Part 6: South Africa
We landed in Jo’burg early in the morning. Immigration was no problem at all, even though Cathay doesn’t provide any fast track services to their premium cabin clients.
We were staying at the Crowne Plaza, which we got for 5,000 IHG points per night on a PointsBreak promotion. We had our AMEX Platinum concierge organize a driver with the hotel to pick us up, but they never showed. We took a taxi from the airport to the hotel instead (and paid basically what we were scheduled to pay anyways.) Note that the taxi driver from the airport was the only honest taxi service that we used our entire time in Jo’burg (often the opposite for airport cabs!).
Upon check-in we were informed that as IHG members (formerly Platinum, but now no status) we had access to the hotel’s lounge, free Wi-FI, late checkout, and were upgraded. That’s a pretty unique service from an IHG hotel, granting those kinds of amenities to any IHG member.
The Crowne Plaza was an interesting hotel. The lobby was kitchy as can be, but the rooms were tastefully decorated. The beds were firm but comfortable, and the pillows were huge and down-filled. We slept very well.
Jo’burg is a strange place. We’ve been to some pretty dangerous destinations, but Jo’burg was odd in that every residence had huge walls and barbed wire. Private security guards roamed the streets with machine guns, and we were told by the hotel what outdoor walk would be safe for us: the five minute walk from the hotel to the nearby mall. Jo’burg had a compound feel to it that we did not like.
Near Jo’burg, at Krugersdorp, is a UNESCO world heritage site: the cradle of humanity/humankind. If you’re ever in the region, I highly recommend it. The caves are where the earliest fossil remains of human ancestors were ever found. The historical dimension of the caves was fascinating, and the geology of the caves was impressive. Be warned though: if you don’t have your own car, getting to the caves is a trying task. We hired a taxi, who drove like a mad-man, and demanded 200ZAR in payment more than we agreed to earlier. Even after we paid, he had the nerve to come up to me trying the old “you gave me the wrong bill” trick. Infuriating.
To get back to Jo’burg, wanting to avoid the scamming of local taxis, we found a family who was willing to drive us within a 100ZAR cab ride of our hotel. They were lovely people, though they drove like mad! It’s a Jo’burg thing I guess.
The family dropped us off at a casino which was styled like an old Italian village. It was an interesting walk, even though we have no interest in gambling.
We found a taxi (metered this time to avoid asking for more than agreed upon), who then of course took us on a roundabout of the city, charging us over 350ZAR for what should have been a 150ZAR ride. We were tired of taxis at this point, and decided to hit the hay early.
The next day we were off to Cape Town on Kulula.com (MN). MN is an airline similar to Southwest, in that they’re a low-cost carrier, and they operate in a light-hearted fashion. Just look at our plane:
We thought we would have access to the Bidvest lounge at JNB in two ways: first, we had an AMEX Platinum card, and we were also Hertz members. The lounge wouldn’t accept us, because (a) the AMEX card had to have been issued in South Africa, and (b) we would have had to show them a Hertz car reservation to be admitted. If we had our Priority Pass that came with you AMEX Platinum card with us we would have been OK, but we were still waiting for that in the mail. Oh well! Note that the same admission policy existed for the Bidvest lounge at CPT.
The flight to Cape Town CPT was uneventful. The MN cabin was nice, like a standard economy cabin on Air Canada. Legroom was fine, but they charge for everything (including water) for the drink/meal service. I like the security announcement that the flight attendant gave though: “we have two rules on this flight: (1) do what we tell you to do, and (2) don’t complain!”
We were staying at the five-star Sugar Hotel and Spa in Cape Town, which we got for a steal: $50/night on Splendia.com. Normally this hotel charges $180/night, so I was pretty pleased with the rate. It is very centrally located between major sites at Green Point.
We had a driver scheduled to pick us up, and he actually showed! We were brought directly to the hotel, which was stunning. It’s a tiny hotel, less than 8 rooms I think, and each room is huge, beautifully designed, and have great amenities: soak bath tub with bath salts, a personal outdoor hot-tub, and a California-king bed. Front desk service was also friendly and exceptional. The breakfast, which was included in our rate, was superb: we went with the smoked-salmon eggs benedict with fresh orange juice and a fruit plate everyday. There were other options, but I like my smoked salmon!
We absolutely loved Cape Town. It’s a beautiful city with lots of character. I wouldn’t however advise walking out at night. We were harassed by beggars who would follow you for five minutes after you say no, and they would offer vague threats of robbing you. Just taxi around everywhere. They are much cheaper and don’t scam you nearly as much as they do in Jo’burg.
During our time in Cape Town we did a wine tour and a Cape Point tour. I will let the photos tell the story, as words couldn’t do the experiences justice.
We had our return flight to Jo’burg on MN, which was the same. We were being picked up by a driver to take us to our Safari in Pilanesburg National Park. Be warned: the driver was very expensive, at 1900ZAR ($190CAD). If you drive yourself, I would recommend it. There is no public train or (safe) bus system between cities.
Reading up on national parks in South Africa, there are two major ones for doing a safari: Kruger and Pilanesburg. Kruger, the most famous and largest, is best done if you’re doing a long safari (1 week+). Kruger is more than a six hour drive away from Jo’burg. They have an airport at Kruger, but the flights weren’t cheap, and I couldn’t find any reasonable award inventory on them.
Where we went, Pilanesburg, is the smaller cousin of Kruger. It offers all the same animals, has the “big five” critters, but it’s too small to spend a long time there. We did three days at the park and felt like it was enough. Pilanesburg is a 2-3hr drive from Jo’burg.
We stayed at the Bakubung Bush Lodge. Unfortunately, I have to give the lodge a 3/5. The actual hotel is quite nice, the rooms spacious, and the included game drives and food decent. However, the front desk was absolutely pitiful. They were rude, uninterested, and every single time (save once) that we tried to organize something with them, they failed at booking anything properly. We took an afternoon trip to the nearby Sun City resort/theme park (tacky place, avoid at all costs!), and they forgot to send the return driver. We waited for almost two hours in the cold (and eventually dark), while the security at Sun City was yelling at them to bring a driver over. Note that we did get compensated for this incident (they waived a lunch charge and some laundry), but we feel the compensation wasn’t enough, and it was a huge hassle to get.