A single trip to South Africa is a journey you can take a thousand times more; it stays in your soul, and it’s one every family should try to make. Our family of five was at a pivotal moment this year with two graduating and one moving away, clearly time was running out to take the Big Trip. We wanted both a land and sea safari and South Africa was the obvious choice with its whale coast and world-class game reserves.
I attempted to plan the trip myself, spending hours researching options, when it became quite clear that I needed an Africa-based travel company for on-the-ground intelligence. Go2Africa is a Cape Town based multi-award-winning tour operator that boasts statistics I like—the entire team is African born and raised, and between them they spend more than 365 days each year on safari. They planned our journey down to the smallest detail—from identifying which game lodge offers a malaria-free opportunity to spot a rhino to which shots to get and what travel insurance to buy. It was like having my mom manage the whole thing, in a good way. More importantly, they helped shape the luxury-adventure trip we wanted.
Where to Go for The Land Big Five
Located in a privately managed game reserve inside Marakele National Park, Marataba Mountain Lodge delivers pristine, remote luxury (they average about 1,000 acres of wilderness for every guest bed). It’s also a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve yet it’s only a 3.5 hour drive from Johannesburg. Operated by the MORE Family Collection, the Mountain Lodge is an intimate affair with only five glass-walled eco-suites tucked into the mountain’s edge. The resort is all-inclusive and the cuisine is both marvelous and locally inspired (grilled impala anyone?) Days begin and end with game drives, and they start early, 6am in most cases. Guests have a dedicated private guide for the entire visit and our guide William greeted us each morning with caffeine, snacks, blankets and hot water bottles to fend off the dawn’s winter chill. The guiding is extraordinary at Marataba—intelligent, informed and personable. William was as passionate about finding the game as we were, putting his best into every drive. He embroidered every encounter with fascinating facts, thanks to his encyclopedic grasp of life in the bush—from animals to the botany. He was a good hand at mixing the sundowner drinks too.
There is a special rhythm in the bush—early game drives, a big breakfast upon return, quiet time to swim, read, or get a spa treatment, followed by afternoon drives, and sunset cocktails out in the bush. At the day’s end, you dine on a beautiful three-course meal underneath the celestial brilliance of the milky way or in the glass-walled dining room beside a glowing fire. We budgeted four days for Marataba—and could have easily added more, but we saw an entire guidebook’s worth of creatures: mongoose, black rhino, lion, cheetah, giraffe, elephant, zebra, hyena, wildebeest, bush baby, baboons, pythons, hippos and warthogs.
Where to Go for the Ocean Big Five
After our four days in the bush, we were driven back to Johannesburg to catch a flight to Cape Town, where we spent one night and an afternoon in this lovely coastal city. At this point, the journey took on an entirely new feel. It was endless ocean, cliffs and mountains, more like coastal Maine than African bush. MORE Quarters Neighborhood Hotel was our home base, ideally located in the heart of “cool, hip” Cape Town. Here, eating and drinking is an art form so come with an appetite. The accommodations were large and perfect for families, and they served one of the best hotel breakfasts we had on the entire journey.
A short two hour drive from Cape Town brought us to the heart of the Whale Coast, and to Grootbos Private Nature Reserve, which is home to one of the planet’s most diverse biomes. Grootbos has two luxury lodges (Garden and Mountain) and a selection of opulent private villas. The newly rebuilt Garden Lodge is a glass-walled gleaming temple to nature with floor-to-ceiling windows that immerse guests into the sweeping ocean and nature views. The dining, which is included in the stay, is on par with the scenery and features multi-course meals of artfully prepared dishes that highlight foraged and local farm ingredients.
As much as we loved the sleek stylish interiors and sumptuous cuisine—the action was outside. Grootbos’ offerings run the gamut from wildflower safaris and fat biking across the 50-foot sand dunes to ocean safaris and shark cage dives. Rather than lions and rhinos, here you’ll see right and humpback whales, endangered dolphin species, penguins, seals, and potentially great white sharks (although they have been scarce this past year). It is not uncommon for the whales to come close to shore, given the depth of the waters, and put on a show for guests. One local told me she has witnessed three whale births from her back porch over the seasons.
Africa is a vast and intimidating continent to explore, but it is surely the best place in the world to create life-long shared memories as a family. Where else in the world does your cellphone become irrelevant and your young adult children joyfully lose themselves in nature’s raw splendor? Throughout the trip, I was reminded of Wordsworth’s ageless sentiments: “The world is too much with us, late and soon; Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers; Little we see in Nature that is ours then and now…” Unless, you go to Africa.
What we needed:
Malaria pills, typhoid shots, travel insurance (we only purchased medical evacuation insurance), and cash for tips to drivers and guides. There are no visas required to enter South Africa from the United States and Delta Airlines offers a direct flight from Atlanta to Johannesburg, which is monumentally convenient. In-country air travel was seamless and timely. Go2Africa managed every single transfer, booked every flight, hotel, and lodge. They even made dinner reservations for us for our one evening in Cape Town and sent text messages regarding which carousel our luggage was arriving on…that’s the level of detail you welcome so you can spend your time enjoying the journey.