South Africa travel guide
Sardinia Bay is a hidden gem, just west of Port Elizabeth. The sand dunes are large, and the countryside around it full of flowers during spring and early summer. The beach is long, and the sand soft. It's a beautiful place to go for walks, have picnics and - in season - watch for whales. It's also a good spot for kite surfing, horseback riding and snorkelling, although fishing is not allowed. Sardinia Bay is also the starting point of a popular walk, the Sacramento Hiking Trail. Virtually unknown to tourists, Sardinia Bay is popular with locals. It is probably not a destination worth making a large detour for, but if you are passing through Port Elizabeth it makes for a very pleasant morning or afternoon.
Sodwana Bay is located at the southern end of the iSimangaliso Wetland Park, and is its most popular spot. There are long beaches for walking and swimming, and the coastal forest and dunes are also popular for walks. Fishing is also allowed, and weekends see fishing enthusiasts flock here. But what Sodwana Bay is primarily known for is as South Africa's top scuba diving destination - here you will find the planet's southernmost coral reefs, with more than 1200 species of fish and crustaceans present. It is also a popular spot for kite-surfing, spearfishing and birding, and turtles nest here in summer. If you are after a quiet spot, Sodwana Bay is probably not for you, although a wander down the beach will take you far away from the crowds. But the diving is excellent, and the coast wild and beautiful, so if you can visit mid-week when the crowds are elsewhere, Sodwana Bay is a great destination.
L'Agulhas is quaint and somewhat pretty, there is no doubt about it, although it is also exposed and windy. Be that as it may, there is only one real reason for tourists to visit l'Agulhas: to stand and have a picture taken at the southernmost point of the African continent, where the Atlantic and Indian oceans meet (as travellers are informed by the plaque marking the spot).
One of the most famous townships in the world, not to mention South Africa, is Soweto. Soweto stands for SOuth-WEstern TOwnships and it was created in the beginning of the 20th century to move nonwhites out of Johannesburg, while keeping them close enough as workers. As the supressing white regime got worse and more ridiculous, black's revolts increased. During the 70s, violent uprisings against the Apartheid kicked off in Soweto and spread throughout South Africa. When apartheid ended, Soweto was again the centre of attention since Nelson Mandela and Desmond Tutu both lived in Soweto, only two blocks apart. Today, Soweto is not anymore that shanty town as many expect. Sure, there are still poverty-riddled slums, but large parts have turned into suburbia for middle-class black people. The main sights like Mandela's former house and Hector Pieterson Square are well established tourist attractions, but you don't have to venture far off Vilakazi Street to experience the real Soweto.
Springbok town itself is not particularly interesting, and for much of the year this region is dry and dusty. Although Springbok itself does not become any more pleasant - which is not to suggest that it is particularly unpleasant to begin with - the surrounding countryside is completely transformed every spring. Starting in August or September, Springbok becomes the centre of the Northern Cape's wildflower route, and is a great base for exploring this part of the country. Goegap Nature Reserve is just a few kilometres out of town, and the fields south and west of here become more colourful as spring progresses. Springbok itself will not keep travellers riveted for very long, but it is the only town of note in between the Western Cape and the Namibian border, and there are certainly worse places to spend a few nights.
© Matt Hamilton
Close to the Swaziland border and in the heart of Zululand is the funky, little town of St. Lucia. This is an ideal stop for those looking to explore the African bush and experience its wildlife. St. Lucia lies amidst a World Heritage Site and everything you see will leave no doubt as to why the area has been classified as so. The neighbouring Hluhluwe - Umfolozi Game Reserve, the oldest reserve in South Africa, is home to the Big Five, including the largest population of black rhinos on the planet. Two creatures difficult to spot in the reserves, crocodiles and hippos, are easily found in the St. Lucia Wetlands Park and its 60 km of hiking trails. If being on foot is too close for comfort, then a boat ride up the St. Lucia River, home to hundreds of these fascinating beasts, will provide a safer way to go. However, don't be surprised to find the odd hippo wandering through the streets of town. Following the day's encounters, be sure to kick back in one of St. Lucia's funky cafes or pubs. There is nothing quite like listening to the call of the wild with a cold drink in hand.
© Matt Hamilton
While wandering through the coastal villages of the Transkei region, one is hard pressed to find indicators of the 21st century. There is a noticeable absence of electricity and telephone lines. The thatched huts are constructed with mud, livestock grazes freely and there are countless kids playing with nothing but each other. The villages, people and lifestyle are locked in a simple, beautiful and traditional time. One could spend a long time exploring the subtropical hills, valleys, waterfalls, magical coastline and deserted beaches of the Transkei, and many do. There is a condition in the Transkei known as Pondo Fever. Pondo Fever isn't a disease but a state of mind - it is the condition that simultaneously drains and replenishes one's energy. Pondo Fever is the force that brings people back to the Transkei or never allows them to leave. There are, however, worse places to get stuck.
South Africa's west coast is wild - there is no other way to describe it. The Atlantic Ocean is cold and often rough, creating very dramatic scenery. The West Coast National Park is no exception, but has the advantage of a calm lagoon located in its centre, providing beautiful beaches and ideal sailing waters. The best part of the park is no doubt the Postberg. The grasslands here are home to a number of herbivores - elands, zebra, wildebeest and bontebok. But the Postberg peninsula also plays host to a dazzling wildflower display every spring. Fields full of daisies adorn the park, and the coast itself is particularly stunning - here, the flowers grow all the way down to the beach. When done admiring the flower displays, spend some time in one of the park's numerous bird hides, go for a hike or bike ride along the coast, have a picnic or - in season - watch the whales swim by.
Wilderness and its adjacent national park are located right in the middle of South Africa's famed Garden Route. The town is like many others along this 300 km stretch - small and quaint, although the architecture (also fairly typical) is not as attractive as one might expect. But the beach is stunning, and the national park is a real gem for those longing to stretch their legs without having to worry about elephants or lions lurking behind every bush. Lush and well looked after, there are a number of walks through these coastal forests, with plenty of benches, boardwalks and waterfalls. For those not wishing to walk, rivers and lakes inside the park allow for rowing and canoeing. Naming this area "Wilderness" might be a bit overambitious - it feels more like Europe or the east coast of Australia than Africa - but it is without a doubt one of the most worthwhile stops along the Garden Route.
Namaqualand National Park is not much to see - and the temperature won't be very pleasant - if you visit in late summer. In spring, however, it is a entirely different story: the park and surrounding farmlands come alive with wildflowers. If there was a list of the world's seasonal wonders, the transformation of this arid region into a carpet of orange, yellow, white, red, blue, purple and pink would surely be on it. Walking, biking or driving through this dazzling display of colour is without a doubt a highlight of any visit to the African continent. It is extremely popular with South Africans, particularly since the drive from Cape Town can be done in a day, but it is never difficult to feel alone in this quite large park. Although it is the least remote section of the park, Skilpad is a good place to start any visit to the park, since the flower displays tend to be good here even during poor years. There are no large, dangerous animals here, so walking and biking is perfectly safe.