South Africa: It’s a holiday destination with the lot. Some of the best game reserves in the world, great beaches, fascinating cultures, exciting wines and food, thrilling music, arts and dance, and the chance to explore somewhere that is utterly unlike where we live. South Africa is among the most diverse nations on earth, with 11 official languages and a melting pot of cultures.
It’s first thing in the morning and we are enjoying a game drive through the Kapama Private Game Reserve, one of the finest in Africa, with five-star accommodation at Karula camp where nyala antelopes roam free and a hippopotamus recently had to be removed from the swimming pool.
We see a mother and baby rhino up close and personal, commune with giraffe and see a hippo (maybe the same one) wallowing in a pool. No big cats this time, but Kapama, on the border of the Kruger National Park, is home to all of the ‘big five’: lions, leopards, buffalo, rhinos and elephants.
You’ll also find hippos, giraffes, wildebeests, zebras, meerkats, wild dogs, kudus, hyenas and ostriches, while it is not unusual to come across monkeys, baboons and even penguins close to urban areas.
An hour or so later, after a short drive, we are taste-testing South Africa’s signature drinks in various forms, including a unique cocktail known as a Springbok made from Amarula Cream and peppermint liqueur. Amarula Cream is made from marula berries grown in this part of Limpopo Province and in season you can see the local elephants feasting on the fruit of the marula trees, which only grow in the wild. The Amarula Lapa is the hospitality centre for the liqueur and is an ideal stop-off for anyone visiting the game parks.
We are scheduled to fly out of the local Hoedspuit Airport but a mini cyclone means no planes are landing or taking off, so we hire a car and drive to Johannesburg six hours away, arguably the most vibrant city in Africa.
By dusk I am checked in at the Ten Bompas Hotel, a luxury boutique hotel close to all of Johannesburg’s myriad attractions but hidden away in delightful gardens.
That’s two of South Africa’s big five attractions down in one day: the game reserves and the city that is South Africa’s heartbeat.
There are three to go: the shining light of Cape Town, recently named the number two city in the world by Lonely Planet, the vibrant port city of Durban with neighbouring Umhlanga Rocks in KwaZulu-Natal, and the stunningly beautiful Cape Winelands. Others would argue that Sun City and the Garden Route between Cape Town and Port Elizabeth merit a spot, but this is my column and my choice.
In Johannesburg, ugly visually but culturally alive, visitors have to visit the Apartheid Museum, tour the resurgent black township of Soweto and visit Vilikazi Street, the only street in the world to be home to two Nobel Peace laureates, Nelson Mandela and Desmond Tutu.
Sandton and nearby northern suburbs are the places to stay and dine out, but with the crime problem receding, it is worth also visiting the fast-emerging multicultural arts precinct of Maboneng.
Durban, a one-hour flight away, is the gateway to the wilderness of KwaZulu-Natal and is a fascinating mixture of European, Indian and Zulu culture, as well as being a beach resort. Its Elangeni Maharani complex overlooks the surf beaches and has over 700 rooms with modern facilities.
A 20-minute drive north in the resort town Umhlanga Rocks, rich in village food and coffee culture, is one of South Africa’s best boutique hotels – the Beverly Hills Hotel, beautifully situated overlooking the Pacific Ocean and a lighthouse. It has become synonymous with elegance and gracious hospitality.
The Beverly Hills is a true boutique hotel with 89 rooms and suites, each with a private balcony and an uninterrupted view of the ocean.
Dramatically beautiful Cape Town is the shining symbol of the ‘new’ South Africa, offering an intoxicating combination of a lively African vibe and western sophistication; a cultural melting pot situated at the junction of the Atlantic and Indian oceans, under the brooding gaze of Table Mountain and surrounded by vineyards on all sides.
The buzzy V&A waterfront, with its many restaurants, bars, shops and museums, offers superb views of both the water and Table Mountain and is where many tourists base themselves.
Key attractions include a cable car ride to the top of the mountain and a ferry trip to Robben Island, where Nelson Mandela was imprisoned – book in advance.
Bo Kaap is a colourful but quiet Muslim quarter on the fringe of downtown with brightly-painted cottages and mosques. Camps Bay, Clifton and Sea Point are among the most chic beach suburbs.
Just a couple hours’ drive outside Cape Town are 20 different wine regions and more than 200 cellars, many of them world-class. Stellenbosch, Paarl, Franschhoek and Wellington, all with magnificent old Cape Dutch buildings, are major drawcards.
Dating back over 200 years to 1802, the boutique Oude Werf Hotel (The Old Yard) is an artful union of old and new – the older part of the building is the oldest continually operating inn in South Africa. At dinner try kudu carpaccio, or maybe a milk tart with rooibos syrup and local berries.
There are so many options, and South Africa is a large country. You’ll need a minimum of a fortnight to do it justice. There is an agreeable climate all year round and the current exchange rate makes South Africa an absolute bargain for Australian tourists.
THE AMARULA CREAM STORY
There is a fascinating story behind Amarula Cream, South Africa’s global liqueur success story, which is now exported to 103 countries including Australia and New Zealand.
The unique ingredient of the drink is marula, an indigenous African fruit the size of a small plum but oval in shape. The marula fruit cannot be cultivated but only grows in the wild and is ripened by the sun to a rich yellow, with a tough outer skin surrounding its fibrous, white flesh.
Amarula Cream is made with sugar, cream and the fruit of what is also locally called the Elephant tree or the Marriage Tree. Elephants enjoy eating the fruit of the marula tree – and let locals know when the fruit is ripe and ready to be picked.
Because of the marula tree’s association with elephants, producer Distell has made them its symbol and supports elephant conservation efforts, co-funding the Amarula Elephant Research Programme at the University of Natal, Durban.
In 2016 the Amarula Trust formed a partnership with conservation charity Wildlife Direct and its founder Dr Paula Kahambu, working to protect the less than 400,000 elephants still surviving.
The Amarula lapa, the Sotho name for a gathering place, is the hospitality centre for the liqueur and is an ideal stop-off for anyone visiting the game parks of the Limpopo Province.
Made from traditional thatch, stone and wood, the centre offers educational films and lectures, light lunches and tastings of Amarula milkshakes and cocktails including the Springbok, a popular South African chaser that is a combination of Crème de Menthe and Amarula Cream.
The lapa is just outside the town of Phalaborwa, and is close to the processing plant where the fresh marula fruit is brought during the harvesting season, de-stoned and its pulp fermented before being transported to the distillery in Stellenbosch. It spends two years in French oak and has a soft caramel flavour.
South African Airways (SAA) has daily flights from all Australian cities via Perth to Johannesburg with direct connections to 29 African cities including all major airports in South Africa. For more information see www.flysaa.com.
Oude Werf Hotel
30 Church Street, Stellenbosch, 7600.
+ 27 21 887 4626. www.OudeWerfHotel.co.za
Kapama Private Game Reserve
R40, Hoedspruit, 1380, South Africa.+27 12 368 0600. www.kapama.com
Southern Sun Elangeni and Maharani
63 Snell Parade, Durban, 4001, South Africa.
+27 31 362 1300. www.tsogosun.com
Beverly Hills Hotel
54 Lighthouse Rd, Umhlanga, 4320, South Africa. +27 31 561 2211 www.tsogosun.com
Ten Bompas Hotel
10 Bompas Road, Dunkeld West Johannesburg. +27 11 325 2442. www.tenbompas-accommodation.co.za