Wide blue yonder: look further than the standard tourist itinerary, which usually includes well-known sites such as Cape Town's Table Mountain
South Africa – and you will have to forgive the prejudices of somebody born and bred in that gorgeous, problematical, wonderful country – is hard to beat as a holiday destination. It is as beautiful as almost anywhere else I have ever seen, with seas and deserts, mountains and rolling hills, a blissful climate (if you go in summer, winters can be spine-chillingly cold), vineyards, forests, wildlife of course, as well as some of the sweetest little towns on earth.
It lacks the stupendous wonders of the Alps, it has no snow to speak of and it does not have the soaring architecture or fabulous galleries of Europe’s most wonderful cities, but it makes up for that by having something else instead: a rich and vibrant complexity that is all its own and that is a potent part of its appeal. Dull it is not.
Its multifarious tribes, its difficult history, the sense that important moral and social issues are being urgently debated wherever you go add depth to the journey for those who are prepared to look beneath the obvious glories.
It was the poet Robert Frost who extolled the virtues of taking the road less travelled. While he was not in the tourism business, this sentiment holds true for all real travellers, who understand that you cannot get to know and love a country if you merely follow the herd. The crowds, of course, often go to lovely places, and for a first-time visit you could join them on the well-worn itinerary – Cape Town and its beaches, the wine country, the east coast seaside resorts of Hermanus, Plettenberg Bay and Knysna, the wildlife reserves in and around the Kruger National Park.
They are all a wonderful introduction to the country, a way to whet the appetite. But for those who fall under South Africa’s spell, and many do and come back again and again, there is so much more to discover.
Most tourists head to the Garden Route on the east coast, but I would encourage you to try going in the opposite direction, where discriminating South Africans go and where the most discerning buy their houses – up the west coast. Here the sea is bracing and the beaches are wild and empty, but they have about them the whiff of freedom. There is nothing like a walk along their foaming shorelines for blowing the cobwebs of Europe away.
Stay in Paternoster, a traditional fishing village some 90 miles north of Cape Town. It is a place of simple whitewashed cottages that is gradually being discovered, so there are several guest houses and restaurants worth dropping in on. At Paternoster Dunes, you can dine on fresh lobster and spend your days walking on the beach, scouting for whales and penguins and generally just chilling out.
Langebaan, further up the coast, is another quaint old seaside town, which was once a whaling station. Besides the beach there is also a lagoon that is great for watersports, and close by is the West Coast National Park and the West Coast Fossil Park, both fantastic, little-visited places. Stay at The Farmhouse Hotel, which overlooks the lagoon, is unpretentious but full of charm, and serves authentic Cape cuisine, a splendid change from the fancy, though often wonderful, food served in the better-known hotels.
Whaler’s Way, Scrimshaws, Morning Tide and Morning Mist are four enchanting beach cottages in the picturesque little village of Churchhaven on the edge of the crescent-shaped Langebaan lagoon. They are beautifully decorated in the simplest of fashions. This is a bucket-and-spade, book-reading, scrabble-playing kind of place, where the point of being there is to unwind and relax. If you go in the spring, the surrounding area is carpeted with flowers.
Further inland in the Cederberg, is Bushmans Kloof, voted the best hotel in the world by Travel & Leisure magazine in 2009 and so not altogether undiscovered. It is a serious gem due to its main draw: a fantastic setting. Its lovely old Cape Dutch main building is close to roughly 130 rock art sites and wonderful walks. Antelope and zebra roam round the reserve.
Of course you cannot give Cape Town a miss and for something a little glitzier, those interested in contemporary South African design (and it has made great strides since my youth), Cazenove & Loyd, the luxury tour operator, can organise, for £75 per person, a private consultation with one of the team at South Africa’s starriest design consultancy – Cecile & Boyd’s. They have decorated most of South Africa’s most impressive lodges and are responsible for a safari style that has influenced interior design around the world. Besides picking up tips, you can buy furniture, fittings, homeware and artwork.
Then, of course, you probably want to see wildlife, and while the lodges in and around the Kruger National Park deliver fantastic sightings, they are mostly very grand and very expensive. Do something different and try one of the community-owned lodges now open in Madikwe, a newish game reserve on the border with Botswana, which has everything you could hope to see, from lion and buffalo, to hyena, rhino and wild dog.
I can happily report that the lodges are as comfortable, as sophisticated, as beautifully looked after as you could hope for. The bathrooms are just as spacious, the food as delicious and the rooms as gorgeous, but the prices are about half of what you would pay in the swanky lodges around the Kruger National Park.
Buffalo Ridge, on Madikwe’s far western edge, is owned by the Balete Ba Lekgophung community and Thakadu River Camp, near the eastern edge, by the surrounding Molatedi village just outside the reserve. Here you meet the people who run it – the managers and the cooks, the drivers and the waitresses – and you learn how the new South Africa is shaping up. Best of all, you discover how the lodges are providing these two communities with hope, purpose and, above all, work. For all of them it is more than just another job, it is their lifeline to a wider, more prosperous world.
It was the late Anton Rupert, the South African billionaire entrepreneur and philanthropist, who once said to me: “Jobs are Africa’s most pressing need. For every eight tourists who come, one job is created.” Stay in one of these lodges and you can see the difference it has made to the lives of people in a country where unemployment is high, the stark differences between rich and poor depressingly evident and crime a significant problem.
The wonderfully wild Pafuri Lodge in Limpopo province in the north is another good initiative and is partly owned by the local community. It is an uncrowded tented camp that has exquisite birding.
Finally, I must put in a word for the inland towns of the Karoo, a semi-desert (the name is said to derive from the Khoisan word for thirst) that spans much of the western and central region of the country. For many locals this is a special place. Its wide open expanses, its huge skies, its scrub and bush, its searing heat in summer, and bright days and starry nights in winter are an essential part of the story of their land.
The Karoo’s beauty is utterly different from the more conventional appeal of the Cape. It is more austere, often more desolate, but for these reasons it has a greater power.
Take a car, start off from Cape Town and head up towards Graaff-Reinet. Stop off in Swellendam, a beautiful little town, the third oldest in South Africa, with a tumultuous past and loads of charming places to stay, of which the Klippe Rivier Country House, a lovingly restored Cape Dutch homestead dating from 1825, is possibly the most beguiling.
Then there is Prince Albert, another Little Karoo town, which is reached by driving over one of the most spectacular mountain passes in the world. Here you should stay at De Bergkant Lodge & Cottages at the foot of the Swartberg.
Finally you reach Graaff-Reinet, not strictly speaking a dorp at all, being a town with well over 200 national monuments. Here the place to stay is The Drostdy, a splendid historic building with additional rooms in the lovely stables at the back. In the dining room the tenderest, most delicious of Karoo lamb is served.
This then gives merely a flavour of what South Africa has to offer away from the much-lauded highlights. There is so much more besides: battlefields to visit; the apartheid monuments in Johannesburg to investigate; a very new diamond trail just started by De Beers that looks worth a trek.
There are mountains to climb and the rich, watery wonder of the subtropical St Lucia wetlands to explore. So be adventurous – you will be richly rewarded.
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