Too Quick for Comfort: Can I Come Back to Africa?

CAPE TOWN, South Africa ~ I thought I was journeying into Africa last month, but now I’m not sure where I was.

For a first-time visitor like me, South Africa is a kaleidoscope of shifting scenes and world cultures.

Braking for baboons in the road was unmistakably African. Yet a few miles away, penguins strolled the shore. Antarctica?

The rolling Winelands region of the Western Cape was a dead ringer for California’s Napa Valley. Or was it the Netherlands, dotted with gabled, thatched-roof houses?

Shantytowns, where much of the black African majority dwells, could have doubled for any in the developing world.

And slicing into steak at Gordon Ramsay’s new restaurant in Cape Town? I could have been at the haute chef’s outposts in New York or London or West Hollywood.

South Africa itself is a rich stew, or “bredie,” as they call it in Afrikaans, the local Dutch polyglot. Especially if you have only a week to sample it, as my partner, Wesla, and I did on a tour package that took us to Cape Town and a game park near Johannesburg.

Our schedule was so packed with sightseeing and the pace so breathless that we jokingly called our trip “a good overview of places you might want to visit in South Africa.”

Just to get there and back from Los Angeles required 21/2 days in planes and airports.

“This is the price you pay to come to see Africa,” said Patrick, the representative of Thompsons Africa, our trip’s local operator, who met us at the Johannesburg airport on the way to Cape Town.

It was worth it, especially with the US dollar buying about nine South African rand in April, up from as few as seven last year. Our travel package cost less than $2,500 per person, including air fare, hotels, game drives and tours. Take-out sandwiches cost less than $2; a cross-town cab ride was $6.

In our brief stay, we logged priceless moments in this dynamic nation of nearly 50 million. Sporting the most advanced economy in sub-Saharan Africa, South Africa is feverishly sprucing up its airports, stadiums and tourist facilities to host the nearly half-million visitors it expects for the FIFA World Cup soccer tournament in summer 2010.

Our four nights in Cape Town, the country’s legislative capital, confirmed its reputation as one of the world’s most eye-popping cities. It blends the azure-bay setting of San Francisco with the laid-back ambience and casual chic of Los Angeles.

“Is this your first time in Cape Town?” asked Nazeem, the driver who shuttled us from the airport to the Commodore Hotel at the city’s touristy Victoria and Alfred Waterfront.

When we replied yes, he said, “You’ll be back, I promise you.”

Like many South Africans we met, Nazeem was candid, friendly and fiercely proud of his country, whose diversity stems from its complex history.

A brief history:

South Africa’s original residents included San hunter-gatherers, or Bushmen, and Khoikhoi farmers, followed by Bantu-speaking peoples from central Africa.

In the 17th century, the Dutch (later known as Boers or Afrikaners) arrived in what is now Cape Town, where the Dutch East India Co. set up a supply station for trade ships. They later imported slaves from around the world.

The British, after landing in 1795, battled the Boers for control of the region. In 1910, the country came together as the Union of South Africa.

In modern times, South Africa was infamous for apartheid, a brutal system of white-minority rule and racial separation that began crumbling in 1990 after decades of struggle.

Four years later, Nelson Mandela, who spent nearly 30 years in jail for his anti-apartheid activities, was elected the country’s first black president. His party, the African National Congress, still leads the country, which wrestles with apartheid’s legacy of racial animosity, poverty and crime.

In Cape Town, a city of more than 3 million people, we encountered living history in Noor Ebrahim, 65, an education officer at the fascinating District Six Museum, which commemorates a multiracial neighbourhood that was bulldozed in the 1960s and 70s to make way for white residents.

“I was kicked out in 1975,” said Ebrahim, whose Indian-born grandfather owned a ginger-beer business in District Six. “I cried. I was so angry.”

Like many South Africans, he told us he had forgiven the former regime.

“We are God’s creations,” he said. “We are only one race. I am South African.”

The museum was the highlight of a three-hour walking tour ($13) that we booked with Cape Town Tourism. Also worthwhile if touristy: a dinner and cultural show at the Gold of Africa Museum, included with our package.

Cape Town’s notorious winds thwarted a cable-car trip up the iconic, 3,563-foot-high Table Mountain, which overlooks the city. No matter. Our guide drove us to nearby Signal Hill, for another sweeping vista.

We also sampled the region’s natural bounty. On an all-day van tour of the Cape Peninsula, our guide, Faizel, who traced long family roots to Indonesia, braved a stormy day to dash us down the rugged, breathtaking Atlantic Coast, reminiscent of California’s Big Sur, and beyond.

We passed Bantry Bay’s expensive homes, chiseled into granite slopes, and Camps Bay, renowned for sunbathing, fatally frigid waters and rip currents.

In the fishing town of Hout Bay, we rode a rollicking boat to ogle swarms of Cape fur seals on Duiker Island. (We had to skip Chapman’s Peak, the Cape’s most scenic drive, which was shut by rock slides and wasn’t expected to reopen until summer.)

Then it was south to the Cape of Good Hope at the Cape Peninsula’s tip, where treacherous waters have scuttled ships for centuries. At nearby Cape Point, a tram took us up to a historic lighthouse for a thrilling view of cliffs and clashing ocean currents hundreds of feet below.

(The actual meeting point of the Atlantic and Indian oceans is considered to be Cape Agulhas, South Africa, about 100 miles away.)

Another high point of our rambles was the Boulders area of Table Mountain National Park, where cute African penguins waddled nonchalantly past admirers who gathered on a beach boardwalk above them.

We whiled away one afternoon in the lovely Winelands near Cape Town, a region of rolling vineyards and farms colonized in the 17th century by the Boers, who devised their own architecture: Cape Dutch.

Our amiable guide, John, who resembled the wide-girthed, hirsute Hagrid of the Harry Potter series, was quite the oenophile.

“Like a symphony that comes to an abrupt end,” he said, mourning the truncated aftertaste of a youthful Pinot Noir during our tasting at the small, friendly Vriesenhof Vineyards near Stellenbosch, one of the Winelands’ most picturesque towns.

Wesla and I couldn’t linger either.

We had dinner at Ramsay’s Maze restaurant at the new One&Only Cape Town, a luxury hotel where nightly rates started around $600.

Our meal tab was far less expensive. With tip, two appetizers, fish and fillet of beef entrees, French beans and an exquisite dessert melange, it totalled $68 for two – less than half, I figured, what it might be in the United States or London.

We spent our final two nights at the casually elegant Bakubung Bush Lodge in the 136,000-acre Pilanesberg National Park, which occupies the crater of a long-extinct volcano.

During six hours of game drives led by sharp-eyed guides, we saw African elephants, white rhinos, zebras, giraffes and other beasts, but alas, no lions, leopards or the park’s rare, elusive cheetahs.

Hungry for evening adventure, we hopped a shuttle to prowl nearby Sun City, South Africa’s spin on Sin City.

Opened 30 years ago by Sol Kerzner, the South African billionaire behind the refined One&Only Cape Town, Sun City’s jewel is the 338-room Palace of the Lost City, an over-the-top pastiche of cupolas, pillars and super-sized beast sculptures.

At the casino, I played slots with a 10-rand card for what seemed like forever, losing and winning the same money over and over. In South Africa, $1 and change bought a lot of fun.

What it couldn’t buy was time.

Our hectic itinerary, which left little room to explore everyday life in South Africa, omitted must-see sites such as Soweto, the historic black township outside Johannesburg, and Robben Island off Cape Town, where Mandela and other anti-apartheid leaders were imprisoned.

And, oh, if only we’d had one more day to chase cheetahs….

Next time.

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