Extend your learning about South Africa’s history at Constitution Hill (11 Kotze St. Tel: 27-11-381-3100. www.constitutionhill.org.za). The site is a former prison where Nelson Mandela and other political prisoners were jailed in the 1950s, and Mohandas Gandhi in 1908. I toured the preserved prison, which was among the more haunting places I’ve ever been.
Then our tour arrived at the site’s Constitutional Court, built by Mandela during his presidency, just feet from the vile prison. Built with heavy symbolism to express inclusiveness of and justice for all South Africans, the court is a glorious reminder that the spirit of the past is never far away, but that the country will continue to look to the future.
The modern history of this area can be complemented by a far older account, at the Cradle of Humankind and Maropeng Visitor Center (Tel: 27-14-577-9000. www.maropeng.co.za) in Gauteng. With the help of African Eagle Day Tours (www.daytours.co.za/en), I headed deep into to the Sterkfontein Caves, a UNESCO World Heritage Site where, in 1947, two paleontologists discovered a 2.3-million-year-old pre-human fossil they nicknamed “Mrs. Ples.” Touring the caves is fascinating, especially considering that scientists are still searching for more fossils in its limestone walls. The Maropeng Center (a short drive from the caves) provides more about the site, adding insights that I still ponder.
My last night in Johannesberg began with introductions among our small group of fellow CroisiEurope Southern Africa passengers. (In our case it was just nine of us, though full capacity is 16). By morning, we boarded a plane bound for Kasane, Botswana, to begin our two-part, weeklong tour along the Chobe River, a Zambezi River tributary.
This first part had us dwelling at CroisiEurope’s private, posh Cascades Lodge for three nights. The luxury lodge is like a hidden oasis across the Chobe, on Namibia’s Impalila Island. We traveled by boat to reach its dock, tucked among the reeds, where the lovely team helped us ashore, then greeted us with a song. It was the start of an unforgettable week, with the indulgence of gracious hosts seamlessly coordinating every bit of logistics and paperwork, while we enjoyed the perks of all-inclusive drinks, food, and service, all with an air of refinement.
The main house was inviting, like a huge living and dining room (with a bar), where open doors lead to big terraces on the riverbank. I headed to my bungalow, where I stood on my secluded balcony, watching the water flow as birds chirped. My little home was perfect, and I unwound there for a spell before diving into a delicious dinner of French-tinted dishes cooked with African ingredients (think kudu steak served with a red-wine and cabbage reduction, with yam croquettes).
The next morning at daybreak, our group traveled by boat back to the Botswana border, then climbed into a safari jeep bound for Chobe National Park (www.chobe.com). The troop of baboons we saw scuffling on and around the road was just a hint of what was to follow inside the park. Less than a half-mile from the park entrance, we spotted our first giraffes gracefully meandering between trees as they munched leaves from upper branches.
We traveled along the bumpy dirt road, getting an “African massage,” according to our guide, when suddenly he stopped the jeep for a young male elephant who found us threatening enough to charge forward, then pause to scope us out. The driver’s advice to be still and quiet worked, and the bull at last relaxed his trunk and ears, and moved on. I’m not a fearful person, so while my fellow travelers recovered from the tension, I savored the feeling of being a guest in an elephant’s home.
This first game drive was a thrill. Traversing areas of heavy brush led us to more elephants, some frightful-looking warthogs, and a few lions resting in the shade. Aloof giraffes strolled and lunched, while huge herds of impala roamed cautiously over a plain, ever aware that for many predators they are the lunch.
From the park, we headed back to the river, and ferried over to a floating restaurant called The Raft (www.flameofafrica.com). The air was warm as I sipped a cold Zambezi Lager, looking across the water at a hippopotamus pod. We enjoyed grilled local meats like sausages, beefsteaks, homemade bread, slaw, and bean salads.
Soon we were back on the boat and headed downriver for a Zambezi River safari. At a bend in the shoreline, a baby elephant stirred his head in a little mound of sand while baboons looked on. Impala stood guard atop a hill, and just yards away crocodiles sunned themselves. We cruised on, spotting a few other tour vessels and small fishing boats. Our captain pointed out the large riverside lodge where he said Prince William and Kate Middleton stayed not long ago. Suddenly everything felt a little more regal.