One of the very best ways to appreciate your home country is by talking to people who have just enjoyed a holiday here. First time visitors to South Africa are great people to spend time with as their first impressions make you see things in a much more positive way. That is the idea behind this interview series… a chance to chat with travel bloggers around the world about their First Impressions of South Africa.
Today its’ the turn of Heather and Peter Cole from the UK. Together they run Conversant Traveller, a couple’s blog focusing on ‘adventure by day, quirky luxury by night’.
Their travel adventures have found them sleeping in treehouses, castles and even caves, although their preferences is for suites with an infinity pool, four poster bed and private butler involved!
They have been travelling together for 17 years and enjoyed adventures all around the world, including snorkelling with sea lions in the Galapagos, hiking little known Inca trails in Peru, riding camels in the Sahara and seeing wild orang utans in Borneo.
One of their favourite destinations, however, is South Africa! The reason they cite is that it has such diverse landscapes, possibly more so than any other country they have visited.
Heather & Peter’s first impressions of South Africa…
When did you first visit South Africa?
We spent a few weeks driving around the country in 2009, ticking off the sights, and having lots of adventures along the way.
What had you heard about the country before you boarded your flight?
We knew that South Africa was a land of wine, whales and wildlife, but we hadn’t appreciated quite how vast it was. Living in the UK we’re used to being able to reach pretty much anywhere in the country within a day, but we knew this was going to be rather different.
What were your feelings/ emotions about visiting South Africa before leaving home?
Excited. With a dash of trepidation thrown in for good measure. Would we really see lions on safari? Were the roads riddled with as many potholes as we’d been led to believe? And what were the people going to be like – would we feel comfortable travelling alone there?
What motivated your first visit to SA?
We wanted to go on our first safari, without giving up our independence and having to join a tour, or breaking the bank. After days of research, South Africa seemed like the obvious choice.
How did you feel coming in to land on South African soil?
Terrified! But only because we landed in Cape Town in the middle of a spectacular lightning storm. Something we would come to experience often during the next few weeks of our trip. South African storms are some of nature’s best shows, and even on the aeroplane we couldn’t help but marvel at the mighty forks of light penetrating the earth behind the backdrop of Table Mountain. Quite an introduction to the country.
Where did you explore first?
What were your first impressions – the smell, sound, sights that struck you?
To be honest, although we loved ascending Table Mountain in the revolving cable car, it was the city itself that we fell in love with. Eating freshly fried calamari straight out of a frying pan whilst sitting on the quayside watching sealions sunning themselves on the pier. Walking barefoot along sandy beaches with the mountains in the distance, and kite surfers playing in the waves. It’s a great place to just ‘be’ without feeling the need to rush around and tick off attractions.
What was an experience you had on your first day
We had just five minutes to explore the top of Table Mountain before the mist began to roll in dramatically from the sea, completely obliterating the view and making us wish we’d taken up our jumpers. Yet it didn’t matter. Great experiences don’t always have to mean sunshine and blue skies. It was exciting, and not entirely unexpected, thanks to chatting with some friendly locals beforehand. Descending into the thick cloud by cable car was quite a thrill, given we couldn’t see a thing.
What was your trip to South Africa like?
It was a bit of a whirlwind trip, because there was just so much to see and we wanted to pack in as much as possible. We began with Cape Town and the Winelands, before driving east along the Garden Route, stopping to see the whales in Hermanus (so cool that you can see them from the shore), walking some forest trails in Knysna and meeting the elephants at Addo. Then we headed up to Kwa-Zulu Natal for some hiking in the Drakensberg Mountains, a drive up the jaw-dropping Sani Pass into Lesotho, and of course the Battlefields, which were sobering, yet thought-provoking. Then it was down to Hluhluwe-Imfolozi Park for a few days of self-drive safari, before finishing by exploring the gorgeous Panorama Route.
What was your highlight?
Every day was a highlight, as it presented something new. Whether a challenge with driving or navigation (they weren’t wrong about the potholes in some parts of the country!), a wildlife sighting (we got to see our lions, and an impala being born), or an unexpected view. Yet it was microlighting over the Blyde River Canyon that sticks in our memories the most. Soaring with the eagles over the world’s third largest canyon in a tiny little aircraft, with long drops either side, was something we’ll never forget. We flew over game reserves too and spotted elephants and rhinos far down below. Exhilarating is an inadequate word to describe the feeling. Go try it yourself and you’ll understand.
What were your first impressions of the people of South Africa?
We didn’t really know what reception to expect from the people of South Africa. We’d read all the history books at school, and knew that in some areas where we were travelling we’d stick out like a sore thumb. Yet everyone we met was super-friendly, and actually we needn’t have worried. There are still clear divisions in society, and if we’re honest that did sometimes make us feel uncomfortable, but as visitors, we received nothing but kindness. Except for the corrupt policemen outside the airport in Johannesburg who tried to extort money from us. They didn’t succeed, but it made us realise we weren’t at home any more!
What were your feelings about South Africa after your visit?
That we’d barely scratched the surface! And we wanted to go back for more.
Have you returned to visit South Africa?
We certainly have, most recently a couple of years ago on another self-driving trip lasting several weeks.
What did you return for?
Again, for a safari experience, but this time a luxury one! We chose Ulusaba in Sabi Sands Game Reserve, and were privileged to see several leopards, and Peter was even allowed to ride in the jump seat on the vehicle. We also wanted to check out the Wine Tram in Franschhoek (the world’s greatest invention?) so we could go wine tasting at all the vineyards without worrying about having to drive.
Would you recommend South Africa to your friends and followers?
Without a doubt. We think South Africa is a great place for anyone wanting their first ‘Africa’ or ‘safari’ experience. But be warned. One trip won’t be enough!