South Africa is a big country. Its northeastern border, churned out by the waters of the Limpopo River, is some 2,000km (1,240 miles) from the Cape's craggy coastline, while the semi-arid West Coast, beaten by the icy waters of the Atlantic, is more than 1,600km (992 miles) from the lush East Coast. Surrounded by two oceans, it also borders some extraordinary countries to the north: Namibia, home to the ancient Namib desert; Botswana, southern Africa's premier wildlife destination; Zambia and Zimbabwe, both straddled by the world's most spectacular waterfall; and the subtropical beauty that is Mozambique. It's a region that is both vast and immensely varied, offering a correspondingly diverse array of experiences. Historically, too, the contrasts are great: Some of the world's oldest hominid remains -- dating back some 4 million years -- make this one of the cradles of civilization, yet it was only just over a decade ago that the country emerged from the dark shadow of an oppressive policy that made it the pariah of the modern world. Born with the dawning millennium, South Africa's peaceful transition to democracy was considered a miracle, and it boasts one of the most progressive constitutions in the world, yet almost half the population still lives in crippling poverty. Most first-time visitors are, in turn, amazed at how sophisticated the infrastructure is on the southern tip of what is still sometimes referred to as the Dark Continent, and yet appalled by the living standards of so many. This sometime unnerving combination of First and Third Worlds is also what makes it such a dynamic destination, full of unexpected contrasts and, yes, bargains. Add vast tracts of untouched wilderness, iconic natural wonders, fascinating wildlife, superb wines, world-class restaurants, and an all-year temperate climate, and it is easy to see why post-apartheid South Africa has emerged as one of the world's fastest-growing tourism destinations -- which, in turn, continues spurring the economic growth needed to combat the high levels of poverty. So not least among the many reasons to visit South Africa is the very warm welcome you can expect from its citizens.

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