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BEYOND THE BIG FIVE.

LET us imagine for a moment, what the 20 years before 1994 looked like," exhorted South Africa's National Tourism Minister Marthinus Van Schalkwyk. The minister was speaking at the opening ceremony of Indaba, Africa's biggest travel show and by some reckonings the third "most important" globally. For those of us on another continent, who have only read about Apartheid in textbooks and for whom the memories of our own Independence struggle have dimmed, it may have been difficult to imagine a time, just two decades ago, when freedom of movement could be curtailed even within the same country . "On top of that, we had a Separate Amenities Act, which regulated the use of public as well as private amenities by the colour of your skin and limited access to most tourism facilities to one racial group only," Van Schalkwyk reminded the delegates, though quite a few of them would naturally remember that time only too well.

FOR someone who travels so much and is routinely asked to name the "best place you have visited in the world", South Africa is rightly up. This was the place, when on a gorgeous autumn day, out on a game drive, I spotted not just a pride of lions a breath away, but also took in the bluest, brightest sky ever as the flaky white clouds parted and the luminous rays shone through. The memory of the day is still hard to narrate.

And of course South Africa is more than just the game drives.

FROM balloon safaris, where you can float hundreds of kilometres above the ground, sipping on the bubbly, to luxe spas and some of the world's best hotels and drinkable wine labels, you can pamper and be pampered in style. Cape Town and its adjacent regions, the Garden Route, whale watching in the Western cape, diving with great white sharks or travelling on what are arguably the world's two best luxury trains ( the Blue Train and the Rovos Rail; from Cape Town to Pretoria/ Joburg) are experiences unmatched by few others.

But this year, even as I remained in the general vicinity of KwaZulu Natal, with Durban, firmly the epicentre, I discovered a host of "hidden gems", some recommended at Indaba, others discovered during the course of the journey.

SHAKA SEA WORLD:

The world's largest aquariums is to be found in this sprawling 40- acre site, close to the Durban seafront. You could sign up for the ocean walker experience -- where you walk slowly across the bottom of the open ocean exhibit, home to rays and assorted pelagic fish that include tuna, dorado ( mahimahi), and sardines. Or, you can also be ensconced in a cylinder and drop into a large shark tank. But if you are not up to adventure, do dine at Cargo Hold, a celebrated restaurant, located in the stern of a ghost ship, with the view of a shark aquarium. It is a surreal experience.

HOT- AIR BALLOONING:

The mountains, in

the Eastern Cape region, are often called the Alps of Africa.

They are gorgeous and a drive through the hills and vales offers you spectacular views, miles and miles of pristine landscape, the occasional village or local community where you can engage with the Zulu culture or buy antique bric- a- brac in charming garage sales reminiscent of an older England. But what you can -- and must -- do is hot- air ballooning. Impossibly romantic, this one is different from the balloon safaris, also becoming popular as luxe holidays in Africa -- here you go above the cloud cover and get a stunning 360 degree view of the mountains. Sip on your sparkling as you float on the clouds.

Once back on terra firma, a hearty breakfast at a farm may follow. This was the high point of my trip.

HISTORIC BATTLEFIELDS:

The KwaZulu Natal region is home to a number of historical sites, where British, Boer and Zulu armies all fought bloody wars.

With expert guiding you can hear all about how a hundred British soldiers held off some 4,000 Zulus at Rorke's Drift, or how nearly 1,800 were killed a few hours earlier at the battle of Isandlwana, and discover how Mahatma Gandhi, Paul Kruger and Winston Churchill were involved in a desperate struggle at the desolate summit of Spioenkop, during the Boer War.

THE FREEDOM TRAIL:

Gandhi's influence on South Africa is still perceptible. You can visit his Phoenix ashram , quite popular with those interested in history, just as much as you can visit all the sites associated with Mandela.

The Nelson Mandela capture site in KwaZulu Natal, near Howick, in particular, is a must visit. This is where Mandela began his 27- year incarceration.

And this is now where a spectacular sculpture now stands.

SPAS, LODGES AND MORE:

I was told that any rich South African businessman has just one ambition -- build the most luxurious lodge money can afford and connect with the bush. I stayed at the Karkaloof Safari Spa, apparently Africa's biggest, which has a fabulous Thai spa to boot.

There is a beautiful game reserve with rhinos, 300 bird species and a boutique lodge with 16 opulent villas. Everything is customised and you can choose to do what you like, how you like through your time here.

Time indeed, or timelessness, is pure luxury, after all.

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Publication:Mail Today (New Delhi, India)
Geographic Code:6SOUT
Date:Jun 8, 2014
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