BEYOND RYE: Seascapes, Safari, Sundowners: South Africa :
The Cape region of South Africa enjoys a well-deserved reputation as a premier tourist destination, featuring breathtaking scenery, abundant flora and fauna, beautiful vernacular architecture, and outstanding indigenous and international cuisine.
By Paul Benowitz
The Cape region of South Africa enjoys a well-deserved reputation as a premier tourist destination, featuring breathtaking scenery, abundant flora and fauna, beautiful vernacular architecture, and outstanding indigenous and international cuisine. The people couldn’t be friendlier or more accommodating. On a recent two-week trip to this small corner of the country, my wife Sandy and I found a dizzying array of sites and activities from which we had to pick and choose.
Cape Town, arguably the tourist epicenter of all South Africa, is a fascinating, bustling, cosmopolitan city. Three days of touring will immerse you in many, but by no means all of the defining attractions. An exceedingly helpful way to jump-start “Cape Town 101” is a two-hour loop on the Hop-On, Hop-Off, audio-guided, open-top bus, with its multi-language, plug-in earphones. Touristy? Yes, but invaluable.
Table Mountain, Cape Town’s signature feature, soars dramatically OVER the very heart of the city, serving as a backdrop from everywhere one looks. A cable car to the summit reveals a wilderness totally disconnected from the metropolis below.
Kirstenbosch National Gardens, the city’s extensive botanical wonderland, is further enhanced by the ever-present mountain vistas. There are bustling food and crafts markets, important museums with outstanding regional and international art, the Victoria and Albert Waterfront (South Africa’s most visited site — think South Street Seaport on steroids), important historic sites, and the wildly colorful Bo-Kaap district, home to the city’s most concentrated Muslim population. All are bus stops – just hop off. That said, much of the city, particularly its vibrant downtown, can and should be traversed on foot.
It’s a one-hour ferry ride to Robben Island, a UNESCO World Heritage Site and national park, which offers a compelling introduction to the most defining chapter in South Africa’s history. This bleak, harsh island houses the prison complex where Nelson Mandela was imprisoned for seventeen years, as were many other key figures in the struggle against apartheid. Tours of the prison are conducted by former political prisoners and prison guards. Our tour was conducted, with horrific detail, by a former prisoner. It would be interesting to see if former guards present the same, graphic tour.
Sixties Redux: We stopped by Mabu Vinyl, the downtown music shop whose proprietor, Stephen Segerman, searched for and found Sixto Rodriguez, the singer depicted in the recent Academy Award-winning documentary, “Searching for Sugar Man.”
We discovered that you don’t have to be South African to enjoy sundowning from the terrace of one of the many establishments facing west along the Atlantic Ocean. This pastime is definitely elevated to an art form — no training required — and the sunsets are even more hypnotic after a few sundowners.
Further afield is a not-to-be-missed day trip to the southernmost tip of the region — Cape Point, and its neighbor, the Cape of Good Hope. The 50-mile drive, much of it through Cape Point National Park, features crashing coastal scenery, small towns, wildlife, and beaches. Boulders Beach is home to a vast colony of South African penguins, more widely known as jackass penguins, whose call has a distinct braying sound.
The main focus of our trip was a self-drive tour with overnights at countryside B & B’s. The cliché about the journey being half the fun truly applies here. The varied stretches of road traverse dizzying mountain passes, coastal National Parks, beaches, nature reserves, layback villages, and larger regional towns. The most picturesque, well-known part of this region, stretching along the Indian Ocean, is referred to as The Garden Route.
Before actually joining up with The Garden Route, we drove easterly through two popular inland regions. First, The Winelands, South Africa’s most extensive and arguably most beautiful wine region, is home to over 300 wineries dotting the rolling hillsides. “Tastings” tours aside, the scenic beauty is reason enough to explore the area. The wineries themselves are architectural gems, set in magnificent surroundings.
Our next stop was the Klein Karoo Valley. The 114-degree daytime temperature notwithstanding, this is a fascinating and attractive region known as the “ostrich capital of the world.” According to a local tour guide, the region, with its many breeding farms, ships 40 tons of ostrich feathers a year to Rio de Janeiro for Carnival. We were assured that the actual plucking doesn’t hurt the ostrich and that the feathers do grow back. We overnighted on an ostrich farm, in their guest house, which was built in the prevalent Cape Dutch style, with its ornate, baroque, glistening white gables.
The Garden Route hiking trails in the various national parks range from leisurely to challenging, but always wildly scenic. Most, of the rugged beauty of the coast can be seen from the easier trails. A series of suspension bridges forming part of the trail in Tsitsikamma National Park is perhaps the most single visited site along the Route. (A significant coastal attraction — abundant whale watching right from the shores and promontories — was out of season.)
While we did not incorporate one of the popular safari venues of the northeast (i.e. Krueger, and the private camps), we did take one guided tour in a vast game reserve, Ado Elephant National Park, considered the easternmost terminus of The Garden Route. This inland destination is home to hundreds of elephants, and I think we saw them all, along with kudu, eland, zebra, warthogs, duiker, hartebeest, jackals, the ubiquitous impala, monkeys, baboons, and many, many birds. (The drive inland to the park region skirted several “township” areas, grim reminders of the lingering aftermath of South Africa’s apartheid history.)
Earlier that same day, we had signed onto what was advertised as a guided birding trip on Sunday’s River. Nowhere in any of the literature did it mention that we were providing the horsepower — with a few stretches of rapids, no less! We wound up drenched. Back at the hotel, they asked us if we had fallen in. Good birding, nonetheless.
We tagged a flight up to Victoria Falls in Zimbabwe onto our journey, a two-day “trip extender.” Victoria Falls is another UNESCO Site – thunderous, overwhelming. Dr. David Livingstone was the first European to set sight on the falls in 1855, and his statue graces the park entrance.
About South Africa, we are frequently asked, “Is it safe?” Reminds me of the Sir Laurence Olivier line in the iconic Dustin Hoffman movie, “Marathon Man.”
I am decidedly not qualified, after a two-week sightseeing tour, to offer a commentary on South Africa today. Apartheid was abolished only nineteen years ago. I believe it would be reasonable to characterize South Africa as a positive work in progress, with speed bumps.