The Garden Route: Much More Than Horticulture

Garden Route coast

I imagined the Garden Route to be a horticultural holiday, with a string of designer gardens to inspect. But I was pleasantly surprised to discover rich, diverse vegetation; great food and wine; and a succession of coastal lakes and lagoons.

Certainly, if you like good food and wine, the Garden Route is the place to go. South Africa produces some of the world’s best wines. The food is all locally sourced and freshly cooked. I quickly realised that my usual eating habits had to be set aside, to allow myself to enjoy at least four or six courses of dinner a day.

Babel food

So, what is the Garden Route? As I discovered, it is actually an area of South Africa, nestled between the mountains and coast, stretching from Cape Town to Port Elizabeth. It encompasses 800 kilometres of coastline, with some of the most breath-taking and diverse landscapes – beaches, forests and lagoons.

I began my adventure by collecting my car from Port Elizabeth and headed to Plettenberg Bay. Just driving into ‘Plett’ (as the locals call it), I was greeted by endless sea views. As I approached the town, I could see that it was set above miles of wonderful white-sand beaches.  The weather was just right at about 22 degrees… not too hot at all.

White-sand beaches

I discovered some fun places to shop in Plett: the Heath has some fun gift shops, while the Global Village & Earth Cafe has a range of creative offerings, and is a fun place for coffee. There are quite a few boutique shops down the main drag, not to mention beach-gear shops.

I also highly recommend walking down to the beach for some lunch at the Lookout Deck. A five-minute walk from the town centre with incredible views of the sea and excellent food, this is renowned as a good place to see dolphins. Unfortunately, though, I did not get to see any.

Mountains on the Garden Route

There is lots to do in and around Plett, including hiking on the Robberg Peninsula, boat trips to see dolphins and (between the months of June and November) whale watching. There are also child friendly beaches with plenty of room and shallow water.

I must admit that I did not feel like I was in Africa. I could have been anywhere in Europe. The infrastructure is so well developed and you can go for miles without seeing anyone on the road.

Open road on Garden Route

My next stop was Knysna. Apparently a Khoi word, no one really knows what ‘Knysna’ means. Some say it means ‘place of wood’ and others that it could mean ‘fern leaves’. I like to think it has some relation to the impressive heads that the town is famous for.

Knysna is on the shore of a shallow lagoon that is now a protected marine reserve – home to sea horses and over 200 species of fish. My first impression of Knysna was the sandstone cliffs that dramatically separate the lagoon from the Indian Ocean. There was something about this place that made me feel like I was home.

Harbour at Knysna

I went on a morning cruise along the lagoon, which afforded lovely views of Knysna town and took us to the Knysna Heads. The Knysna Heads are the most striking geological features along the whole of the southern coastline. In the past, this was a treacherous place for sailors. I could totally understand why…I imagined it would have been like the Skeleton Coast in Namibia.

Knysna Heads

Knysna was possibly my favourite town along the Garden Route. You can easily stay here two or three nights – it has lovely restaurants and bars. If you love oysters then you will find some of the best oysters in the world, here.

There is also a lot to do in and around Knysna, and I personally think you do not need to stay in Plett. Knysna is a good central point to explore the surrounding area. I visited the 1,000-year-old Tsitsikamma Forest Big Tree – very impressive and definitely a must-see.

Winelands landscape

Last – and definitely not least – I visited Babylonstoren, a boutique hotel and working farm that lies between Stellenbosch and Paarl. I did not quite know what to expect because I had been to a few working farms, but not one quite like Babylonstoren. It was a perfect place of serenity, where you could almost touch or feel the passion of the people who created this Garden of Eden.

At Babylonstoren, I met Lizl, the gardener. Having worked at the farm for nearly 20 years, she took us on a tour of the garden. I discovered that Babylonstoren is one of the original Cape Dutch farms, dating back to 1777. It is also linked back to the mythical gardens of Babylon.

Vineyards at Babylonstoren

The best part of the tour was when we were encouraged to pick guavas and lemons – taste, smell and touch, while walking through the garden. It brought back memories of my childhood. My grandparents had a big farm that had fruit trees and I particularly liked the picking season.

Another activity that I enjoyed was their wine tasting tour. I do not normally drink alcohol, but this time I thought it will be good to explore the world of wine. The farm has 72 hectares under vine that produces 13 different grape varieties, including pinot noir and chardonnay.

Winery at Babylonstoren

I liked the fact that I could see how the wine has been produced and the love put into it. For the wine tasting, I was offered five different wines and discovered that my favourite was a dry Chenin Blanc – with hints of guava and melon.

A complete novice, I learnt some useful tips for wine tasting:

  • You need to have eaten something before you start your wine tasting.
  • Tilt the glass and stick your nose in. This will enable you to identify the type of wine – is it fruity, floral, sweet or woody?
  • Swirl the glass – this will enhance the flavours of the wine and bring out all the flavours. My favourite wine was the Chenin Blanc. It had a light crisp taste and was unwooded. (Unwooded wine is the wine that has not been fermented or aged in oak barrels.)
  • Cleanse your palate between wines. I used biltong and water

After my wine-tasting adventure I went for dinner at Babel Restaurant. It was absolutely delicious. The menu is guided by what is available in the garden.Food and wine at Babylonstoren

The farm also hold workshops on gardening, teaching guests about herbal tea blends made from fresh herbs and flowers, as well as how to grow various vegetables.  Babylonstoren is definitely a special place. It left me with a big smile at the end of my Garden Route trip.

Get in touch to learn more about the Garden Route. Email inspire@steppestravel.com or call us on 01285 601 753.


Kalk Bay: Sea Anemones and Sushi

Anemones at Kalk Bay

“Have you ever had your finger nibbled by a sea anemone?” Hanli enthuses.

An afternoon walk along the seaside has turned into an eye-opening voyage of discovery. Perhaps unsurprising given that I am with Hanli Prinsloo, world champion free diver and passionate ambassador for our oceans.

Hanli’s childlike enthusiasm is infectious. I eagerly share in her curiosity as we discover starfish, sea urchins, anemones and mermaids’ earrings. Two young children, intrigued by our behaviour – a behaviour not normally displayed by adults in Kalk Bay – run over and join us staring into the magical watery world of the tidal pools.

Sea at Kalk Bay

Kalk Bay sits on False Bay, an eighteen mile bite out of the rump of South Africa, right on Cape Town’s doorstep and under the shadow of Table Mountain National Park. False Bay has a diverse cast of actors, from the bit-part players such as my nibbling anemone to the whales, dolphins and Great White Sharks.

As Hanli explains, “Few people consider the extraordinary diversity beneath the waves. There are 11,500 species in False Bay – that is more than the total number of species of birds in the world.”

Anemone on rock at Kalk Bay

By day, Kalk Bay is sluggish and Bohemian. It has a friendly charm as I amble along the quaint village streets browsing the artisan stores – vintage clothes, jewellery, antiques. My favourite is Quagga, not just for the name – it is named after an extinct sub-species of zebra – but that it is bookshop stacked full of rare books.

I step into Quagga and back to a dusty past and learn that Kalk Bay was originally a ‘Cape coloured’ fishing community. Once déclassé, Kalk Bay is now a fashionable district and, sadly, one of the pitifully few racially mixed communities.

Fishing boats, Kalk Bay

Outside in the sunshine, we stroll through the packed Brass Bell pub and tight-rope walk around the walls of the man-made tidal pools. I would have loved to have stopped in Cape to Cuba to enjoy its exquisitely eccentric décor, its relaxed atmosphere and spicy seafood salsa.

Instead we walk through the fishing harbour full of colourful boats that are still very much operational. We negotiate a couple of gangster seals fat from the cast-offs of the fishermen. We enter Harbour House bathed in the warm glow of the late afternoon sun. Whilst looking out over the pier and lighthouse I have sushi – line-caught, of course – whilst Hanli has a vegetarian option. She doesn’t eat fish.

Starfish souvenirs, Kalk Bay

Later we find ourselves swamped by welcome and food at the Olympia Café. Olympia is quirky, friendly and undiscovered. A metaphor for Kalk Bay and perhaps the whole of False Bay.

With such a dramatic setting, False Bay deserves a more illustrious title. Named by disappointed sailors who thought that they had found a route to the riches of India, had it been dubbed “Bay of Plenty”, the heritage status bestowed upon the land would have extended below the waves to what many dub the ‘Serengeti of the Seas’.

Kalk Bay


Grootbos: Safari through the Cape Floral Kingdom

Lilac flowers at Groobos

“It’s like driving through a painting.” I whispered to myself.

I was on a 4×4 safari of Grootbos, an Afrikaans word literally meaning Big Bush in reference to the Milkwood Forests of the region. Nestled between the mountain and the sea, Grootbos Private Nature Reserve is 2,500 hectares of wilderness showcasing the flora of the southern tip of Africa. All of this set against the backdrop of sweeping panoramic views of Walker Bay.

During my 4×4 safari, I learned the importance of fynbos, an evergreen fire-adapted vegetation type that occurs in nutrient poor soils. Making up 80% of the Cape Floral Kingdom – the smallest of the six floral regions in the world, fynbos is incredibly diverse.

Grootbos protea

There are over 9,500 species of plants and flowers occurring in the area, of which over 6,200 are endemic. Table Mountain supports more plant species than the whole of the United Kingdom. And at Grootbos alone, my knowledgeable guide told me that there are a staggering 765 flower species, of which six were discovered on the private reserve.

My guide explained that fynbos – literally meaning fine bush in reference to the leaves of the vegetation – include proteas, ericas (in England called heather) and restios. She showed my cone bush, wild marijuana and pin cushions. However, it was not about names and numbers but an interactive and sensory adventure.

Fynbos at Grootbos

Whilst the focus is very much on the plants, it is difficult to ignore the birdlife and not to be charmed by the invigorating birdsong. The slender body and long beak of a sunbird sitting in bush surveying the scene or a sugar bird with his head halfway into a Proteus, flicking his tongue.

Not only the relationship between the flowers and birds was captivating, but also between the flowers and insects. I was shown a rain spider nest, we talked about the honey bee. We saw a camera trap – capturing grainy images of the nocturnal and elusive porcupine, caracal and cape mountain leopard – but no wildlife.

Indeed, this was the first safari where I had not seen any wildlife, but that did not detract from my enjoyment and what was a wonderful experience. It was the adaptations of the plants, the interactions and the symbiotic relationships, that gave the landscape a new significance and a more profound beauty.

Get in touch to learn more about how to visit Grootbos and the Cape Floral Kingdom. Email inspire@steppestravel.com or call us on 01285 601 753.

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Swimming with seals in South Africa with Hanli Prinsloo

“There are no Great Whites here. The water is too cold.”

I looked up at Chapman’s Peak unconvinced – in the next bay beyond the peak was False Bay where there are thousands of Great White Sharks, so much so that False Bay is known as the ‘Serengeti of the Seas’. Surely word had got on GrubHub, or the GWS equivalent, that there was food aplenty in Hout Bay. However, in the same way that you trust a ranger on safari implicitly, I trusted Hanli and Peter.

Sentinel, South AfricaDuiker Island - swimming with seals

Hanli Prinsloo and Peter Marshall, South African world champion free diver and US world record holding swimmer, respectively, are seeking to challenge our preconceptions and get clients to reconnect with nature and in particular marine life and the oceans with their inspiring I Am Water Foundation. They do so in jaw-dropping dive sites around the world from the Maldives to Mexico to Mozambique. Now also in Cape Town.

I am water foundation

As Hanli says, “Cape Town is an iconic city. One of the favourite cities in the world. Yet there is so much of it that we do not appreciate. So much of it that we do not get to appreciate. We are trying to change that by getting clients into the water.”

Hence my maladroit manoeuvres to get into a wetsuit in Hout Bay harbour. I note with envy that Peter and Hanli have an organic soap-based product to ease their transition from terrestrial mammal to mermaid/man. I clamber on board in ungainly fashion and feel very self-conscious as I sit on the side of the inflatable – neoprene is not a good look. I try to breathe in.

Duly briefed on what to expect, we taxi slowly out of Hout Bay harbour paying fleeting homage to the gangster seals of the harbour – so-named as this is their patch and that they are fiercely territorial about their watery ‘turf’. The gangster seals, like their terrestrial counterparts, have become fat from the cast offs they exist on.

We head out to the incongruously named Duiker Island. No small antelopes but thousands of Cape Fur seals crowding the sun-drenched 1,500 square metre rock. The smell, the sounds, the sight made me tingle with excitement. And it was not just on land – the ocean was boiling with activity. Seals of all shapes and sizes, swam, jumped and cavorted. Not all were frenetic: some lay on their backs with their fins resting on their stomachs or in the air.

“You know the reason why they put their fins in the air?” Peter asks.

My lack of immediate intuition gives Peter the go-ahead to continue.

“Because they use it to cool down. Can you believe that? There I am freezing my nuts off and they have to cool off.” How cold is the water?

I find out soon enough as I lower myself into the water and gasp as the cold seeps up my leg. I fully immerse myself, gasp again, and place my head underwater. In spite of the initial shock, it was not as cold as I thought and I quickly begin to enjoy the view.

snorkelling with seals, south africa

snorkelling with seals, south africa

On land, the seals are cumbersome and laughable. Underwater they are acrobatic and impressive. Aerobatic connoisseurs of the sea, they dart, race, dive, weave, twirl and somersault with a gay abandon that is bewitching to behold. Their balletic somersaulting belies their size. Their enthusiasm and exhilaration was infectious.

They are curious, intrigued by us and race right up to my mask. Some occasionally baring their teeth in play, most just staring eyeball to eyeball. On land their eyes are tiny but in water they are huge and all seeing. They have to be: they are predated upon by Great White Sharks, the apex predator of the sea. When the sun is overhead the seals are well aware of what is directly below them.  Thus the Great White Sharks feed mainly in the early morning and late afternoon – the crepuscular equivalent of leopard – as the slant of the sun’s rays make it difficult for the seals to see what is below them. It won’t surprise you to learn that I was snorkelling with the seals at midday.

“Justin, come with me,” Hanli beckons.

I follow at some distance and with a distinct lack of speed – maybe Peter would just beat me in a race – to the kelp beds. Overgrown triffids of the seas, the kelp dances hypnotically to the beat of the swell. The sun dances in and out of the golden fronds of the kelp. A wonderful strobe effect.

“Take a deep breath, grab the kelp with one hand and work your way slowly down. Remember to equalise,” Hanli advises me.

I looked uncomfortable. Hanli nodded encouragement. I put my mask into the water, looked down and kicked down to grab a frond. I pulled myself down. I quickly ran out of air and returned to the surface getting caught up in the forest of kelp above me.

“Slower,” was Hanli’s sage advice.

I try again. Heeding Hanli’s counsel, I lower myself hand over hand, alternating between equalising. The change of technique was transformative and I make it to the bottom. I stare up at the ebb and flow of the forest above me. It was magical. It was wonderfully therapeutic. Until I ran out of air and realised that I was many metres below the surface. I would race to the surface and in so doing surprise the living daylights out of an unsuspecting seal.

Every now and again, I would pull my head out of the water to readjust my mask to see a seal leaping in the air against the backdrop of Cape Town’s impressive massifs. My heart would soar.

snorkelling with seals, south africa

Cape Point, South AfricaGet in touch to learn more about our freediving holidays with Hanli Prinsloo. Email inspire@steppestravel.com or call us on 01285 601 753. 

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Freediving – Frequently Asked Questions with Hanli Prinsloo

Hanli Prinsloo FreediverHanli is an 11 times South African Freediving Record Holder who has taught freediving to over 500 students. She is the founder of the I AM WATER Foundation, which focuses on ocean conservation through human experience. Hanli is also a film-maker, avid ocean adventurer and certified yoga instructor. The freediving instructors she leads have taught freediving around the world, alongside working with top athletes, celebrities, and individuals with aquatic phobias.

What is freediving?

Freediving is an age-old practice of exploring the ocean on one breath. With its roots in subsistence living off the sea, freediving is today a competitive sport with disciplines, competitions and records. But in essence it is just the act of holding your breath underwater.

Why freediving and not scuba diving?

Freediving is the most natural way of being underwater. The last few years have seen freediving grow to one of the biggest expanding water sports in the world.

A few of the things I love: it’s more athletic than scuba, it allows you to get much closer to the animals and to move faster and more freely (in all directions), least ecosystem impact, less expensive as you don’t need much equipment or refills and it’s easy to learn.

Even though you might think freediving will limit your time below, the seconds or minutes you do spend there are beautifully silent. Learning freediving is a tool to explore your body’s aquatic ability as well as the marine environment, particularly the big animals.

My experience is that most of the large marine creatures much prefer the interaction of a freediver than that of a scuba diver – taking noisy breaths and blowing scary bubbles.

Is there an age limit on the trip?

Some trips are more suited to families than others, and in some instances we would recommend a bespoke experience to cater to specific age groups. But in short, no, freediving is for all ages and the team and I love working with children.

I am a total beginner can I still come?

Yes! Trips are structured in such a way that we can cater to both absolute beginners and more advanced freedivers. With multiple instructors on each trip, we are able to adjust accordingly.

I don’t think I can hold my breath for very long…

Most people don’t think they can hold their breath long enough! Part of your week with the I AM WATER team is learning how to breathe properly for freediving, lung stretching and yoga to increase lung volume as well as in-water and on-land breath-hold training.

But even if you don’t manage to hold your breath for very long or you discover that freediving is too challenging for you, you can always stick to snorkelling and still have great ocean encounters.

Do you have to be very fit for freediving?

Fitness and general health helps, but the team work with what you bring. Freediving in itself can be a strenuous activity, but we adjust to suit the needs of our guests.

Can I freedive with asthma?

My experience is that asthmatics in fact do very well freediving, as they are already aware of their breathing. As a freedive is much shorter than a scuba dive, you will always have immediate access to emergency equipment (e.g. an inhaler) on the boat if the need should arise.

I’ve had trouble equalising in the past; should I even bother coming?

I’m happy to share some tricks and tips with you before your departure on how to get rid of pesky equalisation issues that are often diet related. We also provide food specifically for freediving during your stay, and there are many techniques not common to scuba training that could work for you.

However if you believe you may have a physiological abnormality, a visit to your doctor or an ENT (ear, nose, throat specialist) might be worth it.

What is equalisation..?

Any gas submerged in water gets compressed. Our inner ear is a small pocket of air and when we go underwater, this pocket of air needs to be ‘equalised’ (if not you can burst your eardrum, which does heal but you will need to be dry for several weeks).

Anyone can be taught to equalise and there are in fact several techniques, but it is harder for some than for others. I have found that with the right preparation and training, guests learn to equalise comfortably.

How deep do we freedive?

This is completely individual and will depend on your ability to equalise and hold your breath. On average, I find that guests progress from surface snorkelers to freediving to anywhere between 8 and 20 meters during a week of practice.

Can I get a certification for the course?

Yes. All trips are run by certified freediving instructors and we incorporate all the theory and training needed to be certified for your Level 1 Freediving Certification. If all requirements are met during training, it concludes with an exam on the last night for those who want the certification.

Should I/can I practice before I come on the trip?

You do not need to do any training or preparation before the trip, but there are certain things you can do to prepare if you want to. Once you are booked on a trip, get in touch and I can share some training, dietary and stretching or yoga preparation with you.

Will I be completing a medical form to participate?

Yes. All participants will have to fill out a medical questionnaire. If you answer ‘yes’ to any of the questions regarding health limitations, we would need a letter from your doctor that states you are fit to freedive.

If you are unsure whether you will answering ‘yes’ to a health limitation, get in touch and we can do the paperwork before your departure with ample time to get your doctor’s go-ahead.

I’d like to bring my own equipment; what do you recommend?

Basic snorkelling equipment is provided. But if you’re interested in purchasing freedive-specific equipment before the trip, get in touch and the team can advise you on the best equipment for freediving. Or we can order for you from our preferred suppliers and bring for you.

Is it a problem that I don’t know how to swim?

The team have a lot of experience working with people who don’t know how to swim, and even teach freediving to those who have very basic swimming skills. However, I recommend you know how to swim before coming on trips. And do let us know if you are in doubt of your swimming ability, so we can make the necessary safety preparations with regards to number of instructors.

Is freediving dangerous?

Freediving is a potentially risky sport that when practiced responsibly is not dangerous at all. I AM WATER teaches a conservative slow-progression approach to freediving, where you will explore your limitations and capabilities under the expert eye of top freediving instructors.

The biggest risk in freediving is practicing alone – something we never do or allow. And part of your week-long course with us is safety, risk and rescue training.

Get in touch to learn more about our freediving holidays with Hanli Prinsloo. Email inspire@steppestravel.com or call us on 01285 601 753. 


How do you beat a family holiday in South Africa?

Where Next? The Moon?
A family holiday in South Africa.

“Wow, Daddy. There is so much cool stuff – free eye masks, free socks and even glue.”

Perhaps given my seven year old son’s reaction to the South African Airways freebie on his seat and his inability to identify a miniature tube of toothpaste, the omens for this holiday were looking good. Notwithstanding his low expectations, both his and ours were more than surpassed on a children’s and parents’ holiday of a lifetime.

Right from our midday arrival in Cape Town we hit the ground running. Or rather cycling. We were out as a family pedalling the streets of Cape Town with the charismatic Skizo as our guide. He was unwavering in his watchfulness as the children negotiated the streets and traffic of Cape Town, lavish in his descriptions to the benefit of the adults and equally lavish in his distribution of cakes and ice creams much to the delight of the children.

That night it was a visit to and supper in Camp’s Bay market. Trinket heaven for ten and twelve year old girls. An opportunity for seven year old boys to run amok and worry nervous parents until we, the parents, realised that we were on holiday and this was a much more child-friendly market than they had hitherto been exposed to.

The next morning we were up early for a walk through and breakfast in Cape Town’s dazzling waterfront. A ferry ride took us to Robben Island, ‘home’ to Nelson Mandela for eighteen of his twenty-seven years in imprisonment. From the outset, I was worried that the children were here under duress, a parental diktat that “it is one of those things you need to do.” Thankfully, in spite of the numbers on the tour, both the initial guide and the ‘inmate’ managed to inspire a modicum of passion in our children as to the gross injustice of the inequality that existed. No mean feat.

A lazy lunch on Cape Town waterfront, a guilty pleasure given the deprivations we had been told of first-hand in the morning, fortified us for our assault of Table Mountain. We took the cable car up Cape Town’s iconic landmark as the cloud began rolling in from the sea. On top the children roamed with gay abandon on a mountain

The next day we headed into the Winelands. A day of respite for the adults or so we thought. A wine tasting brought meagre joy; far greater joy was watching our children interact with the animals of Spier Wine Estate. Unlike the cheetah outreach centre that we visited earlier that morning, this was far more intimate and engaging.

They got to hold baby tortoises, have pythons draped around their necks. Best of all was being in a cage with owls flying all around, over and above them – it was like being in a Harry Potter film set but with real owls. Not only that but they were privy to one of the best bird displays that I have seen. All the way back to Cape Town, various facts were regurgitated with glee: “Soft wings and soft feathers means silent flight and a deadly predator.” “The owl swallows its prey whole.”

Anna's Harry Potter moment, South Africa

Cape Town had provided us with such variety, constant entertainment. My only disappointment being that the swell had been considered too large for us to go swimming with sea lions.

As we headed east along the whale route, I was worried that the winds would cause further disappointment. I could not have been more wrong. As we stopped at Gordon’s Bay, there were squeals of delight as the surf challenged their footing. Shouts of amazement as the sand and wind pricked the back of their legs.

Even when we stopped to see the penguins of Betty’s Bay – far less touristy and infinitely more enjoyable than Boulder’s Bay – the wind was ferocious. Yet even here, the wind did not dent the children’s awe and wonderment at getting so close to an animal that they had only hitherto seen in ‘Happy Feet’ (a film that I have not seen but dislike intensely as when I returned from Antarctica ready to show my children some remarkable footage, they dispatched me with a dismissive look, “Daddy, we’ve just watched ‘Happy Feet’.”). Needless to say the penguins were great and so too the visitor centre.

Driving into Hermanus we were immediately swept away by the charm of the Marine Hotel. Location notwithstanding, the marine Hotel went out of their way to look after us and especially the children, who had their own kids’ toiletries, their own mini hotel dressing gowns and chocolates. The children were almost swept away by the surf crashing into a rock pool. It is one of my (many) images of the holiday – the girls standing in the rich colour of evening sunshine, arms held aloft in defiance to the oncoming waves. And then an even bigger wave crashes against the rocks and they are last seen retreating fast as they are engulfed by the spray. Hours of fun.

Izzy and ISabel enjoying the surf at Hermanus

The next morning the wind had abated, replaced by bright sunshine. As if to complete the change we saw whales breaching out in the bay. Again and again they would leap out of the water. We would see the splash and three seconds later hear the thud as they hit the water.

“If the speed of sound is 340 metres per second and we heard that splash three seconds after we saw it, how far away is that whale?” A moaned protest of “Daddeeee.”

Thankfully for the children we were lucky to see whales a little closer on a whale watching trip and their mental arithmetic was not tested again. However the southern right whale we did see was with a calf and thus not as acrobatic as the ones we saw from the hotel. And whilst much of her remained beneath the water you were able to get an impression of her size.

Much to the boys’ excitement the boat drove through Shark Alley. To their disappointment and affronted nostrils – they held their noses and screwed up their faces at the smell – we saw no sharks but hundreds and hundreds of seals. We did stop by a boat later on from which they were cage diving and did see sharks. Although once again there was a sense of disappointment that the sharks were not as large and not baring their impressive array of teeth as per much of the marketing literature. Perhaps a salient lesson for them.

Next it was to Camp Jubalani in Kapama Private Game Reserve on the edge of Kruger National Park. A camp that is renowned for its fourteen elephants – from Pisa, the baby of the herd, to Sebokwe, the largest male, from Tokwe the matriarch to Mambo, the playful hooligan of the herd – riding these elephants and elephant interaction.

Getting to know Tokwe
Whilst the children loved riding the elephants – more so than the adults whose lack of flexibility caused a certain amount of discomfort – what really lit up their faces was interacting with the elephants. Isabel, my eldest daughter, was asked to drop an ankus on the ground. Uncertain she does so only for Jabulani to pick it back with his trunk and ‘hand’ it back to her. The smile of joy on Isabel’s face was glorious to behold, pure enraptured delight. So too Jabulani. He seemed to be beaming with pride and behind his thick curly eyelashes his eyes were smiling with real pleasure at being so appreciated.

Jabulani turned the end of his trunk upwards inviting contributions. The children with huge smiles on their faces poured pellets into his trunk. I didn’t know who was happier – Jabu in receiving his treats, the children in touching, feeling his trunk or me in enjoying my children’s delight.

The children came away with their minds full of elephant facts. The trunk contains an estimated 100,000 muscles and tendons. Elephants are left or right handed, similar to us. They have an organ in their mouth, the Jacobsen’s organ, that allows them to recognise smiles as much as forty years ago – hence the phrase, the memory of an elephant.

But it wasn’t just elephants they learned about. “Geez you guys know a lot,” admired Kevin our guide as the boys rolled out statistic after statistic: “A baby giraffe is heavier than a baby elephant which only weights about 100kg at birth.”

We saw a warthog reversing into his hole like some proud house-owner parking outside his house. We saw genet, bush baby and white-tailed mongoose. And yes, we did see the Big Five. We heard the guttural growl of the impala, the distant roar of lion, a leopard crunching noisily on bones and the maniacal laughter of hyena. We learned the collective nouns for a whole host of animals: a dazzle of zebra, a crash of rhinoceros, a tower of giraffe and an implausibility of wildebeest.

But above all the children loved ‘doing’. They loved using our cameras – thanks to digital we were able to delete all photos of headless animals and the ground. Perhaps most of all, using the spotting scope at night was a big thrill.

For me there were two key highlights. The first more of a guilty pleasure – guilty as I am not sure how much the children appreciated the enormity of what we were doing – was being involved in the darting and notching of a rhino.

Not to say that the children were excluded. In fact to my surprise, the opposite. They were all give roles. Anna was to place a blanket over the rhino’s eyes to protect its eyes. Ear muffs – a pair of woollen green socks – were given to the seven year old boys, Benedict and Charlie, to stuff in the rhino’s ears. Isabel was in charge of monitoring the rhino’s respiration and Izzy had to administer eye ointment – a rhino’s eyes stay open during the anaesthetic and thus need lubrication in the form of ointment.

Rhino darting - we all had a job to do

Emotion reigned amongst us throughout the whole process, whilst Pete, Colin and Ginelle, the veterinary team, were calm and composed – efficiency personified. It is a spiritual, surreal experience, to have subdued, without stress, such a prehistoric animal. To hear its deep breaths, to smell it, to touch its skin, to see how delicate and vulnerable they really are. These are primordial sympathies. Nothing quite compares to the sheer emotional power of being so close to a wild creature of that size and stature (rhinos have been around for millions of years). For my eldest daughter, Isabel, it was all too much. Tears streamed down her cheeks.

The second highlight was the joy of seeing wildlife of learning through my children’s eyes. Their response both emotionally and intellectually was energising. Perhaps most so in Isabel for whom there were a number of defining moments from the rhino darting to her revulsion at seeing a zebra used as decoration on the floor. She was clearly moved by much of what saw. She wanted to do something about it.

“Daddy, how can I make a difference?”

Kevin interjected, “You have (made a difference) just by coming here.”

Isabels how to train a dragon moment

Talk to our South Africa Travel Experts to start your privately guided tour of South Africa, call us on 01285 601 753  or email inspire@steppestravel.com.

South Africa - Ultimate Family Cape Escape

South Africa – Ultimate Family Cape Escape

15 days from £3,575pp

View Holiday Idea

South Africa & Mauritius - Family Holiday

South Africa & Mauritius – Family Holiday

12 days from £3,899pp

View Holiday Idea


Rhino Notching in South Africa – Steppes Travel

The White Rhino Conservation Project is committed to notching and inserting microchips into Greater Kruger National Park’s 130-strong White Rhino population. Experience first hand conservation work in the company of the chief vet and rangers from Klaserie Nature Reserve as they locate a rhino and proceed to notch and microchip it.

Below is copy of my presentation on South Africa at our Steppes Beyond event in March 2015. For more information on any of our destinations please do get in touch.

Have a direct involvement in rhino conservation, call us on 01285 880980 or email inspire@steppestravel.com.

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Our Steppes Explorers

The modern day explorers who lead our expert led group tours are hand-picked for both their knowledge and their passion for their subject. Whether that be a wildlife, photographic trip or an in-depth historical tour.


Australia – Sab Lord

Kimberley & Top End by Helicopter
15 days from £24,695 pp

Larger than life with many stories to share, Sab grew up in the area he now guides people around. His incredible knowledge and unique relationship with the local Aboriginal people ensure you experience authentic ancient trails, cultures and insight into the Northern Territories.



India – Kartikeya singh

Flying Safari in the Land of the Tigers
10 days from £3,995 pp

Twenty years experience as a naturalist, guide, field worker on conservation projects and assisting on BBC natural history films has given Kartikeya an encyclopedic knowledge of India’s fauna and flora. Whether he’s tracking tigers, deciphering an alarm call or spotting birds, his natural habitat is certainly the jungle.



 uzbekistan – chris aslan alexander

Beyond the Oxus
12 days from £2,045 pp

Chris was born in Turkey and grew up in Ankara and Beirut. He moved to Uzbekistan to write a guidebook, fell in love with the place and stayed. “A Carpet Ride to Khiva – Seven Years on the Silk Road” tells his story. He has also lived in Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan and his extensive knowledge of these regions and fluent Uzbek now brings our group tours alive.



 south africa – dr peter rodgers

Rhino Conservation Tour
7 days from £1,745 pp

Dr Rodgers specialises in wild animal capture and translocation. 20 White Rhino have been relocated from Umfolozi Game Reserve to the Masai Mara and Lake Nakuru in Kenya. He is one of the leading authorities on rhino conservation and we feel privileged to be working with him on this project.


PERU – charlie hamilton james

Amazon photographic tour
15 days from £4,075 pp

From Ethiopian wolves to pit vipers in the Amazon Charlie has photographed a wonderful array of wildlife. Following his captivating BBC2 documentary in the Amazon he now joins researchers in Manu National Park to show you first hand the conservation efforts being made there.


china – nick laing

Yunnan, Shangri La & the Songtsam Trail
15 days from £4,075 pp

Nick, Steppes co-founder and Chairman has travelled extensively in the last 30 years. From walking with Botswana bushmen, dog sledding in the Arctic to motorbiking from London to Vladivostok and around the Mediterranean and kicking back in Kashmir. Join him now on a journey to discover Shangri La.

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Where to go in 2015

Over the last few months I have been asked again and again by journalists which destinations are the ones to watch for 2015. Here they are, chosen by myself and the Steppes specialists – who are after all – the eyes and ears on the ground. Is there anything we have missed?
PS: I’m bound for an exciting African destination, new to Steppes. Currently heading to Zakouma National Park. Watch this space.



With Avianca now operating direct flights between Bogota and London, the door to Colombia has just been opened further. Colombia is finally moving out of the shadows of it’s neighbours and fast becoming a safe travel option with the added interest of guides who have lived through 40 years of turmoil, providing a fascinating insight into life now and then.



With Marigold Hotel II set to hit the big screen in 2015, you can be sure the media will be scouring India for the real life equivalent. The new Bujera Fort in Udaipur is the brain child of an English couple and will no doubt therefore draw comparisons with Hotel Marigold. Combined with Jawai Leopard Camp it will make for a great alternative to the more commonly used Golden Triangle properties.



Luxurious boat charters covering parts of the archipelago previously off limits to tourists will open up the full potential of Indonesia’s diving – tipped by many as some of the best in the world, especially around Raja Ampat.



Zimbabwe is bouncing back. Fewer tourists, better prices and phenomenal wildlife. Home to some of the best safari guides, exquisite lodges and dramatic scenery, it won’t be long before Zimbabwe is rightfully back as one of the finest safari destinations in Africa.



The big destination in 2015 for adventurous families with older children. Self-drive is an easy option in the US and gives families a sense of freedom and flexibility. We recommend combining this with a number of guided excursions in America’s national parks. If wildlife and remote wilderness sound like your kind of holiday then head to Alaska.



Japan’s best kept secrets can be found hidden within its 6,000 plus islands. Ranging from the remote subtropical island chain of Ogasawara, set to rival the Galapagos and reached only by a 25 hour boat ride, to the island of Okinawa, the birthplace of Karate where it is possible to dive with manta rays and hammerhead sharks.



Mongolia has a sense of space, tradition and laughter that cannot be found elsewhere. Travel west to the Altai Mountains and ride with the Kazakh eagle hunters who hunt on horseback in the winter.

Read Justin’s blog and watch his video.


Papua New Guinea

Go now before it changes. A cliché but sadly true for Papua New Guinea. Whilst remote and little visited, stereotypes of primitive, uncontacted tribes are outmoded. Already by the late 1960s the lowland peoples were no longer wearing traditional dress. Although the peoples of the highlands were, they would only do so for another thirty years, traditional dress having faded out by the turn of the millennium. See our holiday ideas.


South Africa

An overnight flight away – no jet lag and guaranteed winter sun. With the current exchange rate of the rand – you can dine in style for less at one of the best restaurants in Capetown. We recommend exploring the Western Cape or stay at the brand new family run Kariega lodge along the Garden Route.



There are some wonderful deals to be had on a number of our hand-picked cruises – from Steam Ship Sudan and Sanctuary Sunboat to a private charter of a Dahabiya. You might also have some of the sites to yourself. Avoid the crowds and go now before they flock back.


Discover South Africa

I was born in South Africa and have travelled around the country from an early age. Before joining Steppes Travel in 2000 I qualified as a safari guide and worked in various lodges. I have since returned to South Africa with my young children; it never to ceases to amaze me.

I believe, as many others do, that you can ”see the world in one country” when travelling in South Africa. Indeed there are few countries in the world that offer the same level of diversity of holidays as South Africa. Sandy beaches, snow capped mountains, lush vineyards and the Kruger National Park provide a plethora of dramatic scenery. Despite being vast in size, travelling around the country is surprisingly easy, making a combination of the county’s highlights possible and most rewarding.

Watch my video following my latest trip to South Africa and please do get in touch me if you would like more information on 01285 880980.