CAPE TOWN – The Waterfront at Cape Town is a reminder of some of the many
contrasts in South Africa. Only two dozen miles from the teeming township of
Khayelitsha on the Cape Flats, the shopping center and redeveloped port
represents tourist infrastructure at its best.
With outdoor performances
and a variety of shopping venues, including a hiking store that has a “freezing
cold room” where one can try on jackets, it offers hours of enjoyment.
also has historic appeal; here is where Nelson Mandela embarked for his
two-decade sentence on Robben Island, with a museum now marking the
My wife and I recently visited South Africa for a Limmud
conference, which provided us with the chance to visit the country’s three major
cities and do some touring.
With the rand decreasing in value, the
country’s excellent tourist infrastructure and the diversity of appealing
experiences, South Africa is worth a visit. Cape Town, founded in 1652 by Dutch
colonists, incongruously faces north in a lip of African coastline that juts
down forming the Cape Peninsula, so far south that penguins can be found on its
beaches. The town itself is situated in a bowl framed by the famed Table
Here one can also see one of the legacies of Apartheid,
District Six, once a multi-ethnic area that was cleared of its inhabitants by
the old regime. The Table Mountain cableway was closed when we were there, so we
opted for a drive around the area.
A short drive out of town brought us
to Camps Bay, a posh beachfront community.
We drove east over the hump of
the peninsula and there, abutting the Tokai Forest nature reserve, is the
beautiful Groot Constantia winery.
The winery was founded in 1685 and is
housed in splendid old white buildings with traditional cape Dutch architecture.
The main feature consists of crenellations and gables above the central door of
Outside the winery visitors are warned not to picnic on the
grass, lest baboons be attracted to the food.
Inside, the visitor is
greeted with a long and storied history, which claims the wine was shipped to
Napoleon while he was in exile on St. Helena. One can imagine a worse way to
spend their days than swilling back the robust fruity reds or their Cape Ruby
Today, the winery is run by the government through the Groot
Constantia Trust, established in 1973, which seeks to preserve “South Africa’s
oldest and best-known wine estate.”
Tastings are R30 per person for five
glasses of wine, and the pours are generous – little wonder the Cape’s wine
country is a wellweathered tourist track.
Like Icarus just prior to his
regrettable flight, a statue of a horseman and his steed stands perched above
Cape Town. The back muscles of the statue’s rider bulge, catching the afternoon
sun. The monument is part of a large classical Greek building that commemorates
the role of Cecil John Rhodes in South Africa’s history. Rhodes, the lifetime
bachelor turned businessman and imperialist adventurer, stood at the center of
South African politics in the second half of the 19th century.
only bequeathed to us the Rhodes Scholarships and the former name of Zimbabwe,
Rhodesia, but also the grounds of the University of Cape Town. His legacy and
that of the area’s British colonial period can be seen at the Kirstenbosch
National Botanical Garden, not far from the memorial.
Considered one of
the world’s best, it sits beneath the approaches to Table Mountain and includes
local varieties of plants. It owes its origins to Harold Pearson, who held the
chair of botany at the nearby South African College. It has more than 7,000
species of plants and sits on 36 hectares (about 89 acres).
restaurant, the Kirstenbosch Tea Room, overlooks the gardens and serves Israeli
favorites such as shakshuka (R66) and a “Middle Eastern” sampler with tasty
felafel, eggplant and tabouleh (R78).
South Africa presents the traveler
with a vast, diverse canvas. From the deserts of the Karoo to the beauty of the
Wild Coast in the Transkei, with its rolling hills and small Xhosa villages, one
is tempted to drive. But the distances can be great. Instead, a short flight
from Cape Town to Durban is an option. Kulula Air operates inexpensive flights
within the country. The airline is known for the sense of humor of its in-flight
announcements, where, for instance, passengers are greeted on takeoff with an
explanation by the pilot that “this is my first time flying and my co-pilot is
We found Durban to be a city that had seen better days. As
with other places in South Africa, the locals – including the large Indian
community – live under the shadow of crime. Streets seem near-deserted in the
northern part of town. A beautiful stadium constructed for the World Cup
contrasts with the urban blight around it.
We opted to rent a car here
and travel north through Pietermaritzburg. The toll highway winds up through
At a steady 120 kph, one can cover a lot of ground. North
of Durban one transverses the scenes of some of South Africa’s fascinating
To the east lies the homeland of the Zulu, one of the country’s
largest African tribes.
The Zulu fought a tough and bloody war against
the British in 1879, and skirmished with Afrikaner pioneers who had fled British
authority in the Cape in the 1830s. War buffs can spend days checking out the
battlefield sites in the area.
From more recent times, one can also find
the site of the capture of Mandela in 1962.
Finishing touches are being
put on a new museum and monument. Currently, entrance is free.
ONE OF the
great joys of exploring South Africa is staying at a game lodge. These range in
prices from upwards of $200-$1,000 a night. We chose to stay at the cheaper
Springbok Lodge on the Nambiti Private Game Reserve (R1,395). The
10,0000-hectare (about 24,710-acre) reserve has “the big five” African
Rangers remind visitors that the term comes from the period when
hunting big game was typical, and elephant, lion, Cape buffalo, leopard and
rhino were considered the five most difficult or dangerous creatures to hunt on
Since the modern game reserve doesn’t involve hunting or usually,
walking on foot, the term has less meaning. After all, the graceful giraffe, the
oddly striped zebra, the eland, which grows to more than a ton, the wildebeest
and the hippo, are all equally stunning big game. Our lodge offered multihour
game drives at 6 a.m. and again at 3 p.m. Animals, especially predators, are
more active at these hours. Most of the time we seemed to spend trying to find
the lions on the reserve.
Finding seven large cats among thousands of
acres is quite difficult, although with 10 lodges on the reserve and their
attendant rangers driving around, eventually someone is bound to come across
them and inform the others.
The feeling of being in an open-air jeep with
large predatory cats a few meters away is nerve-racking. The rangers at Nambiti
don’t seem to be armed and they caution visitors to not make sudden movements,
such as standing up to take photos.
“The animals are used to the shape of
the vehicle,” explained ranger Mike.
If lions circling a jeep full of
tasty tourists isn’t strange enough, being several meters from a bull elephant
is also a sort of life-changing experience. As if to show his power, the
elephant, named “Beefy,” wrapped his trunk around a small tree and then crushed
it with his right foot. Was the message “I can crush you too”? Game reserves
across southern Africa are facing difficulties, with the death and poaching of
cheetah and rhino. In both cases, the experts we met claimed the creatures might
disappear from the wild as early as 2018.
This forecast appears overly
gloomy for animals that number in the thousands in the wild (estimates show
around 7,000 cheetah, 17,000 white rhino and 3,000 black rhino).
however, are being slaughtered by poachers. In recent examples, men have
choppered in and with the help of a veterinarian, tranquilized a rhino and cut
off its horn. The trauma caused by the poachers usually kills the animal. Today,
Nambiti preempts these attempts by cutting off the horns in such a way that the
animal is not harmed.
Cheetah face a stranger fate. They are being killed
off by their fellow predators, lions and hyenas. In one case, dozens of cheetah
were slaughtered by lion at a game reserve.
At Nambiti, only one cheetah
remains. A project at the reserve, called Kwa Cheetah Breeding, breeds cheetahs
for reintroduction to the wild. Visitors are invited to meet the animals and
even pet some of them.
This is also an exhilarating experience, sitting
with an 80-pound cat that the manager of the project explains can break the back
of the antelope when running at a top speed of some 80 kph. These cheetah seem
consigned to sitting all day and enjoying pampering by visitors.
Africa offers a great diversity of game reserves. Some, like Kruger or
Pilansberg, allow the visitor to drive around them and search for the animals.
This gives one the sense of freedom, but doesn’t provide them with access to
rangers’ expertise in finding some of the game that is harder to
For instance, Kruger National Park is about the same size as
Israel, with around 13,000 elephant and maybe 2,000 lions in the entire park. In
comparison, much smaller Nambiti forces visitors to park their cars at the
entrance, where they are transported to their individual lodges. Initially
disconcerting, as one feels like a captive in the lodge, we never felt a minute
The food was plentiful and exquisite – though we couldn’t get
used to the fact that when the menu said “venison,” it actually meant meat from
impala, kudu, eland or some other animal one had just seen on the game
Rooms, described as “tented accommodation,” consisted in fact of a
large rectangular tent, but had a fancy wooden armoire and bed in them, in the
same style Ernest Hemingway or Theodore Roosevelt might have camped while on
safari. The tent was equipped with hardwood floors, a complimentary bottle of
sherry, a large bathtub and a rock-cut outdoor shower. While at dinner, an
attendant would switch on the electric sheets so the bed would be warm in the
On our last night, when we came back from our three-hour
sunset game drive, a bathtub was filled and rose petals sprinkled about. Such
personal attention at one of the cheaper game lodges means the pampering must
only get better at others.
For those in search of wildlife and history,
South Africa offers a plethora of experiences.
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