Looking for a great big vacation this year? Two words: Mother Africa.
Sure, there is HIV/AIDS, poverty and war. But you can find all those things at home in the U.S., too. The blessings of the African continent make themselves apparent the moment you step off the plane. Nowhere else in the world will you find a continent with countries and peoples so diverse, cultures so vibrant and a history dotted with events that have altered the world. From the Cape of Good Hope to the mighty pyramids of Egypt, from the Horn region to Ghana and all points in between, Africa is a place rich in natural resources, perpetual reinvention and tremendous possibilities.
Regardless of your cultural background, you’ll be inspired by the spirits of civilizations past. Like the T-shirts they sell in the souvenir shops say: “It began in Africa.”
Great diving? Check out Egypt and Madagascar.
Need to chill on a white sand beach? Mozambique is where you want to be.
Want to roll with the Big Five (lions, leopards, elephants, rhinos and buffalo)? You’ve got to experience Kenya’s Masai Mara, South Africa’s Kruger National Park[mk1] and the numerous game reserves in Botswana, Tanzania and Namibia. And if it’s history and culture you want, the possibilities are endless.
Start in Ghana and explore the Cape Coast slave castles, or cross over to Egypt and check out the remains of pharaohs. And if you find yourself in a deep depression because you forgot to set the TiVo for your favorite TV show, you’ll get over it quickly after a trip to Soweto—site of the initial uprisings against South African apartheid.
At present, South Africa, home of the coveted 2010 World Cup, leads all African countries in tourism. This beautiful country, once held hostage by apartheid, is a great place to begin your journey because it has everything a traveler could want: Relaxation. Great shopping. History. Culture. Safari.
Johannesburg, the largest city, is a sophisticated metropolis of skyscrapers, trendy shops, fine restaurants and other urban complexities. Jo’burg is South Africa’s financial mecca, as reflected by the homes and cars in the city center.
But Soweto, the township made famous during the bloody apartheid uprisings in the mid-1970s, is not far away. Plan on spending a full day seeing the sobering sights of this city. Parts of Soweto look like an upscale American suburb. Other parts look like something three steps down from hell.
Still, the people who live in Soweto smile. Their surroundings might be less than idyllic by Western standards, but at least the people are free. As one Soweto native said: “Embrace that which works to destroy you. That is the only way to overcome it.”
The two stops that you’ll definitely have to make here are the Hector Pieterson Museum, which honors the memory of the first teen casualty of the 1976 uprising. Hector Pieterson (also spelled as Peterson) was killed when police opened fire on a group of student protesters. He was just 12 years old. The iconic newspaper photo of his body being carried away by another student is located on a monument just outside the museum.
Another must-do destination is the Regina Mundi Church, which is not far from the museum. The church, which still has bullet holes in the walls from various police raids, provided a semi-safe refuge for the protesters.
If parts of Soweto resemble hell, then just about all of Cape Town looks and feels like something beyond heaven. Located on the southern tip of the country and the continent, this coastal city with British accents has just about everything you need to unwind. There’s the thriving Victoria & Alfred Waterfront complex, where you can eat well and drink well (try the South African red wines!), deplete the contents of your wallet in the shops and the adjacent crafts warehouse, take a cable car to the top of Table Mountain (offered only on clear days), explore the District Six Museum, peruse the Green Point flea market, check out those nutty penguins on Boulders Beach or catch the ferry to Robben Island, the prison that once housed Nelson Mandela.
There’s tons of stuff to explore outside of the city center, too, among them the Langa and Khayelitsha townships, which are among the oldest in the country, and the wine country. As previously noted, South African wines rival the best from Napa and Tuscany.
Once you arrive in Africa with your TTDL (things to do list), you’ll quickly realize that you might have time for only about half of those things. Trust that the unexpected will be an everyday occurrence. But it’s also a place where a woman you’ve never met will call you “sister,” and a man will help a stranger carry his luggage.
Some Tips to Get You Started
(Cape Town) The Table Bay (www.suninternational.com) or the Cape Grace (capegrace.com), two five-star hotels at the V&A waterfront with great views of Table Mountain; or the Westin Grand (www.starwoodhotels.com), a convenient place to rest your head, especially if you’re attending the Cape Town International Jazz Festival (held each year in early April).
(Johannesburg) Sandton Sun (www.southernsun.com), located in the heart of the city’s bustling downtown district.
(Jo’burg) Moyo, a popular theme restaurant with various locations, is fun and tasty. Dancers will perform during your dinner and someone will come up and paint your face, too!
(Cape Town) The Cape of Good Hope and the villages of Fish Hoek and Franschoek. (Jo’burg) Apartheid Museum.
How to get there
South African Airways (www.flysaa.com) offers two flights a day out of New York and D.C. to Johannesburg, Durban and Cape Town. Airfare to Africa isn’t cheap, but SAA offers periodic specials that won’t break your budget. Additionally, this airline’s business-class service is among the best in the world. Flights from the East Coast take around 17 hours with a stop in Dakar, Senegal. For a flight that long, you’ll need the comfort of business class. You’ll get fully reclining seats, nonstop alcohol and great food—even at 1 a. m.! SAA is by far the best airline serving the African continent.
2010 World Cup
If you’re planning on being there to watch the world’s best footballers (soccer players), pay up now. According to a South African tourism rep, hotels throughout Jo’burg, Cape Town and Durban are already booked for this event, which runs from June 11 to July 11.
Miki Turner is an award-winning photojournalist/producer from Los Angeles.