By Isoul Harris
Whether strolling through the vibrant streets of Jozi (as the younger set has dubbed Johannesburg, the country’s largest city), horseback riding on Cape Town’s Noordhoek Beach or enjoying the delicious flavors of Sinnfull Ice Cream Emporium in the cape’s beach chic Camps Bay, South Africa has a lot to offer. It also has a wild side. From leaping off a cliff while on the world’s longest gorge swing, to encountering ravenous lions, there’s a a bounty of fun. I did both—and much more—and lived to tell. Here are my South African adventures.
Dolphin & Whale Watching On a Speed Boat
Along the coast of KwaZulu-Natal—the birthplace of such notables as Pixley ka Isaka Seme, the country’s first black lawyer and an African National Congress founder, and the country’s third elected president, Jacob Zuma—the thousands of bottlenose dolphins, bolstered by the large presence of humpback whales, make Shelly Beach a popular place to watch both. I suggest you go early in the morning when the lack of wind makes both mammals a bit calmer. But to witness one of these natural marvels leap out of the water and land in an IMAXworthy splash, try the afternoon when they are more active. Do find a company with a speedboat. My boat’s captain was a bit of a speed demon and, fortunately, a bit of a daredevil as well, riding the waves at top speed. So, should Moby Dick or Flipper and Co. refuse appearances, at least you will have starred in your very own South African episode of Miami Vice.
Sandboarding at Atlantis Dunes, Cape Town
Thanks to the Sochi Winter Olympics, snowboarding is once again on our pop culture radar. But its warmer weather cousin, sandboarding, can be just as, or even more, thrilling. And what better place to try this xtreme sport than in South Africa? Bookended by postcard-esque mountains and the gorgeous Atlantic Ocean shorelines of Table Bay, Cape Town is undoubtedly one of the most beautiful cities in the world; plus its Mediterranean temps make it the perfect spot for surfing the sand. Thirty minutes outside of the city, Atlantis Dunes has challenging, but easily scalable hills, full of fluffy white sand tailormade for speed and tumbles. Guides provide transportation from the entrance to the dunes, boards, wax and instruction. After “eating” some sand on my first try, I made it up the hill once again and started commanding those dunes like a pro. While I’m sure no medals are in my future, I do predict more sandboarding certainly is.
Langa Township Langa, Cape Town
Unfortunately, South Africa’s history to the outside world is largely shaped by its unjust system of apartheid, spanning from 1948 to 1994. Even in 2014, the 20th anniversary of the first democratic elections (resulting in Nelson Mandela’s presidency and apartheid’s official end), it’s still impossible to walk the streets and not feel the vestiges of the gross injustice that plagued the nation. Both the Kwa Muhle Museum in Durban (the former center of its inhumane practice of labor control) and Johannesburg’s Apartheid Museum are excellent sources for interactive experiences and information to visitors unafraid of confronting the nation’s past. For a more “authentic,” human experience, however, many tourism companies offer opportunities to venture into the townships—government- created ghettos. Definitely adventures of another type, visitors will find themselves in the center of “native” life and all that comes with it. It can also be an exceptional way to learn the rich culture of black South Africans. While visiting Jozi’s Soweto (the southwest group of townships made famous in the ’80s), I was awestruck walking through Regina Mundi, South Africa’s largest Catholic Church which also served as a meeting place despite public gatherings being outlawed by apartheid. During the 1976 Soweto Uprising, protestors fleeing police took refuge in the church. Unmoved, however, the policemen broke down the doors and fired upon all inside, injuring many. Bill and Hillary Clinton and Michelle Obama have all visited the church. I also spent time in the Cape Town’s Langa, South Africa’s oldest township, as well as the unfortunate site where several people were killed while protesting against the infamous Sharpeville Massacre in 1960. As I walked through the neighborhood, passing its collection of nondescript brick apartment buildings, I could have easily been in any housing project in Atlanta, Chicago, Washington, D.C. or New York. The people were very welcoming and invited me into their homes. I, however, felt a bit uncomfortable, as if I were ogling their poverty for entertainment. Whatever the intentions of those who visit their homes may be, I quickly realized that the people of Langa, despite their lack of material wealth, are very proud. Among the many neighborhood highlights is the Guga S’Thebe, a multi-purpose cultural center which has drum classes and an atrium centered gallery featuring original artwork, crafts and jewelry from local artisans, as well as several amazing restaurants. Be sure to drop by Lelapa. Not only is the food beyond fresh and tasty, the owner—just call her “Mama”—is as feisty as they come.