South Africa: From Plains to Mountains

Acacia trees at sunset in South Africa's Kruger National Park

Shawn and Laura, a Los Angeles-based married couple, are truly consummate travelers.

Engaged atop the Eiffel Tower and married in Bali, they’ve since been to Hong Kong, much of Italy, the south of France, Monte Carlo, London, Barcelona, Japan and more.

But it was their trip to South Africa that really fired my imagination…once I saw Shawn’s gorgeous photos.

Shawn, who could have been a travel agent in another life, enjoys researching and booking trips for himself and his beloved wife, Laura. He always prepares a detailed planned itinerary, down to booking restaurants; once he and Laura arrive at their destination, they feel free to make changes on the fly largely because they can always fall back on their initial plans.

The couple prefer to travel independently and hire private guides, largely because their vacations are are their greatest opportunity for romance…as well as simply being in the same place at the same time. Laura is a busy real estate agent and Shawn’s a creative director for entertainment advertising, and they often go a week without seeing other much more than a few hours.

Shawn and Laura arriving in South Africa

Their vacations are their biggest treat to themselves; they budget for splurges on 5-star hotels and flying in at least business if not first class. To this hardworking, forty-something couple being comfortable while traveling is a big priority.

And so is the pursuit of once-in-a-lifetime experiences. A few years back, when their friends returned from a South African safari and declared it the greatest trip they’d ever taken, Shawn started planning almost immediately.

He picked a week in August, which is winter in South Africa; shorter grass during this season means easier game-viewing on safari. He arranged a 3-night safari in Kruger National Park and 4 nights in Cape Town, and now says this was the best trip they’ve ever taken, too.

Using miles procured through a British Airways credit card, Shawn and Laura flew from L.A. to London’s Heathrow (where they spent their six-hour layover catching up on season-two episodes of Mad Men), then continued on to Johannesburg.

After 35 some-odd hours of travel, here they hopped a shuttle to a smaller nearby airport, where they climbed aboard a prop plane…briefly. After only a few wobbly minutes in the sky, the pilot announced, “Nothing to worry about, we just have to turn around and go back.” Alarmed, they were grateful for a gentle landing…and surprised to see fire trucks on the tarmac; one of the plane’s engines had apparently blown out on ascent. It would be four more hours until another flight could be arranged, and by then the couple’s excitement was starting to wane.

However, when they finally arrived in Kruger National Park, South Africa’s largest, they received a jolt of energy: a driver in a Range Rover greeted them with champagne, an invitation to immediately join a safari drive…and a safety waiver to sign. By the time they were paused 40 yards from a traveling herd of elephants, their true adventure had begun.

Shawn and Laura stayed at Kruger’s Singita Boulders Lodge (about US $2752 per couple, per night, including all game drives, all meals, most alcohol, and some activities), a dazzling compound of 12 thatch-roof cabins with living rooms, huge master baths and glass walls that look out on the surrounding plains. From their outdoor plunge pool and shower, the couple could see  monkeys in acacia trees and elephants crossing a stream, spraying themselves with water.

Private plunge pool at Singita Boulders Lodge

One afternoon, a huge baboon wandered up as far as their deck, and at all hours they could hear the (sometimes disconcerting) calls and cries of wild animals. There are no fences at Singita, only infrared security cameras and well-armed guards. After sunset, guests aren’t permitted to wander from their rooms or walk between buildings without an armed escort.

Each day they’d have a morning and evening game drive, their favorite parts of the trip. They’d initially worried that the experience might be as boring as driving through a zoo, but found it was really exciting to get up early and track wild animals, never knowing what they’d see that day. They’d often be riding for an hour, the driver sometimes stopping to examine footprints or poke at a pile of scat, before suddenly turning a corner and spying a rhino or cheetah; within the first two days, they’d already seen the Big Five.

Evening drives in August were chilly, and Singita would provide blankets and hot water bottles. Mid-drive, there would be always be break called a sundowner: in the middle of an open field, staff would open a bottle of wine, grill some snacks and everyone would watch the sunset over the plains. (Singita’s wine cellar features many hard to find, limited-release South African labels, so drinking was always an unexpectedly local side adventure.)

One night, returning to their room all dusty and cold after an evening drive, they found that their personal butler (yeah, you read that right) had prepared a romantic bubble bath for them, with about 50 lit candles, a chilled bottle of champagne and chocolate-covered strawberries waiting tub-side.  *Sigh.*

While in Kruger, they were treated to a great side adventure, an elementary school visit in a local miners’ village. As their tour group approached, a big group of kindergartners greeted them with gleeful whoops and hollers, then welcomed them into their classroom for laughing and songs. One little boy thumped his chest, cried, “I am a lion — hear me roar!” and won the couple over completely.

After three days at Singita, Shawn and Laura tore themselves away by sheer force of will and flew to Cape Town for a 4-night stay at The Mount Nelson Hotel (about US $355-1000 per night, including breakfast). For only one day at this gorgeous hotel, their room had a clear view of craggy Table Mountain; nicknamed “The Tablecloth,” a shroud of fog generally hangs heavy over the peak.

Everyone at the Mount Nelson — which the couple now considers one of their favorite hotels in the world — was extremely friendly, but they were warned that the surrounding neighborhood wasn’t safe. Despite being used to exploring on their own in cities, they were encouraged to take taxis everywhere, even to a restaurant a mere three blocks away.

More to maximize their short time in the city than avoid potential crime, they hired a private guide from a company called Hylton Ross for a two-day tour . The first day they explored the city’s Indian Oceancoastline, with visits to Cape PointBoulders Beach; the latter is one of the city’s best swimming beaches and home to a colony of (not-so-friendly) African penguins. and

They then rode the Table Mountain Aerial Cableway to the top for some amazing views of the city, then went on to Robben Island, where Nelson Mandela was held prisoner for about 30 years. Later, they’d take a disquieting visit to a shanty town on the outskirts of Cape Town, a constant reminder of continuing race and class divisions in South Africa.

The second day they were coincidentally joined by some folks they’d met on their safari; they all piled into their tour guide’s minivan and headed up to the Stellenbosch wine country, stopping along the Helderberg sub-route at Vergelegen Wine Estate to enjoy a private tasting and lunch.

Both Shawn and Laura say they can’t wait to go back to Africa. Next time, though, they’d like to explore Kenya to witness the wildebeest migration and visit one a Maasai tribal village…which I’d say qualifies as decidedly once-in-a-lifetime.


To see more of Shawn’s amazing photography, please visit his website

See also
Southern Africa: A “Spafari” Adventure – Pt. 1

Southern Africa: A “Spafari” Adventure – Pt. 2

TWT Travel Binder: South Africa


  1. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Melanie Waldman, Jordi @ DSAfrica. Jordi @ DSAfrica said: 'South Africa: From Plains to Mountains'. Step by step guide for couples. Be Shawn and Laura! via @travelswithtwo […]

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