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Archbishop Desmond Tutu, in his 1984 Nobel Peace Prize lecture, called South Africa a microcosm of the world. In part, he was referring to the world's conflicts. Minority white rule was still in place, and he said there was no peace in South Africa, because there was no justice.


But he also talked about the endowments that make today's South Africa the continent's most popular tourist destination. ?I come,? he said ?from a beautiful land, richly endowed by God with wonderful natural resources, wide expanses, rolling mountains, singing birds, bright shining stars out of blue skies, with radiant sunshine, golden sunshine.? And since the end of apartheid, the archbishop has become one of South Africa's most enthusiastic promoters.


Africa's eighth largest country offers an extensive coastline, crystalline lakes, craggy mountains, cosmopolitan cities, exotic wildlife and a climate ranging from temperate to arid to sub-tropical. Modern infrastructure and an excellent network of road, rail and air routes make getting around easy. Public transport reaches almost every area.


Dubbed the ?Rainbow Nation?, South Africa has 11 official languages. In addition to the three-quarters of the population belonging to nine major indigenous ethnic groups, the country has the largest population of people of European descent in Africa, the largest Indian population outside of Asia and Africa's largest community of coloureds - people of mixed African and European descent. About 100,000 San people, traditionally hunter-gathers and herders, are descendants of the region's oldest known inhabitants. About two-thirds of South Africans are Christian, with substantial minorities practicing Islam, Hinduism and Judaism. That diversity is part of the country's fascination and makes it a laboratory for tolerance, which the 1996 constitution endorses and encourages.


South Africa draws the most tourists of any sub-Saharan African country, many drawn by the wildlife. Whether your interest is bird watching, whale-spotting, walking with penguins, swimming with dolphins or tracking lions, South Africa can accommodate you. The largest national park, Kruger, is about the size of Israel and offers one of the world's best safari experiences ? for a variety of budgets. But Kruger is only one of more than 20 national parks and dozens of regional parks and private nature reserves, many with choices as diverse as back-packing, rustic camping and luxury resorts. Visitors can also appreciate that South Africa is internationally recognized for innovative conservation programmes to protect both animals and the environment, including trans-frontier ?peace parks? along national borders. Options for eco-tourism are plentiful.


Natural beauty is a compelling argument for visiting. Four decades ago, the archetypal surfing movie, Endless Summer, introduced a global audience to South Africa's spectacular beaches. Along some 3,000 km of coast are nearly 90 internationally-recommended surfing locations, many ranked among the world's best. Every difficulty level is represented, from spots appropriate for beginners to several suitable only for the most expert. Scuba diving has joined surfing as an ocean activity, and the world's most southerly coral reefs are at Sodwana Bay. Divers hardy and well equipped enough can dive in enchanting kelp forests in the cold currents off the Cape. Although both environments are fragile, careful observation of ecological principles can prevent damage.


South Africans, as well as international visitors, enjoy the maritime-Mediterranean-like climate of the Garden Route ? a road paralleling the southern coastline, edged by lakes, forests and mountains and punctuated by seaside towns and holiday villages. Destinations such as the mouth of the Storms River offer everything from bungee jumping to quiet contemplation of the forceful encounters between ocean and land. The west coast, north of Durban, was slower to develop, but new resorts are opening regularly. Nevertheless, it is still possible to find wild beaches where yours are the only footprints.


The coastal cities of Cape Town and Durban and the interior metropolitan corridor that stretches from Johannesburg to Pretoria provide plenty of urban ambiance, museums, shopping and culture. Music of every kind, locally produced films, dance ensembles and original plays showcase South Africa's homegrown talent. Comedy clubs exploit the rich veins of contradiction and irony in South Africa's mix of ethnicities and its attempts at equitable economic development.


Sporting enthusiasts need never be bored in South Africa. Whether you?re a participant or a spectator, you can join the national fervor for cricket, tennis, football (soccer) and rugby. South Africa hosted the dramatic 1995 Rugby World Cup, where Nelson Mandela ? wearing the jersey of the white captain ? awarded the victory trophy to the champion South African team, producing an iconic moment in global sports.


And an even bigger world sporting event is in the works ? one projected to be seen by 40 million television viewers in 207 countries. Events leading up to and surrounding the 2010 FIFA World Cup (soccer) tournament, to take place in nine South African cities, is expected to draw 350,000 international visitors and to sell three million tickets. The South African government is investing Rands 170-million into its Tourism Enterprise Programme, an initiative designed to stimulate small, medium and micro enterprise (SMME) development in the tourism sector.


The number of luxury resorts, super high-end game parks and four-and-five-star hotels poses a challenge of choices. For those who are budget constrained or prefer to ?rough it? by using public transport to see every corner of the country, there is an excellent network of backpacker accommodations and a specialized transport network serving them.


For the traveler who wants a more intimate connection with the people than a typical holiday affords, opportunities for personal interaction and engagement abound. Both tour operators and South African organizations can link a visitor with local affinity groups, arrange seminars or language lessions, and set-up home-stays and farm-stays. You can take advantage of multiple choices for contributing expertise and resources to good causes.


Concerns about health and safety, a perennial preoccupation of tourists everywhere, should not discourage visiting. Few tourists encounter serious problems. Travelers have access to health care of international standards ? the first heart transplant took place in South Africa. Malaria, a risk to travelers in most of Africa, is endemic only in South Africa's far northeast. Although some of the prime game-viewing spots are within that area, protective measures are effective for almost everyone who employs them conscientiously, and malaria is easily treatable if contracted. [See Staying Healthy for important information and tips]. South Africa's high crime rate should prompt prudence, rather than fear. The same cautions that ought to be practiced in any major urban area anywhere in the world should be observed. [See Staying Safe for more tips.]


Whether your trip to South Africa is a brief, blowout vacation, a visit for study, diplomacy or business, or a months-long backpacking trek or volunteer effort, it is likely to be a life-changing experience.