A Journey to Middle Earth, and Flying Through God’s Window
Few places in the world match the Mpumalanga for physical beauty; it is believed to be the inspiration behind the phantasmagorical setting for The Lord of the Rings, written by South African-born J.R.R. Tolkien.
South Africa’s highest mountains, with panoramic passes, valleys, rivers, waterfalls, and forests, characterize the landscape of what was formerly known as the Eastern Transvaal. The entire area offers opportunities for hiking, horseback riding, bird-watching, golfing, and fishing. Visit the magnificent Blyde River Canyon, a gigantic gorge 15 miles long carved out of the face of the Transvaal escarpment, where deep cylindrical holes have been formed by river erosion, or God’s Window, the canyon’s unsurpassed lookout point.
And if touring the spectacular Eastern Transvaal by car or on foot affords remarkable scenery, imagine taking it all in from an eagle’s perspective. Smooth jet-powered helicopters swoop over the dramatic rock formations of the Blyde River Canyon and through lush valleys bursting with vegetation and color. Hover over river rapids and cascading waterfalls and land on a remote mountaintop on an otherwise unreachable grassy clearing. Lunch with a view takes on a new meaning, if the adrenaline rush hasn’t obliterated your appetite. The Veuve Clicquot is popped, and eagles soar above you – and below. Divide your time in the mountains between the area’s two outstanding lodges, the Cybele Forest Lodge and the Blue Mountain Lodge.
Each provides a magnificent setting, breathtaking scenery, renowned dining, a stable of horses, fishing gear, and five-star service. In addition, there is a historic gold-rush town and a restored Ndebele tribal village to visit, and the world-famous Kruger National Park is an easy day trip away.
A Surf-and-Turf Safari
This relatively new private reserve in northern Zululand is a winner not only for the seven different African ecosystems that meet within its 35,000 acres, but for its novel approach to safaris. Days are full, with a medley of boat and canoe trips for close-up looks at the bird life, crocs, and hippos of ancient waterways, or tracking the elusive black rhino by foot.
Then there is big-game fishing, diving the world’s southernmost reefs off the deserted coast of Maputaland, game drives delivering elephants, leopards, and rhinos, or visiting the highest vegetated sand dunes in the world.
While there’s no doubt that such rare biodiversity is central to your safari experience, your attention will be riveted by the accommodations as well. The Mountain Lodge is set atop a hill with endless views of the Lebombo Mountains and Maputaland coastal range.
Or you can opt for the contemporary Forest Lodge, a masterpiece of glass-walled units built around twisted trees and set on stilts within a rare sand forest. The Zen-like design is deliberately spare and vaguely Oriental, allowing the great outdoors in. You can relax in bed while birds sing and butterflies flutter outside your window.
End-of-the-World Views and Lodging to Match
More than 3,500 feet above the fair city of Cape Town, the view from Table Mountain captures the mountains, city, and ocean, as well as virtually unspoiled wilderness, all in one breathtaking panorama. A cable car ride takes just five minutes to reach the flat “tabletop” summit that gave the landmark mountain its name, and which is visible to sailors 40 miles out at sea.
Most of the Cape Peninsula’s 2,200 species of flora can be found on the mountain, which is ablaze with blooms, including more than 100 species of iris, between September and March. Capetonians are understandably fond of coming up with picnic hampers and a bottle of wine from one of the celebrated vineyards nearby. Sunset here is the quintessence of romance. Fortunately, Table Mountain’s cable car system runs frequently, so you don’t have to face the only alternative: a two- to three-hour hike to the top. Some of the less strenuous routes begin in the magnificent Kirstenbosch National Botanical Gardens, on the eastern slope. There’s such a rich display of South Africa’s indigenous plants there that you may forget about making it to the top at all.
With Table Mountain as its backdrop, and on the exciting Victoria & Albert Waterfront, the tony Cape Grace Hotel is one of the continent’s top-ranked accommodations for its near perfect service, beautiful guest rooms, and stunning views, either of the harbor or the mountain – or both.
Sitting high on a hill in Bantry Bay and enjoying views of what must be one of the most beautiful coastlines in the world, the Ellerman House is South Africa’s finest boutique hotel. Enormous picture windows in each of the seven sumptuously furnished guest rooms keep the views center stage while letting in streams of sunshine.
The hotel was built in 1912 as the private home of a British shipping magnate; a maximum of fourteen fortunate guests are pampered in exquisite settings and with topnotch dining. The feeling is something akin to that of a French Riviera hideaway, although here the artwork is by a virtual who’s who of prominent South African painters. Patios and impeccably groomed terraces lead down to a pool whose color matches the dazzling sea.
Cape Town is a ten-minute cab ride away, so head for high tea in style at the city’s Mount Nelson Hotel. Ever since it opened its doors in 1899, this pink stucco grande dame has been welcoming Cape Town’s most illustrious, colorful, and preeminent clientele. Mount Nelson is the hub around which the city’s social life traditionally revolves, and if you have only one high tea in the country, have it here. Tea is served indoors or on the gracious garden veranda. It’s a bacchanalia of pastries, cakes, and dainty nibbles in surreal quantities.
The English ambience remains delightfully intact and, despite its central urban location, you are luxuriously surrounded by 6 acres of gardens, full of lush rose beds and hibiscus the size of trees.
The first marine park in the Indian Ocean and perhaps its most beautiful, Ste. Anne consists of six little islands within easy reach of the archipelago’s principal island of Mahé, and the teeming waters that surround them. Organized tours will bring you to the park and show you why the local government had the foresight to protect this remarkable aquatic environment.
A fascinating underwater theater can be viewed from a semisubmersible “sub-sea viewer,” to the delight of nonsnorklers. But even the latter throw on a mask and flip over the side when introduced to the science-fiction seascape of multicolored coral gardens below. A delicious Creole lunch is arranged on uninhabited Round Island, under the shade of giant tamarind trees and never far from the park’s magnificent beaches. You can disembark on lovely Cerf Island and check into one of five small timber chalets built into a lush green hillside.
A handful of families live on the traffic-free island, and there’s a fine Creole restaurant. A frequent shuttle boat departs for Victoria on nearby Mahé, but castaways here are hard-pressed to find any reason to leave.
A Photographer’s Nirvana
The huge, artfully weathered granite boulders that distinguish this most popular Seychelles island are actually the peaks of Gondwanaland, submerged millions of years ago midway between Africa and India. Simplicity and a slow-moving serenity mark life for the 2,000 hospitable Digueois.
On this traffic-free island, dancing schoolchildren of a beguiling ethnic mix run to greet the oxcarts that plod through thick vegetation along unpaved roads to different points of interest. Anse Source d’Argent is La Digue’s most brilliant beach, divided into one incredibly beautiful hidden cove after another; its sculpted pink and rust-colored boulders have eroded into sculptural forms that bring the work of Henry Moore to mind.
The warm, luminescent waters are a spectrum of pastel blues and greens, so clear you could submerge a (waterproof) book and read it effortlessly. Arguably the most beautiful beach of the Seychelles’ 115 islands, it is also one of the world’s most photographed and recognizable; but, ironically, it’s often blissfully empty.
The rare black paradise fly-catcher, an endangered bird whose population hovers around seventy-five, can be found only on this island, and might be seen flitting about the aviary reserve, unmistakable with its iridescent blue-black feathers and trailing tail plume. Succumb to the island’s sleepy, old-fashioned charm and stay on indefinitely at the island’s principal hotel, the beachside La Digue Lodge.
Exquisite Languor on Empty White Beaches
The shallow lagoons and perfect beaches of this small, untouched island offer a slice of paradise in a forgotten comer of the world. And, like paradise, Desroches is difficult to reach – some 1,000 miles off the East African coast and only recently opened to tourists in a deep escape mode.
It is a pristine, low-lying sand cay of shockingly white beaches (in the wild Amirantes archipelago of twenty-eight islands named after Admiral Vasco da Gama), barely half a mile wide and 3 miles long, and banded by concentric circles of aquamarine and turquoise waters of incredible visibility. You can walk the 10-mile palm-fringed, white-sand circumference in three hours or bicycle along paths through the giant coconut plantation that covers the interior. Although it’s far removed from the pretensions of civilization, the only hotel is, ironically, the very epitome of civilized hospitality. Desroches Island Lodge’s ten sea-facing villas house twenty deluxe suites, and the dining is simple and excellent.
The island’s protective reef offers world-class deep-sea fishing and the best water activities in the Indian Ocean, but the inclination to tuck into a bestseller on your breezy veranda may be just too great to resist.
The Galápagos of the Indian Ocean
At the center of Aldabra, the world’s largest raised coral atoll, lies one of the world’s largest lagoons, like a sea within a vast tropical ocean. This 50-square-mile atoll encompasses an ecosystem so isolated that the wildlife is in many cases considered unique.
It is the last remaining natural habitat for giant Aldabra tortoises, the unofficial and much-beloved national icon of the Seychelles; 150,000 of these enormous antediluvian creatures roam the harsh terrain. With huge eyes, wrinkled necks, and an odd expression reminiscent of E.T.’s, some tip the scales at 600 pounds.
Nature in its purest state reigns on Aldabra, observed biologist Sir Julian Huxley in 1970, who declared it a unique “living natural history museum” that should belong to the whole world. Open to the public only since 1991, the island has become a nirvana for divers, naturalists, and ornithologists.
Jacques Cousteau described it as the most spectacular drift dive anywhere. Lying closer to Mombasa, Kenya, than the principal Seychelles island of Mahé, Aldabra is the most distant of the Seychelles’ outlying islands: The very distance that enabled the flora and fauna to survive human encroachment also makes it difficult to reach the hotel-free island. The only crowds you’ll find are of the tortoise kind.
Haunting Beauty and Unconfined Space
When the world is too much, this is the safari to consider – not to view game (which is a bonus) but to experience the strange solitude of one of the world’s most unusual and scenic areas.
Namibia’s Skeleton Coast is a little-explored desert paradise of wide-open spaces, undeveloped, unpeopled, and far from civilization. Its name refers to the treacherous, barren shoreline where shipwrecks and whale bones litter the fog-shrouded beaches.
The Cape Cross Seal Reserve is a breeding ground for tens of thousands of Cape fur seals; they lounge on the rocks and beaches, and their blue-eyed pups arrive in late November or early December. Light aircraft is the ideal way to visit much of this desolate land, which at times resembles a harsh moonscape, at other times a vast sea of shifting sand dune mountains, reputed to be the highest on earth. This is the Sossusvlei area of the Namib Desert, one of the world’s oldest and driest, whose 1,000-foot-high apricot-colored dunes are shaped and driven like waves by the sea winds.
Especially magnificent at sunrise or sunset when the colors of the dunes shift kaleidoscopically, the vastness of the region is best experienced by climbing a dune and listening to the roar of the sand grains spilling over the surface. You may even spot a rare desert elephant.
Southern Africa’s Big Wild
Despite its harsh climate, Namibia has some of the world’s most compelling and untrammeled scenery, with a diverse and plentiful wildlife that has adapted to the rigors of its desertlike conditions. The Etosha National Park in the north, a semiarid savanna grassland ten times the size of Luxembourg, is the third largest game reserve in the world.
With 144 species of mammals and well over 300 species of birds depending on its water holes, game sighting is relatively easy here. At the Etosha Pan, the flat depression at the heart of the park, the variety and profusion of species found at the water holes at any one time make for a veritable arkful. You may see spectacular numbers of elephants, zebras, giraffes, blue wildebeests, springboks, and the endangered black rhino. For a few days each year after the rains, when the pan fills with water, flamingos and pelicans descend by the tens of thousands.
There are three lodges within the park, but if you go the extra distance beyond the park’s confines to the 19,800-acre Huab Lodge, a private reserve on the Huab River with game-viewing similar to Etosha’s, you’ll find the warmest welcome, the finest guides, and the most stylish comfort in the country.
A swimming pool and natural thermal springs pass as your own private watering holes. There are excellent meals, and barking geckos will lull you to sleep – or is it the free-flowing South African wines?