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Planning Retirement Online

Travels With Alice

March 2016


By Jeanne DavisJeanne Davis

We have enjoyed our contributing writer Jeanne Davis’ regular Beyond the Headlines for some time.

Look out each month for the latest story in our exciting new series Travels with Alice. Written in her usual thought provoking and entertaining style, we know you will enjoy her fascinating insights into human behaviour and great locations .

This is going to be a great addition to Laterlife that will become addictive…

To view all of Jeanne's articles visit the Interest Index.

The Trek Across South Africa

“Alice, how about South Africa this year?”

“Jeanne.  We can’t go there” she says.  “I just heard on the evening news it’s the murder capital of the world!”

“Alice.  We’ll be okay.”

 And we were.

I have planned the itinerary. South Africa is a big country, roughly five times the size of Great Britain. We’ll fly first to Cape Town, by the sea at the southwestern tip, next drive to the Winelands, then take the Blue Train across the Great Karoo desert, and end our journey on safari in the Kruger National Park in the far northeast.

Alice reviews the itinerary. The Blue Train, a luxury train much like an Orient Express, she says sounds much too expensive. It’s the trip of a lifetime, I tell her, and not as costly as it looks. Because the South African rand has been devalued, the exchange rate will make our pounds or dollars go a long way.

A bargain   for the tourist, but not a happy situation for the South African. It is the same today as then. This year the exchange rate hit an unprecedented rate of 24 rand to the pound.

Reviewing the safari camp selection, though, Alice realised quite correctly that you can get the same wildlife viewing experience and be just as comfortable in a mid-range camp as you would in the pricey five star lodge I had chosen. Her choice could not have been better.


Fortunately, there is little jet lag (the time difference is only two hours) so even after the 11-hour flight from the UK, it’s a quick dip in the blue waters of the Atlantic and straight off on a city tour. 
The journey round town is a vivid reminder of those who settled this country. The historic buildings speak of the Dutch who settled Cape Town in 1652 and of the English who arrived in 1795. Street markets display the arts and crafts of South Africa’s indigenous peoples, of the Khoisan and the Bantu-speakers. 

But the high point of the tour, in the literal and ‘wow’ category is the 3,067 -foot-high Table Mountain - a mesa of granite and sandstone formed by 450 million years of geological activity. Take the cable car or hike to the top for breathtaking views of Cape Town and the Cape Peninsula. (The photo above is of Alice and me at the top of Table Mouintain)

For flower power we explore the Kirstenbosch National Botanical Gardens, noting that here is displayed each of the 8,500 indigenous plants of the Cape’s floral kingdom, each in its own natural setting.  We linger by the Proteas, admiring the flame-red and magenta-pink national flower of South Africa.  


The terrain becomes wilder as we head down the peninsula to the Cape of Good Hope, the south-westernmost point of the African continent where the Atlantic and the Indian Oceans meet and many a Portuguese explorer lost his life in the 1400s – long before the Dutch came this way.

On a happier note, head back to Cape Town to enjoy the seafood fresh from the two oceans - crayfish, lobster tails, tiger prawns, giant prawns – and what is referred to on menus as the ‘linefish' of the day – butterfish , musselcracker , cape salmon or kingklip.


Next Franschhoek Valley – the Cape Winelands – a vista of rolling vineyards surrounded by spectacular mountains that was settled more than 300 years ago by French Huguenots escaping religious persecution.  Franschhoek literally means French corner.  The serenity overwhelms as you breakfast on your terrace –the sun gradually moves down the mountains revealing first the granite and sandstone of the towering peaks, next the scrub, then a band of pine trees and at last then rolling vineyards.

This is the sublime experience we have on the stoop of my son and daughter-in-law's Cape Dutch cottage (photo right), recently renovated as a holiday house. We’ve been invited to stay there.  But you don’t need to stay in someone’s house.  There are dozens of delightful B&Bs in the valley , and each day you may do as we did, stroll down the Main Street, in and  out of the art and antique shops ,and  galleries, and chatting with the villagers.

 There are more than 30 vineyards in the valley, all offering wine tastings - in a leafy garden or a cool dark paneled library.  And the wines taste even better accompanied by a gourmet meal in the gourmet capital of the country - eight of South Africa’s Top 100 restaurants are in Franschhoek.


For the journey of a lifetime, climb aboard the Blue Train which leaves Cape Town in the morning and arrives in Pretoria the afternoon of the next day.  This is a step back into the golden age of train travel, each compartment a sumptuous sitting room with lounge chairs by day, transformed into a double bedroom at night by your own butler who is on call round the clock to meet your needs.

Travelling at a maximum 69 mph, the Blue Train provides an unequalled opportunity to absorb a cross country panorama, much of it through the Great Karoo, a semi-arid desert of rocky outcrops, buttes and endless plains that covers one-third of South Africa’s 470,000 square miles. This is the land that yielded the country’s wealth, where the discovery of diamonds at Kimberly in 1866 transformed the economy and made the name DeBeers famous, and where the goldfields of Witwatersrand serve as a reminder that South Africa led the world in gold production and now is at the forefront of platinum mining.

Our fellow passengers were British, German, American and South African and I asked them what they thought of the shanty towns we saw from the windows, reminders of the millions of black mine workers who had dug the wealth for the whites.  They were hopeful.

Some of the townships have electricity and some have already been rebuilt. "The country has a long way to go," said one businessman, "but it looks as though they will turn South Africa around."

This was 2002. Apartheid had ended in 1994 when Nelson Mandela was elected President.  There had been some progress since but today still much needs to be done to build a more equal society. 


A short plane journey from Johannesburg followed by a Land Rover drive along a dirt track leads to a private reserve bordering Kruger National Park.  This is the Africa of wildlife films, home to the Big Five-lions, leopards, elephants, buffalos and rhinos - as well as cheetahs, giraffes and hippos.

With Carl our ranger and Elmon our tracker we set off each morning at 5am for a game drive and in the afternoon again at 4pm.

On the first morning we saw a leopard stalking a stately impala, a graceful reddish antelope with lyre-shaped horns, browsing some 75 feet in the distance, totally unaware of the tawny hunter as she inched forward in slow motion through the grasses.  We watched for an hour as she moved closer and closer but at the critical moment, the impala spotted her and leapt out of reach.

We saw our leopard again on our last night, ambling  ahead of us in the dusk along a dirt track with two cubs following her, behaving  like toddlers everywhere, fooling around and investigating everything on the way.

As we paused for a sundowner we leant back and looked at the night sky.  We identified the constellation Orion and the Crux - the Southern Cross - emerged diamond-like in the jet-black sky.  A reminder that we are in the Southern Hemisphere and in a world that still manages to be timeless.

Tips for Travelling With a Friend

The Itinerary: Be sure to review the itinerary before you go, to avoid disagreements on the way.  Alice questioned the expense of the safari camp.  She was right.  The one she chose provided the same experience, the same wildlife and was just as comfortable as the 5-star luxury reserve I first selected.

 Behaviour:  On safari I was keen to get the perfect photo of us, the tracker, the ranger and the game vehicle. Trying to get a decent shot, I was posing them endlessly. Finally, fed up, Alice said, "For goodness sake, Jeanne. This is not a National Geographic photograph!"

I’m glad she did. If anything is annoying either of you, speak up.  Once the irritation is out of the way, the course of true friendship will still run true.

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