South Africa travel guide
For all the talk about the Big Five, here is a park that contains the Big Seven - the usual suspects (elephant, rhino, lion, leopard and buffalo) plus southern right whales and great white sharks. Whilst Addo is no Kruger or Serengeti, it is one of the best places in the Eastern Cape to see at least four of the big five (the dense shrub that covers much of the park makes leopard sightings fairly hard to come by). Kudu, ostriches, zebras and springbok are also common. Like many of South Africa's parks and reserves it does not feel particularly wild - the paved roads and lack of minor tracks contribute greatly to this, as do the adjacent farmlands - but the chance to see a herd of elephants or a pride of lions with a backdrop of white sand dunes and an azure Indian Ocean is pretty incredible. The parts of the park that contain open grassland rather than dense bush, such as the Vukani and Gorah Loops, are best for spotting wildlife, although the waterholes attract a lot of animals when it is dry. Separated from the rest of the park by the N2, the coastal section is also beautiful, and whales are frequently spotted here during winter and spring.
© Sarah Hishan
The sleepy fishing village of Gansbaai acts as the gateway to facing one of the most efficient predators in the world. Just a short boat ride away lies Dyer Island, home to more than 30,000 seals. And circling around it is the largest concentration of great white sharks in the world. Diving began in 1991 as an alternative business to turn hunters into conservationists after a nationwide campaign to protect great whites in the wild. Despite putting you in their environment and out of your comfort zone, cage diving allows for a shark encounter with safety as a top priority, not an afterthought. And really, what's a better way of facing your fear than to do so with a cage separating you from them? This is what makes cage diving so perfect; it doesn't require risk taking, a diving license or a death wish. The cage promises the ordinary traveller an extraordinary experience.
Graaff-Reinet is the fourth oldest city in South Africa, and a great starting point for those who wish to explore the Karoo (Camdeboo National Park with the magnificent Valley of Desolation are practically on its doorstep). But there is enough inside the town boundaries to keep travellers interested for a while. There are lots of well-maintained Cape Dutch buildings in the town centre, and Graaff-Reinet is home to more national monuments than any other city in South Africa. It also boasts the only church in South Africa with a complete kitchen and chimney. The best view of the town is from the Valley of Desolation, which can be reached by car or on foot, although the latter would be a rather strenuous undertaking.
Cape Town is the cosmopolitan capital of the African continent and has it all. This visually breathtaking coastal metropolis boasts fine dining, excellent shopping and incredible nightlife filled with pubs and clubs. A stroll down the thriving Long Street on a Saturday night is a party in itself. Cape Town will also satisfy the adventurous. Kite surfing, abseiling and the 1000 m high Table Mountain, the signature of this incredible city, will provide your adrenaline outlets. Climb to the mountain's plateau peek and be rewarded with mind-blowing views of the city, the Indian Ocean and the Twelve Apostles Mountain range. Moreover, there are excellent daytrips that explore the extending region. Spend a day touring the intoxicating vineyards and sample some of the tastiest wines on the planet. Spend another day visiting the Cape of Good Hope, the most southwestern tip of Africa and where the Atlantic and Indian Oceans converge. Cape Town's beauty, charm and hospitality will ensure to keep you around longer than planned.
Samara is a private game reserve in the Karoo, and is primarily known for its cheetahs. Although they are wild, some of them are very relaxed around people, and can be approached on foot. Cheetahs may not provide quite the adrenaline rush that elephants and lions do, but having a pair of cheetah cubs playing mere metres away from your feet is definitely an unforgettable experience. Samara's celebrity cheetah, Sibella, has successfully reared 20 cubs and therefore contributed to 2% of South Africa's wild cheetah population. Pretty impressive! Two other major highlights of Samara are its rhinos - these are definitely not habituated to humans, but can still be tracked on foot - and the magnificent views provided by the various mountains and hills in the reserve. Samara plays a vital role in regional conservation, and is well worth a visit - especially for all the cheetah-lovers out there.
Clarens is more of a large village than a town or a city, and has become known as the "jewel of the Eastern Free State". And it is cute, with lots of cafes, galleries, museums and arts and crafts shops. Its setting is equally impressive; it sits in the foothills of the Maluti mountains, is the closest town of note to the Golden Gate National Park and is but a stone's throw from the mountain kingdom of Lesotho. Lots of fruit trees add plenty of colour in spring, and green willows adorn many of the open spaces in the village. All of this, combined with its relatively close proximity to Johannesburg, Durban and Bloemfontein, means that it is also hugely popular with white South Africans, who flock here on weekends and holidays. But as long as you don't expect to have it all to yourself, Clarens is a very pleasant place to stop.
de Hoop Nature Reserve is a real gem, particularly during South African spring (August to October). de Hoop is not nearly as busy as some of the other whale-watching spots along the south-west coast, which is an added bonus. Watching southern right whales, dolphins and seals playing in the waters of the Indian Ocean from gigantic sand dunes is an incredible experience, but it is only one of the attractions offered by de Hoop. In spring - which is also prime whale-watching time - the reserve abounds with wildflowers and fynbos. Already rich with ostrich, eland, bontebok and cape mountain zebra, de Hoop also contains a RAMSAR wetland site, where greater flamingoes breed. Walking, mountain biking, marine (rock pool) tours, quad-biking and game drives are all available. A drive along the Western Cape is well worth a couple of days in de Hoop, particularly in spring.
The Drakensberg, or Dragon Mountains, are so named after the many jagged peaks that give an appearance of teeth. They are a hiker's paradise, providing some of the finest trails and views in all of Africa. The sheer vastness of the mountains - the range stretches for some 1000 km - means that there is practically unlimited choice depending on weather, fitness levels and interests. The best hiking (and certainly the best facilities) is arguably in KwaZulu-Natal, although Lesotho boasts some impressive sites, too. Walks range from short and easy to multi-day treks, with everything in between. The mountains are also covered with San rock paintings, and they boast an impressive array of flora and fauna. The weather is unreliable at best, and some of the roads are impassable in winter due to snow. But the walks are enjoyable in sunshine or rain, and the mood of the mountains changes dramatically from moment to moment. Although some of the camps get busy, the trails rarely do, and there is a magnificent feeling of having the world to yourself when visiting the Drakensberg.
After Cape Town and Kruger, the Garden Coast is perhaps the best-known place in South Africa. Stretching from Mossel Bay in the west to Storm River in the east along the Indian Ocean coast, it is a beautiful and pleasant part of the country. The road passes through dramatic scenery, from forests and cliffs to pristine beaches and quaint little towns. There are some beautiful parks and reserves here, such as Wilderness and Tsitsikamma, but ‘garden’ is not a misleading name; there is a definite lack of truly wild places here. What there isn’t a lack of is walks, cafes, B&Bs, beaches, picnic spots, boutiques and activities. And make no mistake – the many forests, rivers, beaches and mountains in this area are wonderful. Other attractions include seasonal whale watching (June to September) and the world’s highest bridge bungee jump. If you are looking for an untouched wilderness, the Garden Route may not be for you. But if you want to explore some of South Africa's finest beaches and most liveable settlements without ever being too far from a chai latte or glass of wine – well, this is probably one of the most beautiful places on the continent to do so.
Hluhluwe-iMfolozi is Africa's oldest proclaimed park and KwaZulu-Natal's only state-run park containing all of the Big Five. In fact, thanks to a massive conservation effort Hluhluwe-iMfolozi now has the world's largest population of white rhinos, as well as African wild dogs and plenty of other rare species. It is a beautiful park, with varied flora and a lot of space. Tracking rhinos is one of the most thrilling experiences possible in Africa, and with such high numbers Hluhluwe-iMfolozi is an ideal place to try it. South African parks often feel a bit over-managed, and Hluhluwe-iMfolozi is no exception - roads are paved, and no off-road driving is allowed - but the feeling is not as strong as it is in busier parks such as Kruger, and it really is an excellent park. For a real wilderness experience, however, going on a multi-day walking trail is an excellent option, as it will take you off the roads and away from all other visitors.