In late July 2016 we went on a self-organised trip to South Africa which took us from the cold waters of the Atlantic Ocean to the warm waters of the Indian Ocean via Zululand's game reserves. We opted for a flight from Cape Town to Durban instead of driving the coastal route, giving us an extra two days in KwaZulu-Natal which turned out to be a good call because there's so much to see and do there.
We'd originally intended to book the trip through a tour operator but the outrageous mark-up despite a weak Rand made me decide to organise it myself and I didn't regret it. We stayed in some luxurious hotels and lodges, ate scrumptious food and did lots of activities, but still only spent about two thirds of what the tour operators would have charged. I guess South Africa is one of the few places where you can self-organise and see sharks, penguins, whales, elephants and rhinos!

Cape Town

The only wildlife we saw in Cape Town was some rather fat rock hyraxes or dassies next to the roads, amongst signs asking people not to feed them. The signs evidently didn't work.
Unfortunately the Table Mountain cable car system was closed for maintenance, so instead we climbed the more manageable (on foot) Lion's Head peak (on the left in the photo below) which gave us panoramic views of the city, Atlantic Ocean and Twelve Apostles mountain range (see photo at top of page). We rounded our time in Cape Town off with a visit to Robben Island, which we learned was used not only as a prison but also as a place to exile people with diabetes and cancer - how compassionate.

Simon's Town

Simon's Town offers the chance of close encounters with cute South African penguins and not-so-cute great white sharks in the space of a few hours. We had an early start for a boat trip out into False Bay where we 'cage dived' with the sharks - I didn't have an underwater camera but snapped these photos from the boat whilst I was thawing out afterwards! We also caught sight of some Cape fur seals - the sharks' preferred food - but didn't see a kill.

A mile down the coast was a series of beaches which were home to a large colony of endangered African penguins. The best-known is Boulders Beach, but nearby Foxy Beach was the best place to see the animals because human visitors had to keep to a network of raised boardwalks whilst the residents pottered around and beneath them. We soon spotted our first penguins, nesting in a tangle of tree roots in the upper dunes, and the number of couples increased as we got closer to the beach itself. Then as the boardwalk emerged from the trees, there were tubby penguins everywhere - swimming in the cool ocean, sunning themselves, snoozing and socialising. The beach was covered in penguin footprints and, from time to time, one of the birds would leave the group and trudge up the dunes to its nest, adding to the patterns in the sand - it looked like a hard climb in the heat! 


Next on our itinerary was the town of Hermanus, where we hoped to see the famous Southern right whales which visit during the austral winter and spring. Our accommodation was a small cliff-top hotel with a panoramic view of the coastline and Walker Bay from our balcony (first photo below).
The whales didn't disappoint - our first encounter was with an individual with a large white patch on its chest, which it showed off each time it breached and crashed into the water on its back. We saw several other whales leaping energetically out of the water or lounging around lazily, waving their pectoral fins and slapping them down on the surface for no particular reason. Right whales are extremely photogenic and almost always lift their tail flukes high into the air before a dive. Then, with their underwater meanderings, they keep you guessing about where they might pop up next.

We'd booked two whale-watching trips, but the second one was cancelled at the last minute due to bad weather out at sea. However it was a beautiful day on land so instead we spent the time walking the coastal footpath, taking in the views, spotting whales from the shore, and meeting some rock hyraxes in their natural environment.

Thula Thula Game Reserve, KwaZulu-Natal

Next we headed over to KwaZulu-Natal and the Thula Thula private game reserve made famous by Lawrence Anthony's book The Elephant Whisperer. Previously, I'd always avoided private reserves in South Africa because many of them permit sport/trophy hunting, but Thula Thula is opposed to all that.
The original elephant herd which was saved from destruction by Lawrence had grown to over 30 animals at the time we visited, and the eles were extremely habituated to vehicles and the people in them - sometimes a bit too habituated! You can see in the photos below how close some of them came to our jeep. One of the bulls was secreting from his temporal glands but it's a myth that this is always associated with males in musth - in fact recent research has shown that females secrete more often than males and suggests that causes include stress or excitement as well as changes in reproductive hormones, so I hope that the bull was excited and showing off rather than stressed by us being there.

Like most private reserves in South Africa, Thula Thula was completely fenced. It didn't have any resident large carnivores apart from some elusive leopards (which we didn't see) and the fences meant none could disperse into the reserve naturally. However it was home to lots of herbivores and we saw 12 different species including delicate impalas and some extremely photogenic plains zebras. There were also two rescued white rhinos, who had been dehorned earlier in 2016 in an attempt to protect them from poachers. We did meet the rhinos on a game drive late one evening, but it was so dark that I couldn't get any photos.

Hluhluwe-iMfolozi Game Reserve, KwaZulu-Natal

As a complement to Thula Thula's herbivore parade, we'd booked a day trip to Hluhluwe-iMfolizi - the oldest nature reserve in Africa (established in 1895). We hoped to see some big cats but luck wasn't on our side, although we did get a glimpse of some African wild dogs which had sought shade in a tangle of trees next to a dry river bed.

However the jewel in the park's crown is its population of southern white rhinos, and it was great to see so many of these gentle giants with their amazing horns intact. How long it will be before these animals also have to be dehorned for their own safety I don't know. The species owes its continued existence to Hluhluwe-iMfolozi's 'Operation Rhino' last century, which brought it back from the brink of extinction - every southern white rhino alive is descended from the park's population at that time.

iSimangaliso Wetland Park, KwaZulu-Natal

Our last destination was Thonga Beach on the Indian Ocean coast of iSimangaliso Wetland Park. The most visible wildlife on land was these Samango monkeys - a sub-species of blue monkey - and a few vervet monkeys.

But my plans for Thonga Beach involved getting out onto and into the warm Indian Ocean for a bit of snorkelling and the chance to see some whales and dolphins. And it soon became apparent that there were more than a few whales out there. As we relaxed on the balcony of our thatched room, we could see the ocean through a gap in the milkwood trees and we started to notice more and more 'blows', which turned out to be from humpbacks on their coastal migration.

So it was disappointing when our first scheduled RIB trip was cancelled due to the state of the tide (the boat was launched from the beach through the surf, so the tide had to be right), and we had enforced relaxation (including a stroll along the deserted beach) for the rest of the day.

Following a 'challenging' RIB launch the next morning, we first went to a snorkel spot where we saw a loggerhead turtle, and then bounced around on the ocean waves (not for those of a nervous disposition!) until we encountered the humpbacks, some of which were breaching in the distance (no photos because the boat trips basically involved getting soaked, so taking a camera wasn't a good idea). The next morning I got up before sunrise to do it all again, and was rewarded with a bucket-list experience - a humpback whale leaping right out of the water about 40 feet from our boat. An amazing end to the holiday!

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Last updated 21 May 2017.