"Local es likker," they said, urging us to use our fingers on the just-off-the-coals fish. "Local is better," we agreed.
Hands _ black, brown and white _ reached for bread, sweet potatoes and the barbecued fish. A South African braai, such as this meal, has distinct traditions. Our new Strandveld friends, descendants of the San Bushmen, taught us the ropes.
The guys _ Hendrik, a host, and Andy, my nephew _ made the fires, one for fish and one for bread, while drinking the requisite amount of beer. Their chores took about three hours.
The women, in the meantime, got the fish and bread ready to grill, boiled purple sweet potatoes, talked U.S. politics of race and South African politics of AIDS, told jokes, ran down the latest fashions and knocked back a few beers themselves.
Then, we ate the local way, with our fingers, and talked shop. Hendrik was just starting his trekking/guiding business and chatted with one of the best tour guides in Africa, and Andy, contemplating law school, spoke with Hendrik's attorney. Departing, Andy and I agreed again, "Local es likker."
Let others chase South Africa's big beasts. We were chasing a rainbow, the rainbow of people that make up the postapartheid nation, which has 11 official languages. Our trip was a college graduation present for my nephew. I just hoped to laugh, bond, expand his mind, exceed his expectations and create memories he would cherish.
"It's like the treasure hunts you used to make for my birthday," Andy said, poring over our latest fax from Dreamcatcher, the great South African travel Web site I had found.
With roots in helping South Africa's black entrepreneurs claim their piece of a growing tourism pie, and joined by like-minded white businesses, Dreamcatcher provides any person or group wanting to travel around South Africa routes that show what the country is beyond the "bus window," as its Web site says. The company gave us a loose plan for a three-week driving sojourn; every few days a fax arrived to fill in the details of our next stop.
From Durban to Cape Town, we met the people, visited their work and stayed in their homes, guest houses, bed and breakfasts and nice, inexpensive hotels. Home stays, a Dreamcatcher specialty, included a tidy room or two, a private bath and breakfast. Soccer scores, stories, laughs and hugs were frequent and free.
Zipping out of modern Durban, a cultural curry of urban Zulus and whites spiced with people descended from Indian immigrants, we headed southwest for the Eastern Cape province, the land of Nelson Mandela's birth.
Villages of the Xhosa people _ communities of mud huts with conical grass roofs and scrawny goats roaming about _ are scattered across the dry, scrubby grassland called veld. It felt like another century. The town of Umtata felt like another country, one with no trace of South Africa's gold and diamond wealth.
Umtata, near where Mandela was born, is in an area previously called the Transkei, one of apartheid South Africa's black homelands. Post-apartheid progress is evident around the edges: new housing, office buildings and a nice hotel.
Farther southwest, Port Elizabeth, or PE for short, was our first stay-put stop. Donning wet suits, we jumped in a boat that left from one of PE's beaches. The cold water, neon-lime-colored sponges, lobster-red sea fans and a ragged-tooth shark took our breath away.
Nearby is the Addo Elephant National Park, begun in 1931 to protect its last 11 wild elephants from extermination. It has plans to include viewings of elephants, rhinos, lions, buffalos, leopards, whales and great white sharks in their natural habitat.
A rainbow of people and a spread of Cape Malay food, which evolved from Indonesian immigrants who arrived beginning in the late 1600s, greeted us in Knysna in the Western Cape province as we continued traveling southwest. We were staying in the guest house of a Cape Malay family.
The family was having a get-together with fellow black tourism entrepreneurs. One woman, a representative of Mandela's African National Congress, talked of her frustrations trying to implement national policy without overriding local wisdom.
A teacher at Knynsa's first secondary school for tribal blacks invited us to visit. Eager learners with ready smiles, the Xhosa kids let their questions fly:
"Did Bush invade Iraq because of oil?" "What does America look like?" "Would you like to meet Mandela?" And to Andy, "Are you married?"
From PE southwest to Mossel Bay, South Africa's N2 road is called the Garden Route. Broad expanses butt against forested mountains and iron-red cliffs that climb high against the sky.
Then there's the coast: rocky headlands, half-moon coves, tawny dunes and long, lacy bridges over rowdy rivers. It's one of the world's great drives.
Stopping inland at George after leaving Knynsa, we stayed with a couple who had farmed near the big game park, Kruger. Their main pests were puberty-driven male elephants vying to see which one could rip up the most trees in the orchards.
In George are fire-orange-garbed Xhosa Khulani women who, faces chalked with dots and flourishes, dance and drum their traditional tales. They reappear in pants, puffing on long pipes. Morphed into tipsy men, they enact the antics, false pride and puffery that bedevil the negotiations for the price of a bride.
Well-known tourism entrepreneur Anthea Rossouw is down the coast in the now-combined towns of Stilbaai and Melkhoutfontein. She's visiting her old pals, the people of the Strandveld.
One day in 1989, Rossouw drove their patriarch, Moses Kleinhans, home. They went down the road from her home in Stilbaai, a town of beachside cottages, trophy homes and modern conveniences, to his in Melkhoutfontein, a community of shanties, mud roads and no running water or electricity.
Kleinhans told Rossouw that his people were dying from tuberculosis and hunger. She offered her help.
Less than 15 years later, we were toasting "local es likker" with the Strandveld people in now-thriving, paved and electrified Melkhoutfontein.
Kleinhans gave Rossouw the moniker "dreamcatcher" before he died. That is how her travel agency got its name.
Munching traditional Afrikaner grape-yeast bread in the next B&B in which we stayed, we kept an eye out for whales in Walker Bay in Hermanus.
Stella, our host, was white. She said of the end of apartheid, "A great weight has been lifted from our shoulders. We, too, are free."
Tears rolled down her face as she told of the graduation she recently attended: Archbishop Desmond Tutu was there, and so were the families of the first black graduates of the country's most prestigious business school, the cries of the female relatives ululating as each graduate received a diploma.
Heading north into wine country, we stayed with a Nuy Valley family that has farmed there for five generations, grown grapes for three and been innkeepers for less than one.
Our stay included rooms at their white-gabled, green-trimmed, Cape Dutch-style farmhouse, a tour of their winery, and a beer and boerewors braai (spicy sausage barbecue).
In Paarl, elsewhere in wine country, Mandela took some of his first free steps after 10,000 days in prison. At the home we stayed at, the sons of our hosttutored Andy in cricket. Katie plied us with bacon and eggs, and Dawi, who built the house, told us of their "long walk to freedom." He started when they could not walk on the sidewalks _ at least, not when whites were around _ and ended with trips to Robben Island, to see their imprisoned son.
"We did have computers, but they've been taken. "Affirmative shopping,' " joked Titus, one of the sons, as we toured the community center and craft shop he directs. He said he " "visited' Robben Island _ for about five years" after being arrested.
Loaded up on "Mandiba" (Mandela's nickname) shirts from the craft shop, we were off to "the fairest Cape of all" as Sir Francis Drake called Cape Town.
We are there long enough to see that it might be up to its tourist board's hype. Then, we flew east to Kruger National Park to look for lions, leopards, buffalos, elephants and rhinos. Flying low over the veld, Andy and I chatted about the different paths each of our new friends had walked to freedom and their creativity in building the new South Africa.
Next year is the 10th anniversary of South Africa's black majority rule, and it will be easy to focus on the country's problems: crime, too few jobs, too little progress to economic equality and an AIDS epidemic. Andy and I will have vivid memories of the success stories, too.
_ Kate Crawford is a freelance writer living in Sebastopol, Calif.
If you go
GETTING THERE: South African Airways flies to Cape Town and Johannesburg from Tampa International Airport with connections. Delta flies direct from Atlanta.
GETTING AROUND: South Africa is slightly less than twice the size of Texas. Internal flights and driving are the best ways to get around. Driving is on uncrowned, well-marked, four-lane highways. You drive on the left.
ROUTE PLANNING AND STAYING THERE: For a personalized trip, check Dreamcatcher's Web site, www.dreamcatcher.co.za, or e-mail dreamcatchertelkomsa.net. Not a traditional travel agency but a customized route planner, Dreamcatcher reserves cars, organizes activities and books rooms, from homes to hotels. It charges a 5 to 10 percent fee of the reservation cost.
SEEING BEASTS: A list of game parks can be found at www.parks-sa.co.za. To experience them, you can take an organized safari, drive yourself and stay in park lodging, or stay at a private safari camp, where you'll be taken on game drives.
Kruger National Park is the best-known (www.krugerpark.co.za). The size of Vermont, it is home to what is known as the Big Five: lions, elephants, leopards, buffalos and rhinos. A few of the smaller preserves have all five animals, but the preserves in the south and west are malaria-free and nearer Cape Town. The one smaller park we saw, Addo Elephant National Park, seemed civilized compared with Kruger.
Organized safaris range from cheap to over-the-top. Kruger is relatively inexpensive if you drive, but it's hard to know where to begin looking for wildlife in a park that size without help.
Lodges on adjacent private preserves include room, meals, trackers, guides, vehicles and the expertise to find the animals. One moderately priced lodge is the Chitwa Chitwa Safari Lodge (www.chitwa.co.za). We saw all the Big Five up close and felt like we had been in the African bush.
Chitwa Chitwa also can be contacted at P.O. Box 781854, Sandton, 2146, South Africa.
STAYING SAFE: South Africa and its neighbors are politically stable, except Zimbabwe to the north. The crime rate in South Africa is high, so be smart, as in any big U.S. city: Know where you are going. Avoid the neighborhoods where you don't belong (for advice, ask the people with whom you're staying). Lock your car, preferably in a parking lot. Don't carry your valuables if you don't have to.
Water and food are safe. My doctor sent me with sterile hypodermic needles in case we needed injections _ the AIDS epidemic is horrendous _ and with malaria pills for our Kruger stay.
FOR MORE INFORMATION: South African Tourism at www.southafrica.net or South African Tourism, 500 Fifth Ave. 20th Floor, Suite 2040, New York, NY 10110.
The online version of Arthur Frommer's Budget Travel magazine has an article titled "Believe It! A Monthlong African Safari for $1,500 _ Including Air" by Jason Cochran. Go to www.msnbc.com. Click on Travel, then Budget Travel Front. Do a search for "south africa safari jason cochran."
National Geographic Traveler Magazine has a great South Africa travel planner at www.nationalgeographic.com/traveler/ planner/africa/africasouth.html.
_ KATE CRAWFORD
Buffalo linger on a ridge next to a watering hole in Kruger National Park, South Africa's best-known game preserve. It's roughly the size of Vermont, and home to lions, elephants, leopards, buffalo and rhinos, among other animals.