A Sun-drenched Sojourn in Southern Africa

  • Safari guide Mr. Gift at Pilanesberg National Park.

    Safari guide Mr. Gift at Pilanesberg National Park.

  • Faux elephant tusks and leopard statues decorate the domed towers of the Palace of the Lost City.

    Faux elephant tusks and leopard statues decorate the domed towers of the Palace of the Lost City.

  • On the banks of the Zambezi at southern Zambia's Mosi-oa-Tunya National Park, just upstream from Victoria Falls.

    On the banks of the Zambezi at southern Zambia's Mosi-oa-Tunya National Park, just upstream from Victoria Falls.

  • Resident zebras grazing on the lawn at the Royal Livingstone in Zambia, a riverside resort just upstream from Victoria Falls.

    Resident zebras grazing on the lawn at the Royal Livingstone in Zambia, a riverside resort just upstream from Victoria Falls.

  • A view of Victoria Falls from the bridge that crosses the Zambezi Gorge.

    A view of Victoria Falls from the bridge that crosses the Zambezi Gorge.

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Sun City’s ace in the hole—at least for a first-time safari-goer like me—is that it’s right next door to Pilanesberg National Park, a small but well-stocked reserve that unfolds across an ancient volcanic caldera. Hot-air ballooning is an option on calm days, but keen to be closer to the action, I ended up as the sole passenger in an eight-seat Range Rover driven by a guide who introduced himself as Mr. Gift. We set out on a still-chilly morning and it didn’t take us long to spot some big game: first, a bull elephant lumbering through the grass about 200 meters away, then, much closer, a shaggy cluster of wildebeest and a vast herd of impala. Farther on, we passed a pair of giraffes looping their tongues lazily around the uppermost buds of an acacia and came to a halt when a dozen nickering zebras decided to cross in front of us. Mr. Gift, who has worked for an outfit called Mankwe Gametrackers for seven years, told me there were a few leopards in the park, but that a sighting today was unlikely. Ditto the lions, thanks to the tall grass at this time of year. But before we returned to the Palace for lunch, we had managed to spot a family of rhinos grazing among termite mounds on the far side of a lake, as well as a silver-backed jackal loping down the road. Hearing us, it let out a yip and disappeared into the bush.

After my adventure in Pilanesberg, Cape Town came off as a bit, well, tame; perhaps mixing wildlife and urban life doesn’t make for the best of holiday cocktails. Still, it’s an undeniably picturesque city, particularly on a clear late-summer day when not a single cloud obscured the altar-like summit of Table Mountain and the ocean glittered all the way to the horizon. Nor could I complain about my new digs at the Table Bay Hotel, a grand, gabled affair front and center on the Victoria & Alfred Waterfront. From my room I could look out across the bay to Robben Island, where Nelson Mandela was once imprisoned; over afternoon tea in the hotel’s atrium lounge, the views were of fishing wharves and the furrowed flanks of Table Mountain.

With only one full day to take in the sights, the next morning I rushed through a decadent breakfast spread and arranged for one of the hotel’s chauffeured Mercedes to run me though my checklist. We started in the Cape Malay quarter of Bo-Kaap, its pastel-hued houses gleaming in the early light, before heading up Signal Hill to watch hang gliders launch themselves over the affluent suburb of Sea Point. At the Old Biscuit Mill in working-class Woodstock, I joined chic Capetonians as they poked about the designer boutiques, art galleries, and antiques shops that have made this former factory complex the hub of the city’s creative scene. And on the far side of Table Mountain, I spent a couple of pleasant hours at the Kirstenbosch National Botanical Garden, where I admired one floral spectacle after another: a century-old cycad, an avenue of towering camphor trees, and rolling gardens of fynbos, the native heath.

I spotted fynbos again on the menu that night at Camissa, the Table Bay’s handsome brick-walled dining room. The kitchen here is helmed by Canadian chef Jocelyn Myers-Adams, a forager extraordinaire with a passion for wild ingredients such as rooibos, waterblommetjies (pond weed), fennel, and the aforementioned fynbos, which she used to infuse a vinegar reduction. Paired with vintages from the Cape Winelands, the food was terrific, from the fun-to-pronounce skilpadjies with braaibroodjies (caul-wrapped patties of ground beef and liver with wood-grilled toast) to a Malay-style curried lobster, served in an iron pot alongside flatbread and sambal. When I asked the waiter what dune spinach was, he brought out the chef, who was more than happy to chat about her foraged finds. After describing the shrub, she said, “Here, I’ll show you,” and popped out the door. Five minutes later, she was back at my table with a wide smile and a handful of leaves. “From the parking lot,” she beamed. Can produce get any more local than that?

Getting to Livingstone in Zambia required overnighting in Johannesburg—or, more precisely, in the city’s affluent northern suburbs, where all the best hotels are. Mine was The Maslow, Sun International’s smart three-year-old property in the Sandton area.

I’ve read how inner-city crime rates have fallen in South Africa’s biggest city, and with an afternoon to kill I was keen to have a look. But neither my lunch waiter at The Maslow—a young guy from Durban who told me he had been mugged in downtown Jo’burg a few months earlier—nor the driver I hired, an avuncular older man called Themba, thought that was a particularly good idea. So instead, I made do with a drive-through tour of Soweto and a visit to the Apartheid Museum. The latter should have been on my to-do list in any case. Opened south of the city center in 2001, it provides an unflinching overview of the apartheid era, including re-creations of the tiny isolation cells in which political prisoners were kept in solitary confinement; a room with 133 nooses dangling from its ceiling that represent all those hanged under the apartheid regime’s anti-terror laws; and reels of raw, emotional film footage from the period. “Very bad times,” said Themba, who had offered to walk me through the exhibitions. “But better now, if only we can continue Madiba’s [Mandela’s] legacy.”

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