When you think about “travel” there is a specific image that pops into your head. Maybe a memory of the last trip you took; perhaps the one you’re planning now, even if it’s still just a dream. For me somehow it’s sunshine and lots of walking. Something that probably doesn’t crop up is the tragic side of history: the parts of exploration that expose the traveler to stories of individual heartache or mass grief. From the rolling head of unlucky monarchs to the ghostly echoes of a thousand footsteps over an ancient battlefield – these places attract attention as well as tourists just as surely as the romance of Paris or the symbol of hope of New York’s Statue of Liberty.
In fact, in the same city of Lady Liberty you’ll scratch the surface of what “Dark Tourism” is. Those who take a silent moment at Ground Zero are not only those who lost a loved one there, people from all over the world go there to commemorate and commiserate. For the same reason Auschwitz and Tienanmen Square are popular; in visiting and keeping these places and events in our collective memory, we may ward off the potential of it ever happening again. “We do not forget, so it doesn’t happen again” – as in the words of the group “No More Torture” (Tortura Nunca Mais) who protested during the fall of the Brazilian dictatorship. We are stewarding our human narrative and guarding our actions and hopefully the actions of our leaders from going so far astray again.
However, that’s only the tip of the iceberg of what dark tourism means. Digging deeper, we find the popularity of haunted houses and abandoned theme parks with all of their accompanying stories of horror (whether real or fabricated). Ok… chalk these up to thrills and adrenaline; file these in the same category as roller coasters and bungee jumping. People have an illogical love of the extreme and inexplicable, because (ironically) it makes us feel alive. Even I peek into the dark windows of an empty, abandoned hospital on my way back from work every day.
Let’s examine this closer under the magnifying glass one more time and look at these places that truly carry the word “dark”. There are hundreds of Youtube videos about the “creepiest” places to visit as well as articles telling the sordid, bloody histories of anomalies of nature – serial killers. Far from leaving people only with the willies or a cold chill up the nape of your neck, there are hordes of travelers who pursue these places where the worst things have happened. Tourists enjoy Japan’s Aokigahara forest not only for it’s beautiful, verdant forestiness… this is where hundreds of people come each year to commit suicide in privacy and solitude (in 2003, official stats put the number at 105, according to the Aokigahara Forest website). Nothing altruistic is served by going to these places, in fact the Japanese have stopped releasing official numbers for how many people die in the forest for fear of encouraging others (according to the VICE special from 2012). I am not saying it’s not good visiting these places, or that people shouldn’t! If I had the chance, I would be there too… maybe not taking smiling selfies, but to check out a place with such a reputation? Sure. Other similar sites include the Czech Republic’s Sedlec Ossuary which is a World Heritage Site, and for what? The chapel is built out of 40 000 – 70 000 people’s skeletons and receives about 200 000 visitors annually. Then there’s the pre-Colombian city of Chichen Itza with its bloody history, built by the Mayans and where human sacrifice took place regularly at the Sacred Cenote, together with offerings of gold, just like in Disney’s Road to El Dorado (Chichen Itza receives 1.2 million visitors a year).
Traveling is a joy in and of itself and needs no justification, but I would think that people would choose to visit sunny beaches and high, green mountains over musty catacombs and dry, chalky chapels, but too each his own. It is interesting for me to see what other people find fascinating and it’s striking how people are riveted to the weird, the macabre and what’s on the periphery of disturbing sometimes.
South Africa, the southern tip of the dark continent; dark not only because of how little people know about it (“that’s where they manufacture dictators, right?”), but by how often people cast their shadow on our roofs when they fly over the continent on their way to “somewhere nicer”. When I tell people I am from South Africa responses run the gamut, from ‘I really want to visit Cape Town’ (you should!), to ‘I hear the crime rate is bad’ (isn’t it anywhere?) and even surprisingly often a bewildered expression at my not being black. Ahem. Well, allow me to introduce you to our beautiful rainbow nation and give you a couple of compelling reasons why you should put it at the top of your travel list!
First things first… there are spots in South Africa that I would recommend you don’t go, but every country and every major city is the same. Keep an eye out, don’t flash around your smartphone and stick to populated areas. That said, it’s not a country with stellar public transportation, so if you go out at night, use your own (or rental) car; I hear Uber is now up and running out here, so that is an option too.
Finally, we can get to the fun, the magic and the enchantment of South Africa. I myself haven’t been back there in a couple of years, so my nostalgia wishlist includes three places that I would recommend to anyone and everyone; in fact I’m planning on dragging friends and family there with me at the first possible opportunity…
- Kruger National Park
One of many places you can do breathtaking safaris, look out over the golden veld and admire both fauna and flora from the mother continent. Elephants slowly but surely crossing kilometres as they graze and let out their “inner calf” when they roll and spray in the watering hole; hyenas giggling and cackling as the sun sinks pink and purple into the horizon… A very peaceful image and really that is the best place to disappear for a week or more, forget about cellphone coverage, status updates and just let go. The Kruger National Park itself is really big and covers almost the entire SA-Mozambique border.
The park is unquestionably popular among foreign and domestic tourists, especially during the dry months, when there is no rain or long grass to obscure your view. So, if you don’t want to drive around yourself and squint into the middle distance looking for a flicking ear or a swatting tail (it can be hard to spot animals in the bush…) there are rangers that can take you out for guided safaris. Besides being familiar with the regular habitats of certain groups, they also sometimes keep tabs on some bigger game. Since all animals in the park are wild, rest camps, lodges and camp sites are fenced and it’s totally prohibited to get out of your car when driving around the reserve.
The Kruger National Park tradition: Get up at 5:30am (yep, you read that right), breathe in that first smell of creamy coffee and get out there in the bush to catch nocturnal animals slinking back to their lairs after a night of veld festivities!
Just south of South Africa’s border with Mozambique, on our “north coast” you’ll find the urban-beach sprawl of Durban welcoming you with open arms. The sparkling, white sandy beaches stretch from way north of Durban (Umhlanga being one of the most popular) to Margate in the south, including beaches perfect for surfing, scuba diving and watching the incredible annual sardine run, where billions of sardines spawn from May to July just off the coast. Not only is this in itself breathtaking to see, but it also attracts other oceanic wildlife that is usually a rare sight, including dolphins, many varieties of sharks and other game fish.
Although there are a million things to do in Durban (skydiving, bungee jumping, shopping, hiking, etc), I am used to Durban being my relaxing beach holiday destination. Stretch a towel out on the soft sand and bury my nose in a book… and often dip my toes in the deliciously warm water of the Indian Ocean. There are endless gig guides on live music, cultural events and general mingling opportunities in Durban; however, if I am looking forward to a night on the town, Cape Town is where almost everything happens.
The Durban tradition: No trip to Durban is complete without the signature, home-grown dish of “bunny chow”, with its unique touch of Durban Indian cuisine. I have even encountered this specific gastronomic delight in other countries, though usually it’s made by South Africans, for nostalgic expats hungering for a little taste of home. In principle it’s a loaf of bread, cut in half and hollowed out with warm, spicy Indian curry filling the fluffy inside, but that is only the basic idea, to which everyone adds their own touch and their own particular flavour.
3. Cape Town
That brings me to the metropolis – the Mother City – home to hipsters, retros and trend-seekers; haven to art lovers, free thinkers and the perpetually entertained. Cape Town is an incredibly diverse city, from foreigners just passing through and filling the streets with their musical accents, to Cape Townian locals wishing their city would stay untouched by the masses of curious “African adventure” seekers. Many people who were not born in Cape Town feel just as “foreign” in this cradle of our modern rainbow nation concoction, so that even us who have SA running through our veins are only “approved” as Cape Townians after years (and years) of living in the city and breathing the sweet, mountain air. That hasn’t stopped anyone settling and making their dream home in the Mother City, though. People keep streaming in from the land, air and sea to sample food, fashion and fine wine in this iconic city. These days it is not even strange to brush shoulders with celebrities and famous personalities at farmers’ markets, world-class restaurants and even boutique chocolate shops that line streets in the city centre. However, the Cape Town basin, nestled in the shadow of our own Table Mountain is only one part of Cape Town magic; so much of the region’s charm and what people fall in love with lie on the periphery – the lush, green peninsular nature parks and Boulder beach (where you share the beach with penguins sunning themselves) on the one hand and little beach towns each with its own spirit that smiles its way into your heart. Simon’s Town, Fishhoek and Hout Bay are only the ones I lovingly carry in my heart and in my memories, but there are dozens more to explore. This is a part of the country where the best thing you can do is rent a car and get lost in the mountain passes and what we call the “Garden Route”.
The Cape Town tradition: Oh my gosh there are so many, but perhaps the thing that makes me feel most at home is when I have a bottle of rich, local wine and I drive out to Chapman’s Peak Drive: a 9km road that looks like it was literally carved into the rock, with thrilling drops right into the ocean and the most magnificent view you can ever have of the sun setting on turquoise, aquamarine water. Park anywhere where you find a little inlet or rest stop (there are many) and just drink in the extraordinary reality of where you are and who you’re with, even if it’s just you and your own alter ego.
From under the water’s surface to on top of it… for more gifted people at least 😉 I can’t surf (yet?) and sitting on the beach at Richards Bay, this suddenly feels like a serious deficiency. Richards Bay may not be as recognized as Jeffrey’s Bay, but surfing academies abound. The strong winds I’ve experienced there may be good for surfing (or maybe not, what do I know?), but if this is an obstacle in your beach-lazing, there are plenty of beaches on the same stretch of coast where you can find some little respite. You can also retreat to a beachfront café; not a bad spot to catch up on some reading, or people-watching. Crashing surf from one side, warm coffee or a tangy cocktail in hand sound like just the thing to allow my fingers to unwrinkle from spending almost a week on the beach, if not in the water. The last time I was in this area I visited a restaurant with food so mind-blowing, my mouth was watering even after I was stuffed to the brim! Now that I try to find out where exactly it is, Google is letting me down… I could swear it was called The Moçambican, situated somewhere between Richards Bay and Balito. Unfortunately that’s all the info I have, but the finger-licking creamy coconut curries with jasmine rice are enough to make me drive any conceivable road it could be on, hoping that some kind of bloodhound sense would kick in.
A little ways inland from Richards Bay, there are plenty of nature reserves to be found; I’ve never visited these, but the pics look great!
Now… the absolute must-visit-I’ve-been-dying-to-go pin is dropped at Zululand Brewery! I have been hearing about them and their famous Zulu Blond craft ale for years, but only once been close enough to smell the fermenting barley… and they were sold out 😦 Right now, in South Africa, you can only find the Zulu Blond at the George’s Hotel and evidently you have to be an early bird indeed. No beer before noon? I’m pretty sure somewhere in the world it’s considered breakfast! As long as I can get my fingers curled around the brightly colored sticker on the bottle, still sweating from the fridge, all’s well that ends well.
I couldn’t get in touch with them in order use a picture of their unique ale, but visit their website for a quick peek: Zulu Blonde
The George’s Hotel and Zululand Brewery are in a tiny little town called Eshowe; however small Eshowe may be, there is more to do than sip on golden nectar… The Dlinza Forest has an aerial boardwalk 20 meters off the ground from which to enjoy greenery, fresh air and wild (if small) animals – think birds and spiders. 🙂 The boardwalk is only 150 meters long, but who rushes in and out. Sit down. Breathe.
From one ocean paradise, straight to another! More soft sand and warm sunshine; I consider Sodwana to be the best diving spot in South Africa. Actually, even after diving in parts of Southeast Asia I maintain that Sodwana has the best diving, ever! Oh yes… you think Mozambique sounds and looks amazing? Sodwana is by far #1 on my list and I’m not alone: Wikipedia insists that 35 000 people flock here every year to ogle at Indian Oceanic marine creatures who are making big fish-eyes right back at them. Bearing in mind that this exact number is not verified and probably made more unreliable by the sheer number of other websites that recklessly quote this same number without proof, it gives you a rough picture of the Sodwana’s appeal. There are beautifully technicolor reefs and coral, and they stay this way because of strict conservation practices.
Sodwana Bay is a national park, inside the iSinangaliso Wetland Park  which means you’ll have to pay a permit fee to be able to dive there (they check every permit!) and on entry to the nature reserve you pay another R10 per vehicle. The permit is R85 and can be bought at Post Offices; it's valid for a full year (as far as I remember; this may have changed recently). On individual level the permit fee isn't super high, and it funds nature reserve facilities and infrastructure, as well as the personnel. Reefs are further protected by limited group sizes, strict no-touch rules etc. If you've seen what devastating effects big crowds of uncaring, uneducated, protection-insensitive divers can have, you fully appreciate these efforts in Sodwana, even if it costs a bit. Continue reading
From bosveld to blue ocean! The Mozambique of my memories is a paradisical wonderland of soft, white sand, turquoise-green-blue water and good times around a fire as well as under the water!
Admin first… The road from Pretoria to Ponta Malongane via the Kosi Bay border post is notoriously Swiss-cheesed with potholes! And I mean it – drive 10km/hour if you want to keep rims intact. Often it’s necessary to weave all over the place just to find road to drive on. Construction is under way to fix this, but don’t hold your breath; construction has been consistently under way for at least 10 years, and serves to back up traffic more than lay any new asphalt. Apparently the road between Swaziland and Mozambique through the Lomahasha-Namaasha border post, is in much better condition (not a difficult feat, but still: yay!)
It’s only 130km from Mlilwane to border control, and another 185km to Ponta Malongane, but as with any border control I’ll err on the side of too much when budgeting time to make border payments and submit to inspections if necessary. I could enter simply having my passport with me, but since Kiernan is from the “land of the free”, he is expected to pay a gouging US$110 to get a tourist visa; driving across the border also requires inspection of original vehicle registration and licensing papers.
I’m preparing myself to be most surprised by the Kingdom of Swaziland… For being a country inside the borders and surrounded by South Africa, I know precious little about it. I mean, I know that it’s still a kingdom and I expect that the fauna & flora probably wouldn’t differ too much from our own (after all it’s not a large country…). Other than that I’ve only seen tourist brochures touting the life-changing experiences people have had visiting traditional hut-villages.
Websites like Tripadvisor weren’t much help in telling me what I wanted to know, having asked completely the wrong questions. My absolute disinterest in shopping malls and luxury spas left me with limited inspiration for this part of the trip. However, social inquiry rapidly put me on the right track: there are three major wildlife reserves in the kingdom, all managed by the same non-profit wildlife trust to promote environmental education, preserving wildlife and giving people the opportunity to get closer to nature. These parks are Hlane, Mkhaya and Mlilwane, this last being home to Sondizela Backpackers, where you can set up your own tent for R80 /night. 🙂
Other than wildlife viewing (which in its own right is awesome here), other things which caught my attention are exhilirating outdoor activities: abseiling and white water rafting are booming businesses. Similarly popular are multi-day hikes or the challenging but none-the-less attractive Ngwempisi Day hike. The Ngwempisi trails cover 33km, from the rim of the gorge, to the bottom and out the other side.
Still another experience up for offer is an outing of evening caving that includes a walk through the forest, a serious & strenuous trek/climb/scoot/squeeze through the Gobholo caves, topped by dinner and a dip in ‘hot springs’. o.O I don’t know about you, but this seems like the perfect balance between exertion and leisure! 🙂 The whole affair lasts 5 hours and the two of us would pay R1700 total.
Now it seems like there is too much to do for the time we will be spending in Swaziland We will be spending one night here, and if Ngwempisi really does take the whole day, we may need to come back to do the caving/hot spring-ing another day.
 Big Game Parks/a> Accessed 10 September 2014
The Kingdom of Swaziland – Hiking accessed 10 September 2014
Visit Swazi Accessed 10 September 2014
Swazi travel: Adventure Caving Accessed 10 September 2014
In my mind our most famous and accessible wildlife/safari destination and at about 2 million hectars, certainly one of the biggest in Africa  to experience all of our “big wildlife” in their natural habitat, is the Kruger National Park. The biggest rest camp and park headquarters is at Skukuza, making it the most developed and luxurious; however, these criteria are not high on my priority list, especially in a nature reserve. For convenient access to the park we would enter the park at Skukuza, and proceed directly to Satara (do not pass Go, do not collect $100… kekeke… though really, you wouldn’t want to drive any faster than “sedately” inside the park, lest you miss baby babboons pointing at you with their genitalia); a couple of nights here and another couple at Crocodile Bridge would serve to both recall wonderful memories and create new ones.
At first I say “a couple of days” off-handedly, but further investigation shows that while it’s not that much more than I would have expected, the price I was looking at is for South African citizens… Whereas two Saffers would pay R1 115 to camp in Satara for 3 nights, my “foreign tourist” boyfriend and I camping together suddenly changes that number to R1 710. Though this jump was surprising to me at first, it doesn’t make it impossible or even inconceivable. Continue reading
Initially I had planned for Kaapschehoop to be a day trip from Watervalboven, but this does not allow enough time to enjoy everything this tiny town has to offer. Am I laughing? No, look at my face, I’m being absolutely serious.
First-off there is a highly recommended “pannekoek huis” in residence… *Side note – pannekoek and pancakes as they are known all over the English speaking world, are miles apart! Pancakes are thick, fluffy cake-like stacks of syrupy indulgence. Pannekoek is much more creamy, crispy; less like bread and more like smooth, golden-brown mouthfuls of buttermilk & lemon. At once perfect with a spicy chicken curry filling, or dark chocolate and strawberries. Therefore the “best pannekoek huis in the area” (as Koek ‘n Pan restaurant is described) is truly a reason to smack your lips with warm anticipation!
Later, when you can support the weight of your belly again 😉 you really should be off. However good a time you have over memorable breakfast / lunch, you can hardly spend all day dallying at a restaurant, and besides I’ll need to get off my behind and walk off the extra pannekoek (or two) that pushed me into that ‘uncomfortably stuffed’ direction.
Kaapschehoop is home to South Africa’s only wild horse herds, though they’ve gotten less international attention than their counterparts in the Namib desert . They were not always here! They were left here after the gold rush petered out, the Boer war left many ownerless, and cattle ranchers left for greener pastures .
There are tens, nay fifties (haha… nay, neigh…) of kilometers of trails from which to enjoy the natural scenery, wild horses and rare blue swallows . Most trails are meant to be done over 2 – 5 days, with self-catering huts along the way. Sadly I didn’t get to do any multi-day hikes while traveling around the U.S., so this is my chance! I will opt out of day hikes and commit to 3 days on the trail. 🙂
God’s Window sounds like a typical pretty name, but you can only truly understand its significance when you’ve visited this wonder! You earn the view by parking at the bottom of a substantial hill and taking a short hike up to the viewing platform. The steps/path is well-maintained and the parking area is safe – the entry fee of R10 supports this infrastructure. Dude… when you get up there it’s spectacular! 🙂 You are 1829m above sea level, looking out over the Blyde River Camyon, as if you’re in the Heavenly living room and the curtains have just been yanked open… And witness.
Apparently on a clear day you can see the Kruger National Park in the distance. There’s not much else I can say about it except: go there and see it for yourself. Take in its splendour and share it with the world.
God’s Window is in the (take a deep breath) Motlatse Canyon Provincial Nature Reserve. Along the same canyon is another natural beauty (which must be a well-kept secret, because I was joined in my ignorance of it, by everyone I asked about special little spots in SA). These are the Bourke’s Luck Potholes, but contrary to its name it is not just a glorified hole in the road, which are plentiful enough on our roads. They are holes and hollows in rock, made by the swirling and eddying of water. The first picture I saw of the “potholes” convinced me right away of having to behold these. You’ll have to drive to a different parking area to get to the potholes – even though it’s in the same canyon, it’s not walking distance. So you pay another R30, walk a mere 700m to view these extraordinary rock formations from various paths and bridges.
The Motlatse Canyon Provincial Nature Reserve is spitting distance from Watervalboven, provided you have a 10-foot spitting-champ-llama doing the honours ;). It’s a leisurely 240km to the Northeast, perfectly accessible as a day trip. I imagine us getting up early to do the walk up to God’s Window and whiling away some time on the viewing platform while the sun is out, before it gets too sunny. Bourke’s Luck Potholes are 30km from there, so really you can have an afternoon picnic with the closest man-made structures out of sight, hopefully with nature singing in your ears with grass beneath your bum. On the drive back we can even stop and explore a couple of smaller towns, (in some of which I remember finding awesome second-hand bookshops): Graskop, Sabie (where you can found countless other beautiful waterfall hikes!), Sodwala Caves. The afternoon can wind down as quietly or as busily as we choose… 🙂
This first stop has been prominent in photos and recommendations, especially from my brother and his fellow climbers (the photos are also theirs). Though Waterval Boven wears the badge of “climbers’ paradise” proudly, it’s more than that; there are many other exciting outdoor stuff you can do (caving at Sodwala, mountain biking, hiking and swimming in mountain pools)… and it’s only about 240km outside of Pretoria . After seeing pictures, I would absolutely have to hike to the Eland’s River Falls! Well… um, it’s not actually much of a hike. Climbers can see the falls from different angles, but without the harnesses and climbing gear you’ll simply drive through the ZAZM tunnel on the N4, and there should be a wooden viewing platform to watch the 70m plunge of water. 🙂
As a base camp Tranquilitas Adventure Farm is awesome, and besides being a home away from home for climbers (I hear), they organise a bunch of other activities you can do in the area. And… at R70 per night for a campsite, they’re the best bet for accommodation too. We would hopefully be camping a lot on our trip, starting with Tranquilitas! Waterval Boven is super close to a couple of oh-my-gosh-I-have-to-go-there! spots on my list, so we’ll camp here for a couple of nights and do day trips. Oh yeah, and they’re dog friendly. It doesn’t seem like there’s much else in the town of Waterval Boven (or Emgwenya, as it is now known), but I’m sure we can find something special there if we don’t rush through. When we’ve made the effort of driving away from the city, we would be absolutely content to simply enjoy the sounds of the night, and the smell of nature. The cute coffee shops and mouth-spasming gastronomics all have their special place later on this trip. 🙂
Riveting references  Watervalboven, Highlands Meander Accessed on 6 September 2014 from SA Venues website