Travelling and exploring with Liezel van der Westhuizen

by Stef Terblanche


Popular emcee, keynote speaker, media personality, and adventure girl Liezel van der Westhuizen shares with our readers some of her most memorable and favourite holiday destinations and experiences across South Africa.

At her young age she’s a household name and, with her big smile and cropped blonde hair, a familiar face to millions of South Africans and people from further afield. In just a few years after leaving the University of Pretoria with a Master’s Degree in Communication Management and being scouted by Jacaranda FM, Liezel van der Westhuizen’s career has taken off in leaps and bounds.

Her CV reads like that of someone twice her age. While at university she presented as a radio jock on Tuks FM, which led to stints at Jacaranda FM and at EMI Music South Africa as International PR Manager. The latter introduced her to an array of global music stars.

Then followed an 18-month stint as an SABC3 continuity presenter and presenter of the lunchtime show Lunchbox. Next came the opportunity to present the highly popular Idols show on TV for several seasons; host SABC3’s daily breakfast show, Expresso; launch SoundCheck Live on MNET; do a weekly radio show, the Sunday Sundowner, on 94.5KFM in Cape Town; make her on-screen debut in the movie, The Race-ist; and work as a sought-after emcee and keynote speaker. Liezel is only the second woman in the world to have presented the globally franchised Idols show.

In-between she’s even found time to work as a voiceover artist with an impressive portfolio of work and become a member of Toastmaster’s International, receiving her Advanced Toastmaster Bonze certificate. She stays fit by training six times a week, is also an ambassador for Glass Recycling South Africa, and is deeply involved with the charity Velokaya, based in Khayelitsha, Cape Town and which is a not-for-profit organisation that uses a range of holistic, education-based cycling programmes. In addition she’s an ambassador for Operation Smile that provides surgical care to children suffering from a cleft lip or palate. Last year Liezel cycled across the Himalayas to raise funds for Operation Smile, the first South African to do this with a blind athlete joining her on a tandem bicycle.

On top of it all she was voted number 56 in the FHM Hot 100 Sexiest Women in the World, and again in 2009, while also being nominated in the Heat Hot 100 in both years. Furthermore, designer Simon Rademon listed her as 4th best dressed woman in South Africa in 2008 and she was also nominated for an Olay SA Iconic Woman award.

But, there’s even more! She’s also an adventure girl and much-reckoned competitor in some of the toughest sporting events. In 2012 and 2013 Liezel partnered with Canoeing SA’s High Performance coach Greg van Heerden to finish the toughest canoe marathon in the world – The Unlimited Dusi Canoe Marathon. And she was selected to be part of Nestle’s Triathlon team, has completed a number of gruelling Ironman Triathlons and recently crossed to Robben Island and back on a stand-up paddle board. On top of this she’s also an Advanced Nitrox scuba diver.

How does anyone keep up with this career-driven, professional, action girl? Well, the lucky man’s name is Mike Fannin, a Cape Town-based financial advisor and director of the family office of a leading South African wealth management firm. Liezel and Mike became engaged last year. Mike is himself a successful triathlon and Iron Man competitor, which truly makes them something of a power couple.

Where, one might ask, does Liezel’s inspiration for all of this come from? It came from her beloved grandmother who, before passing away from cancer, told her: “Grab every opportunity in life and enjoy every moment of it.”

But it’s not all work and no play for Liezel. Where she finds the time is hard to say, but she also loves travelling to enjoy exciting new places and experiences. Fortunately for her, she can often combine work with travel, although she also enjoys her own private travelling experiences, more recently shared with Mike at her side.

I asked Liezel to share with our readers some of her thoughts and tips on travelling as well as some of her most memorable and favourite destinations and experiences. Here’s what she told us.


Q: Tell us a bit in general about why you love travelling – what is your philosophy about travelling and exploring?

Liezel: My philosophy has changed over the last 18 months, and I have looked at becoming more responsible as a tourist, being more respectful of nature, and cultural environments, as well as looking at destinations that are conscious about contributing to the local economic development.


Q: Are you able to travel much because of your work? Does it take you to out-of-the-way places, some hidden gems that not many people get to experience?

Liezel: I am very blessed to be able to travel as an MC and speaker. My work takes me to a variety of hidden gems across the world. Not only do I get to work in different locations as an MC and corporate trainer, I always make sure that I have time before or after my working schedule to explore these destinations together with the locals.


Q: At Mzanzitravel it’s our mission to promote local travel. What are your views, your take, on local travel as opposed to overseas travel?

Liezel: 2019 is my year to spend more time exploring Africa. We are so blessed to have so many phenomenal destinations right on our doorstep, or just a short flight away. I would choose an African country over a European one any day and I wish more South Africans would do the same.  I have made a bucket list of local destinations I want to see this year including going scuba diving on the Aliwal Shoal and the Sardine Run as well as doing more hiking trips.


 Q: Why do you think South Africans should explore their own country?

Liezel: South Africa has so many hidden gems which we often overlook and very affordable destinations to suit any budgetary requirement.   It’s not even about exploring different provinces – each province and each south African town or city has so many hidden gems right on their doorsteps that we often overlook. So start exploring your local town and city to see what is on offer.


Q: What are your top local (South African) travel/holiday destinations that you have been to and that really stand out for you?  

Liezel: I’d say top of the list is Africa on Foot Walking Safaris within the Kruger National Park. The personalized attention from the staff and the knowledge of the rangers stood out for me. I’ve never done a walking safari before and it’s truly a different way to experience the Kruger. This walking safari sees you walking from one tented safari camp to the next, with lunch stops along the way. I was lucky enough to spend time with owner-managing team, Cecilia and Courtenay Blunden, who both  are keen conservationists with a passion for lion pride dynamics.

Next on my list is the West Coast National Park. This is such a hidden gem, only 120 km north of Cape Town, with a spectacular lagoon, stunning secret beaches, and plenty of bird and animal life. The appearance of the lagoon area can make you think you’re on a Greek island. This is one of my regular spots to visit but my most recent trip there was to take part in a triathlon being organized within the park. There is also a lovely kayak tour that goes through the lagoon, stopping for a picnic on one of the secret beaches. September is peak flower season in the West Coast National Park, and this should be on every south African’s bucket list, as the park comes alive with a sea of colour.

Then there’s the ever-fascinating Matjiesfontein, made famous by the legendary Scottish railway man, James Douglas Logan, the author Olive Schreiner, and the Anglo-Boer War. This tiny village, on the fringe of the Great Karoo transports you back in time. And the locals in this town make everyone feel so welcome. This was a recent stop on my Rovos Rail train trip, and it was my first time visiting this unique little town.

Another favourite would be the coastal town of Gansbaai, near Hermanus. This little town is a popular tourist destination and known for its wonderful marine life including white sharks and copper sharks. As someone who spends a lot of time in the ocean, from scuba diving to stand-up paddling, I understand the importance of protecting our beautiful marine animals. I spent time with the team of marine biologists from Marine Dynamics to go shark-cage diving and got to see the hard work they do behind the scenes in respect of marine research, conservation and education projects. Other interesting places in Gansbaai not to be missed include Grootbos with its conservation and community projects, and the African Penguin and Seabird Sanctuary which was set up to assist the endangered African penguin colonies of Dyer Island.

Another unbeatable experience is South Africa’s famous Route 62 road trip, the tourist route that takes you on a mesmerizing journey through the Western Cape and Eastern Cape. The route meanders between Cape Town and Oudtshoorn, the Langkloof and Port Elizabeth, offering the shorter, scenic alternative to the N2 highway. It has everything, from searching for the legendary ghost in Uniondale, to buying cheese in Ladismith or finding quaint little wine farms and restaurants along every stop. I travel this route whenever I head to the Knysna Oyster Festival.

Lastly, Mpumalanga’s Panorama Route is also an absolute must-do. I travelled this route for a travel show exploring all the towns along the way, and spent time exploring Pilgrim’s Rest and the surrounds. This is an adventure paradise with so many activities to keep young and old busy. I went zip lining, quad biking, hiking, birding and many other things. This is one of my favourite tourist routes in the country, perhaps even in the world.


Q: What made you go to them? Was it work or leisure or combined?

Liezel: I try to combine most of my work trips with local holidays, so that I can experience parts of South Africa that I haven’t been to before. I will always add on a few extra days to a work trip, so that I can absorb my surroundings and explore, and if time is an issue, I spend every free moment I have being out and about, exploring the local areas and meeting local people.


Q: Would you recommend them to other South Africans and why?

Liezel: South Africa is such a unique country with so many beautiful and magical destinations, it’s always hard for me to pick my next destination, or suggest specific places to people, because there’s so much on offer. We have a bit of everything and something for everyone in South Africa! We have destinations that will fit any budget, as well as offer you completely different aspects from bush to beach, sun to snow.


Q: Who did you travel with? Did you meet any interesting people at these places, other well-known people, celebrities etc.?

Liezel: I travelled with my fiancé Mike to all these destinations. We love exploring together and getting to know the locals – it’s something that makes our trips just that much more special.


Q: What are your thoughts on a woman travelling alone in South Africa?

I have often travelled around South Africa alone as a woman. Last year I went on a walking safari in the Kruger with Sun Destinations. Many of their trips cater for a single traveller or woman travelling alone. So, you know you’re in safe hands. Always do your research and use a reputable transfer company for collections, drop-offs and any sightseeing tours. Always check with your hotel, guest house, or hosts about the safety in the particular area that you are staying in.


Q: What are your best memories of these holidays/visits – can you describe them and tell us why?  

 Liezel: In December 2018, I travelled to an island within the Quirimbas National Park of Mozambique, a protected area, because I am also trying to be a more conscious traveller. I try to select destinations that are eco-friendly, and I care about the marks we leave on the places I travel to. This was a very special holiday for me as I got engaged to my boyfriend and now fiancé, Mike!


Q: Will you share with us some of your memorable travel experiences in other parts of Africa?

Liezel: I am in love with Madagascar, Mozambique and Zimbabwe. I spent time in each of these countries the past 18 months and cannot begin to describe, not only the beauty, but the people and their incredible cultures. I’ve been very fortunate to also travel abroad quite frequently in the last few years, mostly for work, which has really fuelled my passion for travelling even more. I recently cycled over the famous Himalayas in India, and have also been to Bali, Hong Kong, Germany, and the Maldives.

Well, there you have it. Where she finds the time and energy for everything, is a mystery to us! But Liezel is certainly going places… in her career, her personal life, her charity work and absolutely in her travels.