Rowena Walsh takes a whistlestop tour of South Africa's hotspots
One of the guys sitting on the back seat noticed it first. A slight juddering as the wheels moved over the dirt track. The jeep had a flat tyre.
We laughed as our guide quickly scrambled out of his seat and got to work, to a chorus of teasing from his fellow rangers. Of course, the four men in our group couldn't resist the exclusively male urge to stand around, hands on hips, and direct him.
Then we heard the roar of the lions.
Afterwards, it was completely silent for a moment or two. Then everyone seemed to speak at once. Our guide's cheery demeanour faded as the youngest member of our group, a German bride, sat shaking with fear.
The night before, we had been thrilled to spy the cubs. The eight of us had sat by the fire after dinner, drinking the local wine and discussing our adventure in the wild.
We traded war stories of our trips around South Africa as we bonded over a late dinner before retiring to our respective lodges to dream of the wide open green lands we were set to explore at 6am the next day.
During our second evening in the Kariega Game Reserve, we set out on our third game drive. We were all buoyed up at the thought of finding the grown-up members of the big cats' gang. But it wasn't such an adventure when we sat vulnerable and exposed in the middle of the lions' hunting ground.
It probably only took about 20 minutes for the tyre to be fixed, but it was a time few of us would forget.
We sat in our newly equipped jeep watching agog as baby elephants fought among themselves and their parents batted them away. Then we found our courage and headed off in search of the lions. They were huddled together in an area not far from where we had been stranded.
They didn't seem quite as scary as their ferocious roars had suggested. Fast asleep, lying flat on their backs, with a paw or two in the air, they appeared content with their lot. It wasn't surprising, perhaps. Our guide informed us that the roars we had heard were mating cries.
Kariega Game Reserve in the Eastern Cape is home to an abundance of wildlife, including lions, zebras, giraffes, rhinos, hippos and wildebeest. The malaria-free region is at the tip of the country's famous Garden Route, and it's where we found ourselves for two of the most unusual days of our lives staying in the aptly named River Lodge.
We had arrived in the country two weeks previously, heading straight for the famous winelands and a few days of R&R. But as we drove out of Cape Town's airport, passing by mile after mile of shanty town, it was clear that this was no ordinary holiday destination.
Twenty minutes north of Stellenbosch, down a 2km dirt track and encircled by an electric fence, lies Hawksmoor House, a secluded Dutch-style country house.
We had been travelling for hours and had lost our holiday buzz somewhere in the flight over Botswana. But when we stepped out of the car and breathed in the gorgeous flower-filled air, we immediately felt revived. A generous glass of wine at the honesty bar helped prolong the effect.
The next morning, we sat out on the veranda for breakfast gazing at the hazy vista of Table Mountain in the distance. Cold, damp Ireland felt a million miles away.
The picture-perfect towns of Stellenbosch and Franschhoek in the Western Cape are a veritable mecca for foodies and wine lovers. At every junction, there seems to be a vineyard inviting visitors for a tasting for little or no fee and the rural settings are even more beautiful than the classic Dutch Cape architecture.
So of course we had to partake; it's part of the culture, you know. And it's remarkably convivial. At one tiny winery, we traded holiday stories with a German couple, who rebuked us for our two-week itinerary. We thought we were being chastised for not being frugal enough in these austere times, but seemingly our crime was to not give this stunning country the time it deserves. And they were right.
After our relaxing sojourn in the winelands, it was time to get to take on the urban challenge. We travelled on to Cape Town, where we stayed in the boutique Kensington Place hotel at the foothills of the justifiably fabled Table Mountain.
Last year, Cape Town came out top in a poll of best cities to visit. There's certainly no shortage of things to do there, and an awful lot of restaurants to choose from.
As I firmly believe in never missing a good opportunity for a meal, this could have caused problems. Thankfully, our concierge took some of the pain out of what was guaranteed to be a slow and painful decision-making process by booking her favourite restaurants for each night we were spending in the city.
We followed her advice twice and loved it, particularly the gorgeous Bizerca, where we sat outside surrounded by twinkling lights and enjoyed a local speciality of pan-fried kingklip fillet before fighting silently – but viciously – over the last few mouthfuls of Valrhona chocolate fondant pudding.
But although we made the most of the man-made attractions, and paid our respects to the decades of the struggle against Apartheid by visiting Robben Island and the District Six museum, really the city's natural beauty is its most outstanding feature.
We hiked along the Cape of Good Hope, said hello to the penguins at Boulders Beach, gazed awestruck at the views on the spectacular coastal road, Chapman's Peak, and enjoyed a sundowner or two among the beautiful people at Camps Bay. It was truly hard to leave, but the Garden Route was calling.
Our base was the town of Knysna, some 265 miles away. We had planned to start the journey early, stopping for a relaxed break along the way, but our consciences were pricked. South Africa is a divided country and underneath the shiny surface lies a very different way of life. We got a sharp reminder of this on a township tour. Missing lunch was a small price to pay.
The sun had disappeared, to be replaced by angry clouds as we gingerly followed our guide around Langa, Cape Town's oldest township, which was set up in 1923. We were brought to a local school, a shop, a shebeen – where we were inveigled to try the local brew – and of course, those infamous shacks.
It came as an unwelcome surprise to learn that many township dwellers felt happier living in those fire hazards than in the overcrowded hostels where as many as three families live within a single room.
It does feel quite voyeuristic, peering into other people's lives, although our guide was adamant that people living there were happy to see us. And certainly we felt comfortable walking through the streets, although there had been reports of tourists being targeted.
It was certainly a rewarding experience as our guide openly discussed the realities of life in post-Apartheid South Africa.
A few hours later and all had changed again for us. Knysna is in the middle of the Garden Route, and here we set up camp – in the lovely Rex Hotel. The sleepy town offered a lovely change of pace to our jam-packed Cape Town itinerary.
From Knysna, we went on boat trips around the lagoon, hiked through the lush countryside, gazed in awe at the stunning beach of Plettenberg Bay, did a zipline canopy tour from treetop to treetop in the Tsitsikamma National Park and, most unforgettable of all, stayed a night in a treehouse. Tsala Treetop Lodge (tsala.hunterhotels.com) offers a stunning place to lay your head – a luxurious stilted hut in the middle of the forest with glass walls and a private infinity pool. Utter bliss.
It was the perfect way to prepare for our wildlife adventure in Kariega.
Three days later, we found ourselves on a plane flying reluctantly north towards home. But we reckon we might just be back – someday.
Need to know
Rowena flew with South African Airways (flysaa.com). Fares begin at €920 per person. Her trip was organised by Maureen at Tristar Travel (01 849 4238)
Kariega Game Reserve: Two nights' full-board and four game drives from €550pp. See kariega.co.za.
Hawskmoor House: B&B from €130 per room per night. See hawksmoor.co.za.
Kensington Place: B&B from €180 per room per night. See kensingtonplace.co.za.
Rex Hotel: Room only from €125 per room per night. See rexhotel.co.za.