South Africa Pot of Gold

See the many cultures of South Africa
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Find out all the things that South African holidays have to offer in this quick romp around this diverse country with travel writer Carrie Hampton. Expect a bit of sun-seeking, wildlife watching, every kind of adventure sport, cultural diversity and a spot of wine tasting.

They say a buffalo looks at you as if you owe it money, and when it comes to collect, you had better have an escape route. I didn't appreciate the full meaning of this until I became a spectator in a real life nature documentary; two male lions stalked through long grass towards an unsuspecting herd of very dozy-looking buffalo. Then all hell broke loose. The lions leaped on top of one snoozing beast and instead of starting a stampede in the opposite direction, the herd came at full speed towards the lions. It was the kings of the African bush that had to high tail it out of there in fear of their lives.

I wasn't expecting to see a lion hunt every day, or even the Big Five most dangerous animals (lion, leopard, buffalo, elephant and rhino), but I got them all - and more - in a safari that took in the public domain of Kruger National Park and a more pricey alternative in nearby Thornybush Private Game Reserve. The difference that sets the two areas apart is the sheer luxury of private safari lodge accommodation and the personal guiding by a qualified ranger, who bushwhacks his way through thickets for the best view of animals like lion and leopard. KGuests on South African holidays should explore Kruger Park, which is a self-drive reserve. It leaves amateurs missing all the best bits, or not really knowing what they are looking at.

I ended my South African safari with the scent of wild sage in my nostrils and newly attained knowledge that I should climb a tree if needing to escape from a buffalo, and stand my ground if charged by a lion. I didn't feel like putting either to the test, but thought these tips might come in useful for my next safari because I was hooked!

Driving away from the Mpumalanga safari area, I hardly noticed that the scenery had changed dramatically and that Kruger Park was far behind and below me. I was brought back into my senses with a jolt when the earth suddenly disappeared. The little track leading to God's Window viewpoint gave no indication that a giant ravine was up ahead. The immensity of the view across Blyde River Canyon was shocking, like being winded by an ice-cold ocean. Aptly named the Panorama Route, each viewpoint around the gorge gives an alternative perspective, all of which incited gasps of admiration in me, and a bizarre desire to jump.

Where there are tourists on South African holidays, there are buying opportunities and I had the crazy notion of returning home with a tall wooden giraffe. No packaging, just a fragile sticker dangling from its neck. I found just the right one in the little land-locked Kingdom of Swaziland, a short drive from the southern end of Kruger Park. Curios are cheap here and the people heart-warmingly friendly. The southern border of this Kingdom - surrounded entirely by South Africa - adjoins the province of KwaZulu Natal, home of the mighty Zulu tribe. When Zulu impis (warriors) enact a war dance, as they do at Shakaland Zulu Cultural Centre, it is easy to understand why other tribes ran in terror away from Shaka's fearsome war parties. The earth shook with the vibrations of their pounding feet and rhythmic drums.

KwaZulu Natal presented more safari possibilities and I went in search of rare black rhino in Hluhluwe Imfolozi Game Reserve. This undulating safari destination has plenty of game and a sub-tropical terrain quite different from Kruger. On a good day from Hilltop Camp, you can see right across Hluhluwe to the Greater St Lucia Wetland Park and all the way to the Indian Ocean. In a single day, it is possible to see elephant and rhino from a safari 4x4, and loggerhead turtles laying their eggs on the beach in the moonlight.

The KwaZulu Natal coast is renowned for its bath-temperature ocean - the envy of Capetonians who can only dream about warm water. I braved a quick dip in the Atlantic Ocean at Camps Bay in Cape Town, and emerged zinging as if my skin had absorbed the active ingredients of extra-strong mentholated mints. I scolded myself for not noticing that I was the only person in the water and realised that this beach is not really for swimming; it's for getting a tan and strutting around looking beautiful.

There is no such attempt at sophistication on Cape Town's South Peninsula, where the drum beats to a slower rhythm and surf dudes take chilled out to its ultimate level. This includes their language and while eaves dropping a surfers' conversation I required a translator. ‘Howzit broer' (how are you my brother/friend) was answered with ‘Kief man' (fine thankyou). I also found out that "lekker" is a good standby word meaning good, nice, fine, lovely or anything positive.

My ascent of Table Mountain in four minutes via the rotating cable car was very lekker and from the top I could see the nearby mountains of the Cape Winelands beckoning. I thought I had cultivated a wine palate capable of distinguishing good from bad, but after a day's tasting in numerous wine estates in Stellenbosch and Franschhoek, I couldn't tell a chardonnay from a chenin. Absolutely everything tasted wonderful and the world looked hazy through my rosé-tinted eyes.

The Hemel en Arde valley (Heaven and Earth) wine region known for its distinguished Pinot Noir, Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnay, attributes it success to the cool maritime climate, with a breeze coming off the ocean at Hermanus. This little Western Cape coastal town is famous for offering the "best land-based whale watching in the world," according to author and wildlife expert Mark Carwardine. He wrote these words from his hotel bedroom – that's how close the whales come to shore. But you have to be in Hermanus at the right time – July to October.

Further along the Garden Route at Plettenberg Bay, guests on South African holidays can expect more marine encounters on a boat trip to see huge schools of dolphins. Known as a party town, Plett (as its locally known), has more than its fair share of millionaire mansions overlooking one of the most appealing soft, sandy beaches of the Garden Route. The neighbouring town of Knysna is equally as popular, but more for its lagoon cruises, luscious oysters and dramatic scenery at ‘the heads', where the sea rushes into the lagoon through a narrow gap in the cliffs.

If there was ever an place in which there are too many things to do, the area around Plett and Knysna is it: bungy jumping, riding elephant, canopy tours on a high wire, hiking, boat trips, walking through the Monkeyland forest and having parrots land on your shoulder in the world's largest free-flight aviary at Birds of Eden. I did them all! Oh all right, I lie. I didn't have the guts for the world's highest bungee jump at Bloukrans.

Slowing the pace a little through the indigenous Tsitsikamma Forest, I cruised the gentle road to Port Elizabeth - the official end to the Garden Route. Pondering on the staggering variety of experiences I'd had made me wonder what my last impression would be. This took care of itself in Addo Elephant National Park just outside Port Elizabeth. Elephants there were aplenty, but it was an old buffalo bull that caught my eye when he looked directly at me with a look of great distain. I had a feeling he was about to call in that loan and decided that this was my cue to leave.

Top Ten Things to do on South African holidays

1. Go on safari. Wildlife films can't compare with the real thing. One of the most exciting options is to spend a night on a romantic sleepout platform in the bush. Think champagne and a four-poster bed with billowing mosquito netting high above the animals that come to drink at the waterhole. Many luxury safari lodges now offer this.

2. Table Mountain.  Climb it or take the cable car up to the top of this mighty symbol of Cape Town. The mountain is made of sandstone and granite, both containing large amounts of quartz, which means Table Mountain is in effect a giant crystal, emitting enormous concentrations of natural energy. Tap into this and realize your latent psychic abilities or healing powers.

3. Talk the talk. With eleven official languages in South Africa, it is not always easy to communicate, but English is widely understood. Get chatting to friendly locals by learning some basic words. "Hello, how are you" is the way in which all conversations are started in whatever language.

4. Get an Adrenaline shot. Try galloping on horseback along a beach or even in a game reserve. Adrenaline junkies have a whole range of edgy adventures, like shark cage diving, bungy jumping or bridge swinging, abseiling and paragliding. A more sedate way to fly could be in a hot air balloon.

5. Watch whales. The winter months of July through to October is the best time to see Southern Right whales from land or boat along the entire southern Cape coast. Reaching up to 18 metres long, they loll around in small groups and usually do a trick the moment you look away. Winter in the Cape is unpredictable and can be beautiful or very stormy.

6. Go slack packing. Hiking is a national sport in South Africa. The Drakensberg is one of those special places with big sky, towering mountain peaks, a green sea of rolling foothills and a sense of freedom that is good for the soul. One of the best fully portered and catered slack packing hikes is the luxury Table Mountain Hoerikwaggo Trail.

7. Head for the Winelands. The mountainous winelands of the Cape are not just about wine. They are about scenic beauty and superb food, genteel living and tranquility. This captivating combination of pleasures has tempted more than a few Europeans into buying properties here.  

8. Hear the battle cry. KwaZulu Natal's battlefields were the scenes of terrible clashes during the Anglo-Zulu wars and Anglo-Boer war. In oral storytelling tradition, listen as a guide recreates the sights and sounds of war and explains military strategy on the very spot where the battle took place

9.  Visit the waterfalls of the Panorama Route. There are dozens of waterfalls around the small town of Sabie, like the diaphanous cascade of Bridal Veil Falls.  Many are perfect for a refreshing swim; hike down to the bottom of Lisbon Falls and look for treasure in the pool at the end of the rainbow created by the spray.

10. Township tour. Guests on South African holidays should also experience the other side of life in a township. Locals are eager to show you around and you need not fear feeling like a voyeur. Your visit creates jobs and encourages the spirit of ubuntu (a philosophy of solidarity, morality, humanity and communal responsibility).

© Carrie Hampton carrieh@iafrica.com www.travelwriter.co.za