Australian House & Garden
There’s more to South Africa than lions and rugby. This is a country of extremes and there are gems around every corner, writes Vanessa Walker.
South Africa seems like a long way away: a distant land of elephants, lions and crocodiles, with exotic tribal cultures and a troubled past.
For this first-time visitor, the surprise is in the familiar: the divine tropical fruits (the country is mango heaven) and the flora (replete with proteas and frangipani). Then there’s the diversity of holiday experiences that both our countries have to offer.
From the jazz bars and boutiques of Johannesburg (known as Jo’burg) to hot and dusty Kimberley, home of the diamond mines that made De Beers its fortune, to the umbrella-dotted beaches and stunning melange of Victorian, Edwardian, Californian and Art Deco architecture in Cape Town, and the wine country beyond, a trip to South Africa can be almost anything you want it to be.
A trip to South Africa can be almost anything you want it to be.
We begin at a place no traveller to South Africa should miss: Soweto. It’s in this sprawling township about 15 kilometres from Jo’burg that some of the most shocking events of the apartheid era took place. A visit to the Hector Pieterson Museum is utterly confronting: when I was playing cops and robbers with friends in my suburban backyard in 1976, African children were being shot by police because they were peacefully protesting against the compulsory use of Afrikaans in school lessons. And yet, emerging from the exhibition, it is possible to see a country that is healing, a place where Africans are succeeding. The Soweto stop becomes a reference point for the remainder of the trip, making the journey ahead infinitely more meaningful.
It’s in Soweto that you see daily African life; how the locals hail beaten-up vans (taxis) using hand signals to describe their destination, such as an upturned cupped palm as though holding an orange, for Orange Farm, an ingenious homegrown solution for a country that has 11 official languages. We make our way to historic Vilakazi Street, the only street in the world to have housed two Nobel Prize winners (Nelson Mandela and Desmond Tutu), and wander quietly through the former marital home of Nelson and his ex-wife, Winnie.
Jo’burg, South Africa’s largest city, suffers a bad reputation; in the wealthier suburbs, homes sit behind razor-wire fences lined with signs warning of 24-hour armed-response security. Yet many of the suburban shopping strips look and feel like Melbourne’s Toorak or Sydney’s Woollahra. In Melville, a vibrant village where the streets are alive with the chatter of alfresco diners, we stroll past art galleries, bookshops and design stores. We also take in the boutique precinct of 44 Stanley Avenue in Milpark, a mecca of design, eclectic furnishings, independent retailers and groovy cafes. For indigenous artefacts we make our way to the Mall of Rosebank and the African Craft Market, where there are beautiful burnt-bone salad spoons, hand-beaded gauze food covers and porcupine-quill lampshades, all eagerly displayed by persuasive sellers.
From Jo’burg we fly to the central city of Kimberley and drive to Mattanu Private Game Reserve. Soon after entering the property we are treated to the sight of a tower of giraffes languidly munching on a camel thorn tree. Mattanu is owned by wildlife vet Johan Kriek and his family, and their raison d’être is breeding rare animals in a pristine, disease-free environment. I hitch a ride on their helicopter, from which we track a kudu, a type of antelope, bounding through the veld. Johan takes aim and in a split second fires a tranquiliser dart into the animal’s rump. Once we’ve landed and the animal is sedated, we haul it onto a truck and take it to a waterhole, where we give it several vaccinations before releasing it to recover fully and have a replenishing drink. Administering medicine to a large wild beast is amazing for an urbanite like me, and a seemly alternative to the urge to pat the zebras we saw on a game drive earlier in the day. All up, in two days at Mattanu, staying in luxury safari ‘tents’, we’re lucky enough to spot roan, kudu, sable, impala and buffalo as well as several snuffly warthogs and darting jackals.
If Jo’burg feels a little on edge, Cape Town – a two-hour flight away – is edgy and the height of cosmopolitan cool. Set in a stunning coastal belt, with the beauty of Table Mountain as a backdrop, it’s packed with historic landmarks and museums as well as bars, cafes and boutiques. In true Cape style, we spend the day indulging in the energetic street life before dining at a packed restaurant set up on a sandy (artificial) beach. Like Sydney, this is a city that believes it’s blessed and behaves accordingly (and for reasons why, see Cape Town box).
A lovely foil to the city vibe is laidback Franschhoek, an hour’s drive east in the Cape winelands. Settled by French Huguenot refugees in 1688 and later colonised by the Dutch, Franschhoek is a charmed valley of vineyards, horse stables and restaurants set in beautiful estates. It’s the heart of South Africa’s gourmet territory, and several of the country’s top-rated restaurants are here. We ride horses through pear, nectarine, plum, apple and pomegranate orchards. I get the cheekiest mount of the lot and have to be on alert for his attempts to snatch the dangling fruit that lines the trail. All around us are beautiful dwellings in the Cape Dutch architectural style: whitewashed homes with ornate gables and thatched roofs. It’s a testament to the picturesque surroundings that I risk my life by loosening my hold on the reins to snap a few photos.
It’s a testament to the picturesque surroundings that I risk my life by loosening my hold on the reins to snap a few photos.
An hour’s drive south of Franschhoek is Grootbos Private Nature Reserve, which is dedicated to preserving the region’s fauna in the highest of style. Michael Lutzeyer bought this vast tract of land overlooking Walker Bay to help preserve the fynbos – the narrow belt of native shrubland unique to this part of the Western Cape province. Over the years, Michael and his father diligently recorded every botanical species on the reserve, in the process discovering six species new to science. We stay in stylish eco-villas discreetly built into the landscape and enjoy delicious cuisine at the restaurant, much of it sourced from the reserve’s gardens. A heartening aspect of Grootbos are the programs run for local Africans: the oldest is a one-year horticultural course that has turned out stellar plantspeople who have gone on to be employed either as guides at Grootbos or at nurseries in the area. As Michael says, it gives luxury a purpose if your patronage helps benefit those who need it the most.
To round off our visit to South Africa we catch the Blue Train from Cape Town back to Jo’burg. It’s the height of old-world luxury. Each passenger has a suite and a butler at their disposal to satisfy the merest of whims. It’s divine to while away a day and a half, soaking in the country, catching glimpses of exotic birds and ordinary people waiting at train stations, in between meeting up with fellow passengers for a gourmet meal in the train’s dining carriage.
On our last night in Jo’burg, we see a re-emerging culture in South Africa. At Sophiatown Bar Lounge in groovy Newtown, a young African woman with a sky-high afro and pop-star threads is holding court at a table full of laughing friends. They’re exactly the customers brothers Mzwandile and Rasta Thabethe hoped to cater for when they set up Sophiatown. Named in honour of the vibrant, multi-racial township that was demolished by the government soon after the introduction of apartheid, the bar was opened in anticipation of a fabulous new set; middle-to-upper class young South Africans with a future to look forward to.
WHERE TO STAY For a stately digs in upmarket Sandton, try Fairlawns Boutique Hotel & Spa: www.fairlawns.co.za/ or Raddison Blu Gautrain Hotel: www.radissonblu.com/hotelsandton-johannesburg.
WHAT TO DO Shop at The Mall of Rosebank (www.themallofrosebank.co.za), 44 Stanley Avenue (www.44stanley.co.za) or the sprawling Nelson Mandela Square at Sandton City (www.nelsonmandelasquare.co.za). Get in the groove at Sophiatown (www.sophiatownbarlounge.co.za). For a choice of Soweto tours, go to www.soweto.co.za.
There are many reasons why Cape Town is consistently voted among the top tourist destinations in the world:
CITY SIGHTS Nothing beats a Cape Trike tour (www.capetriketours.co.za), which guides you around town by three-seater motorcycle. Be sure to visit the colourful Malay and Cape quarters. Next, spend some time at the Victoria & Alfred Waterfront, a waterfront complex that has shops galore, taverns, aquariums, mini golf, restaurants and more. From here, board a ferry to Robben Island Museum (www.robben-island.org.za), the former prison where Nelson Mandela spent 27 years in captivity. Tours are led by ex-political prisoners who offer rare personal insights. If shopping is your thing, head to lively Greenmarket Square and the Pan African Market, a multi-level store overflowing with carvings and collector’s items.
NATURE HITS The Table Mountain Aerial Cableway (www.tablemountain.net) takes you to the top of this landmark for a panoramic view of the city. The Kirstenbosch National Botanical Garden is worth a visit too. There are beaches aplenty, from Hout Bay (a favourite with surfers) to Foxy Beach (see African penguin colonies) to Cape Point (spectacular views). If travelling north from Cape Town, take Chapman’s Peak, the scenic route along the Atlantic coast.