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South Africa: a rip-roaring time in the cradle of humanity

South Africa: a rip-roaring time in the cradle of humanity

‘Welcome home”; a South African man in a neighbourhood market takes my hands and, beaming, welcomes me back to the place where all of humankind began. The scene around us, though, is thoroughly 21st century. I meet the man when I approach his stall, led by the smell of gnocchi gently frying in truffle oil. Initially, the cheesiness of his welcome makes me cringe. But as he talks about his city, and the gnocchi melts in my mouth, I realise I am beaming back at him.

All around us the car park is buzzing with local people singing and selling wares, from delicate gold jewellery to home-made hot sauce, sunglasses crafted from wood and voluptuous salted caramel cheesecake. Africa is a place to put your preconceptions and cynicism aside, and enjoy the feeling of being caught up in it all.

The music is loud and the craft whisky cocktails are flowing. People from all over Johannesburg are enjoying their Sunday afternoon and, with a huge colourful graffiti portrait of Nelson Mandela as a backdrop on the side of a building in the distance, you can’t but feel that this is modern Africa.

Jo’burg, or “Jozi” as the locals call it, is South Africa’s largest city and lays claim to the title of Africa’s powerhouse. Originally a mining town, rich with gold, the city is one of the oldest non-coastal settlements in the world.

With a population of 11 million, you could imagine Johannesburg as a concrete jungle. In reality one of the first things you notice is how green the place is. In fact, this is one of the greenest cities on earth, with more than six million trees scattered throughout the city.

Another commonly held preconception is that Johannesburg is unsafe, especially for tourists. The Jo’burgers I met were all too aware of this view, but not once while I was in this huge forest city did I feel unsafe. Since the end of apartheid, Johannesburg, as with South Africa as a whole, has been picking itself up, dusting itself off, and focusing on bringing the city back to life. There is a noticeable focus on regenerating disused spaces and turning them into places to enjoy culture. Newtown, Rosebank and Melville are just some that we visit.

And 44 Stanley Avenue in Milpark is another. We have lunch at Il Giardino Degli Ulivi, an Italian restaurant in a sunny courtyard, surrounded by olive trees and South African speciality shops selling art, design, books and antiques as well as bars and other restaurants. Trendy is a word I hate, but here it seems appropriate. I spot a man wearing an African Zulu headdress with a Nike sweatshirt and designer jeans.

I approach him and his partner, and we chat about fashion, sip rosé wine and discuss gay rights in a modern Africa.

The welcoming little sister of Jo’burg

Soweto is Johannesburg’s infamous township: 20km south-west of the city, the area is 98 per cent black and a product of segregationist planning. Its political history is rich and deep, its most famous resident being Nelson Mandela. With its history of violence and an estimated 8,000 inhabitants per sq km, I was nervous about my visit but once again South Africa surprised me.

Soweto is the warm, vibrant, welcoming little sister of Jo’burg; cleaner and safer than the city from which it sprung. We see Soweto by bicycle and the safety of the township is proven when, throughout the afternoon, we leave our bikes unlocked and return to them untouched. An experience you certainly wouldn’t have in Dublin.

Ubuntu means I am because you are, and is less of a philosophy and more of a way of life in Soweto. As we fly past corrugated-iron houses on our bikes, children come out of their houses and chase us down the street, shouting “hello, hello, hello!” We stop for a game of football with teenagers. Groups of people sit in front of each house, drinking beer, dancing and smiling at us as we pass by.

One little fashionista with who I got on particularly well

One little fashionista with who I got on particularly well

We visit Hector Pieterson memorial, remembering the 13-year-old who was one of hundreds of protestors killed in a student uprising in 1976. On the site, we see a large photo of Pieterson being carried away from the protest, dying. Just down the street you can find the house Nelson Mandela lived in for nearly 15 years.

Tipsy breakfast

The Cradle of Humankind Unesco World Heritage Site is 25km north-west of Jo’burg. As we travel down into the caves we see the site where some of the oldest hominin (primates related to humans) fossils were found. “Welcome home” rings again in my head. Above ground we see the archaeological site.

A little further north-west and you reach the Magaliesberg mountains, one of the world’s oldest ranges. This area is full of adventure activities and here we try our hand at zip-lining. The Eco Canopy tour takes you 60m into the air, flying from one peak to another, hanging from a harness around your waist. Even for someone not at all scared of heights, this is a rush.

Blowing up the hot air balloon

Blowing up the hot air balloon

There aren’t many experiences in life that exceed high expectations. A hot-air balloon safari is one of them. We arrive before dawn, and, as the light grows, so too does the multicoloured sphere being filled in front of us. Before the sun rises we hop into the eight-person basket and, as we begin to lift into the air, the feeling is entirely new and exciting.

The basket moves gently with the breeze and when the fire isn’t blowing the complete silence fills the African morning light. We rise to 2,000m and without even noticing the people below are flecks of dust in the fields.

Do look down

Do look down

After an hour and a half of gawping at the horizon, we make our way gently back to earth, met by Bill Harrop’s Original Balloon Safaris. On landing, our pilot pops a bottle of prosecco and congratulates us on our first flight. Our celebration is followed by a rather tipsy breakfast, before we make our way north, to set out on the last leg of our trip: safari.

Playing chicken with elephants

There are about 50 lions in the 75,000 hectare of Madikwe Game Reserve and in the first 20 minutes of our game drive we see two of them, sitting right in front of us, munching a buffalo carcass, the noise of the crunching bones making me wince.

After our fill we move off and almost immediately run into a harem of impala, the females and lambs running around our truck, celebrating the recent rain by jumping impossibly high through the air.

Quieter and much smaller than it’s better known rival Kruger Game Reserve, Madikwe has its own unique offering. The park is packed full of game, but has fewer lodges. In addition to this, the reserve practices controlled game viewing, meaning only two vehicles are permitted to view an animal at a time. In some larger reserves, you could be sitting with 30 other vehicles while viewing a lion.

We stay in Jaci’s Safari Lodge, and go out on two game drives a day, one before dawn and one at sunset, the best times to catch the animals. During our stay we see a tower of giraffe blocking the reserve’s airstrip; old male buffalo running like steroid-pumped jocks towards a watering hole; ugly-beautiful wildebeest hiding bashfully in bushes; zebra cantering and chasing each other; dung beetles rolling their balls across our feet; and hyenas creeping past in pitch darkness.

Giraffe blocking the airstrip

Giraffe blocking the airstrip

A bedroom fit for a queen in Jaci's Safari Lodge

A bedroom fit for a queen in Jaci's Safari Lodge


On the final evening, driving home in darkness, our truck driver hits the brakes as a large, male elephant stands in the middle of the road. Unperturbed by our gravelly halt, he lumbers towards us, forcing us to slowly reverse until he decides to turn off the road and into the bush. You don’t play chicken with an elephant twice the size of your vehicle.

When not on a game drive we sit by the pool, eat five star food, read books and take long outdoor showers while observed by monkeys (a little unnerving). At night the spacious rooms are closed to the elements by only a zip and some canvas. The electric fence surrounding the perimeter is certainly a consolation, but when I wake to hear the roar of lions, only a few hundreds meters outside camp reverberating in my chest, I can’t help but spend the rest of the night on high alert. By the second night though, with a tummy full of South African wine, I sleep more soundly.

On the last night we are treated to a traditional South African barbecue, called a braai, and the workers living on the reserve sing and dance around the fire pit. The sound of harmonising voices combined with the smoked taste of juicy lamb chop is not something I will soon forget.