Last updated at 10:35 AM on 27th December 2011
The young ranger brakes hard. A bull elephant is ahead of us.
Seeing our jeep, the elephant stops, ears back. ‘You have to respect their right of way and not fight over the track,’ whispers Thomas Nel. I hold my breath and we sit very still as the elephant hesitantly lumbers past into the long, tawny grass. He is so close I could touch him.
We have been on a two-hour game safari though the Pilanesberg National Park, set in the crater of an extinct volcano and the fourth largest park in South Africa, covering 136,000 acres. It is home to almost every Southern African mammal, including lions, cheetahs and rhinoceros.
Illustrious: Sun City is gaudy, glamorous and fitted with all mod cons
We are 42 miles from the nearest town of Rustenberg and two hours from Pretoria, and it feels as if we are in a faraway world. Yet we are mere minutes away from Sun City, the ‘Kingdom of Pleasure’ conceived by Sol Kerzner as a golf-and-gambling complex and now South Africa’ s most celebrated holiday destination.
I’m staying at its flagship hotel, The Palace of the Lost City, which opened in 1992, 13 years after Sun City in 1979. The Palace is now the undisputed jewel in Sun City’s crown, costing a staggering £170 million, but taking just 28 months to build.
Arriving at The Palace is like stumbling across some ancient mythical civilisation deep in the jungle’s heart. First, there are glimpses of the decorative green-domed turrets above the forest canopy, then a forecourt with cascading waterfalls and a majestic fountain adorned with sculpted antelopes.
Once inside the Royal Entrance Chamber there are more fountains, colonnades, frescoed cupolas, ornately carved pillars, soaring archways, mosaic floors, tapestries and gigantic crystal chandeliers. Stone lions and cheetahs gaze down sternly from balustrades and rooftops.
In one courtyard, the life-sized elephant sculpture is so realistic it’s as if he’s about to stampede into one of the graceful arcades. The Palace is an African fairy tale that has been enchanting children and adults alike since it opened.
‘Some families have visited so often that their kids have almost grown up here,’ says Chris Munyangabo, front of house manager. ‘We have a saying that we can look after you from 0 till 180. At 181 you’re on your own.’
Rooms start at £350, but even the standard ones are exotic, spacious and comfortable, and every holiday is bespoke, planned with the help of the Dreams Department.
Prices vary, depending which activities you choose. The Entertainment Centre, just minutes away, has gaming arcades, cinemas, casinos, nightclubs, shops, restaurants and even a creche, linked by escala-tor under a dome that boasts the largest simulated night sky in Africa.
It also houses the Welcome Centre where I go to choose my own adventure – balloon safaris, quad biking, zip-sliding, horse-riding, cycling, jet- skiing, sailing.
Sailing? Surely we’re miles from the sea, high in the Pilanesberg Mountains? But no – the fact we’re in the sort of bush that would have taken David Livingstone a year to hack through was no obstacle to the builders and designers of this place; they built their own beach.
Tutting with disbelief, I go to see it for myself. Now I really do start to think I’m in a Spielberg movie as the fantasy unfolds. I leave the Entertainment Centre via the mighty wooden Kong Gates onto the Bridge of Time. Behind me the rockface looms, like an African Mount Rushmore, but with elephant heads, monkeys and leopards instead of presidents.
Suddenly the bridge starts shaking, simulating a volcano that guards the Hall of Treasures inside the Entertainment Centre. Two ten-year-olds ahead of me squeal with delight, but I am gasping at the soft white beach ahead, waves rolling gently towards it. On the beach, families are sunbathing and children frolicking just as if we were on the edge of the Indian Ocean.
In the Valley of the Waves there are 13 waterfalls among the jungle gardens, a chasm spanned by the sway bridge that creaks over the churning water beneath. There is an underground river providing a gentle Sacred River Ride, perfect for grandparents with young children.
And for the adventurous there is The Temple of Courage, a death-defying slide that plunges down the face of the mountain to the pool below.
I choose a stately, soothing elephant-back safari. Each elephant can take two people and the high-backed saddle is surprisingly comfortable.
Star in the Sun: Actress Charlize Theron has stayed at the resort
Again, just minutes from Sun City’s bustle, we are quickly immersed in the bush. As we lope gently along a riverbank, the tranquil silence is broken only by snatches of laughter from the couple on the elephant behind me, birdsong and the soporific pulse of clicking beetles.
I notice a man stalking, swiftly and stealthily, like a hunter. ‘What’s he doing?’ I ask the handler, alarmed. ‘Taking a video of you to show your friends,’ he replies.
One night I eat in the Palace’s Italian-style restaurant, Villa del Palazzo. As I feast on ostrich carpaccio and scallop of springbok with figs and aubergines, chef Ricardo Nomdoe describes cooking for Oprah Winfrey and 80 of her friends who flew in for her birthday over New Year.
‘The pastry chef baked a cake in time for their arrival at the private airstrip. I created a four-course seafood banquet, starting with crayfish with champagne dressing and cannellini puree.’
Judging by celebrities who frequent The Palace, the hotel is splendid enough to soothe any Emperor’s ego. Here you might find the Black Eyed Peas, Charlize Theron, Leonardo DiCaprio, Al Gore, Nelson Mandela, Cliff Richard or Bob Geldof.
Though some might criticise it as a wildly flamboyant antidote to restraint, The Palace manages to be far more than some Las Vegas-style Indiana Jones fantasy.
The service is superb. Every detail has been attended to – nothing is broken, dirty or shabby. It’s precisely this sense of pride that makes The Palace a unique jewel and a world-class hotel.
I have stayed in countless African hotels that are, for all their attempts at grandeur, somehow apologetic and squalid. It is inspiring to find such audacity of vision and such belief in Africa’s potential for majesty.
Four nights’ BB at The Palace of The Lost City including return flights with South African Airways (0844 375 9680, www.flysaa.com) and transfers start from £1,450pp, based on two sharing (020 7843 3500, www.africatravel.co.uk).
For The Lost City and Sun International properties, see www.suninternational.com.
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