The ultimate playground - the experts' guide to South Africa and its provinces
Seeking inspiration for your next adventure? Look no further, we've got hundreds of ideas!

 

 

WESTERN CAPE

The Western Cape can feel almost like another country within South Africa – not really very African at all. It sports its wealth and hides its poverty behind a cloak of abundant natural beauty. While not the richest province (that’s Gauteng), it has its fair share of prosperity and many residents have an enviable lifestyle. The Cape Winelands rejoice in the title of the gourmet capital of the country, the Garden Route has its natural coastal splendour and Cape Town bathes in its reputation as one of the most beautiful cities in the world (Telegraph readers voted it the World’s Favourite City in 2012). The city is one of few where the mountains seem to dip their toes into the oceans, creating a connection between land and sea that influences all its inhabitants. Table Mountain is the guiding force in Cape Town (literally and spiritually), and wherever you are it will give you a bearing. All eyes will be on Cape Town in 2014 in its year as World Design Capital, when it seeks to bridge the historic divides. This includes steps to make life more tolerable for the inhabitants of South Africa’s largest township, Khayelitsha. By Carrie Hampton

 

Top Destinations
Cape town and Table Mountain

Dominating the Cape Town skyline, Table Mountain is one giant crystal raining its energy down onto the city. At least that’s one esoteric theory; another is that it creates the perfect Feng Shui city, balanced by water in the front and hemmed into a bowl by mountains behind. What’s certain is that Table Mountain provides the opportunity to be in a business meeting one minute and on the mountain the next, hiking, climbing, taking a four-minute ride up the cable car and abseiling or paragliding off. It’s the biggest ‘must-do’ in Cape Town.

Whale and dolphin watching
Southern right whales are seen very close to shore when they come to mate and calve between July and November. Hermanus has built a tourist industry around author/naturalist Mark Carwardine’s accolade, “the best land-based whale watching in the world.” Further along the coast, De Hoop Nature Reserve is a another renowned whale nursery. For almost guaranteed sightings of ocean mammals take a boat trip from Plettenberg Bay, the most chic town along the Garden Route. Bryde’s whales, cape fur seals, bottlenose and common dolphins are resident off its shores, with southern right and humpback whales visiting seasonally. Killer whales are also occasionally present.

Kirstenbosch National Botanical Gardens
Kirstenbosch is a magnificent floral stage flanked by Table Mountain, and shows off southern Africa’s diverse plants in their utmost glory. Look into the heavy boughs along Camphor Tree Avenue and you might see large spotted eagle owls. Marvel at the cycad amphitheatre, knowing these species were around at the time of dinosaurs. Don’t miss the Sunday summer concerts starring renowned local and international artists (bring a blanket, picnic and friends).

West Coast National Park
The west coast is where modern man – and woman(!) – began. Eve’s footprints, dating back approximately 117,000 years, were found beside the gentle Langebaan Lagoon and pronounced to be to be the closest relative to modern human ever found. She lived in a beautiful spot, now the West Coast National Park, where the warm, shallow lagoon is very inviting. There are charming self-catering cottages and even a houseboat for hire if you book far enough in advance.

Be a gourhandise in the Winelands
Wine, food and scenery fit so well together that the Cape Winelands have six out of South Africa’s top 10 restaurants. Time should be given to the important pursuit of appreciating all things gourmet, while soaking in the glorious mountain scenery and the colonial history that created this indulgent pleasure.

Spring flowers
With 1200 types of flowering plants alone, and the richest diversity of plants per square meter of anywhere in the world, the spring phenomenon along the Cape West Coast is an event worth seeing. Begin your quest in August or September in the Postberg section of West Coast National Park, then work your way north.

Township tour
The privileged life of many Western Cape residents is in stark contrast to the township’s abject poverty. A tour is not voyeurism – it’s a lesson in perspective. You get the chance to rub shoulders with residents in an atmosphere of mutual respect and shared curiosity. You will learn that dignity survives poverty, and get a dose of humility.

 

Top 5 Scenic Views
1 Table Mountain  Views of Cape Town’s mountains and oceans are breathtaking from atop this landmark – those from Signal Hill and Lion’s Head are also magnificent
2 Table Bay  Take a yacht excursion and admire the grandeur of Cape Town from a watery angle
3 Dolphin Point  Stop here on the N2 by Wilderness (on the Garden Route) for views of Kaaimans River mouth and an endless beach
4 Knysna Heads  Drive to the top to appreciate the vast lagoon spread out before you
5 Piekenierskloof Pass  Heading north between Piketberg and Citrusdal there is a stunning viewpoint at the top (518m), over a vast broad valley – green in winter and pure gold from ripening wheat in spring 


Top 5 Restaurants
1 The Test Kitchen  Tapas and contemporary fusion food in Cape Town by chef Luke Dale-Roberts tops the list (also ranked in the Top 100 Restaurants in the world)
2 The Tasting Room at Le Quartier Français  With chef Margo Janse at the helm, this Franschhoek treat is consistently in South Africa’s top five (also in World Top 100)
3 Jordan Restaurant  See chefs at work in the open kitchen of this superb Stellenbosch wine estate bistro
4 Overture at Hidden Valley Wine Estate  Inspiring views at this relaxed fine-dining restaurant in Stellenbosch
5 La Colombe on Uitsig Wine Estate  Dine on elegant French cuisine in a courtyard surrounded by some of Constantia’s finest vineyards


Best...
Off-the-beaten track destination  The Wolfberg Cracks in the Cederberg offer stark rocky beauty – they’re accessed by sandy roads, then a 90-minute hike
Underrated destination  !Khwa ttu San Education and Cultural Centre, 70km north of Cape Town on the West Coast road, is a superb and enlightening experience, staffed by some of the last remaining San bushmen
Place to splurge  The Cape Grace in the V&A Waterfront, which was rated as second-best hotel in the world this year by TripAdvisor travellers
Budget destination  The mountains, beaches and oceans are free! Walk, hike, climb, sunbathe, swim and picnic at no charge
Scenic drive  You can’t top Chapman’s Peak Drive for wow factor as it hugs the cliff face around Hout Bay then performs a hairpin bend towards Noordhoek Beach

 

Top 5 Beaches
Muizenberg Beach  Great for novice surfers with its gentle rhythmic waves
Fish Hoek Beach  For families and swimming (they are trialling shark exclusion nets)
Langebaan Beach  Watersports like kite surfing, Hobie cats and dinghies make this an exciting setting
Boulder’s Beach (and the adjacent known-only-to-locals Water’s Edge)  Swim with penguins
Noordhoek Beach  Perfect for horse riding through the surf 

 

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NORTHERN CAPE
Welcome to SA’s last great frontier, the Northern Cape. A playground for explorers, it’s the country’s largest, least-populated and downright strangest province.  A super-sized land of half-human trees and singing sands, of orange sunsets and bright starry nights, journeys here feel like stepping into the pages of a novel adventure by Laurens Van der Post. By Becca Blond.

 

Top Destinations
Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park

One of the world’s last unspoilt ecosystems, the magical Kgalagadi was Africa’s first multi-national park. Driving here feels like heading to the ends of the earth, but once you arrive you’ll see it’s worth the effort. From prides of black-maned lion to cheetah families and packs of howling spotted hyenas, there are more than 1100 predators in the park. The rest of the Big Five also roam its famous dry riverbeds and red sand dunescapes. 

Augrabies Falls
The Khoisaan people called it Aukoerbis, meaning ‘place of great noise’. And when the waterfall for which this park is named is fat with rainy season run-off, its thunderous roar is almost scary. The main falls drop 56m, while the Bridal Veil Falls on the north side drop 75m.

Kimberley
It’s been nearly a century since mining stopped in the Northern Cape’s capital Kimberley, yet the dusty frontier town’s lost-in-time vibe remains synonymous with DeBeers diamonds. Before it closed in 1914, the world’s largest hand-dug mine – the Big Hole – yielded 2.75 tons of diamonds (about 14.5 million carats) from 22.5 million tons of excavated earth. Kimberley is also famous for its bars – at one time saloons vastly outnumbered churches.
 
Witsand Nature Reserve
When the wind blows at Witsand the sand sings. The bass organ-like sound effect, known as the ‘roaring sands’, is created by the whoosh of air across the massive – 2km-long, 9km-wide, 100m-high – white sand dune, which stands in bold contrast to its crimson counterparts (walking on them produces a mere muted groan). One of the coolest things to do here is rent a sand board or bike, hike up a dune and ride down. Astronomy enthusiasts will want to check out the night sky – this is one of Africa’s finest stargazing spots.

Wildflower season in Namaqualand
A land of immense sky and stark countryside, Namaqualand, in the Northern Cape’s rugged northwest corner, is truly South Africa’s wild west. It’s the kind of empty place where you could tumble off the map without anyone noticing. Roads stretch on forever and stars seem bigger and brighter than anywhere else. The region is an equally proficient magician, performing an explosive trick each spring when she shakes off winter’s bite and covers her sunbaked desert in a multi-hued wildflower blanket. 

Senqu/Orange River wine route
Although not as well known as its Western Cape counterparts, the wine region along the banks of the Orange (Senqu) River produces more than 10 per cent of the country’s wines thanks to its fertile river valley location. Grapes were planted to produce raisins in the early 1900s, but the first wine grapes weren’t harvested until 1968. Since then the co-op has grown to be the largest in South Africa, with about 750 members and five cellars best known for their dessert wines concentrated along the N10 and N14 between Keimos and Kakamos.

Ai-Ais/Richtersveld Transfrontier Park
Accessible only by 4WD vehicle, the Richtersveld is South Africa’s final wild frontier. An upside-down surreal desert filled with human-like trees, sandy moonscapes and lava rocks, the multi-national park is enormous – it continues into Namibia. Like much of the Northern Cape, it is most beautiful during the spring wildflower season, when it becomes a technicolour wonderland. Hiking here is demanding but rewarding, with trails traversing jagged peaks, grotesque rock formations, deep ravines and gorges. 


Best...
Off-the-beaten track destination
  Riemvasmaak, where donkey carts remain the principal mode of transport – 4WD trails and a solitary hot spring provide the entertainment
Underrated destination  Kimberley’s Halfway House Inn – Cecil John Rhodes built it with an entrance high enough to ride his horse through
Place to splurge  Upington’s Le Must River Residence, a 5-star property with work-of-art gardens – don’t miss its restaurant
Budget destination  Kalahari Backpackers at Augrabies Falls serves ice-cold beer and runs a popular rafting trip down the Orange River
Scenic drive Heading into Port Nolloth – one minute you’re engulfed in nothingness, the next you’re cresting a hill and staring into the Atlantic’s icy blue vastness

 

Top 5 Places to get lost
1. Calvinia  Hundreds of miles from anywhere, it’s a sheep-farming outpost with a frontier vibe that blooms during spring wildflower season
2. The Kalahari  A parallel universe where you are really small and everything around looms larger than life
3. Ai-Ais Richtersveld  An extremely surreal mountainous desert environment that is accessible only by 4WD 
4. Springbok  In a remote valley surrounded by moonscape scenery – it gets amazing starlight
5. Port Nolloth  On the cold Atlantic Ocean – the bracing air smells of fish and salt – the diamond town exudes a raw, end-of-the-earth vitality

 

 

EASTERN CAPE
From the tranquillity of the semi-arid Karoo to excellent surfing spots, from genteel settler towns to some of South Africa’s best hiking trails, the Eastern Cape offers up a surprising array of activities and adventures. Delve into Xhosa culture in Pondoland and celebrate the heritage of the region’s most famous son – Nelson Mandela. Count the stars above the tiny Karoo village of Nieu Bethesda or feast upon nature in whimsical Hogsback, hang out in a hammock on the Wild Coast or zip-slide through the trees in the Tsitsikamma Forest. Explore small, remote nature reserves along the coast where only rhinos and mudskippers leave footprints. Or seek out the Big Five at national parks and private game reserves, with the Sixth, the southern right whale, off the coast in spring. By Helen Ranger.

 

Top Destinations
Addo Elephant National Park

Started in 1931 with just 16 elephants, Addo is now blessed with some 550. The park’s size has also blossomed over the years to almost half a million acres, now stretching from the dry Karoo in the north to a south coast marine reserve where the largest breeding populations of Cape gannets and African penguins can be found. Seeing elephants is almost guaranteed, with chances of spotting other animals too, such as lion, buffalo, black rhino, leopard and zebra. Addo is also home to the rare flightless dung beetle. With such a diversity of flora, fauna and landscapes, Addo is the Eastern Cape’s foremost destination.

Mountain Zebra National Park
Here’s an opportunity to see one of the world’s rarest creatures – the mountain zebra. This national park, just 20km west of Cradock, has 350 of them along with black rhinos, cheetahs, plenty of different types of antelopes and about 200 species of birds. The rolling grasslands of the park lie on the northern slopes of the Bankberg Range. Walking trails, ranging from just a few kilometres to a three-day hike where nights are spent in mountain huts, are on offer.

Tsitsikamma National Park
Tsitsikamma protects 80km of wild, rugged coastline. Superb walks, lasting from a few hours to several days, explore waterfalls, deep ravines, rivers and forests of ancient trees. Endangered species such as the Cape clawless otter and the black oystercatcher are elusive, but baboons and small antelopes abound and whales and dolphins can be seen off the coast. A canopy tour through the indigenous forest is an eco-wilderness adventure.

Hogsback and the Amathole
The rugged Amathole Trail starts just north of King William’s Town and covers 121km over six days. It’s one of South Africa’s top mountain trails, with superb views, cool forests, waterfalls and swimming holes. The trail ends near Hogsback, the perfect place to recover. Delightful, artsy accommodation, gardens, teashops and even an eco-shrine are enticements to stay longer.

Mthatha
Follow Madiba’s long walk to freedom with a visit to the fascinating Nelson Mandela Museum in the centre of Mthatha. It contains a multimedia exhibition of his life, as well as all the gifts and honours he received. Other components of the museum include the Nelson Mandela Monument at the nearby village of Mveso, where Mandela was born, and the Nelson Mandela Youth Heritage Centre in Qunu, his childhood home.

 

Top 5 Hikes
1 Otter Trail  Covers 42km of beautiful coastline from Storms River Mouth to Nature’s Valley
2 Shipwreck Trail  This six-day walk from Port Alfred to the Fish River Mouth includes canoeing
3 Wild Coast Beaches  Taking 5-6 days, this route allows you to stay with local villagers along the route
4 Strandloper  Taking four days, this 57km hike takes you along the beach between Kei Mouth and Gonubie
5 Katberg Trail  Walk or ride a horse over this 40km route in the Winterberg Range


Best...
Off-the-beaten-track destination
  The Baviaanskloof Wilderness area – it’s perfect for a unique ecotourism adventure
Underrated destination  The tiny village of Rhodes offers the best trout fishing spots and South Africa’s only ski destination
Place to splurge  Shamwari Game Reserve is one of the world’s premier safari destinations featuring the Big Five in luxurious surroundings
Budget destination  Bulungula is a Fair Trade eco-lodge, partly owned by the local community – it’s in one of the most beautiful locations on the Wild Coast
Scenic drive  The spectacular Valley of Desolation in the Camdeboo National Park has piled dolerite columns and views of Graaff-Rienet and the Karoo

 

Top 5 Beaches
1 Chintsa  A lagoon, dunes and unspoilt sandy beaches near East London
2 Jeffrey’s Bay  One of the world’s top surfing destinations with superb beaches, too
3 Port Alfred  Huge sand dunes back these beaches at the mouth of the Kowie River
4 Port Elizabeth  The Sunshine Coast has wide, sandy beaches and good surfing
5 Mbotyi  The subtropical vegetation, river mouth and pristine beach are worth seeing

 

 

FREE STATE
Nelson Mandela described the Free State as a land that gladdened his heart no matter his mood, where nothing could shut him in and his thoughts could roam as far as the horizons. And while this land of vibrant Sotho houses, sunflower fields and Afrikanner farmers in yesteryear’s vehicles may not hold any trump cards when it comes to South Africa’s Big Five attractions, it does have a subtle country charm that’s easy to fall for.  By Becca Blond.

 

Top Destinations
Golden Gate Highlands National Park

Home to fiery crimson and magenta sunsets, sandstone monoliths and an undulating spearmint sea of grass, Golden Gate Highlands National Park is the Free State’s star natural attraction. It is most impressive late in the day when the Maluti Mountains glow and kudu are seen sprinting across the pistachio grasslands. The park isn’t home to any of the Big Five, but it does host plenty of grazing species, birds, baboons and excellent hiking trails. The Basotho Cultural Village is also here.

Clarens
The jewel of the Free State, Clarens is one of those magical towns you stumble upon expecting little, then find yourself talking about long after departure. Surrounded by craggy limestone rocks, hunter green hills, golden fields and the magenta-hued Maluti Mountains, bucolic Clarens is a picture perfect village of whitewashed buildings and quiet shady streets. It is also an art destination with nearly 20 galleries showing well-respected South African art. Gourmet restaurants, hip boutiques, delightful guesthouses and adventure activities are all on offer.
 
Manguang township
The townships around Bloemfontein played an integral role in the fight to end apartheid, but none is more legendary than Manguang, where the ANC party was born in 1912. Visit culturally important sights like Mapikela House, where ANC founding father Thomas Mapikela once resided. One of the best ways to experience township life, however, is after dark when guided tours visit the buzzing shebeens (unlicensed bars).

Oliewenhuis Art Museum
The Oliewenhuis Art Museum is one of South Africa’s most impressively housed art galleries – you’ll find it in an exquisite 1935 mansion in Bloemfontein. Its collection features works by artists like Thomas Baines.

Gariep Dam
The Free State’s largest nature reserve combines the 36,487ha Gariep Dam reservoir, containing a vast 6000 million cubic litres of water,  and an 11,237ha wildlife sanctuary on its northern shore. But its most interesting claim to fame happens annually in February when it hosts the world’s longest inland rubber-duck race.

 
Best...
Off-the-beaten track destination
  Camelroc Guest Farm is set in a spectacular location against a sandstone outcrop just 800m from Lesotho’s border
Underrated destination  The Free State’s only real city, Bloemfontein is JRR Tolkien’s birthplace, South Africa’s judicial capital and a buzzing college town
Place to splurge  Hobbit Boutique Hotel in the heart of Bloemfontein pays tribute to JRR Tolkein; rooms and public spaces are old-world charismatic
Budget destination  Otter’s Haunt is a secluded Vaal River gateway in the Parys area offering a varied outdoor activity list
Scenic drive  Route 26 between Fouriesburg and Ficksburg, detouring onto no-name dusty byways and into the remote Rustler’s Valley, a longtime hippie outpost, along the way

Top 5 Adrenaline Boosters
1 Quad biking  Take a quad bike through Golden Gate Highlands National Park
2 Whitewater rafting  The dam-fed Ash River near Clarens is perfect for rafting, with some of the raging rapids ranked as high as a Grade 4
3 Horseback riding  Join a trip into the Maluti Mountains
4 Mountain riding  Intermediate single-track trails about and around Parys – don’t miss Tweezer Rocks and the Matopos Ascent  
5 Night in Jail  Lock yourself up for a night in the Philippolis, the Free State’s oldest town, with an overnight cell stay in its former jail, complete with prison beds

 

Top 5 Hikes
1 Rhebok Hiking Trail  A circular, 33km two-day trek within Golden Gate Highlands National Park – it is limited to 18 people and must be advance-booked
2 Sentinel Hiking Trail  Starts in the Free State, finishes in KwaZulu-Natal and climbs the magnificent Drakensberg plateau
3 Wolhuterskop Game and Nature Reserve  Book a DIY overnight hike through this game reserve that’s home to several species of antelope
4 Vredofort Dome  The oldest and largest meteorite impact site on earth – 200km across – is home to eerie smooth-rock hiking trails
5 Snijmanshoek  One of the highest peaks in the Free State, it lies on the border with Lesotho and offers stunning views from its summit

 

 

NORTH WEST PROVINCE

Every bit as amorphous and lacking in identity as its prosaic name would suggest, North West Province sprawls westward from Gauteng to the remote border with arid Botswana and the Northern Cape. As with Mpumalanga and Limpopo, the province’s main tourist attraction is its game reserves, which don’t quite have the girth or reputation of the iconic Kruger Park, but are still thoroughly worthwhile in their own right. The two big guns here are Madikwe and Pilanesberg, both worthy contenders for any top-ten list of South African safari destinations, but it is also worth noting that the province boasts half a dozen less celebrated reserves – the likes of Borakalalo, Molopo and Barberspan – that offer superb value to independently-minded self-drivers and self-caterers. By Philip Briggs.

 

Top Destinations
Pilanesberg Game Reserve

Exclude a few rather contrived lion and rhino parks scattered around greater Gauteng, and this 550-square-kilometre reserve – well suited to self-drivers – is the closest Big Five destination to Johannesburg and OR Tambo International Airport. It’s a scenic gem, centred on an ancient volcanic crater whose collapsed walls now form a loose ring of rugged mountains. The general game viewing is excellent, with elephant and white rhino both very common, and the birdlife is stunning, with more than 350 species recorded. Predators such as lion, leopard and the rare brown hyena are most frequently seen on guided night drives.

Madikwe Game Reserve
One of South Africa’s great conservation success stories, this 750-square-kilometre reserve near the Botswana border was forged from unproductive ranchland in 1991. It is now home to more than 60 mammal species, including all the Big Five, along with a few regularly seen packs of the endangered African wild dog, and a profusion of birds and smaller creatures. Unlike the ecologically similar Pilanesberg, it is closed to day visitors and self-drivers, with the focus being on expertly guided game drives out of intimate bush camps that offer an all-inclusive experience comparable to the private reserves of Mpumalanga, but significantly closer to Gauteng.

Mahikeng
The provincial capital, formerly Mafeking, is best known for the 217-day siege it endured during the Anglo-Boer War (1899-1902), an ordeal that made a hero of commander Robert Baden-Powell. The siege is well documented in the Mahikeng Museum. It also contains ethnographic displays relating the province’s indigenous cultures. Other sites of interest include the former residence and office of the pioneering politician, journalist and human rights campaigner Solomon Tshekisho ‘Sol’ Plaatje (1876-1932). A great little game reserve lies on the outskirts of town.

Sun City complex
Sun City started life in the 1970s as a venue for gambling, topless revues and other forms of risqué entertainment outlawed by the apartheid-era government but permitted in the homeland of Bophuthatswana. It still warrants its Las-Vegas-in-the-bush tag, thanks to the massive casino at its heart, but it is also the site of much more: two Gary Player-designed golf courses; Valley of Waves, a child-friendly fake inland beach; four palatial hotels; and a 6000-seater Super Bowl that hosts live music, beauty pageants and similar events. Ironically, Sun City’s main asset, at least to those seeking an idyllic African bush retreat, is its proximity to the neighbouring Pilanesberg Game Reserve.

Barberspan Bird Sanctuary
Situated in the west of the province, this Ramsar wetland, which extends over 40 square kilometres when full, is one of the subcontinent’s most important freshwater bird breeding sites. It is best visited in summer, when breeding residents such as pelicans, flamingos, herons, cranes and waterfowl are supplemented by rarer non-breeding migrant waders. If the waterbirds are quiet, the surrounding grassland is ideal for larks, pipits, coursers and bustards. 

 

Top 5 Cultural and Historic Sites
1 Lesedi  This lodge offers tours of Zulu, Xhosa, Pedi, Basotho and Ndebele homesteads
2 Taung Heritage Site  Unearthed in 1924, the Australopithecine skull named the Taung Child was the first hominid fossil found in Africa
3 Kanon Kopje  Once a Stone Age settlement, it’s now the site of a fort built in 1885
4 Gaabo Motho  This scenic hilltop village that offers vibrant tours and great traditional food
5 Motseng Cultural Village  Linked to Sun City, it showcases eight of SA’s cultural groups


Best...
Off-the-beaten track destination
  You can walk freely in the scenic 130-square-kilometre Borakalalo Game Reserve, which hosts more than 350 bird species as well as giraffe, white rhino, leopard and many types of antelope
Underrated destination The Magaliesberg is a vast and ancient range of quartzite mountains whose immense hiking potential remains inexplicably neglected
Place to splurge  Opulent finishes and extravagant flourishes are the trademark of the fantastically over-the-top Palace of the Lost City, the most prestigious hotel in Sun City
Budget destination North West’s lesser known reserves are superb value for campers and self-caterers, who’ll most likely have the likes of Borakalalo and Molopo all to themselves outside of weekends and school holidays
Scenic drive The road across Hartebeespoort Dam wall is truly lovely, and its worth taking a break to hop aboard the recently reopened Harties Cableway for stunning views

 

Top 5 Minor Reserves
1 Bloemhof Dam Nature Reserve  The Kalahari scrub surrounding this large dam on the Vaal River is home to springbok, black wildebeest, eland and gemsbok
2 Boskop Nature Reserve  Angling, canoeing, birding and game viewing can all be undertaken here
3 Mahikeng Game Reserve  Game drives frequently yield sightings of rhino, buffalo and giraffe
4 Molopo Nature Reserve  Rewarding self-guided night drives are permitted here
5 Vaalkop Dam Nature Reserve  Fishing and birding (almost 350 species recorded) are the main activities at this reserve north of Brits

 

 

KWAZULU-NATAL

With its head in the clouds that cling to the dramatic, snowy peaks of the uKhahlamba-Drakensberg and its toes in the warm Indian Ocean waters, KwaZulu-Natal (KZN) is South Africa’s most ecologically diverse province. As such, it is an incredibly rewarding destination for lovers of the outdoors. A myriad of hiking trails cling to scenic slopes, 800km of coastline is blanketed in beaches and in between is a varied landscape where anything is possible, be it fishing, golfing, horseback riding or whitewater rafting. The province’s northern game reserves – important refuges for rhino – offer Big Five safari appeal. KZN is also rich in history, from relics of early human habitation to the bloody 19th-century battle sites of wars involving Zulus, Boers and British settlers. Formative events in the lives of Nelson Mandela and Mahatma Gandhi also took place here. Today, the human dynamics within the province, particularly in cosmopolitan Durban – KZN’s industrial and urban heart – are exciting to be part of. Visit today and make some history of your own. By Matt Phillips.

 

Top Destinations
uKhahlamba-Drakensberg

Stretching some 200km along the border with Lesotho, this mountain range is easily the most striking in all of southern Africa. Besides its obvious allure to hikers in search of day trips (aim for the staggeringly beautiful Cathedral Peak) or multi-day adventures, the uKhahlamba-Drakensberg is also a UNESCO World Heritage Site dotted with over 500 ancient rock art sites. Visit the Kamberg Nature Reserve for a hike to the ‘Rosetta Stone’, a painting in Game Pass Shelter that led scholars to understand the shamanistic symbolism of this ancient art.

Hluhluwe-iMfolozi Game Reserve
Dense populations of rhino, elephant and buffalo are happily home in this 960-square-kilometre reserve’s rolling hills, which all but ensure visitors an encounter with each. And with healthy numbers of lion and leopard, rounding out the Big Five in Hluhluwe-iMfolozi is a distinct possibility. But safaris should be more than just spotting these iconic beasts, and this reserve has plenty of other species to captivate: nyala, giraffe, zebra, cheetah, bushpig, hyena, eland, tortoises and dozens of other animals.

iSimangaliso Wetlands Park
With some of the highest-ever biodiversity counts, this wetland is ranked as one of the planet’s most important – it is for this reason it was granted UNESCO World Heritage Site status. Spread over an incredible 3200 square kilometres, the park includes 280km of coastal shoreline and waters, giving visitors the unthinkable opportunity to cosy up to rhinos, elephants and whale sharks in a single morning. Another highlight is the 415-square kilometre St Lucia Estuary – take one of the affordable launch trips that depart from the village of St Lucia each afternoon. Besides the omnipresent hippos and crocs, the cruise will introduce you to some of the park’s 526 bird species such as the goliath heron, African fish eagle and rarities such as the half-collared kingfisher. Between June and October, the waters offshore provide some of the most dependable whale watching in southern Africa, with humpback whales being particularly active as they near their calving grounds in Mozambique.

Mkhuze Game Reserve
Tucked between iSimangaliso and Hluhluwe-iMfolozi, this 360-square-kilometre reserve is renowned for the opportunities its Kumasinga Hide provides to keen wildlife photographers during the dry season. The waterhole it overlooks is often crowded with the likes of white rhino, zebra, nyala, giraffe and elephant. If you are lucky you may also catch a leopard slaking its thirst.

Isandlwana and Rorke’s Drift
Commemorating the conflict between the English and the Zulu in January 1879, these two war memorials tell very different stories. On Isandlwana Hill, a Zulu force 20,000 strong – armed with mere spears – annihilated an encampment of British soldiers, killing over 1300 and leaving fewer than 500 standing. Incredibly, just a day later, a Zulu force of 4000 was repelled from the mission at Rorke’s Drift by just 150 British soldiers, 11 of whom were awarded the Victoria Cross. 

Sardine run
The KZN coastal waters come truly alive between May and July when seething shoals of sardines, up to 7km long, 1.5km wide and 30m deep, take part in one of earth’s greatest mass migrations. Schools of common dolphins, up to 1000 individuals strong, join the fray to feed on the billions of fish, pushing them towards the surface and into the range of the diving gannets. Sharks and whales are often seen feeding too. The ‘moveable feast’ follows the KZN coast northwards and eventually into Mozambican waters.

Durban
More than a gateway to the provinces attractions, cosmopolitan Durban is a destination in its own right. The Golden Mile, a wide golden beach sweeping 5km alongside the city, has long been its most alluring attraction. One of its newer highlights is just that, high – a 108m adrenalin-inducing bungee swing from the arch atop Moses Mabhida Stadium. If you’d like the view without the fall, the football stadium’s funicular Sky Car is for you. The nearby Kings Stadium offers up excitement without elevation – take in a Sharks match in SupeRugby, the most prestigious rugby league in the southern hemisphere. uShaka Marine World – one of the world’s largest aquariums – is full of shark fans too, though of a much different variety.

 

Top 5 Safari Secrets
1 Phinda Game Reserve  An incredible conservation success story, this Big Five reserve is known for top-class guiding, accommodation and cheetah
2 Tembe Elephant Park  Home to 250 elephants, including the three largest tuskers in southern Africa
3 Ndumo Game Reserve  Arguably the best birdwatching venue in the entire country
4 Ithala Game Reserve  Its rocky landscape is stunning, and night-time viewing here throws up some great nocturnal species
5 Umlalazi Nature Reserve  Great trails through dune landscapes, lagoons and a fascinating raffia palm swamp – twitchers will love it 


Best...
Off-the-beaten track destination
  Hop aboard the Umgeni Steam Train, a rare locomotive from times past, as it rolls between Kloof and Inchanga (the last Sunday of each month)

Underrated destination  Oribi Gorge, an impressive river canyon that can be explored by foot, abseiling, whitewater rafting or a 4.5km-long zip-line
Place to splurge  Karkloof Safari Spa, an exclusive 7-star boutique lodge with Africa’s largest spa – the food, 104m waterfall and scenery are all breathtaking Budget destination  The beaches are free, as is the great surf rolling onto the shores of Green Point, The Spot and St Michael’s 

Scenic drive  Take a 4WD up Sani Pass, the only route to conquer the 200km-long uKhahlamba-Drakensberg escarpment dividing KZN from Lesotho

 

Top 5 Places to Eat
1 Bunny Chow  Not so much a restaurant, more a legendary meal served throughout the city (delicious curry in a hollowed-out loaf of bread)
2 The Cargo Hold  Set in the bowels of the beached Phantom Ship, it’s massive glass wall allows you to share your succulent seafood with sharks
3 Oyster Box  Although the name suggests otherwise, this 5-star hotel’s eatery is famous for its curry buffet (the oysters are pretty delectable too)
4 Cafe 1999  Mediterranean fusion dishes and some seriously mouthwatering desserts
5 Famous Fish Co  An institution with a great view and seafood dishes to match
 

 

GAUTENG

A seSotho name meaning ‘Place of Gold’, Gauteng accounts for under two per cent of South Africa’s surface area but supports 20 per cent of the country’s population in sprawling cities such as Johannesburg and the national capital Pretoria. An economic powerhouse built on the mineral wealth beneath its soil, Gauteng comprised little other than uninhabited grassland prior to the discovery of gold in 1886, yet today it generates 10 per cent of the entire African GDP. Johannesburg (dubbed ‘eGoli’, ‘Joburg’ or ‘Jozi’ by locals) stands out as the vibrant cash-snorting social fulcrum of the country’s most culturally integrated and progressive province. And the country’s smallest province is big on cultural and historic sites. By Phillip Briggs.

 

Top Destinations
Cradle of Humankind

This paleontological treasure trove has yielded fossils representing a uniquely comprehensive record of the last three million years of human evolution. The focal point is the innovative Maropeng Visitors Centre, where tours start with an exciting boat ride through a subterranean waterway that mimics the volatile conditions that shaped earth. Nearby, Sterkfontein Cave is where the 2.5-million-year-old fossil that confirmed Darwin’s theory that humans evolved in Africa was found in 1947.

Soweto
Formerly home to such revered figures as Nelson Mandela and Archbishop Tutu, Soweto is the most famous of the ‘black townships’ created by the apartheid regime. Today it is usually explored on an organised tour, taking in Walter Sisulu Square, where 3000 representatives of various resistance organisations draw up the Freedom Charter in 1955, and the Hector Pieterson Museum, whose 13-year-old namesake was felled in the first wave of police fire during the anti-apartheid Soweto uprisings of 1976.

Newtown Precinct
Though high crime rates persuaded most of Jozi’s centrally located hotels and businesses to evacuate to the perceived safety of suburbia in the 1990s, the central business district has undergone a subsequent revival. This is epitomised by the Newtown Precinct, set in an inner city suburb that emerged as a centre of artistic creativity and anti-apartheid activism in the 1970s, when its old vegetable market was converted into the non-racial Market Theatre (which still specialises in contemporary South African drama today). Other key Newtown landmarks include Museum Africa and a superb live music venue called The Bassline.

Tswaing Nature Reserve
Around 200,000 years ago, 30km north of present-day Pretoria, a house-sized meteorite crashed to earth, releasing a blast of energy equivalent to 30 atom bombs and obliterating all life within a radius of 35km. The impact also created the 200m-deep, 1.4km-wide crater that now forms the centrepiece of the underrated Tswaing Nature Reserve. The floor of this scenic crater is partially submerged under a small salt lake. A three-hour hiking trail circumnavigating the rim passes through acacia woodland, where a multitude of birds can be seen alongside the likes of greater kudu and baboon.

Gold Reef City
The last relic of Johannesburg’s goldrush era is this theme park situated above a shaft that yielded 1.4 million kilograms of gold prior to its closure in 1971. Guided tours involve a 220m descent in a metal lift, watching molten gold being poured into ingot moulds, and performances of the Isicathulo ‘gumboot dance’ associated with migrant mine workers. For children, there is a selection of around two-dozen ‘thrill rides’. 

 

Top 5 Museums
1 Apartheid Museum  This Johannesburg museum has an exhaustive collection of photographs, newsreels and displays documenting the apartheid era
2 Origins Centre  Opened in Joburg in 2006, this state-of-the-art museum is a superb primer for the Cradle of Humankind
3 National Museum of Natural History  A little stuffy but this Pretoria museum is worth seeing for the diverse fossils and rock art collection
4 Mandela House  Home of Nelson Mandela in Soweto prior to his imprisonment in 1962
5 Kruger Museum  The immaculately restored  house of 19th-century Boer leader Paul Kruger


Best...
Off-the-beaten track destination
The Wetland Marievale Sanctuary, a Ramsar site with an incredible checklist of 280 bird species
Underrated destination  Cullinan Diamond Mine, where the largest ever (3106 carat) rough-quality gem diamond was found, offers 90 minute surface tours and five-hour underground tours
Place to splurge   The prestigious Saxon Boutique Hotel offers high-class cuisine, and rooms so large you could swing a lion in them
Budget destination  The 90-minute tour through the SAB World of Beer is surprisingly engaging, and a bargain at under a fiver (with two free beers)
Scenic drive Traversed by twisting roads, the Suikerbosrand Nature Reserve, a tract of unspoilt highveld grassland, stands out

 

Top 5 Restaurants
1 Gramadoelas  Found in Newton, Johannesburg, its menu reflects every culinary facet of South Africa’s diverse cultures
2 Wandie’s Place  This one-time Soweto shebeen (illegal bar) is now a popular licensed restaurant serving African buffets
3 Le Canard  Superb, albeit pricey, French fusion cuisine near Sandton’s popular hotels in Joburg
4 Moyo  Smart eateries in Joburg and Pretoria whose Pan-African cuisine ranges from the Cape to the Mediterranean 
5 Nando’s  This top home-grown franchise serves super-affordable Mozambican-style grilled piri-piri chicken across the province

 

 

MPUMALANGA

Situated to the east of Gauteng, Mpumalanga (a siSwati phrase meaning ‘Place of the Rising Sun’) is a culturally diverse province, with Swazi, Zulu, Tsonga, Ndebele and North Sotho people each accounting for more than 10 per cent of its population. However, with the exception of the rapidly expanding provincial capital Mbombela (formerly Nelspruit), levels of urbanisation are low, and the flourishing tourist industry is focused mainly on wildlife and scenic attractions. Mpumalanga hosts South Africa’s premier safari destination: the southern half of the world-famous Kruger National Park and a cluster of bordering private reserves. It is also the site of the spectacular Blyde River Canyon, and the associated Panorama Route. By Philip Briggs.

 

Top Destinations
Southern Kruger National Park

One of the world’s oldest, largest and most celebrated wildlife sanctuaries, the 19,600-square-kilometre Kruger National Park attracts more than a million visitors annually. Tourist activity is focused in the southern portion, which is more accessible from Gauteng than the remote north, and also boasts more rest camps and other facilities. The southern Kruger is one of the most reliable public reserves in Africa when it comes to ticking off the Big Five, and also perhaps the safari destination best suited to budget-conscious independent travellers.

Private reserves bordering Kruger
The western boundary of the southern Kruger abuts a series of private reserves that dropped fences with their larger neighbour in the 1990s, allowing for free movement of wildlife throughout their combined area. However, in direct contrast to the populist creed that makes Kruger so rewarding for independent travellers, these private reserves are aimed squarely at the exclusive end of the market. Most camps and lodges exude safari chic, service levels are in line with a luxury spa, and food and drink are generally of the highest quality. Most importantly, the ability to go off-road in open 4WDs and the high quality of guiding ensures super-intensive game viewing.

Blyde River Canyon Nature Reserve
The sandstone canyon carved by the Blyde River is one of the most spectacular features of its type on earth. Around 25km long and up to 1.4km deep, it is traversed by numerous footpaths, notably the Kadishi Trail, a day hike through tall evergreen forest (where vervet and samango monkeys chatter in the canopy) to a small waterfall that runs over some impressive stalactite-like tufa formations.

Pilgrim’s Rest
This quirky village was established in 1873 after the largest known alluvial goldfield in southern Africa was discovered. It mushroomed into a wealthy township, but its heyday was curtailed in 1888 when more substantial gold deposits were found near Johannesburg. Preserved as a National Monument, this ‘living museum’ evokes the rough and tumble atmosphere of the gold rush era.

Botshabelo Mission
A great place to break up the road journey between Gauteng and Kruger, Botshabelo (‘Place of Refuge’ in seSotho) was founded in 1865 by Alexander Merensky of the Berlin Mission Society. Historic buildings include the original 19th-century church and Fort Merensky. A more contemporary attraction is the colourful Ndebele village. An adjacent nature reserve protects endemic species.

 

Top 5 Private Reserves
1 MalaMala  One of the largest private reserves in Mpumalanga, boasting 20km of river frontage, MalaMala lies in superb leopard territory, and the emphasis is firmly on quality guiding
2 Rhino Walking Safaris  Set within the Kruger Park, this private concession offers a refreshing change of pace by substituting game drives with guided Big Five game walks
3 Londolozi  Run by the same hands-on family since it opened in the 1970s, this pioneering game reserve was the first in the world to be accorded Relais and Châteaux status
4 Singita  5-star accommodation and superb game viewing and guiding
5 Hamilton’s 1880 Camp  Situated inside the Kruger Park, this Edwardian-styled riverside camp lies in the exclusive Imbali Concession


Best...
Off-the-beaten track destination
  The gold-rush town of Barberton boasts several Victorian architectural gems, along with a pretty location below the Makhonjwa Mountains
Underrated destination  A short drive from Mbombela, the cool dank chambers of the Sudwala Caves are full of beautiful limestone formations

Place to splurge  Set within Sabi Sabi private game reserve, award-winning Earth Lodge combines innovative semi-subterranean architecture and world-class cuisine with excellent game viewing

Budget destination  The Lowveld National Botanical Garden on the outsktirts of Mbombela has a jungle-like ambience that will excite ornithologists and botanists alike

Scenic drive  The Panorama Route...

 

Top 5 Stops on the Panorama Route
1 Mac-Mac Falls  Take a refreshing dip at the base of this 65m-high waterfall
2 Lisbon Falls  Plunging over a 90m-high stone amphitheatre, this is the region’s tallest single-drop waterfall
3 God’s Window  Set on the escarpment edge, this offers a seem-ingly divine vantage point over the lowveld stretching through to Mozambique
4 Bourke’s Luck Potholes  These cylindrical potholes, created by water erosion, can be explored on a well constructed network of paths
5 Three Rondawels  This stunning viewpoint looks across the Blyde River Canyon to a striking trio of outcrops shaped like traditional round huts

 

 

LIMPOPO

Named after the “great grey-green, greasy Limpopo” that forms the border with Zimbabwe and Botswana, South Africa’s most northerly province might glibly be described as a more untamed and untrammelled version of Mpumalanga. Economically, mining and agriculture dominate, but tourism is also an important source of revenue. Elsewhere, Limpopo is a province best suited perhaps to adventurous travellers looking for a relatively unpackaged and budget-friendly experience. It also offers some great birdwatching, from the baobab-studded bushveld of the northern Kruger and Mapungubwe to the vast seasonal Nyl River Floodplain near Modimolle. By Philip Briggs.

 

Top Destinations
Northern Kruger National Park

The neglected northern half of Kruger, though almost as well suited to a budget DIY safari as the south, is ideal for wilderness aficionados seeking to escape the crowds. It has Olifants Camp, with its peerless clifftop location, and the less scenic Letaba, which is a favourite with regulars for its untrammelled bush feel. Further north, and more isolated still, Shingwedzi and Punda Maria both have winning locations.

Mapungubwe National Park
Inscribed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, this remote park lies alongside the Limpopo as it flows past the tripartite border with Zimbabwe and Botswana. Its centrepiece is Mapungubwe Hill, the abandoned capital of a trade empire that once supplied locally sourced gold, copper and ivory to the Swahili coast of East Africa. Roads through baobab-studded granitic hills offers views over the Limpopo and chances to see elephant, lion, greater kudu, klipspringer and other  wildlife.

Modjadji Nature Reserve
A scenic highlight of the mountains around Tzaneen, this little-visited reserve protects the world’s largest concentration of cycads, peculiar prehistoric gymnosperms that date back to the age of dinosaurs. They grow to up to 12m high here, and bear cones that weigh in at 35kg. It lies in the homeland of the Modjadji ‘Rain Queen’, a widely respected ruler thought to possess the ability to control the weather.

Nylsvley Nature Reserve
This small protected area lies at the heart of the Ramsar-listed Nyl River Floodplain, a seasonal wetland that extends over 150 square kilometres when fully submerged (most often January to March). Attracting more than 400 bird species, including mind-boggling concentrations of water birds in season, the reserve is serviced by several hides and walkways, as well as a walking trail where antelope, monkeys and other mammal species are seen.


Waterberg Biosphere Reserve
Extending over 14,500 square kilometres, this vast range in northwest Limpopo supports around 100,000 people, but much of the land is carved into small private reserves that have turned away from cattle ranching to ecotourism as a result of past overgrazing. The absence of malaria makes it a popular family destination, and while it lacks the wilderness feel or cohesion of somewhere like Kruger, it does offer a much wider range of activities, for instance horseback safaris, guided hikes and visits to rock art and other cultural sites. 

 

Top 5 Private Reserves
1 Singita Lebombo and Sweni  These ultra-stylish lodges lie in a private Kruger concession set in the rugged Lebombo foothills
2 Pafuri Camp  A sensibly priced camp on the bank of the Luvuvhu perfect for those seeking a genuine wilderness escape
3 The Outpost  A clifftop creation with stirring views and arguably the most gobsmacking lodge in the greater Kruger
4 Manyeleti Game Reserve  This large community-owned reserve is known for its good-value camps. Borders Kruger Park
5 Timbavati Private Reserve  All the Big Five are present, but Timbavati is best known for its white lions (very occasional products of a rare recessive gene)

 
Best...
Off-the-beaten track destination
  Revered by the traditionalist Vhatavhatsindi Clan and home to sacred crocodiles, serpentine Lake Fundudzi hosts an annual praise dance dedicated to the python-like deity that lives in the mountains  
Underrated destination  Thulamela Heritage Site in the northern Kruger Park comprises the substantial hilltop ruins of a stone-wall royal village built in the 16th century following the abandonment of Great Zimbabwe
Place to splurge  The super-exclusive Camp Jabulani and the indelible experience of an elephant-back safari – offering a giraffe’s-eye over the bush – are just two reasons to splash out on a visit to the Kapama Game Reserve
Budget destination  Exclusive overnight use of Shipandani Hide or Sable Dam Hide is undoubtedly northern Kruger’s best-kept budget game-viewing secret
Scenic drive  Flanked by wild indigenous forests and orderly tea estates, the Magoebaskloof Pass follows a dramatic succession of hairpin bends along the R71 between Polokwane to Tzaneen

 

5 Best Birding Sites
1 Shingwedzi River  The riverside drive between Kruger’s Shingwedzi Camp and Kanniedood Dam
2 Luvuvhu River  The gallery forest along the most northerly accessible river in Kruger hosts several ‘specials’ rare elsewhere in South Africa
3 Marakele National Park  It supports the largest breeding colony of endangered Cape vulture
4 Agatha State Forest  A wealth of colourful forest birds haunt this evergreen forest near Tzaneen
5 Manavhela Ben Lavin Nature Reserve  An affordable place to see bushveld birds on foot

 

 

ESSENTIAL SOUTH AFRICA FACTFILE
Language  South Africa has 11 official languages: Afrikaans, English, IsiNdebele, IsiXhosa, IsiZulu, Sepedi, Sesotho, Setswana, SiSwati, Tshivenda and Xitsonga. Travellers will get by easily with English.

Time Zone  GMT +2.

Visas  Visitors from the EU, the USA, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Singapore, Lichtenstein and Switzerland can travel to South Africa without a visa for up to 90 days. Make sure your passport has at least two blank pages for official stamps – this is very important.

Health  Large parts of South Africa are malaria areas, so take the necessary precautions – your local travel clinic will have all the facts and options. Watch out for snakes in summer, ticks in winter. Tap water is generally better quality than most other countries, and fresh produce is safe to eat.

Money  The official currency is the Rand. Recent exchange rates were: UK£1=15.80ZAR, US$1=10.0ZAR and €1=13.4. Bear in mind that some petrol stations do not accept credit cards – carry some cash for this (and for tolls). There are ATMs in all cities and most towns.

Getting There  South African Airways (www.flysaa.com), British Airways (www.ba.com) and Virgin Atlantic (www.virgin-atlantic.com) all have direct flights between London and Johannesburg.

Books  Exploring Southern Africa by T V Bulpin is excellent for potted historical biographies of all South African towns. Coast to Coast – Life Along South Africa’s Shores by Chris Marais and Julienne du Toit (Struik, 2007) is also an interesting read. For independent travellers Lonely Planet and Rough Guides both have new 2012 editions of guidebooks to South Africa. Both are aptly titled South Africa, Lesotho & Swaziland. Bradt’s South Africa Highlights guide is great for those on organised tours.

Find out more  South African Tourism (www.southafrica.net)

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