As the sun sets and the clear blue water turns to golden grey, light fades in the endless African sky. Mountain peaks in the distance bow their tops in silence as day falls into night. The orange African sky beams over the plains of the desert and game parks, to the edge of the horizon. The acacias sleep in the centre of the African heartland, safe in its palm.
South Africa is a place that many only dream about going, but not only is it a land of astounding beauty it is also teaming with adventure opportunities and well worth adding to your bucket list! Let me warn you though … if you’ve never been there and are used to a rushed city lifestyle, get used to sitting back, relaxing and being patient because, as a local saying goes – “Other countries have clocks, Africa has time!”
International flights will take you into Johannesburg or Cape Town (depending on where you are flying from), where you can either disembark to start your exploration, or continue on to another airport with a regional flight. Over 70 international airlines now fly into South Africa.
There are nine provinces in South Africa to visit: Eastern Cape, Free State, Gauteng, KwaZulu-Natal, Limpopo, Mpumalanga, Northern Cape, North West and Western Cape.
Visiting the Eastern Cape will give you a truly “wild” experience, with its untouched pristine beaches, bushland, abundant wildlife and forest. It also features all three of the country’s biodiversity regions, and you will find a variety of plant and animal life, including the famous ‘Big Five’, abundant birdlife and rich marine life. For the adventure junkie, you can enjoy tubing down the Storm’s River Gorge, skydiving in Grahamstown and taking the plunge off the Bloukrans Bridge.
The Free State is filled with scenic beauty and natural attractions and lies in the heart of South Africa. The Drakensberg and Maluti mountain ranges are popular for adventure tourists, and you will also find some of the best rock features in the world. Golden Gate Highlands National Park is popular for exploring, and there are plenty of opportunities for hiking, abseiling, canoeing and white-water rafting.
Gauteng is city lover’s dream with its large shopping malls, bars, hotels, casinos and a vibrant cultural and entertainment scene. Johannesburg is the capital and Gauteng is the smallest of South Africa’s nine provinces, but also the most densely populated. It is also home to Dinokeng Game Reserve, a Big Five nature reserve; the Pretoria National Botanical Garden; and the Magaliesberg mountains.
KwaZulu-Natal is where you will find the laid-back but busy city of Durban, South Africa’s third-largest city. The province also includes almost untouched beaches; world-famous game reserves; two UNESCO World Heritage Sites; and some of South Africa’s most famous historic battlefields.
Limpopo is a premier tourist destination with big game, brilliant birding, untamed bush landscapes, a marvellous ancient African kingdom, places of myth and legend, and it is the northern gateway to the famous Kruger National Park.
Mpumalanga is home to the Kruger National Park, one of the oldest, largest and most famous game reserves in the world and it is also where you’ll find the Sabi Sand Reserve, South Africa’s most prestigious private game reserve. Here you will find more waterfalls here than anywhere else in the country; the oldest dolomite caves in the world; and adventure activities galore, including river rafting, abseiling, climbing, quad biking, horse riding and mountain biking.
The Northern Cape is sparsely populated but is home to some stunning natural attractions, such as the annual Namaqualand wildflower display in spring, the spectacular Augrabies Falls and the Green Kalahari, along with the Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park, home to the Kalahari lion, and Orange River.
The North West features the Pilanesberg Game Reserve and the Madikwe Game Reserve, parts of two UNESCO World Heritage Sites (the Vredefort Dome and the Taung Fossil Site); and the Sun City gaming and entertainment resort. It includes Hartbeespoort Dam, a popular weekend water-sports and adventure hub.
The Western Cape extends from the Cape of Good Hope and is South Africa’s fourth-largest province. It is best known for Cape Town, South Africa’s ‘Mother City’, which is filled with high-rise buildings and huge market place, and is the tourism capital of South Africa, particularly famous for its natural harbour, Table Mountain and its proximity to the Cape of Good Hope. The Western Cape is also home to the West Coast National Park and the picturesque Garden Route, one of the country’s most popular routes and wine-growing areas.
South Africa is located on the southern tip of Africa, surrounded by 3000 kilometres of coastline, Indian Ocean to the East, Atlantic Ocean to the West. In the North it’s bordered by Namibia, Botswana, Zimbabwe and Mozambique; and within South Africa there are two independent countries – the kingdoms of Lesotho and Swaziland.
When to go?
South Africa has pretty perfect weather all year round – as long as you like it hot. In winter, cool nights and warm days; in summer, warm nights and hot days. But there are a few highlights that you might want to base your trip around, such as the Sardine Run from May to June. Aptly described as ‘The Greatest Shoal on Earth’, the sardine run takes place every winter, when millions of small, silvery sardines surge from the cold Cape waters up to the KwaZulu-Natal coast, followed closely, of course, by a feeding frenzy of dolphins, sharks, seabirds and other marine life. Between August and November you can enjoy whale watching as the southern right whales migrate to mate and calve in sheltered bays off the Cape coast. Take a boat tour, or watch them from the shore – with the coastal town of Hermanus reputed to have the best shore-based whale watching in the world. And if you’re around between late July and October, you won’t want to miss the dazzling display from the spring flowers blossoming in the arid semi-desert area of the Northern Cape! It’s said to be one of the most dramatic natural spectacles and stretches around 500 kilometres!
Where to stay?
South Africa is renowned for its excellent tourist infrastructure and you will find a wide range of accommodation to suit all needs. If you’re on a budget, South Africa has a well-developed network of backpacker accommodation options and there are also plenty of camping opportunities. Mid range accommodation includes bed and breakfasts, as well as self catering units, holiday villas, chalets and farm cottages. Luxury accommodation is aplenty, and the country has some of the most luxurious lodges and hotels in the world – and luckily, you will likely find prices to be a lot less in South Africa for your luxury than elsewhere in the world. Safari lodges usually include packages with game drives, meals and drinks.
Not to be missed – South Africa’s 8 UNESCO World Heritage Sites.
Cape Floral Region Protected Areas stretch from the Cape Peninsula across much of the Western Cape and into the Eastern Cape, and has eight protected sites among the richest areas for plants in the world. Fossil Hominid Sites of South Africa can be visited via the Maropeng Visitor Centre in the Cradle of Humankind, near Johannesburg and Pretoria. This area is rich in fossils of hominids, the early ancestors of humans.
iSimangaliso Wetland Park is one of Africa’s most beautiful wetland and coastal sites, a natural area of coral reefs, long, sandy beaches, coastal dunes, lakes, swamps, and reed-and-papyrus wetlands. Maloti-Drakensberg Park is home to more than 600 rock-art sites with close on 35,000 individual images painted by the San people who once roamed here. The mountains are also home to several endemic species of birds and plants and the range forms the border between Lesotho and South Africa’s KwaZulu-Natal province.
Mapungubwe Cultural Landscape is found on the border of Botswana and Zimbabwe at the confluence of the Limpopo and Shashe rivers and is a national park which also contains remnants of an intriguing kingdom (whose people traded in gold and ivory) dating back to the 14th century. Richtersveld Cultural and Botanical Landscape is in the furthermost north-western corner of the Northern Cape, and is a mountainous area with unique vegetation. Here you can meet the locals – the Nama people, semi-nomadic pastoralists whose cultural lifestyle can still be observed.
Robben Island is in Table Bay, within sight of central Cape Town, and is the place where former president Nelson Mandela and other anti-apartheid activists were imprisoned. It was used as a prison and place of isolation for the mentally ill and people with diseases like leprosy from the mid-1800s until the 1930s, but from 1961 to1991 it was a maximum-security prison for political prisoners. Vredefort Dome is the world’s largest meteor-impact crater, formed some 2023-million years ago. The meteorite responsible for this crash probably measured about 10km across and today, the crash site is 190 kilometres wide and offers many recreational facilities for outdoor enthusiasts.
* Information courtesy of South African Tourism