Few countries have gone through such cataclysmic change over the past two decades as South Africa. Having transitioned rapidly from pariah state to tourism magnet, the “Rainbow Nation” is a land of stark contrasts. Its landscape is a coat of many colours; the attractions as diverse as anywhere on the planet.
From world-class shopping malls to shanty towns, leafy suburbs to amazing game reserves, world-class wines to home-brewed township beers and city slickers to witchdoctors, South Africa offers intriguing glimpses of both luxury and life in the raw. Couples can choose from adventure, safaris, fine food and wine, spas, or just walking and cycling together.
Not only is South Africa dramatically beautiful, nearly everyone speaks English. And whether you employ a car and driver or strike out on your own journey of exploration, you can be exploring a market in Soweto one day and watching lions in a game reserve the next.
Combine a little romance with a wildlife experience by starting your journey being whisked from Johannesburg’s Tambo Airport to The Palace of the Lost City, part of the Sun International group that has upmarket hotels and resorts around the country. The ultra-luxe resort features 338 rooms, all with a distinct African theme, and lavish architecture – think Middle Eastern style meets African chic, surrounded by botanical gardens, streams and walking trails. Guest activities include balloon game safaris, golfing on two Gary Player- designed courses (look out for the crocodiles at one of the water hazards), gambling at the casino or swimming at an artificial beach with its own wave machine.
The Palace is one of five hotels within the Sun City resort, a two-hour drive from Johannesburg and close to two of South Africa’s best malaria-free wildlife reserves; the Pilanesberg National Park and the Madikwe Game Reserve. For anyone not wanting to take malaria medication to visit the Kruger National Park, this is the next best thing.
Pilanesberg National Park is the fourth-largest in the country; a melting pot of terrains in the crater of an extinct volcano. It’s home to populations of lion, leopard, rhino, elephant and buffalo (Africa’s Big Five) and so much more. Don’t be deceived by the somnambulent hippos: they are among the most dangerous of all wild animals. Early morning and dusk are the best time to spot most animals, so game drives are usually scheduled for super-early and then again in the late afternoon, often stopping for a traditional gin and tonic as the sun sets. But remember to keep your windows closed when you get back to Sun City. The local baboons – and there are plenty of them – have been known to enter rooms and cause havoc.
Johannesburg has been demonised as crime-ridden, but has cleaned up its act recently and is well worth a few days of any visitor’s time. It’s a big sprawling city, ugly with its slag heaps of gold mine residue, but still the richest city on the continent. Here you’ll need either a hire car or a driver, and a knowledgeable local guide would be invaluable.
Downtown is rough and ready with market stalls, many vandalised and deserted buildings and piles of rubbish. It is, however, fascinating to explore the witchdoctors’ stalls offering off-the-street consultations and visit shops selling traditional muti or medicines. In contrast, you’ll find massive shopping malls in the northern suburbs (with all the global brands represented), while the The Maslow – a hotel in the upscale suburb of Sandton – is a very good base, with one of the country’s best spas on site.
It would be foolish to miss out on a day in Soweto, now home to cafés and bars, and even B&Bs offering a unique experience.The ultra-modern Gautrain links downtown Jo’burg with the northern suburbs in just a few minutes, but you’ll probably need to take an organised tour to Soweto. With many local businesses having invested heavily in tourism, the most- visited parts of Soweto are very safe, including Vilakazi Street – the only thoroughfare in the world to have been home to two Nobel Peace Prize winners (Nelson Mandela and Dr Desmond Tutu).
In contrast to what you might expect, Soweto is home to malls, upwardly mobile suburbs and world-class football stadiums (FNB Stadium, aka Soccer City, aka The Calabash, was the venue for the 2010 World Cup final), although there are still plenty of shanty towns, known as “informal settlements”. Must-do Jo’burg activities include the Apartheid Museum to discover South Africa’s shameful past; and a meal in one of the world-class restaurants in Nelson Mandela Square. Recommended is The Butcher Shop & Grill, where some of the steaks are big enough for two to share. Another part of the pulsating city not to miss is the resurgent Maboneng precinct, close to downtown. It’s alive with cafés, bars, art galleries and vibrant young people of all creeds and colours.
Multicultural Cape Town, a long drive or a two-hour flight from Johannesburg, is a spectacularly beautiful city that sits at the intersection of the Atlantic and Indian Oceans, under the watchful eye of dramatic Table Mountain. With its Mediterranean climate, vibrant multicultural lifestyle, beautiful beaches (although the water can be cold) and pretty villages and gardens, it’s not to be missed.
Travel to the top of Table Mountain by cable car to enjoy spectacular views, visit hip beaches like Clifton, lunch in busy Sea Point, check out the colourful Muslim quarter of Bo- Kaap and sample the nightlife and many different ethnic eateries after hours in busy Long Street.
The bustling V&A Waterfront is famous for its al fresco dining, shopping and free entertainment. It’s home to The Table Bay, a member of Leading Hotels of the World, which enjoys a waterfront location at the centre of the action. The hotel serves arguably the best high tea in the country and a selection of African fusion dishes at its Camissa restaurant, and also runs some fascinating urban foraging experiences.
Robben Island, where Nelson Mandela was the most famous prisoner, is just a short ferry ride away from the Table Bay. Take advice from locals and book well in advance as the tours can be oversubscribed. There are also 17 different wine regions within an hour or two of Cape Town – including the very chic Franschhoek, Stellenbosch and Paarl – while many visitors like to head out of town to do some whale watching on the Cape Peninsula, or take a drive for a few days along the beautiful Garden Route to Port Elizabeth.
Wherever you go in South Africa you’ll find tremendous value.
NEED TO KNOW
FLY: South African Airways (SAA) has linked with code-share partner Virgin Australia to offer return fares from major Australian airports to Johannesburg. SAA operates to 40 destinations worldwide with daily direct flights from Perth to Johannesburg with connections from all major Australian cities. Call 1300 435 972 or visit the website here.
STAY: The Palace of the Lost City, The Maslow and The Table Bay are all part of Sun International’s Sunlux Collection. To book your SunLux package, call Wildlife Safari Free Call 1 800 998 558 Email firstname.lastname@example.org