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What’s It Like to Travel to South Africa Right Now?

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While the Sabi Sands is known for leopard sightings, you also have prime elephant viewing.

Photo by Kayla Douglas

While the Sabi Sands is known for leopard sightings, you also have prime elephant viewing.

A dispatch from an American who recently spent three weeks in the country.

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Editor’s note: In her role as Marketing and Social Media manager at SmartFlyer, NYC-based Kayla Douglas looks after the agency’s website and social feeds. She’s passionate about empowering the ever-growing community of SmartFlyer agents to approach social media marketing with authenticity. Always on the hunt for the next hot travel trend, you can typically find Kayla reading, running, writing, and creating content. A cortado (or glass of wine, depending on the time!) is rarely out of reach.

When South Africa opened its borders to Americans last fall, I decided to plan a bucket-list trip combining its safari regions with Cape Town and the nearby Winelands. As the news developed around the “South African variant,” I knew I was going to have a difficult decision to make. Could I still go? Should I still go? Thankfully, I didn’t have to rely on doom scrolling alone—one of my dear friends and colleagues is travel advisor Tiffany Figueredo, who splits her time between Cape Town and Fort Worth. 

She gave me real-time guidance on the situation on the ground, and this intel ultimately empowered me to make an informed decision. I spent three weeks there [in February 2021], managing marketing and social media projects for SmartFlyer and enjoying some personal leisure travel. 

South Africa is currently open to American travelers, with proof of a negative COVID-19 PCR test within 72 hours of arrival. No quarantine is required. 

Lesson 1: Buy all the insurance

After deciding that I was going to take the leap, I armored up with extra insurance coverage on top of my annual Arch RoamRight’s Multi-Trip insurance policy and annual MedjetHorizon membership. For this trip, I invested in COVAC Global, the only travel membership that will bring you home if you contract COVID-19 while traveling; their motto is “if you get sick, you get home,” plain and simple.

Naturally, these precautions were on top of my negative PCR test required no more than 72 hours before departure for South Africa. In terms of PPE, I had extra peace of mind thanks to Kaze Origins N95 masks and lots of TripWipes used in-flight. All of this was worth it—once I got there, I felt reassured that I’d made the right decision both for my mental health and in support of our recovering industry. 

Lesson 2: Advisors are a big help when it comes to planning a safari

Let the safari begin: Boarding a Federal Airlines PC12 flight

Flying to—and through—South Africa

I flew from Newark on United Polaris into Frankfurt, then connected on Lufthansa to Johannesburg. To acclimate [from the jet lag], I stayed one night at the Four Seasons Hotel the Westcliff, though I’m excited to see that the Saxon Hotel is reopening on May 1 to give travelers another luxury option in the country’s capital city.

The bush planes out to Sabi Sands and Kruger National Park are most easily accessible via Johannesburg. These flight logistics are nearly impossible to Google, which is just another reason to book with a savvy travel advisor. Mine booked me on Federal Air, a carrier that services the safari regions on its beautifully outfitted PC12s. Pro tip: You can store larger, hard-sided luggage at the Federal Air Lounge in Johannesburg since you can only bring a small, soft-sided duffel on safari. My advice would be to pack accordingly and remember that [most] lodges do complimentary laundry service, so less is more. 

Lesson no. 3: Know the differences between Sabi Sands and Kruger

On safari in the Sabi Sands

Lesson 4: Want to see leopards? Sabi Sands is the place

The ways in which these two regions are governed makes for highly distinct experiences. Sabi Sands is privately owned by six of the original families who took over this previously agricultural land. They work together to maintain the landscape to this day, which has long been a gathering place for leopards. While the lodges across Sabi Sands communicate with one another, you won’t see guests from another lodge out on a game drive because it’s all privatized. 

Kruger is owned and controlled by the government—there are strict rules that prohibit vehicles from leaving the demarcated roads. Many locals flock to Kruger to do self-drive safaris. For those staying in luxury properties, a handful of lodges have exclusive use of particular plots of land that aren’t subject to the limitations of the national park. This affords them the option to do spot-lit night drives, guided nature walks, and off-road driving for close-up encounters. Ultimately, you can see the Big 5 in both Sabi Sands and Kruger, so it will most likely come down to which lodge(s) you’re most compelled to experience—another place where your travel advisor can help. 

Starting Singita-style in Sabi Sands

We began our safari portion in the Sabi Sands—a vast game reserve about an hour’s bush plane ride from Johannesburg—at Singita Ebony Lodge. This was the very first Singita [it opened in 1993], and it sits on the Sand River, with just a dozen suites, each with its own private plunge pool. It feels like a fresh interpretation of a classic safari lodge. For those seeking more contemporary design, sister property Singita Boulders Lodge is just next door. The underground wine cellar at Boulders offers an extensive collection, including premium South African wines and rare auction wines. Finally, for those looking for a buyout, there’s Singita Castleton, also close by. 

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You don’t even always have to leave the lodge to see animals. On the very first afternoon we were at the lodge, a leopard decided to enjoy our personal suite deck just moments after we’d come inside. Our neighbor captured the entire situation on video, which we reviewed together in absolute awe during afternoon tea before the same leopard casually strolled through camp. It was an unbelievable start to our stay.

A morning coffee at Londolozi with Tiffany Figueiredo

While safarigoers typically wouldn’t do a split stay in this way, we opted to check out nearby Londolozi to maximize our knowledge as travel professionals. Their collection of five lodges is relaxed and familial—it grew out of a family camp established in the 1920s. The Varty family has always had a total commitment to conservation—they first acquired the land where Londolozi now stands in 1926 when there was absolutely nothing but bushveld stretching to the horizon.

Nearly 100 years later, they still live there and have contributed so much to the richness of the Sabi Sands. In Zulu, Londolozi means “Protector of All Things,” and this was the basis under which the camp was developed and how it is maintained. They pioneered the concept of a photo safari during a time when wildlife tourism presented the opportunity to salvage land divided by both literal fences and racial tension, especially during apartheid. Nelson Mandela once visited the property and said, “Londolozi represents a model of the dream I cherish for the future of nature preservation in our country.” Like all stays, it was the people who left the most sincere impact on me. 

One night, as we were watching a pride of lions, I asked our game ranger, Krist, how she landed in her career. She said she had previously been a primary school teacher, and one of her students asked her what she had wanted to be at her age. She replied that she’d always wanted to be a game ranger. A week later, she resigned from the school and enrolled in Londolozi’s intensive ranger school—an intensive training program that culminates in the rangers-in-training being out in the bush by themselves for days! It was awe-inspiring to see a woman succeed in such a male-dominated field. 

Many of the lodge guests right now are locals. With international tourism numbers still recovering due to COVID, South African properties have seized the unique opportunity to cater to domestic travelers with more rates more favorable to local currency. 

Next up: Kruger National Park 

We stayed at Singita Lebombo Lodge, easily one of the highlights of my time in South Africa. I flew with Federal Air from Sabi Sands to Kruger. It’s a relatively short trip, but feels like a completely new landscape now that you’re even farther east. You can see the ridge to Mozambique with the sounds of the N’wanesti River and all the birds as your backdrop. The sleek, contemporary suites have been built into the cliff to resemble eagle’s nests and completely blend in as if you’re floating between the earth and sky. If you can manage to leave your room (did I mention the outdoor bed?), there is an on-property cooking school that nurtures local talent.

Singita Sweni Lodge is right next door and has more rich pops of color than neutrals. Like in Sabi, these sister properties share a spa and shop. I chose a 90-minute crystal healing massage and I felt in a trance by the time I left. I’m not big on souvenir buying, but Singita’s chic boutique has homewares and furnishings that help you recreate the safari dream at home. For those eager to peruse, they actually just launched an online version!

Lesson no. 5: Bake in some down time between safari and Cape Town sightseeing 

Hiking on Cape Town’s Lion’s Head Mountain

After safari, I routed back to Cape Town. When working on your South Africa itinerary, I’d keep in mind that safari is more tiring than you may imagine. It’s a lot of early mornings on top of your jet lag. If you’re going straight to Cape Town, be sure to create some breathing room in your itinerary. I was working during the days while in the city and would highly recommend this for anyone whose job allows them similar flexibility. 

I was fortunate enough to base myself at Ellerman House for part of the time, and during the stay, met a fellow guest who is a University of London professor and has been teaching all of his classes via Zoom right from the property’s library for months. I mean, why not? You’ve got the sun, beach, art, a gym, exquisite food, and of course, Wi-Fi. We are ushering in a new way of working and the chance to WFHotel is probably one of the biggest upsides.

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Ellerman House is a privately owned, 11-room [plus two villas] hotel overlooking the Atlantic Ocean, and with its incredible art collection, an assortment of mid-19th-century to modern-day South African art,  it could easily be a museum. But it feels cozy and not at all stuffy. One of the best parts about a stay here—well, aside from the gin cart!—is that you can go on a private art tour with their in-house curator, and learn about the complex history of South Africa through the art.

If you stay at the Silo, it has the dual benefit of owner and avid art enthusiast Liz Biden’s curated collection and it sits above Zeitz Museum of Contemporary Art Africa (MOCAA). Both spaces have a focus on Africa’s emerging contemporary artists. I was really impressed by MOCAA’s integration of the pandemic into its collections. What a surreal moment to see art made in 2020 hanging on a wall addressing a pandemic that we are very much still living in. It was a reminder that we are literally making history every single day. For both your time taking in the art at the Silo and MOCAA, I’d recommend partnering with Royal Portfolio’s Resident Art Concierge for more in-depth storytelling and historical context. 

A stop near Hermanus en route to the Winelands

Since we had a fair amount of room in our itinerary, we built in a stop before routing to the Winelands a bit further south at Grootbos Private Nature Reserve, an ecofocused property about two-and-a-half hours from Cape Town. Visiting in July would be ideal, when you can do a floral safari and see the country’s famous fynbos at their pink peak. Here, you can also ride horses, go shark diving, whale watch, and so much more. I loved how the Grootbos team is incorporating sustainability and community enhancement through the Grootbos Foundation, a nonprofit that has an on-site ecotourism and hospitality training school—you can even visit during your stay.

In the Winelands, we stayed at two family-owned properties, La Residence, a Royal Portfolio property, and Babylonstoren, a working farm. It is a dream to be at the La Residence pool in one of their photogenic white and yellow cabanas overlooking the Franschhoek Valley after a winetasting. 

For those who crave less of a chandelier vibe and lean more to clean lines, Babylonstoren is another top contender for the Winelands, a place I equate to a Disneyland for adults. There is every imaginable amenity under the sun: a wine cellar, fruit and vegetable garden, multiple restaurants, an essential oil shop, a bakery, a butcherie, the spa and pool, and more. I adored our stay in one of the stand-alone Fynbos Cottages outfitted with a kitchen, fireplace, and private patio. You’re given a golf cart and bikes at check-in so you really have free rein to explore the vast property as you see fit.

At the end of a leisurely walk through the grounds with the head gardener en route to breakfast, there was a moment when I heard one of the farmers whistling as he worked, assembling a fresh fruit basket for a guest’s room. It reminded me that despite the doom and gloom we hear every day, there is real goodness—whistling while you work goodness—if you’re willing and able to leave your bubble. The world awaits. 

Lesson no. 6: Have cash on hand, even at the airport

My departure back to New York was a reminder of how flexible we need to remain with travel these days. While my SmartFlyer travel agent had already handled the cancellation of my flight from Cape Town and rerouted me through Johannesburg, the constantly evolving testing requirements caught up to me on this leg. It was seamless to get a PCR test in the Winelands to meet the U.S. requirement for a negative result no more than 72 hours before departure but, despite having this completely valid PCR taken just 24 hours prior, I hit a block.

There was a third party scanning passports and test results before you even got the Lufthansa check-in who insisted mine didn’t meet the requirements of my transit destination, Frankfurt. They refused to take the results for basically anyone on our flight, and negotiating with them wasn’t working.

Conveniently, there was a tent set up in the airport providing rapid tests with an immediate result. My advice here is to just have local cash on you just in case something like this happens to you, too. It was only 500 rand [around $33 now], but they did not accept international credit cards. That said, build in more time than you think you’ll need at the airport. Expect that travel right now simply has more red tape and you’ll have to show your COVID test multiple times. And above all, remember that leaving your bubble is a privilege—travel responsibly. 

When’s the best time to go to South Africa?

The summer time in Cape Town (December to March) doesn’t exactly match up with the dry season in the bush. So, there are pros and cons to any time of year. But for South Africa’s high season for safari running from June to August, this cooler, dryer time of year comes with less availability and higher rates. Conversely, low safari season, which runs from November to April, comes with more accessible rates, some rain showers, and more lush landscapes that make for gorgeous photos but can make spotting game a bit more challenging. Talk to your travel advisor about what would be the best fit for your schedule and personal preferences.

As told to Annie Fitzsimmons.

>>Next: 11 Overwater Bungalows Around the World to Book for 2021

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