It was months in the planning and going to be the best trip of my life: a tour of South Africa, the country I most wanted to visit, with not just a local, but someone I was — in my warped mind — almost certainly going to marry. I was approaching 30, having spent most of my twenties as a journalist travelling the world alone instead of settling down like my peers. I knew I wanted children like them, but I needed, back then, to collect passport stamps more.
I got home from my travels, unsurprisingly, to face a very average job, a wobbly financial situation and no discernible dating prospects. Then Jacob* came along via some mutual friends: a charming, funny, ludicrously handsome South African who split his time between there and London and who (for reasons that would only become clear later) was miraculously still single.
Which brings us to the tarmac of Heathrow airport in October 2015. I was bound for Cape Town, where Jacob had enthusiastically insisted I join him for a meticulously plotted road trip along the Garden Route, a 190-mile stretch of the southeastern coast where vineyards, wildlife and seascapes awaited. I couldn’t have been luckier, I thought.
La Residence, Franschhoek Valley
Alas, not long after landing in Cape Town, the dream that had felt too good to be true, was. Jacob picked me up from the airport in a Ferrari. This was my first clue to how astronomically wealthy he was; my second was when we pulled up to his James Bond villain-like lair of a house, roughly the size of a multistorey car park. This wasn’t a good thing. No sooner had my bags touched the marble floor than he mentioned, almost in passing: “Something’s come up at work — I’m afraid the road trip is off.” Cancelling holidays on the eve of departure without flinching is, of course, the sort of thing you can only do when you are very rich indeed.
Later, grudgingly, Jacob drove us an hour north to the Cape winelands for the weekend while I devised a back-up plan. It was beautiful — we were stationed in a lavish suite at La Residence, a Franschhoek Valley estate where plump peacocks strutted across the verdant lawns — and it was awful. Jacob informed every waiter who asked what they could bring “his wife” that I was absolutely not his wife.
Rather than fly straight back to the UK, defeated, I arranged to volunteer at two wildlife organisations along the Garden Route. I set off by coach on Monday morning as Jacob unceremoniously vanished into the ether.
A lion in the Kruger
I think if I’d been in any other country it would have been impossible to enjoy the next few weeks. It wasn’t just the sting of being ghosted, more than 8,000 miles from home, or the operational nuances of being stuck abroad with no cash. It was all those hours I would have to contemplate the fact that I would end up alone and childless, despite not wanting to be.
As useless as my host had turned out to be, though, South Africa had other things in store. I spent the next week at Monkeyland at Plettenberg Bay, the world’s first free-roaming primate sanctuary — a forest that is home to more than 500 species of monkeys rescued from zoos, circuses and laboratories. There, under the wing of Paula, a middle-aged volunteer who had fled England for her own reasons, we watched from behind the trees as animals who had once performed tricks for humans were taught to retreat and forge a new life in the jungle. It was hard to feel hopeless in the presence of such redemption.
From there I moved to Gansbaai, two hours south of Cape Town, which is famous for its shark cage diving. I spent several days with the scientists at Marine Dynamics, studying whales and great whites as our boat rolled with the swells. It was hard to feel listless with that much adrenaline on board.
The pool at Singita Lebombo
By this stage I had fallen hopelessly in love with the country, and was determined to forge my way east to a safari lodge I’d heard countless South Africans raving about in the Kruger National Park. Sure enough, Singita Lebombo — a sleek 13-suite retreat built over a river studded with hippos, on an enviably remote 33,000-acre concession bordering Mozambique — became my favourite hotel in the world. If I had one day left on Earth before an asteroid hit, I’d go there to be among the slumbering lions, slinking leopards, herds of elephants and graceful giraffes.
I was fortunate enough to have Brian as my guide: an expert survivalist formerly for the South African Special Forces, who holds a black belt in taekwondo and now has a passion for butterflies and rare plants. And sharing our twice-daily drives through the bush was Kristin, a feisty American TV producer travelling solo who, as our chats revealed, was also convinced she’d left it too late to have a family.
By the end of what could easily have been the loneliest trip of my life, it was hard to feel lost in a country that had so unexpectedly completed me. Jacob did not turn me off South Africa — in fact he did quite the opposite. Seeing the flag or hearing the accent now triggers a Pavlovian response in me — I feel a profound longing to return.
Annabel returned to Cape Town with her fiancé
ANNABEL FENWICK ELLIOTT
My most recent visit, at the age of 35, was in October last year, and it felt like I had come full circle. For the first time I wasn’t travelling alone, but with my fiancé, Julius, a German pilot who against all odds I had met during the pandemic. Almost six years to the day after I took my first drive with Brian, we had an emotional reunion (certainly on my part), and I was back in the same seat: trundling around Singita Lebombo and pointing out lions from the same pride I’d met before, while Brian waxed lyrical about butterflies. Only this time I was with Julius too.
I also returned to the Cape winelands, where we plotted our future on a two-night stay over picnics by the pool at Mont Rochelle, the whimsically designed, Richard Branson-owned wine estate that has arguably the greatest view in Franschhoek over the mountains and valleys.
We wound up at Ellerman House in Cape Town, an elegant mansion plastered with art. It’s a short drive from Jacob’s lair, where all those years ago I was plunged into such sudden abject misery.
This time something even more unexpected happened: Julius and I conceived our son, Jasper. If we can ever save up enough money — or that asteroid looks like it’s going to hit — Julius and I will be straight back to Singita to present him, Simba-style, to Brian and the glorious South African bush.
*name has been changed
Annabel Fenwick Elliott was a guest of Virgin Atlantic, which has return flights to Johannesburg from £664pp (virginatlantic.com), and Singita Lebombo. Four nights’ full board from £5,790pp, including transfers (mavrossafaris.com)
Londolozi, Sabi Sands
Five unmissable highlights of South Africa
1. Spot big cats in Sabi Sands
For an incredible safari experience, you can’t beat Sabi Sands, among the oldest private reserves in South Africa. It borders the famed Kruger National Park but has a more exclusive feel thanks to its selection of ultra-luxurious lodges, among them Londolozi, Ulusaba, Singita and &Beyond Kirkman’s Kamp. In this region you’ll see plenty of the Big Five, but in particular it’s one of the best places in all of Africa to spot the elusive leopard.
Details Seven nights’ full board from £11,950pp, including flights and transfers (scottdunn.com)
2. Explore cosmopolitan Cape Town
It is easily one of the best cities in the world, with a beautiful coast, excellent hikes into the mountains, a great arts scene, lively bars and show-stopping cuisine — all for a fraction of what you’d pay in Europe. Don’t leave Cape Town without visiting Dylan Lewis’s sculpture garden (£10pp; dylanlewis.com), Boulders Beach to see the native penguin colony and Hout Bay to swim with wild seals.
Details Seven nights’ half-board from £741pp, including flights (loveholidays.com)
Cape Town, South Africa
3. Drive the Garden Route
Few road trips compare to South Africa’s Garden Route, a 190-mile stretch of the southeastern coast between Mossel Bay and Storms River that takes in everything from rugged beaches and dramatic mountain ranges to dense forests and glittering lagoons, with plenty of charming towns to stop off at along the way. Fancy a shark encounter? Be sure to call in at Gansbaai, the great white capital of the world and a good place to try cage diving.
Details Twelve nights’ room only from £2,520pp, including flights and transfers (rainbowtours.co.uk)
4. Meet meerkats in the Kalahari
Less well known than the safari regions in the east, Tswalu Kalahari in the Northern Cape is actually one of South Africa’s largest private wildlife reserves, a breathtaking slice of the savannah that has all the same animals plus the spectacular ochre dunes that Namibia, just to the west, is known for. With a family of habituated meerkats, left, it’s also the closest you’ll get anywhere in the world to these fascinating creatures outside of a zoo.
Details Four nights’ full board at Tswalu Kalahari from £7,995pp, including flights and transfers (abercrombiekent.co.uk)
5. Raise a glass in the Winelands
The whole of South Africa’s Cape wine region is a feast for the senses, but Franschhoek (meaning “French corner”) is arguably its prettiest quarter, and Sir Richard Branson’s Mont Rochelle is a superb estate. Dating from 1668 but peppered with modern flourishes, it offers several divine restaurants, a tasting room and tours of the region by foot or on horseback. Don’t miss the quaint boutiques and art galleries that line Franschhoek’s only big street.
Details Three nights’ half-board from £1,098pp (virginlimitededition.com). Fly to Cape Town