About 7,000 km southwest of Mumbai lies Johannesburg, the commercial capital and the largest city of South Africa, the most developed and stable country in Africa, accounting for a significant chunk of the economy of the entire continent.
“Before reaching South Africa, I was expecting to see tribes and believed that they were still tribes in remote areas. But it’s not the case! In fact the country is totally modernised and even the small villages have now access to the new technologies,’’ says Pradeep, an Indian traveller who came to South Africa for the first time.
About two-thirds of Africa’s electricity is generated in South Africa that also accounts for over 50 pc of the global production of platinum and 10 pc of the world’s gold production. South Africa also accounts for over 40 pc of the total number of telephones in Africa. And the South African economy stands just behind oil-rich Nigeria as the second largest economy in Africa.
Yet, it is a nation that is almost as diverse in topography, demography and flora and fauna as India. Spread over a large area of 1.2 million sqkm, or a third of the Indian landmass, South Africa is one of the biggest nations in the continent.
A varied topography
As we travelled from Johannesburg to Kruger and then to Durban and its neighbourhood, what struck us is that South Africa packs an amazing range of topographical features, including Mediterranean evergreen forests, the Tundra forests, the mountain forests, the savannah grasslands, the Steppes as well as semi-arid and arid deserts.
Its coastline stretches over 2500 km, from the desert border with Namibia on the Atlantic coast, heading southwards around the Cape of Good Hope on the tip of the African continent, then, stretching along the Indian Ocean, up to to the border with Mozambique.
Almost like the Western Ghats of India, the low-lying coastal zone in South Africa is a rather narrow patch, giving way to a mountainous escarpment that separates it from the high inland plateau. A diverse topography and geographical features means climate can vary sharply in the country. In the mountains, principally around Johannesburg, the temperatures in the winters can be harsh, falling upto -15°C at times, while in the summers, the temperatures in the desert areas of the country can shoot up close to 50°C.
Like many other African nations, South Africa also has numerous rivers, including the Orange and its tributary, the Vaal, as well as the Limpopo, which are refreshed every year by the rainfall which is again fairly heavy in the mountains and the plateau, while being sparse in the arid and semi-arid parts of the country.
A demographic cocktail
It is not just the topography or geography that varied in South Africa, the country’s population mix also makes for a heady cocktail. The nearly 52 million people living here have a mixed heritage, with the black African making up nearly 79 pc of the total population, while the coloured and white people, mainly descendants of the erstwhile Dutch Afrikaan rulers and other Europeans, account for nearly 18 pc of the population. There is also a very significant presence of the Indian diaspora here, which now stands at over 1.5 million strong. The Indian population traces its roots back to the 19th century when the British rulers brought workers from India to work on the sugarcane plantations in South Africa. The Indian origin people live in and around Durban in the KwaZuluNatal province.
”We do have a melting pot of cultures and clearly there is an element of Indian travellers feeling very much at home in South Africa. The people blend and mix with each other, so we have a kind of mix that you have in India. So people like this atmosphere in South Africa where there is complete acceptance of people, no matter what clothes they wear or what religion they practice, it’s very much part of the South African landscape as it is in India”, explains Derek Hanekom, minister of tourism, South Africa.
The nation’s diverse ethnicity is also reflected in its languages and culture. South Africa has 11 official languages, including Afrikaans, English, Zulu and several other African languages, besides a host of smaller languages and dialects. However, tourists can afford to relax as English is the language of the cities, commerce and banking, government, road signs and official documents. And at any hotel, the receptionists, waiters and porters speak English.
The culture, customs and costumes of the people also offer a large variety, giving the country its sobriquet – the Rainbow Nation.
Wildlife and life in the wild
As with many other southern African countries, South Africa has been blessed with a bountiful biodiversity – both in plants and animals — by Mother Nature. The country is home to a wide variety of wildlife, especially the bigger animals such as lion, leopard, elephant, rhinoceros, hippopotamus, buffalo, giraffe and zebra, besides myriad other animals that find their home in the savannah grasslands that stretch across a large part of the country.
South Africa has over 700 publicly owned reserves, including 19 national parks and over 200 private reserves with the Kruger National Park being the largest and followed closely by the Kgalagadi Transfrontier National Park.
“A number of tourists to South Africa come only to enjoy the unique wildlife experiences with extremely well-developed tourism infrastructure here, which is one of the most advanced and luxurious in the world”, says Jerry Khalo, area manager, marketing & sales at Sabi Sabi Private Game Reserve, a group of luxury resorts, situated close to the Kruger National Park.
Besides being a family holiday destination, South Africa has also been attracting over the last 10 years a large number of business travellers in the category of Meetings, Incentives, Conventions and Exhibitions (MICE) which sees thousands of business travellers descend upon the country’s wild life parks and their luxurious hotels to hold their workshops and conventions. “We try and push our business travellers to experience some adventure tourism. One of the things that South Africans do incredibly well is programmes instead of itinerary. So we have more and more Indian companies coming to us and looking at a quiet place where strategic discussions could be held. The safari lodge are a good option,” says Hanneli Slabber, CEO India of South Africa Tourism Board.
South Africa is attractive not just for its wildlife, but you could also enjoy the country’s thriving night life and other urban attractions. The country’s principal cities are Johannesburg, the largest city which also serves as the commercial capital, while other major cities include Cape Town, the house of the national Parliament and Pretoria, adjacent to Johannesburg and which is seat of the national government. Durban, on the eastern coast, is the second largest city and has a rapidly growing port on the eastern coast and the gateway for supplies of goods to and fro the interiors of the country.
It is also quite easy to rent a car and drive in South Africa. The country is well serviced by road and rail transport and boasts of a network of over 16,000 km of well-maintained tarred roads and over 30,000 km of rail network that services even the smallest of the villages and hamlets. The country’s financial sector is also well developed and fully integrated with the international financial network, with an array of banks, foreign currency changers and cash dispensers all over the country. “In India, I was warned not to use my credit card here to withdraw money, but being here and looking at the infrastructures and environment, I felt quite safe and did not face any problems,” says Deepika, a business woman who travelled to Durban recently.
The water in the taps in hotels is potable, but not all water in rural areas is safe to drink straight from the tap. In some areas, the water is mineral-rich, and you may experience a bit of gastric distress for a day or two until you get used to it. Bottled mineral water, both sparkling and still, is also readily available in most places.
A tourist’s haven
South Africa’s long coastline of about 3 000 kilometres, along with breathtaking mountains – often side by side, make for a scintillating view. The country’s diverse terrain, together with an ideal climate for outdoor activities, also make it a rich hunting ground for adrenaline seekers.
The best selling theme of destination South Africa is adventure. The destination offers world-class climbing, surfing, diving, hiking, horseback safaris, mountain biking, river rafting – and just about any other extreme activity you can name, all supported by dedicated operators. The long coastline also ensures activities like whale watching, snorkeling and diving as well as enjoying watching other wonders of the nature such as penguins.
The country has some of the best, and most diverse, rock climbing in the world. The cliffs are big, wild – and still being discovered. “Cape Town is particularly well endowed, but the action is far from limited to the Western Cape. There are plenty of new places to discover in South Africa, that are not crowded and that offer amazing experiences,” says Trevor Hewett, managing director of African Pride Tours.
River trips range from mostly scenic to the extreme whitewater rafting experiences. The art of canyoning – known as kloofing in South Africa – is another hot favourite, with both selfguided and escorted trips on offer.
For those who prefer to take a bird’s eye view, there are over a hundred listed paragliding or hang gliding launch sites – and many more less well known – with schools in every centre. Also up in the air, there are many opportunities for helicopter rides, balloon flights, aerobatics, skydiving and microlight flights.
The rugged terrain here also offers thousands of kilometres of hiking trails – win desert, forest, mountain or coastal areas as well as several trails for the fans of mountain biking. For the less adventurous, there are also easy horse trails through vineyards, on the beach or in the mountains.
And if you are seeking a quick high, then head to the 216 metre Bloukrans bridge on the border of the Eastern and Western Cape, which boasts of the highest commercial bungee jump in the world.
A mixed culture necessitates a diverse cuisine as well, which is duly reflected here. A South African kitchen can offer Dutch, Afrikaans, Indian, Malay or Chinese dishes, confirming the country’s vibrant diversity. Some of the most famous dishes in South Africa include a variety of vegetarian as well as meat dishes.
Taking a visitor back to the early 20th century, when kitchens did not come equipped with refrigerators, are the traditionally air-dried meat snacks, notably Biltong and Droewors.
“Another delicacy with its roots in the traditional Dutch cuisine is Boerewors — pork or lamb sausage mixed with a variety of spices,” says the manager of Summerfields, a luxury and romantic retreat in the Kruger National Park. “The Gastronomic experience is unique in South Africa, here at the Summerfield we prepare fresh meals and all vegetables are taken fresh from our own organic nursery, where everything is grown as close to its natural, original form as possible. We have a big demand for organic food”, he added.
The Cape Malay curry, was brought to South Africa in the 17th century when the Dutch and the French settled in Cape Town, bringing plantation workers from India, Malaysia and Indonesia, along with the traditional spices and cooking method, resulting in fragrant curries and stews that remain extremely popular even today.
But the vegetarians need not get desperate with the range of exotic meat dishes belted out here. There are a number of vegetarian specialities as well, principally springing from the Indian residents of South Africa. Some staple vegetarian dishes include Chakalaka and Pap, that are the mainstays on every South African dinner table. Chakalaka is a vegetable dish made of onions, tomatoes, peppers, carrots, beans and spices, and is often served cold. For those with a sweet tooth, do not muss the Pap, meaning ‘porridge’, which is a starchy dish made from white corn maize.