Two Weeks Exploring South Africa

Sunset over Cape Town

I took this trip back in 2014 through a great company, buuteeq, which was later acquired by booking.com, but through the transition this was deleted from the face of the earth. Luckily I saved it before it was erased. buuteeq, had an employee incentive called "Trotamundo" that was eligible to all employees after 1 year, the benefit: $2500 to travel anywhere in the world. I chose to trek to South Africa for a 2 and a half week work trip/vacation. I had to talk with 3 hotels about their marketing and how they manage their digital marketing, as required for this benefit. I was able to stay with some great hotels, ran by some even greater people. Read more to find out how it went:

For my Trotamundo, I was lucky enough to travel to South Africa, which was an amazing experience. I chose South Africa for many reasons, but the main reason was the shark cage dive. I’ve wanted to do one ever since I saw my first Shark Week, and now that I’ve done one I want to do more. While researching South Africa months before my trip I became increasingly excited about all there was to do there.  This was the most I’ve planned for anything in my life, but I left plenty of time to explore Cape Town with no agenda.

But first...Dubai.

On my way to Cape Town, I had a 13-hour layover in Dubai, which I had to take advantage of. The beautiful architecture of Burj Khalifa & Burj al Arab has always intrigued me. Once I got off the plane I headed straight for Burj Khalifa, the world’s tallest building. I had purchased a ticket one month prior to go to the top, and now that I was finally there I was ecstatic. The interior was gorgeous, and every detail was carefully thought out. The elevator ride up to the 124th floor was so smooth, I didn’t realize we were moving until my ears started to pop. The view was incredible from the top; it’s hard put into words. After walking around the Burj Lake, and wandering through the Dubai Mall, I headed for Jumeirah Public Beach to photograph Burj Arab, the world’s only seven-star hotel … yes, seven. I did not want to let my time in Dubai go to waste. I had another eight-hour layover in Dubai flying back to Seattle, so I had 21 cumulative hours to make the most of. During my time in Dubai (all of which was spent during the night) I saw everything I wanted to see: Burj Khalifa, Burj Al Arab, Dubai Mall, Jumeirah Hotel, Atlantis Dubai, and I drove around one of the man-made Palm Islands. Dubai is an amazing place, and I hope to spend more time there in the future.

Onward to Cape Town!

After 30+ hours making my way to Cape Town, I finally arrived on May 30th, 2014. I went straight to pick up my rental car, which took a little getting used to since the steering wheel is on the right, and people drive on the left side of the road. It took a while to find the hostel, despite the directions being clearly explained to me by the rental car guy. I’m sure I looked like an easy target driving around, looking lost with a map unfolded in the passenger seat (throwback to the ‘90s). Once I got to The Backpack, I was so relieved I spent the rest of the night relaxing in the courtyard patio with a great view of Table Mountain.

I spent my first couple of days exploring Cape Town, spending a lot of time at the V&A Waterfront. I spent an afternoon at the Two Oceans Aquarium and saw a lot of interesting creatures that made me not want to get in the water ever again. But despite these, I was still excited for my shark cage dive. After four days in Cape Town, I made my way down to Simon’s Town for the shark cage dive with Apex Predators, the shark dive company of choice by National Geographic, BBC, and Animal Planet, just to name a few.

We made our way out to Seal Island on a clear sunny day, even the water was uncharacteristically clear. Once I was in the water, I knew it was going to be hard to get me out. The boat held 12 people, and out of the 12 only four dove, including myself. Three of them were friends that wanted to be in the cage together, so I had the cage all to myself for the first 20 minutes!

Once the chum was in the water it only took about five minutes for the first stark to come around. This 12ish-foot shark was the biggest thing I’ve seen in the open ocean until another larger shark came around. This experience was uh-mazing, the great white has been my favorite animal since I was a kid. Seeing the shark two feet away from me with only little rusty bars separating us was truly a breathtaking scene–a somewhat frustrating sensation since I was underwater and needed all the breath I could get. This was definitely a memorable experience and one that I want to have again soon.

My next adventure was a 12-mile trail run in the Jonkershoek Nature Reserve called the Jonkershoek Mountain Challenge. The website showed an intense trail with a 3,711-foot vertical height gain along with stunning views and sunny skies.

The day of the race was the complete opposite. The beginning of the run still offered stunning views, but was overshadowed by the race. Four miles into it, I started making the ascent up the 3,182-foot mountain. It was a long, slow ascent to the top, but once I was up there, I had a fleece sweater, rain jacket, beanie, and gloves on, and was still drenched and cold. The wind was so intense in some parts I felt like i was about to be blown off the mountain.

Making the descent down to the finish I had to pay attention to every step since the trail was often covered by overhanging brush and large mudpits right on the edge of the mountain in some places. By the end of the race I was physically and mentally drained, on top of being cold and wet, but it was one of the most fun, intense races I’ve done. Following the race, I drove to the nearest town, Stellenbosch, and got a double Whopper at Burger King, the Whopper never tasted so good.

The next portion of my journey involved a trip up to Hoedspruit to meet with Mike Lawrie, of Khaya Ndovu and The River Lodge at Thornybush. In the initial planning of my trip I had no intention of going up to Northern South Africa, but I was put in contact with Mike through our Amsterdam office. The day before I left for South Africa I booked my connecting flight from Johannesburg to Hoedspruit, and was lucky enough to get the last seat on the plane. The two nights I stayed in Hoedspruit were amazing. The first night I stayed at Khaya Ndlovu, the property had gorgeous views of the Drakensberg Mountains. The staff was top-notch, everyone was very friendly and catered to my every need. We went on a safari game drive and saw a ton of animals, then ended the night with an incredible chicken dinner with veggies, local wine, and great company.

My second night near Hoedspruit I stayed at the Riverlodge at Thornybush. This property was equally beautiful and was an open property, meaning the only fences that were up were meant to keep out elephants. My safari guide, Hugo showed me around the property and dropped me off at my room as he mentioned  seeing a leopard right outside the window the previous week as he was watching TV. He left me to my room to get ready for the night, as it was his birthday, and before he left he mentioned “when you walk over to the main lodge tonight, if you see a leopard or big cat in your path don’t run, just yell and we’ll come help you…here’s a flashlight”.

That night, after making the longest 40-foot trek ever, we celebrated Hugo’s birthday with a braai, Afrikaans for “barbecue.”  We cooked so much meat, it was enough to feed all 15 guests twice. That night was filled with great conversation among an eclectic group of people from professional hunters, wildlife documentary filmmakers, safari guides, lawyers, and a real-life French rocket scientist. I could write a whole entire blog post about my two days in Hoedspruit, but I will conclude by saying this place is absolutely gorgeous, and Mike and his staff were what helped make this experience so memorable.

I hopped back on a plane to go back to Johannesburg, then over to Durban for one night. I hadn’t planned my trip to Durban since I was only going to be there for one night, so I booked my hotel the day-of from my phone, and managed to book a room at the Hilton for a discounted rate. I asked the concierge where a good place to eat was, but was told it was too dangerous to go out by myself, so naturally I stayed in and watched the NBA playoffs, then Clueless.

Jumping off the ledge at Moses Mabhida Stadium in Durban, South Africa

The next morning, I took a cab to Moses Mabhida Stadium to do the Durban Swing. I’ve been mentally preparing myself for this for months, and now I was at the stadium. I kept a level head the whole time in the office, filling out waivers, and practicing the jump, but once I started climbing the stairs to the jump platform i got more and more nervous.

The whole time walking up the stairs, and on the platform I was attached to a cable for safety. Once my turn was up, they hooked me up to a giant rope, talking to me to get my mind off of what was about to happen. Then, they counted down “1, 2, 3 … JUMP!” The initial four seconds of freefall were intense, but once the rope caught tension it was smooth sailing. I was able to capture video from two perspectives, one from the sidelines, and one from my point of view.

Once the jump was done, I walked back to the office, legs shaking, then had to leave immediately to catch my flight, which was leaving in an hour. I rushed back to the Hilton, then, just like in the movies told my cab driver, “I need to be at the airport now! I’ll pay you extra if you speed.” Luckily, I made it with five minutes to spare, and walked right up to the line to board the plane.

Back to Cape Town

Once I landed back in Cape Town, I rented a car to drive to Franschhoek to visit with Susan Huxter, owner of Le Quartier Francaise, a Relais & Chateaux property. I had met with Susan before my trip around South Africa, but our time was cut short due to scheduling, so she invited me back to Franschhoek to stay at there other property, Delicious, across the street from Le Quartier.

The town was gorgeous and ideal in every sense of the word. It’s situated in a valley and the main street has many shops that sell fine wines, cheeses, honey, and other local foods. I was able to sit down and talk more with Susan about her branding, and the property and gain a little more insight into the local market. She was VERY nice and accommodating, it was evident she truly loved what she was doing. She then invited me to dine at the property’s restaurant, The Tasting Room. I was very excited about eating here because the photos of the food on the website looked amazing.

Then I found out it has consistently been named one of the best restaurants in the world, and has won numerous awards, including “Best Restaurant in Africa & the Middle East.”  Needlesstosay, the dinner was absolutely incredible. The presentation of the eight-course meal and wine pairings was outstanding.

I became That Guy and took a photo of each course. My dinner partner was their French intern, Melissa, who was great company. There wasn’t a set menu, as the menu changes everyday, which they call their “African-Inspired Surprise Tasting Menu.” Every moment in Franschhoek was perfect. Susan was a gracious host that made the experience unforgettable, and the town of Franschhoek was ideal, which made it hard to leave.

I wasn’t looking forward to leaving Franschhoek, but I was looking forward to exploring more of Cape Town. My last week in Cape Town flew by too quick, but I tried to get as much sightseeing in as I could. I spent a lot of time at the V&A Waterfront buying gifts for my family and friends back home. One day I set aside to explore Table Mountain, which offered stunning views of the Cape.

The afternoon I took a cable car up to the top of the mountain there were a lot of clouds moving in, so once I got to the top I was above the clouds. Table Mountain has an estimated 2,200 plant species alone, which was fascinating to learn. I spent most of the day up there admiring the views, but eventually had to come down. The next day I set my sights on another mountain, Lion’s Head. I hiked with some friends I met at The Backpack, hostel i was staying at. We started the hike a little later in the day and were able to catch the sunset, which was amazing (I feel like I’m overusing this, but really … it was amazing).

The trail to the top was a little tricky in some spots, but in general it was a great hike. Some parts of the trail were right on the edge of the mountain and one misplaced foot would’ve sent me rolling down the hill. Once we got up to the top, the 360-degree view of Cape Town, Table Mountain, and Signal Hill were worth the risk. The city looked so bright and vibrant, and the moon illuminated the clouds coming down Table Mountain. It was the perfect night.

Atop Lion’s Head, the night before a full moon. It was the perfect ending to a perfect day during a perfect trip

The next day, I got on the plane back to Seattle, with an eight-hour layover in Dubai.  I woke up at 4 AM to get ready for (what I thought was) my 8 AM flight, but when I got to the airport I realized my flight was at 1 PM. So, I went back to the rental car office and asked for my car back. Then drove back to the apartment I rented, haggled with the security guard to get the key back, then fell back to sleep for a couple hours.

My trip started in Cape Town, then made a trip around South Africa going clockwise

All in all, it was an absolutely incredible experience, in which I learned a lot about the hospitality industry in South Africa, but also learned a lot about myself.  The phrase “life-changing trip” is overused, but this definitely fits into that category. I wouldn’t have been able to take this trip without buuteeq’s award-winning perk, and I’m very thankful for the life-changing adventure.