By Rory Winston.
South Africa – *see under: apartheid, Mandela, and wildlife.
Were a dictionary to exist based on the popular associations certain words have for us, this is likely how it would read. The very mention of South Africa culls forth televised moments, debate-worthy issues and the headlines that informed our youth. For many, South Africa has become no more than a metaphor – a place on the map that has been relegated to serve as a symbol for post-apartheid, a remote destination located somewhere between the History Channel and National Geographic, a series of exotic mental images accompanied either by Peter Gabriel’s Biko or by a faux ethnic soundtrack born in Hollywood. Of course, there exists another South Africa – one whose diverse landscape remains in constant dialogue with its many enduring cultures, one replete in memorable images, tastes, sounds and scents, one that leaves a permanent mark on our understanding of the world and our place in it. A South Africa with its own hidden planets.
Arriving at the Fairlawn, a Boutique hotel on the outskirts of Johannesburg, is like venturing into Nadine Gordimer’s Occasion for Loving. The French provincial suite with Eastern motifs evokes precisely the sort of lost world that the novel’s main character, Jessica Stilwell, would have occupied. The property is built on a former estate that retains both its colonial whimsy and grandeur. It is the kind of luxury that exudes permanence, the kind that could only have been conceived under a social order that thought itself invincible. Johannesburg’s Apartheid Museum reaffirms my theory.
With films, audios, and vivid testimonies exploring the rise and fall of apartheid, the interactive museum is anything but a prosaic account of history. Rather, it is a time-machine, catapulting one into the periods preceding, during and following apartheid. A visit to Constitutional Hill and the notorious Old Fort makes a perfect adjunct to this journey. It was in this former prison where Nelson Mandela and Mahatma Gandhi had been incarcerated. To understand the present, I turn to the Wits Art Museum whose astonishing collection underscores the recent growth of significant art and the evolving pool of local talent.
Of course, if you’d rather eat your way through local culture, Joziburg Lane is a gentrified culinary wonderland. The magnificent art deco building, One Eloff, is home to everything from trendy food joints to ateliers to hipster lofts. In close proximity, sits the Mary Fitzgerald Square, an open-air sculpted tribute to SA’s first female unionist. Another noteworthy homage to achievement is The Jazz Walk of Fame –a local ‘walk of stars’ devoted to the many influential artists who made Jo’burg’s music scene one that’s unparalleled anywhere on the continent. Seeing Mandela’s statue adorn the square bearing his name, it’s apparent that his vision of a thriving democratic state has come to fruition.
Leaving the metropolis is like departing in search of other planets – it’s an awe-inspiring adventure to unknown worlds where no two regions even remotely resemble “Jo’burg” or, for that matter, one another. Unlike the Grand Canyon, Blyde River Canyon is a verdant series of gorges and water-sculpted landmasses spanning nearly sixteen miles in length and 2,500 feet in depth. From the aptly named, ‘God’s Window,’ one can take in the geographical work of art known as Bourke’s Luck Pothole. This ethereal canvas painted by centuries of kolks and plunge pools shimmers with the rusty golden hues of Yves Klein’s Fire Paintings.
Acknowledged as the most environmentally friendly lodge in Africa, Sabi Sabi’s Earth Lounge blends meticulously with its surroundings. It is an elaborate bird’s nest with a turtle’s protective shell. The property opens onto a panoramic view of endless bushveld – its 13 high-end suites each coming complete with plunge pool, and remarkable wooden sculptures. Here luxury and utter wilderness coexist without compromising the integrity of either. Still, no nature program or drive-through ‘habitat,’ can prepare you for being in eating proximity of a predatory species. A stray leopard casually strolls through the compound. We pretend to go about our business as the ‘majestic local’ warily passes us and moves on.
With recherché trappings, private steam rooms, state-of-the-art gym, library, art gallery, meditation garden, Spa, and an elegant dining area that sports a top-notch wine cellar and exquisite cuisine, it is a camouflaged oasis in the high-grass. Our Shangaan tracker and game ranger sit alongside Judy Pillay -the tourist board’s ever energetic Director of Operations. They plan our upcoming adventure under a starry sky.
Of course, nature has its own agenda and the very next morning, we find ourselves sitting ringside to a pride of lionesses taking down a massive buffalo. Sated, they keep an eye on the leftovers to ensure it doesn’t get nabbed by marauding hyenas. Our own ‘herd of tourists’ trek on.
Cape Town is a majestic proscenium of Olympian heights and sea, a meeting grounds where the Atlantic and Indian Ocean embrace, where steep cliffs reach for the sea, where the porcupines, mongooses, caracals and rock hyraxes of Table Mountain walk alongside waters filled with migrating humpback whales and dolphin pods while a penguin colony squawks on the sidelines. As the country’s legislative capital, Cape Town is a medley of styles. With architecture hailing from the Netherlands, Germany, France and Indonesia, the city is a multicultural repository. Even the mild Mediterranean weather has migrated here from afar.
Ensconced within the city’s historic center stands the Taj, a luxury hotel where a modern tower had been appended to historic buildings. Replete in old world charm and contemporary amenities, the iconic property boasts an award-winning Indian restaurant, Bombay Brasserie, that, like the architecture, infuses classics with regional accents. With service that evokes a bygone era of privilege and class, the Taj lives up to its namesake and makes you feel like a reincarnation of the Mughal emperor.
Traveling to St. Lucia Wetland Parks, we join a river cruise and soon catch site of the prehistoric beasts, the Nile Crocodiles. The water teams with hippos, rhinos, leopards, baboons and even lions can all be spotted. For an all-out coastal experience, Oyster Box is seaside luxury at its best. With a cinematic waterfront complete with light tower and crags, the boutique hotel boasts one of the finest seafood restaurants world over.
Passing Durban, the brownish gold sand winds its way around Virginia Beach, its caramelized tone eventually giving way to the lush green of encroaching mountains. The coastline leading to the Great Escarpment appears like the softly curved shoulders of someone familiar. Perhaps it is a stored collective memory, a fading atavistic impulse or, what is more likely, just a weary traveler’s sentimentality of knowing he is about to leave a place he barely knows but has already learned to love.
The summits of Drankensberg reach an elevation of 9, 800 feet. At this height, the hot yellow sun and the white snow dissolve into one another till they are indistinguishable from the clouds. Elaborate camouflage, I think to myself – nature’s survival mechanism, a final trick to avoid predators and go unnoticed, a way to adapt and survive another day. Still, there is so much beauty to be had when discovering the many elements that burgeon beneath this country’s protective veil, so many hidden planets under the place we call South Africa.