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South Africa on the up

Derek Tucker is sold on the wonders of South Africa after a winning bid at a charity auction proved to be more affordable than you might expect

THINGS are very much looking up for South Africa these days. Its cricket team last year inflicted a crushing defeat on the previously unassailable Australians, its rugby team are world beaters and the country is looking forward – albeit with some trepidation – to the football World Cup in 2010. The only significant dark cloud is the same one which hangs over the whole world, recession.

It is, additionally, making huge strides on the tourism front, helped enormously by a combination of glorious weather, a weak currency and the incredibly cheap cost of living, which more than offsets the high cost of travelling there in the first place. Nowhere is this boom in tourism more evident than on the garden route, which meanders, officially, from Mossel Bay in the western Cape to the Storms River in the east, but which nowadays is interpreted much more loosely.

Our introduction to the delights of the Cape came about, as do many of life’s extravagances, as a result of an over-consumption of wine and the almost instinctive raising of a hand at a charity auction. One bid and the what-do-you-buy-the-woman-who-has-everything problem was resolved in an instant. Our itinerary, therefore, was pre-determined for us by the travel agency which had donated the holiday, Matrix Travel Services, a small, independent company, based in Colchester.

Travelling from Aberdeen on the red-eye flight to Amsterdam to join the connection to Cape Town saw us arrive in South Africa at 10.30pm on the same day, a remarkably quick and pain-free journey, considering the 6,500 miles covered. One bonus about a late-night arrival is that there is none of the delays and queuing associated with airports, and we were safely in our car within 30 minutes of touchdown, destined for the seaside resort of Camps Bay which sits just a few miles from Cape Town, separated by Table Mountain.

Sitting with a glass of wine on the terrace of our room at the intimate, boutique Place on the Bay hotel, listening to the waves crashing over the rocks just a few yards away, was the perfect way to chill out after 15 hours of travelling, and the still darkness of the night proved a tantalising foretaste of the delights of this quaint little town.

A new day brought a new hotel, this time the magnificent Cape Grace on the Victoria and Alfred waterfront in Cape Town, a perfect demonstration of how a working harbour and waterside bars, shops and restaurants can co-exist.

Cape Grace is, quite simply, stunning, a mixture of luxury and informality which makes guests feel instantly at home. It has the added benefit of being home to the Bascule Bar, which boasts a collection of 300 Scotch whiskies and produces exceptional food at ridiculously low prices. Two days of exploring the waterfront attractions and Cape Town itself saw the cases packed and a one-hour limousine transfer to the winelands, where the Kleine Zalze winery near Stellenbosch was to be our home for the next three nights.

Accommodation at Kleine Zalze is in small blocks of luxury apartments, with the championship de Zalze golf course and the magnificent Terroir restaurant on the doorstep. One tip for anyone planning to play de Zalze, however. Pre-book a buggy. We failed to do so and had to pull our clubs around the undulating course in temperatures approaching 100F, which proved extremely uncomfortable but at least provided an excuse for the quality of the golf.

Within what appears to be the blink of an eye, we were now halfway through our 12-day break and the delivery of our hire car signalled the start of the drive along the garden route. The 250-mile drive to the town of George and the prestigious Fancourt Golf and Country Club passed in a flash. If the Donald Trump development outside Aberdeen is on a par with the Fancourt, then it cannot come quickly enough.

Superb accommodation, six on-site restaurants and four exceptional golf courses provide the perfect relaxation, again delivered with none of the stuffiness associated with similar establishments elsewhere in the world. The Gary Player-designed courses are a golfer’s dream, beautifully maintained and every hole a real test. A caddy between two players is compulsory, but at less than £10 for an 18-hole round, it is hardly a financial burden and helps maintain the pace of play.

Our final destination took us another 250 miles east to the Shamwari Game Reserve, midway between the motor town of Port Elizabeth and Grahamstown. This sprawling, 60,000-acre private conservation and game park is home to the so-called big five – elephant, lion, black rhino, leopard and buffalo – the five animals considered the most dangerous to hunt.

Hunting is not, however, the name of the game at Shamwari, where conservation extends even to the bugs and ants which make this estate their home. Seven lodges play host to visitors who, in the past, have included Diana, Princess of Wales and Tiger Woods, who chose it as the place to propose to his girlfriend.

Each lodge offers a different kind of accommodation and, based on the advice of our travel agent, we selected Bayethe, which is described as “luxury tented” but is, in fact, a group of thatched chalets overlooking a watering hole frequented by the animals which roam freely around the park.

Each group of six people is allocated a ranger and an open-topped all-terrain vehicle, and game drives take place each day at 6am (ouch) and 4pm.

It is somehow difficult to reconcile the fact that these animals are roaming wild yet happily accept the khaki-coloured Toyota safari vehicles and the camera-clicking tourists within them. At one stage, four lionesses and two cubs were walking nonchalantly less than five yards from our vehicle, seemingly oblivious to our existence.

A cheetah and her two cubs played together, similarly unconcerned at our presence and a herd of elephants munched away at the grass and shrubs while completely encircling us in what looked like a carefully choreographed show of friendship.

It is difficult to put into words the exhilaration on catching the first glimpse of the elusive leopard or finally happening on a herd of buffalo after tracking them for almost an hour across the inhospitable terrain, but magical comes pretty close. And there is a sense of real achievement when finally able to tick off the last of the big five in the “I Spy” booklet provided for each guest.

It is easy to be put off visiting South Africa by the high cost of getting there, but this is more than offset by the ridiculously cheap cost of living. As Scotland’s politicians wrestle with the problem of cheap drinks promotions and their effect on binge-drinking, they might like to consider what they would do if the standard price of a bottle of wine was less than £1, and a pocketful of loose change could easily finance a night’s serious over-indulgence.

It is certainly a cost-effective alternative to some of the other long-haul, exotic destinations which remain infinitely more popular yet which offer far less variety.