A South African adventure
From buzzy Johannesburg to big game drives, South Africa has it all, says Katie Monk
It’s Sunday lunchtime at the Voco hotel in Rosebank, Johannesburg, and families and friends sip glasses of chilled chenin and dance to live jazz. The Voco, and its in-house restaurant, Proud Mary, only opened in February, but they have quickly become favourites with locals and out-of-towners. Johannesburg has an ever-evolving social scene, and although some areas have been hit harder than others during the pandemic, Rosebank, with its art galleries, shops and restaurants, is thriving.
From here I head to Constitution Hill – a museum complex made up of Prison No.4, which once held both Nelson Mandela and Mahatma Gandhi, and the Constitutional Court of South Africa. A tour here will give you a good overview of South Africa’s political history. My guide, Zikhona Macala, takes a group of us around the complex, explaining how the court resembles an African tree, under which citizens traditionally discuss matters of social importance with their elders.
“It was designed to be transparent, open to all,” says Zikhona. “The narrow windows all around are so that anyone outside can see inside, and those inside cannot tell whether that person outside is black or white.”
My next stop in Johannesburg is the five-star Saxon Hotel, which has hosted many illustrious guests over the years. Mandela lived here for six months while editing his autobiography Long Walk to Freedom, when the Saxon was a private estate. The Mandela suite, where he stayed, contains his favourite zebra-skin chair, as well as many artefacts and sculptures. The Saxon’s fine-dining restaurant, Qunu, has an excellent vegan menu that’s as good as the regular menu – something you don’t often find in South Africa, or indeed anywhere.
A resilient people
After Johannesburg, I head down to KwaZulu-Natal, which means “the place of the Zulus”, to meet my guide, Thoko Jili. There are 11 official languages in South Africa, and around 11 million native Zulu-speakers, most of whom live in KwaZulu-Natal. This area has had a rough ride lately, with floods on top of the pandemic, but it’s slowly rebuilding and cleaning up.
One thing’s for sure, South Africans are a resilient lot. Their sense of community and ubuntu – practising kindness, compassion and humanity towards one another – has helped them get through many hard times and bounce back stronger.
Thoko and I drive north to Mkuze, in the heart of Zululand. Ghost Mountain Inn is our base – a four-star hotel with a gym, spa and outdoor pool, at the foot of Ghost Mountain. Game drives to Manyoni Private Game Reserve can be booked directly with the hotel. It’s busy when we arrive, and Thoko tells me all about Zulu traditions and culture, which she says haven’t changed all that much over the years. “Zulu people are warriors. We are very brave. But we’re also the warmest people in the world.”
From Mkuze we head south to St Lucia – one of South Africa’s heritage sites. Not many safaris combine bush with beach, but iSimangaliso Wetland Park does just that. Our day starts early, just before sunrise, to watch zebras, water buffalo and rhino wake from their slumber and roam the lush landscape in search of food. We eat breakfast at the beach, without a soul in sight, followed by a dip in the sea at nearby Cape Vidal.
Thoko takes me to two sites of historical importance – Pietermaritzburg railway station, where, in 1893, a young Gandhi was thrown off the train because of the colour of his skin; and the Nelson Mandela Capture Site in Howick, where Mandela was arrested in 1962. The visitor centre tells the story of his life and struggles, as well as the history of the Apartheid activists. And a steel sculpture of Mandela’s face now stands near the spot where his car was stopped by the police.
After bidding Thoko and Zululand farewell, I fly down to Cape Town to sample some of South Africa’s finest hospitality. As in most countries, the pandemic hit restaurants, bars and hotels particularly hard. Here, places seem to be recovering well, all things considered, and some have even opened against all odds.
My first night is spent at luxurious Labotessa – a beautifully restored, European-inspired townhouse that wouldn’t look out of place in Paris or London. All seven suites have a refined air about them, and the attention to detail is incredible – from the Diptyque toiletries and French oak floors, to the complimentary nibbles in the fridge and yoga mats in the rooms – they’ve thought of everything.
The café downstairs is open to non-guests, and serves homemade Dutch apple cake and coffee at al-fresco tables, so even if you don’t stay, I highly recommend stopping by for a bite. Although Labotessa was closed for a time, it’s now very much open. Book ahead, as it’s understandably a popular city-centre favourite.
Also downtown is the five-star Gorgeous George – a trendy new kid on the block, with spacious studios and buzzy rooftop bar and restaurant Gigi. The whole place has an arty, bohemian look, with exposed brick and steelwork, sleek black-and-white bathrooms and Bakelite phones.
Although just around the corner from Labotessa, Gorgeous George is a different beast entirely, more suited to hipsters and media types. But any stay here is guaranteed to be fun. When I arrive on a Sunday, the bar is in full swing, with groups of friends enjoying brunch and cocktails and poolside sundowners.
Cape Town has an innovative food scene, with much to discover, and at very reasonable prices, too. While in town, be sure to book a table at award-winning restaurant Salsify at The Roundhouse, housed in one of Cape Town’s oldest buildings, overlooking Camps Bay.
Co-owned by executive chef Ryan Cole, an evening here will be an unforgettable experience. On our visit, we opt for the chef’s menu with boutique wine pairing, which includes dishes such as poached langoustine with chive gnocchi, and smoked snoek with apricot, all made from seasonal, local, often foraged ingredients. The service, food and views are all sublime.
Pier at the V&A Waterfront is another highly recommended fine-dining experience. We go for the tasting menu – a kaleidoscopic tour of the varied textures and flavours of South Africa, paired with delicious local wines. Creations such as tandoori tuna with buttermilk, and line fish with harissa, served on unique plates and dishes designed to enhance the experience, leave us feeling like we’ve been on a culinary voyage.
The beloved “Nellie”
My last few nights are spent at the beloved Belmond Mount Nelson – the “Pink Lady” of the Mother City, which has been hosting royalty and A-listers for more than 120 years. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle stayed here in 1928, and is said to have held seances in his room, John Lennon used to meditate on Table Mountain, and Mandela could sometimes be spotted sitting quietly in a corner. If walls could talk, this hotel would have much to say.
With nine acres of gardens, two pools, a spa and incredible views of Table Mountain, The Nellie, as she’s affectionately known, feels more rural retreat than city-centre hotel, and yet is right on the doorstep of buzzy Kloof Street. Even if you’re not staying, come here for high tea, which is arguably the best in the city. It’s a truly special place, and the perfect end to my South African adventure.