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Discovering South Africa

   

 

 Jeanne Davis describes an idyllic holiday destination - ideal for a winter break    

 

 

Discovering the delights of South Africa

Throughout much of the year Cape Town basks in a balmy climate, but November to April is a choice time to visit. Fortunately, there is little jet lag ( the time difference is only two hours) so even after the 11-hour flight from the UK, it’s a quick dip in the Atlantic and straight off on a city tour.

Be warned, though, unless you enjoy crowds, stay away between December and mid-January when the beaches, hotels and restaurants are chock-a-block full of holiday-makers down from Johannesburg and other cities in the interior. As in any city, you don’t wander at night into dark areas and you watch your belongings in the daytime. The city does not feel threatening but the advice is, be streetwise. 

In and around Cape Town

         Architecture:  On the journey around town you’ll see architectural reminders of the European colonisation of the Cape by the Dutch in 1652 and the British in 1795 and street market displays of the arts and crafts of South Africa’s  indigenous peoples, including the Khoisan and the Bantu-speakers.

         Shopping and Eating:  The Victoria and Albert Waterfront development in Cape Town’s harbour is a shoppers’ paradise, a series of airy malls and outdoor eateries on the quays in the midst of the always watchable hubbub of a vast  working harbour.

         Spending: You’ll not be too concerned about how much you spend. Fortunate for the visitor, but not for the South African, is the devalued rand so you’ll be hard pressed to spend more than 15 on a gourmet meal including wine at any number of first-class restaurants.

           Local seafood: Sample the seafood fresh from the two oceans – crayfish, lobster  tails, tiger prawns, giant prawns – and what  is referred to on menus as  the “linefish” of the day –butterfish, musselcracker, cape salmon or kingklip.  

         High point of the tour, in the literal and “wow” category is the 3,067-feet-high  Table Mountain-- a mesa of granite and sandstone formed by 450 million years of geological activity. Here and there is a burst of dense red colour, the Erica dichrus flower, one of over 625 erica species that occur in the Southwestern Cape.

        For more flower power visit the Kirstenbosch National Botanical Gardens, where you can savour 8,500 plants of the Cape’s floral kingdom, each in its own natural setting. In the garden shop, you can buy the indigenous plants and seeds to take home.

 Tranquillity and Wine Tastings

Franschhoek Valley, in the Cape Winelands, is a vista of rolling vineyards surrounded by spectacular mountains that was settled more than 300 years ago by French Huguenots fleeing from religious persecution. Franschhoek literally means French corner.

There are 20 vineyards in the valley, all offering wine tastings - in a leafy garden or a cool dark panelled library. And the wine tastes even better accompanied by a meal in the gourmet capital of the country - eight of South Africa’s Top 100 restaurants are in Franschhoek.

As  you breakfast on your terrace, the sun gradually moves down the mountains revealing first the granite and sandstone of the towering peaks, next the scrub, then a band of pine trees and at last the rolling vineyards.

Each day may be spent in leisurely pursuits.  A stroll down the Main Street, in and out of the art and antique shops, galleries, chatting with the villagers.

The low cost of food and drink and housing, the balmy climate and the leisurely living have attracted a clutch of second-home buyers from the UK to Franschhoek and surrounding valleys. You can buy a three-bed, three-bath Cape Cottage with a  granny flat for 74,000, or a three-bed, two-bath Cape Victorian pad with swimming pool for 110,000--both with valley and mountain views. 

Take the Blue Train

For a train journey of a lifetime, climb aboard the luxury Blue Train which leaves Cape Town in the morning and arrives in Pretoria (near Johannesburg) the afternoon of the next day. This is a step back into the golden age of train travel, each compartment a sumptuous sitting room with lounge chairs by day, transformed into a double bedroom at night by your own butler who is on call round the clock to meet your needs. 

The Blue Train provides a cross-country panorama, much of it  through the Great Karoo, a semi-arid desert of rocky outcrops and endless plains. This is where the discovery of diamonds at Kimberly in 1866 transformed the economy and made the name DeBeers famous, and where the goldfields of Witswatersrand serve as a reminder that South Africa led the world in gold production and now is at the forefront of platinum mining. 

On the Trail of the Big Five

A short plane journey from Johannesburg followed by a Land Rover drive along a dirt track leads to a private reserve bordering Kruger National Park. This is the Africa of the movies, home to the Big Five -- lions, leopards, elephants, buffaloes and rhinos -- as well as cheetahs, giraffes, and hippos. With Carl our ranger and Elmon our tracker we set off each morning at 5am for a game drive and again in the afternoon again at 4pm. 

We watched for an hour as a leopard stalked a stately impala, a graceful reddish antelope with lyre-shaped horns, browsing some 75 feet in the distance, totally unaware of the tawny hunter as she inched forward in slow motion through the grasses. But at the critical moment, the impala spotted her and leapt out of reach.  

We saw our leopard again on our last night, ambling ahead of us in the dusk with two cubs following her, behaving like toddlers everywhere, fooling around and investigating everything on the way. 

As we paused for a sundowner we leant back and looked  at the night sky. We identified the constellation Orion and then Crux -  the Southern Cross -  emerged diamond-like in the jet-black sky. A reminder that we are in the Southern Hemisphere and in a world  that still manages to be timeless.        

NOT TO BE MISSED: 

        Table Mountain.  Take the cable car or hike to the top for breathtaking views of Cape Town and the Cape Peninsula. 

        Kirstenbosch National Botanical Gardens.  Wander amongst 8,000 species of the Cape’s floral kingdom. 

        Camps Bay. Enjoy a sunset cocktail and watch the fiery sun  go down . 

         Robben Island.  Ex- prisoners will take you on a tour of the prison where Nelson Mandela and other anti-apartheid activists were held. Take the boat from the V&A waterfront. 

        Wine Tastings. Spend three or four days indulging in the Winelands. 

        Blue Train.  For the journey of a lifetime, travel on the luxurious Blue Train across the Great Karoo from Cape Town to Pretoria. 

        Game Drive. Stay at a  private game reserve near Kruger National Park and track the Big Five. 

Read:  DK Eyewitness Travel Guide to South Africa, 14.99

lonely planet, South Africa, Lesotho & Swaziland, 14.99  

TRAVEL BRIEF: 

Getting there: South Africa Airways (0870 7471111;www.flysaa.com) operates direct flights from Heathrow to Cape Town and Johannesburg. Open-jaw fares that allow for travel to one and back from the other start at 606.50. Trailfinders (020 7938 3939) has open-jaw fares with SAA or British Airways from Heathrow, starting at 570.

Franschhoek Vallee Tourisme Information Centre, 68 Huguenot Road, PO Box 178, Franschhoek 7690.  Tel: (00 27) 21  876 2768.

The Blue Train:  Private Bag X637, Pretoria 0001.  Tel: (00 27) 12 334 8459.

Lion Sands Private Game Reserve. Sabi Sand Game Reserve, Mpumalanga, South Africa, PO Box 30, White River 1240.  Tel: (00 27) 13 735 5000. Visit the website at www.lionsands.com.

Further information: South Africa Tourism (0870 155 0044). Visit the website at  www.south-african-tourism.org 


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