Land of good hope

Sixty times the size of Israel, South Africa makes for an intense week-long adventure.

zebras 88 298 (photo credit: )
zebras 88 298
(photo credit: )
When Sir Francis Drake rounded the southern tip of Africa in 1580, passing by the Cape of Good Hope, he described it as "the fairest Cape in the whole circumference of the globe." As the first Englishman to circumnavigate the globe, he was certainly an expert. But he may not have known the beauty that lay within the continent, deep inside what was to later become the country of South Africa. To properly take in the entire breadth of this incredible country, 60 times the size of Israel, it is recommended that visitors come for a minimum of two weeks. It would be easy to stay for twice that long, but a quick taste, intense and satisfying, is possible in just a week. Here are some of the highlights. Mpumalanga The baboons scampering along the side of the road are delightful; the leopard tracking her impala prey breathtaking. And the panorama of God's Window offers a view of Eden to even the most ordinary mortal. In this northeast province, called "the place where the sun rises," nature reigns - resplendent, varied and utterly wild. Along the Panorama Route are dozens of waterfalls, lookout points, historical landmarks and nature reserves. Blyde River Canyon, the largest green canyon in the world, can be trekked in four days or just gawked at from above. Bourke's Luck Potholes, a honeycomb rock formation covered with small waterfalls and whirlpools, are named for a gold digger who - though he did not find any - correctly predicted that large gold deposits would be found in the area. Also in the area, Pinnacle Rock juts skyward from a lush valley, topped with shrubbery reminiscent of a bad haircut. In some places, human civilization contributes its own beauty. Tucked into a dimple in the hills and nearly swallowed up by the immense natural panorama around it, Pilgrim's Rest, a preserved historic mining village, is charming, dusted with purple petals from sprawling Jacaranda trees, and invisible from the road practically until you arrive. For a less other-worldly experience, visitors can stop off in nearby Graskop, a small mountain village on the Panorama Route. The Graskop Hotel is a home-away-from-home, with wooden floors, skeleton keys, old-fashioned water faucets and the most comfortable beds and down comforters. The streets are small and dusty, dotted here and there with a fruit stand. And a local restaurant offers delectable dinners and full wine cellar - as well as a chance to dine in a thatched hut. True wilderness is to be found in Kruger National Park, in eastern Mpumalanga, along the border with Mozambique. Here, on the wild frontier, water buffalo roam, hippos soak lazily, giraffes make their way through tall grasses and lions snooze, opening one large apathetic eye at a passing disturbance. Elsewhere in the area, turtles shuffle along and impala dance gracefully, crossing paths with the occasional rhinoceros or elephant, all in quiet sunlit choreography. Then the sun throws its fiery palette across an unsuspecting sky, and the hunt begins. Impala flee, stealthy cats on their scent; the night animals come out for another kind of dance. This wildlife sanctuary - larger than Israel (19,624 sq. km.) - contains many public and private game parks, rest camps and lodges. Wandering freely are members of the "Big 5" - elephants, rhinos, leopards, lions and buffalos. The term is used to denote the most dangerous animals in Africa, which are also considered among the most exciting and popular. It is possible to see all of the Big 5 in a day's safari, but the other animals are well worth seeing, too - even the ugly spotted hyena, the wily nemesis in most African folk tales. Group safaris are led by guides and sharp-eyed trackers, and none of these animals escape their gaze. Safaris can last for a few hours or a week, with visitors spending nights in rest camps and lodges. These dwellings range from rustic tents and bungalows to the private and luxurious Lion Sands Resort, where each cottage has a four-poster bed and private outdoor shower - lovely if you don't mind the monkeys watching from the trees. It's hard to get too focused on your lodging, however: the heartstopping experience of tracking a leopard through the day and then following her by moonlight will justify a trip of any length - no matter what your accommodations. Johannesburg and Pretoria (Tshwane) Bustling and expansive, Johannesburg is the largest city in South Africa. Here, in the City of Gold, African and European tastes mix. From the glassy skyscrapers of the financial center to the township of Soweto, contrasts abound, as do signs of change. Thirty years after her brother, Hector Pieterson, was killed in the Soweto uprising, in which over 500 black South Africans were killed while demonstrating for the right to be taught in their own language rather than Afrikaans, Antoinette Sithole now gives tours at his memorial museum - the Hector Pieterson Museum. Signs from the 1970s reading "No dogs/No blacks" - which segregated bathrooms, benches and even the beaches - are not only found in the Johannesburg Apartheid Museum. They've become collectors' items as well, gathered and preserved by South Africans of all backgrounds. Nelson Mandela's Apartheid-era house is now a quaint museum, replete with concession stands; Nelson Mandela Square, in a hipper area of town, frames one of the most upscale shopping malls in the country. Winnie Mandela's house stands tall on a hill, with sprawling shantytowns serving as the backdrop in this diorama of daily life. Small children play by the side of the highway. A donkey pulls a cart, which on closer inspection turns out to be the back end of a station wagon. Yet not an hour away is the trendy Melrose Arch, home to shops and hip restaurants, among them Moyo ("soul" in Swahili). Moyo makes use of all the senses to present Africa to its patrons, with delicious yet sophisticated ethnic food, vivid d cor (complete with a waterfall) and nonstop musical performances by leading singers and mbira players from around the continent. To top it off, face painters make the rounds, daubing petite flowers and henna designs on whomever can sit still long enough. Through this exquisite restaurant, Moyo founder Jason Lurie has succeeded in conveying the richness of African culture. Some 50 kilometers to the north lies the country's administrative capital, Pretoria/Tshwane. A quiet city sprinkled with parks and classical architecture, it is home to the National Historical Cultural Museum and the State Theater. The Union Buildings house the president's office and are surrounded by terraced gardens that spill gracefully down the hillside. Cape Town and the Cape Cape Town, South Africa's legislative capital, was founded in 1652 as a supply station for the Dutch East India Company. Now, with almost a million international visitors each year, it is much more than just a pit stop. The city's wonders, some natural and others man-made, are unparalleled. Rising tall on the horizon is Table Mountain, a 1,085-meter, flat-topped sandstone plateau that curves around the city. It is spectacular at sunset and majestic at all times, often blanketed by a "tablecloth" of fog. Two revolving cablecars shuttle visitors up and down the mountainside, and the view from the top is exquisite. Plant life grows at an astounding rate in the cool misty shade of Table Mountain. At the foot of the mountain, Cecil Rhodes' magnificent botanical legacy, Kirstenbosch, spans his entire estate. The meticulously planned grounds are filled with birds of paradise, towering banana trees, strange and brightly-colored proteas (the national flower), and other indigenous plants. Picnicking families can expect a visit from exotic-looking fowl meandering around on the grass. Along the Cape Town coastline winds Victoria Road, a clifftop route for cars, pedestrians and cyclists that offers postcard-worthy glimpses of white sands and turquoise waters at every turn. Local beach culture includes paragliding competitions, water sports and cafes. Visitors willing to put in a little driving time can treat themselves to a ferry ride to see the seals out in Hout Bay. Also within reach are the winelands of the Western Cape and the famous Cape of Good Hope, as well as Cape Agulhas, the southernmost tip of Africa, and the Boulders Penguin Reserve. South Africa offers much more than just these few areas; I left the Garden Route, Victoria Falls, Durban, the Indian Ocean coast and Port Elizabeth untouched. But something must still be left for exploration, even if Drake sailed past it all centuries ago. The writer was a guest of the South African Embassy (Tel Aviv), South African Airways (Tel Aviv), and Ordo Tours (Johannesburg).