A land of golden beaches, jagged mountains, rich safari plains and barren deserts; South Africa encompasses all these things. The teeming wildlife is as diverse and spectacular as the scenery, with everything from elusive leopards and plodding elephants to playful penguins.
South Africa's cities are also enormously varied, with hustling Johannesburg at its heart, and cosmopolitan Cape Town an enclave of European chic at the edge of the Atlantic Ocean. In between you can lose yourself for days on safari in the bush or explore quaint isolated towns breaking up the arid Karoo wilderness. The hot and humid seaside fun of Durban with its even hotter curries is another sharp contrast to the scattering of sedate resorts lining the pretty south coast Garden Route.
Abundant wildlife is South Africa's major attraction, with the world-famous Kruger National Park delivering uniquely African sights, sounds, smells and memories. At the top end of the scale are luxurious world-class lodges with private butlers and game rangers who practically deliver the animals to your door. Travellers with more normal salaries can stay in the numerous ‘tented villages’ with tents permanently pitched on a raised wooden platform near communal facilities.
If the landscape sounds diverse, wait until you meet the people. South Africa boasts 11 official languages, mostly drawn from its indigenous population, while the colonialist legacy stirred Afrikaners, English and Indians into the mix. That blend has created a wonderful array of food, music and culture that offers something for everyone.
It’s affectionately known as the Rainbow Nation, although the bright racially harmonious future it once represented has been tarnished by yet another form of diversity – the vast and increasing economic gap between rich and poor. On the drive in from most airports the roads are flanked by shanty towns, often with communal toilets and electricity pilfered from the overhead power lines. The legacy of Apartheid, or racial segregation, is still hugely evident, and a visit to Johannesburg’s moving Apartheid museum and a tour of a vibrant township like Soweto are cultural highlights.
In stark contrast, the city centres are glowingly modern with bold new architecture interspersed between colonial buildings of the past. Cape Town has been chosen as the World Design Capital for 2014, heralding a year-long programme of design-focused events, while iconic Table Mountain has been named one of the New Seven Wonders of Nature, despite being extremely old.
On the political and economic side, the country has lost its way since the glory days presided over by near-saint Nelson Mandela. Yet there’s an underlying spirit of optimism and a can-do attitude that will save South Africa from sliding too far down the rainbow. The 2010 World Cup proved what the country can achieve when everybody pulls together, and left a legacy of improved transport, accommodation and sports facilities that benefit visitors and locals alike. As for the image of crime, it’s an urban legend that a car has been invented that shoots out flames to toast approaching hijackers but visitors should follow the usual precautions about safety. Just don’t let paranoia sap your enjoyment. A streetwise sense of humour keeps South African hearts beating faster and instils a delightfully warped sense of achievement from living on the edge.