My ex left me in South Africa. I can’t thank him enough | Travel

IIt was months in the planning and it was destined to be the best trip of my life: a tour of South Africa, the country I most wanted to visit, not just with a local, but with someone I – in my warped mind – shared with almost certainly going to get married. I was approaching 30, having spent most of my twenties traveling the world alone as a journalist, rather than settling down like my peers. I knew I wanted to have children like that, but back then I needed to collect more passport stamps.

I came home from my travels, unsurprisingly, with a very average job, a shaky financial situation, and no discernible dating prospects. Then, through a couple of mutual friends, came Jacob*: a charming, funny, ridiculously handsome Southern African who divided 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 Heathrow airport tarmac in October 2015. I was en route to Cape Town, where Jacob had enthusiastically insisted that I accompany him on a meticulously planned road trip along the Garden Route, a 190-mile stretch of south-east coast with vineyards, wildlife and seascapes awaiting. I couldn’t have been happier, I thought.

La Residence, Franschhoek Valley

La Residence, Franschhoek Valley

ROYAL PORTFOLIO

Unfortunately, the dream that had felt too good to be true had come true not long after landing in Cape Town. Jacob picked me up from the airport in a Ferrari. That was my first clue as to how astronomically wealthy he was; my second was when we pulled up in front of his James Bond villain hideout of a house about the size of a multi-story parking garage. That was not good. As soon as my bag touched the marble floor, he mentioned almost casually: “Something got in the way at work – I’m afraid the road trip is over.” Of course, you can only cancel a vacation the night before you leave without flinching if you’re really very rich .

Later, Jacob reluctantly drove us an hour north to the Cape Winelands for the weekend while I hatched a contingency plan. It was beautiful – we stayed in a lavish suite at La Residence, a property in the Franschhoek Valley where plump peacocks strutted across the green lawns – and it was awful. Jacob informed every waiter who asked what to bring “his wife” that I was not his wife at all.

Rather than fly straight back to the UK defeated, I arranged to volunteer with two wildlife organizations along the Garden Route. I was leaving on the bus on Monday morning when Jacob unceremoniously disappeared into the ether.

A lion in Kruger

A lion in Kruger

ALAMY

I think if I had been in another country it would have been impossible to enjoy the next couple of weeks. It wasn’t just the sting of being ghostly more than 8,000 miles from home, or the operational nuances of being stuck abroad with no cash. It was all the hours I had to think about the fact that I was going to end up alone and childless, even though I didn’t want to.

Useless as my host had proved, South Africa had other things in store. I spent the next week at Monkeyland in Plettenberg Bay, the world’s first free-roaming primate sanctuary – a forest home to more than 500 species of monkeys rescued from zoos, circuses and laboratories. There, under the care of Paula, a middle-aged volunteer who had fled England for reasons of her own, we watched from behind the trees as animals that once performed tricks on humans were taught to retire and start a new life in the jungle to forge. It was hard to feel hopeless in the face 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 Marine Dynamics scientists studying whales and great whites as our boat rolled the swells. It was hard to feel listless with so much adrenaline on board.

Singita Lebombo's pool

Singita Lebombo’s pool

By this point I had fallen hopelessly in love with the country and was determined to find my way east to a safari lodge in Kruger National Park that I’ve heard countless South Africans rave about. Sure enough, Singita Lebombo — an elegant 13-suite retreat built over a hippo-studded river on an enviably secluded 33,000-acre concession on the Mozambique border — has become my favorite hotel in the world. If I had one more day on Earth before an asteroid impact, I would go there to be among slumbering lions, stalking leopards, herds of elephants and graceful giraffes.

I was fortunate to have Brian as my guide: an experienced survivalist, formerly for the South African Special Forces, who has a black belt in Taekwondo and now has a passion for butterflies and rare plants. And Kristin, a spirited American TV producer who was traveling alone and, our chats revealed, also believed she’d given up on raising a family too late, shared our twice-daily drives through the bush.

At the end of what could easily have been the loneliest journey of my life, it was hard to feel lost in a country that had so unexpectedly completed me. Jacob didn’t turn me away from South Africa – on the contrary. Now when I see the flag or hear the accent, it triggers a Pavlovian reaction in me – I feel a deep longing to return.

Annabel returned to Cape Town with her fiancé

Annabel returned to Cape Town with her fiancé

ANNABEL FENWICK ELLIOTT

My last visit at the age of 35 was last October and it felt like it had come full circle. For the first time, I was not traveling alone, but with my fiancé Julius, a German pilot whom I met against all odds during the pandemic. Almost six years to the day after I took my first ride with Brian, we had an emotional reunion (surely on my part) and I was back in the same seat: I rolled around Singita Lebombo and pointed to lions from the same pride as I. We’d met before while Brian was raving about butterflies. Only this time I was also with Julius.

I also returned to the Cape Winelands where we planned our future with a two day stop at poolside picnics at Mont Rochelle, Richard Branson’s whimsically designed winery which has arguably the best views in Franschhoek over the mountains and valleys.

We ended up at the Ellerman House in Cape Town, an elegant art-filled mansion. It’s only a short drive from Jacob’s hideout, where I was plunged into such abrupt misery all those years ago.

This time something even more unexpected happened: Julius and I fathered our son Jasper. If we ever save up enough money – or that asteroid looks like it’s about to hit – Julius and I will be heading straight back to Singita for a Simba-style introduction to Brian and the glorious South African bush.

*Name has been changed

Annabel Fenwick Elliott has been a guest on Virgin Atlantic, which offers return flights to Johannesburg from £664 per person (virginatlantic.com), and on Singita Lebombo. Four nights full board from £5,790 pp including transfers (mavrossafaris.com)

Londolozi, Sabi-Sande

Londolozi, Sabi-Sande

GETTY IMAGES

Five unmissable highlights of South Africa

1. Watch big cats at Sabi Sands
For an incredible safari experience, you can’t beat Sabi Sands, one of the oldest private reserves in South Africa. It borders the famous Kruger National Park but has a more exclusive vibe thanks to its selection of ultra-luxurious lodges including Londolozi, Ulusaba, Singita and &Beyond Kirkman’s Kamp. You’ll see many of the Big Five in this region, 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 £11,950 per person including flights and transfers (scottdunn.com)

2. Explore cosmopolitan Cape Town
It’s easily one of the best cities in the world, with a beautiful coastline, excellent mountain walks, a great arts scene, lively bars and stunning cuisine – all for a fraction of what you would pay in Europe. Don’t leave Cape Town without visiting Dylan Lewis’ Sculpture Garden (£10 per person; 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

Cape Town, South Africa

GETTY IMAGES

3. Drive the Garden Route
Few road trips compare to South Africa’s Garden Route, a 190-mile stretch of south-eastern coast between Mossel Bay and Storms River that encompasses everything from rugged beaches and dramatic mountain ranges to dense forests and sparkling lagoons, with plenty of charming towns to stop at on the way off. Fancy a shark encounter? Be sure to visit 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 to the east, Tswalu Kalahari in the North Cape is actually one of South Africa’s largest private game reserves, a stunning stretch of savannah with all the same animals plus the spectacular ocher dunes that Namibia only the west is known for. With a family of habituated meerkats to the left, even outside of a zoo, it’s the world’s closest get-together with these fascinating creatures.
details Four nights full board accommodation in the Tswalu Kalahari from £7,995 pp including flights and transfers (abercrombiekent.co.uk)

Mont-Rochelle

5. Raise a glass in the Winelands
All of South Africa’s Cape wine region is a feast for the senses, but Franschhoek (which means ‘French corner’) is arguably the prettiest neighborhood and Sir Richard Branson’s Mont Rochelle is a superb property. Dating back to 1668 but peppered with modern flourishes, it offers several excellent restaurants, a tasting room and tours of the region on foot or on horseback. Don’t miss the quaint boutiques and art galleries that line Franschhoek’s only major street.
details Three nights half board from £1,098 per person (virginlimitededition.com). Flight to Cape Town

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