Top 10 Things To Do In South Africa
At the end of February, my boyfriend and I embarked upon an ambitious road trip in South Africa. Over the course of just a few weeks, we drove from Cape Town to the Mozambique border and back, covering 5,500km and visiting more than 10 national parks along the way.
The rainbow nation has something for everyone: mountains, beaches, forests, deserts, wildlife… take your pick! Here are my top 10 things to do in South Africa.
1. Cape Town
The ‘mother city’ is one of the most beautiful cities in the world and packed with things to see and do. You could spend a month in Cape Town and still barely scratch the surface, but here are a few of my top recommendations for those with limited time.
Robben Island – A 30 minute boat ride from the Victoria & Albert waterfront, Robben island held many political prisoners during the apartheid era including the late Nelson Mandela and the current South African president. It makes for a humbling visit, not least because many of the guides are former prisoners.
Kirstenbosch Botanical Gardens – Don’t fool yourself into thinking you can explore the gardens in an hour or two – set aside an afternoon and take a picnic. These spectacular gardens lie at the foot of Table Mountain and are often referred to as the most beautiful gardens in Africa – certainly I have never seen better. In the summer months, Kirstenbosch occasionally hosts outdoor evening concerts – something I was very sorry to have missed!
Boulder’s Beach – As the name would suggest, this picturesque beach is dotted with large, granite boulders and makes for a great, sheltered spot to take a dip. It is also home to a land-based colony of African penguins – you’ll most likely smell them before you see them. They are extremely entertaining to watch, both torpedoing through the water and waddling along the shore.
Table Mountain – Probably South Africa’s most iconic landmark, Table Mountain overlooks Cape Town and is a national park in its own right. You can climb to the top or, if you’re feeling less active, you can pay a small fee to take the cable car. The views from the top will take your breath away and there are several trails to explore. It’s best to visit when conditions are sunny and calm. In very strong winds the cable cars don’t operate and when the tablecloth covers the mountain, all views are obscured.
Chapman’s Peak drive – If you have your own transport, the drive along Chapman’s Peak is among the most scenic in Cape Town. We started from Table Mountain and made our way down past Clifton and Camps Bay, both great places to stop for a swim if you can handle the cold temperatures. From there head to Hout Bay and stop for a fish & chips lunch before continuing on to Noordhoek Beach. We stopped at a great little place called Monkey Village and enjoyed a light salad and some fresh guava juice.
The Winelands – Ok so the winelands aren’t officially in Cape Town, but they are close enough that you could visit the region in a day if that’s all you can spare. Stellenbosch has some incredible restaurants, my favourite being the little one tucked in the corner of the botanical gardens, but Franschoek is a great place to spend a couple of days at a wine estate.
2. Tsitsikamma National Park
Storms River Mouth, in Tsitsikamma National Park, is perhaps best known as the starting point for the world-famous Otter Trail. We had neither the time nor the foresight – the trail needs to be booked at least a year in advance – to do the 5 day trek. Instead we spent our time exploring the ancient forests, the coastal trails and waterfalls, and the bridges suspended over the Storms River itself.
Walking around the park you soon become aware that you are constantly watched wherever you go. The rock hyrax, or dassie as it is called in South Africa, is a small animal that seems to live in abundance in this area. They have comical faces and many that I saw appeared to have bushy little moustaches. It’s hard not to laugh at them when they pop their heads round from behind a rock and fix you with an inquisitive stare.
We stayed at Storms River Mouth Rest Camp, within the national park and right on the coast. The accommodation was fairly simple log cabins, but they had everything you could possibly need and were beautifully kept.
Most foreign tourists seem to opt for accommodation in the nearby(ish) town of Knysna and then take day trips out to Tsitsikamma. We only came across South Africans staying within the park which, in our view, meant we had made the right choice.
3. Addo National Park
Addo is the only national park in the south of the country in which you can see all of the Big 5 and one of only two national parks in the world to boast the Big 7: Elephant, Buffalo, Lion, Leopard, Rhino, Southern Right Whale and the Great White Shark.
Of all the animals, it is the elephants that steal the show. When Addo was first declared a national park there were only around 16 elephants left, the rest of the huge herds that used to roam the area having been killed off by man or died of starvation. Their rehabilitation has been so successful that to date there are around 500 elephants living in the park.
Within 30 seconds of entering the park we came across a herd of around 30 elephants, casually strolling across the road. They are not the most graceful of creatures - crashing through the vegetation and knocking the odd acacia tree to the floor as they go – but you could watch them for hours.
For me, the most memorable moment of my entire trip was watching four baby elephants from a hide beside our tent. Whilst the adults of their herd drank from a nearby watering hole, they rolled around in the mud, clambered all over each other and had great fun chasing a family of warthogs round in circles.
4. The Wild Coast
Apparently the least visited region in South Africa and I can see why – the roads really are treacherous! However, if you do take the chance you are rewarded with some of the most spectacular beaches in the country. Mkambati and Hluleka are two nature reserves held in high regard. We, however, chose to visit Dwesa-Cwebe – perhaps the least accessible of the three, but also the most beautiful.
It was 49km from the main road to the reserve but it took us over 2 hours, dodging pot-holes the size of craters. When we arrived we were shown to our log cabin, perched high in the forest looking down over the coast. We stayed four days and had the reserve completely to ourselves, with only troops of vervet monkeys, hoards of birds and the occasional bushbuck to share it with.
We spent our mornings walking in the forest, our afternoons exploring the beaches, rock pools and whale-bones, and our evenings around the braai.
If you’re looking for a quiet retreat and a real back-to-nature experience, then Dwesa is the place for you. There is no electricity so the cabins are lit by candles only, and there is no phone signal or internet connection to speak of. We shared our living room with a tiny mouse and our bedroom with a family of bats who seemed happy to mind their own business provided we left our bedroom door open for them. It was a very special place.
5. The Drakensberg
The World Heritage Drakensberg Mountains stretch for over 1,000km along Lesotho’s eastern border with South Africa. If you’re a keen hiker, you’ll be in your element here. The Drakensberg can be split into 3 regions; Southern, Central and Northern.
Whilst we could have happily spent a month exploring the whole area, we were limited on time so we focussed on the northern region and the spectacular Royal Natal National Park. Royal Natal’s dominant feature is without doubt the dramatic Amphitheatre, a sheer wall of rock over which the world’s second highest waterfall, the Tugela, plummets 850 metres down into a gorge.
There are numerous trails throughout the park, including one that takes you boulder-hopping, tunnel-crawling and chain ladder-climbing to the Tugela Gorge itself.
We stayed in a place called Thendele and the picture above shows the view from our terrace, looking out over the Amphitheatre. Even in the summer months it can get a little chilly at night, so we were pleased to discover that our little chalet even had a fireplace.
6. iSimangaliso Wetland Park
A few years back, I spent a couple of months working and travelling around Namibia in Southern Africa. I was fortunate enough to see all the Big 5 and then some, but the hippopotamus evaded me – I’m not even sure that the country has many to speak of.
As such, I had high hopes for iSimangaliso. The 332,000 hectare wetland park stretches for 220km from Kosi Bay on the Mozambique border to Maphelane in the south and comprises swamp forests, lake systems, grasslands, coastal dunes, endless beaches and coral reefs.
There are numerous self-guided game drives to enjoy if you happen to have your own vehicle. We saw everything from rhino and buffalo to hyena and black mamba. A boat ride along the St Lucia estuary is well worth it if, like me, you are keen to catch a glimpse of the numerous hippo and Nile crocs that inhabit the lake system.
The park’s coastline is also spectacular, with fantastic snorkelling opportunities at Cape Vidal and world-class diving at Sodwana Bay.
7. Hluhluwe-iMfolozi National Park
It had never been a question for me – if I’m going to South Africa, then I’m quite obviously going to go to the Kruger. My boyfriend, however, is a Saffa and was keen to avoid the tourists that flock towards South Africa’s most famous park. I took a lot of convincing, but we eventually settled instead on Hluhluwe-iMfolozi National Park and, with hindsight, we definitely made the right decision.
We stayed in an unfenced camp on the banks of the Black iMfolozi. The camp only had 8 accommodation units, but only two of these were occupied for the duration of our stay. It was an incredible place! From our balcony we watched crocodiles laze on the sandbank, rhino grazing on the other side of the river and baboons racing around after each other. In the evenings we occasionally were woken by the haunting sound of hyena that often came to sniff around our BBQ area.
When we managed to tear ourselves away from our beautiful accommodation, we explored the park on self-guided game drives or guided bush walks (not for the faint hearted!). We were lucky enough to see a huge number of animals including giraffe, elephants, lions, buffalo, black and white rhino, wildebeest and zebra to name but a few. On our final day we were thrilled to find a pack of endangered African wild dog running along the track towards us.
8. Golden Gate Highlands National Park
We only really visited Golden Gate as a stopover whilst driving through the Free State, but it ended up being a highlight of our trip. The dramatic landscape is extremely photogenic, especially as the sun begins to set and the mountains glow red.
We stayed in a traditional rondavel, and found it to be deceivingly spacious and incredibly cosy once inside. River kayaking and horse riding were just a couple of the activities to choose from, but we chose instead to trek to a nearby canyon.
Whilst driving through the Free State, we remarked on how empty the landscape seemed and how there was very little light pollution. This was most apparent in the evenings when the sky above Golden Gate shone with countless stars. I’m no stargazer or space enthusiast, but I could hardly tear my eyes from the shooting stars flying across the sky.
9. Karoo National Park
Just a few minutes’ drive from Beaufort West in the Western Cape is the Karoo National Park. It has a semi-arid desert landscape and on the surface it doesn’t really look like there’s a whole lot going on.
As with all of the places we visited in South Africa, we were staying in the park accommodation. The cottage that we checked into was immaculate and had a large terrace, complete with under-cover braai, looking out over the surrounding area. It was incredibly still and to say that you could hear a pin drop would be an understatement.
There are miles and miles of self-guided game drives to choose from and several tougher 4x4 trails. Late afternoons and early mornings are the best time to drive, and provide the perfect light for the budding photographer.
The Karoo is packed with wildlife - everything from black rhinos and lions to honey badgers and bat eared foxes – and it’s not uncommon to spot them from the terrace of your accommodation.
10. One for next time - Namaqualand
Namaqualand is an arid region that stretches across Namibia and South Africa, but in early August and September it suddenly bursts into colour. Following the winter rains the valleys, that for the rest of the year are usually dry and dusty, come alive with wild spring flowers and daisies.
I was visiting South Africa at the wrong time of year for the wild flowers, so never went to Namaqualand. It is however, right at the top of my list for my return visit!
So there you have it – my top 10 things to do in South Africa. As I mentioned before, we stayed in national parks throughout our stay, with the exception of Cape Town, and the best tip I could give anybody thinking of visiting the country would be to do the same. The national parks are very well run and I personally think you would miss out if you stayed outside their boundaries.
Check out my previous blog for some general tips for travelling in Africa.
I hope you found this blog useful. I’d love to hear your feedback. Have you been to South Africa? What was the highlight of your trip? Have you got some good tips for readers regarding things to do in South Africa? Please leave your comments below.
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