Impressions of South Africa: A Connection That Never Fades Once Made

Chef Robert Springer in South Africa

I wake up at 6:00 to roaring in the distance and step slowly outside my tent onto the deck to see a large
male lion walking away from a watering hole no more than 200 yards off. All throughout the night, you
can hear small movements around the tent, from little steps to hyenas laughing. It’s unnerving, but this
is wild Africa.
My son and I get ready for a game drive after coffee at Addo Elephant Park, a Big Five reserve along the
very end of South Africa’s Garden Route. I’ve procrastinated for the seven weeks I’ve been here to sit
down and start writing this pen and paper tour, intimidated by this country and the thoughts spinning
around my head. Feeling that once I sat down, it would be hours before I got up. Trying to wrap my head
around South Africa as a tourist is impossible, and I think even the citizens of this beautiful, conflicted
country must feel the same.
Throughout my five visits and the 25,000 miles I’ve driven here, we’ve made a lot of meaningful
friendships that we’ve cultivated throughout the past 15 years (20+ for my wife) and the indescribable
connection they, and I, have with this land is like no other—one that never fades.

Tracking Cheetah at Roam Game Reserve
African Elephant At Kruger National Park
Male Lion at Addo Elephant Park

A businessman in Manhattan who grew up here said with a heavy heart that he will always miss the
wildness of Africa, but that part of his life was a chapter that is now closed. Still, he returns often.
Friends that have moved to the U.S. and the U.K. miss it terribly, and the ones who moved back during
the pandemic all say they wish they had moved away from the hustle and bustle earlier. Similarly, a
famous baker in South Africa whose business had been shut down for three months stated that he had a
glimpse, after 40 years of baking, “almost like looking through a keyhole of what the next chapter in life
would look like.” He sold his restaurant and what’s next for him, he may not know, but he’s enjoying the
moment and the lightness on his shoulders. COVID had us really put things in perspective and rethink
the balance in life.
As for me, I crave nature. I crave connecting with good people. I crave spending my time on important
things. We have amazing friends everywhere, but South Africa checks all the boxes for me. Jaw-dropping
scenery at every turn, food culture to rival some of the most gastronomic cities of the world, old world
vines that produce world-class wine. People often ask me what my obsession is with this land, and it’s
almost like asking me what’s my favorite thing to cook. It’s a question I can’t fully answer to this day.
Same as I love food and I love feeding people, I love this corner of the world—as a whole, not just one
part. You have to breathe the air and see the sights yourself to catch the bug.
My wife first brought me here 15 years ago. It was one of my first super-distant journeys outside of
Europe and I didn’t really process it. The second time we came, eight years later, it was game over; I
went down hard on the second round. Since then, I’ve been chasing a high that can only be felt here in
the beauty of this WILD place

Trail along Robberg Park in Plettenberg Bay
View from Delaire Graaf Vineyards – Stellenbosch

This trip, my most memorable part, strangely enough, was driving on the N2 past Swellendam, part of
the Garden Route that goes between Cape Town and Port Elizabeth. I’ve driven this five-hour drive a
dozen times, but this time solidified my love of the land. Stunning scenery of farm after farm. Sheep grazing in endless pastures with the shadow of the mountain range in the background. This last pass was
the most memorable—almost as if it were a different road I’ve never been on, unrecognizable, maybe
due to the time of day and year. Every hill just left me speechless.
The country is also vastly different, from the Drakensberg Mountains to its lush forests. The wild coast,
still stuck in the past with its untouched areas. Cape Town and its hipness, from Kalk Bay and
Simonstown to the posh Clifton Beach and Ludondo. Then, just around the mountain, and you’re in
forests with vineyards INSIDE the city of Constantia. And the sights just get more incredible.
Lambert’s Bay and the northwestern coast with its fishing-town feel. The Cederberg and its desolate
vastness. The dry, unforgiving Karoo, and just south of that, George, Kynsna, and Tsitsikamma, all along
the Garden Route. Pretoria and Johannesburg, with its modern city vibe, currently undergoing a revival
and changing older commercial buildings into affordable hipster flats. It’s the Karoo, though, that’s one
of my favorite places. Graaf Reinet and its Dutch-style homes, adding color to the streets. Prince Alfred
to the south of it, heading to Knysna. The rocky pass through the Swartberg Mountains—a drive not for
the faint of heart. It will keep you on your toes the entire time, with its hairpin turns along sheer drops,
but is worth every moment.

Just as breathtaking is Victoria Falls, a quick flight away whether heading to Zambia or Zimbabwe. (South
Africa is a great base logistically for exploring the southern part of the continent.) My family went in
Devil’s Pool, and honestly it was one of the most amazing things I’ve ever done, wading through water
where hippos and crocodiles frequent, just upstream from a pool of water plunging down 354 feet at
the edge. Only a small ledge holds you back, and it’s only accessible during certain times of the year.

Lamb Along the famous N2 Garden Route Between Capetown and Plettenberg Bay
Bablyonstoren in Paarl part of South Africas Winelands just 1 hour outside of Capetown Central
Matsamo Village – Eswatini

With each trip like this, I find myself instantly looking forward to the next, to returning again to South
Africa. So what’s next on my bucket list? Flying or driving up to Windhoek in Namibia, and driving a tent-
top defender from the famed Skeleton Coast across to the beaches of Mozambique. I would hit park to
park, going from Sossusvlei down to Etosha to the Kgalagadi. Then, I’d cross over to Botswana to the
Kalahari before continuing on to the Okavango Delta and then Chobe. After, I’d head to Zimbabwe to
overnight on a houseboat on Lake Kariba, and finish at a resort in Maputo (at that point, I think I’d be
ready for a nice hotel latte). I’ve lived this trip in my mind’s eye over and over and will make it a reality
with my family soon. I’ll wake up on a savannah, get out from my tent on top my favorite car ever, a
Land Rover Defender, and check for animals sleeping along the base. Then, I’ll make my way down and
make a pot of coffee off the tailgate—one of the best times for wildlife viewing.
During some of the game drives I’ve been on, the ranger or guide will typically stop in a safe place to set
up for drinks and a quick snack for their guests. Usually, this is where you can get a view of the horizon
at sunset or sunrise, but more importantly, where they can see any approaching wild animals. To be
walking around on wild land with no fence, enjoying a nice drink and biltong outside of the Defender or
Land Cruiser is liberating, and just puts me at peace. In that small break, I can block out all the noise and,
even for just a few minutes, ponder on what is next, what is important in life, and meditate on my
creator. At that moment, you feel small. You feel part of nature, taking in the sounds, sights, and smells.
Being able to do these things, to experience more of South Africa—that would be everything to me.

Why does this destination halfway around the world mean so much? I’ve lived an amazing life. I’ve been
on once-in-a-lifetime trips around the world a dozen times and have seen, tasted, and felt so much. I’ve
sat down with people of prominence. I’ve sat in places of poverty. I’ve had adrenaline rush experiences
that rival what I’m sure it feels like to race a Formula 1 car. And all with the people I love. After so much,
you have a new perspective of things. You know what you like and what you don’t like, and you certainly
get a good grasp on things that waste time verses the things that enrich your life. If I stopped now, I’d be
happy. I have a lifetime of memories to use as reference points of the highs and lows of my life.
Over time, you certainly get a good idea of the people and things in your life that take away and the
ones that add value. Possessions can seem like everything, but after a while, they have very little value;
the rush you feel purchasing things wears off and you soon become aware of the cycle. I can count three
things I own that are dear to me, that if I woke up one day and lost everything would be the only things I
miss: a Murano glass tray my wife got me as a gift from Venice before we knew we’d be dating and then
married; jade elephant cufflinks from Chiang Mai, Thailand handpicked by me after much deliberation
and even more negotiating; and a scarf of bamboo thread made by a member of the Karen
Long Neck tribe also in Thailand. I remember I took a picture of the young girl who made it while holding the scarf with a smile from ear to ear.
Yet as much as I value those possessions, what matters most to me is making memories. Memories are
everything, and that is why South Africa means so much. I can remember myself smiling and loving life
more there than anywhere on this planet. After all my travels, if I had one land to go back to for my
entirety, it would be South Africa.

Please keep an eye out for part II – South Africa, the good and the bad and why I still love it more than anywhere else – coming end of June.

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