I visited three distinct locales in South Africa. These are the snapshot impressions I brought home.
'The most stately thing, the fairest Cape . . .'
Down at the end of Africa, 8,000 straight-shot miles from Miami over open Atlantic, lies the city described by explorer Francis Drake in 1580 as "the most stately thing, the fairest Cape we saw in the whole circumference of the earth."
It must have been equally awesome in 1652 when Jan Van Riebeeck arrived by sailing ship to become Cape Town's first commander on behalf of the Dutch East India Company, which founded the city as a re-victualing station for its ships sailing to the Far East for spices.
It is stunning still today. Starting at its deep, serene Atlantic harbor, the city stretches back only a couple of miles before the land juts straight up into a flat-topped, crescent- shaped promontory called Table Mountain. If it isn't too windy, a visitor can take a cable car up over the mountain's precipitous, vertical face to the top.
From there, visibility veers from infinity to zero in an instant, then back to infinity as South Africa's whipped-cream clouds scud past, catch briefly on the tall rocks and stream away.
"The cloth is on the table," Cape Towners like to say on days like this.
The view, when visible, is spectacular. To the north lie the city's orange-tiled roofs and marble-clad skyscrapers, appearing more Mediterranean, really, than African. To the west is open Atlantic. To the south, 25 miles down a rough, mountainous peninsula stands the dramatic, rocky Cape of Good Hope and, beyond it, the tumultuous waters where the Atlantic and Indian oceans meet.
There's no better way to experience this beauty than to rent one of the ubiquitous local minivans -- called cambis -- and take a driving tour of the city and its surroundings.
We start directly on the bay, at Victoria & Albert Waterfront, a festival marketplace like Miami's Bayside, with world-class fashion shops, African souvenir stores and open-air British style pubs featuring fish 'n' chips and Foster's ale. It's built around the harbor, where the liner Queen Elizabeth II docked one recent sunny weekend.
Still standing downtown, incongruously in the days after the country's first all-race election, are statues to the city's old segregationist leaders -- B.F. Vorster, Daniel Malan, Hendrik Verwoerd.
Maybe not for long, says our friend and volunteer guide, a black African named Cleo Zulu.
"They'll be torn down one night," he predicts. "Then they'll hold a big police investigation, and it won't prove anything."
Under apartheid, blacks and "coloreds" were banned from Cape Town. Now everything is changing. With the death of apartheid, South Africa's blacks are streaming into Cape Town looking for jobs. The massive, hideous squatter's camp that already existed at Cape Flats, a low, sandy area between Cape Town and its main airport, has exploded to maybe two million inhabitants.
Still, many hope for a peaceful transition.
"We were afraid there might be riots in the streets after the election," said Pierre Marais, a white South African wine executive, a month after the election. "But there hasn't been any trouble at all."
South Africa's blacks, "coloreds" and whites seem determined to create a tolerant nation, avoiding the violence that has torn apart some other African countries after freedom. That determination becomes even more understandable when we see the grandeur of the land as the cambi makes its way toward the Cape of Good Hope.