Sun City was once the poster child for the hypocrisy and moral decay of apartheid, but today is a luxurious, if bizarre, entertainment venue deep in the South African bushveld.

The kitsch Sun City casino complex rises incongruously from the South African bushveld, a muted landscape of scrub-covered hills and dusty pink roadsides, 187km northwest of Johannesburg. It is a spit-and-sawdust area, with chunky bakkies (pick-up trucks) speeding past along the freeway toward the Kalahari Desert or the Botswana border. From the small city of Rustenburg, Route 565 leads 45km north from the freeway through platinum-mining country to the casino gates, where stilt walkers entertain queuing cars and signs forbid firearms.

Controversial history
As you ride the monorail from the car park to the main complex, looking down on treetops and stubbly slopes in the surrounding bush before ornate towers and fountains come into view, this African pleasure dome’s very existence defies logic. It was the brainchild of billionaire hotel magnate Sol Kerzner, who exploited conditions under apartheid to bring a slice of Vegas to Africa. The Jewish entrepreneur negotiated a deal for an exclusive gambling licence in Bophuthatswana (“Bop”) – one of the semi-autonomous Bantustans, or homelands, established by the apartheid regime to contain South Africa’s various black ethnic groups, in this case the Tswana -- with Bop’s despotic president Lucas Mangope.

With more relaxed laws than neighbouring South Africa under the Calvinistic National Party, homelands were popular destinations for gambling, strip shows and prostitution. Sun City in particular became a poster child for the hypocrisy and moral decay of apartheid. Opened in 1979, the resort’s infamy spread worldwide, as its Superbowl auditorium, which pulled big crowds from the nearby cities of Johannesburg and Pretoria, attracted international stars from bands to boxers. Many musicians were avoiding South Africa as part of the UN cultural boycott that had begun in 1968, but a long list of performers including Frank Sinatra, Queen, Elton John and Tina Turner skirted the sanction, thanks to Bop’s nominally independent status, and played the Superbowl. In 1985, the protest group Artists United Against Apartheid which included Bruce Springsteen, Bob Dylan, Lou Reed and U2 took a less nuanced stance and pledged (in a song titled Sun City) not to play there.

Bop imploded at the end of apartheid, with fighting between Mangope’s Bophuthatswana Defence Force and Eugene Terre’Blance’s white supremacist AWB group. The Bantustans were officially reincorporated into South Africa in 1994 and Sun City continued to grow, now employing more than 7,000 people on its 65sqkm of land. Many of the employees are Tswana locals and the visitors are a multicultural mix of black, white and Asian people – mostly tourists and day-trippers from the Johannesburg area.

Sun City
The monorail deposits visitors on the first floor of the Entertainment Centre, the core of Sun City. Walking past a few of the resort’s dozens of boutiques, you will find yourself in the Jungle Casino, one of its two gaming centres . Beneath the domed ceiling covered with murals of African animals are fast food restaurants and line after line of slot machines. To get your bearings before exploring the rest of sprawling Sun City, head downstairs to the Welcome Centre for information on activities, ticket sales, car rental and shuttle buses.

From the Entertainment Centre, the Bridge of Time lined with life-sized elephant statues leads to the Lost City amusement park. This is Sun City’s apex of kitsch, honouring African culture and heritage with its theme of a mighty ancient kingdom -- but in fact, it is more like a demented, Disney-fied take on ancient Egypt. Hourly mock volcanic eruptions take place on the bridge with sound effects and billowing smoke. At the far end of the bridge is the imaginative Monkey Spring Plaza; according to the fictional legends of Lost City, the plaza’s towering circle of monkey statues, squatting with outstretched palms, commemorates the troop of simians who saved the city’s ancient tribe from starvation during a terrible drought.

The plaza overlooks Lost City’s centrepiece, the mind-boggling Valley of the Waves waterpark, an outdoor tropical island environment of artificial white-sand beaches fringing turquoise waters, palm-dotted islands and thickly forested slopes. In the distance beyond the bobbing bodies and blowing whistles the African bush rolls quietly away, a reminder of the terrain that covered the area before Kerzner realised his bold vision.

Every 90 seconds, hydraulic mechanisms send a 1.8m-high wave across the ambitious Roaring Lagoon, the waterpark’s 6,500sqm wave pool. Equally thrilling are the five rides, including the Temple of Courage, on which swimmers drop 17m in a 70m-long chute. The Lazy River is a mellow tube ride circling a kidney-shaped island which is home to an ethnic-style village containing a clothes store, sweet shop, fast-food outlet, and children’s pool and playground. The waterpark also includes the Royal Bath pool, built over a natural spring, with a cocktail bar on the deck. Surrounding the shimmering pools is a botanical garden, where walking trails lead between a swaying bridge and gardens of local plants, such as baobabs and jacarandas, and tropical varieties.

Overlooking Valley of the Waves, and completing the fantastical view from the Monkey Spring Plaza, are the domed towers of the otherworldly Palace of the Lost City. This five-star hotel, its grand atriums and halls decorated with frescoes, mosaics and painted ceilings, is regularly rated as one of the world’s most luxurious accommodation options, and is one of the The Leading Hotels of the World. With features including butler service and marble bathrooms in its 338 rooms and suites, gardens dotted with fountains and pools and half a dozen bars and restaurants, it continues the Lost City’s theme, with the regal ambience of a mighty ruler’s kingly abode. The hotel is not open to non-guests but tours can be arranged in the Welcome Centre.

Sun City has some 1,200 rooms across its four hotels, the second-most luxurious of which is the five-star Cascades Hotel. This hotel’s Mediterranean-inspired grounds feature a lake with waterfalls, an artificial beach with a cocktail bar and a garden inhabited by exotic birds. Its rooms and suites include luxuries such as the Garden Suite’s private garden and pool. With hanging foliage and cascading water in its jungle-themed reception, the four-star Sun City Hotel is geared towards a young, hedonistic crowd, and is the home of the complex’s other casino, the Sun City Hotel Casino On its gaming floor visitors can play American roulette, blackjack, punto banco (baccarat), stud poker and slot machines, and the Sun City School of Gaming gives free lessons in the rules, techniques and etiquette of casino table game. The three-star Cabanas Hotel is the most informal and family-friendly option, with facilities including a playground, aviary and farmyard. The adjoining Kamp Kwena, a  children’s babysitting and entertainment centre, organises activities for two- to 12-year-old children during the  high season, and the playful hotel even has a resident blue crane -- the national bird of South Africa -- named Figaro.

You do not need to visit Sun City’s casinos or stay in its hotels to take part in its range of activities. At the Welcome Centre, you can arrange adventures including jet skiing, parasailing, horse riding, zip lining, paintballing at the Outdoor Adventure Centre, or feeding crocs in the Kwena Gardens Crocodile Sanctuary. Sun City has two golf courses laid out by the South African champion Gary Player, including the 100-hectare Lost City Golf Course. This course’s thirteenth hole, which features a green in the shape of the African continent, lives up to its unlucky number; the pond bordering the green is home to several large Nile crocodiles.

The hills you can see from numerous points in Sun City, undulating away to the north, are located in the adjacent 550sqkm Pilanesberg National Park, one of South Africa’s most accessible wildlife parks. Occupying an extinct volcano crater, it was declared a national park in 1984 following the release of 6,000 native animals including lions, cheetahs, giraffes, zebras, elephants and several types of antelope from klipspringers to kudus. It remains South Africa’s largest wildlife resettlement project to date.

Designed  as a back-to-nature experience for city folk from Johannesburg and Pretoria, Pilanesberg has a good network of tarred and gravel roads, allowing drivers of even the feeblest cars to potentially see the “big five” (lion, elephant, Cape buffalo, leopard and rhino) without a hired guide. Tour operator Gametrackers runs wildlife drives and elephant-back safaris in the national park from Sun City, but if you have a car, the best option is to embark on a self-drive safari, staking out waterholes and staying at accommodation in the park such as attractive and comfortable Bakubung Bush Lodge, which has well-equipped thatched brick chalets and a restaurant.

Tour operators such as Footprints in Africa and Mo Afrika Tours offer trips to Sun City and Pilanesberg National Park from Johannesburg and Pretoria, both about three hours away. Ingelosi Shuttles runs daily shuttles to Sun City from Pretoria, Johannesburg and OR Tambo International Airport in Johannesburg. Entrance to Sun City costs 50 rand per person; to book a hotel, visit the casino’s website.