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South Africa: It Never Gets Old

What a thrill it is to get so close to an elephant that you can hand feed it,

touch its tongue and even have closeup photo ops. The Elephant Interaction Experience at South Africa’s Kapama Private Reserve let me do just that. 

 

I have been to South Africa five times. It never gets old. Locking eyes with a lioness as she nurses her cubs or hear an elephant lift its trunk and let out a piercing trumpet sound are some of my great pleasures.

 

But South Africa is more than just a safari in search of the Big Five (lions, elephants, Cape buffalo, leopards, and rhinos). In wine country, the Big Five are Shiraz, Cabernet Sauvignon, Pinotage, Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnay. Besides animals and fabulous grapes, experiences like the Blue Train, Johannesburg, Durban and Cape Town can be just as rewarding.

 

Safaris

Safaris are a big reason most tourists visit South Africa. Follow a few simple rules in the bush to stay safe. Respect the animals. Stay quiet because you don’t want to spook them. If you are on a walking safari and there is a lion or Cape buffalo nearby, back away slowly. And most important, do not walk around the camp at night without an escort. You may not be the only animal roaming around. 

 

Landscapes can vary from scrubby or desert-like to green and jungle-like. There are also a variety of lodgings – from basic tent camping to very posh camps with spas. 

 

Safari destinations include private reserves, parks and the gigantic Krueger National Park (7,523 square miles). The Krueger, as many refer to it, is home to the Big Five. Leopards are the most elusive. The variety of other animals make up for that. Most plentiful are the birds, 507 different species to be exact.

 

Now you know the basics. This is what your safari might be like. 

 

If you are not a morning person, get over it. Safaris start out a little after sunrise. Your driver and often a spotter await. Bring binoculars. Climb into your safari vehicle and search the bush for impalas, zebras or wildebeests, the latter like to jump around and are so ugly that only a mother could love. Oh! There’s a black spot far on the horizon. Moving closer we see it is a herd of elephants. Their tusks are huge. Under a tree, there is a pride of lions. Seeing lots of animals makes time fly. Soon it is back to camp for breakfast. But it is not always that way. Sometimes, you don’t see many animals. Then time moves slowly. That’s the luck of the draw.

 

It is too hot for the animals to be out and about in mid-afternoon. They reemerge later. So do humans. The late afternoon game drive doesn’t return until evening. Lions often hunt after nightfall.

 

Coming upon an elusive leopard or a large herd of elephants is exciting but like Cape Town, many of South Africa’s cities have their own unique attractions. 

 

Cape Town

Cape Town reminds me a lot of San Francisco with a gorgeous hunk of rock behind it, Table Mountain. Instead of the Wharf, it has the V & A (Victoria and Alfred) Waterfront. Like Alcatraz, Robben Island Prison is not that far from shore. Instead of Sonoma and Napa, there is Stellenbosch and the Franschhoek wine routes.

 

Often clouds hover below Table Mountain or cling to its peak like icing on a cake. Though most people prefer the gondola ride to the top, the more intrepid hike up its steep 3,558 feet. Take a sweater. It gets chilly up there. 

 

Winding paths of the serene Kirstenbosch National Botanical Gardens occupy the mountain’s eastern slope. Its fragrance garden is not always sweet smelling but fun to explore.

 

Robben Island, the prison where Nelson Mandela spent 17 years, is a seven-mile ferry boat ride from the waterfront. The island, once a whaling station, leper colony and, for 500 years, a penitentiary, became a World Heritage Site in 1999. Tours of the jail are given by former apartheid political prisoners. They share a unique perspective of what it was like to be incarcerated here. 

 

Bo-Kaap neighborhood’s brightly colored houses pose a sharp contrast to the dreary, gray prison. Cobblestone streets crawl up Signal Hill slopes. In the late 17th century, Muslim craftsman, tailors and shoemakers settled here. Since 1844, its Nurul Islam Mosque muezzin have been calling the faithful to prayer. 

 

But Cape Town is not all beautiful. Rows upon rows of shanties line the unpaved roads of Langa Township where apartheid lingers. Some black people still live in one-room shanties with no running water. Unemployment is rampant. Amazingly, the people we meet do not seem to be bitter. 

 

Winelands

The winelands, with their green, open spaces paint quite a different picture and history from the crowded townships.

 

Franschhoek, became a refuge for the French Huguenots in the late 17th century. With them came grape vines and the beginning of South African wine-making culture. Today the lovely village surrounded on three sides by mountains, is brimming with boutiques, backstreet vineyards and fine restaurants like Le Quartier Francais. I give lunch here “six yums.” 

 

Vines spill down the mountains on family-owned wine estates near Stellenbosch, 14 miles southwest of Franschhoek. White Dutch Colonial buildings and Oomie (Uncle) Sam’s, the town’s general store, haven’t changed much since it opened in 1904. The little lady behind the counter looks like she is one of the
original cashiers.

 

Down the road and chiseled out of a mountain, the Bergkelder winery has a vault-like cellar brimming with thousands of bottles of wine. Huge oval barrels are carved with the area’s history. Wine tasting includes Sauvignon Blanc and Shiraz.

 

Want to do something else besides grape sipping? Visit the Cape of Good Hope and Cape Point. The scenic drive follows mountains roads that rise and fall to the sea. Waves pound against the craggy cliffs and rugged shoreline. 

 

Undisturbed by peeping people, an African penguin colony waddles along Boulders Beach. Their heehawing sounds silly. A sign posted near the entrance says, “Warning: Please look under your vehicle for penguins.”

 

Raucous baboons run across the road, pose on rocks and beg for food near the Cape of Good Hope. Cape Point tourists crowd behind the sign proclaiming this is the southernmost point of Africa. 

 

High winds, shipwrecks and the Flying Dutchman have made it famous. In 1641, Captain van der Decken, the “Flying Dutchman,” disappeared after vowing, “Even if it takes until doomsday I will sail around the cape.” 

 

Legend has it that his ship can be seen rounding the cape in the eye of a severe storm. Don’t look too carefully. Those who see it will die. 

 

Durban and Zululand

Durban sits about 1,000 miles from Cape Town in the northeastern section of South Africa. This modern, melting pot is part of the KwaZulu-Natal (aka Zululand). Bordering the Indian Ocean, it is a land of golden beaches. The famous but crowded Golden Mile Beach is favored by sun worshippers. 

 

Moses Mabhida Stadium has become Durban’s iconic landmark. Take the Skycar to the top for a spectacular 360° view of the area. Try the Big Rush Big Swing or the 500-step walk to the top of the Arch. Attached to a harness, leap 772 feet down into the stadium bowl.

 

About 162 miles north of Durban is a luxurious safari camp, Thanda. Travelers can mingle with the friendly Zulus that run it and learn about their culture and customs.

 

Blue Train

Traveling on the famous Blue Train from Cape Town to Pretoria or vice versa is another option. The 27-hour trip (994 miles) is a trip back to the time when train travel was popular. Snow-capped mountain ranges, desert landscapes and wild animals glide past its windows. Considered one of the world’s most luxurious trains, amenities include butler service and outstanding food and wine. I ate so much, I thought they would have to roll me off the train in Pretoria. 

 

Johannesburg

Natives refer to the city as Jo’burg. The downtown area is beginning to be revived but most tourists opt to visit Soweto (an acronym for Southwestern Township). No whites live here. 

 

Soweto was the scene of violent apartheid protests in 1976. Many blacks were brutally killed. Soweto’s Apartheid Museum takes visitors on a journey from when the color of your skin (mulattos and Indians were included) determined how you could live your life. Exhibits are depressing and shocking.

 

Much of Soweto does not have running water and indoor plumbing. Many did not have electricity until the end of Apartheid in 1994. Getting the township these basic needs is still a work in progress.

 

Separated by a valley, Soweto’s Diepkloof section boasts some very high-end homes. They are hidden behind high walls topped with barbed wire. Nelson Mandela and Desmond Tutu lived in the Orland West neighborhood. Mandela’s house is now a museum. 

 

I love South Africa. There is always something new to discover. Every time I leave, I keep trying to figure out when I can return and explore more of it. 

 

For more information, visit South Africa Tourism: www.southafrica.net/us/en and South African Airways: www.flysaa.com

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