South Africa should be on everyone’s bucket list

Travel Info with Kathy Pickerall

Travel Info with Kathy Pickerall

I had the opportunity to go to South Africa last year with a group of travel agents. At the time it wasn’t on my travel bucket list, and I had no expectations. I had done no research and everything I knew was based on the movies “Out of Africa” and “The Gods Must Be Crazy.”

For the record, they were a poor frame of reference. Whatever I thought I knew, whatever I expected to think or feel was obliterated. I returned to rural Louisiana with a profound sense of having found home and with a feeling that South Africa had a forceful magnetic pull that was calling me back.

So, what is the draw with this destination that resonates unlike the 70 other countries I’ve visited? Could it be because South Africa is known as the cradle of humankind which proposes that humans arose in Africa? Perhaps. It also could be that everywhere I looked I saw indescribable beauty, and there was a culture so diverse and rich that it was like a drug of which I wanted more.

It could have been the incomparable shoreline and the view from the top of Table Mountain, or those cute little penguins at Boulders Beach. Or it could have also been the hilly, lush wine regions that could put anywhere in France or Napa to shame. Last, but not least, was the cuisine!

Just thinking about South Africa as a destination certainly conjures up images of safaris, elephants and lions. In fact, there are hundreds of private and national game reserves, including the famous Kruger National Park. Many are home to the “Big Five,” which are Cape buffalo, lions, elephants, rhinos and leopards. No game drive would be complete without looking for these.

At my stay at a private reserve in the Limpopo region just north of Johannesburg, our drives started at 6:00 a.m. Me and early mornings go together about as well as a Baptist church next door to a liquor store, which is to say not at all! The first morning I climbed into the jeep with one eye still half shut. But that one drive on that first day made me a morning person for the duration.

The air was crisp and clear, and everywhere we looked were wildebeests, zebras, and all manner of antelope, such as blesbok, springbok, kudu, and impala. Our guide, Sowli, a gentle, quiet man, was an expert tracker who would occasionally stop to examine prints and scat, then take off across the plain in search of game. He explained everything from animal behavior, mating rituals, life span and was a general encyclopedia of knowledge.

I’m still amazed that with over 60,000 acres of land, he could track anything. By mid-morning, Sowli would stop the jeep and serve us coffee and tea that he made on a camp stove. Every afternoon we’d go for another drive, then finish the day in a field full of animals where we would visit, ask questions and have refreshments.

We were able to track all of the Big Five with the exception of the elusive leopard. We saw a lioness teaching her cubs to hunt wildebeests, and two young cheetahs playing in the tall grass. We drove backwards across a field when a young bull elephant decided to show off to the females by charging our jeep.

What I took away from the entire experience was awe. There was something so joyful about riding in that jeep for hours a day, and something innately humbling about the pureness of the environment.

But the animals are just a small part of what makes South Africa so unique and inviting as a destination. The weather is wonderful year round. It offers a number of geographically and culturally diverse experiences and dramatic vistas, and a beautiful, extensive coastline. The dollar is very strong, the government is stable, and there has never been a better time to visit.

With a wide variety of accommodations from 5-star hotels in cosmopolitan cities to simple lodges to luxurious safari tents, South Africa has something for everyone of all ages. With its immense range of opportunities for travelers, whether it’s food and wine, natural beauty, wildlife or adventure, it’s a destination that should be on everyone’s bucket list.

Kathy Rainey Pickerell is the owner of World Travels, 225-279-0135, has been a travel consultant for 21 years, and is a native of Denham Springs. Besides being an avid traveler who has been to 6 continents, 46 states and 59 countries, she’s a mother and grandmother, a voracious reader, scuba diver, gardener, cook, and she keeps a bucket list for the places she has yet to see.