South Africa: Spirit of the wild

South Africa: Spirit of the wild

In the shade of an immense oak, I sip wine, then nibble on chocolate. It's a doubly indulgent afternoon as cellar manager Kathy Van Niekerk pairs ruby-red shiraz and dark, spiced chocolate for me, a wine novice and chocolate lover.

"A match made in heaven," she sings out in her South African accent. Somehow, the wine tastes richer when matched with the Ghanaian chocolate tinged with dusky cardamom, clove and nutmeg - a new bespoke bar inspired by Cape Malays, former slaves and dissidents from Java.

I try other pairings at the Boschendal Wine Estate (; 60 rand or S$7.20 for four pairings), savouring a chocolate with a nostalgic lemon-cream-biscuit flavour that my hostess couples with a "curvaceous Chardonnay".

Boschendal, a vineyard established in 1685, is dotted with white-gabled Cape Dutch homesteads. Set in a valley with a Mediterranean climate, wine estates, from traditional to trendy, form a caressing half-moon around Cape Town.

Like much of Cape Town, and some swathes of South Africa, the winery feels cosmopolitan and European, yet there is a pervasive African wildness in the air.

This wildness is palpable when I gaze at the wind-whipped Table Mountain range that looms over the Cape Town region. The Indian and Atlantic oceans collide here, creating an extreme diversity of flora and fauna.

My South African journey, which wends through Cape Town, Johannesburg, Durban and the MalaMala private game reserve, is defined by mega-diverse landscapes, experiences and narratives.

I rarely do "grand tours" and like to treat travel as a quest, seeking just a couple of fascinating places or themes each time. But South Africa turns out to be a land of so many textures, and so stimulating to explore that despite three domestic flights in seven days and few hours of sleep, I am refreshed, not fatigued.

Each day brings a new adventure, vista or story, overlaid by the riveting post-apartheid journey that South Africa is embarked on.

On a private day trip by car to the Cape of Good Hope with Thompsons Africa (www.thompsonsafrica. com) guide Ali Abdullah, who is half-Indian and half- Indonesian, he points out a Southern Right Whale close to shore. My city eyes glimpse a swish of black tail, nothing more.

But otherwise there is life galore on the Cape - mean-eyed baboons by the road, a sitting ostrich, forlornly moulting African Penguins on Boulders Beach.

Along the way, I linger in the Kirstenbosch Botanical Garden (; admission 45 rand) with its profusion of King Protea, an extravagant national flower with fuzzy centres that make me think of wee thatched Zulu huts.

The garden is tidily cultivated, but vast and exotic, with 6,000 indigenous plant species flourishing on the eastern slopes of the angular Table Mountain.

Later, I see the fabled Cape of Good Hope, originally named Cape of Storms, befitting the untamed spirit of this far rim of the continent.

The true southern-most point where two oceans churn is Cape Agulhas, 150km away. The Cape of Good Hope is more symbolic, and scenic. Standing in front of its cold, crashing surf, I have a sense of ancient voyages, storms, and life as a fleeting vapour.

Still, Cape Town is also light-hearted and sophisticated.

When I rest at the Table Bay Hotel (www.suninternational. com; king-room rate starts at 3,460 rand) and relish South African bistro flavours at Reuben's (www.oneandonlyresorts. com) - both on the eclectic waterfront - the Capetonians I meet are merry and treat me like a new friend.

In contrast, Johannesburg has a harder edge as a metropolis. It has lots of black South African heritage and artsy vibrancy, however. I visit the sprawling black township of Soweto, where homes of multi-millionaires face shanty towns, and other places for a sense of post-apartheid South Africa.

Also worth a jaunt is Maboneng (www.maboneng, an artfully revived and walkable inner-city enclave with hip galleries, sidewalk cafes, loft apartments, hotel and offices.

Of the three cities I visit, Durban is less explored for the traveller. It is the tropical playground of South Africa, with warmer seas than Cape Town. At the uShaka Marine World (, exuberant South Africans dance to pumping music - Gangnam Style included - while waiting for the dolphin show.

Multicultural Durban has a distinct Indian presence - Mahatma Gandhi lived here as a young lawyer and framed his doctrine of non-violent civil disobedience to secure Indian rights in South Africa. I have it easier, tasting fusion Indian dishes at the new Jeera restaurant (Suncoast Towers, 20 Battery Beach Road, Durban 4001).

Notably, there is Zulu culture outside Durban. We drive through the Valley of a Thousand Hills, lush and misty, to view thatched "beehive" Zulu huts and a dance performance full of athleticism and humour at the PheZulu Safari Park (; admission 130 rand).

Then my Thompsons Africa guide, Mr Cyril Dlamini, a Zulu, takes me off the touristy track for a glimpse of the KwaNyuswa village where he grew up. There are still beehive-shaped huts, but many are topped with tiles, not thatch, after their inhabitants negotiate with ancestors about going modern.

Away from the cities, South Africa is rich in safari parks. I spend two nights at MalaMala (www.malamala. com), a private game reserve of 13,500ha.

On my first game drive, I am elated to spy all the Big Five in two hours, perfect sighting statistics for the legendary camp. It is a transforming experience to see the Big Five - lions, leopards, elephants, rhinoceroses and buffaloes - roaming freely or resting, metres from our Land Rover.

Our Shangaan ranger, Mr Bens Marimane, has superhero eyesight and shows us sleek leopards which have schlepped their kill of impala up trees.

I cannot take my eyes off the pride of six young lions he finds with the help of trackers. Once, a maned lion seems to stare at me, a lethal beast in repose. I think of Aslan, the great lion of Narnia that I feared and loved as a child.

In MalaMala, rates start at US$685 (S$855) a person a day. This includes a room with his-and-her bathrooms, game drives in a Land Rover that goes off-road to be thrillingly close to animals, a ranger for four to six guests, meals and Wi-Fi.

This is wildest Africa sheathed in luxury, embodying the unconquerable spirit of the country as much as its finesse.

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