The two hearts of South Africa

These two South African cities are proof that a country can have two hearts. Cape Town beats on the ocean shore, Johannesburg over the gold mines.

Navigators know all about it. A captain who has lost his way or is caught in a storm seeks the beam of a lighthouse. In search of a passage to India in 1488, Portuguese explorer Bartolomeu Dias’s ship was caught in a storm at the southern tip of Africa. As giant waves tried to dash his ship against the granite rocks, Dias succeeded in saving it against all odds. Naming the point the ‘Cape of Storms’ on his first time round it, Dias had no idea this spot would become one of the most famous in the world. On the return, sea and sky bestowed on him its wild beauty. Taking wing from the rock, the ocean’s biggest birds, albatrosses, accompanied his ship. Faced with this landscape, he renamed the giant rock, this time as the ‘Cape of Good Hope'. When Dias passed it, neither the world’s most powerful lighthouse, with 19 million candle-power, nor Cape Town, one of the world’s most beautiful cities, stood there yet.

But calling Cape Town one of the most beautiful cities in the world doesn’t do it justice. When you take off by helicopter for the Cape of Good Hope, you get          a bird’s-eye view of its extraordinary natural setting and near-poetic aspect. Down below, boats moored on the Victoria&Albert Waterfront, the flower market on Trafalgar Square, the courtyard of the Castle of Good Hope, and beyond, Robben Island, Mouille Point with its lighthouse, Table Mountain and the rocky formation known as the Lion’s Head complete the scene. The natives call the harsh wind that blows through the city in summer ‘the Cape Doctor'. For in their view, this wind drives away air pollution, harmful bacteria and mosquitoes.

A joyful air reigns eternal in Cape Town. As much as inspiring a person to write poetry, the city also awakens the urge to dance. But it’s not just those who dance the marimba on St. George’s Street in the city center; all of South Africa is ready to dance at any moment. Never without a smile on their faces, South Africans start dancing whenever they hear a beat, no matter where they are. They know all too well that stubbornly holding on to the joy of life is the only way to fend off unhappiness. That’s why joy and dance are always current in South Africa.

Adderley Street in the city center is Cape Town’s vital artery. When the fashionable shopping malls on the Victoria&Albert Waterfront close down at dusk, strains of jazz begin to rise from the pleasantly illuminated restaurants along the shore. To top off a romantic evening some people make their way to the cable car station for a ride up to Table Mountain. Cape Town is a sea of light from its vantage point. Always covered with clouds that descend on it occasionally as thick fog, Table Mountain is one of the most impressive sights in the world. There are three hundred and fifty ways of climbing up this mountain which is 1087 meters high. One of the world’s most famous natural areas, it harbors more than 1400 of the 2285 plant species that grow on the Cape Peninsula. At sundown thousands of people, wine glasses in hand, view the flood of light over the ocean and cliff. And a feeling of irresistible love is engendered as the sky melts from orange to red, red to purple, purple to indigo and finally black.

Eleven kilometers north of Cape Town on the Atlantic Ocean is ‘Robbe Eiland', or Seal Island, which takes its name from the seal colony that has inhabited the island since the mid-17th century. It was used as a prison from 1658 until the last convicts were released in 1991. Among the prisoners brought here in 1963 was Nelson Mandela, whose name would become a legend. Mandela was deprived of his freedom for speaking out against the injustices suffered by blacks and their humiliation at the hands of the white population. For years he lived here in a cell as a political prisoner. When he was freed 28 years later, the road was opened that would take him to the Presidency of the state of South Africa and to the Nobel Prize for Peace. Day tours to the island are available by catamaran today, and you should definitely take one.

There are so many things to do in Cape Town that you’ll have a hard time deciding. You can eyeball the colorful fish and turtles at the Two Oceans Aquarium. You can rent a car and start out from Clifton to make the Cape Town grand tour through Hout, Scarborough, the Cape of Good Hope, Simon’s Town, Fish Hoek and Muizenberg. The shores are so beautiful; just stop wherever your heart desires. At Stellenbosch and Paarl you can visit the vineyards and wineries that produce countless prize-winning wines. You can test your nerve on the narrow road that winds down between two precipices to the second of the two lighthouses on the Cape. For, more than inspiring people to write poetry, Cape Town enhances their will to live…

The more than 45 million people in South Africa speak 11 official languages as well as all the local languages. With its forests, its rich wild life, its game parks where you can see ‘the Big Five’ - lions, elephants, rhinos, wild ox and leopards - and its multi-culturalism, South Africa is a virtual invitation at the tip of the old continent. And Johannesburg, city of gold and diamonds, and immediately next to it, Pretoria with its jacaranda trees are two important parts of that invitation.

The skyscrapers of Johannesburg, each an architectural marvel, and the former Soweto township, home to close to three million South Africans, suffice to depict the gap in living standards. Here Cape Town’s ‘white’ face gives way to ‘black'. The tragedies and injustices of the apartheid regime are like a slap in the face here at the Apartheid Museum. And painful as it may be, you should definitely visit Constitution Hill and Freedom Park.

The story of the ‘gold water’ that created the city is  told to visitors on a close to forty-minute tour at Gold Reef City. The entire city, from the 50-story Carlton Center to the northern suburbs, can be seen from here. Museum Africa, where many examples of African social life from a tribal hut to a Bushman cave and articles representing the whites’ Victorian period are on exhibit, Oriental Plaza, a shopping mall redolent with the scent of spices, the Railroad Station and the Museum of Transport, the little zoo with its Sunday shows on the lake, and Sandton City with the largest shopping mall in the southern hemisphere are some of the first places that come to mind in Johannesburg. Pretoria on the other hand literally emanates happiness from its gardens. Imported from Brazil, the pink-blossomed jacaranda trees bloom madly in spring, as if they have fallen in love with this place. Finally, the Transvaal Museum here is a feast for nature buffs, bird lovers in particular.

The choices available in and around Johannesburg in Gauteng Province will thrill you. Only two hours away, Sun City and Lost City are a living utopia. With everything from golf courses and artificial lakes for surfing to giant swimming pools, gambling casinos and hot-air balloon tours, they will make you forget the passage of time. Board a jeep in Pilanesberg National Park right next to Sun City, and you can look the giraffes, lions, rhinos and zebras right in the eye. I might also add that South Africa in general is a boon for photographers. Blyde River Canyon and Kruger Park, the country’s largest wildlife reserve, are a tour in themselves. The park alone welcomes half a million wildlife enthusiasts a year, most of whom stay a week or longer. And Lesedi Culture Park brings the tribal villages of Africa right to your feet.

In South Africa your heart will fill with music and beat to the rhythm of the dance. It’s just the way it is. Your heart will start to pound like an African tom-tom. The oldest music in the world will put you in touch with your spiritual roots. Maybe, like me, you will even find ecstasy dancing in a crowd to the beat of an African drum.