On Safari : South Africa

On Safari : South Africa

South Africa provides an excellent platform to explain why so many American tourists make bad decisions about their African touring.

Probably most tourists to Africa travel on referral from friends or family. It’s a very small percentage that buy strictly off the internet without vetting what they’ve found with people they know and trust. That’s all well and good but where it goes wrong is when these referrals are from friends or family who have very limited experience.

And the fact is that a single trip, or even two trips to some area, is very limited experience. So you’ve got to guard against personal referrals being …well, too personal.

South Africa is an excellent example of how past travelers get it wrong.

The first is that the best time to go is during America’s summer.

The second is the enormous perception particularly in America that Johannesburg and surroundings are unsafe to visit, and even if they were safe, uninteresting.

The third is that you should avoid the “touristy” places to stay, like the Waterfront in Cape Town or Sandton City north of Johannesburg.

These three entrenched notions are essentially 180 degrees wrong.

I’m currently guiding a small, private group through South African into Botswana and Victoria Falls. We started in Cape Town, they took Rovos Rail and we are now in Johannesburg. It’s South Africa’s summer, and I just checked that the temperature at my home is 2F with a winter storm on its way.

I think before any other information is known, the best time to visit virtually any place outside of the equatorial regions or great deserts is their summer.

The flowers and trees are in bloom, the golf courses are beautiful; surfing, swimming, diving, sailing and everything to do with waters and oceans is at its peak (including some of the finest seafood in the world), outdoor concerts and flea markets are in their hay day, and … it’s comfortable!

South Africa’s winter doesn’t begin to compare to Chicago’s, but it is quite similar to much of the upper south in the United States, like northern Georgia and Tennessee. All the trees lose their leaves. Daylight is diminished. Grass is brown and it’s usually dismal and chilly or cold. Now does that sound like a fun place to be?

And while it’s true that moving north into our safari tomorrow in Botswana increases the temperatures, today’s better camps are so brilliantly constructed – some with air conditioning – that it really isn’t so uncomfortable, now. And this is the time for the best animal viewing!

Two: Time and again you hear so-called “experienced travelers” warning new comers away from places they feel are dangerous, like Lima or St. Petersburg, or … Johannesburg. This is balderdash.

To begin with every city is huge and there are safe parts and unsafe parts, so to lump everything together reveals immediately the silliness of the statement. We are staying in the posh suburb of Sandton. We leave our luggage two floors below reception on the curb to be attended by the porters, we leave our purses in the tour vehicles, we dangle bracelets and necklaces when we go out for a nice dinner.

It’s perfectly safe. And also time-and-again these same naysayers will claim that the “unsafe” city has nothing to offer, anyway.

Like the Apartheid Museum? One of the greatest museums on earth. Or the Cradle of Humankind, which is an exceptional – probably the best – museum complex on earth describing what we know about early man? Or the Sandton museum of the country’s 4 Nobel Laureates? Or absolutely some of the best restaurants and certainly the best shopping complexes anywhere in Africa?

Or jazz and cabaret cafes, theaters, symphonies, multiple festivals at any given time, sports events out the wazoo … in a nutshell, an urban setting difficult to match anywhere on earth.

Three. Avoid the “touristy places.”

Why, exactly? Aren’t you a tourist? Do you not go to Times Square or the Statue of Liberty or Ground Zero or Disneyland or Hollywood boulevard, or the Miracle Mile, or on and on? That’s what these things are for! This isn’t skid row for the leisure class!

Cape Town’s best hotels are at the Waterfront, a complex not so dissimilar to my Chicago’s Navy Pier. The old hotels in the city and outlying areas like the Mt. Nelson are musty and away from all the good action. The best restaurants, the best shops, the best information centers, the best galleries and some of the best museums – they are in the “tourist areas.”

And this is true I suppose anywhere in the world. No matter how you try, if you aren’t committed to actually living somewhere for a good period of time, the best experience you can have of that place is to for at least part of the time join the crowds.

Tomorrow we head into the bush. It’s remarkable to think our last week has been in anything but. It’s hard for me, an East African freak, to really believe our incredible week is only a few hours airplane ride away from the wilds.

So tune in, again, and I’ll let you know if it was just all a fantasy!

Everything you see in the picture above -- except of course my wonderful friends and clients Sally Downey and Ada Addington -- is made from beads and discarded wire. This is "Streetwires," a fabulous Cape Town artists' coop.