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Nairi

Porter

South Africa

South Africa is an exhilarating, spectacular and complex country. With its post-apartheid identity still in the process of definition, there is undoubtedly an abundance of energy and sense of progress about the place. Travellers too are returning to a remarkable land that has been off the trail for way too long.

The infrastructure is constantly improving, the climate is kind and there are few better places to see Africa's wildlife. But if you want to understand the country, you'll have to deal with the full spectrum. Poverty, the AIDS pandemic and violence remain a problem.

The influx of foreign visitors in recent years has brought about an explosion of tours and activities: everything from abseiling off Table Mountain to sipping cocktails while watching lions. As a backdrop to all this, South Africa continues to go through huge upheavals as it comes to terms with democracy, and in these terms it is a young country. Democracy has precipitated change both good and bad - the dissolution of physical and psychological barriers around skin colour at one end of the scale, the well-publicised crime problem at the other. It is both an invigorating and challenging time for South Africa, and a great time to visit and observe this metamorphosis first hand.

Full country name: The Republic of South Africa
Area: 1.23 million sq km
Population: 43.8 million
Capital City: Pretoria (official); Bloemfontein (judicial) and Cape Town (legislative).
People: 77% black, 10% white (60% of whites are of Afrikaaner descent, most of the rest are of British descent), 8% mixed race, 2.5% of Indian or Asian descent
Language: Afrikaans, Xhosa, English, Zulu, Tswana
Religion: Christian, Muslim, Hindu, Jewish and traditional religions
Government: republic and independent member of the British Commonwealth
Head of State: President Thabo Mbeki
Head of Government: Prime Minister Jacob Zuma

GDP: US$146 billion
GDP per capita: US$2,133
Annual Growth: 0.9%
Inflation: 7.8%
Major Industries: Mining, finance, insurance, food processing
Major Trading Partners: USA, UK, Germany, Japan, Italy

Environment

Cape Town

In this beautiful city even transient visitors can't help but devote a few million brain cells to storing images of its grandeur: its striking Table Mountain backdrop, its glorious beaches and enchanting vineyards, its rugged landscapes, its strange and wonderful plants and animals.

There are great walks and spectacular views from Tabletop Mountain as well as ocean swimming, boating activities, and plenty of ways to get out into the wilderness areas around Cape Town. Whether you're up for a heart pumping abseil, sand-boarding or sky-diving, you won't have to look very far for an operator who'll be quick to take your money. Indoors, the city boasts a wealth of interesting museums

Stellenbosch

Much of the charm of the Stellenbosch valley lies in its well-preserved Cape Dutch homesteads set against the backdrop of the mountains which flank the district. The simple dwellings of the first Dutch settlers were gradually replaced by handsome, whitewashed houses, often with an ornately decorated central gable.

Generally, the fronts of these houses were shaded by a pergola covered in vines. Some of the best Cape-Dutch architecture can be found in the wine estates around Stellenbosch and in the Franschhoek Valley. However, the most famous example is Groot Constantia in the Cape Peninsula, the home of Simon van der Stel, governor of the Dutch East India Company's settlement at the Cape of Good Hope in the late 1600s, who gave his name to Stellenbosch.

South Africa is a big wallop of a country, extending nearly 2000km (1240mi) from the Limpopo River in the north to Cape Agulhas in the south and nearly 1500km (930mi) from Port Nolloth in the west to Durban in the east. Namibia, Botswana, Zimbabwe, Mozambique and Swaziland run from west to east along South Africa's northern border and Lesotho soars above the grassland towards the southeast. The country can be divided into three major parts: the vast interior plateau, the Kalahari Basin, and a narrow coastal plain.

The region's flora is spectacular, with wildflowers from peaceful lilies to raging red-hot pokers in the grasslands, weird succulents blooming after spring rains, and one of the world's six floral kingdoms - the Cape Floral Kingdom - prettying up the Western Cape. Large areas in the north are covered by a savannah-type vegetation, characterised by acacias and thorn trees, and there are forest remnants along the southern coast and in the north-east.

When it comes to land mammals, South Africa hogs the superlatives: it's got the biggest (the African elephant), the smallest (the pygmy shrew), the tallest (the giraffe) and the fastest (the cheetah). The country is also home to the last substantial populations of black and white rhinos - with horns intact. You're most likely to encounter these critters in one of South Africa's national parks, but you should keep an eye out for lurking crocodiles in lowveld streams and rampaging hippos in the northern coastal regions. No slacker when it comes to birdlife, South Africa is home to the ostrich (the world's largest bird), the Kori bustard (the largest flying bird), as well as sunbirds, flamingoes and the sociable weaver birds who live in 'cities' of woven grass.

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