Sun City wasn’t quite what I’d expected. After hearing so much about it and its wayward reputation, I’d envisaged a mini-Las Vegas-style extravaganza that just happened to be plonked in the middle of the South African bushveld rather than the Mojave desert.
I love Vegas – for a couple of days and nights, that is, and then I start hitting my limits. But for a short time at least – and despite its dark underbelly – I really enjoy its ridiculously kitsch over-the-topness, its lively anything-goes ethos and its brash, shameless hedonism.
So on deciding to spend a long weekend at the Pilanesberg game reserve for my Beloved’s birthday treat, I was really keen to make a little side-trip to South Africa’s very own Sin City.
Only it was anything but. OK, we went there on a Sunday afternoon, which possibly isn’t the best time to see it at its iniquitous best, but even so. “South Africa’s Kingdom of Pleasure” as it calls itself is definitely after the family rand.
For starters, there are only two casinos – the Sun City Hotel Casino and the Jungle Casino in the Cascades Hotel Entertainment Center – as opposed to the 100 plus that you’ll find in Vegas.
And they’re mostly rammed full of incredibly complex fruit machines that you usually have to purchase a smartcard to operate – it’s a far cry from my day when you put 10 pence in a slot, pulled the arm on the side and three reels went round. It was all so scarily high-tech, in fact, that my Beloved and I gave up before we’d even begun.
Distressingly though, we also couldn’t work out how to master the bafflingly sophisticated American Roulette game, and there didn’t seem that much else on offer apart from the odd Poker and Punto Banco (baccarat) table, neither of which we knew how to play. So we gave up and went out for a walk instead.
Once outside though, the veritable dearth of dodgy-looking bars and strip joints was noticeable. In fact, the whole place seemed remarkably wholesome. Much more ‘Valley of the Waves’ water park for the kids than making any waves by offending delicate local sensibilities.
Infamy and outcry
Even more disappointingly, the decidedly opulent ‘Palace of the Lost City’ notwithstanding, which was essentially a large European mansion with vaguely north African-style minarets stuck on it, there was nothing really to compare with the fabulously vulgar themed hotels of Vegas. Among my favourites there are the Paris, which houses a French restaurant in its own half-sized version of the Eifel Tower.
Equally disappointing was the veritable dearth of Bellagio-style son-et-lumiere fountain displays or Circus Circus-like acrobatics and contortionist-based spectaculars – although the elephant-lined Bridge of Time leading from the Entertainment Center to the Lost City amusement park does have an hourly volcanic eruption, complete with sound effects and billowing smoke, which is something.
But it was all rather pedestrian really – although I’ve heard that the golf courses are among the best in the world, if that’s your thing.
In reality, the most interesting thing about Sun City is possibly its history. Billionaire South African hotel magnate Sol Kerzner set the place up in 1979, in the middle of apartheid, by negotiating an exclusive gambling licence with Lucas Mangope, the despotic president of Bophuthatswana.
At that time, Bophuthatswana was a Bantustan, or autonomous homeland, which housed the local Tswana people. Although its independence was not recognised internationally, the fact that the apartheid government viewed so-called ‘Bop’ as a separate state allowed Kerzner to get around the regime’s strict morality laws.
As a result, he was able to provide entertainment such as gambling, strip shows and prostitution, which was otherwise banned by the Calvinistic National Party, ensuring that Sun City became a poster child for the hypocrisy of the state.
And this infamy was to spread worldwide when performers ranging from Frank Sinatra, Elton John and Status Quo chose to flout the anti-apartheid cultural boycott imposed on South Africa by the United Nations in 1968. The concerts that they played at its Superbowl auditorium pulled in huge crowds from the nearby cities of Joburg and Pretoria, causing a massive outcry.
After Bop imploded at the end of apartheid due to fighting between Mangope’s Bophuthatswana Defence Force and Eugene Terre’Blanche’s white supremaciest AWB, however, it was officially incorporated back into South Africa.
But Sun City has since managed to reinvent itself and even continued to grow, now employing about 7,000 workers, many of whom are local Tswana people.
African Rungu massage
Another local speciality that I had the good fortune to sample at the weekend, meanwhile, was an African Rungu massage. After dragging my dishevelled carcass out of bed at 4.30am for a wonderful game drive an hour later, I definitely felt in need of a bit of pampering.
So I decided to trot along to the Amani Spa in the upmarket Shepherd’s Tree Game Lodge, where we were staying, to see what delights they had to offer. And seeing as I’d never even heard of an African Rungu massage before, I decided to give it a go.
To be honest, I didn’t even know that massage was something traditionally used in African culture, but apparently its been employed both by midwives and within families for generations, particularly by mothers for their babies.
And despite my ignorance, African Rungu massage is allegedly becoming increasingly trendy in South Africa, and has even starting popping up in spas in the UK.
As to what it actually comprises, it’s essentially a long-stroke, deep-tissue massage that includes the use of a Rungu, or baton of eucalyptus wood with different sized balls on each end.
Originally a throwing club used by Masaai males in southern Kenya and Northern Tanzania, Rungu are about 20 inches long and are actually an important emblem of warrior status.
In this context though, they help massage therapists to penetrate more deeply into your muscles, with the aim of improving circulation, lymph drainage and muscle tone in order to release all of that nasty stress.
And I must say that it was one of the best, most relaxing massages I’ve ever had. Despite expectations, it comes much more highly recommended than a trip to Sun City.