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.
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
* 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.
* 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.
* South African Tourism: 0870 155 0044; southafrica.netReuse content