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South Africa: diverse, unique and extraordinary destination

South Africa set out to make the reason for its conflict the axis of its wealth and is achieving it. Its magic lies in a racial, cultural, natural and geographical diversity that has made it a country to go … and return.

“Except for the geographical name, Africa does not exist,” said writer and journalist Ryszard Kapuscinski. And when talking about South Africa , it would seem to be right. With 42 million inhabitants and coasts in two oceans, its figures – very similar to those of Colombia – resemble it more to Latin America than to its African neighbors. But when you know it, reality is different.

The trip is long, even via São Paulo. About 30 hours between flights and waiting. However, the expectation is so great that time passes without realizing it. Arriving in Johannesburg we find the first surprise: a limousine awaits us at the door of the plane. Getting up looking over the shoulder to other passengers is inevitable. It is part of the service offered by Federal Air ( ), an airline that makes charter flights to the Kruger National Park ( ), our first destination. Located in the northeast of South Africa , on the border with Mozambique, it is one of the oldest nature reserves in Africa. In 20,000 square kilometers, it houses 147 types of mammals, 507 of birds, 114 of reptiles, 34 of amphibians, 49 of fish and 336 species of trees. A feast for a safari.

They await us at Earth Lodge, one of the four inns of Sabi Sabi ( ), an eco-sustainable tourist reserve built in the heart of Kruger. Conceived as a look towards the future of luxury tourism, it consists of 13 cabins that blend into nature and go completely unnoticed. Therefore, discovering the interior luxury is even more surprising. When I enter mine, the bell that accompanies me tells me that the previous week a lion dawned on the roof and to erase my smile of disbelief, he shows me the photo. Sure enough, there it was.

The anxiety increases. After a small snack we went to our first round. It’s five in the afternoon and the temperature starts to drop. In the Land Rover Andrew, our ranger -guide and driver- and Kenny, the tracker , await us. , in charge of tracking the animals. In each chair there are blankets and a bag of hot water. The adventure begins. “This is not National Geographic,” warns Andrew, a blond, blue-eyed South African who, shotgun in hand, leads us through the dusty stretches. “On a safari you can quickly find the big five – leopard, lion, elephant, rhinoceros and buffalo – or you may not find anything.” You need luck and, of course, some expertise. We travel several kilometers before seeing the first animals, some impalas, of the family of deer, which run fast until they realize our presence. They are the owners of the house, we the invaders, so we stop to try to pass unnoticed and observe in silence. An hour later, we returned to the lodge. We did not have much luck,

The night brings us another surprise. A typical African dinner, outdoors, lit with a huge bonfire and oil lamps, in which we tried some of the game animals that abound in the region such as springbok, the type of gazelle that gave the name to the famous team of rugby in South Africa, protagonist of the film Invictus , made in 2009.

The next day we went out again in search of the big ones. When we reach a mountainous stretch, Kenny tells Andrew to stop. There are leopard prints. They inspect them to see how cool they are. Everything indicates that there is one nearby. A few minutes later we see a male who walks alone and slowly through the bushes that have not yet awaken with spring. We follow it cautiously and without descending from the jeep, golden rule in any safari. It gets closer every time. I start shooting the camera trying to capture a solid image. At last I achieve it … It’s there, less than a meter away, it walks by the front of the jeep, surrounds it, and leaves. We follow him and we find him resting, lying in the sand. We already have our first trophy: the most wanted of the big five.

When we spot another leopard we stop. It is a female who, flirtatious, walks around a male trying to get his attention. He surrounds him, he approaches him, but he does not seem to notice his presence and before the harassment, he is even more reticent. Male and female genes in one of their purest contradictions.

We continued the procession for almost half an hour until, faced with the failed attempt at conquest, we decided to continue on our way. Soon we find another one of the great ones. Rather five: around a small well, a group of hippos frolic happily. We stop and, again, we try to go unnoticed so we can observe them in their habitat and natural behavior. They come, their heavy bodies touch each other, in some kind of game. Three hours later we return to the lodge, with the feeling that it was worth the trip. In the spa, deliciously embedded among nature, await us with a massage.

The afternoon session has a clear objective: find lions or elephants, but they are elusive. In the search we came across a huge crocodile that stretches on the river’s edge, a giraffe, multicolored birds, squirrels, and different types of antelopes such as the wildebeest. When the despair begins to flood the environment, an unusual smell reveals another surprise. In the middle of nowhere, a chef jumps some huge prawns that he offers us with iced champagne. The magic provided by the hotel is added to the magic of nature with an intense sunset flooded by the deep sounds of Africa .

When we return, late at night, Kenny – a beautiful dark-haired man trained to perceive the animal presence – makes the jeep stop. A few meters away, an elephant eats slowly, tilting its trunk over and over again. It is the third of the big ones.

The next morning our goal is still to complete the quintuplets. Soon a buffalo appears that, although elusive, lets us finally appreciate its thick black top. The lions, despite traveling several kilometers, can not be seen. “It’s a reason to go back,” Andrew says smiling when we leave for our next destination: Johannesburg.

With four million inhabitants and the economic and financial center of South Africa, it is here that the contrasts of this surprising multiracial nation that speaks eleven official languages ​​and African natives coexist with a great variety of European and Asian immigrants begin to become evident. While the white minority (17%) lives in residential areas where the wealth derived from mining is particularly concentrated, with large avenues, luxurious shopping centers and huge mansions, a large part of the black majority (73%) lives in precarious homes or slums with aluminum roofs where, crammed, face unemployment that hovers around 37% and 91% of the unemployed is black.

For the tourist, however, this reality is imperceptible, unless he visits Soweto, the urban area destined during the Apartheid to the African population that had to move from the areas designated for the targets, the center of the uprising against the separatist regime and still a of the poorest in the city.

In the middle of Sandhurst, a residential area of ​​huge mansions protected by armored walls, is our hotel, the Saxon ( ). Built in what was the owner’s residence, and decorated with an exquisite blend of Asian and African art, it has been chosen since 2001 as the best boutique hotel in the world and it was there that Nelson Mandela took refuge to write his autobiography, The Long Walk to freedom.

We only have a few hours, so we go to Sandton City ( ), one of the city’s big shopping centers, where a life-size statue of Nelson Mandela presides over the square that bears his name. In the evening, dinner is in the hotel’s refined restaurant: oysters, game meat and a Pinotage (a typical South African grape , Pinot Noir and Cinsaut), Southern Right, 2009, magnificent.

An intense afternoon of sun welcomes us in Cape Town, a fascinating city, built at the foot of Table Mountain, an impressive geological formation in the form of a table that merges into the sea, giving rise to a bay classified among the most beautiful in the world. We arrive directly at the waterfront, where is Cape Grace ( ), a sophisticated boutique hotel, one of whose main attractions is Bascule, a bar that prides itself on having 463 types of whiskeys. After tasting some, we busily go out to look for what is left of the sunset, trying to discover why those who visit this city are trapped by it. Walking along the waterfront, immersed in a fascinating mix of shopping, scenery and food, with exquisite restaurants with fresh sea food such as Baia ( ), we found the answer.

The next day another great adventure awaits us: in sidecars similar to those of the Second World War ( ) we will discover Cape Town, in an exciting journey that, after surrounding the bay, ends in the cable car that leads to the top of Table Mountain, from where you can see the entire bay, including Robben Island ( ), a tiny island rich in wildlife, where former President Nelson Mandela was in prison for 27 years.

With colorful houses and lush geography, Cape Town is a vibrant city with sites like The Old Biscuit Mill ( ), a neighborhood located in the heart of Woodstock, in a former cookie factory, and today offers a variety of markets, art galleries, design warehouses, cafes and fairs, where the cultures, smells and flavors that make up this cosmopolitan city are intermingled. At the end of the afternoon we arrive at the Green Market, where multicolored tents and neighboring houses offer artifacts from all over Africa of varied quality and prices.

In Cape Town it is possible to find a wide variety of hotels such as Kensington Place ( ), on the slopes surrounding Cape Town, a very small boutique hotel, very cool and with a beautiful view of Table Mountain and the Hotel Table Bay ( ), a classic conveniently located on the Victoria and Alfred Waterfront.

For the time of year, going to the nearby beaches was not an alternative. However, they are as famous as the “Two Oceans Marathon” ( ) that runs on Holy Saturday, considered “the most beautiful in the world” and the Jazz Festival ( ) that It is celebrated at the same time.

We can not end the trip without getting a little closer to the other reality of South Africa , a country where two decades ago was one of the most atrocious racist regimes in the world, Apartheid. A visit to the Drakenstein Correctional Facility ( ), where Nelson Mandela spent the last 3 of his 27 years in prison, reveals the greatness, tenacity and persistence of that man who managed to get South Africa out of obscurantism. There, in a small house to which he was transferred for health reasons after spending several years on the frozen island of Robben, the agreement was drawn up that would put an end to Apartheid in 1990 and which would be the first step towards the consolidation of this fascinating country that today is South Africa. After twelve days in this continent, the affirmation of Kapuscinski returns to my memory and I am convinced that Africa does exist. Diverse, surprising, multiracial, abundant, multicultural, unsuspected … yes, but extraordinarily unique.

The Kruger National Park, one of the oldest reserves in Africa.
From Table Mountain you can see the island of Robben, where Nelson Mandela was imprisoned.
On the beaches of Boulden there are more penguins than inhabitants.
Franschhoek, a French-style village in the heart of the vineyards.
Le Quartier Français, in Franschhoek, of the Relais Châteaux chain.
Stroll through Cape Town in sidecars.
The colorful streets of Cape Town.
The Old Biscuit Mill, gastronomic market in Cape Town.
The Drakenstein Correctional Facility, where Nelson Mandela spent the last three years in prison.
The surroundings of Cape Town

Going to the Cape of Good Hope , in the southernmost part of the African continent, can not miss the plan. Skirting the cliffs that surround the bay, we go there in the middle of a stormy drizzle that when it becomes a strong storm, which corroborates why it is also known as the “Cape of Storms”. In spite of the inclement weather, we climbed the funicular to the old Cape Point lighthouse ( ), from where we can see the entire bay. At lunchtime we decided on the traditional Harbor House ( ), located in Kalk Bay.

On the way back, an obligatory stop is the beach of Boulders ( ) inhabited by about three thousand African penguins descended from a couple brought to the site in 1982.

An hour from Cape Town is also Franschhoek ( ), founded in 1688 in the middle of one of the most prolific regions for the production of the renowned South African wine. Surrounded by mountains, in this small French-style village we find one of the most splendid hotels of our trip, Le Quartier Français (, belonging to the Relais Châteaux chain. There we enjoyed the Common Room, qualified for several years as the best restaurant in Africa and the Middle East, where the chef Margot Janse delighted us. And in its rustic version, the Bread & Wine Vineyard Restaurant, located in Môreson, the family’s wine farm, we enjoy another unique culinary experience. Dressed with an apron and roller in hand, we learned to prepare sophisticated breads such as focaccia and ciabatta.

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