South Africa: My Favorite Country So Far

Sony Stark with Archbishop Desmond Tutu
Sony Stark with Archbishop Desmond Tutu
By Sonja Stark

Cape Town: A beautiful city

Cape Town, South Africa is one of the most beautiful cities in the world; extremely cosmopolitan, safe and everyone speaks English. We’ve been at sea for seven days so dropping anchor here, in a westernized country, is equivalent to coming home.

It’s super early and humpbacks hurl themselves out of the Atlantic as the morning sun crests Table Mountain. Within minutes we’re drenched in a swathe of beautiful gold.

Archbishop Desmond Tutu has been on board since Brazil. His lectures centered on Apartheid, history, religion, politics and the environment. His presence inspires several of us to visit the impoverished areas of South Africa first. Nothing could be more life affirming than being welcomed to what is referred to as “townships”.

One of the township residents who welcomed Sony - photos by Sony Stark
One of the township residents who welcomed Sony – photos by Sony Stark

A Visit to the Townships

South Africa’s townships are mostly made up of struggling non-white families. After WW II, the ruling white minority relocated anybody who wasn’t white to this barren, broken countryside in the name of “Apartheid” (Afrikaners term for the state of being apart).

Barefoot children still live in corrugated tin and cardboard shacks. Mothers still string rope for makeshift laundry lines. And fathers still walk the main highway looking for piece-meal work. It’s truly a shock to the system.

Apartheid ended in 1994 but the effects of it linger on. The purpose of coming to a place like this is to remember that despite the stunning riches of South Africa, there still exists an infrastructure where poverty, hunger and HIV/AIDS are the highest in the world.

Nelson Mandela’s Isolation Cell

A 30-minute boat ride from Cape Town takes you to the notorious grounds of the maximum state prison, Robben Island. Robben Island became a World Heritage Site in 1999 preserving it, as it was when it closed its doors in 1994.

A young resident of the townships
A young resident of the townships

Nelson Mandela’s isolation cell is a 6×6 room remaining exactly as he lived in it for 18 years. Blankets are still rolled up on the floor, while a bed pan, cracked plate and matching cup sit on the window ledge.

Nobody provides a truer impression of daily life here than our tour guide. Overt gestures and passion reveal he too was a political prisoner from the 1980s. No other tour guide captures the gritty stories of this place like this former inmate.

Following Robben Island, we stop at the District Six Museum. Storyboards tell of how 48,000 multi-ethnic peoples were torn from their homes before bulldozers flattened them. There are several autobiographies and poetry books written by former residents. It’s nice to know that when you buy one, your money is going to those who need it most. After experiencing two days of humble introspection in the townships, it’s time to see what the rest of the country offers.

Take Photos Quickly

Table Mountain is Cape Town’s highest natural landmark. At 1000 meters (3,281 feet), there are two ways to navigate this beautiful edifice – walking for three hours or by cable car in three minutes. I switch to the latter when I learn that thick mist can make paths invisible at the top.

Table Mountain cable car
Table Mountain cable car

The mountain is appropriately nicknamed Table Cloth Mountain when clouds shroud the summit. During a break in the cloud cover, the view offers a 360-degree panorama of Cape Town. Don’t hesitate to take photos quickly; it may be your only chance.

Cape of Good Hope and Cape Point also allow for monumental aerial views of the southern tip of Africa. This is known as the place where the Atlantic meets the Indian Ocean and raging winds scare the hardiest of mariners.

Even with a dependable lighthouse, the Lusitania shipwrecked here in 1911, making it the most dangerous and unpredictable in the world. Also, the distance to Antarctica from Cape Point is the widest open fetch of ocean in the world. A little trivia supplied by writer/tour guide extraordinaire, Ron Colvin.

Shark Diving

More than any other continent, Africa is known for its flora and fauna. In a matter of hours there’s an ostrich, baboon, zebra, and whale sighting from our bus. Nothing comes nearly as close to me, though, as a Great White Shark during a diving expedition the next day. We don wetsuits, goggles and embark on a 30-minute journey to the heart of where these beautiful creatures lurk.

Staff member Amy enjoying Shark Diving
Staff member Amy enjoying Shark Diving

The controversial sport is heavily promoted in a town called Gansbaai, South Africa,  two hours east of Cape Town. Four students at a time enter the open-hulled cage and when the cue is given by the operator to “dive” — not die, “dive” — they submerge.

It takes only seconds for the Great White to gorge itself on the bait and get lost in the deep so divers need to hold their breath only briefly. It’s a hit or miss sport and depends on the season and weather conditions but Shark Diving Unlimited is one of the most professional. Major TV channels like National Geographic, Animal Planet, and the BBC use their expertise for several of their programs.

Today, we are fortunate. We tremble in awe as five Great Whites breached the surface, mouths wide open, teeth exposed, tearing at the bait, all only a few feet from our cage.

Vineyards, Game Preserves and Shopping Excursions

Having my thrill threshold surpassed many times over, I opt for dry land my last day. Oh, but the decisions, decisions. There are vineyards like Stellenbosch, the second oldest town in South Africa and the oldest in the country for wine making.

There are game reserves like Lalibela that span five ecosystems and offer free-roaming elephant, rhino and lion. And then there are vast shopping excursions at some of the best craft stalls, specialty shops and organic markets in the world.

What to do, what to do with my last few hours? I opt to relax with a glass of homegrown Riesling, stretch my legs out on the Marina Basin, watch the Cape Fur Seals bask in the sun and write this review. Not a bad choice, I must say, and a tranquil moment to consider what’s next on the horizon; Mauritius Island!

For accommodation options, find unique Cape Town hotels and interesting tours in Cape Town.

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