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South Africa is about as far away from the United States as you can get-a nonstop flight from New York to Johannesburg is 15 hours 20 minutes. This, as one might expect, turns many Americans off to traveling there for vacation, much less spending their entire four-year college experience in the land at the bottom of the African continent. But those who do load up on enough Tylenol PM to make the flight bearable are rewarded in ways their less adventurous counterparts could only dream of. For indeed, the cultural and natural riches of South Africa are nothing short of magical, and even if the trip there were twice as long, it would be quite more than worth the effort.
South Africa, despite all its troubles and sordid history of Apartheid, is now one of the most important, democratic countries on the African continent. Indeed, its political and cultural fortune can be said to have come full circle in 1994, when Nelson Mandela, the anti-Apartheid activist who was imprisoned for 27 years, was elected president of the country. Today, his party, the African National Congress, is still in power, though now under the leadership of Thabo Mbeki. The political turnaround this country has experienced has been extraordinary.
But South Africa is about so much more than just politics, though it is understandably the subject on which most people tend to focus.
Perhaps more than anything, South Africa is famous for its widely varied natural environment. "South Africa is located at the extreme south of Africa, with a long coastline that stretches more than 2,500 kilometres (1,550 mi) and across two oceans (the Atlantic and the Indian). South Africa has a great variety of climate zones, from the extreme desert of the Kalahari near Namibia to lush subtropical climate along the border with Mozambique. It quickly rises over a mountainous escarpment towards the interior plateau known as the Highveld." Within these varied landscapes lie some of the most astounding examples of biodiversity in the world. Indeed, "South Africa has more than 20,000 different plants, or about 10% of all the known species of plants on Earth." Visitors have seemingly infinite options when it comes to choosing how to experience all these natural wonders, though safaris are, perhaps expectedly, the most popular.
The city life of South Africa is also well known. Johannesburg, or Joburg, as the locals call it-and Cape Town are the most important cities in the country. Indeed, on a continent where far too many things do not function as they should, "[Johannesburg] is an African city that works: the phones dial, the lights switch on, you can drink the water, there are multi-lane freeways, skyscrapers, conference centres, golf courses. If you should get lost, ordinary people on the street speak English. Cellphones are everywhere. You can send e-mail from your hotel room, you can bank any foreign currency, you can watch CNN, and should you fall ill, the hospitals have world-class equipment and doctors who can be trusted with a scalpel." Joburg is as cosmopolitan a city as you are likely to encounter in Africa. Just be careful: Like all major cities, Joburg does have its fair share of crime, so make sure you pay attention to your surroundings.
South Africa is also world-renowned for its wine production. Regions such as the famed Stellenbosch, outside the city of Cape Town, produce highly valued wines that are popular around the world. And like most wine regions, Stellenbosch is perfect for the kind of relaxing vacation that most people love. "Daily wine tasting, cellar tours and sales are offered at most cellars and many of these have restaurant and picnic facilities." So whether you're merely visiting South Africa for a vacation or studying there for four years of college, this part of the country is sure to charm and amaze you.
Academically, there are a number of excellent schools in South Africa. There are literally dozens of colleges and universities there, so no matter what you choose to study, you are sure to get a great education. Just make sure you enroll in a school in which the classes are held in English. After all, South Africa is home to 11 official languages, including English, Ndebele, Afrikaans, and Zulu, among others. In fact, it is recommended that you become proficient in one or two of the non-English tongues in order to make the most of your South African experience.
All told, South Africa is a country with so much to offer that it is impossible to quantify it all. From the majesty of the natural environment to the bustling city life of Joburg, and from the turbulent political history to the modern democratic state it now is, South Africa is a country on the rise. Now is the perfect time to check it out.
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