Table Mountain, Cape Town’s exquisite backdrop, recedes, wearing a tablecloth of cloud as our boat leaves Victoria and Alfred Waterfront on its 12km voyage to Robben Island.
The brutal penal colony was where South Africa’s best-known citizen, the late Nelson Mandela – lawyer, freedom fighter, president and Nobel laureate – spent 18 of 27 imprisoned years.
Fellow passengers mostly forget about Mandela when they notice that, just outside the harbour, we’re being followed.
Three white-whiskered creatures are tailing us, their big eyes breaking the cold sea’s surface. “They’re so cute,” passengers yell, pointing and aiming cameras at this trio of playful seals.
Wildlife remains most tourists’ #1 South African priority, with our seal encounter illustrating this fixation. Frustrated tourism officials try highlighting other attractions, such as a scenic wine-producing district just outside Cape Town.
But it’s animals that tourists mainly come to see. The Big Five top wish lists: lions, elephants, rhinos, leopards and buffaloes. However, cheetahs, hippos and other creatures also rate highly.
Nonetheless, it’s hoped Mandela magic will boost numbers, suggesting tourists twin natural history with modern history.
Mandela is, after all, the world’s best-known South African. Certainly within the country there’s no escaping his hero status. His name adorns bays, bridges, streets and stadiums. Statues, good and bad, are everywhere. His face is on banknotes. Souvenirs even include stuffed toys. Anything Mandela-related is “hot”, even after his death in December 2013 aged 95.
World Heritage-listed Robben Island is by far the best-known Mandela-related destination. Tour tickets are often sold out.
But even this flat, oval African Alcatraz has its wildlife component: colonies of penguins and South Africa’s ubiquitous antelope, the springbok.
Ex-political prisoners are now guides. We tour the quarry where Mandela and others smashed limestone rocks, learning about black convicts’ inferior garb (shorts even in winter) and diet (less of everything).
Then it’s time to discover what “behind bars” really means: we edge down corridors in B Block, with its cage-like barred cells. No. 4 – a grim 2.44m by 2.44m, with a sleeping mat in a corner – was home to prisoner 46664. Tourists squeeze in, experiencing briefly what Mandela endured for years.
His story begins in Mvezo, a village on the Eastern Cape about halfway between Durban and Port Elizabeth. From a highway, a two-hour drive to his birthplace is mostly on a winding dirt road through picturesque countryside, skirting a valley where the Mbashe River meanders. Dotted with thatched circular dwellings, this is picture-postcard South Africa, yet it’s the country’s poorest region.
Blanket-wearing tribesmen, smoking pipes, wave as I pass. Mvezo is, because of distance, the least-visited third of the Nelson Mandela Museum. Other sites are Qunu, where he grew up, and the Bhunga, a historic building in the town of Mthatha.
Mandela became a lawyer and after moving to Johannesburg, he rose to prominence in the African National Congress. He was involved in politics for 67 years.
In 1956, he was among 156 people accused of high treason but acquitted. Seven years later, police raided the underground headquarters of the ANC’s armed wing, Umkhonto we Sizwe (Spear of the Nation), arresting key leaders. Mandela, nicknamed the Black Pimpernel, wasn’t among them because he was already imprisoned for leaving the country illegally.
He joined his co-conspirators as Accused No. 1 in the subsequent Rivonia Trial, so dubbed because of the Johannesburg suburb where the accused were arrested. He received a life sentence and Robben Island incarceration.
At Pretoria’s Palace of Justice, I sit in the dock from which Mandela listened to testimony. Later, I visit semi-rural Liliesleaf Farm where the leadership was nabbed. It’s now a museum.
“People are amazed how close it is to everything; they expect somewhere remote,” says Nicholas Wolpe, who runs Liliesleaf. He’s the son of Harold Wolpe, one of the seized activists.
Anti-apartheid funds were used to buy the farm. Whites in the leadership were supposedly farmers while black colleagues, including Mandela, pretended to be farm labourers.
The farm was a hub of intrigue: Radio Freedom broadcast from an underground transmitter. Agents pretended to be telephone linesmen to observe Liliesleaf and evaluate a tip-off.
And then there’s Mandela’s pistol. It was buried at Liliesleaf, Mandela revealed years later when he was president. “It’s never been found,” Nicholas Wolpe confides. “But we know it’s here.”
When Mandela was arrested in 1962, on a road near Howick 100km inland from Durban, he was posing as a white activist’s chauffeur. At the Mandela Capture Site, which is another museum, I examine photos recording major moments in the anti-racist struggle.
Presidents and prime ministers from around the world attended the funeral of Mandela. But those in South Africa believe his legend and his allure will live on.
You can still get a wildlife fix in any of the destinations on a Mandela tour of South Africa.
Several Big Five “game farms” are within day-trip distance of Cape Town. The beasts or their ancestors were relocated from habitats further north, creating attractions for the time-poor.
In the Eastern Cape, where Mandela was born, is luxurious Kwandwe, a game park boasting the Big Five, and the government-run Addo Elephant National Park, with more wild pachyderms than anywhere else (plus other animals) and good-quality accommodation.
Johannesburg, meanwhile, is close to the famed Kruger National Park, with many game lodges at its edges offering accommodation at different levels of luxury and the Big Five (plus other animals) aplenty.
And KwaZulu Natal is, after Kruger, South Africa’s main game-viewing destination. Game parks include Hluhluwe and Imfolozi, with Phinda among top-end lodges.
RACV Cruises & Tours saves you 5% on a tour of South Africa. Take in Cape Town, Kruger NP, Victoria Falls and two nights aboard the Zambezi Queen on APT’s 17-day African Journey. Priced from $9540pp twin-share, it includes internal flights, hotels and safari lodge. Book early to secure a Companion Fly Free deal from Melbourne. Get full details from racv.com.au/cruisesandtours or call 1300 850 884.
RACV can help
RACV shops have maps, travel guides, first aid kits and more for your trip. Visit any RACV shop. Don’t forget travel insurance – ask at any RACV shop, call 13 13 29 or get a quote at racv.com.au/travel, where you also find out about International Driving Permits.
mandela.southafrica.net. For general tourism, go to www.southafrica.net.
Chris Pritchard travelled as a guest of South African Tourism.