The Baltimore Sun

It's been nearly two decades since Nelson Mandela was freed from prison. Four years after his 1990 release, he became the president of South Africa and led his country into desegregated democracy.

In his autobiography, Long Walk to Freedom, Mandela said, "There's no use to dwell in the past. Only remember it, so you can avoid these same mistakes. To build a new future, dwell in the present."

Taking Mandela's words to heart, his beloved country has moved forward. No one has forgotten apartheid, of course. The painful past is hidden in plain sight. I recently visited South Africa, stopping in Phinda, Johannesburg and nearby Soweto, and Cape Town.

Hairies, scaries

Like many tourists to South Africa, I began my visit on a game reserve.

Phinda is located in the country's eastern region, along the Indian Ocean, near the border of Mozambique. Opened 15 years ago, Phinda's exquisite lodges blend seamlessly into the distinct environments for which they're named: Vlei (an Afrikaans word meaning "wetland"), Rock, Mountain and Forest.

My guide on the reserve was an affable 29-year-old man named Mike Karantonis. He had a funny giggle and, when surprised or upset, would say, "Oh, my hat!"

He liked to talk about the "hairies and scaries," by which he meant rhinoceroses, lions, elephants, buffaloes and leopards - the so-called "Big Five." These are the greatest, wildest African animals, the ones that many guests hope to see and photograph.

For several days, when we weren't tracking these animals on foot, we drove around in open-air Jeeps. As long as I didn't leave the vehicle, or stand up so that I visually broke the Jeep's outline, Karantonis assured me that I was safe no matter how close the animals came.

At one point, an elephant came out of the bush and walked past the Jeep, tickling me with its bristling hair. I later asked, "That elephant could have pushed this Jeep over, right?"

"Oh, my hat!" Karantonis replied. "He could play soccer with it."

In an amazingly short amount of time, I no longer missed customary diversions - my cell phone, the Internet or movies-on-demand.

Instead, freed by the lack of technology, I was able to think about the most important thing in life: life itself.

"In South Africa, this is our culture, this is our heritage. How is it that people can effortlessly memorize dozens of telephone numbers, but can't identify three birds?" Karantonis asked me one day. "Don't try to tell me that eating pizza, drinking beer and watching sports on TV is culture. It's not."

All that glitters

After all the excitement caused by the 1849 gold rush in California, when a new gold vein was struck in Johannesburg, South Africa, in the 1880s, white prospectors poured in from all over the globe.

As a result, Johannesburg, or Jo-burg, as it's familiarly called, was never envisioned as a city. In fact, early prospectors hoped to abandon the spot just as soon as they'd dug out all the gold.

However, when geologists discovered this vein extended underground for 40 miles, making it bigger, wider and deeper than any previously found on Earth, mining moguls built permanent homes in a grand manner.

From my balcony at the Westcliff Hotel, I gazed over a posh suburb north of Jo-burg that was once the exclusive domain of those who made vast fortunes in gold and diamond mining - families such as the DeBeers and Oppenheimers.

Miles away, earth extracted from the mines was dumped in a way that formed enormous ridges. On the far side, miners lived in a settlement dating to 1904 that came to be called Soweto, an abbreviation for Southwestern Townships.

To this day, dust still blows off these hills and into busy, crowded thoroughfares. A bitter joke is that the streets of Soweto are paved with gold.

This poor collection of miners' shacks gradually became permanent, without any real infrastructure.

There was, for example, no electricity in Soweto for nearly 50 years. Blacks were only allowed into Johannesburg if they had a job and a passbook, which allowed them to move about.

They didn't have freedom of speech, freedom to live where they wanted or freedom to do work of their own choosing. If they pushed back against these rules, they were incarcerated.

Violence broke out in 1976, when students in Soweto schools protested the government's new mandate that all classes in public schools and universities were to be taught in Afrikaans, not English.

I learned much about this by visiting the Hector Pieterson Museum in Soweto, named for a young schoolchild who was shot down in the street during the uprising by South Africa's National Guard.

Soweto is now seen as the "mother" of all struggles to end apartheid, and it is a pilgrimage site for visitors from around the world.

The area is oddly peaceful now, with thin trees planted along the roads in preparation for an influx of soccer fans in 2010, when the World Cup will be played in South Africa for the first time.

Seaside charm

Cape Town, my last stop in South Africa, is frequently compared to San Francisco.

As in the Northern California city, there's an easy-breezy, seaside nonchalance. Cape Town straddles the Atlantic and Indian oceans, and instead of Sonoma and Napa, visitors to the area will find the glorious vineyards of Stellenbosch and Constancia just a pleasant drive away.

I stayed at the Cape Grace (a favorite hotel of Bill Clinton, Bill Gates and Leonardo DiCaprio) and spent several days sampling the city's excellent seafood. I also ate in restaurants that cater to South Africans' enthusiasm for game meats, such as urdu, springbok, warthog and elk.

Eating well is, in fact, a way to celebrate Cape Town's very essence; the city began 350 years ago as a kind of seafarer's Stop 'N Shop.

In an effort to prevent scurvy among sailors of the Dutch East India Company who plied the spice route between the Far East and Europe, grapevines, as well as pear, apple, orange and lemon trees, were planted here. All thrived, as this land is so fertile that nearly a quarter of the Earth's known floral species can be found here - more than in the United States and Europe combined.

On my final morning in Cape Town, I took a ferry over to Robben Island, a forlorn place where Nelson Mandela was incarcerated for 18 years.

Prison officials thought being in prison wasn't punishment enough for their charges, so they found other ways of penalizing them. A favored punishment was forcing the men to collect seaweed at 5 a.m. during the winter as it forced them to wade knee-deep into icy water.

Another task was digging for limestone. Stones carted away from a quarry were used by prisoners to build their own prison blocks. Stealthily, the men used their time in the limestone pit to educate each other. Their slogan was "each one teach one." Prisoners who arrived illiterate were taught to read and write.

I was shown around Robben Island by Vincent Diba, a political prisoner from 1980-1991.

"It was extremely hot in summer and extremely cold in the winter," he said, shaking his head as if his decade-plus stay had just been a weird dream. "Our diet was bad both in quantity and quality. You could get seven days in solitary confinement if you were found sharing some of your rations with another inmate."

After we arrived at Mandela's cell, No. 4664, Diba left me alone for a while. The cell was perhaps 8-by-10 feet, certainly no bigger. It was eerily silent, damp and cold.

Eighteen years! How did Mandela keep from going insane?

Diba told me that Mandela worked on his autobiography, burying pages out in the courtyard, so they wouldn't be confiscated.

To have such faith in the future showed an incredible strength of character. I later asked Diba how he survived.

"I don't regret my stay here. The cause I stood for was just. History has proved me correct," he said with a smile. "We are an endangered species; I am one of the last of the political prisoners. When I die, who will tell this story?"

The fight against apartheid

A policy of racial segregation, or apartheid (meaning "the state of being apart" in Afrikaans), began in white-ruled South Africa in 1948.

All racial groups -- black, white, Asian, mixed-race individuals (called "coloured") -- were separated from each other, put into different "homelands" and given different degrees of freedom.

There was a struggle against the apartheid government early on and things heated up in 1960, when police opened fire on demonstrators in a black township called Sharpeville and killed at least 67 people.

Nelson Mandela was imprisoned for a total of 27 years for his effort to overthrow the government, serving the first 18 years at Robben Island Prison, off Cape Town, and the remainder of the time at Pollsmoor Prison, located nearby in a suburb of Cape Town. He was released in 1990.

Anti-apartheid leaders ranging from activist Stephen Biko to Archbishop Desmond Tutu and Mandela kept steady pressure on the South African government for years, but it wasn't until Mandela was elected president of the nation in 1994 that apartheid was abolished.

As South Africa evolves as a democracy, it suffers the ills of any developing country, including crime. This problem is most apparent in Johannesburg, where tourists need to be mindful of their wallets and cameras to avoid thievery. Traveling alone in Jo-burg after dark is not advised.


Our summer, their winter

When it's steamy and sticky this summer in the Baltimore area (the Northern Hemisphere), it will be cool winter in South Africa (the Southern Hemisphere). This seasonal difference also means:

Children here are on vacation from school, so the whole family can travel together.

When you're on safari in winter, animals are much easier to spot, as the leaves have fallen from trees, and vegetation is sparser in the bush.

There are fewer bugs, beetles and mosquitoes in the air. That means there is less chance you'll be annoyed and, more important, less reason for you to fear getting malaria, a mosquito-borne disease.

South African cuisine is famous for exotic meats like warthog, springbok and antelope, often served from the braai (barbecue). These hearty dishes, savored with a great South African red wine, taste better on a cool night.

Off-season, there are fewer tourists.

From Baltimore to S. Africa

"South Africa is a good place to start if you are interested in visiting the overall [African] continent," says Christine Pilson, manager of Liberty Travel on East Lombard Street.

"There is a myth that a trip to South Africa is unattainable and only for rich people, but it is actually amazingly affordable because the U.S. dollar goes very far there."

Pilson is organizing a "Spectacular South Africa" tour, which will take place Oct. 30-Nov. 10. The itinerary includes Kruger National Park and the cities of Johannesburg, Port Elizabeth and Cape Town.

The cost per person, double occupancy, is about $3,500. Airfare is included.

"Really, in South Africa, there's something for everyone," Pilson adds. "Not just animal-watching, but great food and wine and fascinating history."

For more information, call Pilson at 410-783-2760 or visit the East Lombard Street office or any other Liberty Travel location from 1 p.m.-4 p.m. April 12, when the company is sponsoring an "Affordable Africa" day.

Another company, Accent on Travel on Dulaney Valley Road in Towson, is planning an African excursion called the "South Africa 1st Class Tour," in early 2009.

This custom, 12-day tour will include Cape Town and the wine country, as well as one of seven "Natural Wonders of the World," Victoria Falls.

The cost ranges from $5,000 to $7,000. Participants will be escorted from Baltimore.

"People love to be taken by the hand," says Annette Nero-Stellhorn, co-owner and group-tour developer for the company. "South Africa is one of the hottest travel destinations of the year, and it is more convenient than ever with the new nonstop flights from Washington to Johannesburg."

To learn more about the tour, call Accent on Travel at 410-296-8330.

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