Text: Marcella van Alphen Photographs: Marcella van Alphen & Claire Lessiau
I am seated in front of my tent, browsing through my notes from last year’s Tracks and Signs course as we have just come across a leopard track during this morning’s game walk with our EcoTraining instructor Tayla McCurdy. Suddenly the atmosphere changes and I sense a presence. I look up from my notebook when a 2.5-meter (8 feet) tall elephant appears out of the thickets a mere 4 meters (12 feet) away from me, approaching silently. I stare at the grey giant who casually grabs loads of fresh grass. “Hello beauty”, I speak in a calm voice while rapidly scanning for more of his family members. “I am seated right here… Do you see me?” The elephant looks at me, reacting to my calming tone with which I have just announced myself. He sticks his trunk up in the air to smell me. From its round skull I make out it is a young bull, maybe 15 years old. He gets a bit closer and starts to reach for the bark of the marula tree that shades me from the African sun. Feeding in a relaxed way, he shows no sign of annoyance nor aggressivity and has clearly acknowledged my presence. With his acute senses, he must have known for a while I was around and he decided to pass by our small unfenced camp deliberately. For a few precious minutes, I observe the gentle giant as much as he observes me, before he wanders off to another patch of fresh grass. Despite the seemingly peaceful moment, all my senses are on high alert and I am very aware of my surroundings. The rest of the large breeding herd feeds on further away thickets. As the magic moment has just passed, I recall Tayla lecturing us earlier on dos and don’ts with wildlife and the power of our voice: this EcoTraining Field Guide Course in the Greater Kruger, South Africa, has already come in really handy…
Text & Photographs: Claire Lessiau & Marcella van Alphen
The excellent the food scene of the Mother City has been consistently ranking high on the lists of world’s best restaurants. If South Africa attracts for its safari game reserves, beautiful Cape Town and the very well-marketed Garden Route, make sure to not miss out on these gems when you are in town…
Article updated on December 30, 2022 Text: Claire Lessiau Photographs: Claire Lessiau & Marcella van Alphen
Over a few years, Cape Town has become a foodies’ paradise. If the city developed thanks to its ideal conditions to resupply passing ships, today its food scene thrives thanks to its organic green grocers, ethical fisheries, free range cattle farmers, excellent wine regions and inventive chefs putting it all together. From fine dining to casual eateries, do yourself a favour and taste the best of Cape Town! Here is our cherry-picked selection of casual eateries…
Text: Claire Lessiau Photographs: Claire Lessiau & Marcella van Alphen
The waves are crashing on the beach. The Milky Way lights up the sky. The Moon is nowhere to be seen and darkness is surrounding us. Only the faint light of Mbuko’s torch casts a red hue on the slopes of the sand dunes to our left. To our right, the foam of the waves breaking on the beach leave a whitish hue. Mbuko is walking confidently through the soft sand analysing every track he comes across. He freezes as he shines his light on an oval shape sticking out which we follow with our gaze. A ghost crab is firmly grabbing a newly hatched loggerhead turtle. The tiny reptile, no more than 5-centimetre long (2 inches) is still alive. We silently observe how the crab runs to its hole in the sand dragging its bloody prey. We scan the surroundings in search for more loggerhead hatchlings. We spot another new-born, already trapped in a crab’s hole. This is the destiny of the vast majority of turtle hatchlings. If the spectacle of turtles laying eggs and hatchlings running to the ocean at night is magical, it is also a cruel scene, during which human intervention is uncaught for. We silently walk back to the desolated Thonga Beach Lodge where we started from, on foot, an hour earlier, the only lodge for miles along this protected beach of the iSimangaliso Wetland Park in the northernmost corner of South Africa.
Text: Claire Lessiau Photographs: Claire Lessiau & Marcella van Alphen
A trip to Cape Town seems to systematically include at least a day in the vineyards, very often on exclusive wine estates around Stellenbosch or Franschhoek, about an hour away from the city. It is true that the quality of the wines combined to the beauty of the vineyards calls for an exploration. Stellenbosch can be overwhelming with its hundreds of wine farms. Franschhoek tends to oversell luxurious vineyard experiences rather than high quality wine tastings. Our favourite wine route is much closer, right in one of the most beautiful suburbs of Cape Town, in the cradle of South Africa’s wine making. Only a twenty-minute drive via Victoria Road lining the stunning Atlantic coastline, cooler climate award-winning wines are produced on about 400 hectares. Let’s explore this intimate wine route…
Text: Claire Lessiau & Marcella van Alphen Photographs: Marcella van Alphen & Claire Lessiau
The three lobes are very distinct. The leading edge of the main pad is flat. I orientate my flashlight to have a better view: the four toes are nicely rounded. There is no doubt: this footprint was left by a young male lion, only a few hours ago. I stand up, and look at my dome tent, barely two metres (6 feet) away. As the sun rises over the South African bush, the sky turns red orange, and the spoors are better lit. I switch off the torch and turn back to the soft sand: next to this track, I can identify some others, amongst which the ones of a lioness with their pointy leading edges lit by the few sun rays at dawn. The way the spoors are positioned tells me that this pride of lions was casually walking through the EcoTraining Camp in the Selati Game Reserve while I was half asleep. The alarm call of the troop of baboons, the sound of the herd of impalas running, the hardly palpable changes in the air and the scuffing in the sand that I heard during the night now all make sense. I do not know what I am amazed by the most: the proximity with these lions or the amount of practical knowledge I have gained during a week immersed in the wild living my most intense safari experience to this date…
Text: Claire Lessiau & Marcella van Alphen Photographs: Claire Lessiau & Marcella van Alphen
The cold water of the rain shower feels good: it has been a long drive with the very last stretch on a hilly rough dirt road in the burning sun before we eventually arrived at the lodge. As I am contemplating the view on the endless rolling hills in my favourite wilderness of South Africa from the shower, I am startled. I jump out onto the large outdoor private deck of our villa and with my hands – and everything else for that matter – still wet, I grab my binoculars: “rhinos!” I observe three of these prehistoric animals with their so coveted horns roaming the opposite green slope: a calf which I estimate no older than a few months, its mother and another white rhino that could be the calf’s older sibling. I feel extremely privileged to witness this scene as their numbers are dangerously plummeting and rhinos are on the verge of extinction, being poached to feed the insatiable Chinese market. For sure, the Isibindi Rhino Ridge Safari Lodge that sits at the edge of the Hluhluwe iMfolozi game reserve in Kwazulu Natal, is well named! If the head of Isibindi Africa Trails, Nunu Jobe, is as pertinently nicknamed, I hardly dare imagining what a walk in the African bush with the “Rhino Whisperer” holds for me…
Text: Claire Lessiau & Marcella van Alphen Photographs: Claire Lessiau & Marcella van Alphen
The skinny young man dressed in animal skin is standing, with his spear high up above his head. His friends are following him striking a similar posture. They are wearing animal skins. Their tribe has been following the migrating herds, higher into the mountains. The tracking has been long and laborious, and they are tired. The tips of their spears are covered in diamphotoxin, a slow-acting poison obtained from beetle larvae. Further, a herd of elands grazes. The large more-than-half-a-ton animals are unaware of the men’s presence. Even for great hunters as the Bushmen, this is a dangerous endeavour: with a shoulder height of 1.7 meters (5 feet 8 inches), Africa’s largest antelope is much taller than them.
Text: Marcella van Alphen Photographs: Claire Lessiau & Marcella van Alphen
Sheltered from the winds by gigantic 540-million-year-old granite rocks, Boulders Beach is a local’s favourite for its low waves and slightly warmer water temperatures compared to the frigid yet popular Camps Bay and Clifton beaches in the heart of Cape Town. There is something more that attracts beach goers to this picturesque shoreline: it is the only place in the world where one can swim with South Africa’s most unexpected residents: jackass penguins!
Article updated on May 26, 2021 Text & photos: Marcella van Alphen (except if credited differently)
“Until the story of the hunt is told by the lion, the tale of the hunt will always glorify the hunter.” African proverb
Between the release of Disney’s The Lion King 25 years ago until its new photo-realistic computer-animated version of 2021 our planet has lost half of its wild lion population. Half…! If the main reason is habitat loss, it is not the only one why lions are in an alarming state. Other causes are ego for the hunters, greed for the farming, canned lion, and bone trade industries and maybe even worse, a lack of critical sense for some of us often with the best intentions.
“I visited the camp at the Springfontein railway station in the Southern Free State. What I was about to witness here… haunts me until this day. The mother sat on a little trunk, with a sick child across her knee. She had nothing to give it, and the child was sinking fast. Her plea for medicine fell on deaf ears. There was nothing to be done. And we watched the child draw its last breath in reverent silence… A friend standing behind the mother cried and called upon heaven to witness this tragedy. The mother neither moved nor wept for her only child. Dry-eyed but deathly white she sat there motionless, looking not at the child but far… far away into the depths of grief.” – Emily Hobhouse, May 15, 1901, what is now South Africa.
George seems to be a sleepy city populated mostly by retirees. It is a bit of the forgotten city along the Garden Route not posh enough for wealthy tourists to really stop, not popular enough for backpackers to consider it. However, George is becoming the outdoorsy capital of South Africa, plebiscited by avid mountain bikers, canyoning enthusiasts, fit hikers, skilled surfers, and passionate birdwatchers. Don’t miss out and make sure to stay for a few days to enjoy its fantastic activities. Keep travelling!
Most simply avoid Downtown Johannesburg with its no-go zone reputation. However, the city has changed and bits by bits local initiatives pop up and travellers explore the vibrancy, art scene and culture of South Africa’s biggest city!
It is still early morning when we park our car at 1 Fox Street and meet the passionate Jo Buitendach. With a degree in archaeology and history and with a true love for Johannesburg and its people, she takes us through its vibrant heart where not too many tourists dare passing by. Keep walking…
89 days and 9,722 kilometres across South Africa, including a good amount on dirt roads, through 4×4-only mountain passes, along wild coast trails, across the last bit of sand forest left on the planet, side by side with elephants and lions to bring you the best adventures of South Africa!
Beyond the Big 5, South Africa is a fantastic playground for the outdoor enthusiasts, and here are the Top Keep exploring!
With its cool Oceanic Climate, the idyllic village of Hogsback, set in the mountains of the Eastern Cape, draws many South Africans to its fairy-tale like forests that might have inspired J.R.R. Tolkien. Popular among backpackers for its affordable stays immersed in nature, clean air, and wonderful patches of indigenous forest, Hogsback has developed into an artistic community and attracted settlers from all over. The best way of exploring Hogsback is hiking its many trails through the majestic Yellowwood trees, home to the endangered Cape Parrots. Or to take a bit of height and take the real measure of its most emblematic waterfalls by abseiling them!
Text & photographs: Claire Lessiau & Marcella van Alphen All photographs taken in the wild at Phinda Private Game Reserve
It is getting dark fast now the sun has set. A jackal scurries on the African soil that is still warm after a hot summer day. Crickets tune in forming a loud orchestra while bright stars start decorating the sky, one by one. Agile nightjars catch moths and other insects in the faint headlights of the open Toyota Land Cruiser 4×4 safari truck in which we are seated. A woollen blanket keeps my legs warm while I tuck away my Canon camera after capturing some of Africa’s most emblematic animals. I am keeping an eye out for leopards, bush-babies, genets, and other nocturnal animals which eyes would lit up in the respectful infrared light that our tracker moves up and down the trees. Suddenly, my heart skips a beat: I see fire. Horrified and with all the disastrous wildfires of the Western Cape in mind I yelp: “The bush is burning!” Zandri our ranger answers calmly while steering the Land Cruiser towards the fire: “We will have to check it out then.” As we get closer, I am puzzled when I realize the fire is a clear path of flaming torches. We get out of the 4×4, and following the path, we are lead to a set table with candles on tablecloth surrounded by torches and bonfires. We are greeted by our smiling lodge manager who hands us a delicate refreshment and warm humid towels: “Welcome to your African bush dinner,” he says in a soft voice, clearly satisfied by his surprise effect. Around him, his friendly staff is manning a barbecue and bar area where locally sourced organic products are waiting to be savoured. It has been a day full of surprises since this morning when I opened my eyes before sunrise…
Article updated on February 11, 2022 Text and photographs: Claire Lessiau & Marcella van Alphen All photographs taken in the wild in South Africa
For many, a safari is a dream trip, often a once in a lifetime experience. This is why it is important to select the type of safari and game park carefully to avoid any disappointment. South Africa is one of the best countries in the world to observe wildlife in beautiful and varied landscapes showcased in its two main types of parks: government-run parks and private game reserves. The offer is so vast and prices so varied that we have put together some thoughts in order to help you select the safari that is the most adapted to you.
Lungile leads the way and with a huge smile on his face he greets basically everyone we come across. “Sawubona! Unjani?” Zulu for hello, how are you. “Ngiyaphila“, I’m fine. “Chap chap“. “So you were born and raised in Johannesburg?” I ask him as I push hard on my pedals, biking uphill under the South African sun. “No!” he answers clearly offended to add with pride: “I was born and raised in Soweto!”
Article updated on June 8, 2021 Text: Claire Lessiau Photographs: Marcella van Alphen & Claire Lessiau
Franschhoek, or the “French corner” has a fascinating history. Because of the wars of religions in 17th century France, a small number of French Protestant refugees settled in South Africa establishing a successful farming and wine making industry still recognised today as one of world’s best. Get off the beaten path and discover not only the famous wines of Franschhoek but also its stunning outdoors, and favourite restaurants!
The man looks like Santa: with his shiny white beard, imposing stature, friendly and frank smile that breaks into a loud laugh, deep voice, and soft eyes. Even more so when he arrives in a remote village in the heart of Africa to distribute mosquito bed-nets, water purification systems, and sight glasses; or when he walks into a school with paper and crayons for the kids to draw elephants and rhinos.
Except that where he goes, reindeers would be pretty useless: it is with his trusted Land Rovers and loyal crew that Kingsley Holgate explores Africa. This humanitarian adventurer has a mission summed up by the slogan of the Kingsley Holgate Foundation: “using adventure to save and improve lives”. Keep exploring
Halfway between Cape Town and Port Elizabeth lies George, the capital of the most famous South African coastal stretch: the Garden Route. While the neighbouring Knysna and Plettenberg Bay are highly advertised for, George deserves way more attention as an outdoor paradise. This laidback town in the Western Cape is about to become the hotspot for adventure seekers with its dramatic mountains overlooking the ocean, its precious and rare fynbos ecosystem, its stunning gorges covered in pristine forests where leopards still roam freely. What a better way to discover this secret nature by kloofing (South African for “canyoning”) than with the man who has explored almost every single canyon of South Africa?
I feel as clumsy as a turtle nesting on the beach, scooping up the sand on which I am laying down with powerful strokes. On the horizon white foam tops off the powerful waves of the Indian Ocean. In front of me multiple South African longboard champion surfer David Macgregor counts the number of strokes with his deep voice: “one, two, three, and up!” Getting up swiftly on the imaginary surfboard that we drew in the sand, I position my feet and arms. “Yeah, it starts to look more like it, girls! Two more and then you are ready for the real thing”, David enthusiastically exclaims. Today South Africa’s longboard champion is running his own surf school and camp in the town of Port Alfred and we are his eager students! Keep surfing!
We are sitting on a flat rock by the roaring Indian Ocean observing the powerful waves crashing violently into the rugged rocky shore and spraying 15-metre high into the air. Inland the green hills, warmly bathed by the sunset light, seem to never end. Far on the horizon, only a few white rondavels with their thatched roofs remind us that we are not alone in this world. We are discovering the remote land of the Pondo people stretching along the last unspoilt shore of South Africa during a five-day trek. But the Wild Coast is jeopardised by an international titanium mining project that would disfigure it and rob the Pondo people of their most precious asset: their land. Keep travelling!
Article updated on March 10, 2022 Text & photographs: Claire Lessiau & Marcella van Alphen
The north eastern corner of KwaZulu-Natal is one of South Africa’s most remote destinations. Bordering Eswatini and Mozambique lies a hardly populated land with scenic yet less famous game parks and a unique ecosystem of four lakes flowing into the Indian Ocean where the Tsonga people have passed down their sustainable fishing traditions for over a thousand years. A land where world’s largest leaves can be found, with rare bird species and different types of mangrove trees. An ocean with bull and whale sharks, rock salmons, hippos and manta rays, wetting South Africa’s most stunning and desolated beaches, on which endangered sea turtles lay their eggs in season and turtle hatchlings run for their lives into the ocean. Join us to explore the best of Kosi Bay in five different adventures!
In South Africa Aliwal Shoal is famous for its shark dives amongst tiger, bull, ragged-tooth or oceanic blacktip sharks, often described as the experience of a lifetime. Sadly, cage diving is a bad practice that is heavily advertised for in all but a very few dive centres…
Port Alfred, South Africa. A town like many others. With its township like many others. The perfect example of apartheid with its wealthy “first-class-citizen” suburb for whites, Station Hill for the “second class” coloured residents, and the township for the blacks. Although the only township in Africa that bears the name of the iconic Nelson Mandela, nicknamed Nemato.
Nemato looks like your average South African township. Though most of its 25,000 or so inhabitants enjoy electricity, whether it be the legal way or illegally Keep travelling!
The iSimangaliso Wetland Park is home to a vast array of unspoiled coral reefs. The best way to explore them is to hop on a boat and SCUBA dive to discover this iSimangaliso (amazing in Zulu) underwater world.
“Hold on tight! It is going to be a little bit bumpy”, our guide Christeen Grant, experienced mountain guide passionate by the Drakensberg, calmly announces. She confidently steers the wheel of the extended Land Rover Defender which roaring engine is operating at its maximum capacity. The 4×4 steadily crawls forward on the steep rocky road winding up towards the Kingdom in the Sky. We are about to enter Lesotho for a multiple day horseback riding adventure although the real adventure has already started at the foot of the legendary Sani Pass in the Drakensberg Mountains of South Africa. Keep travelling!
The sun has been up for no more than an hour and its strong rays are already warming me up as I contemplate the village of Malubelube. From the rock on which I am seating on the top of the mountain dominating the settlement at 2,675 metres, I have a 360° panoramic view on the endless surrounding mountains. The morning light bathes the traditional rondavels with Keep travelling!
Article updated on August 22, 2022 Text: Claire Lessiau & Marcella van Alphen Photographs: Claire Lessiau & Marcella van Alphen
I pick up some speed going downhill towards a small stream of crystal-clear waters. The all-terrain tires of my mountain bike on the wooden bridge break the silence followed up by the swift change of gears as I pedal hard to get up the steep single track ahead of me. I slalom my way up amongst blooming protea trees that add some bright orange and red colours to the green slopes of the Northern Drakensberg that we are exploring by mountain bike.
Rick Hunter and Steven Tucker set out that day of 2013 to look for fossils in unexplored parts of the Rising Star Cave about one hour north west of Johannesburg in the Maropeng area. Meticulously exploring the well-known dolomite cave, they found a narrow vertical tunnel. Taking this chute feet first they discovered a chamber 30 metres below ground filled with bones. These could be just any bones, but when they came head first with what looked like a human mandible, they knew they were onto something big… Keep travelling!
Article updated on February 18, 2022 Text: Claire Lessiau & Marcella van Alphen Photographs: Claire Lessiau & Marcella van Alphen
“Hug the rock! Just hug the rock!” I keep telling myself as the white waters in which I float like a cork violently smash into a big boulder downstream coming at me fast. The first rock that my gecko (a small one-person raft) went for had me capsize, as I naturally leaned away from it to try and minimise the damages. Approaching the boulder I hold on tight to my gecko as I am exploring one of South Africa’s most scenic rivers: the Sabie River.
Article updated on May 3, 2021 Text: Marcella van Alphen & Claire Lessiau Photographs: Claire Lessiau & Marcella van Alphen
Sabie in the North East of South Africa is an outdoor paradise and the perfect base to explore the Blyde River Canyon, the Kruger National Park and the picturesque villages that made the gold rush history like Pilgrim’s Rest. Let’s dig more into it!
Digging for gold in the area started way before the 19th century gold rush. A long time ago, Indians landed on the East Coast of Africa pushed by the monsoon winds and started trading routes with African tribes to exchange eastern goods against gold, gems, ivory… Keep travelling!