With its cultural diversity, whale watching seasons, and parks overflowing with animal sanctuaries, South Africa is the Africa you’ve always imagined
Hanging upside down 700 feet above the Bloukrans River, my life didn’t exactly flash past my eyes. But my mind certainly wandered back to certain questionable decisions, taken a few weeks earlier, that had led me to this predicament.
South Africa was the destination and the fiftieth birthday was the occasion. I wanted an experience which had both nature and interesting history. More importantly, I wanted to complete my bucket list of activities that my creaking body could still handle.
I managed to convince (read: coerce) my son to leave London to join me. So, with an unenthusiastic teenager in tow, I landed in Cape Town on a crispy late winter afternoon. Cape Town is a breathtakingly beautiful city. Surrounded by the unruly Atlantic and the majestic Table Mountain, I cannot imagine another major city with a more dramatic location.
South Africa is not a poor country; the GDP per capita is more than twice that of Pakistan. It is a popular tourist destination and has one of the most industrialised economies in Africa. Cities, especially Cape Town, have a first-world infrastructure and high-quality road network.
Our journey started from Cape Town, going around the famed Cape of Good Hope and then travelling upwards along the coast. This journey is better known as the Garden Route and ranks as one of the must-do drives on the planet. The Cape was successfully circumnavigated by Vasco De Gama in the late 15th century which opened the floodgates for the European colonisation of Asia.
South Africa for most visitors means two things: wildlife and apartheid. There is much more to learn. I was lucky to have a knowledgeable guide in the form of Faizel Nelson. Faizel, a South African Muslim, explained that the original inhabitants, well before the arrival of colonisers, were the Khoisan people who, with their ‘Asiatic features’, were quite distinct from their much darker cousins in Central Africa. Over the course of centuries, the country has now become a mix of races and rightly earned the title of the Rainbow Nation.
Along the garden route, Gansbaai is the first stop for adrenaline junkies. Here you willingly immerse yourself into a cage in icy water to get up close and personal with one of nature’s apex predators - the great white shark. This had been something I had wanted to do for the longest time, but nothing could have prepared me for the experience. The tension built up quite slowly.
First, a handful of bronze whaler sharks showed up when the water was chummed with tuna flesh and blood. My head was underwater when I heard the muffled shout of the trip leader. I could see a shadow heading towards me through the murky green water. The shadow was gliding gracefully as it grew bigger and bigger. Unwittingly, the theme of the movie Jaws played in my head as the great white went past our cage. Its size and girth completely overshadowed the other sharks. Suitably frozen and totally exhilarated, I emerged from the cage to a welcoming cup of hot chocolate.
As the Garden Route wound its way up north, the scenery became spectacular. Waves of the wild Atlantic crashed on the rugged rocks and windswept beaches. Vineyards and industrial-scale farms abound. Parts of the route reminded me of the Pacific Coast Highway in California, but seeing an occasional ostrich sitting by the roadside jolted me back to the reality that I was still very much in Africa.
Given it was Africa, there were animal sanctuaries every few miles. A sanctuary for elephants, another for reptiles. One for the big cats, one for the ostriches and so on and so forth. I stopped at a few; they were sprawling facilities with animals in good shape.
The food along the Garden Route and most of South Africa revolves around meat. There is a tremendous variety of it. With pretty little towns dotted around the coastline, seafood is top-notch too.
Luckily for us, September was the peak of whale watching season and Hermanus its capital. Changing tack, I took a rickety plane ride with a genuine African bush pilot. We took off from a runway which looked more like a dusty path, unsuitable for a motorbike let alone a plane. We were treated to stunning views of a dozen or so Southern Right Whales. They come to give birth and feed on the plankton-rich waters. It is truly by air that you appreciate the size and beauty of these majestic creatures.
My journey on the Garden Route ended at Knysna, a pretty inlet, known for its delicious oysters. It was here, near Knysna, that I found myself taking on one of the world’s most popular bungee jumps at the Bloukrans Bridge. It is a visceral experience as you gaze down from the edge, all the way down (216 metres to be exact) to the river which looks like a sliver coursing through the valley. Then you jump, voluntarily, and the wind whistles by and you feel the strong tug of the bungee rope around your ankles. You fear it might slip off, hurtling you to your oblivion. But it does not. You bounce up and down a few times and then you are pulled back up. A few seconds of extreme rush and a memory of a lifetime later, you are back on the road to your hotel.
The high of the bungee jump was not over when we flew from the industrial Port Elizabeth to Durban. Durban is the home of the largest Indian community outside the subcontinent. Culturally the city feels different, the cuisine is spicy, and I was intrigued by the local speciality ‘Bunny Chow’. It is a hollowed-out loaf of bread filled with spicy curry. Durban is also where a certain Mr Gandhi found his mojo as a young lawyer that led him to become an activist. Rest, as they say, is history.
As if the thrills on the road were not enough, Durban boasts the tallest rope swing in the world. It is smaller than the bungee jump earlier. However, the 88 metres climb up - via 360 dizzying steps - to the rickety steel plank on top of a football stadium is more unnerving.
A mere forty kilometres south of Durban lies the Aliwal Shoal. Scuba divers from around the world congregate here for an experience to remember - the cage-less shark dive. Both my son and I are experienced divers, but the dive at Aliwal Shoal pushed us to our limits. The sea was rough, currents strong and swells big. The lightweight boats known as RIBS fought off massive waves as we reached out into the deeper waters.
As we descended, the water was dark green with strands of light illuminating a few metres around us. Suddenly, at around six metres of depth, I felt the presence of larger animals around me. They were black-tip oceanic sharks. They looked menacing, around 2-3 metres in length, but are not known to attack divers. Very soon we were surrounded by around 17 sharks as they zipped around us at incredible speeds. They would come inches from our faces and turn away at the last second. The sunlight streaming through the murky waters bounced off their shiny smooth skins. It was a mesmerising dance of indescribable beauty with an added edge of omnipresent danger.
We rounded off our nature excursions with a stay at the Kruger National Park. It would suffice to say that it was a world-class safari experience: excellent facilities and guides who make sure that you end up seeing the Big Five (lion, rhino, elephant, leopard and the water buffalo) plus much, much more. Seeing these beasts in their natural pomp made me wonder if I will ever enjoy visiting the zoo again.
Driving through this wonderful country, I began to peel through this complex society. The era of racial apartheid may be over but economic apartheid remains. And it has strong racial undertones. Severe economic inequality means the crime is rampant. The consistent advice is not to leave the hotel after dark. Walking around bazaars, even during daytime, I did not feel safe. This sense of insecurity is enhanced upon seeing buildings and affluent homes protected by electric fences and aggressive warning signs.
The legacy of apartheid, and colonial rule that preceded it, have left a wounded nation. If it weren’t for the sagacious leadership of Mandela, the spectre of civil war would have been a reality.
Mandela was truly a giant of the twentieth century. His approach to healing, by forgiving the transgressors, offers a blueprint to nations beset by internal strife. No visit to South Africa can be complete without homage to Madiba at the Robben Island prison. It is only four miles from the shores of Cape Town, but it might as well have been on another planet. It had been a prison for over three hundred years. Looking at the tiny cell where Mandela spent 17 of his 27 years in captivity, I could not imagine how he left his incarceration without any bitterness. Five of those years were without access to pen and paper when the manuscript for his book was discovered. Incredible.
Post Mandela, South Africa is beset by corruption and mismanagement of the ruling elite, ironically mostly black. South Africans were luckier than many of their neighbours to find a messiah in Mandela but the nation’s journey to redemption is far from over.
The writer is a finance professional based in Dubai. He tweets at @Travelutionary1