My trip to Johannesburg coincided with the first anniversary of Nelson Mandela’s death. According to Xhosa tradition, the ethnic group to which he belonged, mourning must last for a full year. After this period has passed, his widow can stop wearing black, and the legacy of the man whom South Africans call Madiba (‘grandfather’), can at last be fully celebrated. On our first morning bells rang out, and a three-minute silence was observed.
We stayed at The Saxon Hotel, Villas and Spa, an urban retreat enclosed in a 10-acre compound of enchanting gardens, located in the residential area of Sandhurst. The only privately owned five-star hotel in Jo’burg, the building was originally built as a private home for insurance magnate Doug Steyn (the man behind Compare the Market/Meerkat) and his family. Just minutes from the varied and vibrant heart of the city, it’s easy to see why close family friend Nelson Mandela chose to write A Long Walk to Freedom while staying here after his release from prison.
The Saxon’s vast guestrooms and suites are spread between the main house and three private villas. After a long flight, the luxury rooms, furnished with African antiques and huge marble baths, came as a welcome sight. Unique for Jo’burg, the villas are available to rent on an exclusive basis. Each has its own lounge and dining area with a bar, private plunge pool and terrace, as well as a 24-hour kitchen, private butler and chef. The complex serves as the backdrop to 250 celebrated works of African art: sculptures, paintings and installations. Exhibitions also offer for sale pieces by local artists – I was sorely tempted – if only there’d been a little more room in my suitcase.
Jetlagged travelers are looked after with a signature sound therapy treatment in The Spa and Studio. Tibetan singing bowls, chimes and gongs restore and rebalance the body’s natural energy through sound vibration. Likened to the feeling of eight hours deep sleep, the 60-minute treatment is truly blissful. The Saxon’s gastronomic highlight is five hundred, universally lauded as one of South Africa’s best restaurants. Groups can book the chef’s table to sample a six-course tasting menu, matched with delicious local wines. Chef David Higgs creates amazing dishes based around ingredients from his kitchen garden.
We were torn away from the beauty of our surroundings to meet expert guide Gerald Garner of Joburg Places. His three-hour inner city walking tour recounted the story of Jo’burg’s gold rush birth, its glory days and subsequent decline through the years of Apartheid. Gerald told stories of Mandela and Mahatma Gandhi, each of whom began their careers as lawyers fighting for human rights in the city. We visited Gandhi Square and Chancellor House (once the offices of Mandela & Tambo), as well as The Sheds@1Fox, a farmers’ market in a historic warehouse, showcasing the best of South African produce and craft beers. Other empty spaces downtown are slowly being converted into offices and residential apartments, attracting a younger crowd back to the city. Jo’burg is working hard to revamp its image.
No tour of Jo’burg would be complete without a visit to Soweto, Mandela’s original home, something The Saxon is happy to arrange. At 150 square kilometres, Soweto is the largest township in South Africa, housing two million people, one of the biggest hospitals in Africa, the University of Johannesburg and at least one Volkswagen car dealership. A visit to Vilkazi Street – the only street in the world to have housed two Nobel Prize winners (Mandela and Archbishop Desmond Tutu) – reveals a bustling neighbourhood, full of restaurants, cafés and street-sellers.
The Saxon’s sister property is the Shambala Private Game Reserve, a picturesque retreat in Limpopo Province just a few hours from the city. Staying in the honeycomb-shaped chalets of the Zulu Camp, guests are at leisure to do what they want, when they want, whether it’s a bush picnic or sunset cocktails on a boat by the Douw Steyn Dam, home to hippos and crocodiles. Dinner is locally sourced, and can involve a five-course meal with wine, or a traditional fireside ‘Boma’, followed by a nightcap or two. Treatments in the Shambala spa take place while listening to the sounds of birdcall or animals splashing in the river below. South African Thera Naka and Thera Vine products, made of African plant extracts, are used to leave guests feeling at one with nature.
The Zulu Camp looks on to the Waterberg mountain range and is surrounded by 12,000 hectares of pristine natural wilderness. The year-round abundance of wildlife means that animal watching (under expert guidance) forms a big part of any stay at the Camp. There are regular sightings of the big five (leopard are a rarer sight), as well as hippos and black impala. The elephant safari was a highlight of the trip. I rode a female named ‘Mouse’ (the male was called ‘Micky’), who guided me through the stunning landscape, while her babies gallivanted around her heals.
Shambala is also home to The Nelson Mandela Centre for Reconciliation, which opened to the public earlier this year. Originally built for Mandela by Doug Steyn in 2001, the building was a place where the President could relax with his family, and receive guests, as well a place for others to host meetings. Now the Centre is available to rent to small groups and families, who are encouraged to embrace Mandela’s legacy. At his request, the house is a masterpiece of understatement, warm and welcoming – a fitting tribute to an exceptional man.
After serving 18 years in prison on Robben Island, Mandela was freed on 11 February 1990. His release marked the first step towards the stabilisation of South Africa. As the country marks the 25th anniversary of Mandela’s liberation, 2015 is a good year to take a trip to South Africa.