Swim With Sharks, Ride a Helicopter, and Go on an African Safari

Written and Photographed By: Brianna Romano Guide to South Africa

I was both excited and nervous to be traveling as just two girls in a foreign country not particularly known for its safety, but I was confident once I got there that my fears would ease. I have always been the first one to say yes to any adventure, but a sense of anxiety rushed over me as I walked through the sliding glass doors into the airport. People asked, “Why South Africa?” so many times I lost count, I don’t think many people seemed to know that you could have a luxury girls getaway there, little did we know we were about to blow everyone’s minds, and our own.

My friend Andrea and I met when she was an exchange student from Maryland at my high school. We both got kicked out of class for not doing our homework and had to sit outside—we’ve been friends ever since. I spent the next month or so driving her around Southern California trying to give her every experience I could possibly give her. We would see each other every few years, but this time, instead of visiting each other in Orange County or New York, I suggested we pull out our bucket lists. South Africa was on both of ours, so we booked a flight that week.  

We arrived in Cape Town after a five-hour flight to meet Andrea in New York, a five-hour layover, a 15-hour flight to Johannesburg that ended in us giving some “good samaritan” $20 for helping us find our next terminal (Lesson #1- Bring Smaller Bills for Tipping or don’t let anyone help you in the airport unless you want to pay for it) and a two-hour flight to Cape Town. Luckily, we slept for the majority of the flight, so arriving at 1 p.m. was an easy transition with no jet lag. We picked up our rental car and blasted “Circle of Life” from the Lion King with no shame, as I began learning to drive on the left side of the road and the right side of the car.

South Africa Facts

-South Africa has 11 National Languages. Everyone we encountered spoke English.
-When To Go: March to May is the perfect season. We went in October which was right before the summer began so it was pretty cold our entire stay. The warmest time is from December to February, and winter from June to August is typically rainy and cold.
-US Currency goes a long way! 1 USD = 12.91 ZAR (South African Rand)  Have some cash available but you can use credit cards almost everywhere.

What To Know Before You Go

-You do not need to get a Visa ahead of time from the US
-Shots & Medications: Hepatitis Shot, Typhoid Pills (take a week before), and Malaria Pills (did not need in Cape Town, but suggested for the Safari portion of our trip)

 

The Vineyard Hotel

A short 20-minute drive later, we arrived at The Vineyard Hotel a seven-acre riverside garden estate on the eastern slopes of Table Mountain about 15 minutes outside of the city. We checked in and made our way into our suite, where we plopped our bags down in the living room and booked it straight for the patio with the most awe striking view of Table Mountain overlooking their lush garden. We quickly decided we needed to explore and followed the pathway through the gardens back to the pool where we spent the rest of the day laying out and drinking cosmos and mojitos.You could literally just spend your entire trip at The Vineyard Hotel enjoying their amazing dining options, amenities, and property. During our stay, we took advantage of their fully stocked gym. With floor to ceiling windows looking out at Table Mountain, running on a treadmill isn’t so bad. I have never been as enthusiastic about making sure we did not miss breakfast as I was here, we started every morning with their complimentary continental breakfast at The Square Restaurant, and ended almost every night at the Garden Lounge chatting up with locals and fellow travelers.

4 Things to Know About The Vineyard Hotel

-A tortoise lives on site. We found this out after running into him in the garden.
-Their riverside garden overlooking Table Mountain is so beautiful and peaceful, you will want to walk around the property every day.
-They have five options for food and drink on the property. We tried and loved them all, including room service, but especially loved the hospitality at the Garden Lounge (Say ‘hi’ to our favorite bartender Boyce!) and Myoga, an independently owned Japanese-inspired restaurant.
-Amenities include an indoor and outdoor pool, health and fitness center, and Angsana Spa

Colinton Rd
Newlands, Cape Town 7700
South Africa

 

Nac Helicopters

We booked a helicopter tour with NAC Helicopters, who are a well-known spot for offering a variety of chartered and private helicopter rides in Cape Town. They are right near the V & A Waterfront, an iconic landmark in Cape Town where there are a number of shops and restaurants. We spent the day wandering around The Watershed, an indoor market on the waterfront, then arrived to pre-flight champagne before we hopped in the helicopter for a 15-minute private tour. Cape Town is one of the coolest cities to see from above. If you can take a helicopter tour anywhere in the world, this would be at the top of my list.

We took The Hopper Tour which included views of:

City Bowl
Sea Point
Camps Bay
Green Point
Clifton
Twelve Apostles

E Pier Rd, V & A Waterfront
Cape Town, 8001
South Africa

 

Exploring Cape Town Streets

Bree Street  – hipster trendy restaurants, bars, and cafes
Kloof Rd.- fashion boutiques, art galleries, interior design shops, and restaurants
Long Street – best known for nightlife

 

Bo Kaap

Bo Kaap is a Muslim neighborhood of brightly painted houses and is home to Cape Town’s first mosque, and is one of the most photographed parts of Cape Town.

 

Tour the Township

We took a tour of the township with a friend. There are many tours available to visit the townships, you do not want to go without a guide as it can be a little dangerous, but the locals are extremely friendly and are excited to have visitors. We had lunch at a Braai where we had Sheep’s Rib and a Castle, a well known South African beer for lunch.

 

Do Something With a Local!

A friend of mine in the states made the connection with a local in Cape Town. Ryan, or ‘Menno’ as everyone calls him, had us meet him at a local bar that was attached to a hostel called Yours Truly, where locals and fellow travelers congregate. This became our favorite place for late night pizza and beer. The next night, he made us dinner with three of his roommates at their house and we taught them how to play Heads Up!

 

Go With Uber

Having a car in Cape Town was one of the best things we could have done. We felt completely safe driving around during the day, but at night it is dangerous to drive, so you can Uber everywhere once it gets dark, which is the safest option after dark.

 

Abseil Africa

Our next adventure was Table Mountain. It’s possible to hike up the mountain, but we took a cable car up to the top, where we prepared to rappel down the mountain with Abseil Africa. The instructors put us in harnesses and gave us a brief tutorial on how to run the ropes and descend safely. If you are afraid of heights like me, you’re going to have to be ready to conquer your fears. As I made my way to the edge of the rock to begin rappelling down, I refused to look backwards for fear that I would not go through with it. Two people can descend at a time, while two instructors lead from the top and one from the bottom. As we stepped off the top of the mountain at 1,000 meters above sea level, adrenaline pumped through us for the three minute descent. We were glad we filmed the entire thing because we felt, after watching the footage, we may have blacked out during the adventure.

297 Long St
Cape Town City Centre, Cape Town, 8000
South Africa

 

Cableway Wonders of the World

The Table Mountain Cableway is one of three rotating trams in the world—the others are in Switzerland and in Palm Springs!

 

Stellenbosch

The next day we made our way an hour outside of Cape Town to Stellenbosch, a small university town in South Africa’s Western Cape province, surrounded by the vineyards of the Cape Winelands. It’s the kind of place where the city has it’s own free wifi network.

 

Oude Werf

Oude Werf is an intimate 58-room hotel blending contemporary comfort and period-inspired ambiance. It is the perfect place to stay because it is right in the middle of the town and walking distance from the main street in Stellenbosch lined with cafes, artisan shops, and of course wine bars. We stayed in one of their Luxury Suites, which had its own private lawn with chairs to lay out on in the sun overlooking their courtyard and pool. We spent our first day sunbathing on our patio with the bartender taking our orders, and we spent the afternoon sipping on rose and snacking on a fruit plate.

4 Things We Love About Oude Werf:

  1. On-call spa services- In-room spa services are available, you just need to book 24 hours in advance. We both got massages and opted to have them outside on our patio.
  2. Friendly staff – after a long day out, the manager sent us up a bottle of champagne to end the day with. I also thought I lost my jacket at one point and he even went to my car for me to look for it. They also booked our shuttle service and made reservations at a local restaurant for us. Their customer service is unparalleled.
  3. Pool & Lounging Patio – Seriously! We loved that patio…
  4. Central to the City – You are walking distance from pretty much everything.

30 Church St
Stellenbosch, 7600
South Africa

 

Clos Malverne 

On our second day in Stellenbosch, we woke up to the best weather we had the entire time we were in South Africa. It was a perfect day to do some wine tasting. We hopped in our shuttle and made our way to Clos Malverne, a family-owned wine estate about four miles from the center of Stellenbosch in The Devon Valley.

We arrived to a warm welcome from Clos Malverne’s Communications Manager Erich Zeelie, who took us on a tour of the wine farm and taught us a little bit about the winemaking process and the history of the wine farm. We walked out into the 66-acre vineyard that lays in a valley where the early morning mist keeps the grapes cool in the summer and the slopes of the valley allow for the perfect amount of sunlight, creating ideal conditions for the grapes to ripen.

As the wine business begins to become more industrialized, Clos Malverne keeps it old school, which is part of their charm. They are one the few wineries left in the world that uses a basket press, which is the oldest method of pressing grapes. The winery also uses the method of open fermentation in a cement tank (called a ‘kuip’), where the grapes are crushed, and their grape skin caps are pushed down by hand. They can crush 400 tons of grapes and yield up to 350 tons a year, where the wine is then stored in French and American oak casks to mature.

My favorite thing about Clos Malverne was the way they began making wine. Clos Malverne had been supplying commercial wine brands in Stellenbosch with its wine grapes for some time. One Christmas Eve at a Braai (South African Slang for BBQ), the owner, Seymour Pritchard and a friend from another wine farm, Jeremy Walker, decided it was time to make wine from Clos Malverne’s grapes. They made 800 bottles of Cabernet Sauvignon, which catapulted them into making wine full time. I love the idea of two friends, probably drinking at a BBQ, deciding to go into business together.

Sustainability is an important focus of the winemaking industry in South Africa. There is even a labeling system that ensures that the wine you are buying has met their standards for sustainability, called “Integrity & Sustainability Certification”. Clos Malverne complies with this system and also does their part growing many of their own organic vegetable and herbs without pesticides and herbicides. All the organic waste from the restaurant is used as compost for the garden, reducing their carbon footprint and creating more employment opportunities. The staff is also able to take home any vegetables that have been picked and left over for the day.

After our tour of the property, we sat outside, enjoying our first bit of real sun on the trip while we sipped on their Brut Reserve and their signature ‘Ellie,’ a Rose-Shiraz Brut, before heading inside for lunch.

The view from the dining terrace is unbeatable. The patio completely opens up and overlooks the vineyard on a backdrop of miles of rolling hills and mountains in the distance. We sat down for a four-course meal and wine pairing that was the best we had on our entire trip—which was no surprise, seeing as Executive Chef Nadia Louw Smith hides away with a bottle of Ellie somewhere on the property seasonally to come up with an amazing and innovative new menu. Her menus have inspired a kind of cult following, where people come back seasonally to get their fix.

Devon Valley Rd
Stellenbosch, 7600
South Africa

Ice Cream & Wine Tastings: This was the first wine estate in Stellenbosch to offer unique tasting experience in the form of our “Ice Cream & Wine Pairing.” It has since become one of their signature pairings with seasonal, hand-made delicacies.

Stay & Play: Clos Malverne has three luxurious guest rooms; two family cottages and a private pool as well as an onsite Spa.

Scenic Route: Book a car service to take you wine tasting. They can suggest wineries to tour or can take you anywhere you would like to go. We used Winelands Shuttles and loved our driver!

They See me Rollin’: We loved the rolling hills and open patio view at Tokara. They even had postcards to send back home, which we each sent to our parents.

 

African Travel Kid 

Feeling refreshed after a relaxing two days we headed back to Cape Town where we met up with Emile Kotze, owner of African Travel Kid, who was about to take us on a day long road trip. We knew Emile from the Bravo show “Below Deck,” and had heard that he started a travel company that was focused on giving you a more personalized experience, rather than some big tour group, so we were excited when he agreed to take us on a roadtrip for the day. We gave him an idea of what was on our list of things to see and he took the lead from there. We became quick friends as he is extremely personable and a fun person to travel with. Our favorites were driving through Chapman’s Peak, a well known drive that reminiscent of driving PCH in Northern California, Boulder’s Beach, a sheltered cove known for its African penguins, and we ended our day with some seafood at Kalky’s Fish & Chips in Kalk Bay, a well known local spot for a huge plate of seafood.

 

Roadtripping Along the Coast:

Hout Bay
Chapman’s Peak
Cape Point
Boulders Beach

Simon’s Town
Kalk Bay
St. James Beach
Muizenberg Beach

Q&A With Emile Kotze of Bravo’s “Below Deck” & Dream Creator at African Travel Kid

Q: What inspired you to start a travel company and what is your vision behind it?

Emile Kotze: I left South Africa. I traveled, worked on Yachts and then was approached to be part of a TV show called “Below Deck.” I suddenly got a burst of followers on social media, especially on Instagram, where I posted photos of my travel adventures followed with the hashtag #africantravelkid as my signature. I received DMs where I was frequently asked how I had so much fun. As I really do love being outdoors and having adventures in nature it recharges me.

On a trip to the wild Coast of South Africa, I was walking on a deserted beach where I had a euphoric moment where I realized I should show people how to have fun, awesome adventures and do it for a living, as it is a passion of mine. I wanted to show Americans that they can come to explore Africa in an easy way with me. I have done it on yachts I have studied business. It was destined to be. My vision is to show people from all over the beauty of the outdoors to show them how much energy and positivity it generates show them how beautiful life is, and that the spirit of the African child is within all of us.

Q: What is your favorite trip out of the trips you offer?

EK: Well, each trip I offer out of the five different trips is unique in their own way. I offer half day trips, full day trips, three-day trips, week trips and two-week trips. All the trips are bespoke and customizable. I use my experience I have gained from the yachting industry to meet the needs of all guests on the trip. If I have to choose one, I must say the two-week trip from Cape Town up to the Garden Route must be my utmost favorite.                                                                

Q: If you could take anyone to one place in all of South Africa where would it be?

EK: That would be the whole of South Africa! [laughs] But, a place to see before you die has to be Storms River Mouth; it is magical.

Q: What do you see as the biggest difference between your experience in America vs South Africa?

EK: America is way more humanized and developed all over, whereas South Africa has some room to go, and as a result, it is more wild west in South Africa there are a lot of natural spots to explore.  

Q: Which would you choose plane, train, or automobile?

EK: Depends on the situation. I don’t mind, but overall, the good old automobile, as it is, very convenient.

 

Mannabay

We came back to Cape Town and checked into our next hotel tucked away in a residential neighborhood on the other side of Table Mountain. MannaBay is a luxury boutique hotel with only eight rooms and sleeps only 16 guests to create a more exclusive and intimate setting. You could potentially rent out the entire hotel for a private function, and they do so frequently. The eclectic design, contemporary art, and a panoramic view of the entire city are just the beginning of why this is an ideal place to stay in Cape Town. Each room has it’s own theme, as well as extra-length king size beds that can be made into twins. They have over 3,000 books in the rooms and in their floor-to-ceiling bookshelves in the lounge. As you walk up the marble staircase with floor-to-ceiling windows, you are surrounded by art. MannaBay is focused on celebrating South African artists, and uses their walls to showcase the creations of the country’s well established artists, giving each area of the hotel it’s eclectic feel.

The thing that really puts Mannabay over the top is that the staff is extremely attentive and friendly. They have a 24-hour butler service, and really go out of their way to make you feel at home, which I think is important when you are staying in such a small space. They put a high priority on personalizing your stay there. We had missed high tea on the day of our arrival, but they went out of the way to put together an entire spread for us to snack on while we lounged in one of the common areas and we had told the staff that we would be leaving at 4 a.m. to go shark diving, as we walked down the stairs they had a bag of snacks and juice ready to take on our drive. It’s the little things.

8 Bridle Rd
Oranjezicht, Cape Town, 8001
South Africa

Favorite Night: We spent one night in playing scrabble with a bottle of wine in our room.

Things We Love About Mannabay

Food & Drink: Local beverages and house wines are complimentary for guests, as well as a complimentary breakfast that includes a small buffet and a choice of hot breakfasts to order as well as an afternoon high tea, daily variety, with decadent sweet and savoury treats, a glass of Graham Beck rose, Methodé Cap Classique, tea, coffee, and juices on offer.

Transportation: Complimentary airport transfer and on-call chauffeur to dinner, GPS navigation devices for guests to use in their rental vehicles, free parking in their gated lot and give you a gate remote for easy access.

Facilities & Extras: Swimming pool, laundry, gym with a steam room, wifi, media center with flat-screen tv and full entertainment center in each room with a variety of satellite channels and an extensive selection of movies and music available, rooftop bar area and fire pit.

 

Shark Diving

The next morning we left at 4 a.m. to go shark diving in Gansbaai. We stepped outside and it was raining. We were a little worried because the trip we had originally booked got postponed because of weather and were about to drive two hours for something that could have been cancelled, but that’s what an adventure is about right? I drove two hours in the rain, on pitch black mountain roads. To this day I am not sure if it was dumb or brave but I’m alive to tell the story.

You can have a car service drive you or have the diving company set up transportation.

If you choose to drive, make sure you know the local emergency numbers in case you get a flat tire or something goes wrong.

We made it to White Shark Diving Co. in Gansbaai, a well known shark cage diving hub, as the sun began to come out and the rain stopped. It was beautiful out and we were definitely going to see some sharks today. A small breakfast was set up to snack on while the crew gave us a rundown of how to stand in the cage and where not to put your hands. Apparently, if a shark hits your hand you will have some bruising from the impact.

We set out to sea on ‘White Shark’, a 12-meter long sea-cabin cruiser that has been custom built to the specifications required in the shark cage diving industry and is the most recent boat built in the shark cage diving industry. After a 15-minute boat ride we arrived at “Shark Alley,” a channel of ocean so frequented by great white sharks that it received this nickname.  Andrea and I immediately got sea sick once the anchor dropped. They gave us water bottles and suckers to help, luckily we were able to keep our breakfast down. The crew began to set up the cage and throw out a large frozen fish head on a line to attract the sharks, and we waited.

Everyone got dressed in the provided wetsuits and snorkel gear (No diving gear required!), and the first group of eight got in the cage. We didn’t have to wait very long before two sharks arrived. The great white shark is a surface feeder, so you don’t need to be very far down to see them. The crew stands above the cage as you bob up and down, as they shout to dunk back down and slide your feet under a bar to keep you down. They even have a videographer there to capture the whole experience for you. The water is very cold, but is easily ignored with all the excitement around.

I came into the experience expecting great whites to be as aggressive as the footage you see on Shark Week, barreling towards us like Jaws, but we came to find that they were not at all interested in the humans in the cage and only focused on the fish head, so it was not scary at all.

There is some controversy with the ethics of shark cage diving, but Gansbaai is known for their strong conservation principles, and White Shark Diving Co. is a founding member of the Great White Protection Foundation and has been a leading voice in the call for o perators to collaborate in protecting the dwindling number of sharks and other marine species off the South African coastline. Two scientists were on board with us, and there is typically at least one on board of every trip.

Native Knowledge: White Shark Diving Co. runs an internship program for biology students and shark enthusiasts who are interested in getting involved in some shark conservation and research.

White Shark Diving Co.
9 Kusfront
Van Dyks Bay, 7220
South Africa

 

Safari

We flew from Cape Town back to Johannesburg where we had a layover for the night, then flew from Johannesburg to Skukuza the next morning. The flight from Johannesburg to Skukuza is only an hour on a very small passenger plane. We arrived at the smallest airport I have ever seen, it looked like we were walking into a restaurant. We were picked up from the airport and drove about 40 minutes to Rhino Post Safari where we were about to spend the next three days. Rhino Post Safari Lodge is a luxury safari lodge with eight suites in Kruger National Park. Each suite is built out of stone, wood, and thatch, has an outdoor shower, bed with mosquito nets, and has a large private patio looking over the Mutlumuvi Riverbed. All accommodations, game drives, food, and drink, except for alcohol, are included.

Our first day we were introduced to our safari guide Joey, the guide you are paired up with for your entire stay. We went on our first game drive just a few hours after arriving. I would say to anyone, if a Safari is not on your bucket list, that needs to change right now. For some reason, I assumed that the guides would know exactly where the wildlife were and you would just drive up and look at them, but it ended up being much more of an adrenaline pumping experience. Two different guide trucks go out at the same time. They are talking to each other on walkie talkies and go in different directions on the road but are constantly updating each other on what they are seeing. When Joey found out there were Wild Dogs near us, he basically floored it to get over to them. There are only about 450-500 wild dogs in the entire park, which is about 7,523 square miles. One night we were driving down a road back to our camp when a rhino and her baby were crossing the road. We had scared her and she began charging at us. Joey quickly whipped the truck into reverse and yelled at her to stop. She stopped then tried a second time before finally letting us pass.

Each day we woke up at 6 a.m., had a small breakfast, then went on a game drive for about three hours. We then came back to a buffet brunch, took a nap, then woke up for a small lunch. We spent the afternoons drinking wine on the patio watching animals crossing into our camp. A family of elephants walked through our camp to drink from a watering hole that sits in front of the viewing deck one day and a leopard crossed through at night. In the late afternoon we would head out on another game drive, and would stop at sunset to get out of the truck for some wine and snacks. We would continue the drive into the dark, then head back for dinner. You’re not allowed to be out of your suite at night unless accompanied by a guide as wildlife are constantly wandering the grounds, so the guides walk you to your room before and after dinner.

*Kruger National Park is one of the most popular places to visit in South Africa.
*Kruger National Park is 7,580 square miles
*Our game driver, Joey, told us that we must be good luck charms because every time we took a drive, we would see the Big 5 which includes the lion, African elephant, Cape buffalo, leopard, and rhinoceros. The phrase itself was coined by African hunters and refers to the five most difficult and dangerous animals to hunt on foot.
*It rained on one of the days we were on a game drive. Luckily this didn’t end our day as they provided ponchos for us to wear.
*My favorite animal on Safari was the bush baby. It looks like a mix between a squirrel and a raccoon.
*There is only wifi in the main building and the signal is very weak. Prepare to unplug and post those snapchats later.
*Amenities include in-room massages, swimming pool, and a wine cellar!

Wildlife We Encountered

Lions
Lion Cubs
Griffafe
Leopard
Elephant
Baby Elephant
Aardvark (very rare)
Baboon

Buffalo
Wild Dog
Bush Baby
Warthog
Rhino
Baby Rhino
Warthog
Hippo


Get Your Passport Ready: South Africa is a Must-Visit Destination