IT'S THE DREAMLIKE, cinematic power of Africa unfolding yet again. This time, it's late afternoon when the leopard emerges from the bush, 20 feet away, crossing the sandy wash with a lazy stride, pelt rippling in the golden light. Then the radio crackles and we're fishtailing across the 54-square-mile Ngala Private Game Reserve, on Kruger National Park's western edge. Another cat's been spotted, and Jimmy Ndubane, our Shangaan tracker, leads us straight to it. This one is anything but lazy; seconds after we see the white tip of its tail twitching in the grass, the beast leaps forward and zigzags explosively through the meadow. We hear its prey, a mongoose, screaming and, finally, silence. It's awful, it's beautiful, it's what you came for: Africa forever.
However unforgettable, such classic safari epiphanies explain only part of South Africa's allure. You could come for the climbing or surfing, to dive with great white sharks, or to experience the spectacular two-ocean sailing. (The sleek black hull of Shosholoza, South Africa's 2007 America's Cup challenger and the race's first African entrant, was hauled out on the dock across the harbor from my hotel room in Cape Town.) You could come to beat the crowds flooding Johannesburg for the 2010 World Cup soccer finalsthough you'll probably miss Oprah's glittery 2006 New Year's Eve bash.
The best reason, however, is hopethe dream that things can get better in Africa, that South Africa is leading the way, and that you can be part of it. A dozen years after the nightmare of apartheid, South Africa can still be a tough, bitter environment. But Mandela's vision of a democratic, multiracial African nation is alive and well, and tourism, once the target= of a global boycott, is the fastest-growing area of the economy, providing 1.2 million jobs for the country of 47 million.
On a wide-ranging journey through the nation's wild and urban landscapes, my goal was to max out on the abundant pleasures on offer while witnessing that transformed face. This meant obligatory visits to sprawling, hustling Jo'burg and laid-back, spectacular Cape Town, cities where the street life is set to a booming kwaito beat and revolutionary history is so fresh it's like 1776 was yesterday. South Africa, of course, remains happy to outfit you in khaki, mix you a gin-and-tonic, and make your Hemingway fantasies come true. But in the bush, too, big ideas are taking shape. The first is black empowerment, the integration of economic realms long dominated by whites. The second is South Africa's role in the global movement to create vast "transfrontier" parks that transcend borders while restoring wildlife routes.
Both ideas are being enthusiastically enacted at Tembe Elephant Park, a 190-square-mile preserve just south of Mozambique. The co-owner of Tembe's serene lodge compound, former Durban private detective Ernest Robbertse, manages the operation in partnership with the Tembe tribe. And walls will be coming down: In 1989, war in Mozambique led South Africa to erect an electric border fence, cutting off Tembe's massive 220-strong elephant herd from much of its range. The goal is to remove that barrier, reuniting Tembe's herd with their relatives in Mozambique's Maputo reserve.
An even grander expansion is planned at Kruger National Park, where I took a revelatory, weeklong game drive with naturalist Mike Stephens, experiencing close encounters with lions, rhinos, and a fantastic array of birds. Vast as Kruger may be (it's bigger than Israel), it's part of a pipe-dream-in-the-making called the Great Limpopo Transfrontier Park, which will one day unite Kruger, Mozambique's Limpopo, and Zimbabwe's Gonarezhou in a superpark the size of Maine. "Hopefully," one official told me, "we'll get herds the size of the Serengeti."
For now, nothing I saw matched the luxurious wildness of Ngala. The lodge's 20 cottages are unfenced, so you must summon an armed guard if you want to leave your room after dark. This frisson of danger, along with manic four-wheel sprints cross-country looking for game (not allowed in Kruger), adds a keen adrenaline edge. Yet here, too, Ngala quietly preaches the transfrontier vision and, via its support of the Africa Foundation, social justice. In nearby Welverdiend, I saw the foundation's work: new schoolrooms and families piloting "hippo rollers," easy-to-roll barrels, to the well.
Small steps, small connections. Will South Africa's future include prosperity, huge parks stretching over the horizon, and all its people experiencing Africa's riches, traveling in the footsteps of the wild herds of long ago? All I know is that I'm going back.
Access & Resources
Getting There: Fly to Johannesburg from New York on South African Airways (flysaa.com) for about $1,200 round-trip. From there, fly to Durban to see Tembe Elephant Park. Conservation Corporation Africa's Ngala Private Game Reserve (ngala.co.za) is a two-hour flight from Johannesburg on Federal Air (011-27-11-395-9000, fedair.com). Prime Time: NovemberMarch. Where to Stay: Tembe Elephant Lodge offers ten safari-tent suites for $162 per person (011-27-31-267-0144, tembe.co.za). Ngala's 20 thatched chalets start at $280, including an overnight walking safari (011-27-11-809-4300, ccafrica.com). In Cape Town, try the hip little Kensington Place Hotel (doubles from $190; 011-27-21-424-4744, kensingtonplace.co.za), on the slopes of Table Mountain.