[pullquote]Leaving South Africa after such an introduction to its abundant riches was difficult and the trip home was full of wonderful images and memories [/pullquote]Undoubtedly the key goal of any conference or event is to deliver and secure optimum business results, but if the event happens to be taking place in South Africa it would be a big mistake not to consider partaking of the many opportunities for recreation and incentives available there, simply because there is nowhere else on the planet that can offer what South Africa has.

During the days of Meetings Africa, spending time on the trade show floor was mixed with an international media group being shown some of the more colourful sides of Johannesburg. South Africa’s biggest city has been through many layers of transformation, from its early gold rush days and construction boom to the multi-faceted city it is today. An open-top bus tour shows the many sides of the city, and unlike some of the more ‘chocolate box’ tours on offer in European cities it doesn’t spare some of the challenges it faces today and in the future, showing its many faces “warts and all”. The evolution of the city is explained through an informative audio guide available in a number of different languages – just don’t forget the sun cream for the open top!

At one stage of the bus tour it is possible (and advisable) to disembark and transfer to a really special experience – a journey through Soweto with Soweto Outdoor Adventures, a series of minibuses for up to 12 people and each with a local guide. The Soweto township is a remarkable experience, populated as it is by more than 4 million people and having been through some of Africa’s most turbulent episodes, no less so than the shooting of schoolboy Hector Peterson during the student uprising of 1976 and the apartheid era, with a museum and memorial today standing where the fateful events took place. And just yards from this spot is Vilakazi Street, which despite not meaning anything to many people, is the street that housed both Nelson Mandela and Bishop Desmond Tutu, making it home to Nobel Prize winners and unique in the world.

Back into the city and a trip to the haunting Lilliesleaf Farm is a moving experience. The Rivonia area of Jo’burg where the farm is located was the spot where the African liberation movement centred its operations, but also where it was brought to a juddering halt as a police raid uncovered all of the group’s leaders – including Nelson Mandela and Walter Sisulu – and was the beginning of their long incarceration on Robben Island.

From Jo’burg and after Meetings Africa the media group was then taken to the bizarrely impressive Sun City, a 2-hour drive away and set within sprawling grounds containing hotels, convention facilities, restaurants, numerous leisure options including golf and a huge water park, as well as a capacious casino for those fond of a little flutter. The standard of every aspect of Sun City is somewhere way above remarkable, with the rooms amongst some of the best it is possible to stay in anywhere and the food offer exquisite, not to mention the attentive and super-friendly staff available at every turn.

Ordinarily, when staying at such a luxury facility having a 4am alarm bell wouldn’t be the most welcoming of starts to the day, but when it’s the call to get ready for a hot air balloon over the adjoining Pilanesberg National Park then even your correspondent is willing to make a little exception! The safari bus trundles through the dark of the early morning, with the experienced driver taking the opportunity to point out the nocturnal African wildlife (and most of the passengers hoping it won’t be a springing lion or raging elephant) on the way to the clearing where the balloons are being readied. After filling them with hot air and getting the passengers on board, with 10 to a balloon the once-in-a-lifetime experience takes you over the African plains in a glorious dawn sunrise, with the zebra, giraffe, hippos, crocodiles, white rhino and even scarce black rhino all making an appearance down below. After an hour of gliding through the air in such an amazing experience, the champagne breakfast on landing isn’t a bad way to finish it off.

African AdventureHaving seen some of the best of Jo’burg and Sun City, it was then time to head to Cape Town for some more action-packed days of South African hospitality and showcasing. After a 2-hour flight from Jo’burg and a drive around the city the media group was given a tour of Cape Town’s latest meeting and convention facilities at Century City Conference City and Hotel, where the smell of fresh paint and newly laid carpet signals just how recent these modern, well laid out and very tastefully furnished spaces are.

The next morning it was time for a site inspection of the convention staple of the city, the Cape Town International Convention Centre, where following a tour of the main spaces that the centre has – and wonderfully versatile they are too – it was time to don hard hats for a tour of the extension currently under construction, which will double the existing space and within its architecturally stunning glass shell will prove to be not just a major asset to Cape Town, but also to South Africa, and especially so under the guidance of its wonderfully welcoming and engaging CEO, Julie-May Ellingson. Cape Town clearly has a very bright meetings and events future ahead of it.

With the hard hats returned it was time for headphones and rotor blades, as we were whisked by helicopter from the nearby V&A Helipad to one of the many stunning wine estates dotting the Stellenbosch area outside Cape Town. For the media group it was the Cavalli Wine and Stud Farm, a family project of impeccable architectural taste and a gem for smaller group events, as there is high-end dining, wine tasting tours and even an art gallery integrated within it. The grounds of the estate also have some very intimate spaces for weddings and other such events, and it should be said that the eatate’s wine went down rather smoothly as well.

The final step in quite possibly one of the best itineraries it is possible to conceive was a more sombre and reflective moment, with a visit to Robben Island. The 45-minute boat journey, where whales can be seen surfacing along the way, takes you to what was Nelson Mandela’s home for the best part of three decades, as well as for many others too. The tour of Robben Island is given by former inmates, making it an even more poignant experience – how man can be so cruel to his fellow man is baffling, and it is incredible to think of the fortitude and willpower of the men once held there. It is a historic and haunting place, where every step sheds another part of South Africa’s incredible story to the present day.

Leaving South Africa after such an introduction to its abundant riches was difficult and the trip home was full of wonderful images and memories of equally wonderful encounters, no less so than the hearty company of group leader Funeka, who held things together under any challenge and always brought her cheerfulness to the group.

It must also be said that there are challenges with South Africa. There is a lasting perception of it as a destination with safety issues, yet not a single issue was recorded in the 2010 FIFA World Cup there. And if anywhere is braced to address and experienced with addressing external concerns of safety it is South Africa, where arrangements were flawless from end to end. That matter dealt with, the decision to host an event or an incentive – or preferably a healthy dose of each – in South Africa will be something event planners will never regret and delegates will never forget.

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