Passengers on the flight from London via Amsterdam to Cape Town were in holiday mood, desperate to escape from the cold and grey skies in Europe. A Swedish man and his German friend were discussing plans for a ten-day golfing trip in the Cape Town area, a French engineer and his wife were planning a sailing trip off the coast from Cape Town to Durban and a group of British travelers were excitedly exchanging notes on hiking routes.
This is most striking about visiting South Africa – the wealth of opportunities on offer. If you seek adventure you can go paragliding, mountain-climbing, abseiling or diving. If you want to chill by the beach there are charming, secluded places offering intimate or grand hotels and guesthouses depending on one’s preferences or budget. We had selected the Garden Route, which offered more than enough to keep us occupied for two weeks.
First stop, Camps Bay an exclusive part of Cape Town. A hotel, not that cheap, with a room overlooking the sea provided the perfect setting to begin the vacation. The high points of our time in Cape Town were a tour of Robben Island where Nelson Mandela and other ANC leaders were incarcerated for twenty-five years or more; walks by the sea and treks on the lower reaches of Table Mountain; a visit to the world-renowned Kirstenbosch botanical gardens; drives through picturesque vineyards; shopping at the Victoria Centre on the waterfront watching the occasional seal swim by and superb fresh fish and seafood at a wide choice of restaurants.
We drove on to Simon’s Town, a coastal town and naval base with strong British links. The British naval hero, Admiral Lord Nelson, is reputed to have visited the town briefly. Nearby Boulders Beach is well known for its African penguins which can be seen at close quarters going about their business unruffled by the frenetic clicking of tourists’ cameras.
Next on the route were the Cape of Good Hope and Cape Point. Contrary to popular belief our guidebook informed us that in fact Cape Point is not exactly the southern most point of Africa. That honor apparently belongs to Cape Agulhas. Neither do the Atlantic and Indian Oceans meet here. Nevertheless, the wild, untamed beauty of the area leaves a lasting impression.
With the sea stretching out ahead seemingly into infinity, a sign displaying distances to London, Beijing, Rio and other key cities of the world made one appreciate the achievements of the early travelers before the introduction of sophisticated satellite-aided navigational gadgets. The winds on the exposed coast are fierce and it was entertaining watching tourists from China, India, Europe and other parts of the world elbowing each other out of the way as they posed for photographs to capture the symbolism of the location.
Each day was like unwrapping a new gift parcel – driving along smooth roads with spectacular views at every corner. Hermanus, noted as the whale capital of the world and famous for its “champagne air” lies within easy reach of Cape Town. Every year from August to November locals and tourists gather along the cliffs to view the magnificent South Right Wales and other species that regularly visit the bay and seawaters along the coast to mate and breed.
We stayed at the appropriately named guesthouse, Les Baleines – Whales Tale. The owner, Teresa Pickard Louw, a dynamic woman whose grandfather was once President of South Africa, regaled us with tales of three cheeky baboons who sneak in when she’s distracted to help themselves to the contents of the fridge. Teresa had set out to create something beautiful that also felt like a home – and this is exactly the ambience she has achieved in the guesthouse.
Teresa admits that South African tourism is feeling the effects of the financial crunch. Most of her clients come from the UK and she’s relatively relaxed about prospects for her business: “Although sales have gone down, we’ve still had a reasonable year. We get a lot of repeat bookings and the real test will come when we see how many bookings we get for next year.”
Another spectacular location is Plettenberg Bay where we booked in at Laird’s Lodge, a gracious Cape Dutch homestead, set among whispering pine trees with peacocks strutting in the beautifully laid out gardens. Laird’s Lodge has a well-deserved reputation for its gourmet meals and relaxed atmosphere where guests mingle at informal drinks before the evening meal. Ninety-five per cent of the foreign visitors are from Britain and Ireland with a high number of honeymooners. The owners are optimistic, though wary, about what the economy and recession are likely to do.
Just a fifteen minute-drive away from the lodge is an Elephant sanctuary. Closely supervised by the keepers, visitors are allowed to touch and walk with the elephants that have been rescued from culling or abuse. Johan Brand, the manager, was born in South Africa, spent a few years working in Europe and the Middle East but decided to return home because he thinks tourism is still an attractive profession in South Africa. He says November, December and January are busy months especially with local visitors during the holiday period. Business picks up in February when overseas tourists start arriving – with the season reaching a peak over the Easter weekend.
Close by were sanctuaries for monkeys and cheetahs and one of the largest aviaries in the world, at some points more than 50 metros high. The keepers and guides at the centers we visited were dedicated, knowledgeable and passionately interested in the animals and birds in their charge. It was moving and sad to learn about the dangers faced daily by cheetahs and other big cats in the wild that, despite their dwindling numbers, are still targeted by poachers.
We took a detour through the Robertson Pass which provided sweeping views of mountains dropping sharply into deep valleys. The road took us through Oudstshoorn, the main center for ostrich breeding and farming.
One of the most memorable parts of the trip was a three-day package at Rippons Safari Lodge near Port Elizabeth. This former working farm has recently been restored and offers guests a newly developed lodge while still retaining its original character. Set within 3000 hectares of former farmland, the lodge adjoins the famous Shamwari Game Reserve, home to the ‘Big 5’ as well as elephants, zebra, wildebeest, giraffes, baboons, rhinos, several species of antelope and wart hogs. Our guide, Francis, had an encyclopedic knowledge of South Africa’s wildlife. His commentary was both entertaining and informative. We learnt from him that monkeys have more than thirty different calls and it takes four years to learn them all. Zebras we were told can chew anything which makes them tough enough to survive in a drought.
We ended our trip in Johannesburg where we stayed at the well equipped and comfortable Jean Jean Guesthouse and Conference Center. The manager and owner, Dr Jean Botha, is under pressure to expand because of the demand for rooms. She believes one effect of the recession is increased interest in guesthouses like hers which clients seem to favor over hotels.
Ever the perfectionist, Dr. Botha, personally cooks meals for guests on request and even found time to take us to the local lion park. We were able to drive up close to a pride of white lions and stroke some of the cubs sprawled out in the sunshine in a separate enclosure.
Since our time in Johannesburg was short we chose to focus on the Apartheid Museum. It was well worth devoting several hours to a tour of the museum which provides a comprehensive history of the city’s emergence as a gold mining center in 1886 a time when native blacks were treated as almost sub-human. There are photos and archive films charting the long and painful struggle for equality in which many lost their lives until victory was attained with the installation of Nelson Mandela as the country’s first black president in 1994.
Reports in the press of the crime levels in South Africa, especially in Johannesburg, had not inspired confidence but we encountered nothing but politeness even when we got lost among the back streets on our first night trying to locate the guest house. There is, however, apprehension about possible unrest in the buildup to the South African election in April.
Moeketsi Mosola, CEO of South African Tourism, has acknowledged that it’s been a year of highs and lows for the industry. “The turmoil that hit financial markets in the third quarter of 2008 has taken its toll on both the global and South African travel industries and caused a marked slowdown in the number of foreign arrivals”
“However, growth will be escalating again in the immediate run-up to the 2010 World Cup and beyond as the international markets find an even keel again.”
Mr. Mosola’s optimism appears to be borne out by figures released by the football authorities reflecting the high level of interest shown by fans from around the world who are expected to converge on South Africa for the FIFA World Cup in 2010. By March 26 applications for more than one million tickets had been received from over 160 countries in the first phase of tickets available for sale.
“We are very excited to have passed the one million mark for ticket applications for the 2010 FIFA World Cup. The interest in South Africa and around the world has been incredible. We are now completing magnificent stadiums and world-class infrastructure and are well placed to stage an authentic African showpiece that global football fans will never forget,” said Danny Jordan, the chief executive officer of the 2010 FIFA World Cup Organizing Committee South Africa.
Demand is expected to remain high when the second sales period for World Cup match tickets begins on 4 May and stays open until 16 November. With mountains, sea, wildlife, an almost bewildering choice of activities and its role as host of the World Cup – South Africa appears to hold enough trump cards to fend off the worst of the recession.
The recent change of venue from India to South Africa for the 2009 Indian Premier League cricket matches in April and May has come as an unexpected boost and will be pushing up visitor figures even further. With mountains, sea, wildlife, an almost bewildering choice of activities and its role as host of two major international sports events – South Africa holds enough trump cards to fend off the worst of the recession.