South Africa: On the ball between matches

Yes, the crime and AIDS statistics can be daunting, but the world is headed here, and when it's not watching soccer, it might consider bungee jumping. Or petting a cheetah.

May 23, 2010|By Christopher Reynolds

Reporting from Cape Town, South Africa — Maybe it was impetuous of me to hand that money over to the young woman in Soweto. Possibly it was imprudent to slip on the harness and ride the caged industrial elevator to the top of that mural-covered utility-tower-turned-bungee-venue. Certainly it was unsettling to stand on the ledge, wind whistling in my ears and the township sprawling 300 feet below.

"Five!" chanted the young men behind me. "Four! Three! Two! ..."

But there's no thrill without risk, right? This is what I told myself, and this must be what the high pooh-bahs of soccer were thinking when they brushed aside worries about crime, public health and infrastructure and decided to stage the FIFA World Cup in South Africa from June 11 to July 11. Thousands of Americans must be thinking that way too: Although the U.S. has little chance of winning the 32-team competition, Americans have bought more than 130,000 tickets, outpacing every country but South Africa itself.

In other words, lots of people will be taking leaps of faith around here in the days ahead.

So I've just auditioned 10 adventures and excursions in and around Cape Town, Johannesburg and Pretoria -- animal encounters, coastal walks, big-city explorations and the one flying leap, all within easy range of a World Cup venue. I stroked a cheetah, groomed an elephant, tasted crocodile (nothing like chicken) and checked out four stadiums. How often in life does a traveler behold the beautiful game and the Beautiful Game, furry cheek by stubbled jowl?

I did most of my exploring in the company of a guide or a group or local friends, and instead of walking anywhere at night, I took taxis. I did feel the gaze and heard the whispers of panhandlers and hustlers (in Cape Town's Greenmarket Square, for instance). And a few statistics lingered in my memory: The World Health Organization estimates South African life expectancies at 50 years for men, 53 for women. The CIA estimates 18% of South African adults are infected with HIV. Although most U.S. visitors to South Africa have no problems, the U.S. State Department says, "criminal activity, often violent, is prevalent throughout the country."

Fortunately, being here is much more pleasant than reading the stats about being here. In fancy restaurants and in a squatters' camp, I got genial welcomes. Everywhere I turned, I found another World Cup countdown calendar, another squad of security guards in training, another entrepreneur grumbling about FIFA (the global organization that controls World Cup events and merchandise), another crew scrambling to finish a street improvement. Pride and anxiety all around.

More than 300,000 international visitors are expected during the competition's 64 matches in 10 stadiums in nine cities. (So if you don't already have lodging reservations, stay home until the Cup competition is over and prices drop.) Surely, all will hear the call of the vuvuzela (a plastic horn, beloved by local crowds, that sounds like a trumpeting elephant) and all can hope for a glimpse of shibobo (when an attacking player dribbles the ball between the legs of a defender).

Here are the adventures, including what happened on that ledge in Soweto.


The Table Mountain Aerial Cableway is bound to be near the top of your Cape Town to-do list. The views are spellbinding (the mountaintop is about 3,500 feet above the sea), and the cost is a doable 160 rand (about $21) for an adult round-trip ticket. But you might never get up here.

The cableway closes in rainy or windy conditions -- 50 to 80 days a year, management says -- and in the South African winter months of June and July, clouds often obscure the view. On my rainy three-day visit earlier this month, the service never opened. (And if the cableway closes, that means hiking conditions are difficult or impossible.) So instead of setting aside a specific day for Table Mountain, leave your itinerary loose enough for day-swapping. That way, if you wake up to a clear morning, you can defer other plans (the South African Museum, perhaps, or the Castle of Good Hope) and head straight to the Lower Cable Station on Tafelberg Road, about 15 minutes' drive from the city center. The cableway ride itself takes about five minutes. For weather updates and more info: 21-424-8181,


Cape Point isn't the southernmost tip of Africa (it's the southwesternmost), but because of its dramatic shape, it's where you sense the continent running out. A towering rocky promontory shames Ireland's Cliffs of Moher; stunted scrub slopes feel as remote as any quarter of South America's Patagonia. Clouds rippled across the sky at breakneck speeds; a wind-raked, roiling sea churned with the overlapping tensions of the Atlantic and Indian oceans. Oh, and the baboons. They roam free, know no fear and will grab food and open your car doors and scramble in if you don't lock up.

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