Let’s face it, Africa is not often considered for a short-break by most winter-weary Europeans, who traditionally seek some sun within a three-or four-hour flight. Yet, with a new generation of aircraft now servicing many African destinations, and barely any time difference to worry about, we reckon there’s little reason why you shouldn’t head on safari for a long weekend. To test our theory, we sent London-based Lauren Jarvis as far south as we could muster. Here’s her account of her brief South African getaway.
Wrapping up work on a Friday lunchtime, I tube it across to Heathrow and board South African Airways’ new A330-300 service at 7pm, bound for Johannesburg. Touching down just over 11 hours later, with just a gentle one-hour time difference, I’m in Jo’burg by 7am. Having slept (yep, even in economy – do they make airplane seats bigger these days?), dined and wined a little, my carry-on and me step out of O.R. Tambo International into the warm African air, feeling fresh and raring to go.
I’m driven to The Maslow Hotel, a contemporary four-star oasis in the stylish suburb of Sandton, where the Africology Spa catches my eye. My room will be ready for check-in later, but for now it’s all about shedding clothes and shaking off burdens, slipping into my swimming costume and sliding into the pool. Then a lounger on the deck, a book, a coffee and… relaaax.
But I didn’t come all this way simply to lounge (although it’s tempting). An hour’s drive away lies the township of Soweto. Former President Nelson Mandela and Archbishop Desmond Tutu both lived on Vilakazi Street in Orlando West – the only road in the world to house two Nobel Peace Prize winners – and I’m keen to visit.
The Maslow’s uber-friendly concierge arranges a private afternoon trip. My guide, Patrick, was born in Soweto in 1958, grew up around the corner from Mandela and still lives in the area. He’s great company, infinitely knowledgeable, knows everyone and offers a fascinating – and heartbreaking – insight into life under Apartheid.
“Did you ever meet him?” I ask, as we pull up to the Apartheid Museum in Ormonde, which powerfully documents the rise and fall of the state-sanctioned discrimination that cast its shadow over South Africa until the early 1990s.
“Yes, President Mandela came to my house after he was released from prison,” Patrick smiles proudly. “He visited every house to thank us for our support.”
Mandela’s own modest house at 8115 Vilakazi Street, the family home until 1996, is now a museum (mandelahouse.com), but it’s still the beating heart of Soweto: a magnet for tourists and locals alike, drawn by the hope, struggle, strength and light that it represents.
Nearby, there are African-fusion restaurants and rustic ‘shebeens’ (bars); cultural centres, street performers and surprisingly modern-looking homes with neat gardens and decorative gates, gleaming cars and satellite dishes. Life has improved here for many, but while Soweto’s permanent residents mostly have running water and electricity, rubbish collection, recycling and access to healthcare, for others in temporary settlements home is a corrugated metal shack.
Before we head back to Sandton, Patrick takes food from the boot of the car to give to a group of local children. Wandering goats scrabble for scraps. As we drive away, the sun bathing Soweto’s matchbox houses in soft, peach light, it’s clear that for some the struggle continues.
That night, the President joins me for dinner in the shape of a six-metre bronze statue which looks down on the busy eateries around Nelson Mandela Square in Sandton. It’s a low-key evening at a lively grill, The Big Mouth, as I decide to swerve the bars and clubs of nearby Newtown for a nightcap at The Maslow’s Lacuna Bar.
Next day it’s an early start, with an epic breakfast on the terrace, before an easy two-to three-hour road transfer north-west, past rolling hills and Hartbeestpoort Dam, to the legendary Sun City Resort.
Monkeys cavort in the lush forest lining the long drive. Right on cue, as if planned by a Sun City sales rep, shafts of light break through the clouds, illuminating the grandest resort entrance I’ve ever seen.
There are flamboyant fountains and glistening waterfalls, epic sculptures and soaring towers, tropical flowers and turquoise domes. OTT? You bet. But it’s also totally and overwhelmingly brilliant: think Jurassic Park meets Las Vegas, with a sprinkle of Indiana Jones thrown in for good measure.
This exotic fantasyland is vast, with several hotels to suit varying budgets – from bush bungalows to five-star suites – multiple restaurants and pools, a casino, two spas, two golf courses (one designed by Gary Player), a nightclub, kids club, adventure rope course and even a water park, cultural village and an amphitheatre. Beat that, Paris and Prague.
But while the hotels and grounds are extensive, it still feels surprisingly intimate, as you’ll discover escaping the sun for a pizza under a cabana on The Palace Pool Deck, kicking back with a sandwich at the Gary Player Country Club, or drinking cocktails by candlelight on the torch-lined terrace of the Tusk Bar & Lounge. Guests have the best of both worlds: Sun City offers plenty to do, and plenty of room to do nothing.
I check in under the vast, ornately muralled dome in the marble-mosaic-floored lobby of the flagship five-star hotel, The Palace of the Lost City, before exploring. Old-school safari chic blends with King Kong-scale grandeur – a life-size, bronze sculpture of one of the continent’s largest and most famous elephants, Shawu, stands in the atrium, while further elephant sculptures line a bridge connecting the casino and water park, which ‘fake-quakes’ and rumbles every hour, drawing squeals of terror, then delight, from surprised kids.
After a whizz down the wickedly fast water slides in the Valley of the Waves, my room is ready and I gawp some more. The huge balcony looks out across a pool and miles of the untouched wilderness of the Pilanesberg National Park beyond. At sunset, flocks of sacred ibis swoop pterodactyl-style from behind The Lost City’s soaring towers and disappear into the distant horizon.
If you’re a grown-up who’s lost some of your sense of wonder, due to kids, work, or exhaustion in general, Sun City may well spark its return – it’s hard not to marvel at such architectural extravagance surrounded by breathtaking natural beauty.
At dawn the following day I am taken on a game drive in Pilanesberg National Park by Loezy, a field guide with Mankwe Gametrackers. Set within the crater of an ancient volcano, this 55,000-hectare park is home to all of Africa’s ‘Big Five’, including 250 elephants and black and white rhino, along with cheetahs, wild dogs, giraffes and hippos. Spotting elephants, lions and a crash of rhinos before breakfast ain’t bad, and spirits are soaring as we tuck into fruit, coffee and omelettes on the terrace back at The Palace. But I need to keep my head, as the world’s fastest zipline awaits.
Zip 2000 stretches for 1.25 miles, 920 feet above the bush. Reaching speeds of 100mph, the extreme slide is not for the faint-hearted, as goggled riders plunge in pairs from a hill just five minutes outside Sun City. After a safety briefing, I’m cajoled into the harness, hooked up head-first and with a go-faster fin strapped between my shins to stop any wobbles mid-flight.
And then I’m joining the ibis – flying through African skies, free as a bird. Utterly exhilarating and totally addictive, once back on terra firma I immediately want to do it again, but champagne and a stress-busting massage are calling, and it would be rude not to make the most of the opportunity.
As mini-breaks go, my four-day South African jaunt is hard to beat, with culture and cocktails, safari and spa, fine-dining, ziplining and – on the day I head for home – sun-bathing and R&R at The Royal Baths, Sun City’s adults-only pool.
My return flight leaves Johannesburg at 8pm, and I wring every last minute from my stay, booking an airport ride for two that afternoon. By 6.30am the next day I’m back at Heathrow, mildly bleary but buoyed by a million memories I’m bursting to share.
Time to say ‘adios’ to Barcelona and ‘arrivederci, Roma’: a South African weekend is definitely where it’s at.
Travel notes: Most African travel specialists will be able to arrange a long weekend for you in South Africa. Lauren Jarvis’s three-night itinerary was put together by Best of South Africa Travel, and is priced at £1,564pp including return international flights from London to Johannesburg, domestic transfers, one night’s accommodation in a luxury room at The Maslow and two nights with breakfast at The Palace of the Lost City in Sun City, based on two people sharing in October.
South African Airways fly daily to Johannesburg, using the new Airbus A330-300. This aircraft offers new levels of comfort, ensuring you’ll arrive fresh and ready to go!