South Africa is one of the most diverse and enchanting countries in the world. Exotic combinations of landscapes, people, history and culture offer a larger-than-life experience for the traveller in search of a truly unique and inspiring experience.South Africa’s vast landscape includes savannahs, snow-covered mountains, forests, tropical swamps, endless beaches, tranquil rivers and?bustling urban epicentres.
South Africa is known for its abundant wildlife (and of course the famous “big five”) as well as its fantastic birding and eco-tourism possibilities. However, the real heart of this vibrant country is the diversity of people and cultures. South Africa ‘s family tree goes way back to the start of time. The country has been touted as the Cradle of Humankind, because it was here that archaeologists discovered 2,5 million year old fossils as well as the 100 000 year old remains of modern humankind. Many of South Africa ‘s cultures have their roots in an ancient world, whilst some of the cultures are relatively new ?and others, well, are a fascinating mix of both.
Language: The official languages are Afrikaans, English, isiNdebele, isiXhosa, isiZulu, Sepedi, Sesotho, Setswana, Siswati, Tshivenda and Xitsonga.
Religion: Most inhabitants profess Christianity of some form and belong to either Catholic, Anglican and other protestant denominations, Afrikaner Calvinist churches or African independent churches. There are also significant Hindu, Muslim and Jewish communities, and traditional beliefs are still practised widely, sometimes in conjunction with Christianity.
Currency: Rand (R) = 100 cents. Notes are in denominations of R200, 100, 50, 20 and 10. Coins are in denominations of R5, 2 and 1, and 50, 20, 10, 5, 2 and 1 cents.
The climate is mild throughout South Africa . There’s really not a bad time to visit, but October is our favorite month – it’s spring then, an ideal season for touring. Snow is a possibility June-August in the mountain areas. It generally rains in the afternoon during the summer (November-February) everywhere in the country except in the Cape Province, where it rains during the winter.
Durban has a very moderate climate, with swimming possible year-round. November-February is best for Cape Town. During the rest of the year, it’s usually quite cool, often rainy/windy/foggy and too cold to lie on the beach. Johannesburg, at 5,700 ft/1,735 m above sea level, can be quite cool in the winter.
Those who go to South Africa specifically for animal viewing may want to go during winter – grass is short, and the animals tend to gather around watering holes.
Active bods will have no trouble wearing out their sneakers in South Africa : the country offers everything from ostrich riding to the world’s highest bungee jump ! There are excellent hiking trails , usually with accommodation, although the intrepid might find them a bit overpopulated. Mountain biking is getting more popular and it’s even possible to cycle through some of the wildlife parks. If that sounds a bit hairy, it’s easy to plan safaris in South Africa ‘s national parks and reserves. Airborne pursuits are popular: hang-gliding is a buzz off Table Mountain and there are ballooning and parachuting operators at the beach resorts. South Africa isn’t known for its rafting and canoeing – it’s more floating through landscape than testing out your life jacket – but there is some beautiful desert wilderness to glide through on the Orange River in the far north. Bird-watchers and flower sniffers love it here: for diversity, colour and sheer quantity, it’s hard to beat. South Africa also has some of the best, least-crowded surfing in the world. Most surfers will have heard of Jeffrey’s Bay, but the east and south coasts tube right the way along
In this unequivocally beautiful city even transient visitors can’t help but devote a few million brain cells to storing images of its grandeur: its striking tabletop mountain backdrop, its glorious beaches and enchanting vineyards, its rugged wilderness coated in unique flora.
Outdoors, there are great walks and spectacular views from Tabletop Mountain as well as ocean swimming, boating activities, and plenty of ways to get out into the wilderness areas around Cape Town. Indoors, the city boasts a wealth of interesting museums.
The awesome Drakensberg ( Dragon Mountain) is a basalt escarpment forming the border with eastern Lesotho . Although people have lived here for thousands of years – there are many San rock painting sites – some of the peaks and rocks have only been tackled by Europeans in the last few decades. Much of the range is taken up by national parks, perhaps the most spectacular of which is Royal Natal National Park. The southern boundary of the park is formed by the Amphitheatre, an 8km stretch of cliff that is spectacular from below and even more so from the top. Here the Tugela Falls drop 850m in five stages (the top one often freezes in winter). There are some superb wilderness trails in the area, the flora is rich and varied and the mountain-climbing opportunities are heart stopping. Bergville is the jumping-off point for Royal Natal. It’s accessible by minibus taxi from Ladysmith.
Durban is a big subtropical city in the north-eastern province of KwaZulu-Natal. It has been a major port since the 1850s and is home to the largest concentration of Indian-descended people in the country. Today the city is better known as a holiday-makers’ fun parlour with a happening nightlife. The weather (and the water, thanks to the Agulhas current) stays warm year-round drawing the crowds to Durban’s long string of surf beaches.
Apart from the sandy strip, ‘Durbs’ has a fair bit to offer. The impressive city hall houses an art gallery which has a good collection of contemporary South African works and a natural science museum (check out the cockcroach display and the reconstructed dodo). Also in the city centre, the local history museum has interesting displays on colonial life.
The Indian area, to the west of the city centre, has a bustle and vibrancy that’s missing from most commercial districts in South Africa . The Victoria Indian Street Market is the area’s focus, but other must sees are the Juma Mosque, the largest in the southern hemisphere, and the Alayam Hindu Temple, South Africa’s oldest and biggest.
Marine Parade, fronting the beach, is Durban’s focal point. Most places to stay and eat are on the parade or in the streets behind it, and much of the city’s entertainment is here as well. At night, most people head to the restaurants in the northern suburbs, or the big hotels and clubs along the beachfront. Durban has an international airport, and is well serviced by buses and trains to all of South Africa ‘s major cities.
Heavily promoted and heavily scented, the Garden Route runs along a beautiful bit of coastline in southern Western Cape. The narrow coastal plain is well forested and is mostly bordered by extensive lagoons which run behind a barrier of sand dunes and superb white beaches. The Garden Route has some of the most significant tracts of indigenous forest in the country – giant yellowwood trees and wildflowers – as well as commercial plantations of eucalypt and pine. The area is a favourite for all water sports and the weather is kind year-round. There are some tacky developments dotted along the route, but you can steer clear of the worst of it, and hostel accommodation isn’t too hard to find. Some of the quieter places are Mossel Bay, Herold’s Bay and Buffalo Bay.
George is the major transport hub for the area and is a pleasant enough town to park your pack while you get your bearings. If you’re travelling between Cape Town and the Garden Route, there’s a gruelling but spectacular alternative through the mountains of the Little Karoo or Klein Karoo. This area is renowned for ostriches, which thrive in the dry and sunny climate; for wildflowers; and for the kloofs (ravines) and passes that cut through the mountains.
A city of astonishing contrasts, a huge metropolis where opulent wealth and desperate poverty live side by side: Johannesburg is the intriguing, dynamic heart of the new South Africa . If you want to see the real South Africa – and try to understand it – Jo’burg has to be on your itinerary.
A hop-on, hop-off bus will show you both rich and poor suburbs and make seeing Johannesburg that much easier. Although it’s one of the most dangerous cities in the world, if you consult with the locals and follow their advice you’ll find it a fascinating place.
Kruger National Park
As well as being one of the most famous wildlife parks in the world, Kruger National Park is among the biggest and the oldest – it turned 100 in 1998. You can see the ‘big five’ here (lions, leopards, elephants, buffaloes and rhinos) as well as cheetahs, giraffes, hippos, all sorts of antelope species and smaller animals. Although most people will have seen African animals in zoos, it is impossible to exaggerate how extraordinary and completely different it is to see these animals in their natural environment. That said, Kruger is not quite a wilderness experience: it’s highly developed, organised, accessible and popular.
The park runs for 350km along the Mozambique border and has an average width of 60km. There are about 2000km of roads in the park, so even on weekends and school holidays, it’s possible to isolate yourself and just see what comes along (it could be a fleet of BMWs). The main entry points to the park are through the towns of Skukuza and Nelspruit, both about a day’s drive from Johannesburg. Accommodation is usually in well-managed huts run by the National Parks Board. Facilities vary from communal and basic to private and swish
South African cuisine, or Cape cuisine as it’s called, is a blend of Dutch, French, German and Malay flavors typically applied to lamb, beef or seafood. In the local restaurants, try bredie (braised and stewed mutton and vegetables), saltwater crayfish (like lobsters, but without the claws) and bobotie (a curried meat dish). Braai is a South African barbecue usually featuring a spicy sausage called boerewors . You’ll find many Chinese, French, Portuguese and Indian restaurants as well. The private game reserves often serve wild game in their restaurants (gazelle and wild boar are good, though the latter can be tough). South African wines are both excellent and inexpensive
The value of the rand against most foreign currencies makes South Africa one of the most inexpensive sources of African souvenirs. Semiprecious stones, gold and diamonds are very reasonable, and the best prices are usually found in Cape Town and Johannesburg. Beadwork, wood carvings, baskets and woven rugs are some of the most popular handicrafts available. And don’t be surprised if you come across traditional crafts made from nontraditional resources (like a basket woven with wire instead of reed). South Africa is a great place to buy art from all over Africa. While you might pay a bit more, the quality will be high and shipping will be much easier than elsewhere on the continent.
Shopping Hours: Generally Monday-Friday 8:30 am-5 pm, Saturday 8:30 am-1 pm. Some shops, mainly those in shopping centers, are open Sunday.
Banking Hours: Generally Monday-Friday 8:30 am-3:30 pm, Saturday 8 am- 11:30
Do take an organized tour of a black township, either in Johannesburg, Cape Town or Durban. Instead of hostility, we have encountered friendliness and openness in the townships. We played soccer with children in the street while mothers called out playful greetings from their doorways.
Do try to visit a shebeen (bar) in one of the black townships during a tour. Under apartheid, blacks were forbidden to sell alcohol: Many risked imprisonment by running these speakeasies.
Don’t become so worried about crime that you forget to enjoy the country. It’s easy to fall into the habit of worrying so much that the real pleasures of the country and its inhabitants pass you by.
Do try to see a play by South African playwright Athol Fugard ( Master Harold…and the Boys , A Lesson From Aloes , etc.).
Do visit a Zulu or other ethnic village to see the incredible traditional dancing.
Don’t be afraid to ask about security when making hotel reservations and when checking into your hotel. Some Johannesburg hotels now require that everyone – including guests – who enters be asked for identification.
Do tour a working gold mine.
Don’t swim at any beach where others aren’t swimming. Sharks cruise the waters, and some beaches aren’t protected by shark nets.
Do take a coat and tie. Some restaurants require them during the evening.
Don’t forget to pack a flashlight. It’ll come in handy in the game reserves.
Do ask hotel staff to get you into one of the diamond-cutting works in Johannesburg.