About a two-hour drive from Pretoria, in the northern province, is the famous resort town of Sun City. Though it is called "city", it is more like a huge entertainment complex (Wasn't Las Vegas like that at its beginning?). It is not popular within the backpacker circle due to its high cost. Lonely Planet suggests driving from Pretoria for a day to save accommodation expenses. While the famous Contiki (for travelers 18 to 35) doesn't include Sun City in their tour route, neither do other youth oriented tour operators. Fortunately, in the Taiwanese package tour I joined in 2000, Sun City was included in the itinerary, possibly because it was the off-peak season. The company even arranged for us to stay in the most luxurious inn for two nights!
There wasn't much to see as we passed by monotonous farmlands in the vast North West Province. Obviously Sun City was built in the middle of nowhere (again, similar to Las Vegas). I am not sure if it was related to the former apartheid regime’s paranoia that it should be as far away from its political turmoil as possible. The plus side is that Sun City offers many job opportunities for residents in an impoverished region. The only other attraction besides the fun of the “Complex”, is the Pilanesberg National Park. Although not as popular as Kruger National Park, it is supposed to have a better wildlife viewing. I was glad for the morning safari there the next day.
We checked into the "Palace of the Lost City". As its name suggests, it is palatial – two large outdoor swimming pools, beautiful surrounding marble statues and cascades all over its garden. We were impressed by its luxury. I also had a marble bathtub and rose petals over my bed. I can understand why it is ranked among the best inns in Africa. In the "Lonely Planet South Africa: 2000 version," I found a standard room starting at $320.00. This was one of those rare moments I was actually pleased to be on a prepaid tour package.
Outside the resort are three less luxurious inns, a huge casino (though not large compared with an average Las Vegas casino) and the "Valley of the Waves" – a long stretch of artificial sandy beach, lapping with waves you can surf on (generated by a machine). The artificial tropical rain forest has numerous trail heads to provide flavors of an African jungle. You'll also see several ancient ruins here and there. I was not sure whether their style was Greek, Roman, Mayan, or a mix.
Then there is a little volcano that erupts a few times a day; a drawbridge where you can feel earthquake (in my view, not scary enough). These set-ups are cute but not very interesting. It was too cold to enjoy the beach, or any of the water sports, which lowered the fun factor. Because most everything is fake, the entire complex is tacky – an Afro-Disneyland. Ironically, it has as much to do with African heritage as Euro-Disneyland has with French culture.
When I had the chance to safari in the Pilanesberg National Park, I was glad for an authentic African experience. The park is built on craters of an extinct volcano, looks like a typical African savannah. Maybe because it was in winter, the grass was dry and low. Leaving at 7:45 a.m., we could feel the chills of early morning. I guess animals sense that too; they were hidden most of the time. We did not see much wildlife, only six rhinoceroses, three elephants, two zebras, numerous wildebeest, and a group of African vervet monkeys. Lions, leopards, cheetahs, hippos, even the ubiquitous giraffes, eluded us. This was my first wildlife safari in Africa. I was disappointed.
Once I was back in Sun City, I just took the whole afternoon off, not doing anything (not even lying on the faked beach to enjoy the lapping sound of the faked waves). Is this the way a vacation should be? I would learn to enjoy the art of nothingness the next time I visited Africa, seven years later.
I do not recommend seeing Sun City, especially for those who are traveling to South Africa from North America or Australia. It is only a big theme park. If you enjoy the luxury of an exclusive resort, there are many places in the Caribbean, Southeast Asia and the South Pacific. In my opinion, Africa is for the wildlife, friendly Africans and their unique culture.
Read more of Saricie Kuo's travels at his website.