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  The Chatter Box : Travel
The Beautiful, Beckoning, Real South Africa by poortrekker on 8 March 2009 7:59pm
Mr Palin, I enjoyed your Diaries 1969-1979 enormously, and I'm glad you never quite managed to get side-tracked from your "silly" roles, as comedy would surely have suffered an immeasurable loss. Your performances have always been crafted, nuanced, and superbly engrossing.

Now to travel.

There is a South Africa that nobody knows about. It is not the tour book, safari lodge, crime-infested, third-world-in-a-first experience that so many have come to believe. Instead there is a country aching to be discovered; a universe from coast to coast. These are some stream-of-consciousness ruminations from a sentimental ex-patriot:

South Africa's sub-tropical Indian Ocean climate in the east, with its gargantuan "Big Five" game reserves (and some smaller and more interesting private ones), gives way to the rural, dusty hills of Zululand westward, and forested, craggly mountains and open plains to the north. Nestled in and amongst a thousand rolling hills in the KwaZulu-Natal region are quaint and curious old relics of British colonialism (and some newer ones from Apartheid's stranglehold); hotels and inns that offer up welcome pints along with British/South African fare.

And this region is also the river adventurer's paradise, as dozens of world-class whitewater (or "brownwater" as the case is more likely to be here) escapes are within spitting distance of each other; unextraordinary flows that in the wet summer months become giants. Cold beers and grilled meats under a gentle summer dusk become an integral and welcome ritual after a hot, muddy day riding the Tugela river roller coaster.

Lesotho, though inland looking nothing short of a Martian landscape--awesome in its own right--boasts one of the most beautiful and accessible mountain ranges I know of: The Mpumalanga Drakensberg escarpment. Dotted in and amongst every nook and cranny of this hiker's, walker's, horse rider's playground are comfy B&Bs, crusty hotels offering all the trimmings, campsites by the dozen, and fully appointed self-catering lodges with vast, sun-drenched panoramas that leave one speechless. A crisp half-day hike will carry you up to a lunchtime cave, past curious baboons and the odd buck, with mountain streams beckoning you to strip down and submerge yourself in their clear, icy pools. Tell me I am not alive!

Further westward towards the Transkei/Eastern Cape region are cold, misty mountain passes and valley floors, multicolored African rondavels (round huts) pock-marking the wide landscapes, and virgin beaches stretching for mile after mile after mile down the aptly-named "wild coast". The fetching town of Grahamstown becomes an art mecca once a year, reinvented in a giant mosaic of performers, dancers, singers, visual artists, and the throngs who flock there to take it all in for a day or two. The surrounding area is a living record of old, bitterly-fought battles between Englishman, Boer, and Xhosa tribesman.

Westward along the southern coastline of rocky outcrops and pine forests are the choppy turquoise bays and the high-end retirement homes of the wealthy. Here are the breathtaking drives and bicycle rides along the "Garden Route", rickety fishing towns, inland wildlife sanctuaries (more cheetah-stroking if you care to, Mr Palin), and top-shelf hotels hanging off the weathered bluffs offering, well, everything.

The route west to Cape Town opens up into wide plains of golden wheat, past ostrich farms, and into the heart of wine country and fine dining, cultural pursuits, spectacular mountain and coastal routes, the infamous Robben Island, and the ever-present, ever-changing Table Mountain. One could comfortably spend a month just here and not see all of it.

Northward up the coast lie sleepy fishing towns, misty mountain ranges, all manner of drives, hikes, and rivers, J.R.R. Tolkien's unlikely birthplace of Upington, baking in the dry Kalahari sun, and culminating with South Africa's main artery, the Orange River as it plunges over the Augrabies falls into the deep unknown below. By day the Kalahari desert twinkles with the trillion trillion reflections of grains of quartz, and the bloated crimson sunset gives way to the blackest nights and brightest displays of the heavens.

North across the border in Namibia lie hundreds and hundreds of miles of desert coastline, hellish canyons, a springtime eruption of wildflowers, the expansive Kgalaghadi National Park, and the unrivaled Okavango Delta in Botswana.

Inland, southwest South Africa is arid, semi-desert, broken by oases here and there, and with the artifacts of history never further than the next exit. Sometimes it's best just to pull over beside a creaking wind mill or a line of trees, turn off the engine, and let the wind whisper to you through the windows. Life can stop for awhile.

The crisp, higher elevation plains, while dominated by the noise and bustle of Johannesburg and its surrounding cities, possess a variety of unexpected treasures, both natural and man-made. The Vredefort Dome, a UNESCO World Heritage site, is an impact crater that is the result of the world’s greatest known single energy release event. Further northward and eastward from the urban epicenter are unending mountain routes, trails, camps, lodges, and the (perhaps undeservedly) all-encompassing Kruger National Park.

Above all, South Africa has an unbelievable road and travel infrastructure, and a system of B&Bs that is the best I've seen anywhere (America, the "hospitality country" should be so lucky).

South African cities are just cities, and while they will have museums, galleries, historical points of significance and all the other expecting trappings of modern life--crime and all--these do not represent the real South Africa; just the western embodiment of it.

Stick to the South African countryside and it will sing to you.
Re: The Beautiful, Beckoning, Real South Africa by peripatetically on 8 March 2009 10:59pm
Poortrekker, you wrote that up as a very appealing place to see. It would be hard to resist for anyone thinking about the African continent..

And, BTW, welcome to the site. Please come back and let us know more about you and share some thoughts with us.

Maryland, USA
Re: The Beautiful, Beckoning, Real South Africa by tucsonmike on 12 March 2009 4:01am
I was in South Africa once, but only saw Jo'Burg and Pretoria. Ironically, I just read an article about South African men and Romance Novels.

Not sure I would go back with traveling so expensive

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