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 percent 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.)
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, www.tablemountain.net.
—Near Cape Town: Cape Point
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.
From the Cape Point parking area (which likely will be busy), walk or take a shuttle bus to the 1860 Cape Point Lighthouse on the high ground. Then, if you're not acrophobic, ditch the crowds by taking the Light House Keepers Trail. The sign says this route is a 90-minute round-trip walk, which daunts most tourists who have bus drivers waiting. But if you're reasonably fit, you can cover the ground in 45 minutes.
Clued in by guide Rob Salmon of Cape Convoy, I grabbed a sandwich to go from the restaurant (more nice views) and set off on a narrow trail cut into a steep, scrubby slope. The trail ends at Dias Point, a far finger of land that features another lighthouse (from 1910) and drop-dead views up and down the coast. On the way back to Cape Town, take Chapman's Peak Drive, a 9-kilometer, 114-bend coast road built by convicts from 1915 to 1922, that rivals California's Highway 1 through Big Sur.
—Near Cape Town: On the water
Even if it's only for 45 minutes, you need a spell on the water. My plan was to take a boat out from Gansbaai (about 1,500 rand, or about $200; www.whitesharkprojects.co.za), about two hours' drive east of Cape Town, climb into a cage and hope to see sharks up close near Dyer Island, a.k.a. Shark Alley. The area is one of the world's best for sighting sharks, either below the surface or breaching, and April-September is said to be peak season, not only for sharks but also for watching Southern right whales from the shore at nearby Hermanus. But as is common in winter, a storm scrubbed that excursion.
So I settled for a quick zip on a tourist boat around Hout Bay (about 45 rand, about $6). There were seals on rocks out there, but the real appeal was Sentinel Rock, looming in the mist, and the boiling, foamy waves. Once you've risen and fallen on 10-foot swells (some days, they're 30 feet), it's easier to picture all the ships that have wrecked around here. You can also sign on to a shark excursion (www.apexpredators.com) from Simon's Town, about 45 minutes from Cape Town.
Easier still, you could take a Robben Island excursion (about three hours) or dinner cruise from Cape Town's Victoria & Alfred Waterfront, a glitzy gathering of restaurants and shops just a couple of blocks from the new 70,000-seat Cape Town Stadium at Green Point (which will host eight World Cup matches).
—Near Cape Town: The Cape Winelands
Winemaking in the Cape area dates to the 17th century, when Dutch settlers and French Huguenots began planting here. Now scores of wineries thrive around the cities of Stellenbosch, Paarl and Franschoek, amid scenery more dramatic than most of the California wine country. Although the serious wine person will debate which tasting rooms deserve visits, let me offer these words to the not-so-serious: Go to Stellenbosch (about 30 miles outside Cape Town) and check out the palatial tasting rooms, cellar and grounds of erstwhile golfer Ernie Els (www.ernieelswines.com), built in 2004.
Besides well-regarded red wines, you can admire photos of Els' sporting triumphs and bask in the Napa-on-the-Atlantic grandeur of it all. Then, for less grandeur and more action, head to the nearby Spier winery (www.spier.co.za), a vast enterprise where the tasting room is joined by a 155-room hotel, several restaurants, swimming pools, spa, craft market, horse stables, amphitheater, eagle-rehabilitation center and a cheetah outreach project where you can see fast cats up close and, for a few dollars more, pet one.
—In Johannesburg: Law, disorder and rugby
Just about the worst move you could make in Johannesburg, many locals say, would be to linger after dark in crime-ridden Hillbrow, the neighborhood next to Ellis Park Stadium. But if you have tickets for one of the matches at the stadium (perhaps the June 18 contest between the U.S. and Slovenia), remember: This is where, in 1995, South Africa's then-President Nelson Mandela (now 91 and retired from public life) donned a green athletic shirt and walked onto the field to show solidarity with the nation's mostly white national rugby team as it faced a World Cup final match. This is the boundary-breaking moment the movie "Invictus" was built around, and white South Africans still marvel at the power of that moment.
Near Ellis Park is a spot you can visit — Constitution Hill, where South Africa's highest court meets in a chamber partly built from recycled prison bricks. With cattle hides stretched across the justices' tables, windows showing the feet of passersby and an open visitor area, the symbolism of the 2004 design is a virtual demand the jurists work with transparency and humility. Tours are offered every day but Sunday (www.constitutionalcourt.org.za).
—In Johannesburg: Soweto
For the World Cup faithful, the center of the universe will be Johannesburg's dramatically upgraded Soccer City Stadium, site of the tournament's first match (South Africa versus Mexico on June 11) and its final one on July 11. Locals call it the Calabash, because its pixilated red-and-brown exterior reminds them of a traditional pot for preparing food or brewing beer.
But if you're curious about South African society, another vital stop is just a few miles away: Soweto. Born in the early 20th century as a residence for black male laborers, the township received global attention in the 1970s and '80s as a site of profound poverty and key battles in the campaign against apartheid. Now it's a big chunk of Johannesburg (40 to 100 square miles, depending how you count) with two malls, a major hospital and an estimated 2 million or more residents, some in spacious residences with water and electricity that would look at home in Simi Valley, others in squatters' shacks. (Imagine if Tijuana were part of San Diego.) Sign on for a daylong tour and you'll see Vilakazi Street, where Mandela lived in the 1940s and '50s and where Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu lives now.
I took away a more personal impression from the Motsoaledi Informal Settlement (a.k.a. squatters' camp), where about 20,000 people live in shacks and unemployment is estimated at 60 percent. "There is no electricity here," resident tour-guide Mandla Shongwe explained. "People are using paraffin for cooking, so there are a lot of fires, especially in winter." Still, Shongwe said: "There is a difference between living in poverty and living in misery."
—In Johannesburg: The Apartheid Museum
Make time for this. South Africa's history is a tangled, bloody, inspiring, irony-and-surprise-ridden story, especially the apartheid years from the late 1940s to the early 1990s. This provocative museum (www.apartheidmuseum.org), opened in 2001, is the place to take it in. Allow two or three hours, even if you don't usually linger in museums.
—Near Johannesburg: Critters up close
Some of the best wildlife game-viewing in South Africa is at Kruger National Park — which is convenient if you're headed to watch a match in the nearby city of Nelspruit, or if you've set aside a few days for travel around the country. But for travelers who want to grab game encounters closer to Johannesburg, Pilanesburg Game Reserve (www.pilanesberg-game-reserve.co.za) is an easier choice, about 90 minutes from Johannesburg or Pretoria, next door to the Sun City casino and entertainment complex. Or, if you'd need to stick within an hour of Johannesburg but still want to reach out and touch an elephant or get a big, wet trunk-kiss from one, there's the Elephant Sanctuary (www.elephantsanctuary.co.za) at Hartbeespoort Dam.
—Near Johannesburg: Pretoria
Johannesburg's first gold boom occurred in the late 19th century, and much of the money has since migrated to its well-secured northern suburbs, where many of the best hotels and restaurants are. (For a taste of that good life, have a sunset drink amid the tribal designs and face-painters of the massive Moyo restaurant at Zoo Lake in the Randburg area, then head for dinner at one of the flashy eateries at Melrose Arch.)
If you keep traveling north 30 more miles, you'll hit Pretoria. This leafy city is the seat of South Africa's executive government, home to the stolid old buildings around Church Square, and the century-old Loftus Versfeld Stadium, which will host six World Cup matches, including U.S.-Algeria on June 23.
After downtown Joburg and Soweto, Pretoria feels like a different country, its history dominated by Afrikaner farmers (aka Boers), mostly descended from Dutch, German and French immigrants, who came to South Africa centuries ago. These are the white farmers who fought the British for control of the country in the 19th and early 20th centuries, the dogged fighters whose leaders instituted apartheid in the 1940s.
In all of South Africa, you'd be hard-pressed to find a more potent symbol of those old ways than the Voortrekker Monument at the edge of town. It's a solemn stone box atop a series of steps, built in 1940 to commemorate the Boers' defeat of Zulu forces in the early 19th century. It gave me the willies.
—Near Johannesburg: The high-up lowdown
For an easy bird's-eye view of downtown Joburg, try the 50th-floor observation deck of the Carlton building, which rises above a mall. Or you could do what I did. We were in Soweto, driving by the Orlando Towers, a pair of concrete cooling towers (picture Three Mile Island) that helped deliver electricity to the city from the 1950s until 1998. Since then, the towers have been covered top to bottom by colorful murals. And since 2008, the towers have been rigged with gear for bungee jumping and something called "power swinging," which is like rappelling (so you go down feet first, not head-first). The tower spoke to me.
Soon I was stepping into the orange shipping containers that serve as the operation's offices, watching a couple of other jumpers, inquiring about prices (360 rand, about $48, for a power swing, 60 rand, about $8, for a ride to the viewing platform) fatalities (none so far) and traffic (40 jumpers on a busy Saturday). Then I was up top, trying to keep cool.
"Look," I wanted to say. "I can see Desmond Tutu's house from here." But what came out was:
"Um. Feeling some nerves."
"Perfectly natural," said the jump master. Then came the countdown. And then I took the big step and plunged in free-fall for a purported 3.5 seconds (it felt like less). As tension on the ropes increased, my fall slowed and I swung back and forth, those enormous murals growing and shrinking and coming and going at crazy angles, the sound system throbbing below. Eventually the Earth came up to gently greet me. It was a hoot. I hope the World Cup works out the same way.