Family travel in South Africa and beyond

Category: South Africa

Small-town South Africa for small people

“I love Carnarvon!” It was a sentence few before him had probably ever uttered, but our brief stop in the Hantam Karoo town had clearly impressed our son. I’m not…

“I love Carnarvon!” It was a sentence few before him had probably ever uttered, but our brief stop in the Hantam Karoo town had clearly impressed our son. I’m not sure why he was so taken with Carnarvon. As a family of beer enthusiasts (well, me and the hubby anyway) we had stopped only to admire the expansive collection of beer cans at the Carnarvon Hotel. Kai got a rare bag of chips out of the deal but I was still rather surprised as we strapped him back into the car seat and he blurted out his love for the little sheep-farming town.

I think we underestimate a small child’s ability to find joy and amusement pretty much anywhere. I for one am always searching for family-friendly restaurants or attractions, but you can’t guarantee petting farms or giant jungle gyms or fairgrounds full of rides and stalls wherever you go – and I am grateful for that. It forces you to research a little and think outside the box, and with a little imagination, you can find kids’ entertainment even in the tiniest of towns. Here are a few of our favourites:

Sutherland, Northern Cape (population 2836)

It was love at first sight. I first visited Sutherland about ten years ago and it remains one of my very favourite SA dorps. I love the lack of decision-making required at dinner time. I love the fresh air, the car-free streets and of course, the massive, star-filled skies. But would a three-year-old love Sutherland too? The nexus for visitors is the South African Astronomical Observatory, which sits atop a chilly hill 19km east of town. By day, you can take a peek inside SALT (the Southern African Large Telescope) and its smaller counterparts; by night you can peer at the sky for a guided star safari, often ending with an unforgettable glimpse of Saturn’s rings. Beware though, Sutherland gets very cold – if you plan to bring your kids for an evening visit, be sure to wrap them (and yourself) up warmly and consider bringing a thermos of something warm and a hot water bottle. Even in summer, it gets pretty nippy at night.

We visited in winter, so decided on a day visit. To keep Kai interested, I told him that the telescopes were spaceships and he loved seeing the framed photos of various planets and constellations once we stepped inside. When he’s older, we’ll certainly return and he can learn about telescopes and nebulas and sub-zero temperatures. But for now, inventing tales (I prefer this term to “lying”) about the place meant that I could enjoy the guided tour and he wasn’t utterly bored.

Sutherland is also the place to eat lamb (and indeed, the place where we discovered our son’s ravenous appetite for lamb chops). The town’s handful of restaurants all serve lamb in some form, but most agree that Cluster d’Hote is the place to dine – book ahead, or leave, as we did, disappointed.

visit South African Astronomical Observatory

Embracing the cold at the South African Astronomical Observatory just outside Sutherland


Graskop, Mpumalanga (population 3996)

For grown-ups, the allure of Graskop is fairly obvious. It is the southern gateway to the Blyde River Canyon, a dramatic drive peppered with lookout points, picnic spots and a selection of scenic hiking trails. I’m not sure at what age people begin to truly appreciate scenery. My son did comment a couple of weeks back, while driving over Ou Kaapse Weg in Cape Town, “Mummy, look – there’s a beautiful view!” and while I acknowledge that this made my heart melt, I don’t know if I could yet sell him on a day out based entirely on looking at notable landscapes. Still, a picnic is always a great seller and the Bourke’s Luck Potholes have an other-worldiness about them that is easy to sell to little kids.

Back in the town itself, there’s a great attraction for big kids: The Big Swing, where you can fly, abseil or of course swing across the gorge if you’re brave enough. For the rest I have one word: pancakes. Oddly enough, Graskop is kind of synonymous with pancakes, thanks to Harries, which opened here 20-odd years ago. I personally wasn’t wowed by the food, but the promise of a pancake filled with chocolate and banana worked as the perfect treat (OK, bribe) to keep Kai in his car seat for the best part of the afternoon while the rest of us oohed and aahed at our surrounds.

Heading for the less terrifying of Matjiesfontein’s two museums

Matjiesfontein, Western Cape (population 422)

If you’ve never veered off the N1 for a lunch break in Matjiesfontein, put it on your 2018 ‘to do’ list. And be prepared for some weirdness. It’s a weird, and if I’m honest, kind of creepy place. I audibly yelped when I was silently greeted by a time-worn mannequin in the old post office (do not watch House of Wax before visiting Matjiesfontein) and the Marie Rawdon Museum is – for me – one of the scariest tourist attractions in South Africa, with its rambling collection of porcelain dolls, old commodes and Victoria dental equipment… But Matjiesfontein makes for a very convenient leg-stretching stop and it’s the kind of place kids love.

Staff wander around dressed in period costume, an old-timer by the name of Johnny tickles the ivories in the Laird’s Arms pub (yes, we do take our son to a lot of pubs), the museum is full of interesting old knickknacks, there’s a red double-decker bus parked in the street and at the end of town (you can walk the entire town at a leisurely pace in under ten minutes), a second museum is filled with trains, trams and classic cars. If you stay the night, you get to board the bus and also take a ghost tour of the 19th-century railway siding – perfect for older kids.

Arniston, Western Cape (population 1267)

Arniston is a fine example of a tiny town with no in-your-face kids’ attractions that is in fact very family-friendly indeed. For a start, there’s a lovely beach with paddleable (that’s a word right?) waters and plenty of rockpools to rummage in. There’s the Waenhuiskrans Cave, found at the end of a fine walk and scramble along the coast (be sure to go at low tide – trust me) and the pretty old town with its maze of fishermen’s cottages and quaint ocean-side restaurant. And of course, if you’re looking for a more traditional form of family fun, there’s the Arniston Hotel, with a pool, spa and fully fledged kids’ club, complete with minders to take them off your hands (in school holidays only).

Attempting to get to Waenhuiskrans as the tide comes in with a not-so-small child in hand – what could go wrong?

Montagu, Western Cape (population 15,176)

The largest on the list is filled with pretty old buildings and charming restaurants – two things guaranteed to thrill pretty much no child between the ages of two and 15. But if you dig a little deeper, there are some kid-friendly attractions. The Leidam Bird Sanctuary is right in the town, free to visit and great for babies and toddlers still fascinated by flying things. You can hike from here to the Avalon Springs, where kids of all ages can wallow in warm water and whiz down waterslides (you can of course drive as well, if the short hike doesn’t appeal).

Nearby is Die Stal, a charming tearoom with space for little ones to run around. But perhaps the best thing for families to do in Montagu’s vicinity is to take a tractor ride into the Langeberg. Trips from Protea Farm leave on Wednesday and Friday mornings and end with an optional potjiekos lunch under the trees (though I would recommend lunching back in town). The trip is particularly wonderful in winter, when there’s often a sprinkling of snow on the ground and kids jump down to build microscopic snowmen.

Plenty of pretty for moms and dads to look at while the kids enjoy the tractor (and yes, this is a very old photo)


What are your favourite South African small towns to visit with the kids? I’d love to hear your suggestions – please share in the comments section below.

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The Gorge Cottage at Augrabies Falls National Park

When I was a teenager, long before txt spk wz a thng, we used to shorten words in a way that only teenagers seem to be lazy enough to do….

When I was a teenager, long before txt spk wz a thng, we used to shorten words in a way that only teenagers seem to be lazy enough to do. One of my faves (see what I did there?) was ‘gorge’, most often used to describe whichever pin-up we were in love with that week (at a risk of ageing myself, it was usually Corey Haim). When the SAN Parks powers that be named the Gorge Cottage, they could almost have been using my teen years lingo. They weren’t of course – it is named for the geological marvel it overlooks – but it could have been, for if there is one thing you could say about the Gorge Cottage, it’s that it is gorgeous in every way.

My pic of the cottage was blurry through excitement – thanks to SANParks for this version

They didn’t get the name 100% correct though, for I’m not sure I would call it a cottage – more a dream apartment or a super swanky bachelor pad. It’s simply furnished with a double bed, comfy couch, a kitchenette and a few shelves and side tables. Photos taken in the park hang on one wall, though I couldn’t describe them with any conviction. No-one comes here to comment on furniture or admire paintings. One whole wall is made up of windows and the couch and bed face these windows the way they would face the flat screen in your average hotel room. Here of course, there is no TV, and nor is there any need for one. Instead you have the kind of panoramic view of the Oranjekom Gorge that no TV show or photograph could ever faithfully replicate.

For the longest time, this place was simply a lookout point. It still is, with a viewing platform sitting above the cottage, but in late 2016 some smart soul saw fit to add the park’s most impressive place to stay. As dusk approaches and the park’s gates close, the day visitors disappear, throwing back envious glances at whoever is lucky enough to be staying over at the cottage. And my advice to you is to put it on your bucket list, like now. I can’t begin to properly convey the magnificent silence and the deep honour of having this view all to yourself. And it only gets better if like I did, you manage to time your stay with a full moon.

I tend to peddle more in straight-talking than poetry, but sitting outside on a huge boulder sipping cold beer as the moon softly illuminated the 240m-deep gorge gauged out by the Gariep/Orange River – well, it was nothing short of magical. There are no sounds except birdsong and the distant flow of the river and just as I thought the scene could get no more perfect, a dassie scurried by, leaping over a gap in the rocks in that agile manner that their tubby appearance belies.

The laziest photo I’ve ever taken – the view from your bed at the Gorge Cottage

Those beers – or G&Ts or whatever way you choose to celebrate sundown – could come back to haunt you later since the bathroom was built some 30 metres away. Luckily, a plan has been made for those middle-of-the-night calls of nature. It’s undoubtedly the least romantic aspect of the accommodation and not something you’d be keen to use in the early stages of a relationship, but the chemical loo is a bit of a godsend if you wake up after one sundowner too many (or if you’re a mom and midnight peeing is just a part of your routine). It’s been done as well as it could have been, hidden away in a wooden box and emitting no aroma. And it really is the ultimate loo with a view.

This place is firmly filed under “parental retreats”. I really don’t think kids would appreciate the setting and anyway, the cottage sleeps a maximum of two people. I visited alone on a work trip. I thought I’d get plenty of work done but the view is such that I couldn’t take my eyes off it and I didn’t write a word other than to gush about the beauty of it all.

But while it’s undoubtedly a fine place for some ‘you time’, this really is a perfect spot for couples; for reconnecting or recharging batteries. We actually spent one night of our honeymoon at Augrabies many moons ago and I’ll tell you this, if the cottage had been there then, we wouldn’t have spent the night trying in vain to sleep in a tent in the oppressive January heat (side note: the cottage has no air con and will get obscenely hot in summer). But I will be back here soon with Shawn, for the Gorge Cottage has made it firmly onto my “second honeymoon” bucket list (which is now a thing). Now to find a babysitter for Kai…

The Gorge Cottage costs R1600 per night for two people. It’s situated 10km from the main camp and there’s no access to the camp’s shop and restaurant once the gate closes around 7pm. There’s a small kitchen and a braai area but a distinct lack of plug sockets – bring an adaptor for phone-charging. There is cell reception.

An attempt to capture the vista from the Gorge Cottage

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Family activities on the Garden Route: George

Whenever we travel around South Africa, I tend to look ruefully at the under-utilised train tracks. “Ah man, I wish there were more passenger trains,” my husband often hears me…

Whenever we travel around South Africa, I tend to look ruefully at the under-utilised train tracks. “Ah man, I wish there were more passenger trains,” my husband often hears me mutter, “that would be such an awesome train ride…” My biggest travel regret of all time is that when I first visited SA in 2002, I didn’t take the Outeniqua Choo Tjoe. The insanely scenic trip from Knysna to George has been out of action since floods damaged the tracks in 2006, although there’s regular talk of the line being repaired. There are occasional steam train trips between George and Mossel Bay, but if you’re looking for a reliable train ride to do with the kids, there’s always the Outeniqua Power Van.

I’ve taken the Power Van twice and I think the weather in this pic is pretty representative of the region…

OK, so the Power Van isn’t exactly a train, but it leaves from George train station and it runs along tracks, so most kids will let the nomenclature go. It is in fact a rail trolley – a funny little petrol-powered vehicle that pulls a small carriage behind it. Trips leave from the Outeniqua Transport Museum – also a cool place for kids that like trains, trucks, cars and – well – transport.

Into the mountains…

The Power Van trundles up into the Outeniqua Mountains on a 2½-hour trip. A local guide joins you on board, giving a commentary on the history and geography of the area but you’ll excuse me for not being able to share too much of that info with you. It was just me and Kai so between trying to get him to stay in his seat and stopping him from eating every last bite of our picnic before we got anywhere near the picnic spot, I didn’t take in much of the info.

Driving the Power Van

I can tell you that it’s an extremely scenic ride offering views of the Cradock, Outeniqua and Montagu Passes. I recall hearing that the track was built by convicts. And of course, having travelled with a four-year-old, I can tell you that we went through seven tunnels (you can thank Kai for that piece of information). After about 90 minutes of scenic trundling, honking at the occasional klipspringer playing chicken on the tracks, you turn around and come back down towards George. And when I say you turn around, I do mean you and not the van. The seats all flip, so those who boarded last and got stuck at the back on the way up get the best views on the way down.

There’s a cursory picnic stop with views over George – you get about half an hour to munch on anything that your children haven’t already eaten. And note there are no toilets on board or en route, so come prepared for some au naturale ablutions…

In truth, I think Kai might still be a little young for the trip. He enjoyed sitting at the front and pretending to drive, but at 2½ hours it might be more suited to kids a little older.

Strawberry picking… and another train

One thing he utterly loved was the Redberry Farm in Blanco, just west of George. The farm is perfect for little kids, with a mini train (got to admit, I think I enjoyed this just as much as Kai), bunnies to feed, bumper boats and a pretty cool jungle gym. For slightly older children there are go-karts, horse rides and bubble ball (kind of like zorbing but on water). And for even older people, a craft beer and wine tasting room is about to open. And there’s dessert everywhere… You could easily spend a couple of hours here, lunching and partaking in the activities, which range from R20 for a five-minute session to R35 for the maze, which could take hours…

This is Kai’s proud face. He took the strawberries to playschool in his lunch box the next day so he could tell everyone he’d picked them himself

But the biggest hit was the strawberry picking itself. Granted, I felt like a bit of a party pooper as I attempted to explain the concept of ripened fruit, but I didn’t want to end up with a punnet of minscule, lime-green berries. Kai was so excited that if I hadn’t intervened, he would have picked the first twenty strawberries he’d seen, most likely uprooting each plant as he went. But after a little schooling on what constitutes a good berry, we spent half an hour filling our containers. And as we left, Kai turned to me and said “Mummy, I love it here. And I love you…forever!”

In my book, that’s a pretty successful day out.


The Outeniqua Power Van operates Monday to Saturday. Times vary and booking are essential. It’s R150 for adults and R130 for children. To book, call or SMS 082 490 5627.

Redberry Farm is open Monday to Saturday, 9am-4pm, although many of the activities only operate on Fridays and Saturdays. New cafes and shops were due to open when we visited.

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Why travelling with children can really be quite wonderful

When I met my husband, we were embarking on an overland trip from Cairo to Cape Town. He’d been backpacking through Europe, I’d been living in Spain. Over the next…

When I met my husband, we were embarking on an overland trip from Cairo to Cape Town. He’d been backpacking through Europe, I’d been living in Spain. Over the next eight years or so, we visited 25 countries together across four continents. It was only the sheer beauty, vibrancy and diversity of Cape Town that eventually soothed our itchy feet.

I’m not telling you this to brag or attempt to incite jealousy but to show how travel has always been a major part of our life together. We are engaged in a perpetual competition to see who’s been to the most countries (it’s him, but I will catch up), our shelves are full of guidebooks, our walls full of maps. So when we had a baby back in 2013, you can imagine what people said. “Oh, that’ll be the end of your travels.” “Your life is going to change!” “You won’t be able to travel around once the little one arrives.”

Who needs a kids’ playground when you have a sunset shadow to play with?


Of course, they were right about one thing – our lives changed. Of course they did – anyone who thinks they can bring a small human onto the planet and not change pretty much everything about their lives is probably a fool. But it’s often insinuated that when it comes to kids, the change will be a negative one. I don’t want to sugar coat things – travelling with babies or toddlers is tough and you  may well have to rethink the way you travel. Gone are the 24-hour train rides and the days spent walking 20,000 steps around a city; here instead are plans that revolve around bottle-warming or nap times or being back at the accommodation in time to start the bedtime routine.  But there really is something quite magnificent about travelling with young children, particularly when they reach the chatty years.

Kai – he was named for the city in which we met – is now four, and he is a pretty cool travel companion. Sure, stuff goes wrong. Sometimes you spend weeks carefully planning an itinerary tailored just for him and then all he wants to do is stay in what he calls the “holiday house”. There are tantrums to deal with, colossal piles of luggage to bring, road trips are certainly not as much fun as they used to be and more often than not, we all end up going to bed at 8pm.

No TV, no wifi, no central heating, but still the best holiday house ever

But here’s the pay-off: children are so innocent, so unjaded that everything is wondrous. As grown-ups we rock up at destinations with preconceived ideas of how our trip will pan out. Our bucket-list destinations had better be perfect, our game-viewing experiences had better be David Attenborough-worthy and we want our perfectly-planned holiday to run, well, perfectly. We can learn a lot from travelling with little kids – they can help get back to the basics of travel and help us to appreciate not just the world wonders but everything we find along the way.

We just got back from a short road trip through the Northern Cape. Admittedly it was shorter than planned (after realising just how cold Namaqualand is in winter, I vetoed the camping section and we came home early). There were no big ticket stops on our list and virtually nothing you’d label a child-friendly attraction, but Kai embraced it all as though we were at Disney World. “This holiday house is my favourite!” he shouted as we arrived at the 19th-century corbelled house just outside Carnvarvon. “I’m going to stay here forever!” he told me excitedly, as I cursed the temperature and my decision to visit in winter. “I love Carnarvon so much!” he yelped as we briefly stopped in the tiny town to check out a collection of antique beer cans (yes, really). It’s a statement I can only imagine doesn’t get uttered too often. I mean, there’s nothing wrong with Carnarvon, but it’s not exactly Paris. It’s not even Springbok.

Smelling the flowers – all 12 of them – at the Hantam National Botanical Garden outside Nieuwoudtville

One of our main goals on the trip was to finally witness the spring flowers after living in South Africa for seven years. But there was not a lot blooming in Namaqualand thanks to the drought. I was pretty disappointed and regretted my choice to tell Kai that we were going to see lots of flowers. But then I had an awakening of how travelling with children really can be something special. My momentary disappointment in the lack of floral carpets was quickly washing away by Kai’s boundless enthusiasm for every petal he spotted. “Mummy, I found a yellow one!” he’d shout, gleefully, as he ran through the barren Hantam National Botanical Garden on the most exciting flower hunt he could ever imagine.

It was on this trip that I finally decided to start a family travel blog. It’s something I’ve been thinking about, on-and-off, ever since that first ultrasound. I hope you’ll join us as we try to see South Africa – and the rest of the world – in that wide-eyed way that every child does.

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