It wasn't the kind of herd we wanted to find. Pulling onto a gravel road in South Africa's Kruger National Park shortly after sunrise, we encountered three open-topped buses, loaded with tourists aiming binoculars and long-lens cameras at some elephants grazing in the bush. But the buses soon left, and we turned off the ignition of our car and waited. Before long, the elephants leisurely crossed single file in front of us -- no more than 10 feet away.
A visit to South Africa can seem daunting for most Americans -- and not only because flying from New York to Johannesburg takes at least 16 hours. South Africa's violent crime rate is one of the highest in the world. And the country is big, with more than 1,500 miles separating the two most-visited regions, the Cape Town area in the south and the savannas near the Mozambique border where Kruger and numerous other game parks are located. That's why many opt for package tours that include a few days at a game park and a few days in Cape Town. Those can run $3,000 and up with airfare.
But as my nine-year-old son and I discovered on a 10-day visit last year, a do-it-yourself South African vacation can be more rewarding than a package deal -- and less expensive. Making arrangements isn't hard: Most leading tourist destinations have Web sites, and everyone speaks English. While the national currency, the rand, has strengthened against the dollar over the past few years, prices are still low. Not as low, perhaps, as Kenya. But South Africa, with its reliable domestic air service and well-maintained highways, is one of the few places in sub-Saharan Africa where traveling on your own is feasible.
We started in Cape Town, a place of unmatched natural beauty. The city spreads along the shores of a wide bay, framed by three mountain peaks. The most dramatic is Table Mountain, whose flat top is often draped with a cloud "tablecloth." We picked up a car at the airport, where all the major rental agencies have outlets and will accept U.S. driver's licenses. We headed to the Holiday Inn at the foot of Table Mountain. Rooms there cost about $110 a night, including taxes, and kids' meals are free.
The hotel was our base for day trips. It also provided me with one of the most moving experiences of the vacation. My mother was South African, and I had visited in the 1970s and 1980s. But on our first morning, I saw a scene that would have been unthinkable during those apartheid days: interracial couples chatting over breakfast and a multiracial group holding a business meeting in a conference room. I burst into tears.
There were other welcome surprises. Cape Town's once-seedy harbor has been redeveloped into the convivial Victoria & Alfred Waterfront, including outdoor restaurants, shops, and a marina. From there we caught a boat to the infamous Robben Island prison, where Nelson Mandela was held for nearly 20 years. The prison is now a museum and former inmates lead tours, pointing out the quarry where Mandela and other political prisoners were forced to work and the communal cells where they lived.
Another day we drove to Cape Point, near the southernmost tip of Africa, where the cold, steely blue Atlantic meets the warmer, calmer waters of the Indian Ocean. The cable-car ride up Table Mountain was another highlight.
From Cape Town, we flew to Johannesburg and rented a car for the four-hour drive to Kruger, a park about the size of Massachusetts. Kruger brims with so much wildlife that a professional guide seemed superfluous. Indeed, half the fun for my son was spotting the fresh droppings that alerted us to an animal's presence. During three days in the park, we saw everything from lions, rhinos, and giraffes to herds of impalas and flocks of weaver birds, so named because they weave nests that hang pendantlike from trees. The park's roads are well-marked, and locations of recent animal sightings are posted at ranger stations. As long as you stay in your car, you're free to explore at will.
We stayed at Lower Sabie, one of several camps in the park. Each camp typically includes a restaurant, store, and swimming pool. Our air-conditioned bungalow, which included a covered porch with kitchenette and dining table, cost $79 a night. In the bungalow next to ours was a farm family from the KwaZulu-Natal region near Swaziland, who invited us over one night for a braai, a barbecue of steak and sausages. Over a bottle of South African wine, they related how AIDS has hit even their remote town, killing several of their farmhands.
Such conversations are a reminder that South Africa remains a troubled country. Tourist spots are well-guarded, but the sprawling all-black settlements are dangerous. To see them, book a "township tour," which often includes a visit to a local beer hall, or shebeen.
Wouldn't a package tour be easier? Maybe. But if you're on a tour bus, you'll miss scenes such as the one we saw the morning we left Kruger. Instead of the main highway, we took a road through a valley with hundreds of huts scattered across green hillsides. A thundershower had just passed, and a rainbow hovered in the valley as people came outside and began their chores, hanging laundry and tending gardens. At moments like that, do-it-yourself travel really pays.
By Carol Matlack