The Call of South Africa
Party time in Jo'Burg
(Alone Again, Naturally)
By John Sherman Mills
Photography by Thomas I. Petersen with Madeline Navarro
Johannesburg, South Africa
South Africa continues to allure the free spirited traveler. Its vibrant ethnic communities, cosmopolitan cities and sun-drenched beaches make it one of ...believe it or not... American's top vacation spots. The exotic wildlife and unique natural beauty are here too- all of which make a travel experience in South Africa simply irresistible.
A predominantly kooky neighborhood in a funky corner of town, the Green Point district has become an international Mecca for single guys and gals. Dozens of cafes, pubs and beckoning businesses line its historic, cobblestone streets. Seeking a splash of local color, I scamper down to the Soho Bar where we’ve heard a gregarious band of hooligans acts as a self-appointed welcoming committee to foreign bloke, who stumbles into the place. Soho’s friendly, carefree atmosphere is so typical of all the watering holes you’ll find here. (Unescorted ladies should be forewarned about the fellows' amorous attentions.)
C T’s nightlife buzzes with crowded discos like the “Plum Crazi,” “Manhattan,” “Roberts” and “Club 55.” The “Bronx” is the main club featuring a both bar and a cabaret. Without a doubt the hottest venue is The “S.K.Y., a glitzy cabaret restaurant, hosting a set of stellar entertainers. Just across the street is the newly opened 250 seat “Gauloise’s Warehouse.” “GW’s” headlines an array of live theater, from intense drama to slide-splitting comedy.
Strategic vantage points for people watching are the sidewalk cafes of Waterkant Street and Main Road. The pace along these shopping centers is laid back and casual. Late afternoons are a good time to honor a local tradition of sipping a latte while savoring something decadent like a Chocolate Chunksicle or a Frozen Peppermint Soufflé. You can’t leave Cape Town without indulging yourself with a coveted Peachy Keen Sundae, a diet-killer of whole fresh strawberries enveloped in heavy whipped cream and scrunched between two chocolate/marshmallow waffles.
Footsteps away from Green Point lay one of South Africa’s biggest tourist
attractions, the Victoria and Albert Waterfront.
Warehouse and factories of the past have been magically transformed into upscale restaurants, hi-tech aquariums, interactive museums, specialty boutiques and elegant hotels. Even a former prison is ironically now a world-class resort, the Ports Wood. A meticulously restored antique train, the Pride of Africa, chugs between the piers, inviting gleeful tourists to climb aboard. The harbor itself is always bustling with tugs, fishing boats and gargantuan cargo ships- all maneuvering precisely around each other as if choreographed in an aquatic ballet. Not to be missed is a harbor tour on one of the small boats that scoot in and out of this maritime mania. The excursion climaxes when the skipper spins his craft around for our unobstructed view of Cape Town with craggy Table Mountain soaring behind it.
Along the docks you can also arrange for passage to Robben Island, some 25 miles off the coastline. Little more than a few acres of barren rocks protruding about the ocean’s surface, this desolate location has been a penal facility for many centuries. Former president Nelson Mandela was incarcerated here for nearly three decades. Robben Island is one of South Africa's three World heritage sites, dedicated as a symbol of emancipation from Apartheid. The guardhouses, prison halls and even Nelson Mandela’s cell are open for view.
travel agent’s recommendation, I acquire a rental car and head out for a
day’s drive down the Cape of Good Hope. We first skirt through the resort town
of Clifton with its spectacular miles of glistening white beaches. Sandy Bay is
nearby, the shoreline most frequented by Cape naturalists.
The roadway twists and turns along sheer bluffs high above the raging surf. I meander my way to the southernmost tip, Point Dias.
I abandon the car and ascend on foot to the lighthouse whose 19 million watt candlepower qualifies it as the most powerful in the world. As gulls cry a discordant symphony from above, the icy waters of the southern Atlantic thrash violently below. My face tingles from the updraft of salty air. A plaque remembering the countless shipwrecks offshore marks this eerie site as a watery grave for thousands of unfortunate sailors. (Legend has it that the ghost ship “The Flying Dutchman” still patrols off shore.) As I circle back to town I enjoy a comic pause at Boulders Beach, where hundreds of sassy Cape penguins shuffle about their permanent sandy residence. Except for these quirky, waddling fellows, I am alone on the beach and it seems almost instinctive to ponder where I somehow fit into the scheme of things.
A fun packed day trip awaits me in the Cape’s Wine Country. Just 45 minutes northeast of town is a succession of romantic wineries and small towns like Paarl, Stellenbosch and Franschoek. Their distinctive buildings with whitewashed walls, thatched roofs and pointed gables characterize these gentle-paced villages and sleepy estates by a style known as Dutch Cape architecture. But not all the immigrants were from Holland. French Protestants settled here too, bringing with them their cherished heritage of expert winemaking skills.
Cape wines continue to garnish prestigious international awards year after year. Most tasting rooms have picture-perfect settings with unsurpassed vistas overlooking rolling foothills, manicured vineyards and a horizon of luminous granite mountains.
As captivating as the Cape may be, it is only gateway to the many other African adventures awaiting you. With so many choices to make, we were elated to discover that tourism in South Africa is highly organized. Travel modules and excursions within South Africa’s nine diverse provinces can be harmoniously mixed and matched. As always, having a savvy travel agent to plan your ventures is invaluable. I had the good fortune to hook up with Luke of African Angel Tours who was able to pair my interests and vacation time with those of a small group of other hip guys and gals. The chemistry between us is phenomenal mix of contagious enthusiasm and exuberant curiosity. New friendships are quickly made.
From Cape Town our two-hour flight whisks us northeast to Durban, an ever-popular seaside playground. Embracing the coast of the Indian Ocean, Durban with its balmy subtropical climate is a year round resort. Stylish condominiums, sleek luxury hotels and fashionable outdoor restaurants line the Marine Parade just across from the beach. Unique to Durban are the brightly painted rickshaws, operated exclusively the members of the Zulu tribes. Adorning themselves with feathered costumes, they fearlessly negotiate through a tangle of motorized traffic along the beachfront called “Durban’s Golden Mile.”
The city has many attractions, including Water World, Sea World, Durban Botanic Gardens and the Natal Maritime Museum. Surfing on this part of South Africa’s beaches draws buffed competitors from all over the world. In the center of town Victoria’s Market houses an authentic Middle Eastern bizarre, jammed-packed with vendors hocking everything from aromatic spices to ebony carvings.
Durban also has many hot spots, most clustered in the Berea District.
Frequent haunts include the clubs “Axis," "The Zone” and the “Feline Groovy.”
Favored restaurants are the “Shaftsbury Avenue,”
“ Bistro 136” and “Garth’s Place.” Battery and Driftwood Beaches are the sexiest
beaches, but be well advised: man-eating hammerhead and great white sharks
inhabit these waters!
From Durban our tour heads inland through sugar cane territory to the Valley of the Kings and Ngungundlovu. Luke is quick to point out the important Zulu battle sites of the 19th century. The road from Nkandla descends to Eshowe, with dramatic views across the hazy blue Tugela Valley over to the lofty mountains of Kranskop. This sage scented route is cherished as one of the most stunning scenic drives in all of South Africa.
To make the African adventure complete, Luke has arranged for accommodations at the Isibindi Lodge. Inspired by traditional Zulu architecture, the hotel’s rooms are actually six individual beehive huts. Their primitive exteriors are in amusing contrast to the sumptuous amenities and unsurpassed comfort inside. An evening just lollygagging around a crackling campfire is a joyous time for our congenial group. Suddenly we are “visited” by a neighboring Sangoma, the Zulu’s version of a witch doctor. Once settled, he retrieves an ominous looking leather pouch from his beaded belt. Inside is a hodgepodge of animal bones, shells, pebbles and feathers. He hands the bag to me, gesturing to shake the contents onto a flat stone by the fire’s edge. As Luke interprets into English, the Sangoma analyzes the meaning of the objects’ positions to one another. And so a spellbinding evening of fortune telling and folklore begins, continuing until the fire’s embers are only a faint glow. A beefy guard holding a lantern before him escorts us to our hut. The night resonates with an unfamiliar, disturbing cacophony of sounds.
Before the break of dawn we’re tumbling into Land Rovers, pumped for our first
game drive. The Isibindi Reserve consists of ever-changing habitats,
ranging from verdant grasslands to the scruffy
bushvelds. The increasing daylight reveals more and more and more animals:
antelopes, elands, rheboks, baboons, hyraxes, jackals and a bazillion species of
brilliantly colored birds. From time to time we stop in a clear space. One is
above a river, where we spot the beady eyes of a crocodile lying in wait.
Walking in the reserve is forbidden, in consideration of visitors’ safety. For
one thing, this is the realm of the Puff Adder, the most feared snake
in Africa. The Adder’s skin makes such an effective camouflage that the snake
can be accidentally encountered by humans and startled into its deadly,
By mid afternoon we reach the silent battlefields of Rorke’s Drift and Isandlwana. A native historian explains the tragedies and strategies of these heroic conflicts during the Anglo-Zulu Campaign of 1879. It was then that 4000 Zulus clashed with 100-armed British soldiers. As night falls we enter a Zulu Village where natives entertain us with dancing, cultural talks and traditional Zulu food. Almost exclusively vegetarian, the Zulus have only about 40 dishes that they prepare from their diet of maize, potatoes and pumpkins. I am quite comfortable until asked to try a frothy concoction called “Amazi.” It’s actually a form of curdled milk, which the Zulu’s consider a delicacy. It’s definitely an acquired taste. Trust me.
The dream of most wildlife enthusiasts who visits Africa is to see the “Big Five,” the world’s largest land mammals: elephant, rhino, buffalo, lion and leopard. For this we venture deep into the grassy bushveld of the Transvaal in northern South Africa. Kruger National Park is South Africa’s most famous tourist attraction for that reason. Viewing within the park is limited to restricted roadways, but there are thousands of animals to see.
Luke has arranged for our group to stay at the private Sabi Sands Game Reserve. Private reserves like Sabi have an open border to Kruger, so the animals from the large park can freely enter and exit. When the wildlife steps foot upon the reserve property, the Land Rovers are permitted to drive off road to view the game.
A perplexing fact is that a bar over the roof of a jeep “disguises” its passengers. The lions and other carnivorous creatures don’t perceive the vehicle as a threatening presence. The jeeps, therefore, can approach large predators within 30 feet without disturbing them. Two drives lasting three hours each are scheduled every day. The driver and an experienced guide seek out the animals by their tracks and other natural signs. As the cycles of life play out before you, nature’s dramatic powers take you back in time. This intimate encounter with an ancient primeval world is truly a once in a lifetime experience. An indelible memory for me is watching giraffes drink from a shallow pond at twilight, the constellation Southern Cross is reflected in the still, dark waters.
Our days on “safari” concluded, we’re off to see the wild side of South Africa’s “City of Gold,” Johannesburg. “Jo’burg,” as South Africans call it, is the largest municipality in the country and the second largest in all of Africa. It’s an enigmatic metropolis comprised of the incomparably rich and unbelievably poor living harmoniously in juxtaposition to one another. The Carlton Panorama, an ultra modern tower stretching 663 feet above the city streets below, affords an awesome bird's eye view. As the sun sets, you seem miraculously suspended between the twinkling lights carpeting the valley floor below and the starry skies above.
Jo’burg’s nightlife seers throughout the wee hours. Three ever-popular clubs, “Re-Load,” the “Purple Fly” and “Therapy,” are conveniently situated next to each other in the neighborhood called the Braamfontein, otherwise known as the “Heartland Village.” Throughout the city you’ll discover over fifty bars and after-hour establishments. The “Stardust” maintains its reputation as the best disco in town.
A must for everyone coming here is Gold Reef City, a historical reconstruction of Jo’burg’s early prospecting days. You mingle with actors in Victorian costumes going about their chores in the brewery, newspaper office, livery stable, mining office, bank and pub. Don’t be shocked by what they say if you get in their way. The caustic bantering with the visitors is all part of the fun. The centerpiece of GRC is actually a mine dating to 1890. You plunge over 600 feet into a shaft, finally landing on a platform where you view reenactments of miners at work in its underground tunnels. The roller coasters, dubiously named Thunder Mountain and Runaway Train, rumble above.
I seek to unwind along the new Randburg Waterfront of the Jukskei River. Completed in 2001, the complex rivals the charm and popularity of Cape Town’s Victoria and Albert Waterfront. White umbrellas shade the outdoor tables of the fifty eateries and pubs that line the water’s edge. Over 40 retail stores cater to every desire, from casual to chic- and s
There is virtually no limit to places you can hang around in Johannesburg. The Oriental plaza, Diagonal Street, Africa Cultural Centre and Crafters Marketplace are just some attractions well worth a visit. So too are the Strekfontein Caves, a world heritage site that claim one of the richest archeological finds anywhere. Among the most remarkable discoveries made here is the famous 2,5 million year old skeleton, the first complete Australopithecus ever to be found.
On a somber note, Luke offers on a tour of Soweto, the largest all black city on the African Continent. Some 5 million reside in the humblest of surroundings. The town resulted from the oppressive Apartheid polices that Nelson Mandela and Walter Sisulu helped defeat. We actually drive by the Mandela home as we conclude our visit to this proud, but struggling community.
Because Jo’burg is only ninety minutes away from Zimbabwe, I follow Luke’s recommendation for a side trip to see one of the world’s natural wonders, Victoria Falls. More than a mile wide, the falls is the site where the waters of the mighty Zambezi River tumble 325 feet into a narrow basalt gorge.
Standing at its edge, you have a chilling sense of a cataclysmic event, when the crust of the earth was ripped apart. At sunset we jump aboard a small tour boat that drifts silently past hippos and elephants feeding along the riverbanks. The Safari Lodge with its bold African décor and attentive staff is a place we could easily spend the entirety of our next vacation.
South Africa is an incomparable destination with something for everyone. It’s a place where you leave feeling that there’s so much more to be discovered. This enchanting wonderland is one to which I swear I will return again and again.