South Africa: Where The Wild Things Are

With the end of apartheid and the election of the country's first multiracial government, South Africa is opening up as a tourist mecca that befits its natural beauty. No end of superlatives can be used to describe the flora and fauna, the beach and mountain vistas, the charms of Cape Town. The scars of history may be fresh, but the people are warm and welcoming. Although the country faces many of the same problems of transition that Russia does, it is suffused with a much greater sense of optimism -- a reflection of and credit to the personality of its president, Nelson Mandela.

Whether you are a tourist who likes to do it all yourself or have it all done for you, or anywhere in between, South Africa's European-style infrastructure is there to cater to every taste and budget. On land, there is hiking, hunting, caving and rock climbing; in the water, boating, fishing, swimming, surfing, snorkeling; in the air, helicopter rides, hang-gliding and parachute jumping. The rand's depreciation by 25 percent against the dollar in the last year means it is often possible to enjoy first-world comforts at emerging-market prices. And when it's winter up here, it's summer in the Southern Hemisphere.

Most international air connections to South Africa are through Johannesburg, the country's financial, population and crime capital. Founded in the gold rush of 1886, it reminds one of a city in the pre-civil rights era American South. There are sights worth seeing here -- among them the Africa Museum and Soweto township (Jimmy's Tours is recommended, going on your own is not) -- and, like any city, there is a wealth of culture available to those who know its ins and outs. But to the casual visitor, Johannesburg's attractions are largely inaccessible, and the real fear of crime unsettling. Unless you have business there or in Pretoria, the seat of government an hour north, Johannesburg is mostly just a jumping-off point.

Kruger National Park, a six-hour trip by car from Jo'Burg, is the crown jewel in South Africa's impressive system of public game reserves. The largest and oldest of such parks in the world, it is home to elephants, rhinoceroses, buffalos, lions and leopards (the "Big Five") as well as cheetahs, giraffes, zebras, hippos, antelopes and scores of other mammals, not to mention rich bird life and spectacular vegetation. Early morning and late afternoon are the best times for game viewing, and only the most unlucky visitors will not glimpse at least a few of the notables during even a short trip. Bring binoculars as well as your camera. It is also worth taking an open-air night drive led by an armed ranger to experience another aspect of the ecosystem, plus the starry southern evening sky.

Like most of South Africa, Kruger must be seen by car, as leaving your vehicle is prohibited except in camp areas. My traveling companion and I joined two other tourists on a Mac Safaris tour, guided by the affable and knowledgeable Mac himself (tel/fax 27-11-462-6212). Three days and two nights of minivan transportation and accommodation in air-conditioned camp huts -- plus the expertise of eyes well-trained in animal-spotting -- cost 1,200 rand ($265) each. A delicious eight-course meal can be had for $8 in the camp lodgings. The park is well developed and easy to navigate for those on their own, but call ahead to reserve accommodation.

Two days is a reasonable minimum to spend in Kruger, and longer visits will be rewarding for those who want to explore some of the less trafficked areas of the vast park (roughly the size of Israel). There are a limited number of guided overnight hikes, but, as at other nature reserves in South Africa, these must be booked months in advance.

Driving back to Johannesburg, take a short detour north to the Blyde River Canyon in the heart of the northern Drakensberg mountains (not to be confused with the other, even more spectacular Drakensberg range, near Lesotho). The views are tremendous, and it's an excuse to have the best stuffed pancakes sweet or savory) of your life at Harry's Pancake Bar in the town of Graskop.

The safari experience, while perhaps the most quintessentially African of the country's vast panoply of recreational pursuits, is just a small taste of what South Africa has to offer. For those who prefer marine or avian life, or simply swimming and lying on the beach, the coast of KwaZulu Natal is the place to be.

The country's most richly diverse province, KwaZulu Natal boasts hundreds of kilometers of beautiful coastline stretching from Sodwana Bay near the border of Mozambique to Port Edward a bit south of Durban. Fabulous snorkeling is to be found at Sodwana Bay, site of the world's most southerly coral reef, and Cape Vidal, also the site of the world's largest sand dunes. Sandy beaches and warm water (20 degrees Celsius) make the Indian Ocean a great place for a swim and a tan, but beware an especially fierce sun.

The level of development dwindles the farther you get from Durban, with the St. Lucia wetlands area a happy medium of a quaint resort town in an area of stunning biodiversity. It's not everywhere that you encounter warthogs and monkeys on your walk or drive to the beach. For accommodation, you can't beat the Maputoland Guest House, a luxurious bed-and-breakfast where double rooms are just $27 a night. About once a month, says the proprietor, a hippopotamus (highly dangerous if antagonized) will saunter through the front yard.

For those whose appetite for game-viewing has not been satiated, the Hluhluwe-Umfolozi game reserve is only an hour away. One afternoon drive there yielded more animal sightings at closer range than two-plus days in Kruger. Itala, several hours further, is also among the country's most renowned game parks. Both have up-market guest lodges.

Given the beaches, the southern Drakensbergs, the nature reserves and the vibrant Indian flavor of Durban, the province's major city, it would be easy to spend an entire vacation without leaving KwaZulu Natal. But then you wouldn't make it to Cape Town.

Cape Town captivates its guests from they moment they first sight Table Mountain, the 1,000-meter high flat-topped peak that dominates the city panorama (the frequent cloud cover is known as the Tablecloth). The cablecar to the top is closed for repairs until this fall, but the industrious can hike it in a half-day -- take water and be prepared for inclement weather. At the foot of the mountain are the Kirstenbosch Botanic Gardens, hundreds of acres with thousands of species of native African plant life of every hue and shape imaginable. Don't miss it, even if you only have an hour to spare.

The compactness of the city center belies the range of attractions in the greater vicinity. Known as City Bowl, the downtown area -- unlike Johannesburg -- is walkable, with an attractive mix of museums, parliamentary buildings, offices, shops, hotels and residential areas. A short cab ride away is the redeveloped Waterfront, an American-style complex of stores, theaters and restaurants where Russia-repressed consumer instincts can run amok.

Two day trips -- at least -- will coax most tourists away from Cape Town proper. Stellenbosch, the heart of the South African wine country, is just 60 kilometers away. See any of dozens of beautiful vineyards, learn about the wine-making process, enjoy free tastings and take home vintages that rank up there with the world's best (prices start at under $2). You can drive yourself -- with the disadvantage of having to remain sober -- or hook up with one of the many organized tourist agencies. If you choose Day Trippers and go in the excellent company of Malcolm, you will also go through some of Cape Town's impoverished townships, where Malcolm does community work. The experience is eye-opening and somewhat uncomfortable, but the genuine friendliness of the residents and Malcolm's infectious enthusiasm makes it far less awkward than you would think.

Cape Peninsula is another spot that must not be missed. The hour-plus drive from the city takes you along the winding coast past stunning bays, soaring cliffs and an ostrich farm to the Cape of Good Hope Nature Reserve. At Cape Point the Indian and Atlantic oceans meet in a calm ripple; a kilometer away at the Cape of Good Hope, tempestuous waves crash against the rocks where hundreds of ships have met their watery grave. The power of mother nature, even on a quiet day, is simply awesome. Whale-watching is possible at many points up and down the coast, and at nearby Simon's Town you can lounge on the rocks and swim in rocky pools in the company of hundreds of penguins.

Farther afield from Cape Town, for those with the time, are the Great Karoo desert and the Garden Route along Africa's southernmost coast. Jeffrey's Bay is said to be the world's best beach for surfing.

The most recent addition to Cape Town's stable of attractions is the Robben Island Museum. Until 1990 this infamous prison housed the apartheid regime's political opponents, including Nelson Mandela from 1963 to 1982 (he was later transferred to the mainland as secret negotiations between the African National Congress and white government got started). A pleasant 45-minute cruise across the bay takes you to the island, where the 90-minute tour includes viewing of Mandela's cell, work site and other significant spots. The island only opened as a museum in January and the tour has teething problems, but it is well worth seeing. Tickets can only be purchased on the day of the trip and sell out early.

Travel Tips

? Read a good guidebook (Lonely Planet is a fine choice) before you leave: a little planning can go a long way in arranging transportation, guides and accommodations. On the other hand, the tourist infrastructure is so well developed that you won't lose a lot if you decide to be spontaneous.

? Muggings, rape and carjacking are a serious problem in South Africa. Be smart and err on the side of caution, always. Renting a mobile phone at the airport for about $10 a day is easy, and having a phone with you can make you feel more secure.

? Malaria pills are recommended for travel in some parts of the country, including Kruger and other game parks. We saw exactly one mosquito.

? For gripping background reading on South Africa's recent political evolution, check out Nelson Mandela's autobiography "Long Walk to Freedom," journalist Allister Sparke's "Tomorrow Is Another Country," and, for the perspective of a white liberal, Rian Malan's "My Traitor's Heart."

Getting There and Around

Most European carriers offer flights to Johannesburg connecting through their European hubs. Some flights to Cape Town and Durban are also available. Shop around for the best fares, as prices change seasonally. Round-trip fares through March are in the neighborhood of $1,200.

Within South Africa, a rental car is the way to go. Keep in mind that you drive on the left, British-style, and that South Africa has among the highest rate of road fatalities in the world. Buses and trains -- with the exception of the luxurious Blue Train between Pretoria and Cape Town are not always much safer, however, given the crime levels. Between the major cities you'll probably want to hop a plane to save time; one-way flights between Durban and Cape Town are under $100 if you find a good discount, more than $200 if you don't.

Citizens of the United States, Germany, the United Kingdom and many other countries do not need visas for visits of less than 90 days. Russian citizens are required to have visas. Call the South African Embassy's consular section (230-6869) for details.