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How do you beat a family holiday in South Africa?

Where Next? The Moon?
A family holiday in South Africa.

“Wow, Daddy. There is so much cool stuff – free eye masks, free socks and even glue.”

Perhaps given my seven year old son’s reaction to the South African Airways freebie on his seat and his inability to identify a miniature tube of toothpaste, the omens for this holiday were looking good. Notwithstanding his low expectations, both his and ours were more than surpassed on a children’s and parents’ holiday of a lifetime.

Right from our midday arrival in Cape Town we hit the ground running. Or rather cycling. We were out as a family pedalling the streets of Cape Town with the charismatic Skizo as our guide. He was unwavering in his watchfulness as the children negotiated the streets and traffic of Cape Town, lavish in his descriptions to the benefit of the adults and equally lavish in his distribution of cakes and ice creams much to the delight of the children.

That night it was a visit to and supper in Camp’s Bay market. Trinket heaven for ten and twelve year old girls. An opportunity for seven year old boys to run amok and worry nervous parents until we, the parents, realised that we were on holiday and this was a much more child-friendly market than they had hitherto been exposed to.

The next morning we were up early for a walk through and breakfast in Cape Town’s dazzling waterfront. A ferry ride took us to Robben Island, ‘home’ to Nelson Mandela for eighteen of his twenty-seven years in imprisonment. From the outset, I was worried that the children were here under duress, a parental diktat that “it is one of those things you need to do.” Thankfully, in spite of the numbers on the tour, both the initial guide and the ‘inmate’ managed to inspire a modicum of passion in our children as to the gross injustice of the inequality that existed. No mean feat.

A lazy lunch on Cape Town waterfront, a guilty pleasure given the deprivations we had been told of first-hand in the morning, fortified us for our assault of Table Mountain. We took the cable car up Cape Town’s iconic landmark as the cloud began rolling in from the sea. On top the children roamed with gay abandon on a mountain

The next day we headed into the Winelands. A day of respite for the adults or so we thought. A wine tasting brought meagre joy; far greater joy was watching our children interact with the animals of Spier Wine Estate. Unlike the cheetah outreach centre that we visited earlier that morning, this was far more intimate and engaging.

They got to hold baby tortoises, have pythons draped around their necks. Best of all was being in a cage with owls flying all around, over and above them – it was like being in a Harry Potter film set but with real owls. Not only that but they were privy to one of the best bird displays that I have seen. All the way back to Cape Town, various facts were regurgitated with glee: “Soft wings and soft feathers means silent flight and a deadly predator.” “The owl swallows its prey whole.”

Cape Town had provided us with such variety, constant entertainment. My only disappointment being that the swell had been considered too large for us to go swimming with sea lions.

As we headed east along the whale route, I was worried that the winds would cause further disappointment. I could not have been more wrong. As we stopped at Gordon’s Bay, there were squeals of delight as the surf challenged their footing. Shouts of amazement as the sand and wind pricked the back of their legs.

Even when we stopped to see the penguins of Betty’s Bay – far less touristy and infinitely more enjoyable than Boulder’s Bay – the wind was ferocious. Yet even here, the wind did not dent the children’s awe and wonderment at getting so close to an animal that they had only hitherto seen in ‘Happy Feet’ (a film that I have not seen but dislike intensely as when I returned from Antarctica ready to show my children some remarkable footage, they dispatched me with a dismissive look, “Daddy, we’ve just watched ‘Happy Feet’.”). Needless to say the penguins were great and so too the visitor centre.

Driving into Hermanus we were immediately swept away by the charm of the Marine Hotel. Location notwithstanding, the marine Hotel went out of their way to look after us and especially the children, who had their own kids’ toiletries, their own mini hotel dressing gowns and chocolates. The children were almost swept away by the surf crashing into a rock pool. It is one of my (many) images of the holiday – the girls standing in the rich colour of evening sunshine, arms held aloft in defiance to the oncoming waves. And then an even bigger wave crashes against the rocks and they are last seen retreating fast as they are engulfed by the spray. Hours of fun.

The next morning the wind had abated, replaced by bright sunshine. As if to complete the change we saw whales breaching out in the bay. Again and again they would leap out of the water. We would see the splash and three seconds later hear the thud as they hit the water.

“If the speed of sound is 340 metres per second and we heard that splash three seconds after we saw it, how far away is that whale?” A moaned protest of “Daddeeee.”

Thankfully for the children we were lucky to see whales a little closer on a whale watching trip and their mental arithmetic was not tested again. However the southern right whale we did see was with a calf and thus not as acrobatic as the ones we saw from the hotel. And whilst much of her remained beneath the water you were able to get an impression of her size.

Much to the boys’ excitement the boat drove through Shark Alley. To their disappointment and affronted nostrils – they held their noses and screwed up their faces at the smell – we saw no sharks but hundreds and hundreds of seals. We did stop by a boat later on from which they were cage diving and did see sharks. Although once again there was a sense of disappointment that the sharks were not as large and not baring their impressive array of teeth as per much of the marketing literature. Perhaps a salient lesson for them.

Next it was to Camp Jubalani in Kapama Private Game Reserve on the edge of Kruger National Park. A camp that is renowned for its fourteen elephants – from Pisa, the baby of the herd, to Sebokwe, the largest male, from Tokwe the matriarch to Mambo, the playful hooligan of the herd – riding these elephants and elephant interaction.

Whilst the children loved riding the elephants – more so than the adults whose lack of flexibility caused a certain amount of discomfort – what really lit up their faces was interacting with the elephants. Isabel, my eldest daughter, was asked to drop an ankus on the ground. Uncertain she does so only for Jabulani to pick it back with his trunk and ‘hand’ it back to her. The smile of joy on Isabel’s face was glorious to behold, pure enraptured delight. So too Jabulani. He seemed to be beaming with pride and behind his thick curly eyelashes his eyes were smiling with real pleasure at being so appreciated.

Jabulani turned the end of his trunk upwards inviting contributions. The children with huge smiles on their faces poured pellets into his trunk. I didn’t know who was happier – Jabu in receiving his treats, the children in touching, feeling his trunk or me in enjoying my children’s delight.

The children came away with their minds full of elephant facts. The trunk contains an estimated 100,000 muscles and tendons. Elephants are left or right handed, similar to us. They have an organ in their mouth, the Jacobsen’s organ, that allows them to recognise smiles as much as forty years ago – hence the phrase, the memory of an elephant.

But it wasn’t just elephants they learned about. “Geez you guys know a lot,” admired Kevin our guide as the boys rolled out statistic after statistic: “A baby giraffe is heavier than a baby elephant which only weights about 100kg at birth.”

We saw a warthog reversing into his hole like some proud house-owner parking outside his house. We saw genet, bush baby and white-tailed mongoose. And yes, we did see the Big Five. We heard the guttural growl of the impala, the distant roar of lion, a leopard crunching noisily on bones and the maniacal laughter of hyena. We learned the collective nouns for a whole host of animals: a dazzle of zebra, a crash of rhinoceros, a tower of giraffe and an implausibility of wildebeest.

But above all the children loved ‘doing’. They loved using our cameras – thanks to digital we were able to delete all photos of headless animals and the ground. Perhaps most of all, using the spotting scope at night was a big thrill.

For me there were two key highlights. The first more of a guilty pleasure – guilty as I am not sure how much the children appreciated the enormity of what we were doing – was being involved in the darting and notching of a rhino.

Not to say that the children were excluded. In fact to my surprise, the opposite. They were all give roles. Anna was to place a blanket over the rhino’s eyes to protect its eyes. Ear muffs – a pair of woollen green socks – were given to the seven year old boys, Benedict and Charlie, to stuff in the rhino’s ears. Isabel was in charge of monitoring the rhino’s respiration and Izzy had to administer eye ointment – a rhino’s eyes stay open during the anaesthetic and thus need lubrication in the form of ointment.

Emotion reigned amongst us throughout the whole process, whilst Pete, Colin and Ginelle, the veterinary team, were calm and composed – efficiency personified. It is a spiritual, surreal experience, to have subdued, without stress, such a prehistoric animal. To hear its deep breaths, to smell it, to touch its skin, to see how delicate and vulnerable they really are. These are primordial sympathies. Nothing quite compares to the sheer emotional power of being so close to a wild creature of that size and stature (rhinos have been around for millions of years). For my eldest daughter, Isabel, it was all too much. Tears streamed down her cheeks.

The second highlight was the joy of seeing wildlife of learning through my children’s eyes. Their response both emotionally and intellectually was energising. Perhaps most so in Isabel for whom there were a number of defining moments from the rhino darting to her revulsion at seeing a zebra used as decoration on the floor. She was clearly moved by much of what saw. She wanted to do something about it.

“Daddy, how can I make a difference?”

Kevin interjected, “You have (made a difference) just by coming here.”

Talk to our South Africa Travel Experts to start your privately guided tour of South Africa, call us on 01285 601 753  or email inspire@steppestravel.com.