African odyssey: Alison Canavan and son James go on an adventure of a lifetime

The T (travel) vitamin awakens our soul and helps us to remember who we are. My father used to say that an education for life will never be learned in a classroom. He was right – travel has helped me to awaken a part of myself that was in slumber. It has shown me that we are part of a collective, and how we live in one part of the world affects everywhere else.

I had promised my son, James, a special trip, just the two of us, when I’d finished studying. I wanted it to be an adventure, something to remember and, most importantly, quality time together. As I researched holidays, a few things became clear – being a single parent and travelling means you are not welcome in some countries (that’s a story for another day!). I also realised I needed some help.

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Having moved away from using a travel agent many years ago in favour of the internet, I realised that this time I needed some support. After speaking to many people, I finally got connected to Shandon Travel, and our trip to South Africa was born. We began in Cape Town, drove up the Garden Route, went on safari, and ended with sunshine in Mauritius. The trip took 21 days in total, and it was pure bliss. Since the age of 15, I have been travelling as a part of my job. Experiencing different cultures, foods, landscapes and histories enriches us as human beings. It encourages our compassionate muscles to grow, our hearts to open and our human spirit to awaken beyond the limitations of our day-to-day life.

Before our trip, James and I spent time watching David Attenborough’s new programme on Netflix, Our Planet, which is ultimately a call for everyone to wake up and help save not only our planet, but the human race, too. As we landed in Cape Town, the long flights (Dublin-London-Durban-Cape Town) were soon forgotten as excitement flooded though our bodies. We had barely touched down in our hotel and we were off on our adventures.

I had arranged for a fantastic travel guide that my sister had used on her honeymoon to pick us up and take us up to see the penguins at Boulders Beach. The ancient granite boulders here protect the beach from the wind and large waves, and because it’s in the Table Mountain National Park Marine protected area, it’s clean, and safe for kids to swim.

Afterwards, we headed up towards Cape Point to catch the sunset, and ran into some baboons. The baboons are wild animals, but people continue to feed them, even though there are signs everywhere saying not to. When we blur these lines, we encourage behaviour that becomes unsafe for everyone. Human food is not healthy for wild animals, and they do not need this food to survive. When we travel to other countries, it’s important to respect their nature, animals and culture.

As we drove into Cape Point Nature Reserve, excitement peaked as we spotted a zebra, then an ostrich, and finally a sunset that would take your breath away. South Africa has some of the most stunning scenery I have ever seen. As we headed back to Cape Town, I had a very excited but tired little boy who looked at me and said, “Mum, wow, this is going to be a great adventure.”

We stayed in the Portswood Hotel in Cape Town, which is situated at the entrance to the Victoria & Alfred Waterfront. This is walking distance from The Big Red Bus tour, which is fantastic and takes you all over Cape Town. You can hop on and off – it’s a great and inexpensive way to see all the sights. The lobby and restaurant of the hotel are built around a 300-year-old well and the cells which held prisoners on their way to Robben Island. It’s steeped in rich history, which James loved.

We visited Robben Island, which was eye-opening to say the least. Our tour guide, Ntando Mbatha, had spent seven years in prison with Mandela. His warmth and open heart were magnetic, and James was drawn to his every word. His ability to share the message of love in spite of everything he had experienced was not only inspirational, but really woke me up further to the resilience of the human spirit. James was so confused and asked questions, which Ntando answered with patience and care. He explained that black and coloured [a multi-racial ethnic group native to Southern Africa] people couldn’t get work, sit with whites or leave their home after 9pm, or they’d automatically be imprisoned for three months.

He told us about the pencil test, which determined if you were black or coloured. With this test they asked you to put a pencil in your hair and shake it. If the pencil fell out, you were coloured, and if it didn’t, you were black. It’s hard for a child who has yet to be programmed about race and hate to get their head around such utter nonsense. Watching James’s reaction proved to me that humans are born with a pure heart and mind. We then tell them what to think, see and impose judgments on them. He said to me that he simply didn’t understand why the colour of their skin mattered, and I explained it didn’t, and people who are greedy and mean use these types of excuses to gain power and control. On the plane on the way home he also said he felt sad that anyone would be mean to someone because of their skin colour. I told him that I do, too.

We continued to learn about South African culture – we learnt drumming at Gold Restaurant, and also went to see Kaapse Stories from the Mother City. This musical performs a playlist of well-loved South African songs, giving an insight into Cape Town’s (Kaapse) history, and celebrates the resilient, colourful people who live at the foot of Table Mountain. As soon as the weather improved, we took the opportunity to head up Table Mountain. It was simply breathtaking. We spent hours sitting on the edge of the rocks, had lunch, and took in the mesmerising views.

The weather was hit-and-miss, so my advice to anyone travelling in April is to be prepared. I had packed for much warmer weather, so I ended up buying jumpers to wear. After four days in Cape Town, we hired a car with Hertz – it’s important to get a good rental company, a GPS, and to have insurance. There are long stretches of road with no petrol stations too, so make sure you always have enough fuel as you head off each day. Our plan was Stellenbosch, Oudtshoorn, Plettenberg Bay and then Shamwari Safari.

Having travelled for many years, I am very comfortable driving on my own, but there are rules I always stick to. Always lock the doors and drive during daylight hours.

Stellenbosch and Franschhoek were incredible to visit. We went to the botanical gardens in Kirstenbosch on the way, and I would highly recommend it. James is a car fanatic, so we visited the Motor Museum in Franschhoek. My sister recommended we eat at Le Petit Ferme, as they stayed there on their honeymoon. It was possibly one of the best meals I have ever had, with stunning views.

I love driving, as I find it very relaxing, and the views and landscape along the Garden Route led to a lot of ‘oohs’ and ‘ahhhs’ in the car. We laughed, as we felt like little ants driving through these mountainous regions. We felt free, relaxed and at ease with life. We reconnected with ourselves and each other. The stresses and strains of the past eight years melted away, as I truly realised that the magic of living is living! Really enjoying each moment – and it doesn’t have to be in South Africa, it can be anywhere. We are conditioned to worry about everything and anything, but it’s futile and pointless.

As I travelled, I shared my journey on social media. Hundreds of people messaged me, saying that they could never have a trip like that, as they have too many responsibilities. When I stopped drinking, I decided to save the money I spent on drink. I only saved a fraction of what I would spend each week, and travel is the result of it. Sometimes we need to re-frame where and how we spend our money, and also look at what’s important to us.

We visited lots of animal sanctuaries on our trip, which I found very difficult at times. Humans have interfered and caused so much pain with wildlife and Mother Nature. It was heartwarming, though, to see and meet so many on our journey who really cared; those who relentlessly fight for our animals, children and our planet. The cheetah sanctuary in Franschhoek was first. One hundred years ago, there were 100,000 cheetahs and now there are around 7,500. The sanctuary pays for farmers to have dogs to protect their animals, so the farmers then don’t have to shoot, trap or poison any wild animals, helping those that are endangered to stay alive. The farmers sign a contract to say they won’t do this any more. Cheetahs also have incredibly low immunity, putting them at even higher risk, so we had to disinfect ourselves before entering the sanctuary.

We also visited the lion sanctuary in Franschhoek and were saddened to learn of the cruelty these animals had endured. They were rescued from balconies in the Lebanon where they had been kept as pets, and also from nightclubs, circuses and many other horrific places. These animals are not toys, and the keepers explained that some people even declaw them, and take out their teeth, and keep them as pets.

The illegal animal trade is worth nearly €17bn worldwide. A single tiger whisker can fetch up to €22k on the black market in China. Around 150-200 species of plant, insect, bird and mammal become extinct every 24 hours. The Earth is losing animal species at 1,000 to 10,000 times the natural rate, so it’s time to wake up.

Getting dressed up

Next stop was Oudtshoorn. We stayed at the Queens Hotel, the oldest four-star, and third oldest of all hotels in South Africa. It was like stepping back in time, with its elegance and charm, and we really enjoyed getting dressed up and dining in the Colony restaurant.

It was up early again for our drive to Plettenberg Bay; the rain came down hard and never stopped for our stay. Nothing could dampen our spirits, though, as we arrived at the Robberg Beach Lodge, which is situated on one of the most incredible beaches I have ever seen. We decided to visit Birds of Eden and the monkey sanctuary, and even though we were soaked, we simply did not care. James had a great laugh at my expense as I zipped all my belongings into my fleece because some of the monkeys like to take things like phones and keys.

The next day we visited the elephant sanctuary, where our tour guide, Rocky, even spoke some Irish! We walked with the elephants and learnt so much about these incredible, intelligent animals. The keeper said that they never forget when someone is mean or mistreats them, which reminds me of Maya Angelou’s quote that all humans should also learn to live by: “When someone shows you who they are, believe them the first time.”

I was inundated with messages on Instagram about Emily Moon River Lodge, so we booked early (it’s very popular) and headed there. The cuisine in South Africa is definitely some of the best in the world. I love food, so I was in heaven as I tasted all the culinary delights and specialities that this beautiful country had to offer. You can also stay at this lodge, which has stunning views, too. We barely slept that night with excitement, as the next day we were heading on safari. I had heard so much about Shamwari Game Reserve. Up until Shamwari, I had booked B&Bs, but Shamwari is all-inclusive.

From the moment we arrived, it was magical. The food, the people, the lodgings were some of the best I have ever experienced, and I’ve travelled a lot. We felt so welcome and comfortable, and as soon as we met our ranger, Westley Lombard, I knew this part of the trip would be special. Nothing can prepare you for safari; there is something humbling about seeing animals in their natural habitat. When nature is left alone, there is a cycle of life and a balance that just works. Our hearts surged for all creatures, big and small.

We went looking for the ‘big five’, but actually every single creature, big and small, stole our hearts. We saw hippos in the river; two male elephants sparring and having a mud bath. Baboons played; lions lay on the side of the road; zebras grazed; bushbucks jumped for joy, and the giraffes elegantly glided by surrounded by majestic kudu. It was heaven, and I could have stayed forever.

South Africa is experiencing severe drought and, in each hotel and restaurant you are urged to help with the water shortage. James and I used hand sanitiser instead of washing our hands each time, and we kept the length of our showers to a minimum. We also did not let any hotel change our sheets and towels each day, as it’s ridiculous, and you wouldn’t do that at home, anyway.

When we arrived at Shamwari, I asked where the river was and Westley explained parts of it had dried up, along with many of the watering holes the animals use. The rain we experienced was a true blessing for them, and James really began to understand the importance of water for survival and the cycle of life.

On the last day, we headed out on our last drive only to get a call about an incoming storm. As we looked behind we could see a dark sky moving in fast. As we rushed back to the lodge, the storm caught us. It was dramatic and memorable and the most fun we have ever had. Westley taught us a new word, petrichor: the smell of the earth after rain – and it was divine. Sarilli Lodge, where we stayed in Shamwari, has incredible views; we sat and watched wildlife for hours. I also had a massage in my room, which they offer guests too.

The Born Free Foundation, located at Shamwari, was an important part of the trip for us also. Marin Miritiawo showed us around and explained the great work they do there. James decided to adopt a leopard for the year and paid for this out of his own savings. Never think that your actions are too small to make a difference. Every small action attaches to another small one, and builds momentum for great change.

As we said goodbye and drove off, James and I cried. We remembered who we really were on safari. We are human beings, not human doings. We built relationships, talked to people and felt a connection to nature unlike anything I have ever experienced before. That type of experience never leaves you, it changes you, and it wakes you up from a slumber you can never go back to.

Change is possible

Every smile and every story in South Africa touched our hearts. We are all connected, because we are not Irish or South African, we are world citizens. We are not separated by skin colour, but equals, because our souls see that we are all the same. When we awaken this memory for the next generation, change is not only possible, but certain. Although we saw a lot that hurt our hearts, we also experienced kindness, courage and care that gives me nothing but hope for the future. As I explained to James, we are all our future, not those people over there – we are ‘us’, and each one of us can make a difference.

As we drove to Port Elisabeth, we were on the last leg of our tour. Next stop, Mauritius, for five days. We stayed at the Westin in Turtle Bay, and it was simply heaven. Crystal blue water, snorkeling and a beach-front view. It was the perfect end to our dream holiday. I chose to go all-inclusive, so I wouldn’t have to worry about extras, as I had budgeted for the rest of the trip carefully. This worked out perfectly, and there were a variety of restaurants to choose from at the resort. The Westin has one of the best kids’ clubs I’ve ever seen. Azor and her team looked after James and really took an interest in what he liked to do. They did MasterChef; we had a campfire and roasted marshmallows; went crab hunting; played soccer; and danced the night away to Mauritian music. I introduced James to snorkeling, as I dive, and I’d love him to join me diving when he gets a bit older. As we held hands and swam together looking at the beautiful reefs and colourful fish, I knew these were moments I’d cherish forever.

The spa at The Westin is hands-down one of the best I have ever been too. I have a bad back from a car accident, and the girl listened carefully and adjusted the treatment accordingly. I felt great relief and deeply relaxed before our long flight home.

Every part of the trip was organised by Shandon Travel, from pick-ups at each airport, hotel bookings and car hire. They will work with you on budget and interests and advise from both personal and professional experience what works. Their experience was invaluable and necessary for a trip like this.

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