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Soarin' Over South Africa

By Michelle R. Mangio, PassPorter Guest Columnist, Owner of Magical Escapes Vacations, and a "Fundi" South Africa Expert

Imagine for a moment... you are winding down a road that seems removed from the rest of civilization, twisting among low-lying trees and vegetation until -- suddenly -- the Lodge appears before you, thick thatched roof and dark wooden timbers over a welcoming entrance.

You step inside to see a glimpse of African luxury and décor. Across from you, you can see the savannah through the huge window, and the fire pit where you are asked to gather at night to tell stories, enjoy the stars, and immerse yourself in the experience of the African safari. But first you are taken to your room, where windows and balconies overlook the grasslands. You can barely contain your squeal of delight as a giraffe lifts its head up and seems to look right at you.

Where are you? For most of us, this would be your entrance to Disney's Animal Kingdom Lodge in Walt Disney World, a deluxe resort designed to transport the experience of an African safari lodge to sunny Florida. But what you were really experiencing was your first moments on a safari in Kruger National Park, located deep in the heart of South Africa.

For most Americans, Africa is synonymous with Safari. Whenever I think of that destination, my mind conjures up images of wind-swept grasslands where lions lounge, elephants and giraffes graze, and a cheetah dashes by on a high-speed chase after a zebra. And while no South African experience would be complete without a Safari, there is much more to this amazing destination.

So close your eyes for a moment and imagine (okay, read all of this first, and then close your eyes and imagine...)

We'll start with Kruger National Park, a vast stretch of wilderness larger than the country of Israel, home to the largest diversity of wildlife in all of Africa: more than 640 mammal and bird species, and over 300 different types of trees. Luxurious private reserves surround its borders, offering game lodges reminiscent of Disney's Animal Kingdom Lodge with one notable exception: small size, often limiting its clientele to no more than 20 guests at a time. Under a brilliant star-filled sky, you gather for a barbecue, tell stories, sing songs, and then embark on a night game drive led by experienced guides.

You continue on, soaring over Blyde River Canyon, the only green canyon in the world. You stop for a moment to gaze out over "God's Window," arguably the worlds most breathtaking view as you look over a series of canyons, escarpments, mountains, and the interior plateau stretching out endlessly before you.

Onward you go, to the capital of Johannesburg, an amazingly energetic city of great shopping, fine dining, and night life that continues well on into the day. But it's also a city steeped in history, with roots to the Apartheid movement, the birthplace of Nelson Mandela, and the World Heritage site "The Cradle of Mankind," where you can view the fossilized remains of the man-like creatures from which human beings evolved. 

You find yourself next on the pristine beaches of the warm Indian Ocean. The eclectic city of Durban provides a little bit of something for everyone, and is also home to the largest aquarium in the southern hemisphere, Ushaka Sea World. Enjoy the diversity of world cultures in this city through its architecture, dining, shopping, and arts, or lounge on one of the many pristine Blue Flagged beaches in the area. Along the way to your next destination, stop at the "living museum" of PheZulu, where you can experience Zulu culture, including traditional cooking, thatching, spear making, and dancing.

Now you zip across to the other side of South Africa, to the cooler Atlantic coast. The Garden Route takes you from Port Elizabeth to Cape Town, where your imagination is captured by tangled forests fading into purple mountains, dramatic cliffs that tumble into the sea followed by long stretches of sandy beaches. In sheltered coves, you can even watch dolphins and whales at play. In the small towns dotting the region, you can choose from a dizzying array of adventure activities, art galleries & museums, and craft centers.

Southward your grand adventure takes you, to the "Mother City," Cape Town, ranked as one of the top destinations of the world. This amazing and lively city will capture your heart and soul with all it has to offer: culture, wine & vineyards, breath-taking scenery, pristine beaches, leisure activities of all sorts. Whether your desire is to stay in a country inn or spa nestled among the vineyards, take a trek into the national parks to view a waterfall, or soak up the culture, dining, and shopping of an energetic South African city, Cape Town and its environs has it all.

Now you can close your eyes, and picture all that we just saw. Are you ready to escape away to Africa now? Would you believe that this is only the tiniest fraction of what South Africa can offer?

It's an ideal location, in a sub-tropical climate nestled between the warm Indian Ocean and the cooler Atlantic. This Mediterranean-style climate, coupled with its large area and varied landscape, ensures that South Africa always has an area that is reliably warm (without being too sweltering) for your vacation. The best time to visit South Africa very much depends on what you wish to do while there. For example, the best safari season is August to October, while viewing humpback whales is best August to December. If you enjoy scuba diving or surfing, visit April to September, but December to March is best for beach combing on one of South Africa's many pristine beaches.

Because of the enormous size of South Africa, as well as the varied destinations and activities available, working with a South African Expert is the best way to ensure that your vacation matches your dreams. On South Africa Tourism's web site, you can search for a "Fundi," an expert on South Africa certified by their tourism board. There are only about forty-six experts currently in the U.S., but you can be certain that by working with one of them, your vacation will be more than you imagined it could be.

It is a long flight to Johannesburg or Cape Town; nearly 18 hours direct from the US. Many travelers fly first to Europe, for a brief sojourn before departing on an overnight flight to South Africa. You want to stay at least a week, though many packages offered to the region are ten to fourteen days in length.

South Africa is an exciting and hot destination. While certainly more expensive than a trip down to the Animal Kingdom Lodge in Florida, as this destination grows in popularity, the costs of a South African getaway are also coming down. And there are activities and accommodations for all budgets available.

The next time you walk into Disney's Animal Kingdom Lodge, imagine what it would be like to step into a real safari lodge, deep in the heart of South Africa. It may have seemed an impossible dream, but it's no longer so far out of reach; this amazing destination offers 360 degrees of possibilities for your vacation dreams.

About the Author: Michelle Mangio is the owner of Magical Escapes, and is a frequent visitor to Walt Disney World (and now Orlando as well!) with her husband and 2 year old son. As much as she enjoys vacationing just to visit new places and revisit places she loves, she also enjoys the opportunity to share what she's learned with others. And like many Disney fans, she's already planning her next trip before she's even home from the last!

This article originally appeared in our August 25, 2005 newsletter -- subscribe to our popular newsletter today for free!

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    Updated 02/17/07 

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