Evan Bennett's Family Vacation to South Africa
Springfieldian Evan Bennett and his family trek to South Africa for a once-in-a-lifetime trip that combines wildlife and nature with urban sightseeing. Read about his adventure, then plan one of your own.
By Evan Bennett | Photos courtesy Evan Bennett
Africa—the next frontier! Truthfully, when my parents suggested that we all take a family trip to South Africa in the summer of 2015, I was excited to say the least. I actually have several friends from South Africa whom I have met through my travels and had always heard how beautiful it was. However, the trek getting to the other side of the world was one of the major deterrents, along with the threat of being attacked by unknown wildlife. I may be an Eagle Scout, but I was always better with project planning than fending off wild bears. But I am relatively open when it comes to travel, and was definitely excited to live my dreams of being Simba in The Lion King.
First, Dad got us set up with Somerby Safaris (somerbysafaris.co.za) and we were in the very best of hands. They handled every detail from where we were going to stay to booking our personal guides. Somerby saw to our every need and coordinated our agenda for every moment.
My parents, ever the diligent travelers, spent months buying exactly the right outfits and getting weather updates so they would have temperature-appropriate attire. My brother, his wife Jessica, and I, however, looked through our closets, threw several pairs of pants and long sleeve shirts into a couple suitcases, and were ready!
Ryan, Jessica, Evan, Doug and Marlena Bennett spent last summer trekking through South Africa.
Long Day’s Journey into Night—Literally
After traveling from Springfield to Atlanta and sitting through a six-hour wait for our flight, we boarded our plane at approximately 6 p.m. for the second longest flight in the world. I had hopes of being on a two-story Airbus A380, but alas we were in a DC-10, which seemed a little small for the almost 16-hour journey across the world. But I crossed my fingers and hoped for the best. Once we landed in Johannesburg and made it through customs, we were greeted by a PH (or professional hunter) named Charles, a tour guide named Lyndee, and a bushman version of my father complete with hunting beard and hat. He had left for South Africa a week earlier to hunt big game. After 27 hours of traveling, we were not only exhausted, we were completely confused as to what day or time it might be.
We drove approximately 45 minutes north of Johannesburg to a city called Pretoria, which is also one of the two official capital cities of South Africa. We finally arrived at our destination for the first night, Ndlovu Lodge (ndlovulodge.com).
Ndlovu, we were told, actually means elephant in one of the 11 official languages of South Africa. Here, the owners of Somerby Safaris, Drom and Suné Beukes, greeted us in person. These two could not have worked harder to ensure that we had everything we needed. Once we were checked in, we all met in the lodge hall for a pre-dinner drink and listened to Charles tell accounts of Dad’s amazing hunting from the last week. Dinner our first night was delightful. Everything was prepared fresh for us. I had schnitzel, which seemed a little more Sound of Music to me than South Africa, but it was delicious. After dinner, we finally made it to bed knowing that we had an early, and exciting, morning in store the next day.
We needed to get up early the next morning so we could drive on to the reserve where we would be staying for the next couple of days. Thanks to jetlag, I had no problem with this early morning. We ate a scrumptious breakfast at the lodge before packing up. At 9 a.m., we were packed and ready to drive off to Tilodi, a reserve and lodge about 2 hours north of Pretoria. On our way to Tilodi, we stopped for Adventures with Elephants. We arrived at an enormous reserve and immediately met the cutest meerkat. Until this point in my life, I had imagined meerkats to have been invented by Disney. Real meerkats are creatures that can be tamed and can even be kept as pets! I immediately wanted to know if I could import one to the United States. Alas, there are rules against such things!
The elephants themselves are magnificent to behold. We learned about their eating and lifestyle habits and even had the chance to play some memory games. At the end of the experience, we actually rode the elephants! Though it seems it should be an easy thing to do, riding an elephant is tricky. First, there is not a set of stairs, so mounting the 16-foot tall behemoth literally takes two guides hoisting you up and over the elephant’s back. Each elephant had a guide, but even they are not always successful at keeping the elephants from going rogue and biting off an entire tree branch to eat as a mid-walk snack. We eventually ended our 40-minute ride on top of the elephants and awkwardly dismounted with the help of a guide.
Later in the afternoon, we arrived at Tilodi, which was nothing short of idyllic. The reserve has a thatch-roofed main lodge and a gorgeous view of the savannah from its back veranda. We were assigned three small thatch roof huts to live in during our stay. Hut is really the wrong word for them as they were each private one-room homes with a porch that looked directly onto the wilderness beyond. From our little porches we could see wild wildebeests and antelope roaming to search for water and sustenance.
The Bennett family spent an afternoon with lions at the Ukutula lion sanctuary on the way back to Pretoria.
Into the Wild
The next day was the one we had all been excited about since starting to plan our trip to South Africa. Charles and Lyndee took us on a very scenic drive through Pilanesberg National Park, which is a 220-square-mile park populated with a host of African wildlife. The drive from Tilodi to Pilanesberg took approximately an hour and a half. The park was absolutely breathtaking with its vast expanses of undisturbed African wildlife and foliage.
Our first sighting of the morning was a small tower of giraffes standing and gracefully eating the vegetation around them. And yes, giraffes do travel in groups called towers. Jessica was possibly the most excited since she has had a fondness for them since childhood. One thing we discovered relatively quickly on our drive around the park is that driving for long periods of time on unpaved roads can cause quite the backache. Although we really wanted to get out and pet some of the animals, Lyndee reminded us not to get out of the car as lions and other predators roam freely and would not distinguish you from other prey. Other sightings included wildebeests, multiple kinds of antelope, warthogs (like Pumba) and rhinoceroses.
It is surprising how tired and hungry we became driving around for three to four hours. Luckily, Charles and Lyndee prepared a spectacular picnic for us. We stopped at a gated picnic area within the park for lunch. The gates were comforting, even if the chance of attack was slim. Our lunch was made up of a cold Vetkoek ( pronounced fetkook) sandwich and chips. Vetkoek is a traditional South African fried bread with the consistency of a doughnut. In this case, it had been filled with a sloppy joe-like hamburger and tomato filling. Needless to say, it was delicious!
Our afternoon was equally as pleasant as the morning. We continued to see awe-inspiring wildlife. Toward the end of our tour, we apparently made a teenage elephant upset, and he insisted on charging after the car and raising his trunk in protest. We escaped and lived to tell the tale! Our last animals to see on our way out of the park were a small zeal of zebra. They were so close we could have petted them if it had been allowed!
Our last night at Tilodi was certainly a special occasion. The reserve’s owners, Nilia and Johann, greeted us that evening for dinner and made it a truly special occasion. The entire feast laid out for us was spectacular, but the most delicious was the Tilodi special. This was a sort of cinnamon bread pudding with a rich and decadent vanilla custard crème sauce. At this point in our journey, I began to worry about fitting into the clothes I packed. In part, this was because we had not worked out or even really moved since arrival. We all joined in a nightcap before packing and preparing to go back to Pretoria before leaving for Cape Town.
Walking with Lions
On our way back to Pretoria, we stopped by Ukutula, which is a lion sanctuary. After starting small by petting baby hyenas and lions, we were to walk with a small pack of 2-year old lions without a net or fence in between us. Our whole family, along with another small group of tourists rode in an open-air SUV over to a caged enclosure. Three guides met us and explained the rules and safety to us. All of us were given 3-foot long sticks and told that if a lion gets too close, to simply forcefully stab the stick into the ground and the lion would desist. We looked around at each other, pretty sure that a teenage lion would find this more of a play toy than an object of intimidation.
The guides released six lions from the caged enclosure, and we began to walk with them. Though we always walked behind the lions, they were never more than 20 feet away. There were some truly alarming moments on our walk as the lions began to separate and fall behind our group. During the winter in the savannah, these golden lions blend in seamlessly to their surroundings. Ryan, Jessica and I were put in mind of Discovery Channel specials about lions tracking the weakest wildebeest in the herd. At this point, we all strived to ensure that we would not be the “weak wildebeest” in our herd. Accordingly, we would quicken our pace from time to time to avoid falling to the end of the line. At certain points along our walk, we stopped and watched the lions feed. We were not allowed too close to the lions, and they had more than one mildly violent skirmish over food. At the end of the walk, we breathed a sigh of relief, but were glad we had done it.
We then made our way back to Ndlovu Lodge for our last night in the savannah. Charles and Lyndee joined us and we spent a wonderful evening regaling each other with funny stories and practicing our Afrikaans. Jessica and I even ended the evening with a song or two, but I will blame that on the bottle of wine. Everyone turned in owing to the need to catch our early flight to Cape Town the next day.
The second part of the trip was spent shopping, exploring and eating around the waterfront views in Cape Town.
There is no doubt about it, no matter who you are, getting up at 2:30 in the morning is bound to make you grouchy. We all did fairly well traveling together considering the 3:30 a.m. departure time.
We arrived at 8 a.m. in Cape Town, slightly exhausted, but in one piece.
Pierre, our guide for the next two days, greeted us and helped us make plans for the rest of the day. We all insisted on caffeine before any other touring. We made our way to the quaint university town of Stellenbosch for our much-needed coffee. The scenery in Stellenbosch could not have been more different from where we had been the last four days. Everything here was green and lush. The buildings in this area were all Dutch colonial and put one in mind of a quaint town in the Netherlands.
We spent a couple of hours walking up and down Church Street, one of the main parts of the town, shopping for gifts to bring back to our loved ones in Missouri.
After our coffee and shopping, Pierre took us up to the wine country located directly outside of Stellenbosch.
We went to a local winery called Tokara , which afforded a wonderful mountaintop view of the town below. At Tokara, we had the opportunity to do a wine tasting. We opted for five wines, two white, two red and one dessert. We enjoyed the experience immensely but didn’t want to have too much for fear of falling asleep.
After our winery tour, we stopped for lunch in Fraschhoek or French Point, which was originally settled by the French Huguenots in the late 17th and early 18th centuries. This small provincial town is reminiscent of the feel of New Orleans, without Bourbon Street. We stopped for lunch at a charming bistro called The French Connection. Though I was not starving, I still chose to have the filet mignon, which was nothing short of delectable. After lunch, we rolled back into Pierre’s van and prepared for the hour-long ride to Hermanus, one of the most famous sites in the world for whale watching. Unfortunately, it appears the whales did not want to be seen that day. So, we packed up and headed to our hotel in Cape Town, which The Breakwater Lodge, afforded us a wonderful view of the waterfront and beds we were ready to collapse in.
Bennett spent his last night in South Africa catching up with his friend Monika over drinks at Tiger’s Milk on Long Street.
Fun with Penguins
This was our last full day in South Africa, and we intended to make the most of it! We started out with a drive to Table Mountain National Park, which encompasses Cape Point and the Cape of Good Hope. We had an incredible overlook of miles and miles of open ocean and tried not to get dizzy when looking down the cliffs at the crashing waves below. One of the fun things to do at Cape Point is to ride the funicular (a cable-pulled mountain car)up the mountain. We enjoyed standing at the edge of the lighthouse and looking out to the world. The park is home to a great number of baboons that run up and down the mountainside foraging for food. One of the baboons actually stole a bag of chips from Jessica without her knowing it! Ironically, there were signs posted everywhere about not feeding the baboons, but nothing mentioning when a baboon decides to feed itself!
After our time in Cape Point, we drove to Simon’s Town, which is famously the home of the African penguins. What no one in our group realized is how close the southern part of Africa is to Antarctica. Before we could visit the penguins, we stopped for lunch at a seaside restaurant called Seaforth (seaforthrestaurant.co.za). I ordered the fresh-caught sole and king prawns and an appetizer of fried fresh calamari. Afterward, we finally got to visit the penguins at Boulder’s Beach and observe them in their natural habitat. Like with the meerkats, I immediately wanted to sneak one back to the U.S. to keep as a pet. This, too, proved to be illegal.
At the end of our long day, I met up with a South African friend of mine, Monika, to hit the sights of Long Street. Monika and I first hit La Parada, a tapas restaurant, for a bottle of wine and paella. The décor was urban-chic with sidewalk seating that included a couch and an oversize chair. Once inside, you can see that South Africans are a friendly bunch as you notice long tables of people sitting side by side chatting about everything imaginable. We followed this with one last stop by Tiger’s Milk on Long Street for a discussion on the artist’s life in Cape Town. Tiger’s Milk is reminiscent of an old timey whiskey bar including original wine-decanter light fixtures. After our nightcap, Monika and I said good-bye and I headed back to the hotel.
We only had a half-day in Cape Town on day eight. We decided to brace ourselves for the long journey ahead and make our morning as relaxed as possible.
Pierre picked us up around 10:30 a.m., and we left for Cape Town Airport. There is no doubt about it; we were changed by this trip. On our way out of town, we found ourselves asking more and more questions about economic and government issues to know the people of South Africa even more in depth. Charles joined us briefly in Johannesburg to deliver Dad’s guns and to wish us well. We all piled in for one last photo and bid adieu to our new friend and to an amazing trip. Twenty-four hours later, we finally arrived back in Springfield. We all vowed to come back someday and explore further.
Until next time, South Africa!
A Few Cultural Notes
• One of the amazing cultural things we noted early on was that all of the staff said, “It’s a pleasure” rather than a simple “welcome” when being thanked. Though this is probably simply a cultural phenomenon, it gave us the sense of being truly welcomed into this beautiful country.
• On our way out of Pretoria on the way to Tilodi, we needed to pick up our skinner, Benji, in case Ryan wanted to do any hunting. Up until this point, Africa had seemed just like any other part of America or Europe. However, to pick up Benji, we needed to go to one of the shantytowns in which a great number of the black employees live. These shanties are really very little more than sheet metal and a frame. This was the Africa you read about and see on TV and it was even harder to see up close. It was a reminder that though the Apartheid had ended; the problems and disparity were far from over.
• During lunch, we discovered more about the cultural and English language differences between the U.S. and South Africa. I’ve always been somewhat of an amateur linguist, so I was extremely interested to hear all of the new phrases in South African English. Two of the most important are “just now” and “now now.” It is important to realize that time has a different pace in South Africa than in the U.S. When a South African says “I’ll see you just now” or “I’ll do it now now,” they actually mean sometime later. Their version of later can extend up to several hours. So, if a South African says, “we’ll leave just now,” do not expect to leave until at least two hours later.
An Unexpected Late-Night Hunt
Once we got settled at the Tilodi reserve, the entire family enjoyed a drink on the main veranda before dinner. Charles, our PH, asked Ryan if he had any interest in hunting that night. Sure enough, he did!
I’ll never know exactly why, but Jessica and I decided we would accompany Ryan as he hunted in the dead of night. Ryan was hunting for a bushbuck, which is a kind of spotted antelope. Because they are nocturnal, they have to be hunted in the dead of night with a spotlight. Charles drove us to a reserve where we picked up the Afrikaans-speaking farmer who owned the land. After this, we drove around for approximately two hours waiting for the perfect bushbuck to appear. During this time, Jessica and I took turns sleeping and were mocked heartily for it. In the end, Ryan did get his bushbuck. We returned back to Tilodi ready to relax and start anew the next morning.
Before walking with the group of 2-year-old lions at Ukutula, we got a chance to meet some other animals the sanctuary. First up were baby hyenas. The staff led us into an enclosure with two baby hyenas, which look like awkwardly shaped dogs. Their jaws are strong enough that they can easily bite through an adult’s hand. The staff taught us how to carefully approach the hyenas and pet them. I gingerly approached and very carefully petted one of the two cubs.
After our encounter with the hyenas, we were led to an enclosure to meet “the devils.” The devils, despite their nickname, were actually sweet and somewhat docile 6-month old lion cubs. There were three cubs in all and we were allowed to pet them. At this stage, lions are still safe for human contact. Ryan, Jessica and I all approached and petted a cub. Jessica’s cub liked her a little too much and snagged her sleeve with one of its retractable claws. This made a great “near death experience” story for her to bring back to the classes she teaches at Moberly High School.
A Great Find
After our outing to see the African penguins, we returned to Cape Town to shop at The Waterfront, which is a well-known shopping area. The most interesting shopping in the district proved to be The Watershed. The Watershed is a collection of 150 small local shops including everything from locally made textiles and leather to original African art. Like any good shopping trip, mom discovered a neat local jewelry store, Victoria’s, which specialized in tanzanite.
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