By Ron Kapon, Contributing Travel Editor
New York, NY -
I was last in South Africa 28 years ago and clearly remember the "whites only" beaches; the Carlton Hotel in Johannesburg (now part of the convention center); Nelson Mandela being relatively unknown outside a small circle of people (and in prison); The Mount Nelson Hotel in Cape Town (still going strong); The Blue Train (the Orient Express of Africa); Kruger National Park (once the top game park in South Africa); Stellenbosch and the wine route (mentioned later in this story). It was now an opportunity to discover how much the country had changed since that last visit almost three decades ago.
Nelson Mandela is semi-retired and ageing (88) and the mixture of Indians, Colored (local term for mixed race) blacks and whites seem to be in harmony. There is the democratically elected president, Thabo Mbeki, finishing his final term in office, and the economy may be the strongest in Africa despite large pockets of poverty, unemployment and sub-standard living conditions. Of the 44 million people: 75.2% are Africans, 13.6% white, 8.6% colored and 2.6% Indian.
The country is divided into 9 provinces, two of which are ruled by kings (KwaZuluNatal and the Eastern Cape). There are 11 different languages spoken and often little tolerance of other cultures, a nuance that escaped me 28 years ago. South African Airways flew our group of 5 journalists to Johannesburg and on to Durban, the country?s second largest city and known as the surfing capitol of the world (although Hawaii and Australia might disagree). The flight is 17 hours with one stop and arrives the evening of the following day (7 hours ahead of NYC). An hour?s additional flight and we were in Durban (part of KwaZulu-Natal) and ensconced at the 5-Star Beverly Hills Hotels, a few miles outside the city center and along the Indian Ocean. Must visits include the uShaka Marine World with one of the world?s largest marine aquariums (Sea World) and Wet & Wild Water Park, all included in a single admission. The Sibaya Cultural Show featuring a functioning Zulu village is behind the Sun International Casino and I especially enjoyed the "Golden Mile" beach promenade and watching the surfers do their thing...that which the rest of the world will never attempt.
We embarked upon a day side trip to Ixopo for a history lesson. Alan Paton in "Cry the Beloved Country" (reenergized as an Oprah Book Club Selection) had said, "There are hills, grass covered and rolling and beautiful beyond the singing of it". The book inspired the 1951 original movie featuring Sydney Poitier and the 1995 remake starring James Earl Jones. We rode the 1939 steam locomotive and its narrow gauge tracks that were used in the newer film version, being dropped off at the Carisbrooke Elementary School where the original movie was partially filmed. Although we were sitting comfortably and eating a typical meal, many of the children were barefoot and on their way back home to tend to their chores and I wasn?t entirely at ease having the children "perform" for us particularly since I learned that one of their classmates had just died in an accident and I could see the sorrow in their young eyes.
I would recommend a less strenuous drive going south from Durban into the Eastern Cape Province through the Wild Coast region (formerly known as the Transkei) to Umngazi River Bungalows but am not exactly certain how to accomplish that. I am sure there are alternative routes. The Eastern Cape is the second largest of the 9 provinces with 14% of the total land (2.5 million acres), 6.8 million people and a malaria free area for viewing the Big 5 game (Lion, Elephant, Rhino, Buffalo & Leopard). I was somewhat disappointed that we did not have time to visit the Addo Elephant National Park and its 400 plus pachyderms. The Eastern Cape was both home to the current president, Mr. Thabo Mbeki, as well as Steve Biko, who began the Black Consciousness Movement and who, in 1977, died mysteriously while in police custody. Nelson Mandela was born there and still keeps a home in the Eastern Cape. We visited his museum which was opened in 2000 and consists of three sites...one, where he was born, another where he grew up and the third the "long walk to freedom" exhibition (he spent 27 years in prison). His words still ring true for so many..."Each time one of us touches the soil of this land we feel a sense of personal renewal."
The Umngazi River Bungalows & Spa began as a trading post in 1929. Then, in 1933, three huts were built and, in 1993, the Goss family bought it and expanded to 66 bungalows with a capacity of 144 people. I could have lived just on the wonderful fresh fruit and vegetables but the meals provided to us consisted of many other selections. When the weather cooperates one is compelled to eat outside overlooking the pool and lagoon or, if you do make this trip at any time in the foreseeable future, see if you can book the underground wine cellar known as the Green Door for dinner. In an accommodating fashion, fresh orange juice and the local newspaper are delivered every morning. This is Africa where livestock roam at will - including the highways- so drive carefully and skip the night driving or be prepared to run into animals. A better idea, of course, is a local driver to squire you about, one that is familiar with the country, its history, culture and highlight areas. At one point, I sat down by the boat dock and dipped my feet in the water feeling very much at ease until one of the rangers rushed over to me and pointed out the two hippos only a few yards away that I thought were tree trunks poking out of the water and I was told the hippopotamus kill more people than any other animal in Africa as they are intensely territorial. My feet came out of the water with lightning like speed.
I recommend continuing past the Mandela Museum to East London (one million people), along the Indian Ocean and then inland to Pumba Private Game Reserve. The areas have wonderful names such as The Wild Coast (Port St. John area); Sunshine Coast (East London area) and Garden Route (Port Elizabeth area). If you fly into Port Elizabeth you can arrange a transfer (1 ? hours) to Pumba for $125 for your entire party. There is an alternative to driving or flying - the Wild Coast Meander where you "take a walk on the wild side". Thirty miles in five days with 3 Star hotels at night and all meals and transfers for $750. You walk along the coast and they have locals follow behind carrying your bags. I thought the same thing you are thinking now when it was recommended to me but there may be some among you that compete in the Boston and/or New York marathons, and/or take walks and runs for charitable purposes regularly...besides being a bit younger. If so, go for it!!
Pumba was the highlight of the entire trip. This 5-star property has 8 stone-walled thatched waterfront cottages with a private deck and plunge pool. Please don?t think in terms of "roughing it" as the cottages are air conditioned with a fireplace and huge bathroom. There is a small kitchen, large living room and you are but steps from the dining room. We were warned about walking off the lighted path at night and one of the guests came face to face with two rhinos that were grazing less than a hundred yards from our cottages when he did just that. Not good. The entire Eastern Cape Province is malaria free so there is no need for pills. The rates are all-inclusive; including two game drives a day and average $500 per person double occupancy. We got to see three of the Big Five, including a lioness on the attack, and watched her bring her kill to her cubs. Most lodges also have a day safari which includes a game drive and lunch and should cost under $150. We spent the first afternoon at Amakhala Game Reserve, which is a 4-Star property run by a husband (vet) and wife (5th generation) team. They have 6 lodges on their 14,000 acre reserve with rates from $250-$450 per person during the high season of October through April.
I spent a few hours in Port Elizabeth before flying to Cape Town and my wine tour (that is another story). As a center for the auto industry, this city of 1 ? million is centered on the casino/boardwalk area. There are cinemas, a 9- hole golf course, bowling, shops and restaurants, one of which was 34 Degrees South, where we had a delightful lunch. My one hour SAA flight brought me to the third largest city in South Africa- Cape Town, and its 3 ? million inhabitants. Called the Gateway to the Wine Route (the largest in the world) you are less than an hour from Stellenbosch and the vineyards where, in 1990 Nelson Mandela took his "walk to freedom."
It will not be 28 years until I return to South Africa again. There is still much to see and learn..
Ron Kapon is seeking wine tasters for the New York Tasters Guild. Please go to www.tastersguildny.com or email him at Ron@tastersguildny.com.