Whenever I'm on an airplane, you can count on two things: 1) I'm saying a few prayers and 2) I'm tracing my finger over the map of the country I'm headed to, imagining how it'll feel when a group of lines and names that mean nothing to me soon will take on an entirely new and personal meaning. I love how something represented in 2D can suddenly come alive in full-color.
But one of the things I can never get a grip on before touchdown is how that living, breathing, humanized version of a place will actually look and feel, like seeing a celebrity for the first time in real life. I've probably seen pictures of the place before, but the impossibly perfect kind. I haven't seen it through my eyes or my lens, with the freckles and wrinkles and imperfections. Until that happens, you really have no idea about a place, which can be an anxiety-inducing position for a volunteer, teacher, student, or traveler heading to that new destination for the first time, and especially for an extended stay.
If you're bound for South Africa, you're probably facing even more conflicting hear-say from people who have been there before: It's really dangerous. Don't walk anywhere. There's so much racism. You probably expect the safari, the wine, and the legacy of apartheid, but what's in between?
In reality, you'll discover South Africa to be one of the most diverse countries on Earth, where its dynamic modern history is still being written on a daily basis, coming alive before your eyes in everyday situations. You'll discover cosmopolitan cities, warm people, magnificent natural landscapes, and boundless opportunities for adventure. You'll find interesting parallels with American history along the way, and make friends with locals and foreigners of all colors and backgrounds.
I spent six months working in Johannesburg last year, so here are some snapshots and tidbits of my experience that can help you get an insider's view into life in South Africa before you arrive -- to show rather than tell you what it's like to take a gap year in South Africa. I try to provide unsanitized and candid photos wherever possible.
Don't Be Afraid to Explore the Townships
The word "township" has a very strong connotation inside and outside of South Africa. It's true that these areas have had, and still have, an important historical and often racial role, so they make for very interesting places to learn about the history and culture of South Africa, but they are, at their core, just places where people live.
I visited many townships while I was in South Africa, usually first with a guide, and then on my own once I became more comfortable and made local friends. While on your gap year, you will probably discover opportunities to volunteer or visit these spaces. Do it, and learn from these experiences.
Soweto, for example, is one of the most famous townships in South Africa, but it's actually comprised of approximately 32 smaller townships and houses an estimated population of 1 million.
You'll Fall in Love with Cosmopolitan Jo'burg
You'll likely start your gap year in Johannesburg. It's the largest city in South Africa and one of the most dynamic metropolises on the African continent, but it also has a deeply ingrained reputation for violence and crime, which unfortunately deters many gappers from spending more time in Johannesburg.
However, most people who spend any length of time actually living in Johannesburg can testify to the fact that the city boasts an incredible standard of living, especially for foreigners, and with a few proper precautions (ie. don't walk around with a huge camera in poor areas, watch to make sure you're not being followed when driving home at night, keep your purse on the floor of your car not on the seat next to you) doesn't feel more dangerous than any other city on Earth.
You can do everything from having lunch in an authentic Congolese neighborhood, to dancing salsa dancing on rooftops (with locals), or getting dressed up for brunch in Maboneng district, which might easily trick you into believing you're in London or New York. You'll get lost in shopping malls, eat the best food you've ever had in your life, see Porsches drive through the slums, hang out at Nelson Mandela's house, and dance to South African house music... all in one day.
Whether you base yourself in Jo'burg during your gap year, or simply pass through on your way south, take some time to explore it.
Get Ready to Get Close and Personal with Wildlife
This is the part of South Africa you're expecting, but it will surpass all expectations. It will put human life into context of the greater animal kingdom and delight you with its proximity and vibrancy -- especially if you get the chance to volunteer or do an internship that lets you learn even more about the country's wildlife.
You'll Be Amazed by All the Nature
From the steep cliffs of the Wild Coast to the lazy, sprawling mountains of Pilanesburg, South Africa's huge variety of natural landscapes will 'wow' you at every turn. You could easily spend your entire gap year in South Africa just exploring the nature and all of its adventure travel opportunities.
The Sheer Diversity of the People is Something to Marvel At
There is no typical South African. After arriving in South Africa, you'll soon get used to hearing a cacophony of languages and accents. The people speak Zulu, Xhosa, SiSwati, Tshivenda, Afrikaans, Xitsonga, Sestwana, just to name a few, and you'll pick up the basics of each one with a little homework.
Cape Town Will Blow You Away
This is another thing you are expecting from South Africa, but it deserves to be mentioned again. To be honest, I had heard so much about Cape Town before I arrived that I expected it to be thoroughly over-hyped. The complete opposite happened: Like every visitor, I was enamored. There's a reason why so many study abroad students, gappers, and international interns base themselves here.
And don't forget the spectacular winelands just a short drive away...
... Just Be Prepared to Leave Your Heart in South Africa
Before you finish your gap year South Africa, you'll be fluent in terms like lekker, yebo, sorry, hey, peri-peri and dozens of other little quintessential South African-isms.
You'll have traversed the coastlines, hosted your own backyard braai, safaried across the interior, mastered the art of flagging down those charmingly overloaded local minivans, and rubbed noses with baby lions and baby South Africans alike.
Wherever you go, whatever you do, and however your camera captures it, South Africa will teach, challenge, and amaze you.
Ready? Take a Gap Year in South Africa.
Somehow I missed the memo that Cape Town is the coolest city ever!
So when I stumbled off the plane from Durban, hungover as hell, I was pleasantly surprised and immediately blown away by this sprawling metropolis at the edge of the world. Holy shit Cape Town, South Africa is all kinds of pretty!
A country girl at heart, I am not usually a fan of big cities but when there are plenty of green places and designed in a way that makes me feel like I’m not in a city, I’m a fan. Cape Town luckily ticks all those boxes, and even reminded me a bit of Wellington, New Zealand where I used to live. Just with more crazy wildlife.
It spreads out all along a wild and beautiful coastline with sandy white beaches, cute little surf suburbs with the iconic Table Mountain looming above you in the background.
Downtown Cape Town is beautiful, and the harbor area is one of the nicest I’ve seen with amazing shopping OOPS. It doesn’t take a lot to understand why the most expensive real estate in Africa is here.
On my first trip over to South Africa, Cape Town was the first stop after a long conference in Durban. And trust me, I was basically sobbing when we had to leave after only 3 days. Couldn’t I just stay here the whole time?
As my time in Africa was drawing to a close, I made a hasty decision outside a market in Joburg. I wasn’t ready to leave. Have you guys ever felt that way about a place?
So I did the only sensible thing, rang the agent that booked my tickets and changed my flights giving myself an extra week and a half in Africa. First I headed out to Phinda, an amazing safari reserve, and then booked myself a ticket back to Cape Town.
Sometimes you have to listen to that inner voice when you love a place so much and can’t bear to leave. And ok, I’ll admit I’m lucky in that I had a pretty flexible schedule at the time and was able to do this. Wahoo internet jobs!
Luckily I was able to time my return to Cape Town when my friends Hecktic Travels were in town on a stopover on their way to Namibia.
Cue long dinners, cocktails in Camps Bay, road trips and photo sessions, plus lots and lots of coffee and catch ups. While Cape Town certainly has heaps of things to do, I found myself just enjoying being there, going for walks and exploring. It’s a great city just to be in, not necessarily be busy in.
Here is my little introduction to this glorious city with 10 things that helped make me fall in love with Cape Town.
1. Table Mountain
It’s no secret, I love mountains so to be a really cool and fun hip city with an amazing mountain backdrop, is definitely the best of both worlds. With straight cliffs and a long flat summit, it didn’t take long to understand its name.
We headed up first thing in the morning back through the winding streets leading to the base of the cableway, the easiest way to get to the top. There was beautiful mist layering over the town giving a great ephemeral feel to the start of the day.
As we walked out on top, I promptly lost my shit when I spotted a dassie for the first time. A fat little groundhog looking animal, it is adorable and I spent the next 20 minutes taking photos of them instead of admiring the view. Typical.
2. Dinner with a local family
For me, this was probably one of my favorite parts of our time in Cape Town.
Hosted dinners with local families is now a popular way to get to know the city. When you are visiting a place for only a few days, it’s often quite hard to find opportunities to get to know the locals and get a glimpse into what life is really like there.
We were kindly invited to the home of a local musician who not only treated us to an amazing traditional dinner with his wife, but also rocked out with us all evening to the most beautiful music.
3. Staying at the One & Only Cape Town
It’s not every day that I get to stay in a 6 star hotel! Holy moley! If they only knew what I was really like, would they have let me in?
The One & Only Cape Town is part of the One & Only resort chain, and their South Africa property doesn’t fail to impress.
The biggest coziest bed ever complete with a pillow menu, great internet, a huge bathtub and an espresso machine – what more could I want?
I pretty much live in hotels with my job, and getting to stay in places like this is definitely a perk that comes with being a professional travel blogger.
At the risk of sounding snobby, while it was an amazing property, I didn’t feel like 6 stars to me until the first breakfast when I discovered not only champagne and oysters, order off the menu, any coffee you want, and oh, the crispy bacon or grilled bacon station.
Yes, 6 stars or sure!
4. Penguins on the beach!
My oh my! You guys know how much of a #BirdNerd I am, so when I first started researching Cape Town and realized there was a beach nearby home to a colony of penguins, I knew I had to make it happen!
Boulders Beach is near Simon’s Town is home to a colony of Africa Penguins, and they are adorable!
And luck was on my side because not only was the beautiful beach covered in penguins, there were fluffy molting babies everywhere! There is a god and he heard my prayers!
Show me the penguin babies!
I’m not going to lie, I loved it so much I went twice!
All the amazing seafood, all the time, nuff said.
6. Saturday Market
Another reason I was so happy to come back to Cape Town was that it gave me the opportunity to meet up with a few of you guys. I got an email from a kiwi expat living over in Cape Town who had spent a lot of time in Wanaka so it was a great opportunity to see the side of the city I probably wouldn’t have known about and hang out with a local.
The Oranjezicht City Farmer’s Market is super cute and in a beautiful part of town. Even though it drizzled the whole time, there were tents everywhere and so much delicious food and coffee, you hardly noticed.
This market has an amazing story – it was meant to be shut down before it was saved at the last minute and now takes place on the premier’s own gardens in Cape Town, which means its setting couldn’t be more picturesque.
7. Cape of Good Hope
I met up with the Hecks who rented a car and we hit the road for the day. First stop – back to the penguins obviously.
From there we headed to the Cape of Good Hope to live out our elementary school geography dreams. Nothing like finally laying eyes on a place you’ve heard about your whole lives, right guys?
Did I mention there are wild ostriches there? And baboons.
Run for your lives!
8. Chapman’s Peak Drive
On the way back to the city from the Cape Peninsula in the moody late afternoon light, we decided to take in the beautiful Chapman’s Peak Drive on the west coast.
I love a good road trip with friends!
And holy crap did this road not disappoint!
The 9km of road connecting Noordhoek and Hout Bay is pretty stunning.
Picture huge cliffs dropping down to the turquoise sea and crazy bends and turns with more lookouts and views than you could ever hope for. Don’t forget your camera.
As we turned the corner to head back to Cape Town, the sun began to shine through the peaks lighting up the houses below and creating those beams of light that I am obsessed with. What a way to close the trip!
9. Sunsquare Cape Town
I also wanted to mention on my second trip back to Cape Town I had to forgo the 6 star hotel for something more in my range and budget, the Sunsquare Cape Town.
Near the Gardens area of Cape Town, it’s in a really cool part of town with an amazing breakfast.
10. Sunset cruise
The perfect introduction to Cape Town is a sunset cruise in the harbor accompanied by a few breaching whales and champagne.
Sigh, Cape Town, you rock!
Have you ever felt this way about a place? Ever been to Cape Town? Ever changed your flights so that you didn’t have to leave a place?
Many thanks to Visit South Africa and Cape Town Tourism for hosting me in Cape Town. Like always, I’m keeping it real – all opinions are my own, like you could expect anything less from me.
Written by Liz and was published on November 11, 2015 in Accommodation, Africa, Destinations, South Africa