In August 2007, I was privileged to have joined a group of fifteen children, all between the ages of 9 and 14 from all around the United States, on a trip to South Africa. Specifically, we were rewarding the winners of the National Geographic Kids’ Hands-On Explorer Challenge, a competition that looks for the next generation of future explorers. For being selected, each child and a parent got a chance to “go on assignment” with National Geographic, joining a group of photographers, editors, scientists, and the NBC Today Show.
Selecting Africa as a destination was easy enough. Nowhere on earth is as synonymous with what National Geographic does than this place. The real challenge was making it “family friendly” while still capturing the spirit of adventure and exploration that this institution is so renowned for. For this, we turned to Footprints Africa, a company specializing in travel to the continent. They suggested we sample a bit of everything: shark diving, nature conservation, cultural exchange, and of course, a safari. As it turned out, the program was a smashing success and everyone had the experience of a lifetime. The only problem was that my children were not with me. Fortunately, I secretly knew all along that I would be back a mere 18 months later with the whole family in tow.
After touring Cape Town for a few days, our family and eight friends drove two hours east to the Grootbos Private Nature Reserve,
situated in the Overberg region of the Western Cape, not far from the popular seaside resort town of Hermanus. Encompassing over hundreds of acres of some of the finest coastal and mountain fynbos (small bush) found anywhere, it’s in a deceivingly beautiful location with plenty to see and do. Although it doesn’t look it at first glance, it’s considered one of the finest family-friendly resorts on earth (Best Family Hotel in the World – 2006 Tatler Travel Guide)–as long as you stay in the Garden Lodge. The dining at Grootbos is superb as well, which we seemed to spend a considerable amount of time doing. Their non-culinary offerings included horseback riding, nature walks, beach cave exploration, or just some much welcomed downtime to do nothing but enjoy the breathtaking views of Walker Bay, which is anything but tranquil.
This area of the Atlantic Ocean offers some of the most amazing marine life found anywhere – all with easy accessibility from the nearby town of Gansbaai. Our primary focus was attempting to dive with great white sharks. Additionally, although they are usually off to Antarctica by the time we arrived in late January, there were still some southern right whales hanging around, so we got lucky and added them to our to-do list as well (in their winter months from April to Dec, there are often hundreds of whales found here, all within easy view of area beaches).
I’m sure allowing deadly sharks to circle within literally inches of your child’s body is not what most moms and dads would consider good clean family fun. Yet, that’s what we and two other sets of parents encouraged our kids to do when our boat, Shark Fever, finally attracted some seven- to nine-foot-long great whites after an hour of luring them in with seal-shaped decoys and chum (a mixture of fish and other food sources which attracts the shark). Everyone onboard got a chance to get an up-close and personal view of these impressive creatures after donning a wetsuit and hopping in a cage hung off the side of the boat. The waters are quite cold, so some of the kids didn’t last quite that long, but they all got to see them and everyone agreed that it was a thrill of a lifetime (one of the kids, Parker, even shot this underwater video).
Through the Nat Geo program, I became friendly with the owner of Grootbos, Michael Lutzeyer, who not only runs this magnificent five-star property, but seems to personally host everyone while they are there. This is a good thing because Michael is as passionate of a human being as you’ll ever meet. He cares deeply about the delicate environment on which his resort is located and the community living around it. As such, he started the Green Futures Project, a horticultural and life skills college built on-premises that gives twelve scholarships a year to local students. It’s meant to build a sustainable livelihood through nature-based education for these young people who otherwise probably wouldn’t have a chance to succeed.
We visited the school while we were there and saw the great work being done first-hand. Most of the Green Futures students come from a nearby township. Thanks to Michael and his staff, we were afforded the unique opportunity to tour this community and show the kids how so many of the country’s people live–surviving off very little compared to our luxurious homes and consumer goods we seem to have in such abundance back home.
- Nat Geo Expeditions
Experiencing that the people living here were so warm and welcoming despite what most Westerners would consider poor living conditions, seemed to have left a major mark on these kids, just as it had done to the 15 children from the Nat Geo Expedition 18 months earlier. After seeing the township, we made a side trip to the Spaces for Sport Soccer Project that Michael also supports. While there, we watched as our group of six kids play a spontaneous game with some of the locals–our little contribution to international diplomacy.
After what was a much too brief but delicious stopover at the Spier Hotel and Winery, overlooking the beautiful Helderberg Mountains and vineyards of Stellenbosch, we returned to Cape Town airport for a flight to Kruger National Park, were we would all get a first-hand look at some of South Africa’s most famous residents, The Big Five!
Photo: Rainer Jenss