Friday, July 1, 2011

The Ultimate South African Odyssey

The view looking north and east from Rhodes memorial at Devil's Peak in Cape Town.
The Ultimate South African Odyssey
by Gregory Speck

With much of the planet now embroiled in violent political upheaval or struggling with environmental disasters, the choice of exotic destinations for the adventurous traveler is rapidly dwindling, but beautiful and vast South Africa is still relatively safe, combining worldclass sophistication in a cosmopolitan lifestyle with the breathtaking natural wonders of spectacular scenery and unsurpassed wild animal safari experiences.

While America has experienced its own centuries of internal war and racial strife, our history seems tame when compared with that of South Africa, where the ancient indigenous San, Khoe, Zulu, and Xhosa (Nelson Mandela's father was a chief of this Nguni tribe) peoples came to be ruled for 400 years by European settlers. It was the Portuguese explorer Bartolomeu Dias who in 1487 first sailed around the Cape of Good Hope, where the Atlantic meets the Indian Ocean, and Vasco da Gama who in 1498 on Christmas Day on his way to India named the Natal province in honor of Jesus's birth.

Jan van Riebeeck.
Dutch settler Paul Kruger.
Cecil Rhodes.
By 1590 the Dutch and English had begun staking their claims to what would soon become and still is Africa's economic powerhouse, and in 1652 the Dutch East India Company was established at Table Bay, the site of captivating Cape Town, under one Jan van Riebeeck.

These Calvinist and Anglican Protestants were soon joined by German Lutherans, as well as French Huguenots fleeing the persecution of Louis XIV in 1688, and so these four European strains came to constitute the uniquely South African white people known as Akrikaaners, whose distinctive Afrikaans language combines elements of all four linguistic roots.

"Boers" began their pioneer treks in covered wagons to colonize the largely unknown inland country, thrice the size of Texas. Thus began a long series of vicious wars, first between the black tribes (whose best known leader was King Shaka Zulu) and the white farmer/soldier invaders, and then between the British and Dutch colonists, ending only in 1902.

In 1869 diamonds were discovered at Kimberley, which raised the stakes in the simmering Anglo-Boer wars, and then in 1886 a reef of subterranean gold was discovered near Johannesburg, on the Witwatersrand. These mines provided 6th generation Dutch settler Paul Kruger, who in 1883 had become the first President of the Boer Transvaal state of ZAR (South African Republic, established in Pretoria), with yet more reasons to wage guerrilla warfare against the English, who were based in Cape Town.

In 1887 the British entrepreneur Cecil Rhodes founded De Beers Consolidated Mines, which has controlled the diamond industry ever since, and with his major share in the new gold mines, became one of the richest men in the world, and the first "randlord."

His enormous fortune soon led him to envision a British empire stretching from Cape Town to Cairo, and though he did become Prime Minister of the Cape Colony and create the adjacent colonial states of Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) and Bechuanaland (now Botswana), his conflict with Kruger's rival Boer state to the north embarrassed London, which forced Rhodes' humiliating resignation.

Apart from involvement as an allied British colony in the world wars of the 20th century, South Africa's recent history has been wracked by the struggle to impose and then to end apartheid government, in which the black population first had no rights, and now through the efforts of Mandela, Desmond Tutu, and others governs the nation, with a population advantage of 12 to 1.

Despite all this long saga of conflict, slavery, and racial oppression, however, the people of this enchanting nation are among the sweetest to be found on Mother Earth, whether they live in the first-world style of elegant luxury and modern comfort, or in the third-world habitat of squalid shanty townships and primitive indigence just down the road.
Cecil Rhodes monument near Groote Schuur.
Cape Town

While many travel agents will tell you to fly from city to city, given the substantial distances within South Africa, this intrepid writer instead rented a Toyota from Avis at the Cape Town airport, and in four weeks put 6,200 kilometers on it, driving from the SW coast via Durban on the Indian Ocean to the NE border at famed Kruger national park, and then back via Pretoria and Johannesburg. Along the way the many vistas of imposing mountains and poetic valleys, alluring beaches and dramatic gorges, towering waterfalls and deep canyons, and especially the rocky peaks around Cape Town kept the cameras in use.

Along the way the many vistas of imposing mountains and poetic valleys, alluring beaches and dramatic gorges, towering waterfalls and deep canyons, and especially the rocky peaks around Cape Town kept the cameras in use.
The harbor of Cape Town.
Similar in inspirational setting and special atmosphere to both San Francisco and Sydney, Cape Town is surely one of the most charming and liveable cities in the world, built right on the ocean below the towering Table Mountain and surrounded by the glorious beaches of Clifton Bay and Sandy Bay, itself just south of the Twelve Apostles chain of seaside peaks. Indeed the climate and topography resemble both the French Riviera and California's Laguna Beach, with an upscale resort feel to many of the distinctive neighborhoods and suburbs.
The view of Central Cape Town and the harbor.
Looking towards Table Mountain and Lion's Head from Signal Hill.
Beautiful Beaches abound along the coast of Cape Town.
Many historic sites, such as the Castle of Good Hope, vintage houses full of antique family treasures, national museums devoted to art and natural history, stately old churches like St. George's Cathedral (where Tutu preached), and the handsome Houses of Parliament, beckon the visitor to their location around the centrally located Company Gardens, though ornithologists will want to focus on Hout Bay's World of Birds, where you may walk among the free-flying hawks, owls, and eagles.

Ichthyologists will have to see the Two Oceans Aquarium at the pleasant harbor, where you can swim with the sharks, and botanists will need to stroll through lovely Kirstenbosch Gardens, far below the famed Cable Car to Table Mountain rising above it all.
Castle of Good Hope.
Cape Town City Hall.
Cape Town is replete with vintage houses full of antique family treasures and national museums devoted to art and natural history.
South African National Gallery.
More impressive house museums and civic buildings.
Houses of Parliament in Cape Town. Cape Town is the legislative capital, whilst the seat of government is in Pretoria, the administrative capital.
Cecil Rhodes' splendid estate Groote Schuur will prove a revelatory visit into the past, where the grandeur of the magnate politician's 115-year-old mansion is surrounded by lush gardens and pools. The discreet curator Eduard Bantjes might even tell you about the controversial visionary's secret private life, until his premature death in 1902.

Born in 1853 as the sickly son of an impoverished English preacher, Rhodes arrived in Cape Town in 1870, and embarked on a cotton farming venture, which soon went bankrupt, so he turned to mining, and managed eventually to gain control of the entire diamond industry. To overcome his embarrassing illiteracy, he quietly acquired a huge library of ancient and modern classics, and even had many books typed and bound for his own education.
Cecil Rhodes' Groote Schuur.
A confirmed lifelong bachelor whose inner circle numbered only close male companions, Rhodes happened to meet the young British architect Sir Herbert Baker on nearby Table Mountain, engaged him in 1893 to renovate the aging manor house he had rented, and then in 1896 to rebuild Groote Schuur after a devastating fire; the result was and is opulent.

Sir Herbert Baker.
The two men remained the best of friends until Rhodes died, after which Baker went on to become one of history's most successful and renowned architects, for which he was knighted, as was Rhodes, who bequeathed his fortune to fund The Rhodes Scholarship program.

The enormous granite bathtub in the mansion, which has been the home of every prime minister ever since, seems big enough for two, being as large as an Egyptian sarcophagus, and the intimacy and subtexts of their correspondence would imply that the two men were lovers, though such a thought would scandalize South Africa to this day, as it did back then.

Such a glorious city is of course anchored by a magnificent landmark hotel, so when you go you may well want to stay at The Mount Nelson, affectionately known as the Old Nellie. A grand dame comparable to London's Claridge's, Singapore's Raffles, and our own Greenbrier, this elegant pink palace of the colonial era offers everything to be expected of a 5 star resort, and Orient-Express makes sure that the hospitable service is attentive and personal, whether you are dining in The Planet restaurant on chef Karl Tichart's haute cuisine (he learned it under Gordon Ramsay), having high tea in the sumptuously decorated lounge, or enjoying a spa treatment by the pool on the lawn. Winston Churchill lived at the Old Nellie while he was a journalist here, and his suite is across the hall from the exquisite Royal Suite, which is most comfortable.
If your tastes lie with more contemporary decor, you might prefer the Cape Royale Hotel, also 5 stars, but located closer to the ocean and decorated in a futuristically sleek and chic theme, with inlaid marble floors, a rooftop pool, and minimalist furnishings in all the posh suites. Equinox offers an exercise gym and all the spa treatments here, and the excellent restaurant 1800 deserves its top ranking.
Should you prefer more modest but still stylish accommodation, the Huijs Haerlem guest house at Sea Point might suit, for the atmosphere, location, and furnishings of this 4 star B&B overlooking the ocean below Signal Hill are most inviting, as are the garden pool and the bounteous breakfasts.
Winelands and Resorts

Outside of Cape Town is a very special region known as the Winelands, renowned for the many vineyards and vintages produced around the Dutch city of Stellenbosch, which those settlers founded in the late 17th century, and the equally old French town of Franschhoek. The microclimate created by the towering mountain ranges that encircle the area seems to be ideal for growing grapes, and so wine-tasting tours proceed around the clock to keep the thirsty guests feeling no pain.
Franschhoek Country House and Villas is an outstanding 5 star boutique hotel on the outskirts of that charming town, with luxurious suites featuring marble bathrooms in Provencal villas surrounded by lavender gardens, baroque fountains, and marble swimming pools. Their extensive wine cellar and famed Monneaux restaurant, as well as their elaborate spa facilities, should keep you feeling privileged if you are fortunate enough to visit.

Owned by young Jean-Pierre Snyman, whose mother Elsa decorated the entire place with such panache and refinement, this lavishly appointed retreat is so inviting you may not want to leave, and you will certainly want to return.
Nearby in the little town is Le Quartier Francais, the celebrated 5 star "auberge" (country inn) which seems almost a Cape cousin to our own Inn at Little Washington in Virginia's hunt country. Considered to be the best restaurant in South Africa, The Tasting Room offers such rarefied delicacies as blue wildebeest filet and warthog loin in a very trendy setting, while across the hall breakfast and luncheon are served in The Common Room.
Around the grounds are swimming pools and sculpture gardens, a full spa known as The Treatment Room, and even a private cinema. The guest rooms and suites are themselves grand in scale and modernistic in style, each individually designed by owner Sue Huxter, who has recently hosted such visitors as John Kerry, Vanessa Williams, Hillary Swank, Mark Mabius, and the late Sydney Pollack.
Farther north from Cape Town in the Cederberg Mountains is an extraordinary 5 star resort known as Bushmans Kloof, which both Conde Nast Traveler and Travel and Leisure have recognized as among the very best hotels in the world. One reaches this unique archaeological site through a surrealistic landscape of rock formations that recalls our own national parks in the desert southwest, after which one is greeted by an oasis of manicured lawns, lily-covered ponds, white-washed thatched-roofed cottages, and red canyon walls against the vast azure sky.
Named for the ancient cave paintings to be found in the nearby kloof (canyon), this resort offers escorted tours into the depths of the river bed, as well as safaris to observe their game reserve inhabitants, including the rare and beautiful bontebok, the endangered Cape mountain zebra, the shy Cape red hartebeest, the unpredictable black wildebeest, and the dainty springbok, South Africa's national mammal.

The ultra-elegant accommodations are sumptuous, and almost startling in this remote setting, where each chalet has its own private pool, where buffet banquets are presented throughout the day and night, and where simply by wandering about the expansive grounds one finds more intimate bars, more spa features, and more deluxe salons in which to contemplate the tranquillity of this wilderness reserve.
Ancient cave paintings in the nearby kloof.
Two hours south of Cape Town is the incomparable 5 star ecological resort known as Grootbos, a cutting edge hotel set within the delicate environment of the fynbos, which supports many species of rare and endangered scrub bush. The elongated main lodge overlooks the ocean below near the town of Gansbaai, where one can go cage diving with great white sharks (as did Leonardo diCaprio when he visited while perfecting his accent for "Blood Diamond," and as did Matt Damon when he visited with Morgan Freeman while learning his accent for "Invictus"). When Brad Pitt came to stay at this ultra-modern ecolodge for the jet set he went whale watching, for which it is famed.

Established by the expatriot German entrepreneur Michael Lutzeyer with his brother and father, Grootbos has become a significant charitable foundation intended to protect and preserve the sensitive botanical life of the spectacularly beautiful location, as well as to promote social responsibility among the local population, whose future stability he hopes to ensure through education in practical trades. The revenue from guests staying in the ultra-chic state-of-the-art cottages and dining upon the multi-course feasts of delicacies contributes to this cause, of course, but it is his own financial success that laid the groundwork for this very special hotel complex, which comprises several lodges, private villas, spa treatment, and escorted tours around the area. On one such excursion the chief ranger, a charming young gentleman named Kevin, took me down into a cave by the beach for a view of the wildlife.
Farther east along the aptly named Garden Route, across the border of Western Cape into Eastern Cape province, near the town of Alexandria, the worldclass 5 star game reserve Kariega welcomes one with such hospitality and courtesy you may want to move into one of the spaciously conceived and superbly furnished cottages near the elegant River Lodge. There one might have cocktails on the deck, before or after luncheon or dinner, and then climb aboard a launch to boat down the river to the Indian Ocean beach for a stroll in the sand among the waves, or to boat up the river to go on safari, where the animals are the equal of any to be seen in Kruger.

One gets up at 5 am to leave on safari at 6 am in a land rover, then returns at 9 am for breakfast, and then the afternoon safari starts at 4 pm with a return at dark around 7 pm. Every dinner at Kariega features succulent ostrich filet mignon or a tender steak of eland, the largest of the antelopes, and breakfast provides not only a buffet of fruit and pastry selections, but also an omelette of your choice.
Kariega game reserve possesses not only a herd of elephants, including a huge bull who was in must (pachyderm talk for "ready to mate"), but also white rhinos, black rhinos, hippos, lions, giraffes, zebras, cape buffaloes, and several species of antelopes, including gemsbok, greater kudu, waterbuck, nyala, blue wildebeest, blesbok, and impala.elephnats roaming around the safari park
Gauteng and Kruger

Far to the north in Gauteng province, Pretoria seems a quiet political capital for this every-changing nation, and one of its history's pivotal characters, Paul Kruger, is memorialized here in his very interesting presidential home, now a house museum. Born in 1825 near Cape Town as the 4th son of Casper Kruger, whose ancestor Jacobus had emigrated from Berlin in 1713 to become a mercenary in service to the Dutch East India Company, Paul had only three months of formal schooling, yet rose to become Commandant-General of the ZAR, a member of its Parliament, and its first President. Elected four times to this high office between 1883 and 1898, Kruger emerged as the very face of Boer resistance to the repeated British attempts to annex and to conquer the northern Afrikaner republic he established.
Paul Kruger's presidential home, now a house museum.
Reliefs commemorating great events in Paul Kruger's life.
By 10 he was learning guerrilla warfare while fighting native Blacks alongside his father, a voortrekker who in 1835 crossed entire mountain ranges, much like the early pioneers who rode covered wagons across the plains to the mountains in our own wild west. Paul shot his first rhino at 13, his first lion at 14, and by 16 was granted his own farm, where he married and soon lost his wife Maria and their child to malaria.

His next wife was her cousin Gezina, who bore him nine sons and seven daughters, and some of their memorabilia is to be found in the atmospheric house museum, where they lived during his long but turbulent presidency. Fundamentally a peacemaker, Kruger often preached at the stately Dutch Reformed Church across the street, though his gifts as a warrior and statesman are amply displayed in his home.
The carriage museum at Paul Kruger's home.
The 1869 discovery of diamonds in the Boer-controlled Orange Free State, a centrally located province, and then the 1886 discovery of gold on the Witwatersrand in the Transvaal (which mines were soon controlled by Cecil Rhodes), led Britain to attempt to seize the land itself from the Boers in whose states the tremendous deposits were found. This prompted the First Anglo-Boer War in 1880, which ended in 1881 with the founding of the Boer Transvaal state of the Zuid-Afrikaansche Republiek (ZAR).

In 1896 another member of Cecil Rhodes' intimate inner circle, one Dr. L. S. Jameson, led a failed raid to seize the Transvaal for Britain, and then in 1899 the Second Anglo-Boer War erupted, when Kruger was in ill health at the age of 74. Eventually he had to flee his home, went into hiding in the bush, and finally chose exile in Europe, soliciting aid from such monarchs as Germany's Kaiser Wilhelm II, who refused to meet with him, and such diplomats as Prince Otto von Bismarck, who described Kruger as the most overpowering personality he ever met. A man without a country, Paul Kruger first lived in The Hague in Holland, then in Menton on the Riviera, and finally on Lake Geneva in Switzerland, where he died in 1904.
A bust of Kruger in the house museum. The church directly across the street where he preached.
Johannesburg is South Africa's largest city, and clearly its business capital, so if you decide to perch here The Westcliff Hotel is its most elegant, situated right above the zoo in the neighborhood where Baker and Lutyens erected so many palaces for the randlords. Conceived in 1993 by real estate developers as a Tuscan village of eight grand cluster homes, the property remained unoccupied and soon went bankrupt, so Orient-Express acquired and transformed it into a glamorous 5 star resort hotel, with splendid pools, luxurious suites, a full-service spa, and beautiful restaurants, all positioned like terra-cotta townhouses on a hillside that recalls San Gimignano.
On the way to Kruger national park, which is itself the size of Wales, it is well worth the time in Mpumalanga province (formerly part of Transvaal) to tour the staggeringly impressive Drakensburg Escarpment, a mountain chain that encloses the world's third largest canyon.

Blyde's River Canyon features a vast nature reserve, where the sheer gorges of Bourke's Lucks Potholes will overwhelm you; a few miles north the Blydeport Dam has created a mountaintop reservoir that seems like a jungle paradise.
Blyde's River Canyon.
Nearby in neighboring Limpopo province there are two very important animal rescue projects, the Hoedspruit Endangered Species Centre, where king cheetahs and painted wolves are bred in captivity for eventual release into the wild, and the Moholoholo Wildlife Rehabilitation Centre, where you can get close to caracals, servals, leopards, and lions, not to mention an array of raptors and ratels, also known as honey badgers.

While Kruger park is surely the most famous safari destination on earth, there are a number of rules and restrictions that sometimes disappoint visitors, so this writer would advise prospective tourists to consider the better alternative of booking into one or more of the 5 star game reserve lodges on Kruger's western border. To the north is Thornybush private game reserve, where Shumbalala game lodge provides an intimate and ultra-luxurious experience in which to visit all the big game mammals on early morning and late afternoon safaris.
Shumbalala game lodge.
In between seeing the elephants, rhinos, lions, leopards, buffaloes (which constitute "the big five"), giraffes, zebras, antelopes, and jackals up close, owner Jeandra Snyman Swan hosts exquisite meals featuring such tantalizing rareties as kudu carpaccio and springbok filet in baronial comfort. The grandeur of Shumbalala is really in a class by itself, so opulent are the guest suites, parlors, and grounds, and so friendly the nyalas and waterbucks that quietly graze on its lawn by the irresistible swimming pool.
Farther south is the equally famed Sabi Sand private game reserve, where Mala-Mala game lodge is the oldest and largest. Here one is accommodated in a thatched-roof terra-cotta bungalow with a deck overlooking the river, from which enormous hippos emerge in the evening to graze on the grass right below, near the swimming pools.

The sumptuous parlors are studded with gigantic elephant tusks, lion and leopard rugs, trophies of sable and roan antelopes, and vintage photos of all the rulers and stars who have patronized this utterly enchanting 5 star resort.
Mala-Mala game lodge.
Twice-daily safaris at Mala-Mala bring one into close encounters with all the big five game species, not to mention the "big five ugly" (hippos, wildebeests, warthogs, hyaenas, and maribou storks), as well as elusive cheetahs, bushbucks, klipspringers, steenboks, baboons, crocodiles, raptors, and herons; to keep everyone safe the rangers take along a rifle with bullets big enough to stop Jumbo.

South Africa is indeed a long way from home, but if you do not mind flying for 18 hours you will be so glad you made the effort. All of the resorts, hotels, and game reserve lodges mentioned in this feature have extensive websites on the internet, so contacting them should come easily for interested readers. If you need any advice or assistance, Julian Harrison of Premier Tours in Philadelphia at (800-545-1910) would be an excellent travel agent, since he is a native South African and a most gracious gentleman as well. Bon voyage!