Safari! South Africa

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Tourists to South Africa discover world-class wildlife, arresting scenery, topline luxury. And Susie finds the nation prompts another kind of awakening.

The giraffe, towering four metres tall, picks its way around sparse greenery sprouting from the canopy of an iconic, flat-topped acacia tree, carefully choosing shoots like a guest hovering over a tray of canapes, selecting the most appealing morsels.

Appropriately, the shadows here over the veld next to Kruger National Park are lengthening: it’s indeed approaching cocktail hour as we happen across the graceful giant metres from our open Land Rover. “Ha, look!!” chuckles khaki-clad ranger Josia, thrusting an arm from the driver’s seat, “the giraffe is having high tea!” The sheer joy in his voice at a sight he’s surely seen countless times – yet a novelty for us – is the most captivating moment of many arresting experiences on my first safari in South Africa.

There are other memorable encounters on our journey, with a prelude in cosmopolitan Cape Town, the nation’s second biggest and most agreeable city, and amid superb vineyards. Much that’s tantalising is packed into eight days exploring this unique “Rainbow Nation”. Some vignettes:

Cape Town. Home of pioneer surgeon Christiaan Barnard (and a museum tribute to his work) and of Australian cricketing infamy, west-coast Cape Town has a rich history irresistible to any mildly inquiring mind. A chic thriving city, in the areas visitors encounter, of some 4.5 million it’s the nation’s second biggest after Johannesburg, just ahead of east coast Durban amid the country’s estimated population of 57 million in an area a seventh the size of Australia – topographically beautiful and architecturally both historic and avant-garde. Drawcards Robben Island, Nelson Mandela’s prison, and Table Mountain often can’t be accessed: choppy seas halt the half-hour ferry trip; high winds close the cablecar. But, hakuna matata!, there’s plenty to do on a 70km drive south down the national park peninsula to the Cape of Good Hope, a Hamptons vibe of fishing hamlets, bathing-box beaches and discreet multimillion-dollar weekenders strung along a panoramic coastline. Here are magnificent cliff formations, a stunningly wild southern Atlantic Ocean, penguin colonies, brazen baboons, slothful fur seals, wallowing whales, ostrich farms. Guided tours or self-drive (as at home, on the left.) The city has all the facilities of a major Australian capital: bustling Victoria & Albert Waterfront, colourful Bo Kaap Malay colony, golf buggy rides and concerts in Kirstenbosch Botanical Gardens at Newlands (next to the cricket and rugby grounds) and District 6 Museum with its astonishing revelations of the bulldozing of the homes of 60,000 multi-racial inhabitants.

Accommodation: Tubs of miniature white roses announce our digs, More Quarters suites and boutique hotel, whitewashed heritage houses in a mews near the main “eat street”, Long Street. It’s cold: staff seat us near a log fire in the reception salon, serving coffee and cakes as they check us in. Our suites: timber floors, deep sofas, well-appointed kitchen, full fridge, white-draped king bed, sumptuous bathroom, night-lit garden. Club-like common areas with cosy library/IT nooks, help-yourself cornucopia of macaroons and fruit, self-serve evening cocktails and snacks. Breakfasts with abundant smoked salmon, passionfruit, eggs to order and a honeycomb panel dripping golden goodness onto fresh-made bakery. Sensational staff.

Dining: Game meats like springbok, ostrich and antelope, and of course biltong. International cuisine, seafood, Cape Malay curries, and wine degustation dinners at five-star One & Only resort. Capetonians excel at the current craze for craft gin; Amarula cream liqueur is a domestic specialty. Down the coast, the restaurant at exclusive Tintswalo Atlantic Lodge (11 ocean-edge suites) invites non-guests for unparalleled cuisine next to wind-driven waves crashing onto a pebbled beach on Hout Bay harbour. Exceptional.

Franschhoek winelands: An hour’s drive west of Cape Town, a must-do experience, even for teetotallers. (En route, a giant bronze statue of “Madiba” announces the prison where he completed his “long walk to freedom” in 1990.) Fashionable Franschhoek, a former Huguenot settlement with strong extant French culture in a spectacular valley, is notable for Paris-style sidewalk cafes and 40 other gastronomic experiences, chi-chi shops and galleries and the Wine Tram. With a running commentary on wine cultivation, the tram runs on rails along six Underground-style “lines” – red line, blue, etc, each comprising a clutch of outstanding whitewashed cellar door estates in the charming gabled Cape Dutch farmhouse style, rows of vines, picnic lawns and gardens. Visitors hop on, hop off at stops/pickups on the hour along the circuit. Winemaker tastings and charcuterie, restaurants and bars; return transfers offered from Cape Town. We stayed at Franschhoek Country House & Villas, a heritage French mansion with lavender gardens, lemon groves, swimming pools, Michelin-level restaurant and cellar, grand three-room suites, outré heated-floor bathrooms and super-luxe appointments. We visit Richard Branson’s elite Mont Rochelle manor resort for a fireside dinner, views across the valley to imposing surrounding mountains.
Hospitality par excellence.

Garonga Safari Camp: A private reserve and lodge in the Greater Makalali Conservancy on the western edge of Kruger National Park, its airstrip an hour flight NE ex Jo’burg. Ex-Brit military man Bernie Smith and an impressive team of mainly African rangers and trackers offer a haven of refinement contrasting with the virgin bush and bountiful free-roaming wildlife. Its nine “tents” and suites are in fact spacious constructions, most on tall elevated decks (a video at www.garonga.com makes the reason clear) with thatched or canvas pitched roof, mozzie-netted four-poster, huge bathroom, outdoor shower, hammocks, deck chairs. Sleep out for a night in a treehouse; take an open-air bubble bath in a candles-and-champagne grove. The tents, separated for privacy, are set around a central “boma” meals, mingling, pool and spa compound. Monkeys and squirrels scamper on the eaves and elephants sometimes scratch against the pylons; dazzles of zebras drink at the waterhole. Game drives early morning and evening, when animals graze, bookend dining (all-inclusive help-yourself cellar), sundowners, candle-lit tables under the stars, a braai (barbecue) around an open fire. Land Rovers with a ranger-driver and tracker, armed with rifles for safety, plunge guests on an exhilarating ride locating cheetahs, hippos, rhinos, lions and cubs, zebras, leopards, impala, kudu with their corkscrew horns, hyenas and birdlife, to within a breath of resting prides, grazing giraffes, elephants bathing. We meet Makalali’s formidable Riff Raff, a notorious 40-year-old rogue bull jumbo, his tusks broken stumps from an infamous life. (Look him up.) Relocated earlier this year in a welfare bid, he took just two days to travel cross-country back to his home turf here. At dusk we pause in a clearing; lanterns, canapes and cocktails materialise and rangers offer a laser-pointer guided commentary around the clear starry heavens. Unforgettable.

Desmond Tutu dubbed this the Rainbow Nation, aspiring to harmony among the nation’s racial mix after the – official – end of apartheid. Many feel the rainbow remains as illusive, and elusive, as its namesake arc in the sky: social inequality persists. On a number of fronts South Africa is a challenging destination: 50 murders a day, armed robbery, rape, HIV, dangerous armed rhino-horn poachers: Australian Foreign Affairs warns “high caution”. Gated housing estates are bastioned by high barbed wire fences. The government alerts tourists not to pay “fines” demanded on the roads. Water for drinking, bathing and even hand-washing is heavily restricted in Western Cape Province. Malaria mozzies are endemic in regions. (White farmers’ holdings are seized by government edict: last month two game parks in Limpopo province, where our game reserve’s located, were taken over when owners rejected one-tenth their asking price.) None of the threats materialised on my trip (“high caution” is DFAT’s rating also for France and Bali.) But it’s unfortunate if not ignorant to pass up the opportunity to try to understand the enduring “black and white”, the contrast between the luxury experienced by tourists and the reality of confronting endemic poverty, to learn at least a little of this complicated fractured country, still grappling with achieving fairness a quarter century after apartheid.

Khayelitsha and Langa: They’re called black “townships” but are actually in Greater Cape Town: vast shantytown suburbs, slums, settlements of corrugated- iron and rough-built shacks. Khayelitsha is the nation’s biggest, estimated of between half a million and 1.5 million residents. My visit to Langa is led by a township tour guide; his fee will benefit some we meet. (Even charity groups’ pictures of famine victims are decried as “poverty porn” yet an educated world finds township tourism a means of understanding, combating complacency, encouraging action.) I meet happy residents making traditional art and saleable commodities from found media; laughing children who, despite rubbish-strewn streets, poor sanitation, dicey electricity and no running water seem well-nourished, smartly dressed in donated garments; a single mum proud of her neat bed-cum-kitchen and sparkling cookpots stacked above a dresser-cum-washstand, her home a mini shipping container of 2m x 2m or so floor area. Many residents hitchhike for hours to work as domestics or in menial jobs for $10 a day. What dignity. How humbling.

Souvenirs: Diamonds, naturally. Bead work, too, is a traditional art: animals, bowls and figurines crafted in tiny coloured beads on wire frames. Also, ostrich eggshell carving: big tough shells etched and tinted as ornaments or as vessels, mirror frames, novelty goods. Mandela mementoes pervade, 100 years since his birth. I bought some terrific books, abundant at Jo’Burg’s O.R. Tambo Airport, on South African politics, governance, and ferment.

Currency: Due to family illness I left home in a rush, neglecting pre-purchase. Instead of Sydney Airport’s sky-high penalty rates I found the A$ more acceptable at the Jo’burg gateway than Rand exchange rates at home.

Welcome: South Africa gives that little extra: hotels thoughtfully put hot water bottles in beds in the evening, and hand-written cards with happy themes on pillows, wishing guests Goodnight.

Susie was a guest of Bench Africa, African continent tour specialists, flying business class courtesy of South African Airways. Bench Africa’s comprehensive 2019 brochure, with a vast choice of itineraries, at www.benchafrica.com or call their Sydney office on 9290 2877, then discuss with your local travel agent. Photos: Garonga Safari Camp; One & Only, Cape Town (G&T); Shumbalala Game Lodge (zebra).

Travel Editor, Susie Boswell.

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