Would you let a STRANGER plan your getaway? With intrepid travellers now able to outsource their holidays, Femail writer dons a blindfold and noise-cancelling headphones to fly into the unknown
- More companies now offer the option of ‘surprise travel’ for holidaymakers
- Femail writer Unity Blott embarked on a mystery trip via a long-haul flight
- Donned eye mask and noise-cancelling headphones to keep destination secret
- She was deposited 5,600 miles away in city of Johannesburg, South Africa
Settling into my plane seat, I feel a rush of anticipation as I look out of the window and watch the sights of Heathrow shrink into miniature.
But this isn’t your typical pre-holiday excitement – in fact, despite having checked in my suitcase, been ushered through security and boarded a long-haul flight, I have no idea where I’m going, let alone what I’ll be doing for the next three days.
I’ve been fitted with an eye mask and noise-cancelling headphones, which means I haven’t been able to peek at the departures board or even hear the pilot’s in-flight announcements.
Welcome to 2019, where intrepid travellers and time-poor holidaymakers can take the concept of ‘destination unknown’ to a whole new level by letting professionals take every aspect of their getaway out of their hands.
Femail explores the trend for ‘mystery travel’ which sees holidaymakers outsource their getaway planning – by donning an eye mask and noise cancelling headphones to board a long-haul flight to a mystery destination
A less popular but no less spectacular choice is Pilanesberg National Park, the lesser-known (and considerably smaller) little sister to safari hot spot Kruger
Companies like Blind Experiences, Mystery Break and srprs.me now offer affordable ‘surprise’ trips where you won’t find out where you’re going until you get to the airport.
In a bid to find out whether I’m cut out for mystery travel, I’m embarking on a trip that’s been organised in total secrecy by airline KLM with the help of (as I later discover) South African Tourism.
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A self-confessed control freak who prefers to plan every last detail of my holidays months in advance, I’ve had to set my super-organised tendencies aside and remain totally open-minded about my destination.
To keep the location under wraps, I’m provided only with a cryptic packing list, while even luggage check-in is dealt with by an airline executive who keeps a tight grip on my boarding pass so that I can’t peek at the final destination.
There’s an overnight stopover at an airport hotel in Amsterdam, and with the first leg out of the way it’s the following morning that my magical mystery tour begins in earnest.
Walking blindly through Schipol guided by airline staff is a surreal experience, and on board I’m strictly forbidden from peeking at my on-screen map.
The view from Munro Drive in Johannesburg. The city is encircled by one of the biggest man-made jungles in the world, where 12 million trees were planted to replace the vegetation destroyed by goldmines in the late nineteenth-century
A street art installation in an alleyway in Johanessburg’s Maboneng precinct east of the city, where a flourishing art scene is taking root and warehouses are now occupied by galleries
Despite this, it’s hard to resist scanning the in-flight menu for clues (Indonesian curry hints at a trip to Bali, while our Boeing 777 is confusingly named Machu Picchu, leaving me momentarily convinced that we’re headed for Peru).
To say I’m feeling disorientated at takeoff is an understatement, and I can’t help wondering which country – indeed which continent – my luggage and I are bound for. All I know is that it’s long-haul and that local weather is promisingly described as ‘very hot’.
The mystery is finally solved 10 ½ hours – and countless rom-coms – later when I glimpse our destination on a fellow passenger’s map, just minutes before we touch down at O.R. Tambo International airport.
I’ve officially arrived in Johannesburg, South Africa’s largest city and one of its four capitals – some 5,600 miles from my starting point.
Post-apartheid, the bustling city has long been overshadowed by tales of crime and car-jacking, and as such it’s one of several destinations that are the subject of a new KLM campaign (On Your Map) to promote less trodden holiday spots.
Maboneng’s regeneration success story began in 2008, says local guide Bongani Mathebula, and the district now comprises 3 sq km, stretching to all the formerly ‘no-go’ areas
Street art in Maboneng. The district’s cultural shakeup began with artists like William Kentridge taking up residence at creative hub Arts on Main, kick-starting a regeneration
Despite a previous visit to South Africa, I’m ashamed to say I avoided venturing into much-maligned golden city, so I’m looking forward to exploring the sunny side of Johannesburg.
Outside the city limits, sprawling townships jostle for space with luxury hotels, encircled by one of the biggest man-made jungles in the world, where 12 million trees were planted to replace the vegetation destroyed by goldmines in the late nineteenth-century.
In town, neighbourhoods once riddled with crime and largely considered ‘no-go zones’ even by locals are now bustling with cafés and boutique shops, explains tour guide Charles Ncube.
In the Maboneng precinct east of the city, a flourishing art scene is taking root and former warehouses are now occupied by galleries and bars where hipsters sip on green juice and bottles of local beer until the early hours.
Maboneng’s regeneration success story began in 2008, says local guide Bongani Mathebula, and the district now comprises 3 sq km, stretching to all the formerly ‘no-go’ areas.
A sunrise balloon ride with Bill Harrop’s Original Balloon Safaris. Pilot Marc Nuthall has clocked up over 1,600 hours in the sky, guided by wind direction at different altitudes
The district’s cultural shakeup began with artists like William Kentridge taking up residence at creative hub Arts on Main, kick-starting a regeneration that now sees boutique shops, restaurants and trendy rooftop spaces popping up almost weekly.
Newly-renovated luxury hotel Indaba is located in Fourways, a half-hour drive from Johannesburg and a tranquil antidote to the hustle and bustle of the city centre.
Boasting picturesque gardens and 258 en-suite bedrooms, the sprawling grounds render a golf buggy necessary to get to breakfast. There’s also an on-site gym and peaceful infinity pool guests can watch ibises gather at dusk.
For the second leg of my tour, I’m booked into Bakubung Bush Lodge in the southernmost tip of Pilanesberg National Park, where bedrooms look out onto zebras, warthogs and mongooses grazing in the long grass.
Outside the high-security electric fences of the hotel (hungry leopards and tourists don’t mix well) the hotel operates daily game drives at sunrise and sunset.
The township of Soweto, famous as the former home of Nelson Mandela and epicentre of the 1976 Youth Uprising which made headlines around the world
The less polished side of Soweto can be seen via a bicycle ride through the dusty backstreets
After a whistle-stop tour of Johannesburg, I’m whisked away to the township of Soweto, famous as the former home of Nelson Mandela and epicentre of the 1976 Youth Uprising which made headlines around the world.
Today it’s a popular tourist spot, and Vilakazi Street is duly lined with buskers and souvenir stalls, but I’m here to see the less polished side of Soweto via a bicycle ride through the bustling back streets.
Day two begins with a 4am wakeup call and I’m driven to the small village of Skeerpoort where I’ll be be taken on a sunrise balloon ride with Bill Harrop’s Original Balloon Safaris.
Despite my initial jitters, I’m surprised at how smooth our ascent is, and any fears I had are soon dissolved by the breathtaking sunrise views over Gauteng and the North West province.
A family of hippos, herds of zebra (pictured) and countless giraffes can be spotted in the daily game drives that leave from Bakubung Bush Lodge in the southernmost tip of Pilanesberg National Park
With the help of expert ranger Gill Barrenger, I spot three out of the Big Five including a herd of elephants (pictured), a white rhino protecting her calf, and three lionesses stalking the bush
Luckily I’m in the capable hands of pilot Marc Nuthall, who has clocked up over 1,600 hours in the sky and deftly navigates the balloon by tracking the wind direction at different altitudes.
The landing is often unpredictable and after an hour-long flight I’m deposited in a field of bemused cows, marking the end of an undeniably surreal but unforgettable morning.
After breakfast, it’s onto Pilanesberg National Park, the lesser-known (and considerably smaller) little sister to safari hot spot Kruger.
With the help of expert ranger Gill Barrenger, I spot three out of the Big Five – a herd of elephants, a white rhino protecting her calf, and three lionesses stalking the bush in the dead of night – as well as a family of hippos, herds of zebra and countless giraffes.
My final pit stop before heading home is Hartbeetespoort, home to a jaw-dropping viewpoint on the Magaliesberg mountain range that’s accessible by the longest mono-cableway in Africa, nicknamed Harties Cableway.
Diners tuck into potjiekos, a traditional stew slow-cooked in cast iron pots over an outdoor fire, at Lebo’s Soweto Backpackers. The township is famous as the home of Nelson Mandela
Pap – a savoury porridge made from white maize – is a traditional accompaniment to pretty much any meal (seen here as a side with a plate of chicken and potato curry)
While kudu, ostrich and even crocodile meat are popular tourist fare in South Africa, our guide insists I try potjiekos, a traditional stew slow-cooked in cast iron pots over an outdoor fire.
. KLM flies to Johannesburg from London Heathrow via its multi-award winning hub, Amsterdam Airport Schiphol
. KLM operates a daily flight between Amsterdam and Johannesburg. Return economy fares from Heathrow start from £665, including taxes and charges
. Passengers can book online at www.klm.co.uk or by calling reservations on 020 76600293
. Bakubung Bush Lodge: From £230/ all-inclusive including game drives
. Indaba Hotel from £78/night per room
The hearty dish can be made from anything lamb to pork, chicken or oxtail with a side helping of starch and the locals certainly aren’t shy when it comes to portion sizes, piling up mountains of the stew alongside curries, salad and braai (barbecued meat).
Pap – a savoury porridge made from white maize – is a traditional accompaniment to pretty much any meal, while umqombothi (a sour-tasting beer made from maizemeal) and mageu (a non-alcoholic maize drink) prove something of an acquired taste.
As a steak lover I’m spoiled for choice, and despite the generous helpings I can’t resist a hefty wedge of melktert (milk tart) for dessert.
The amazing cuisine is just one of the reasons I’m already mentally planning my next trip to this vibrant and often misunderstood part of the world.
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