July 24, 2014

The Spirit of South Africa

Fresh from its World Cup triumph, the nation is ready
to show international visitors its enduring hospitality

By Alexis Hilts

Vacations Magazine: The Spirit of South Africa
Alexis Hilts

(Scroll down to see a slide show.)

"It always seems impossible until it's done." -- Nelson Mandela

I read that when South Africa won the opportunity to host the 2010 FIFA World Cup, Nelson Mandela cried. The former president and civil rights legend had lobbied hard to bring Africa's first Cup to his country, and the achievement was widely viewed as a chance for the nation to come out from behind apartheid's shadow.

When I journeyed through South Africa in May, as it prepared for the soccer extravaganza that was due to start the following month, the energy was contagious. Billions of dollars had been spent on five new stadiums, one new airport and improved road infrastructure. Now the construction projects were winding down, and South Africans were pumped up and ready.

Speaking at the opening ceremony for Indaba -- Africa's largest travel trade show -- on May 8, South Africa President Jacob Zuma compared the pre-World Cup anticipation to the buildup before the first post-apartheid elections in 1994.

"During that time, we planned, we mobilized our resources and we understood the possible challenges. We worked hard and delivered what most people call a miracle," he said. Recognizing that all eyes would be upon South Africa this summer, Zuma said the country was "geared up to demonstrate to all that we will deliver the best soccer World Cup ever."

And, all in all, Zuma must be pleased. With 3.18 million people in attendance, South Africa's World Cup was a success. While there were hitches -- including ticket access troubles, security concerns and bad reffing -- there were victories that resonated for the continent. Home team Bafana Bafana scored the first goal, Ghana advanced to the quarterfinals and South Africa got tons of press and an influx of international visitors.

The tournament's host country is a land of nearly 50 million people and 11 official languages. Covering more than 470,000 square miles, South Africa's diverse terrain encompasses rugged mountains, far-reaching plains, green hills, dense forests and a spectacular coastline, with the Atlantic Ocean on the west and the Indian Ocean on the east. In a destination with everything from Old World-influenced cities to traditional villages, from pastoral wine country to safari parks, travelers' adventures can run the gamut.

The first stop on my 10-day excursion in South Africa was Durban, home to Africa's busiest port. A popular vacation spot for locals due to its subtropical climate and miles of beaches, the metropolis boasts a vibrant nightlife, huge water park and a beautiful collection of Art Deco and Victorian architecture.
While exploring the city with a group of fellow journalists, I was introduced to a concept that impressed me throughout my trip and has stuck with me since.

Describing what sets South Africa apart, guide Mark Mgobhozi, owner of Meluleki Tours, said, "You hear this word, ubuntu.' When you come here, this is what you get." He defined ubuntu as a willingness to reach out to travelers, an overall friendliness and compassion.

From the moment I stepped off the plane, I felt a warm vibe that was beyond the excitement due to the impending World Cup. "You know when ubuntu is there, and it is obvious when it is absent. It has to do with what it means to be truly human, to know that you are bound up with others in the bundle of life," Archbishop Desmond Tutu wrote. Without knowing what to call it, I had experienced ubuntu already.

After spending time in British-influenced Durban, we yearned for an activity that felt more uniquely African. Tala Game Reserve was our answer, just 45 minutes away. Surrounded by more than 7,000 acres, we were able to get a safari experience without spending days in the bush. We reveled in the open expanse, spotting herds of zebra and wildebeest, getting close to giraffes and spying a magnificent rhino using a tree as a back scratcher.

In a Land Rover driven by our good-natured ranger, Lonely, we maneuvered to wetlands where a pack of hippos soaked, their eyes, ears and snouts poking above the water. Soon, a particularly large hippo head glided toward our parked vehicle. The closer he got, the more he appeared to be making a beeline for us. I could see the animal's beady eyes as he approached, and it appeared that he was watching us. Eyeballing us, really. As soon as I realized this, someone voiced what I was thinking: "Um, is he coming for us?"

Lonely chuckled, waving away our concerns. "Don't worry, that's just a mock charge," he said. I laughed nervously, wondering what circumstances had to occur for a "mock charge" to become a real charge. I watch enough nature shows to know that hippos are considered one of the most dangerous animals in Africa to humans.

But after several minutes passed without incident, I worried less about the hippo's bravado and more about the encroaching darkness. I had abandoned the hope that the hippos might emerge from their swimming hole, but the group's consensus was to try and glimpse the creatures when they came out to feed. Lonely backed the Jeep up, just out of the hippos' sight, and promised to linger a little longer.

Never fond of waiting, I was on the brink of asking Lonely if we could wrap it up when he started the engine. To me, his timing seemed completely random. But I was wrong.

He slowly pulled forward, and as we emerged from the bushes, there they were. The gray beasts were gathered on both sides of the road, their thick bodies navigating the tall grasses around us. Two chubby babies stood feeding just 10 feet away. The wait proved worth it.

Energized by our hippo stakeout, I looked forward to the days ahead. From Durban we hopped a short flight to the southern coast, arriving at Views Boutique Hotel and Spa in Wilderness in the early afternoon.

Located along the Garden Route -- famous for its stunning beaches, lush greenery and adventurous pursuits -- Views lives up to its name. Expansive windows adorn the 22-suite property, effectively bringing the ocean in. Opened in November 2009, the serene resort serves as an ideal retreat from which to launch your nature-oriented endeavors. Simple and elegant furnishings, delicate details and pops of color complemented my room's best asset: a glass wall with doors leading to a private, wraparound balcony overlooking the Indian Ocean. I felt like I was practically on the beach, with the room's underfloor heating as a substitute for sand and the added bonus of a soft down comforter and big flat-screen TV.

After checking out this impressive abode, part of me wanted to spend all day lounging around, but nothing could make me cancel my next appointment: a date with an elephant, complete with hand-holding -- sort of.

We followed the coastline past Plettenberg Bay and then headed slightly inland to a wooded area known as The Crags. The Elephant Sanctuary located here is a safe haven for pachyderms where visitors can interact with these majestic giants.

Trainer Patrick Hlongwane told us what to expect during the highlight of our visit -- a hand-in-trunk walk. "So you will be getting elephant snot, but it won't be a lot," he said, presumably to be reassuring, but from the looks on the faces around me, maybe he could have left this part out.

Six elephants live here, and I was paired with Marula, the herd's matriarch. I couldn't help but smile the whole way as she explored my hand with the moist tip of her trunk. After our stroll, we learned more about our oversize companions in a mini-anatomy lesson and placed handfuls of fruit onto their outstretched appendages. While touristy, the one-of-a-kind moments here were unforgettable.

Trading wildlife encounters for wine tastings, we next traveled to Cape Town and the surrounding vineyards. Our arrival in this cosmopolitan city on Africa's southwestern tip was marked by gray skies and rainstorms, and cloud cover dashed my hopes of taking in the views from the top of the area's most famous landmark, Table Mountain. But sulking was impossible while immersed in the classic European luxury of our hotel, Cape Grace. So I scheduled a massage and maintained hope that we'd make it up the mountain before our trip's end.

Stellenbosch, about 25 miles east of Cape Town, is the center of the area's winelands. Lined with oak trees and punctuated by whitewashed structures dating to the early 1700s, the small, Dutch-influenced community is a preferred stop on routes through this historic region.

Opting for a grand entrance, we arrived at Waterford Estate via helicopter. As if out of a movie, post-rain afternoon rays magnified the colors of the winery's breathtaking setting, from emerald-green grass and accents of lavender-bush purple to bursts of orange and yellow from groves of citrus trees.

Piling into a Land Rover, we set out with Kevin Arnold, Waterford's co-founder, to sample what he called an "outside of the bottle experience." Taking a dirt road through the roughly 300-acre estate, we arrived at a raised wooden platform amid the vines. Our picnic table with mountain views was the ultimate venue for an elegant "sundowner." We snacked on biltong (similar to beef jerky) and nuts, and we tried some of Waterford's 11 wines, mostly reds.

As the sun began to dip and the air turned cooler, we returned to the main estate and its central stone fireplace. Appreciating the cozy atmosphere, I took my place before three empty wineglasses, each accompanied by a different square of chocolate.

"The idea is to actually make you think about what is happening in your mouth," Arnold explained as we took bites of each sweet morsel, followed by sips of its vineyard counterpart: a masala chai-infused dark chocolate before a shiraz, a dark chocolate with rock salt before a cabernet sauvignon and, my favorite, a rose geranium milk chocolate before a sweet ­­­dessert wine with apricot notes.

Wine production in South Africa dates to the mid-1600s, but its wines have remained untasted by much of the world for most of modern times. The end of apartheid has led to a renewed energy and an increasing international reputation. Most vintners here are white, but the field is becoming more diverse.

Malmsey Rangaka, CEO of award-winning M'hudi Wines -- South Africa's first black, family-owned winery -- attributes her company's success to a "daring and herculean effort" and a global marketing strategy.

"Being new in the industry and particularly of African descent did not make it easy for us, as wine is traditionally about centuries of knowledge and resources handed over from generation to generation," she says. Recognizing the saturation of the national market, the company focuses on upscale South African vendors and reaches out internationally; M'hudi Wines are carried by stores in the U.K., the U.S. and Germany.

Echoing a sentiment I heard throughout my South Africa travels, Rangaka acknowledges the country's lingering problems, among them a vast disparity of wealth. Indeed, our drive to Stellenbosch was marked by the stark contrast between Cape Town's glittering harbor and its surrounding shantytowns.

But, she says, the World Cup has allowed travelers to see a different side of her home.

"People have been given bad perceptions about South Africa regarding crime and racism. The problems South Africa has in those areas are no more than in other countries and are certainly not what defines our country and its people," says Rangaka. "When people visit South Africa, and M'hudi specifically, what they experience is a sense of welcome, warmth and generosity. They arrive as guests and leave our place as friends who would like to visit again. That's who we are."

I woke up on our last full day in South Africa, rolled out of bed and went straight for the thick, brown-and-cream striped curtains, knowing this was my last chance to see Table Mountain. As I pulled the fabric aside, golden rays poured through the window. In a case of profound luck or perfect timing, "the tablecloth" had lifted and our plan for a trip to the top that afternoon was saved.

Eager to see more of the area before we said our goodbyes, we spent the morning taking the scenic route; the coast along Victoria Road and Chapman's Peak Drive reminded me of the dramatic shoreline of California's Big Sur. After a stop for photos and an hour with the adorable penguins padding along Boulders Beach, we climbed into the van and, in the company of our knowledgeable guide, Owen Jinka from Roots Africa Tours, headed back to Cape Town to infamous District Six.

Established in 1867 by a diverse group of freed slaves, merchants, artists and immigrants, this neighborhood was a culturally rich, working-class territory until 1966, when the area was declared a "whites only" zone under the 1950 Group Areas Act, which made it illegal for residents of different races to live in the same communities. The legislation was one of the pillars of South Africa's official segregation policy of apartheid, which classified the populace as "black," "white," "Indian" and "coloured," the last term referring to people of mixed race.

The government divided up the country, Jinka said, and "the best pieces went to the whites, the not-so-nice pieces to the nonwhites and the worst pieces to blacks."

The homes of 60,000 people were demolished, forcing them to move to townships. As we surveyed the empty hillside, Jinka pointed to a line of overgrown mounds. "Those are homes where the grass has grown over," he said. In a healing gesture, the government has started giving back as much of the land as it can to the district's former residents.

After our history lesson, we stopped for lunch at the Noon Gun Tea Room and Restaurant, a family-owned cafe atop a steep hill in Bo-Kaap. In addition to memorable Malay dishes -- like dahltijie (deep-fried balls of spinach and pea flour) and denningvleis (a sweet and savory lamb dish made with tamarind paste) -- the Noon Gun has a spectacular view of the mountain. After reaching our food-intake limit, and tiring of following the cable cars' tiny shadows up and down the mountain, we were ready for our journey's grand finale.

There are two ways to get to Table Mountain's top plateau, more than 3,500 feet above sea level: Hike or ride the cableway. For the sake of time, we chose the latter. After a short ride to the top, we enjoyed panoramic views of Cape Town and beyond. To my surprise, we also encountered bunches of furry, groundhoggish creatures called rock hyrax that apparently have no fear of heights whatsoever.

From that vantage point, I could see emblems of South Africa's past and future -- Robben Island, where Nelson Mandela spent 18 of his 27 years of imprisonment, and Green Point Stadium, venue of the Netherlands' semifinal win at the World Cup. As the people of South Africa tackle its social and economic challenges -- and reinvent the nation's image by emphasizing its incredible landscapes, rich traditions and that distinct feeling that can only be described as ubuntu -- I am rooting for them.

Information: To learn more about safaris and escorted tours that visit South Africa, visit Vacations To Go or call the travel specialists at (800) 680-2858.


The information in this story was accurate at the time it was published in September/October 2010.


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