Kicking off the celebrations: South Africa's Sun City turns 30

view gallery VIEW GALLERY

Once the most controversial tourist resort in the world, South Africa's Sun City turns 30 this month – and with England's first World Cup match to be played nearby, it has cause for celebration

Every morning at the Palace of the Lost City, the flagship hotel of South Africa's fantasy playground, my first waking moments were filled with disappointment. Beyond the drawn curtains torrential rain seemed to be splashing off the balcony tiles – a downpour that would surely drown my plans for the day. And then I remembered where I was: in a parched north-east corner of a dry country, at a resort where man has more or less harnessed the forces of nature to do his bidding. I pulled open the curtains to confirm that, yes, there may be water, water everywhere in Sun City, but rain hardly ever happens.

Water is the most precious resource of this sprawling complex two hours north-west of Johannesburg and 80km from the nearest reliable source, from which zillions of cubic litres have been piped under the bushveld, circulating endlessly to dramatic effect. There are giant fountains, cascading rivers, babbling brooks, lakes and waterfalls, twisting pathways through dense "rainforest", lush golf courses and more swimming pools than you can count. It's as if the designers were trying to prove that anything is possible if you put your mind to it.

This week the resort – originally modelled on Las Vegas as a golf-and-gambling playground – celebrated its good fortune in being so close to the venue for England's opening match of the 2010 World Cup campaign: Rustenburg, just 20 minutes' drive across the dusty plains. England are widely expected to bring more fans than any other visiting team, and some of the thousands who converge on the region for the game against the US on 12 June will no doubt boost Sun City's coffers (and, with England favourite to top their group, the supporters are likely to return for a second-round match in Rustenburg on 26 June). There has been another celebration, too: Sun City's 30th birthday.

In December 1979 the resort opened its doors to an expectant, fun-starved population and a deeply disapproving world. South Africa was no Rainbow Nation then, disfigured by racial segregation and politically isolated, but it had a white middle class with a thirst for adventure and with rand to spend.

In 1977, the black homeland of Bophuthatswana, which consisted of seven enclaves for the Tswana-speaking people of what was then Northern Transvaal, was granted independence, creating a legal loophole which attracted the attention of the hotel magnate Sol Kerzner.

The Bophuthatswana concept had no place in a fair-minded world, but life under apartheid was never fair. Almost all the arable land in the region remained in the hands of white farmers, and the UN deplored the homeland's foundation as merely cementing the system. Only South Africa recognised it as an independent state, but that was all Kerzner needed.



***



Gambling in South Africa was a no-deal under the austere National Party government, but Bophuthatswana's rulers imposed no such restrictions. Kerzner flew over the area in a helicopter, selected a location near a long-extinct volcano, and bought a 100-year lease from the Tswana chiefs. The deal was widely denounced, but the Sun City project was up and running.

Gaudy, tacky, ridiculous... it was all of these things, but Sun City was an instant hit, and by the mid-1980s it was making waves on the international scene. By then, three hotels had been built – the first of them sporting an open-all-hours casino within easy reach of day-tripping gamblers from Johannesburg and Pretoria, who provided about 90 per cent of the resort's income.

A superlative golf course, designed by the South African icon Gary Player, had become the home of the "Million Dollar Challenge", a tournament boasting the biggest prize in the world. Three British players – Nick Faldo, Colin Montgomerie and Ian Woosnam – lifted the heavy purse, giving an unofficial stamp of approval to Sun City at a time when international sports teams were banned from playing in South Africa.

In 1981, Frank Sinatra headlined the opening night of the 6,000-seater Super Bowl indoor arena, which attracted world-class performers including Rod Stewart and Tina Turner. They, like the golfers, defended their lucrative appearances by maintaining that Bophuthatswana bore no connection with South Africa. And besides, they weren't representing their respective countries. Well, yes and no.

But soon Sun City, like apartheid itself, was heading for a fall. In 1985, a member of Bruce Springsteen's E Street Band persuaded a host of rock luminaries (including Springsteen himself) to record a protest song. The lyric "I ain't gonna play Sun City" caught the mood of the times and the Sun City video was intensively aired around the world.

Kerzner's fun palace suddenly became a pariah resort in a pariah nation. Big-name performers with an eye on their fan-base began to shun it, and two years after the historic election of 1994, when the old regime finally crumbled and Bophuthats-wana disappeared from the map, Nelson Mandela's government legalised gambling in the newly liberated nation. Casinos sprang up in all the major cities, and Sun City's principal raison d'être was gone.

It was around this time that I went there to see what all the fuss was about. With the exception of the golf course and the impressive Cascades Hotel, everything about Sun City jarred the senses. It was low-rent Vegas, without the scale or style of its American role model. I remember being shocked by the subservience of the predominantly black staff to the exclusively white clientele, presumably because the resort represented their best hope of a living wage. There were posters advertising a nightly revue with topless dancers (who would never have been allowed to remove their tops in South Africa itself). I didn't spend the night there, and never imagined I would return.



***



Nearly two decades later, I found myself having lunch with some British visitors at the special reserve Sun City has set aside for a small herd of elephants rescued from a cull in Zimbabwe. The tourists were exhilarated, fresh from being taught how to feed the herd themselves, placing handfuls of nutritious pellets into their mouths and trunks. The previous day they'd got scarily (but safely) close to dozens of crocodiles at another sanctuary down the road. Some of the group were eagerly anticipating another round of golf at a course of a quality they'd never experienced before. Their other plans for the week included a game drive in the nearby Pilanesberg Game Reserve, the fourth largest in South Africa, and an evening song-and-dance show at the Sun City Theatre – portraying the development of South African culture rather than female nudity. And, of course, a few more hours of November sunbathing.

"It's honestly hard to find fault with the place," said Ian Shiell from Lymington in Hampshire. "It may be expensive by African standards, but my wife and I have just paid about £50 for the privilege of communing with elephants at close quarters. That's something we've never dreamed of doing. And they've given us lunch into the bargain."

"Are you planning to go to the casino at any point?" I wondered.

"No."

That conversation, and the environmentally aware venue where it took place, illustrates Sun City's remarkable transformation since the ending of apartheid. Just as events in the wider world were conspiring against it, Kerzner took one of the biggest gambles of his life by deciding to expand the complex almost beyond recognition, introducing an air of luxury and family wholesomeness. As the gambling clientele drifted away, he conceived and built The Palace of the Lost City.

It's not to everyone's taste, but there's no denying that The Palace is one of Africa's foremost hotels, with an eye-catching assembly of monumental water features, sculptures, mosaics and frescoes.

The centrepiece is the astonishing Crystal Court, boasting what must be one of the world's largest crystal chandeliers, where you can have breakfast inside to the strains of a light jazz performance, or al fresco amidst the fountains and pools.

Two hundred and eighty artists carved the sculptures, pieced together the intricate mosaic on the floor of the lobby, and painted, Michelangelo-style, the African-themed fresco on the domed roof. The overall design, topped off by a series of giant, toadstool-shaped towers, has the eccentric kitsch of Portmeirion or the Royal Pavilion in Brighton, but on an infinitely grander scale. Whatever you think of it, it's hard not to be awestruck, and it probably saved the resort in its darkest hour.

"Legend tells that this magnificent palace was built for a king by an ancient civilisation that journeyed from the north of Africa to make this idyllic valley their home, until an earthquake destroyed it..."

So ran the blurb in my bedroom guidebook. But there was no ancient palace, no king, no journey and no earthquake: the whole thing was a figment of Kerzner's imagination. When others might have cut their losses and run, he commissioned an extravagance of new attractions: botanical gardens with rare trees and shrubs, an amphitheatre seating 300 people and several hectares of man-made "rainforest" were just the start. Even though the coast is 600km away, he created a sandy beach fringing an inland "sea", complete with computer-generated waves. And to spice up the appeal for golfers he added an extra 18-hole course – with its own crocodile pit on the 13th. Unlucky for some.

Herliane Portenschlager, a bubbly Indonesian lady who was formerly Kerzner's personal assistant, helped to launch the Palace 18 years ago and has never left. "I'm still discovering little corners I never knew existed," she told me. "The great thing about this place is that something was created from nothing, and we've given employment to thousands of people who live around here." She feels the bad press surrounding the excesses of Sun City in an otherwise impoverished region was unjust.

"We were years ahead of our time. From the start we recycled absolutely everything – water, glass, plastic, paper and cans. There's a recycling plant in a local village. We're involved in all sorts of social-welfare schemes. We've opened schools and a hydroponic farm to help people grow crops in the alkaline soil."

During my four-day visit, I made two excursions into the game reserve, a place that is the opposite of what you might imagine. Instead of ring-fencing an area of wilderness that was home to a multitude of creatures, Pilanesburg was converted from farmland 20 years ago and stocked with animals from far and wide. All the so-called "Big Five" are in residence, and you don't have to travel very far to see them.

As dusk fell one evening, we encountered half a dozen of the park's 300 white rhino, five of its 200 giraffe, a dozen of its 147 elephants, and any number of wildebeest, zebra and antelope. Perhaps it's a little too easy, but it saves driving for hours in the heat and dust without a sighting of anything (as can happen in the vaunted Kruger National Park). Besides, as Solly the game driver told me, his grandfather recalled seeing all these creatures roaming free in these hills back in the 1880s.

"The animals are totally wild," added Tony, as he steered a hot-air balloon over the bushveld the following dawn. "There's nothing exotic. Nothing that shouldn't be here. This is exactly what it was like 500 years ago." In stark contrast with Sun City, just 4km from the main entrance, where every last blade of grass has been planted and primped by man, Pilanesberg is dedicated to obliterating virtually all traces of humanity. Only the Tarmac roads, and a former magistrate's court built in 1936 (now a visitor and refreshment centre), betray the fact that people actually lived here until Sun City arrived.

Back at the oasis of bling, I didn't need to spend long in the casino to realise that its high-rolling days are long gone. The tables looked drab and tired, and most of the slot machines were flashing away in vain. The new breed of visitors prefer to spend their money in the shops, the spa, or on the various adrenalin rides: quad bikes and go-karts and something called a zip slide, which whisks you down a nearby mountainside at alarming speed. These days the casino accounts for only 10 per cent of the resort's income. How times change.

But something that hasn't lost its lustre with the changing times is the golf. Gary Player's original course is perennially rated the best in Africa, and the Lost City course, with its clubhouse apparently hewn out of the ancient rock, is also ranked in the top 20. Last week the main course hosted the Nedbank Challenge, unofficially known as "Africa's Major", attracting tens of thousands of spectators. This week, the Sun City Super Bowl hosted Miss South Africa. If you like opera or minimalism, this is not the place for you, but against overwhelming odds it's shaken off its demons, still does glamour and glitz when the occasion requires, and next June will have the hype and hoopla of the World Cup on its doorstep. There's life in the old place yet.

Travel essentials: Sun City

Getting there

* The writer travelled with Virgin Holidays (0844 557 3859; virginholidays.co.uk ), which offers five nights in Sun City from £1,369 per person. The price includes Virgin Atlantic flights from Heathrow to Johannesburg, transfers and accommodation at the Palace of the Lost City with breakfast; based on May 2010 departures.

Johannesburg is served by Virgin Atlantic (0844 874 7747; virgin-atlantic.com ), British Airways (0844 493 0787; ba.com ) and South African Airways (0870 747 1111; flysaa.com ) from Heathrow.

Staying there

* The Palace of the Lost City, Sun City, South Africa (00 27 14 557 4301; suninternational.com ). Doubles start at R5,480 (£447), including breakfast.

More information

* South African Tourism: 0870 155 0044; southafrica.net

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
i100
Arts and Entertainment
Billie Piper as Brona in Penny Dreadful
tvReview: It’s business as usual in Victorian London. Let’s hope that changes as we get further into the new series spoiler alert
Life and Style
A nurse tends to a recovering patient on a general ward at The Queen Elizabeth Hospital in Birmingham
health
News
science
Arts and Entertainment
No Offence
tvReview: No Offence has characters who are larger than life and yet somehow completely true to life at the same time spoiler alert
News
Chuck Norris pictured in 1996
people
Travel
ebookHow to enjoy the perfect short break in 20 great cities
Arts and Entertainment
Sarah Lucas, I SCREAM DADDIO, Installation View, British Pavilion 2015
artWhy Sarah Lucas is the perfect choice to represent British art at the Venice Biennale
News
A voter placing a ballot paper in the box at a polling station
i100
News
people
Arts and Entertainment
The Queen (Kristin Scott Thomas) in The Audience
theatreReview: Stephen Daldry's direction is crisp in perfectly-timed revival
Sport
football
Independent Travel Videos
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Amsterdam
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Giverny
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in St John's
Independent Travel Videos
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Travel

    Guru Careers: Dining Room Head Chef

    £32K: Guru Careers: We are seeking a Dining Room Head Chef to work for one of ...

    Guru Careers: Pastry Sous Chef / Experienced Pastry Chef

    £27K: Guru Careers: We are seeking a Pastry Sous Chef / Experienced Pastry Che...

    Ashdown Group: Technical IT Manager - North London - Growing business

    £40000 - £50000 per annum: Ashdown Group: A growing business that has been ope...

    Recruitment Genius: Technical Supervisor

    £24800 - £29000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: As one of London's leading Muse...

    Day In a Page

    General Election 2015: Ed Miliband's unlikely journey from hapless geek to heart-throb

    Miliband's unlikely journey from hapless geek to heart-throb

    He was meant to be Labour's biggest handicap - but has become almost an asset
    General Election 2015: A guide to the smaller parties, from the the National Health Action Party to the Church of the Militant Elvis Party

    On the margins

    From Militant Elvis to Women's Equality: a guide to the underdogs standing in the election
    Amr Darrag: Ex-Muslim Brotherhood minister in exile still believes Egypt's military regime can be replaced with 'moderate' Islamic rule

    'This is the battle of young Egypt for the future of our country'

    Ex-Muslim Brotherhood minister Amr Darrag still believes the opposition can rid Egypt of its military regime and replace it with 'moderate' Islamic rule, he tells Robert Fisk
    Why patients must rely less on doctors: Improving our own health is the 'blockbuster drug of the century'

    Why patients must rely less on doctors

    Improving our own health is the 'blockbuster drug of the century'
    Sarah Lucas is the perfect artist to represent Britain at the Venice Biennale

    Flesh in Venice

    Sarah Lucas has filled the British pavilion at the Venice Biennale with slinky cats and casts of her female friends' private parts. It makes you proud to be a woman, says Karen Wright
    11 best anti-ageing day creams

    11 best anti-ageing day creams

    Slow down the ageing process with one of these high-performance, hardworking anti-agers
    Juventus 2 Real Madrid 1: Five things we learnt, including Iker Casillas is past it and Carlos Tevez remains effective

    Juventus vs Real Madrid

    Five things we learnt from the Italian's Champions League first leg win over the Spanish giants
    Ashes 2015: Test series looks a lost cause for England... whoever takes over as ECB director of cricket

    Ashes series looks a lost cause for England...

    Whoever takes over as ECB director of cricket, says Stephen Brenkley
    Fishing for votes with Nigel Farage: The Ukip leader shows how he can work an audience as he casts his line to the disaffected of Grimsby

    Fishing is on Nigel Farage's mind

    Ukip leader casts a line to the disaffected
    Who is bombing whom in the Middle East? It's amazing they don't all hit each other

    Who is bombing whom in the Middle East?

    Robert Fisk untangles the countries and factions
    China's influence on fashion: At the top of the game both creatively and commercially

    China's influence on fashion

    At the top of the game both creatively and commercially
    Lord O’Donnell: Former cabinet secretary on the election and life away from the levers of power

    The man known as GOD has a reputation for getting the job done

    Lord O'Donnell's three principles of rule
    Rainbow shades: It's all bright on the night

    Rainbow shades

    It's all bright on the night
    'It was first time I had ever tasted chocolate. I kept a piece, and when Amsterdam was liberated, I gave it to the first Allied soldier I saw'

    Bread from heaven

    Dutch survivors thank RAF for World War II drop that saved millions
    Britain will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power - Labour

    How 'the Axe' helped Labour

    UK will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power