I'm one of the many travellers who have long associated South Africa with dusty safaris and a high crime rate, or mumbled excuses about its landscapes being just like our own.
But after 11 days of breathtaking surprises which, admittedly, did include the odd animal encounter – there were also endless mountain landscapes, empty beaches and sunrises and sunsets of an indescribably spectacular pink hue.
Its coastlines rival Australia's or California's Pacific Coast. But here, roads aren't clogged with traffic and you can always find a park, and accommodation, ranging from high-end lodges to cute French colonial guesthouses, won't cost you an arm and a leg.
From Port Elizabeth to Cape Town, white sandy beaches stretch for 750 kilometres along the famed Garden Route National Park, framed with ragged mountains that are distinctly from no other continent but Africa.
Surfers will love Jeffrey's Bay, or J-Bay, as it is affectionately known, the "surf mecca of the world" where there are miles of waves and pristine beaches you'll have all to yourself. And you don't have to be a surfer to enjoy them – here you can learn, or have fun sandboarding down its slopes.
Nearby you can experience one of the world's biggest bungy jumps at Bloukran's Bungy, which is a stomach-churning 216 metres high – double the height of "adventure capital" New Zealand's highest (Queenstown's Nevis Highwire is 134 metres). Watch the jumpers as they plunge off the edge of the bridge, arms outstretched like angels. Adventure seekers who don't want to jump can get their shot of adrenaline just walking through a wire-enclosed bridge along the canyon.
It has some of the world's best "kloofing", the South African name for canyoning, where you can test your endurance levels plunging into icy cold pools of water, and learn to abseil. I won't kid you, it's hard work swimming, ziplining and hiking your way through, but it's an adventure you'll never forget.
There are not many places in the world where you can dive into shark-infested waters 20 minutes from shore. But over Gansbaii, a two-hour drive from Cape Town, Shark Alley is one of the best places you can go shark cage diving. It's also one of the only places in the world where the battles between nature have made even bigger headlines than the dingo eating a shark at Fraser Island – just ask the locals about the two orcas who have been making a meal out of great whites. But you don't have to cage dive to get a view of the sharks. The clear waters of Plettenberg Bay make it one of the best places in the world to view great whites from land.
You can also swim with seals in areas that aren't inundated with sharks at Hout Bay, or trail after enormous pods of dolphins off Port Elizabeth. It's an exhilarating sight – watching literally hundreds of these creatures, from three-day-old babies to battlescarred males, passing around and under the boat at arm's reach.
Cape Town's Table Mountain is every bit as spectacular as you'd imagine, as Christ the Redeemer is at Rio. There are numerous ways to experience it – from cable car, to hiking nearby Lion's Head, and scenic chopper flights – but the more unique way is to abseil down its sheer cliff face, where experienced abseilers guide you through a 100-metre drop that ends in a (pleasant) surprise.
South Africa also produces world-class wines like Australia and California at a fraction of the cost – $60 will buy you one of the country's best bottles. And if you like to party, you can do so to the wee hours from Cape Town to Johannesburg, which buzz from Friday night till Sunday.
The overlooked city of Johannesburg has become a vibrant city, it's Soviet-esque buildings brightened with huge, colourful murals. It's a particularly fun place to explore on a weekend when locals browse indoor markets, sampling craft brews, cocktails and local cuisine before partying in the afternoon and into the night, when hip young things congregate at rooftop bars and courtyards.
And it's coffee? Well admittedly, it still has some work to do there, but nowhere's perfect.
So this is what it's really like to travel South Africa. It's probably not on your bucket list. But it should be.
South Africa Tourism, southafrica.net
Qantas flies directly to Johannesburg from Sydney daily, qantas.com
South African Airways flies from Perth daily, connecting travellers from Melbourne and Sydney with Virgin. flysaa.com
The writer was a guest of Visit South African Tourism