When I was in my early 20s I did the whole backpacking thing and spent 15 months travelling the world. It was…put simply, one of the best things I’ve ever done.
The first country I ventured to was South Africa – I remember staying at the Zebra Crossing Hostel in Cape Town, travelling the Garden Route on the Baz Bus, riding an ostrich in Oudtshoorn, going midnight skinny dipping in Mossel Bay and being amazed at seeing knifes and guns sold on the street at the market in Durban.
This was followed by the obligatory trip to Zimbabwe to take in the spectacular Victoria Falls (oh, and white water raft down the Zambezi River). I really did have the time of my life.
Some 18 years on (and two kids later), I often found myself longing to return to South Africa; I dreamt of recreating some of those spontaneous experiences, but with young kids, it just wasn’t possible. So I waited and waited. And then, on my tenth wedding anniversary to VIP, I decided to surprise him with a trip to South Africa.
The right time had come.
A typical family holiday
Our typical family holiday usually involves plenty of exploring, interspersed with the odd day relaxing on the beach. But what we really enjoy is learning about the culture, history, traditions and people of the destinations we visit.
But to really immerse ourselves in the destination, we avoid the main tourist areas, preferring instead to stay on the outskirts and in rural areas; this way you get the best of both worlds.
So when the opportunity came to stay in South Africa’s KwaZulu-Natal region in the relatively small town of Scottburgh, I jumped at the chance.
Watch the video (below) of our 24-hour journey to Scottburgh (door to door)
Scottburgh is far enough away from the bright lights of Durban (about an hour’s drive), but close enough to offer easy access to the region’s top attractions.
The town has a nice selection of shops with the odd gift shop for tourists, but on the whole it mainly catered for residents. And that for me was ideal; I was in the right location to ‘live like a local’.
The other pull factor of Scottburgh was the chance to stay at the Blue Marlin Hotel. Its location and facilities appealed from the start and, from the moment we arrived (and received a welcome drink), to the time we said our goodbyes, I can’t think of a time when we weren’t impressed by the hospitality of the staff, the rooms, service, entertainment, facilities and food.
In fact, within just a couple of days of arriving, most of the staff knew all of our names and, on speaking with some of them in more depth, I learnt that many had been long-serving employees of the hotel – and in some cases their parents had also worked there, which I think speaks volumes for the establishment and its management.
My room offered one of the best views from a hotel room that I’ve ever had, and waking up to the crashing waves of the Indian Ocean every morning was pretty amazing; it was a sound that I could certainly get used to very easily.
The hotel is situated at one end of Scottburgh and is ideally located to experience KwaZulu-Natal’s plethora of attractions including wildlife safaris, walks in the Drakensberg Mountains, visits to Zulu Battlefields, the vibrant city of Durban, along with a whole range of nature and sports activities…the list goes on.
Fortunately, the hotel itself offers a number of tours as part of a package (or sold individually), with many of these arranged through Endless Summer Tours (endless-summer-tours.co.za), who also offer bespoke itineraries.
We opted for three packaged tours – a visit to CrocWorld, a game reserve tour (Tala) and a visit to a crèche. Outside of the package, we also experienced a Zulu Warrior reenactment, a shark cage dive and a day trip to Durban.
It was a great family day out and we found that we could get within a few feet of the huge creatures, which look like statues most of the time.
That’s why it’s important not to miss feeding time as it’s the only time they move. It’s fascinating to watch the crocs gobble down whole chickens – dead ones of course so the kids don’t get upset.
Tala Game Reserve Tour
South Africa's Tala Game Reserve covers an area of about 3,000 hectares and is about a 40-minute drive from Scottburgh.
The name Tala means ‘land of plenty’ and was once a derelict vegetable farm. Now it’s home to an abundance of wildlife thanks to, believe it or not, the founders of Kentucky Friend Chicken in South Africa (KFC), the Hillcoft family. Mr Hillcroft was feeling generous and decided to give back to the local community by reintroducing a large variety of species back into Tala.
While we were there we saw zebra, giraffe, monkeys, blue wildebeest (gnu), Blas face boks, impala, white rhino, ostriches, warthog and hippos.
One of the highlights of our Tala game drive was that, at one point, we were allowed outside of the vehicle to get close to the giraffes. Apparently, this is a popular option for wedding photos – and I can see why. To be standing within a few metres of a giraffe in the wild was just magical. Scary, but magical.
The Rural Tour
The half-day rural tour (which cost R150 per person – about £7.50) took us to an area called Malengeni to visit a sewing shop, a computer school and a crèche.
We visited all three, but the one that really touched me the most was the visit to a crèche in a RDP (Rural Development Project).
So far, the government has provided more than 3.5 million RDP houses all over the country to disadvantaged people. Many of the houses have solar panels on the roof to heat up water and the houses are given to people that have probably never have had hot water before, previously living in shacks where disease and illnesses were rife.
In reality, it was one step up from a squatter camp. The good news was that the government had recently laid water pipes and vaccinations were also being offered to families. Some of the community even decorated the outside of their homes which was nice to see.
Amongst the tiny concrete buildings was a crèche, attended by just 26 children. It was called Vulindlera, which means ‘stepping stones’.
Lisa told us that about a month earlier she had dropped off a month's supply of food for the crèche but it had been stolen, presumably by someone in the community.
This of course was devastating news, but it became even more poignant when we arrived at the crèche to receive a warm welcome from 20 young, smiling kids who each had a little bowl of porridge. My heart just melted and I wanted to scoop them all up and just hold them.
After they had finished eating in a dimly lit room which measured no more than 5 square metres, the children sang for us and demonstrated the English that they had learnt.
I got to hold the youngest of them – a baby of about a year old. In fact, we all had a cuddle with her – she was gorgeous. The mother looked like she was about 13 years old but apparently she was 17.
After some more singing, we shared sweets and treats with the kids. Earlier that morning, prior to leaving, Luis and I raced to the shops to buy a stash of treats; I remembered that some 18 years ago I was doing something similar handing out pens and bouncy balls, and I wanted my own kids to experience the joy in being able to give something that others would be so grateful for.
Then it was playtime and we all went to the outdoor area, which consisted of just one slide between all of the children. The only other thing outside was a toilet with no door on it – and no visible signs of sanitation.
We learnt that it was thanks to the work of places like the Blue Marlin Hotel that the crèche had received a sheltered area and work was underway to get a new floor (inside it was all concrete), as well as a door on the toilet and more outdoor playing apparatus.
It was nice to know that the money we paid for the tour was also going back into the community and the additional contribution we made went some way to alleviating some of the guilt that I felt. If only I won the lottery – I really could spread a lot of joy.
We said our goodbyes to the children as they waved to us from behind a wire fence. It was a humbling experience and I feel privileged to have been given a small glimpse into their world.
I was also pleased that my own kids had embraced the experience; it wasn’t supposed to be sad or shocking for them, but something that they would remember for a very long time – and maybe make them think about how lucky we really are.
The rural tour, which was the highlight of my holiday, runs from September to June and all the money received gets put back into the three projects – the crèche, the sewing shop and the computer school.
Other ‘must-dos' in and around Scottburgh
- The beach to explore the rock pools, do a spot of sunbathing or ride the waves of the Indian Ocean on a boogie board.
- Eat breakfast at Scotties in the caravan park overlooking the ocean. Our
breakfast for four (two adults, two kids) cost r174 (about £9 including drinks) and we decided to treat ourselves to milkshake by the ocean – chocolate for Luis, Bubblegum for Nadja, Vanilla for me and Strawberry for VIP. Not quite ‘Cake by The Ocean’ but the next best thing!
- If you find yourself in Scottburgh on a Wednesday, do yourself a favour and
take yourself to TC Robertson nature reserve down the road. There is a weekly tea party where, for R35 per adult and r10 per child (approximately £1.30 and 50p respectively), you can eat cake (3 slices) and drink unlimited tea or coffee. Go and check out the Kingfisher Hideout where you can spot wildlife – we saw numerous birds and a stork!
- A visit to Phezulu cultural village is a must. We went with our lovely guide, Anthony, from Endless Summer Tours who was like a walking, talking guide book. There wasn’t anything that you could ask him that he wouldn’t know the answer to. We learnt that the Zulus are the largest ethnic group in South Africa (there’s about 11million Zulus out of 50 million people in the country) and that Zulu men can have any number of wives, but each wife costs 11 cows. We also discovered that Zulu farmers are subsistence farmers and we’d very often see them selling fruit at the side of the road. The Zulu cultural village was built in the second highest point in South Africa, which was 10,200ft high, and there we enjoyed a Zulu cultural reenactment. It was a special experience and the views were simply stunning.
- If you’re feeling brave you can opt to try a shark cage dive. We booked through the hotel which cost us r800 each (about £40) – not bad considering you get a little boat trip thrown in, with the possibility of spotting dolphins, whales and other nature. I must have been feeling extra brave that day as the divers actually let me get out of the cage to swim amongst the sharks – 9 large black tipped ones! Check out my video for the evidence!
- A day trip to Durban is a must. Again, we booked with Endless Summer Tours who were great as they took us to all the popular sites (all with running commentary), which meant we didn’t spend hours aimlessly wandering the streets listening to the kids moan. We discovered that Durban has the busiest harbour in South Africa; that there are 3.5 million people living there and that it’s the third biggest city in South Africa. Other interesting facts included houses in the exclusive and upmarket area of Florida Road cost more than a million rand to buy; and the city will play host to the Commonwealth Games in 2022. A visit to Durban isn’t complete without a visit to Victoria Street Market (I got some great bargains here) – and if you’re travelling as a family, the kids will go wild for Ushaka, which is a mix of a water park/ sea life centre/ theme park and aquarium all rolled into one! My kids met a South African YouTuber on one of the rides and wanted to hang out with him for the afternoon – result!
Final thoughts on South Africa
We travelled to Scottburgh during its winter, but the average temperature while there (mid-August) was around 25 degrees. The beaches were deserted, so it was a great destination if you want the great weather but don’t want to have to fight for a sunbed!
Although we were not witness to any crimes committed during our stay, we were forever being warned about it, particularly at night. This was enough to put us on edge, so do be careful – just in case.
All in all it was an amazing holiday – and our favourite to date as a family. The difficulty we now face is deciding where to go for 2017 – and hoping that it will prove to be as much of a hit as Scottburgh was for us.