South Africa travel guide
© Matt Hamilton
Nestled at the foot of the Amatola Mountains is a quaint little village named Hogsback. Local legend claims that J.R.R. Tolkien had spent time in this region during his childhood. Furthermore, it is believed that his time exploring the forests of the Tyhume valley served as inspiration for his masterpiece, The Lord of the Rings. Whether Tolkien had any recollection of his time in this picturesque area is arguable but definitely believable. For among the lush, pristine forest with breath-taking waterfalls and complete serenity, you will feel as though you are exploring the setting of a mystical land.
In a country that is dominated by its shoreline, heading inland to Hogsback is a refreshing and stunning change of scenery. The dramatic contrast from the coast makes it easy to forget that you are in South Africa. In the winter months, you might be lucky enough to witness a snowfall. The local charm and the unforgettable surroundings will ensure that Hogsback is a highlight of your journey.
Johannesburg, or Joburg as locals call it, is more a place for locals than tourists. It's a clutter of suburbs more than a real compact city. There isn't any real city centre, the area around Park Station is the closest you get to one - but some of the characters who roam the streets there are spooky. Johannesburg also lacks some major sights, each area having its own small scale attractions, whether a museum, a nice market, some cafes or a lion park. Besides for neighbourhood sightseeing, walking around is often impossible due to the long distances and danger of muggings. To make Johannesburg even more tourist hostile, the public transportation consists mostly of a complex system of private minibuses where you have to throw some hand signals to the drivers to get on the right bus. Getting your own set of wheels will of course change all this, meaning you will experience a lot of highways and parking lots, but at least you will not be confined to only your hotel/hostel block.
Camdeboo National Park is part of the Karoo, South Africa's vast, inland semi-desert. The park is divided into different sections; one is dedicated to wildlife viewing (but feels more like an open-air zoo due to its small size and fenced boundaries), whereas others are wide open and provide absolutely stunning views. The Valley of Desolation, made up of massive vertical dolorite columns, is without a doubt the most scenically striking part of the park, with vistas in all directions. It is an easy drive to get up, and the informative walk around the "peak" is worthwhile. You have a reasonably good chance of seeing leopard tortoises, lizards, oryx, kudu, duiker, hartebeest and vervet monkeys - don't feed them! - and the park boasts an impressive number of plant species, many of which are succulents endemic to the region. There are also more than seventy species of flowering plants, and the area comes alive with colour every spring and summer. Highly recommended!
Kosi Bay is the most pristine lake system on the South African coast, not far from the Mozambique border. It is a mix of crystal-clear waters, marshland, fig forest, mangrove swamp and wild date and palms. The reserve, which is an international RAMSAR site, also boasts over 250 bird species. Despite its remote location, it is a popular spot with South Africans, so weekends can get very busy - especially around Kosi Bay itself. Parts of the reserve are safe for swimming, while others contain hippos and crocodiles, so it is best to ask around first. Kosi Bay is an important turtle-hatching site (particularly Bhanga Nek), and humpback whales can be spotted off the coast. Lake Nhlange is popular for swimming, and Black Rock is a great spot for snorkelling and picnics.
Kragga Kamma is a small private game park on the outskirts of Port Elizabeth and sports plenty of wildlife. There are giraffes, cheetahs (in a separate enclosure), buffalos and rhinos here, and many species of antelope. Although Kragga Kamma can in no way compare to the larger parks and reserves, there are a few good reasons to visit. One is its proximity to Port Elizabeth - if you are in town and want to go for an afternoon game drive, this is a good option. Second, Kragga Kamma provides an opportunity to get up close and personal with cheetahs. Finally, it is a good place to see what measures poachers are forcing conservationists to take in South Africa, as the proprietors of Kragga Kamma made the difficult decision to dehorn their rhinos in response to repeated reports of threats. Kragga Kamma will not keep you busy for more than a few hours, but it is a very pleasant place, and the wildlife is never far away.
Wildlife viewing in South Africa does not get any better than this, and leopard viewing probably does not get better than this anywhere in Africa. Sabi Sands, just outside Kruger National Park, boasts all of the Big Five as well as many other species of interest, including African wild dogs, cheetahs, giraffes, zebras and a wide variety of antelopes. Sightings are limited to two or three cars, so there is never a sense of being crowded, although the lack of vast, untouched lanscapes and the 15-minute viewing times (if other cars are waiting) diminishes the sense of wilderness somewhat. Walking safaris are possible, as are night drives. But the highlight for most visitors is the leopards. Through a careful process of habituation starting with a single female at Londolozi in the 1970s, many of the leopards in Sabi Sands are largely unconcerned by the presence of vehicles. This allows for some incredible sightings, and a chance to see otherwise rare behaviour such as mating or mother-offspring interaction. Sabi Sands also offer plenty of opportunities to get close and personal with rhinos, lions and wild dogs, and if your goal is to see lots of wildlife in a short amount of time there is probably nowhere better in South Africa.
© Matt Hamilton
Nestled in the northern Transkei region, Mkambati is an 8000-hectare, isolated region of South Africa that is often overlooked by travellers. Spend a day exploring the Msikaba River and its forested ravine towards the spectacular Superbowl, a towering 100 m natural amphitheatre. Spend another day rock-hopping the 10 km coastline and the Mkambati River. This snaking river contains numerous swimming holes and waterfalls, highlighted by Horseshoe Falls, a rare double-tiered waterfall that tumbles directly into the Indian Ocean. Every day, as you wander through the grassy plains, you will be surrounded by wildlife. Whether it's the vulture colony, the troops of baboons or the herds of wildebeest and gemsbok that run freely throughout the reserve, you will be amazed at how close to the natural world you are.
© Matt Hamilton
Set in South Africa's Little Karoo region is the town of Oudtshoorn. Other than the natural beauty, this small community has two main tourist attractions, ostriches and caving, both of which you will certainly have your fill. Home to the largest ostrich population in the world, this is a great spot to get a proper look (and taste) at these rather strange creatures. Riding on the back of an ostrich is an odd experience but one that must be had. Should you tumble from the pea-brained bird, get your revenge by indulging in a delicious ostrich steak and/or egg. However, the highlight of Oudtshoorn is the Cango Caves. Unearthly caverns and chambers, 9-metre stalactites and stalagmites, and over 4 km of twisting tunnels make up this surreal feat of nature. The ultimate test of your claustrophobia will come at the Devil's Chimney, a tunnel that has an opening a mere 30 cm wide. Getting to and from Oudtshoorn is half the fun. The drive along the Swartberg Pass with its breathtaking views of the Matjies River Valley is arguably one of the most stunning in South Africa.
Though Pilanesberg National Park is both smaller and less famous than Kruger, it's an equally good big game reserve - some think it's even better. All of the Big Five (elephant, lion, leopard, buffalo and rhino) are here along with giraffe, zebra, hippo, baboon, hyena, wild dog and a long list of antelopes and birds. You can drive in your own car along a network of tar and gravel roads, and there are both safe picnic areas and hides. The park is fairly small, meaning it's easier to get to the parts where the animals are, but the herds are correspondingly small. The landscape is mostly savanna with tall grass and thorn trees, but there are also bushy regions, rocky outcrops and mountains. The area around Mankwe Dam is particularly good for game viewing. Another appealing feature of Pilanesberg is it's only two hours drive from Johannesburg, making it a possible day trip.
The Drakensberg Mountains are covered with San rock art sites, and although the locations of many of these are not made available to the public, there are some spectacular sites that are easy enough to visit. There are thought to be at least 35,000-40,000 paintings and works of art in these mountains, and there is a single site, Sebaayeni Cave, which contains 1146 individual paintings! The paintings found in this region are nowhere near as old as those in Botswana or Namibia, but many of them are incredibly well preserved, and the many information centres, brochures and guided walks makes the Drakensberg an ideal place to explore San culture. The two best places to learn more are probably the Didima San Rock Art Centre and Giant Castle's Main Cave Museum. But if you want to avoid the crowds, it might be an idea to try to sweet-talk one of the guides or rangers into showing you a site away a bit more off the beaten track - just don't expect the getting there to be easy!