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I've spent the last 10 days in South Africa, exploring the wilderness and the cities, and the exchange rate between the South African rand and the U.S. dollar is so extreme that anyone coming with dollars feels like a rich person.
As recently as in 2011 the exchange rate reached less than 7 rand per dollar. Even then, the dollar had strong buying power in South Africa. I remember remarking that a beer over the counter was about half what it would have been in New York. Now the dollar is twice as strong as it was then.
Last night the group I was traveling with celebrated the conclusion of our trip with a bottle of Champagne in the bar at the Elangeni Hotel, where we have been staying in Durban for the Indaba travel trade show. The bottle of Champagne cost about as much as a single cocktail would have cost in a New York bar.
We had lunch at the Cubana Restaurant on Florida Road in Durban, a lively neighborhood cluster of trendy shops and restaurants, and eight people ate heartily, including drinks, for under $100.
This is a time when people who never thought they could afford to go to Africa can move that trip of a lifetime onto the list of possibilities.
We stayed at the Zululand Tree Lodge in the Ubizane Wildlife Reserve and went on safari in Hluhluwe Park, where we saw all of the Big Five except the elusive leopard, and the lodge offers a package that includes all meals and two game drives a day for about $127 a day. This is literally a good bit cheaper than most places I could stay back in New Jersey.
These kinds of prices carry through in every realm in South Africa now. We went to an Indian spice market in Durban yesterday (Durban has the largest Indian population of any city outside of India) and I bought a rich assortment of spices for a wad of cash that turned out to amount to only a few dollars. I bought a suitcase I needed and it turned out that the cost was $16.
It's truly odd to think of it, but you could go to South Africa as a shopping destination now. It could be worth your while to go just to buy goods even if you ignored completely all of South Africa's wonderful attributes.
And that is another story itself, much too long to tell here. But to summarize, South Africa gives you all the possibilities of a true safari in the African wilderness, but it is also a country with a first world infrastructure. The highways are comparable to what you would see in the U.S. The major cities are comparable to other major cities around the world in every aspect.
South Africa has an extraordinary history, in which many nationalities competed for dominion over its rich resources, and the centuries-long drama resulted in a rich multicultural tapestry that can be experienced in every aspect of the country today.
I find South Africa to have a uniquely rich culture, and on top of a great deal of strife in the country's history, it climaxed 20 years ago with the triumphant release of Nelson Mandela from prison, the country's first free elections and the overthrow of the oppressive apartheid regime.
So what you experience today is a country that is still basking in the glory of that political revolution and its embrace of the Nelson Mandela vision of equality, inclusion and the celebration of diversity. That's what I find most inspiring about the country, and you can feel it everywhere, among the people you encounter.
Apart from its glorious landscapes and its charismatic wildlife, this is the thing that affects me most in South Africa: the triumph of freedom and justice over a historically oppressive regime.
The country has plenty of troubles of course, as all countries do today, but with all of the unhappy stories coming to us from around the world on a daily basis, South Africa to me is a place of joy and possibility.
The dream of Nelson Mandela that has been realized today was perhaps defined best in a speech he gave from the dock of the Rivonia Trial in 1963, in which the state was seeking the death penalty for terrorism.
"I have fought against white domination and I have fought against black domination. I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons live together in harmony and with equal opportunities. It is an ideal which I hope to live for and to achieve. But if needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die."
Lucky for us, Mandela was able to avoid the death penalty. He was sentenced to life imprisonment and hard labor. But eventually his movement succeeded and he was freed and able to stand for election as president in a new South Africa where all citizens had the right to vote.
What we see now in South Africa is the realization of his dream. It is a unique, euphoric experience.
David Cogswell is executive editor covering tours and packages, Africa and the Middle East.
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