Land of Light: Exploring South Africa
by Susan Kostrzewa
Golden eyes locked with mine. The baleful stare pierced through me like an arrow, almost paralyzing me in excitement. As the African sunset melted behind the animal's muscular, dappled form, it lent a fiery aura to his outline. Perched on a bushveld anthill, the leopard quickly assessed us and looked in the other direction; we weren't worth the chase.
"Elusive leopard" is a safari cliche: many travelers never see one at all on their visits to Africa, much less encounter a splendid young male stalking just 20 feet in the distance. But as we discovered on our epic, 17-day journey across South Africa, such surprises are de rigeur in this diverse and evolving country.
Writers from Dinesen to Conrad have waxed poetic over Africa's expansive vistas and exotic people, and first-time visitors will find that South Africa is every bit as dramatic as even the most enthusiastic novelist would suggest. From the eerie calm of the Kruger grasslands to the wild, pounding surf of the Indian Ocean coastline, South Africa is ten countries in one.
By the end of our trip, we had danced with Zulu tribesmen and shared meat at a Xhosa tribal roast. We sipped wine while gazing at a vibrant grassland sunset, replete with the sounds of grunting wildebeest and, later, the trilling cacophony of giddy hyenas. At a conservation project, those of us who dared had the chance to stroke a cheetah's chin--and were delighted to find its purr similar to that of a contented house cat, though decidedly more robust.
Aptly named "South African Impressions," our tour was organized by Connex Travel, a well-connected ground operator based outside of Johannesburg. Combining cultural, sightseeing and safari experiences, the tour showcased South Africa's complex cultural and topographical quiltwork, without overloading us as first-time visitors.
Our group was small--just four travelers including myself and my mother--and the itinerary was wide-ranging, covering five distinct South African provinces and the independent country of Swaziland. Throughout our journey, we were impressed with the attention to detail and to our needs that each of our Connex guides exhibited and were grateful that it was our mood which set the pace, not theirs.
Another pleasant surprise was how relatively inexpensive South Africa was for travelers. For instance, a full meal for two, including appetizers, rarely exceeded $25, and a good bottle of wine usually cost between $4 and $6.
Though racial and cultural struggles have marred the image of South Africa, the melange of cultures and perspectives that created these tensions also lends fascinating flavor to this dynamic country. South Africa itself is vast, one-eighth the size of the United States. Traditions from across Europe, Asia and Africa influence the country's 45 million people, who communicate in at least 11 (official) languages. Inevitably, conflict and compromise are an integral part of life here.
For the most part, apartheid's unjust treatment of non-whites has given way to the spirit of Masakhane, or "working together for a better future." We saw evidence of the change for ourselves, such as when we drove past the sprawling Cape Flat townships. A gleaming new school building loomed over row after row of dilapidated shacks. Although poverty is still a reality, there's new hope for education.
Despite the obstacles, we were constantly encouraged by the positive outlook of South Africans of all colors, and found the atmosphere of change uplifting. We were reminded more than once that learned prejudice would take generations to abolish, and that it would take the sincere effort of all of the country's distinct cultural groups to undo centuries of oppression and make it all work.
Our itinerary exposed us to people and places of all backgrounds--English, African, Afrikaner, Indian--to name a few. My most memorable cultural experience took place at Lesedi Cultural Village, a collection of traditional homesteads located just north of Johannesburg and featuring the customs and people of the Zulu, Xhosa, Pedi and Basotho tribes.
Not just a cultural show, Lesedi is a real, living community. The homesteads are inhabited by four different families who continue to practice, and live by, traditional standards. Visitors are led through the homesteads and educated on the history and legends of each tribe, later convening around the boma (or meeting place) for a delicious, African-style feast of pap (maize porridge) and chicken, mutton or beef stew, which is then followed by traditional dancing.
While most visitors just spend the day at Lesedi, our overnight experience made our visit authentic. Sleeping in the Pedi village in a rondavel (circular, thatched-roof hut), we fell asleep to the peaceful sounds of the surrounding grassland and the quiet murmuring of our Pedi neighbors in their huts. The overnight stay also enabled me to sit around a fire with tribesmen from all four villages "after hours," drinking beer, learning dances and watching playful posturing as they attempted difficult (and potentially painful) Zulu dance moves.
The scenery of South Africa is equally unforgettable. I dubbed the vistas "point and shoot," since the drama and color made it seemingly impossible to take a bad picture. Riding in a comfortable mini-van (or "combie" if you're South African), we traveled through the dry, canyon-like region of the Mpumalanga province, the lush, mountainous vistas of Swaziland, and down the tempestuous, Big Sur-like eastern coast to Cape Town, feeling like each region was a different world from the last.
Of all the sights, one of the most memorable was the dizzying spectacle of the Blyde River Canyon with its sharp drop (up to 2,624 feet) of Escarpment to Lowveld. There seemed to be more baboons than humans in this 64,248-acre reserve, making the area especially unique.
Towering in the distance are the Three Rondavels, circular formations comprised of red rock that are named after their resemblance to the thatched-roof huts found in tribal villages. The brilliant green lichen growing on the "roofs" truly completed the likeness.
In contrast to the canyon's majestic panoramas were the ragged coastal cliffs and swirling inland lagoons lining the stretch from Port Elizabeth to Swellendam, known as the Garden Route. The idyllic landscapes around Wilderness and Knysna were best viewed from the Outeniqua Choo-Tjoe, a historic steam train that chugs along the coast on a rather perilous (and amazingly scenic) path.
Despite the beauty of such scenes, our last few days in Cape Town were the highlight of our trip. Jutting 3,565 feet above the gentle slopes and harbor of the city, Table Mountain inspires wonderment and awe.
Though Table Mountain dominates the area (it can be seen 90 miles out to sea), the quaint villages and azure bays on the Cape of Good Hope are also memorable and packed full of maritime history. Our guide pointed out at least three shipwrecks on our way down the Cape, and stopping in the snug village of Simon's Town was like dropping into an 18th century British port. Endless sandy beaches and winding coastline attract a fair share of surfers and tourists, but the beach culture has remained mainly unobtrusive.
While the people and scenery of South Africa alone merit the visit, it is the animal population that draws many to this country. Though we only spent a few days on safari in Mpumalanga's Kruger National Park and Kwazulu-Natal's Hluhluwe National Park, we saw a vast array of exotic creatures, including four of the "Big Five" (rhino, elephant, buffalo and leopard--no lion). This dispels the myth that one has to stay in a private lodge on a privately owned reserve to see the most sought-after animals.
Covering 4,815,008 acres (the size of Israel), Kruger's subtropical lowveld is ideal for everything from lions to lizards. Because of the park's size and the fact that it is not "fenced in," animal sightings are random and contingent on luck, but that's part of what makes the experience so exciting.
Thanks to our expert guide Francois, we learned to scan and scope the terrain like pros, looking for movement and inconsistencies in a world where animals have evolved to blend in. Of course, this led to more than one false alarm, as one of us would shriek "lion" or "hippo" only to be staring at a rock blob or short tree. Francois was infinitely patient and treated every one of our pseudo-sightings as legitimate grounds for a halt.
The hard-working days usually ended with a bottle of Stellenbosch (Cape Town's wine region) wine and a spirited review of everything we had seen, from fuzzy hyena cubs waiting for their mother to return from the kill to two old bachelor elephants taking a pendulous dip in a watering hole. The spectacle of 25 elephants of varying ages and sizes trotting across the road was another delightful perk, capped by the agitated trumpeting of the youngest calf to her mother who was obviously running too fast for comfort.
Though Kruger can boast of size and a vast animal population, the beautiful Hluhluwe (pronounced shloo-shloo-way) National Park is a mecca for the rare white rhino and is also one of the oldest wildlife sanctuaries in Africa. Situated in the heart of historic Zululand (homeland to the Zulu tribe established by late 18th century Zulu king Shaka) the park's 237,226 acres take in everything from woodland to savannah.
While giraffe and impala sightings were numerous in Hluhluwe, we were most thrilled by encountering an overheated rhino basking and sighing in a pool of sticky black mud. The rhino's relieved sighs and ecstatic, rolling eyes had us all in fits of laughter, and we felt sorry when our new friend ambled off into the bush, dramatically darker than when we had first seen him.
A land of surprises, South Africa astonishes and challenges. From the lonely stretches of savanna to the bustling port of Cape Town, the country is poised for a new and prosperous era. For the time being, the rest of us can just watch and learn, for South Africa has so much to teach.
Travel Tips: For information on "Impressions of South Africa" and other tours, contact BTI Connex Travel (Pty) Ltd; E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org; Web site: http://www.connex.co.za
Although not technically part of the "Impressions" tour, Lesedi Cultural Village can easily be added to the beginning of the trip since it is just outside of Johannesburg. Phone: 011-27-1205-57594; Fax: 011-27-1205-51433.
A luxurious hotel built in Italian Renaissance style, the Michelangelo is situated in Sandton, a suburb of Johannes-burg, and connected by underground tunnel to the extensive Sandton Shopping Centre. Phone: 011-27-11-282-7000; Fax: 011-27-11-282-7171.
Turn-of-the-century style elegance and proximity to one of the most beautiful (and tourist-free) beaches makes Karos Wilderness Hotel a mandatory stop on the Garden Route. A world-class buffet, spa, fitness center and pools are just some of the amenities. Phone: 011-27-44-877-1110; Fax: 011-27-44-877-0600.
In Kwazulu-Natal, the Bushlands Game Lodge offers deluxe wooden lodges built on stilts above the sand forest of the region. Surrounded by 300,000 acres of national parks, it's a perfect base for game viewing; right on the property, you can spot animals from zebra to bush babies. Phone: 011-27-35-562-20144; Fax: 011-27-35-562-0205.
Located at the foot of Cape Town's Table Mountain, the Kensington Place guest house affords excellent views of the mountain and Lions Head formation. The feeling that you're relaxing in an old friend's (very nice) house makes the experience even more pleasant, and each of the five guest rooms is whimsically and luxuriously decorated in the style of one of Henry VIII's wives! Phone: 011-27-21-244-744; Fax: 011-27-21-241-810; E-mail: email@example.com.
For information on additional programs and tour operators, see the Geographical Index under "South Africa."