’s been gifted with an astounding wildlife heritage, with an annual 16 million foreign visitors coming to experience it. Most South Africans have a deep connection with the land and cherish our bush holidays, so &BEYOND’S Ngala Tented Camp (in Kruger’s private Timbavati concession) would be the first stop on the trip.
Lodge manager Dennis Shabangu was overjoyed to be receiving guests again – something his team had been waiting a long time to do. This a story that I’d hear repeated over my trip. Dennis did have to coax away one or two wild creatures who’d taken advantage of the quieter space and had made the luxury lodge their new home.
Tented Camp has nine beautifully appointed private tents to welcome guests between safari – the highlight being the chance to see the famous white lions of Timbavati.
On this visit I was also to experience one of the continent’s most exclusive sleep out experiences. Arriving at the award-winning Ngala Treehouse my eyes and jaw both hit the floor. The four-storied steel and timbre treehouse is fully solar-powered and reaches the 12m height of the tree canopy around. With complete seclusion in the heart of pristine wilderness, this is Africa at its most luxurious best. andbeyond.com
Thonga Beach Lodge, KwaZulu-Natal North Coast
Exchanging bush for beach, the next destination would be one of South Africa’s most remote lodges. Isibindi Africa’s Thonga Beach Lodge sits on KZN’s northern-most stretch of coast – an area often associated with the country’s best diving opportunities and unspoilt beaches.
Twelve free-standing thatched rooms are dotted around the forest, connecting to each other and common lodge areas through raised wooden footpaths. Stays include meals, so there’s no worrying about cooking or cleaning. All that’s required of you is to arrive hungry, for a feast of both food and adventure.
The lodge falls within the Isimangaliso Wetland Park – one of South Africa’s 11 UNESCO World Heritage sites – with a startling constellation of wildlife (on both land and in the sea) earning the area its designation.
Bheki was my Thonga guide and, being native to the area, was able to give helpful insight into the local culture, fauna, and flora. We paddled on the nearby Lake Sibaya, walked the dune forest, and witnessed one of the most handsome sunsets I’ve seen. Activities also include scuba diving, snorkelling, turtle tours in season, and ocean adventures to experience all manner of ocean wildlife. A 4×4 is required for the final section of the drive to the camp, with transfers provided for those without one. thongabeachlodge.co.za
Inverness Farm, KwaZulu-Natal Midlands
Next, the unpretentious country charm and rambling hills of the Midlands beckoned. Inverness Farm perches atop one of these hills, giving gracious views over the valley below.
It’s a working farm; expect to wake up to the sound of hungry sheep, and horses passing you by in the parking lot. Owners Jayne and Pete Foulis are no strangers to hospitality and scattered around their beautiful home are several cottages. Each is uniquely styled with a myriad of personal touches that I couldn’t help fall in love with. midlandscottages.co.za
The Midlands Meander sports hundreds of stops across five distinct routes, so be sure to leave time to explore. Among my favourites on this visit was the renowned ceramics company Ardmore, Terbadore Coffee Roasters for the area’s best cuppa, and the Platform Gallery to appreciate some local art.
As a budding oenophile, you can bet your bottom bottle one of my most anticipated stops was a revisit to Abingdon Estate – KwaZulu Natal’s first wine estate! At an altitude of over 1000m, Ian and Jane Smorsthwaite have achieved something spectacularly significant. Their range now includes 7 still wines and a bubbly. Joined by their established wine-fundi daughter, Laurie Cooper, this trio offers a bouquet of exceptional wines ready to match – if not surpass – both South African and international wines. abingdonestate.co.za
The Oyster Box Hotel, Umhlanga
The Oyster Box Hotel is both icon and institution. For decades this grand dame of a hotel has charmed guests with her luxurious seaside setting. My trip around the country simply had to include some Oyster Box pampering.
The orientation journey starts with a brief tour of the hotel’s dining areas and common spaces; each a unqiue sensorial feast. Once settled in, it feels like you’ve been transported to an exotic world with every manner of exciting sights and decadent delights.
Adhering to the post-pandemic protocols has been a challenge from both an operational and dining perspective, but Executive Chef Kevin Joseph and his team have risen to the occasion ensuring culinary creativity that still positions the Oyster Box as an epicurean heaven. The High Tea is served with table-side stands – loaded with more than enough enticing bites and nibbles.
I couldn’t help indulging in a middle eastern wellness experience – The Oyster Box has one of South Africa’s only authentic Turkish hammams). A session in the steam-filled and ornately-mosaiced hammam is followed by an invigorating exfoliation and relaxing massage.
When the food has settled, and the spa treatment has removed all tension, it’s to the hotel’s picturesque red-and-white-striped pool-side to languish away the rest of the day. Try the “Lighthouse Heaven” cocktail…you’ll thank me later. oysterboxhotel.com
Bulungula Lodge, The Wild Coast
Meandering further down South Africa’s coast and crossing into the Eastern Cape, it’s time to exchange the city for a remote village. Hostel or backpacker stays was how I travelled through most of my twenties – both locally and internationally; primarily as a cost-saving measure, but also for the lively and eclectic experiences that often came along with them.
Bulungula provides all the hostel staples: clean rooms, warm water, proximity to the beach and the usual ensemble of curious travellers. The fireside conversations are usually lively affairs, as stories are cast over the embers and various musical instruments making appearances in the night.
The Lodge rests on the green headland that overlooks both river and ocean. The vistas are of the characteristic Wild Coast beaches – vast and, for the most part, deserted – with rolling green hills that seemingly tumble into the ocean.
Bulungula’s defining difference however, is that rather than a commercial enterprise it is 100% owned and managed by the Xhosa community from the adjacent Nqileni village. Immersion into the village community and the closely-linked Bulugula Incubator NGO is why people come from all over the world to visit. Accommodation is provided in rustic huts, dorm rooms or tents, starting at an affordable R160. Yoga, guided tours, and massages are some of the activities led by local community members. bulungula.com
Morukuru Beach Lodge, De Hoop Nature Reserve
Saving some of the best for last, the final destination on this cross-country journey would be in the Western Cape’s De Hoop Nature Reserve. The Morukuru Family offer stays in either the 5-bedroom Beach Lodge or exclusive use 4-bedroom Ocean House.
From their elevated positions, both offer uninterrupted views over the fynbos-covered dunes to the ocean below. The service is personable beyond belief and the spaces luxurious beyond imagination; its easy to see why Morukuru has scooped up some of the most prestigious international travel awards.
At Beach Lodge, my staggeringly spacious 90m2 room was everything I could ever want. From the comfy window seat, I could stare out endlessly at the dreamy ocean landscapes. At De Hoop, somehow the ocean seems bluer, the sky larger, and the fynbos brighter.
The guides at the lodge plan the various activities depending on tides and weather. Some of the favourites are the guided fynbos walks, nature drives, sandboarding, mountain biking, and then marine walks. From June – November Hoop Nature Reserve also boasts the best land-based viewing of southern right whales in the world. At Morukuru Beach Lodge that means you can easily do whale-spotting from the bar, dining room, and yes, even from your bed.
Sitting in the presence of these graceful creatures, with tears of appreciation, I knew I couldn’t have chosen a more majestic space to conclude this 23-day trip around our beloved country. morukuru.com