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High veldt charm of South Africa

Following the collapse of the cruel white supremacist regime in 1994, the Republic of South Africa has morphed into a liberal democratic republic offering a tourism experience unparalleled worldwide 

          

On the world leisure tourism map, the Republic of South Africa (RSA, pop. 56 million), perhaps Africa’s largest (1.2 million sq km), most geographically diverse and arguably most economically developed country with a bewildering mix of colour and culture, is the newest kid on the block. Following the collapse of the cruel white supremacist regime in 1994, RSA has metamorphosed into a liberal democratic republic and remains a perennially beautiful land with sun-drenched beaches along its 2,500 km coastline, awesome peaks and vast plains, deserts of sand and scrub and game parks and wildlife unparalleled anywhere in the world. 

Sharing international borders with Namibia, Botswana, Zimbabwe, Mozambique, Swaziland, and Lesotho, RSA is the only country with three capital cities — Cape Town, Pretoria and Bloemfontein. The republic’s 56 million citizens include large European, Indian, and racially mixed populations, who speak 11 languages (including Afrikaans and English) and several hundred dialects.

Though RSA’s climate is fairly similar to south India’s hot and sultry weather, its varied topography and oceanic influences provide a variety of climatic zones across the country. The varied landscapes include the parched desert of southern Namib, lush subtropical forests to the east, the mountainous escarpment known as the high veldt and the savannah grasslands of the north-west. Contrary to popular belief, only 1 percent of South Africa is forest, stretched along the humid coastal plain of the Indian Ocean in KwaZulu-Natal. The rest of RSA is the veldt or savannah grasslands, the natural habitat of lions, leopards, white rhinos, blue wildebeest, kudus, impalas, hyenas, hippopotamus and the giraffe. RSA also hosts many endemic species, among them the critically endangered Riverine Rabbit of the Karoo.

Though contemporary South Africa has a rich tribal history and culture stretching back several thousand years, its documented history is available only from 1487, when a group of shipwrecked Portuguese sailors were washed up on the coast. In the subsequent two centuries, a number of small fishing settlements were established on the coast by the Portuguese. They were followed by the Dutch East India Company which established a trading post on the Cape of Good Hope in 1652. Soon Dutch immigrants started arriving in larger numbers and as they pushed their way inland, they met with fierce resistance from the Xhosa and Zulu people, against whom they waged the Cape Frontier Wars of the 17th century, eventually succeeding because of superior gunpowder driven weaponry.

However in 1795 prompted by the British East India Company which had transformed into a political power on the Indian subcontinent, British troops subjugated the Dutch settlement on the Cape of Good Hope to protect the trade route to India. In 1803, the territory was returned to the Dutch but re-annexed in 1806 after the Dutch East India Company declared bankruptcy.

Nevertheless the victorious British troops continued the Dutch East India Company’s aggression against the Xhosa and other indigenous people and encouraged British and European settlement of South Africa. Moreover they imported indentured labour from India to work on European farms and sugar plantations in particular.
The discovery of diamonds in 1867 in the Northern Cape and gold in 1884 in the Transvaal spurred economic growth and white immigration, resulting in intensified oppression and subjugation of the native population. In particular, persecution of the indigenous black population was most fiercely practiced by orthodox Dutch Calvinists who had fled the Netherlands in the mid-17th century, and had established enclaves along the coast. But following the arrival of the British, the migrant Dutch communities moved into the interior provinces of the Transvaal and Orange Free State to farm large swathes of land expropriated from the local population.

With the Dutch Calvinists of the Transvaal and Orange Free State having established independent republics which resisted British suzerainty of the minerals rich South African provinces, the First Boer War (1880-1881) broke out which ended in a stalemate. However, the British returned in greater numbers to fight a Second Boer War (1899-1902), during which they inflicted unprecedented cruelties on Dutch settlers. In 1902 the Treaty of Vereeniging established complete British sovereignty over all the South African republics.

Meanwhile in 1893 a young Indian barrister — Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi — arrived in Durban to fight a case between two Indian merchants. On witnessing the injustices and tribulations visited upon the 100,000-strong Indian population of white ruled South Africa, he became immersed in their struggle for justice and equality. His short visit to Natal prolonged into a 21-year stay, during which he developed his doctrine of satyagraha or non-violent struggle with fateful consequences for the British Empire.

In 1910, the Union of South Africa was created from the Cape and Natal colonies, the republics of Orange Free State and Transvaal under the aegis of the liberal South African Party. But in 1948, the Boer-dominated National Party was elected to power. It began implementing a series of harsh segregationist laws that collectively became known as apartheid i.e strict segregation of people according to race and colour. Inevitably while the white minority enjoyed an enviably high standard of living, the black majority remained disadvantaged by almost every parameter, including income, education, housing, and life expectancy.

In 1990, the National Party took the first step towards negotiating itself out of power when it lifted the ban on the opposition African National Congress (ANC) and other political organisations. The same year ANC leader Nelson Mandela was released from prison after 27 years of incarceration. Apartheid legislation was gradually removed from the statute books, and South Africa also signed the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. The first free and multi-racial elections were held in 1994, which the ANC won by an overwhelming majority and Nelson Mandela was elected the first president of the Republic of South Africa.

Contemporary RSA is divided into nine administrative provinces of varying sizes: Eastern Cape, Free State, Gauteng, KwaZulu-Natal, Limpopo, Mpumalanga, Northern Cape, North-West and Western Cape. With well-developed coal, gold and diamond mining industries, a sizeable manufacturing base and a sophisticated food and agri-processing industry, RSA (per capita income: $13,845; literacy 86.4 percent) is classified as a medium developed country by the United Nations Development Programme in its Human Development Report. But development is significantly localised around four areas: Cape Town, Port Elizabeth, Durban, and Pretoria/Johannesburg. Beyond these four thriving centres, development is marginal, and the great mass of indigenous people continue to struggle against the poverty and illiteracy imposed upon them during the harsh apartheid era.

In recent years, tourism in South Africa has seen high growth showing the highest levels of tourism in the country since 1998. According to Statistics South Africa’s latest Tourism and Migration Survey, almost 3.5 million travellers passed through the country’s ports of entry in August 2017.

Getting there. Johannesburg is the most important gateway to RSA although Cape Town is fast catching up as an international hub. Most airlines fly directly to these two cities, some flying via Nairobi (Kenya).

Johannesburg

One of the most populous and largest cities in Africa, Johannesburg (pop. 4.4 million) is sited in the Gauteng province which sprawls across an area of 16,548 sq km. Renowned as the city of gold, this century-old vibrant metropolis is the mining and economic hub of RSA. Surrounded by satellite towns and affluent suburbs, Johannesburg generates more than half of the country’s wealth but is notorious for its high incidence of crime. While in Johannesburg take in the Museum Africa which displays outstanding exhibits related to the city’s recent history and a large collection of rock art. The Market Theatre is one of the city’s highlights. Vestiges of Jo’burg’s colonial heritage can be seen in the mansions of its early mining magnates and are worthy of attention.

Accommodation. Top-end: Saxon Boutique Hotel and Spa (Rs.36,574-66,417 per night), African Pride Melrose Arch (Rs.15,383), Hyatt Regency (Rs.11,895 onwards), Palazzo Montecasino (Rs.15,903-23,181). Budget: Bobs Bunkhouse (Rs.6,069 per night), Formule Inn Park Station (Rs.3,000 onwards).

Pretoria

The administrative capital of South Africa, Pretoria is a quiet, well planned town famed for its colorful jacaranda trees, public parks, monuments and fine buildings, the most notable being the Union Buildings. The red sandstone government headquarters of the Union buildings served as a model for the grand Parliament House in New Delhi. Sited a mere 56 km from Johannesburg, Pretoria hosts the residence of Paul Kruger (president of the Boer republics during the 1899-1902 Anglo-Boer war). The residence has been converted into a museum and is known as Kruger House. Another must-visit site in the city is the massive Voortrekker Monument which documents the history of the Boers — their arrival and migration within RSA.

Accommodation. Top-end: Sheraton Pretoria Hotel & Towers (from Rs.12,000), Pretoria Hotel Capital (Rs.4,235-7,309). Others in this category are Cricklewood Manor and Casa Toscana Lodge. Pretoria also has a growing number of backpacker places.

Cape Town

Western Cape (129,449 sq. km) province is a haven for wildlife and has 30 nature reserves within its boundaries. The fynbos biome (fine bush) is ubiquitous in the area and Western Cape (pop. 6.5 million) hosts over 9,000 plant species, making it among the richest regions on earth in terms of floral biodiversity.

The administrative capital city of Western Cape province, Cape Town aka Kaapstad is the parliamentary capital of South Africa and commonly accepted as one of the world’s most scenically beautiful cities. It is presided over by a 3,000 ft high flat-topped mountain range (Table Mountain), offering breathtaking views from its summit. Cape Town’s cosmopolitian Clifton Beach is thronged by tourists the year round, as is Camps Bay, a long silvery stretch regularly washed clean by the waves of the Indian Ocean. One of the most popular attractions here is the Cape of Good Hope Nature Reserve, with prolific wildlife, offering safaris and game spotting tours.

Other places popular with tourists include False Bay, Simons Town, a former naval base, Sea fort, and Boulders Beach, which houses a colony of penguins. The spectacular Kristenbosch Gardens on Rhodes Drive are worth seeing. A ride on a cable car up to Table Mountain is almost mandatory for every visitor. Proclaimed a national monument, it’s a sanctuary for unique flora and fauna and affords commanding vistas of the city and sea.

Accommodation. Top-end: Mandela Rhodes Place (Rs.4,555-12,644). Mouille Point Village (Rs.4,000). Budget: Travellers Inn Guesthouse (Rs.1,156-2,379). 

Excursions ex Cape Town. There are numerous weekend and day trip locations around Cape Town. Among them, Stellenbosch (50 km) is the oldest and most scenic wine growing region of the country. It also boasts immaculately restored Cape Dutch buildings and museums, shaded by magnificent oaks. Franschhoek (80 km), a quaint village sited in a deep valley, surrounded by high mountains is also a popular destination. The villages claim to fame is a museum commemorating the French Huguenots who settled in the region establishing a number of great wineries and restaurants. Another must-see is Boschendal (86 km), sited between Stellenbosch and Franschhoek and arguably the most scenic of the grape-growing regions of RSA. Also take in Paarl, a town on the banks of River Berg, set in picture postcard settings surrounded by mountains and vineyards.

Durban

Picturesquely sited on the ocean front, Durban has a heavy concentration of people of Indian origin. A paradise for pleasure seekers, the city’s prime attraction is its beachfront — a three km strip of bowling greens, playgrounds, amusement parks and fine restaurants. Durban’s City Hall has an excellent library, art gallery and museum housing, among other exhibits, a complete skeleton of the extinct dodo.

Accommodation. Top-end: Hilton Durban Hotel (Rs.7,682-16,914), Hotel Royal (Rs.3,171 per night). Mid-range: Gooderson Tropicana Hotel (from Rs.5,314). Budget: Durban International Backpackers (Rs.2,000 onwards). The Durban Caravan Park also offers 300 tent sites.

Hluhluwe Area

Set in the heart of Zululand, this province hosts the oldest and some of the most impressive game reserves in Africa — the Hluhluwe-Umfolozi Park, besides other private game reserves and lodges including the magnificent Ithala Game Reserve, sited in a deep valley revealing the world’s oldest rock formations of the Ngotshe mountains. Well worth seeing are: Mkhuze, Phinda, Pongola, Ndumo and the Tembe Elephant parks. These parks are a precious natural heritage and the last pristine habitat of exotic species such as the white rhino, giraffe, impala, zebra, the nyala, bushbuck, red duiker, suni, hippopotamus and a huge population of crocodiles.

Accommodation: Top-end: Thula Thua Private Game Reserve & Safari Lodge (Rs.30,778-35,379). Mid-range: Malala Lodge ( Rs.3,711-5,735). Budget: Wildebees Ecolodge (Rs.600 onwards).

Natal Drakensberg 

The towering peaks of the Natal Drakensberg Mountains are among South Africa’s prime attractions, and draw thousands of visitors annually with their scenic beauty, crisp mountain air and clear waters. Numerous spas rejuvenate retreats, yoga and massage therapy enterprises are sited here. While at Drakensberg don’t miss the Royal National Park and Rugged Glen Nature Reserve. Located in a natural paradise of deep river valleys brimming with wild flowers and criss-crossed by scenic hiking trails, the parks offer an awesome panorama, charming the eye and spirit.

Eastern Cape Province 

Sited contiguous to Kwazulu Natal, Eastern Cape (pop. 6.9 million) province spreads over 168,966 sq km and includes the conservation areas of Mountain Zebra National Park.

North West Province 

North West Province (pop. 3.4 million) is famous for its sanitised game parks. Wildlife enthusiasts would be interested in visiting the Pilanesberg Game Reserve near Sun City Resort and the Madikwe Game Reserve. The former boasts over 7,000 animals and offers visitors the option of staying in three luxury lodges or two rest camps, while the latter is known for the largest relocation of endangered species such as the leopard, wild dog, rhino and buffalo.

Sun City. The casino capital of South Africa, Sun City glitters round the clock with hotels and casinos offering lavish dining, gambling and risqué cabaret. The enormous new Lost City is worth a look for its sheer scale. It’s a sort of mega amusement park in high glitz style with unique attractions such as the Bridge of Time, Valley of Waves and so on. There are several daily return buses from Jo’burg and Pretoria.

Kimberley 

             

A region whose name is synonymous with diamonds, this is the base camp of the global diamond giant De Beers. The Big Hole and Kimberley Mine Museum which incorporates entire streets of Victorian buildings and a diamond museum on the edge of the largest man-made excavation in the world, are the biggest attractions here. De Beers conducts tours of its treatment and recovery plants at Bultfontein Mine.

The highlight of a visit to Kimberley and reminders of its heyday during the great ‘diamond rush’ are stately homes such as Melrose House and the Kimberley Club, where Cecil Rhodes dined and dreamed of empires.

Bloemfontein

The judicial capital of South Africa, Bloemfontein (pop. 3.6 lakh) offers striking scenery and alternative experiences to off-the-beaten-track travellers. Prominent landmarks in the city include the Military Museum of the Boer Republics, National Museum, the Naval Hill crowned by the quaint Franklin Nature Reserve.

The battlefields of the Basotho wars, the Anglo-Boer wars and Voortrekker skirmishes, sand rock art found in the spectacular sandstone cliffs and ancient ruins of tribes that previously inhabited the area are all part of its cultural attractions.

Accommodation. Bloemfontein hosts important cricket and rugby matches and accommodation can be scarce on weekends. Top-end: Southern Sun Bloemfont (Rs.9,365-26,756), Protea Hotel (Rs.5,660-Rs.10,243). Mid-range: President Hotel (Rs.4,864-5,901). 

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