On top of Table Mountain
Ask high flying newly weds where they’re going for their honeymoon and the answer is often South Africa. Naturally this begs the question why? Even a honeymoon that follows years of living together is intrinsically tricky.
The previous months have been steeped in wedding preparations, mainly burning doubts about getting married at all and bitter arguments over the roles of rival relations on the big day. At last it dawns, passes in a blur, winds down into a sigh of relief and slumps into anti climax: what on earth shall we do next?
The beauty of South Africa is that it has all the answers. With the rand so low, the country can provide dazzling luxury at affordable prices, plus it is English speaking and left hand drive, with a minimal time difference and therefore no jet lag. Home sweet home, but with a sunny climate, fabulous beaches, wild animals lined up in rows waiting to be photographed and vineyards stretching as far as the eye can see.
And that’s before you tackle the sporting life, some of the best golf and diving on the planet, game drives on horseback, even ostrich riding. Of course there are museums, but not the ‘gotta be done’ kind you find in great European cities. For the visitor, though not for the majority of its citizens, South Africa equals pure self indulgence: only the most jaded traveller could possibly be bored.
Where to start? Long haul flights go to Johannesburg and Cape Town: arriving in one and leaving from the other is usually negotiable. Cape Town, overlooked wherever you go by the imposing slab of Table Mountain, is a city to linger in for a day or so. Like many ex colonial ports, it has an iconic hotel, in this case the rosy pink Mount Nelson – the Nellie to its intimates. When it opened in the late 19th Century, it was the top watering hole for big game hunters, gold and diamond magnates and passengers on ocean liners en route to India and Australia. Today’s crowd is more cosmopolitan, attracted by refurbished rooms, excellent food in the Cape Colony restaurant and a spectacular poolside buffet breakfast.
With that under your belt, it’s time to get out and about. The popular soft options are the cable car ride up Table Mountain, the drive down the Cape of Good Hope peninsula taking in the Jackass penguin colony at Boulders Beach and a tasting expedition to the Cape Winelands at Stellenbosch and Paarl. And the shopping, of course, at its best in the boutiques on the Victoria and Albert Waterfront, which is also famous for its seafood restaurants. Those who like to scratch beneath the surface might take the boat trip to Robben Island, where Nelson Mandela was imprisoned, and visit the townships to the east of the city, an eye opening but in no way alarming experience that provides some insight into South Africa’s economic and social problems.
The next section of the pleasure trail is the 1300km drive along the Garden Route to Port Elizabeth. The route, which offers stretches of indigenous forest, hop fields and wild flowers, lagoons and white beaches, can take three days or as long as you like. Hermanus, two hours out of Cape Town, offers whale watching in season, but success is dependent on calm conditions so that you can get in close in an open boat rather than endure a competitive hump spotting session from the shore.
In George, roughly the half way point, many golfers take up the 36-hole challenge at the Fancourt Golf and Country Club, where Ernie Els has one of his many homes. Whether or not you master the courses, you will probably be brought low in neighbouring Oudtshoorn, the ostrich capital of the world. Riding the big birds is all part of the fun, but if you’re catapulted back to earth, remember that revenge is never far away: just order ostrich steak for dinner.
For many, the great South African highlight is a visit to the 2,000,000 hectare Kruger National Park, which supports the greatest variety of species on the African continent, or one of the more romantic private game reserves on its western or northern boundaries. This is Big Five territory, with elephant, lion, buffalo, rhino and leopard on the loose. Dozens of different types of antelope skitter away from their predators, while massed hippos frolic in the lakes.
The main problem with a prominent Big Five presence is that walking and riding is strictly – and advisedly – forbidden. However one of the best ways of watching less dangerous animals is on horseback and this too is widely catered for. The Pakamisa Private Game Reserve, a malaria free retreat situated at 750m above sea level overlooking the Pongola River in KwaZulu-Natal, is the brain child of Isabella von Stepski. In the 1990s, the Austrian born countess turned a cattle ranch into a luxury Spanish style hotel and a 25,000 hectare reserve with 700 species, including giraffe, zebra, antelope, waterbuck and warthog. By moving her Arab stud from Andalucia to Pakamisa, she also guaranteed top level game viewing from the saddle.
The historically minded could combine Pakamisa with KwaZulu-Natal’s 19th Century battlefields, where the British forces took revenge on the Zulus for a shock defeat at Isandlwana during brutal encounters at Blood River, Spieonkop and, most famously, Rorke’s Drift.
Lastly, no South African tour would be complete without the fleshpots of Sun City, the gambling and golf complex near Pilanesberg 155km north west of Johannesburg. By day, this bizarre fantasy resort, a green oasis in the surrounding semi desert, is dominated by two top quality golf courses, the Gary Player, where the world’s top 12 tour professionals compete for the Million Dollar Challenge every December, and the Lost City, where hackers try to hit over the crocodile pit onto a green the shape of Africa at the signature 13th. The rule here is that those who fail, and they are legion, do not attempt to retrieve their balls.
Sun City has four hotels in different price brackets, headed by the Palace, a kitsch extravaganza where meeting life size elephant sculptures in the corridors is among the least of the surprises. A rather larger one was a £15 bill for a round of seven drinks, most of them spirits, in the bar of this ***** hotel, a 21st Century bargain, if ever there was one.
The Palace overlooks the Valley of the Waves, complete with an artificial sea, an imported beach and water slides through man made rock faces. There are daily tours of the neighbouring Pilanesberg game reserve, not quite the Kruger, but allegedly home to the Big Five. Certainly my twilight tour in an open-topped bus revealed a large male elephant only metres away, plus a massive white rhino foraging at the side of the road. Two out of five isn’t bad, especially when you factor in a champagne and biltong picnic as you bump through the wilderness.
By night, Sun City switches into Vegas mode, with a girlie show, rich in tits and feathers, and a high casino presence. Feeling lucky? Not only could you pay for your honeymoon, you might cover the wedding as well.
* pictures supplied by AA World Travel