Overcoming long-held reservations about visiting South Africa, Cherie Williams joined a group of friends recently to visit two of its most vibrant cities and wonders why she waited so long to visit and can’t wait to go back.

For a long time, I never wanted to visit South Africa! I’ve had many invitations over the years but I’ve always said no. Why did I feel this way? From a young age I read books on Apartheid, Nelson Mandela and my university dissertation was based on South Africa’s Apartheid regime. Hence, for a long time I deemed South Africa unsafe, and with so many other countries to explore, it just wasn’t on my list.

Well, that all changed last month when I joined a group of friends to explore Johannesburg and Cape Town.  My change of heart was fueled by a friend’s birthday, and I’m so glad I lifted my personal sanction against South Africa (see what I did there lol).

“So, would I return to South Africa? An absolute yes.”

Our first stop was Johannesburg followed by Cape Town, and from the moment you leave the airport you know you’re in Africa but a different kind of Africa. I’ve heard the description that South Africa is Europe and America transplanted into Africa, and the comment truly makes sense now. South Africa’s colonial past is everywhere! One minute I felt as if I was in Victorian London, then over to the States to New Orleans, then across to hilly San Francisco and back over to Notting Hill, London. It’s a lot to take in, but in a good way!

South Africa
Image credit: Cherie Williams

South Africa is stunning, it’s beautiful, diverse, impressive, and if like me you love buildings and architecture, then you will love South Africa. If you’re spending pounds (don’t you just love sterling!) most items are pretty inexpensive. My most expensive meal and that included cocktails, was around £40 and most meals were half of that. Airbnb also has great accommodation deals, so it won’t cost you an arm and a leg for a luxury stay. Our accommodation was beautiful and carefully selected by Mr. Birthday.

But, and there’s always a but, life remains hard for many, mainly Black South Africans. The official unemployment rate is around 40% (so it’s probably even higher). And whilst driving through Johannesburg we came across an unemployment line; the line looked as long as Oxford Street, with people standing in the scorching heat. Apartheid is over but the deep inequalities remain.

So, would I return to South Africa? An absolute yes. Johannesburg or Cape Town? It’s super hard to pick one over the other. Joburg has more of a city feel whilst Cape Town has more of a beachy Malibu vibe. I could easily work in Joburg and holiday in Cape Town.

Here’s a list of my essential must dos:

Big 5 Safari (Johannesburg)

I’ve always been told or led to believe that lions are the kings of the jungle.  Guess what? It’s fake news. Lions don’t actually live in the jungle but in open Savannas, the king reference comes from their strength. Safaris start early so be prepared for a very early start, I was up just after 2am and on the road by 3am. Seeing animals in their natural habitat is unreal, I didn’t actually get to see any lions, but I did see elephants, giraffes and some other animals. Sounds crazy but I had no idea how large elephants actually are.

Apartheid Museum (Johannesburg)

South Africa
Cherie outside the Apartheid Museum
Image credit: Cherie Williams

An excellent museum providing an honest and open account of South Africa’s past. You enter the museum through separate entrances and have the option to be classified as white or Black. You will be taken on a historical journey starting with the pillars of the South African Constitution, race classification, segregation – the foundations of apartheid, the implementation of apartheid, all the way through to the historical 1994 elections and beyond. There’s also a temporary exhibition focusing on man himself – Nelson Mandela.

Soweto (Johannesburg)

South Africa
Image credit: Cherie Williams

Soweto aka South West Township. Townships are the housing districts built far from the towns and cities during apartheid. Their purpose was to forcibly separate the Black majority from the white minority. Black South Africans were forced to live on often barren land, in horrible conditions with their daily movements controlled by a Passbook. Entering Soweto was slightly surreal as some parts looked exactly as expected, whilst other parts were much more developed. We enjoyed a really good lunch in Soweto, and it was my first opportunity to sample some of the local dishes.

City Sightseeing Tour (Cape Town)

South Africa
Camp Bay Beach
Image credit: Cherie Williams

This is a great way to explore what Cape Town has to offer. It includes bus tours, walking tours as well as cruises. The Historic City Walking Tour was indeed historical and provided the opportunity to explore the Malay Quarter of Cape Town. It’s one of the oldest quarters in Cape Town and an area I previously wasn’t aware of. However, as soon as I arrived I realised that I’d seen the quarter before – as a backdrop for many Instagram photos.

The bus tour is good too and stops at Camp Bay, the place to be if you’re looking for Southern California or Malibu vibes. You’ll also find lots of restaurants, a craft market, a beautiful beach/coastal line and provides a good opportunity to people watch and take photos.

Table Top Mountain (Cape Town)

South Africa
Cherie at Table Top Mountain
Image credit: Cherie Williams

Hiking up the beautiful Table Top mountain was not easy – it was challenging and I wasn’t aware that it involved climbing as well as walking. Lots of laughter at the start, desperation in the middle and jubilation at the end, is the best way to sum it up the hike. If you’re not physically fit, best to avoid this one. However, once you reach the top it’s the best feeling in the world, and the views are amazing.

Gold Restaurant (Cape Town)

South Africa
Image credit: Gold Restaurant

Cape Town has a very European feel but there’s still lots of opportunities to feast on African cuisine, and Gold restaurant offers a wonderful authentic African dining experience. The food was the bomb! You’re served 14 different dishes from across Africa including Mozambique chicken wings to South African lamb and springbok samosas, with an ostrich dish somewhere in the middle. The purpose of the experience is to take you on a mouthwatering African food tour – and it certainly does exactly that! To top off your dining experience there’s entertainment and face painting.

These are just a few essential must dos but there’s so much more for you to see and do. South Africa has definitely come a long way but its journey is by no means complete. If you have the opportunity to visit, do so. I’m happy I lifted my own personal sanction against South Africa!

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