South African Treasures! …Johannesburg to Langebaan…

By Marlijn van Berne

Many countries around the world have national treasures they celebrate; be it a museum filled with historic and cultural bounty, a mesmerising waterfall that cascades hundreds of meters down a rock face, or other equally loved and revered facets of the nation’s artistic and cultural heritage. But instead of sharing our nationally and internationally recognised ‘treasures’ with you, I am going to give you the low-down on some well-known, and others, not so well-known trinkets; they may not be on any official list, but boy are they special!

Our exploration of South Africa’s treasures continues with a walking tour through Jozi‘s or Joburg’s (Johannesburg) Inner City. Personally, I am happy to admit that I can spend hours watching the people around me, and this is one of the best ways to enjoy taking in the scenery and get fit! Walking through inner city Johannesburg is nothing short of fascinating. Hook up with Past Experiences (Tel: 0116783905 or Cell: 0837013046), an Inner City Tour Operator with a number of themed tours to choose from; ranging from shopping to a public art tour, to a spicy Fordsburg tour, to a memory lane stroll Mandela’s Joburg – the city that Nelson Mandela experienced in the 1950′s and 1960′s, including a visit to his original law practice. The tour also focuses on all the anti-apartheid leaders who spent time in the inner city, including Oliver Tambo, Walter and Albertina Sisulu and many more.

Next, I want to introduce you to some thrilling Safari adventures to be enjoyed as one travels down from Johannesburg to Zululand and northern KwaZulu-Natal. Although possiblynot as well known as our most famous Game Reserve, the Kruger National Park, these smaller parks are equally impressive and with their own quirky charms. So, just what will we see and what makes each park a treasure trove in its own right? At a glance: Hluhluwe-Imfolozi is the oldest Game Park in Africa, Mkuze is a birders delight, and Ithala’s scenic beauty and astonishing geological diversity will take your breath away. The differences and abundance of encountered while roaming the wild at Hluhluwe-Imfolozi, Ithala and Mkuze Game Reserves is a truly relaxing and soul refreshing experience.

Some 500 kms south of Johannesburg and 400 kms north of Durban, deep into the north western parts of Zululand, one finds Ithala Game Reserve. What makes this relatively small reserve stands out, is its immense variety of terrain that undergoes a continual, and dramatic seasonal metamorphisis of immense beauty. From the deep bush-filled valleys and gorges, through wetlands, savannah, forests and woodlands, and up into the craggy sandstone peaks and escarpments of the Ngotshe Mountains, Ithala is truly remarkable (having enjoyed many family Christmases at Ntshondwe Camp, I am unashamedly biaised!). Ithala Game Reserve’s big game species include white and black rhino, elephant, buffalo and giraffe, and less frequently encountered, leopard, spotted hyaena and brown hyaena. Note: the King of the Jungle does not reside here, which may explain the very relaxed demeanour from the many and varied antelope. Or maybe it’s just darn lovely to live here!

Moving north-east into northern KwaZulu-Natal, you will come across Mkhuze Game Reserve, a park of great natural beauty that forms part of the Greater St Lucia Wetland Park – a recently declared World Heritage Site. This Game Reserve offers some incredible game viewing although it is the birding that makes this game reserve so unique; with some 400 species, possibly more. Travel to the Nhlonhlela and Nsumo pans in the North and East, and get up close and personal with Nile Crocodiles, Hippo’s, Pelicans, Duck’s and Geese. There are usually great photo opportunities, but just be aware to never stand between the water and a hippo; they don’t like it. If you want to spend the night, there are three types of accommodation that stand out: Camping (Tel: 035 573 9004), Tented Camps and the nearby 4-star Ghost Mountain Inn at the foot of the legendary Ghost Mountain in Mkuze  (Tel: 0 35 573 1025).

Just one hour further south, and renowned for its variety of animal and bird life, and an extremely rich diversity of tree and plant communities, Hluhluwe-Imfolozi Park is the only reserve in KwaZulu-Natal where you will find all of the Big Five (the African lion, African elephant, Cape buffalo, African leopard, and White/Black rhinoceros). But did you know South Africa also has a ‘Little Five?’ The little five are South Africa’s tiny, lesser-known, Lesser-big teeth, sharp feet/hooves version, of the infamous Big Five. They include the Buffalo Weaver, the Elephant Shrew, the Leopard Tortoise, the Ant Lion (for those from the US, this is the ‘Doodlebug’!) and the Rhino Beetle. Activities to be enjoyed include auto trails, self-guided foot trails, day walks, picnic sites, game drives, and boat tours. All can be booked on a first come, first serve basis. Please Note: Hluhluwe-Imfolozi Park is in a malaria area and special precautions are necessary. For more information on all the above Game Reserves, please visit: http://www.kznwildlife.com/accomodation.html

Stopping in Durban, there is one experience that counts as a tip-top treasure, recommended by my friend, Jean Bourdin, Director of the Alliance Francaise in Pretoria. A true Jazz Lover, Jean visited the Rainbow Jazz Restaurant (www.facebook.com/therainbowvenue) in Durban’s Pinetown suburb and has not stopped raving about the place since! And justly so! Having opened its doors to the public in 1981, the Rainbow Restaurant is one of the oldest jazz venues in South Africa. A Jazz-infused restaurant in a so-called ‘white’ area of KwaZulu-Natal, this restaurant was the first to be granted a license to sell food and sorghum beer to Africans. It played an important role in the struggle against the Apartheid regime and today serves up South African delights and classic comfort foods while guests can enjoy the dulcet tones of jazz legends, such as Bheki Khoza and Shabalala Rythem.

From Durban we move half way down to Cape Town, and stop in Port Elizabeth (PE), nicknamed “Ibhayi” by Xhosa speakers, “Die Baai” by Afrikaners and “The Bay” by English speakers and the ‘Friendly City’ and/or ‘Windy City’ – take your pick. While in PE, a truly special place to visit is the SA Marine Rehabilitation and Education Centre (SAMREC www.samrec.org.za) at Cape Recife. Here Penguins, Seals and Sea Birds which have washed up on our shores and/or are rescued, are rehabilitated and then released back into their natural habitat. The centre is situated on the Cape Recife Reserve and you won’t require a permit to enter, however if you wish to go into the reserve you will need a permit which you can get at the gate. Cape Recife has a operational lighthouse, lovely beaches and is a birders’ paradise.

And then it’s on to Cape Town… the treasures to be enjoyed here, are far too many to mention. Suffice it to say, a day or two, will just whet your appetite for so much more! Cape Town has all the ingredients for an intoxicating adventure, that could take you from diving with sharks (with our without a cage), enjoying some beach time alongside the Penquins at Boulders Beach, to floating above the clouds as you ride a cable car up Table Mountain (Tel: 021 424 0015) And then there are other gems to enjoy; sip the best afternoon tea in the world (umpteen national and international foodies agree!) at the Mount Nelson Hotel, or Pink Palace as locals call it (Tel: +27 21 483 1000), or visit the suburb of Woodstock at the foot of Devil’s Peak where the gallery names lining the streets read like a who’s-who of the local contemporary art scene. And don’t forget St Tropez Cove where you can ogle the daring antics of intrepid surfers on the north side of the beach, or enjoy the relaxing motion of the ocean in the tidal pools at the southern end. Not to be missed out on, is a visit to Robben Island, where former President Nelson Mandela was incarcerated. Travel to the island takes 30 minutes by ferry. Last, but by no means least, and in fact, probably one of the most enjoyed past-times by visitors and Capetonians alike, a visit to the Cape Winelands is a must! The Winelands are about an hour outside of Cape Town, and home to most of South Africa’s premier wine estates, although pretty much every farm offers wine-tasting. Count on spending at least half a day, if not most of the day, sipping, tasting, snacking on cheese and olives and enjoying the hospitality on offer (a designated driver is adviseable!). If a bit of a wine ‘bof’ you will be in heaven! For a real treat, travel to Hidden Valley Wine Farm (Tel:  021 880 2646) on the slopes of the Helderberg Mountain near Stellenbosch. Hidden Valley is true to its name. A hidden, “gem of a place”, with the greatest location imaginable, offering an exquisite wining and dining experience.