South Africa’s troubled streets and tragic politics are no reason to avoid visiting its pristine landscapes and stunning wildlife.
Having frequently taken a morning stroll up Table Mountain – a 1,086-meter cliff top commanding Cape Town, its shoreline, and the ocean view beyond it – former South African prime minister Jan Smuts climbed it one morning with a companion who, though half his 76 years, arrived at the summit a good 10 minutes after him.
“Young man,” apologized the famous statesman, general and philosopher; “at my age I don’t have the time you have for loitering.”
I, too, had no time to waste during a nine-day sortie last month into South Africa – and also not all of Smuts’ enthusiasm for mountaineering – so I took the cable car, which, after negotiating its way through a cloud, demonstrated the shortness of the distance between this bewitching country’s majesty and pain.
Once out of the car, the slums where about a third of Cape Town’s 3.7 million residents languish with limited access to water, sewerage and electricity, joined a minutely embroidered urban vista of red-white-andgreen villas, spires and parks while the Atlantic’s azure waves stroked Table Bay’s gilded shore.
Yes, South Africa is for now a social tragedy and a political mess, and a wise tourist must be informed of these in advance, but a good tourist – the one who appreciates exploration, escapade and exoticism – should by no means be deterred by this country’s challenges and in fact had better go there at once.
SOUTH AFRICA’S crime problem exists on multiple tiers, as reflected by two newspaper headlines that stared at me during my visit.
One, in the Johannesburg-based The Star, read “State capture haunts ANC” alluding to the ruling, scandal- ridden African National Congress, and to allegations that President Jacob Zuma and business circles close to him offered ministerial candidates cash in order to capture varied state operations.
The other headline, in the Cape Town Argus, reported “22 MyCity cashiers fired for stealing up to R36 million” (about $2.8 million), referring to organized theft from a bus-service company’s cash drawers.
Beyond these sophisticated types of crime festers what interests tourists most: what happens on the street level. Over the 12 months ending April 1 there were more than 19,000 murders, 53,000 street robberies, 22,000 house robberies, and 16,000 carjackings across South Africa, according to the “Africa Check” project run by Johannesburg’s University of Witwatersrand.
South Africa’s murder rate, at 34 per 100,000 inhabitants, is among the world’s worst, more than 30% higher than Brazil’s and nearly seven times as high as that of the US.
Coupled with a recent Progress in International Reading Literary Test Report, that 78% of nine-yearolds effectively cannot read in any language, and that 42% of fourth-graders experience daily some form of bullying, it takes no spy to realize that South Africa can be dangerous for an unprepared tourist.
The first ones to warn of this are the locals, like Ina, a Pretoria store owner who sat next to me in the airplane. She said that she never lets her kids go anywhere alone and that she doesn’t know anyone in her city who has not experienced a burglary, street robbery or carjacking.
Still, that is no reason to avoid South Africa, nor is the frequent sight of private houses surrounded by tall fences laced with electric wires and checkered with surveillance cameras.
South Africa is twice the size of France, meaning that most of it is removed from the unsafe areas. A prudent visitor would therefore focus on the countryside; tour the bigger cities with a local, licensed guide; and probably altogether avoid Johannesburg.
Yes, that’s a shame, considering that Joburg is the country’s financial and cultural heartbeat, and that some of its landmarks – most notably the Apartheid Museum – are particularly useful for understanding South Africa’s traumatic history. Equally disappointingly, less lawless Cape Town’s stores close at 5 p.m. and the downtown area’s streets seem to empty of visitors come nightfall.
Still, the vast, diverse and astonishing South Africa that sprawls beyond its metropolises felt to this visitor safe, inviting, and blessed with a tourism infrastructure that is as good as any in the developed world.
This became clear to me as soon as the group I joined embarked on its journey, which focused on the roughly 750 km. that stretch between Cape Town in the West and the Lalibela Reserve in the east, abutting the shoreline where the Indian and Atlantic oceans clasp.
URBANITY’S SHADOWS had vanished, and its echoes had fallen silent by the time I arrived in Lalibela, more than 800 km. south of Johannesburg, El Al’s only South African destination and just over an hour from Port Elizabeth, where we arrived with a domestic flight.
The tranquility of the surrounding bushland’s rolling hills was disturbed only by tweeting birds as we boarded the 10-seat roofless safari vehicle that would take us to the ultimate African experience in quest of the so-called Big Five: not the global accounting firms also known by that name, but the buffaloes, leopards, rhinoceroses, lions and – need we say – elephants that freely roam this 9,000-hectare range.
Distinguished this way to indicate not their size, but the difficulty that hunting them on foot involves, these and other beasts were understandably what our eyes searched for when our ranger, Vicky Burman, piloted the safari vehicle to one of the dirt piles with which the surrounding fields were checkered.
Sending her fingers into the beach-ball-sized mound, she soon retrieved several honey-colored insects that looked like large ants as they crawled between her pinky and thumb.
“Termites,” she ruled, and then raised her palm to her lips and the insects to her tongue before chewing and swallowing the termites.
“Tastes like lavender,” she reported matter-of-factly, adding that her unconventional snack is also nutritious, as she returned to the driver’s seat and steered the vehicle back to the bigger species for which we came, the first two of which now emerged several yards to our left, where a pair of hippopotamuses floated in a little pond.
The sight of the yawning jaws where a tall man can fit sitting was soon followed by encounters with a squadron of rhinoceroses, a flash of zebras, a family of elephants and countless impalas. Though there are cheetahs in the area, we didn’t detect any, but we did ultimately spot – in separate bushes several yards from each other – a lion and a lioness.
This half-day’s safari was just a glimpse of what South Africa has to offer on the fauna front, as Lalibela is but a link in a chain of dozens of wildlife ranges and parks that stretch from West Coast Park on the Atlantic southwest, to Kruger Park in the northeast, straddling Mozambique.
Travelers seeking a more comprehensive safari might prefer Kruger, due to its size – equivalent to almost the entire State of Israel. Those who want to reach the west faster would do well to pick smaller ranges, like Lalibela, and lodge in tastefully furnished, rural-African style chalets with observation decks where a family of humans can enjoy a royal meal while exchanging glances with a family of elephants drinking and bathing at a nearby waterhole.
If you emerge from your safari disappointed that this or that animal you expected did not show up – don’t worry, chances are you will meet it elsewhere.
That is what happened to us with baboons, which we saw in abundance along the roads of the Cape Peninsula, and in entire herds in the Robertson Valley; with giraffes, which we saw grazing calmly in a ravine outside Lalibela; with elephants, which we saw congregate in the hundreds in the Addo Elephant National Park, not far from Lalibela, where we saw them in smaller numbers; with seals, which we saw sunbathing in flocks on Duiker Island outside Cape Town; with penguins, which we saw in what sounded like a conference, in the Cape Peninsula’s Boulders Beach; and with the rock hyraxes that I saw atop Table Mountain admiring its oceanic view from a cliff’s edge.
In all such parks and ranges, the animals are not only visible roaming freely in their natural settings; their survival is entirely their own responsibility, as no zookeeper will bring them even an ounce of what their varied diets demand. Visiting them in their habitats thus made me share the Psalmist’s awe when he waxed poetic that “the lions roar for prey, seeking their food from God,” and that, as I too can now attest, “when the sun rises, they come home and couch in their dens.”
Having said this, South Africa is worth a visit not only for its wildlife but also for its flora and landscapes.
IN THE northwest, the arid Richtersveld’s bronzy slopes shoot up from sands at sea level to sharp volcanic peaks of more than 1,300 meters that overlook whitewater rafters as they wrestle with the Orange River’s gushing waters.
By August, some 200 km. south of there, in the Namaqua National Park, southern winter rains produce daisies, lilies and more than 1,000 types of flowers that grow nowhere else and whose dizzying carpets stretch for hundreds of square kilometers.
About 500 km. northeast of there, in the Witsand Reserve, snow-white dunes collide with the Kalahari Desert’s red sands. A strange whistling sound is created when the heat releases air from the grains. This attracts bikers and hikers to the surrounding slopes – and Humvees to a 64-km. route that slices through the dunes.
A further 600 km. east, in the Royal Natal National Park, the Tugela Falls plunge at least 948 meters (nearly a kilometer) in five stages, forming what all agree is at least the tallest waterfall in the world after Venezuela’s Angel Falls. Others, measuring it at 983 meters, contend it is the tallest by four meters. Either way, local trails allow hikers to admire it from the 3,282-meter Mont-aux-Sources, which overlooks the sources of several rivers, including South Africa’s longest, the Orange, whose Atlantic terminus is more than 1,200 km. away.
South Africa, in short, is so rich and varied that firsttime visitors must first decide where not to go, and then chart an itinerary custom-tailored for their preferences and abilities.
We took the famous Garden Route, which straddles the southwestern coastline. The choice proved rewarding, as it unveiled not only much wildlife but also thick and ancient forests like those of Tsitsikamma National Park, where we saw a 36-meter-tall, 800-year-old yellowwood tree; great water sports locations, like Storms River, whose mouth we crossed on a lovely suspension bridge while canoers under us rowed inland between mysterious grottos and forested cliffs; and immaculate beaches like the one off Wilderness, a town of 6,000 where we lodged and got a glimpse of the quaint, solemn and safe South Africa that sprawls beyond its big cities; and the Cango Caves, whose thicket of stalactites and stalagmites is well landscaped with smart lighting and engaging guiding.
Beyond such surprises along the coastline, the Garden Route includes the pristine winelands that unfold to Cape Town’s north and east and produce some of the world’s best wines.
Traveling through Robertson Valley, the deep green of endless vineyards joined the violet of the semi-arid Langeberg and Riviersonderend mountains that overlook this celebration of fertility, which we saluted by entering a local winery and toasting its flavorful cabernet sauvignon.
THE GARDEN ROUTE can also include a peek into an improbable Jewish landmark, in the town of Oudtshoorn, some 350 km. east of Cape Town and 50 km. north of the Indian Ocean.
As you approach this town of 60,000 you will see thousands of ostriches in farms along the road, as would befit “the ostrich capital of the world,” and the center of the feather-fashion industry on which it has thrived since the 19th century.
Jewish traders joined the city’s unique industry and established a community that at one point numbered 600 families. The community began declining already a century ago, but its handsome synagogue still stands, lean and well kept on Baron van Rheede Street.
In it I found 82-year-old Avraham Moshe Lifshitz, who after showing us the shul and its waterless mikve, said the community still numbers 20 people, whose children – including his – have long since moved, mostly to Cape Town, Australia and Israel.
“When one of us is sick we have no minyan,” he said.
South Africa’s Jewish story is obviously a lot more than that, as a visit to the Jewish Museum in Cape Town attests. An architectural landmark in its own right, the thoughtfully arranged museum that was officially opened by Nelson Mandela in 2000 is adjacent to the fully active Gardens Synagogue, whose building and congregation date back, respectively, to 1905 and 1841.
Standing in its sanctuary of more than 1,000 seats between the elegant stained windows that flank it and above the Hanukka programs neatly placed on each of its seats, and bearing in mind South African Jewry’s shrinkage over the past half century from 120,000 to 70,000 members, this is a particularly evocative setting in which to consider Jewish history’s elusive dynamics.
Even more thought-provoking is the rest of Cape Peninsula, which stretches into the Atlantic Ocean 45 km. from Table Mountain, where this feature began.
Notwithstanding its unique flora and fauna, this deliberately uninhabited preserve is crowned by Cape Point, where I took the funicular to the lighthouse that looms 87 meters above the ocean below. From there I trotted to the lower lighthouse, whose intense flash is visible by vessels more than 100 km. away.
Standing here, one has to think of Vasco da Gama sailing through these waters more than 500 years ago, and how history might have evolved had he and his colleagues not chosen to brave this African frontier.
CONSIDERING THEIR own way to brave the African frontier, some tourists prefer the certainty and security of an organized tour, which can explain Tel Aviv-based Eshet Tours’ report that it took 25,000 Israelis to African destinations in 2017, of which the most popular is Tanzania.
“We believe demand for touring South Africa will grow,” predicts CEO Ephraim Kramer, who says his company is the largest Israeli tour operator for foreign tours and the third largest overall, with annual sales of NIS 1.1 billion.
Being the great believer that I am in independent travel, I joined with a measure of skepticism such an organized tour, a random collection of Israelis including a middle-aged couple with their teenage boy and girl and a cluster of retirees.
Fortunately, the group leader – a former defense-establishment executive whom we’ll call Ofra K. – handled the group with skill, knowing how to explain history, geography and sociology to a mixed audience, when to tell a joke, when to show a movie, how to look after travelers with special needs, and most importantly, how to make everyone avoid an Israeli attitude to punctuality.
Equally fortunately, the group’s local guide, Charl Rabie, did wonders explaining to me South African history from the perspective of a native whose European forebears arrived here some 250 years ago.
Hearing Rabie interact with everyone everywhere in Afrikaans, I learned that it is the main language among the land’s 55 million blacks and whites; that there is an effort to delegitimize it as the language of the apartheid regime; and that this campaign, in his view, must fail. Understandably, he was inspired to learn how Hebrew was resurrected, concluding that “killing a language can’t work.”
Such, in brief, is South Africa, where any peek, stroll or conversation can instantaneously morph into a valuable learning experience – which vindicates Limor’s answer, after I asked her why she and her husband, Amnon, took their kids on this trip during the school year: “This is no less educating than school.”
After more than a week of encounters with a troubled country’s dizzying landscapes and roaring wildlife, I finally heard an understatement. The writer was a guest of Eshet Tours