A Whirlwind Tour of South Africa

Two weeks covering the country from bohemian St. Albert, to the wine region to cosmopolitan Cape Town

By Jason Cochran, Saturday, Feb 28, 2004, 12:00 AM

One of the enduring mysteries of travel is why Americans think only rich people can go to Africa. I blame Hemingway. He's the one who blighted an entire continent with the whiff of elitism, as a place to trek for days into the bush and if a man doesn't come back with the head of a lion, he's a sissy.

It's all hogwash. Africa is many things, but elitist it's not. Some of my least expensive and most memorable vacation experiences have happened here, and I've even spotted wild lions and elephants from the comfort of a $20 rental car from Avis. It's sad to think that many Americans think they they can't afford a trip to this most impressive of places, and downright depressing to see how some travel agents do nothing to change that.

For those who fly into Cape Town, which has to be the most European of African cities and the ideal place for an American to get a foothold here, a do-it-yourself vacation can be assembled for much less than you think. Cape Town, which recently made the BBC's list of the top five places everyone should visit before dying (few sights but the Grand Canyon placed higher), is enormously popular with Dutch and German tourists. Like us, Europeans have been enjoying some sensational exchange rates.

Two years ago, the rand was trading at about 5 to the dollar. Now, it's almost 7. When Cokes cost R2.30 and bottles of South Africa's famously elegant wines cost R25, it doesn't take a math whiz to see how far a vacation dollar now goes here. It may seem odd, but this depressed economy has led to even more expensive hotels. When tourists come to South Africa, they talk themselves into all sorts of overexpenditures. A fancy dinner may cost 70 rand a plate, but when that translates to a about $10, it's easy to live so lavishly and buy with such abandon that a person can still overshoot a modest budget.

In fact, a certain luxury travel magazine rated the Cape Grace Hotel, on the water, as the best hotel in the world. The same hotel will serve you a tot of fine brandy for $1,000 -- a despicable extravagance considering millions of human beings live in abject privation here.

Avoid those splashy expenses (why try so hard to pretend you're rich, anyway?) and you'll pay far less for incredible, homespun meals -- about $4 a meal is now normal. And at night, even the flashiest clubs charge $1.50 for a gin and tonic. The big development in Cape Town is that the weak rand, combined with the popularity of the whole Western Cape province, has created a boom at major chain hotels, which can charge more and more to tourists who think they're getting a good buy when they pay $90 a night. Meanwhile, it's the guesthouses, of which there are hundreds in the area, that still offer the best value: usually under $25 for a clean, arty bedroom in a safe place, with a full-course homemade breakfast. As more tourists book at big hotels, the guesthouses have begun to suffer, and the prices are better than ever.

Me, because I take advantage of Cape Town's wickedly ebullient night life and retire at odd hours, I stay at a hotel when I'm in town. For five years, since its opening, I've chosen Victoria Junction (021/418 1234 , protea.co.za), a member of the important Protea chain of African hotels, named for the region's world-famous starbust flowers. It's directly across the street from the old tenderloin region De Waterkant, on the slopes of Signal Hill, now the seat of Cape Town's party and youth cultures.

The Victoria Junction is known in town for its incredible fifth-floor rooms, which are in fact two-story lofts, with two bathrooms, a kitchen, and 15-foot-tall windows overlooking the city's lifeblood, Table Bay, or the city's icon, Table Mountain. Self-contained apartments with views like these would cost $800 or more a night in the U.S.; in Cape Town, they're under $100.

About a year and a half ago, South African Airways upgraded its jets to give Economy Class the dignity of individual seatback TV sets -- something that most national airlines haven't bothered to do -- and its direct routes (to South Africa from New York or Atlanta, without stopping in Europe first) make it pretty much the only airline worth flying here from the U.S. (unless you're really dying to take the long way through Europe on British Airways or Virgin). Iberia Airlines (iberia.com) has been posting fare specials which can drop the rate for travel between the US and South Africa to under $500 (plus tax), so be sure to search there as well for a ticket.

Of the places that bring Americans cheaply to South Africa, my pick is a company called 2Afrika (2afrika.com), which usually is able to secure the best rates. During shoulder season (coming again in the spring), it sells air-hotel trips here for excellent rates. If you stay more than a week, which 2Afrika lets you do, you'll get even more from your vacation dollar, since airfare can be costly. I suggest using up the prepaid hotel nights and then driving out of town on your own to discover a new area. (In a few days, I will head into the Karoo desert to the artist's hamlet of Prince Albert, at the other end of the Western Cape Province. Check back at this Web site for my report on that place.)

Also be sure to reserve your rental car before you arrive here; if you reserve locally, you will probably have to pay a fee for each kilometer you drive over 200 km, and that adds up very quickly in this large country. I reserved from home with Avis and got a new VW for two full weeks, with unlimited kilometers, for just over $300; the cheapest option was $50 less, but lacked a tape deck. You can also go with Budget, which has begun offering local rentals in queer bubble-shaped vehicles, like enclosed golf carts, with superb fuel economy.

Since the weather is absolutely flawless -- 85 degrees, a gentle breeze, and barely a cloud -- I've scrapped my touristic plans for tomorrow for one singular activity: climbing Table Mountain. From up there, a kilometer high, you can see the entire region, the Cape of Hood Hope, and two oceans (the Atlantic and the Indian). It's free to climb, or you can take the cable car for about $8.50 round-trip. Personally, I'm a climber-there are freshwater streams high on its ledges-and the views of downtown are so special, they beg to be seen among the fynbos (indigenous shrubs) and dassies (peculiar groundhog-like rock dwellers).

A side trip from Cape Town: Prince Albert

My travels have brought me to the idyllic town of Prince Albert, which for the past few years has steadily been gaining favor as a getaway from the Big Smoke of Cape Town. It's about four hours east (longer for any driver with a sense of leisure), and you can get there in one of three major routes, any of which is more gorgeous than almost any road you're likely to have been on before.

Tourists by the thousands swarm the overrated strip of coastal greenery known as the Garden Route, two hours south of here. It's a real waste of vacation time that they choose that overcrowded highway, jammed with motels and rip-off joints, instead of exploring the breathtaking canyons that wind down the Groot Swartberge range to Prince Albert.

The Swartberg Pass (off the N2 from George and Oodtshorn or off the R62) is the most astonishing way in, with its dirt-bed switchbacks and phenomenal views of farmlands to the south and mighty burnt-red canyons to the north. The best way to reach Prince Albert is to descend through those blazing canyons (most tourists prefer this method since you'll be on the left, or safely on the mountain side, almost the whole way); although the trip is only about 13 miles, it will take over an hour. On the way out, many opt for the more subdued Meiringspoort pass on a route that traces scalloped land through new winelands and old-style Afrikaner towns like De Rust.

This is ostrich country, and on the way in and out you'll pass dozens of open-pen farms where these big birds galoomph around in the sun. Feel free to stop your car to take a few pictures and to tell them how delicious they are, but don't make the mistake I did and stick your hand too closely to their necks, swaying like sunflowers in the breeze; these reptilian-brained goliaths can't tell food from friends, and you'll get a shocking (but harmless) peck.

It's also baboon country. Strange as it seems to North Americans, in between South Africa's adorable farm towns (which but for a few details might fit into the Great Plains or Texas) are swaths of land dominated by true African wildlife. The baboons you'll meet around Prince Albert, like the ones I spotted loafing beside a brook in the cavernous Meiringspoort pass, are still afraid of humans, and unlike the ones around Cape Town, are not predisposed to leaping into your car to tear up your upholstery. Yet.

By night, in the unfathomably wide velt (wild flatland) that stretches to distant mountains, visitors can lay down to see millions of stars gather around the famous Southern Cross (mostly invisible to North Americans, so see it best here or in Outback Australia), and occasionally hear the whooping scream of leopards in the far distance. I haven't personally heard one, but a friend who lives in Prince Albert took me to a place where he frequently sees their tracks.

Prince Albert was settled in the mid-1800's by a handful of farmers who were lured into the desert by the spring that flows from the mountains through the town year-round. To this day, the spring (which is so pure you can drink right from it) crisscrosses through the town's few streets in miniature system of canals and sluices. The water, in turn, nourishes this mineral-rich land and produces stunning horticulture -- Prince Albert may be a desert hamlet, but its dazzling array of floral life, plus its assortment of astonishingly well-preserved Dutch farmhouses, make it a true oasis.

Today Prince Albert attracts a mixed bag of artists, free spirits, and harmless loonies. As someone who partially grew up in Key West in the '70s, I was intrigued by the tales I'd heard about the friendly vibe (and gentle gentrification) Prince Albert had acquired in recent years. A decade ago, so I'm told, it was hard to find anyone in Prince Albert who even spoke English instead of Afrikaans, so old-fashioned South Africa it was. Today, English is everywhere.

It is indeed an eccentric but exceedingly comforting place, much like Key West, Lahaina, or Santa Fe were in their heyday, I can't think of anywhere in the United States that still has its equal in a place like Prince Albert, where the main Kerk (Church) street is filled with art galleries and other signs of upward mobility, yet perfectly preserved farmhouses, complete with working windmills, still sell for as little as $7,000.

Naturally, it doesn't cost much to sleep here, either. Options for self-catering (i.e. no-meal) accommodation are laid out at the main Tourist Office on Kerk Street, and most come to less than $15 for an entire house and yard, all to yourself. (Onse Rus Guest House, 47 Church Street, 023/541-1380).

I chose to go with the full-board option, and landed a darling three-bedroom house (stocked with books, furniture, a full kitchen, a huge garden with four silly ducks, and all three meals prepared to my specifications with dairy-fresh ingredients)-all for $27 a night. It doubles as a wellness center, and I did have a reiki session for $16 (far less than what they cost back home). I have the entire house to myself (the proprietor lives a block away in a much more modest abode), and spend hours lounging beneath blooming bougainvillea branches, reading novels as the ducks nibble around my tanned feet. After a lifetime of hotels, I can't imagine anywhere more serene and alluring than the Bijlia Cana (De Beer St., 023/541-1872, ). I went half-way around the world to find this kind of peace and feeling of security. I originally planned to stay here one night. Now I'm staying four, and the cost of everything-meals, accommodation-will be a little over $100. That's right; I could stay nearly two weeks for $300.

For dinner, locals are unanimous in recommending Karoo Kombuis (Karoo Kitchen, 18 Deurdrif St, 023/5411-110.), run by a trio of those aforementioned free spirits, with a menu that changes daily. For one night yesterday, I went off my Bijlia Cana meal plan and had the bobotie (a traditional South African crumbled lamb bake) with vegetables and a lemon bake, that set me back all of $5. As with all establishments in sleepy Prince Albert, where you never know where the next customer's coming from, you need to call ahead for reservations. Ask for a table on the stoep (porch), since it overlooks Prince Albert's most haunted street. (If you spot a white dog trotting past, summon a priest.)

Another popular place, this one upscale, is The Blue Fig (61 Church St, 023/541-1900), which does traditional South African food like lamb, ostrich, yogurt, and so on in a semi-nouvelle style. Dinner will cost about $10 here (which is shocking to some locals) and there's a pleasant forecourt. After dinner, most of Prince Albert's cast of characters pass through the Swartberg Arms pub, on the main street, and they're very friendly to outsiders since many of them were introduced to the town that way.

On one end of town is an olive farm and a weavery that both encourage visitors. On the other end, Gay's Dairy sells full-cream milk that was inside a cow yesterday, and beyond it, the Swartberg Nature Reserve (and a rugged valley known darkly as "The Hell") beckons with miles of empty hiking trails. The main street features a handful of funky shops, such as a vendor of brilliantly colored mohair blankets (they start at $25, a steal), and an abundant co-op gallery (next to the tourist office), where local artists offer their desert-inspired works. I was tempted by a chair that was cleverly covered with bits of broken ostrich shells. It was by a quirky young artist named Gideon, who inside the gallery, also offered for sale a toilet emblazoned with "Elvis is Alive," again in ostrich shell.

And beyond this blip of a town, swaddled in the serenity of the Karoo desert, are miles of quiet, windblown hillocks. Pick one around sunset, which is always the lurid fluorescent red that only desert sunsets can be, and watch the show. You may find underfoot, as I did, a leftover shard of rock, hewn by ancient hands, that once served as a spearhead for a forgotten African warrior.

Everything can be arranged, for free, at the Tourist Office (023/541-1366, patourism.co.za). Make sure you visit the one marked by the figure of a man inside the South African flag; the other "tourist info" office is not official and has been known to turn people away when its "partner" inns are full. Chalk it up to another one of those town eccentrics.

Wine, wine and more wine

My tenth day in South Africa brought me to Cape Town's famous wine region. Instead of venturing to the very well-trod vineyards of Stellenbosch or Franschhoek, which have become so popular that their prices are no longer completely fair, I drove an extra half-hour (making a total of about two hours) to the glorious town of Tulbagh.

Tulbagh (pronounced TOOL-bach, with a hard "h" as in the Scottish "loch"), snuggled in a cul-de-sac of mountains in the Breede River Valley, has one of South Africa's best-preserved streets of Cape Dutch architecture. Like the Art Deco mecca of Napier, New Zealand, the city's textbook-worthy architecture was actually saved by a cataclysmic earthquake. In 1969, Tulbagh was wrecked by a quake that flicked the facades off many of the the 200-year-old farm buildings; in rebuilding, town planners wisely went back to the original plans of all the houses and faithfully re-created the town as it appeared in the 1800s. There are probably no finer or more faithfully maintained examples of a Cape Dutch streetscapes than Church Street in Tulbagh.

The B&B I have chosen is Tulbagh Country House, built at the dawn of the 19th century and one of the town's most historic buildings. Ginny Clarke, the exuberant proprietress, doubles her B&B with an art gallery crammed with quality works by local artists. When I stepped in the door, I set eyes on a watercolor by a painter from nearby Worcester that I simply had to own. The price: about $25, with a handmade frame, for a portrait of such quality that I would easily pay $200 for its equal back home. (Tulbagh Country House: 24 Church Street, 011-27-23-230-1171.)

After telling me all about the history of the house and warning me about a friendly female ghost that sometimes appears in the dining room after hours, Ginny gave me one of the softest beds I've ever slept in, big as a swimming pool, in a cavernous farmhouse room with beam ceilings, the original groaning wood floors, and my own private courtyard. The price? About $17, with a full cooked breakfast served on Spode bone china. (Shocking, isn't it?) Ginny also rents a few detached cottages, also on Church Street.

The surrounding area presents just as much graciousness for such little money, and unlike the high-traffic sprawl around Stellenbosch, most local wineries are within five minutes' drive from the main street, which makes it much easier for foreigners to tour.

Feeling decadent, I went a few kilometers out of town to Twee Jonge Gezellen ("Two Young Bachelors"), renowned for its excellent sparkling wine (known, of course, as "champagne" in France). There, in the growing heat, I sat next to burbling fountains, in the shade of grapevines, and sipped from $3 bottles of fine sparkling wine. Other popular wineries are nearby, including Drostdy Wine Cellar (drostdywines.co.za, known for making South Africa's surprisingly good boxed wine, or "Happy Boxes," as they're insightfully called by locals) and Theuniskraal (theuniskraal.co.za). For incredibly cheap wine blends, try the co-operative cellar at Tulbagh Winery.

Ginny's son, Jayson, turned me on to another local Tulbagh secret: its anonymous-looking slaghuis, or butchery, makes some of the best biltong in the area. Biltong, for South Africans, is a more popular snack than potato chips or even french fries for North Americans. It amounts to a delicious type of jerky, and it's available in many flavors that foreigners find enthralling, including ostrich, springbok and kudu (both African antelopes), or the most popular, beef. South Africa's beef is generally grass-fed, as nature intended, and not pumped with the grains and antibiotics that give American beef its unnaturally pillowy texture. That said, Tulbagh's slaghuis sells some of the softest, rarest biltong I've ever seen; point at the slab of dried meat you want (most cost a little over $1) and the ladies behind the counter will shred it for you. You don't have to dice it up, though; many South Africans, including Jayson, seem to love knawing away on massive hunks of meat.

The refined pleasure of Tulbagh seems a world away from the oddball appeal of Prince Albert. Tulbagh is also much closer to Cape Town. From Cape Town, take the N7 north to Malmesbury, then take the R46 to Hermon, where you turn onto the R44. Everything's marked and easy to drive, and there's even a lovely mountain pass on the way that's not too terrifying for drivers used to right-lane travel. You can also detour through Ceres ("SEER-eez"), not far away, to tour the region that produces the famous brand of fruit juices that often pops up on American shelves. (Tulbagh tourism: 14 Church Street, 011-27-23-230-1348, tulbagh.com.)

Back to Cape Town to tally up the final costs

My remaining time in Cape Town will be spent volunteering. South Africa leads the world in AIDS infections, and its poverty has long been a global concern, so I plan to visit a local shelter for street children and see what service I can be for them. Then, deeply regretful, I will clamber aboard South African Airways (which, as a specialist in long-distance flights, has always succeeded in making me comfortable) for my trip home.

Although I haven't been able to sit down and hash it out yet, I have a rough idea of how much it would cost someone to take a trip like the one I just took. First of all, don't go with a guided tour company. South Africa is English-speaking, and infrastructure is generally first-rate, so guides and hand-holding is not necessary. That saves a great deal on cost, and people who book independent self-tours will find that the high prices of African vacations are pretty much inflated.

Flying on South African Airways during shoulder-season months, as I have done, the price of flying all the way down to Cape Town from the East Coast of America was $995 plus taxes, and that includes five nights' hotel. From there, you can just extend your return flight as long as you need, get a rental car (I paid $350 for two weeks, plus $20 for each tank of gas), and book your own accommodation as you go along-bank on $25 a night and that's more than enough for the sensible consumer to buy food as well. So for two weeks in Africa, doing the same things I've been doing, you'd pay around $1,500, including airfare, or around $100/day.

Take a cruise, go to Disney, fly to London -- no matter what you choose I guarantee you'd spend much more in half the time. Contrary to myth, Africa is not an expensive destination. You can safely add it to your life's experiences, and for much less than you think.