Today (January 30, 2017): top 10 things to see & do in South Africa.
Last week, I published my top 10 list of the most exclusive and luxurious hotels & lodges in South Africa. The magnificent country is often referred to as the Rainbow Nation, a term coined by Archbishop Desmond Tutu to describe post-apartheid South Africa and made famous by President Nelson Mandela in his first month of office, when he proclaimed: “Each of us is as intimately attached to the soil of this beautiful country as are the famous jacaranda trees of Pretoria and the mimosa trees of the bushveld – a rainbow nation at peace with itself and the world“. South Africa is a magnificent country, with an incredible display of natural splendor, varying from the majestic coastal scenery around Cape Town in the south to one of Africa’s most famous safari destinations, Kruger National Park, in the north, with the vast Karoo semi-desert across its heart. The nation also harbours one of Africa’s most diverse cultural melting pots, a phenomena obscured by decades of enforced racial segregation, but now fully alive in the larger cities, creating a thrilling creative scene. I hereby present you my top 10 list of the best things to see and do in South Africa.
What is your favorite South African place or activity? Do you think I missed one? Leave a comment or take my poll below.
Although most tourists travel around South Africa by car, those who have more time (and money) may want to ride one of the world’s most famous luxury trains. The Rovos Rail, Africa’s answer to the Orient Express, is a luxury steam train company that offers a series of epic journeys across the spectacular scenery of South(ern) Africa. The trains – which may be hauled by diesel or electric locomotives – carry a maximum of 72 passengers in 36 superbly appointed suites with ensuite bathrooms. With discreet and friendly service, five-star cuisine and a selection of South Africa’s finest wines, Rovos Rail harks back to a simpler, more elegant era encompassing the timeless grace and high romance of African exploration. Rovos Rail’s most popular trip is the 3-day journey from Pretoria to Cape Town across the Karoo’s endless desert landscapes.
- Website: Rovos Rail
- Review: read here my review of my trip onboard Rovos Rail from Pretoria to Cape Town.
Where nearly 2 million hectares of unrivaled diversity of life forms fuses with historical and archaeological sights – this is real Africa. The world-renowned and state-owned Kruger National Park offers a wildlife experience that ranks with the best in Africa. It’s home to the Big Five: lion, leopard, elephant, rhino and buffalo. Since the park also offers one of the most affordable safari adventures on the continent, it attracts high numbers of visitors that usually view the animals from their cars. However, when you want a more intimate safari experience, it’s better to stay in one of the private game reserves, which shares a fenceless boundary with the Kruger National Park, forming a giant contiguous ecosystem. These privately owned and hyper exclusive sanctuaries usually offer luxurious (and accordingly priced) accommodations, fine dining in the bush, spa facilities, and small guided safaris in off-road vehicles.
- Website: Kruger National Park
The iSimangaliso Wetland Park, previously known as the Greater St. Lucia Wetland Park, is one of Africa’s most outstanding natural wetland and coastal sites. Covering an area of 239,566 ha, it includes a wide range of pristine marine, coastal, wetland, estuarine, and terrestrial environments which are scenically beautiful and basically unmodified by people. These include coral reefs, long sandy beaches, coastal dunes, lake systems, swamps, and extensive reed and papyrus wetlands, providing critical habitat for a wide range of species from Africa’s seas, wetlands and savannahs. Its vivid natural spectacles include nesting turtles and large aggregations of flamingos and other waterfowl, although most visitors hope to spot one of Nile crocodiles and hippopotami. In 1999, the park became South Africa’s first UNESCO World Heritage Site at an unveiling ceremony, where Nelson Mandela was the guest of honour.
- Website: iSimangaliso Wetland Park
Hermanus, a small city 127 km (79 mi) to the east of Cape Town, is one of the world’s best whale watching destinations. The best time to enjoy whale watching in Hermanus is between July and November either from land, by boat or from the air via a scenic flight. Hermanus, particularly Walker Bay, is the mating and breeding grounds of the Southern Right Whale during South Africa’s winter and spring months (from June to November). Southern Right Whales migrate from the Antarctic around June to calve and mate. Calving takes place in August and September and the males arrive for mating in October when the whale population peaks. For those with a more adventurous spirit, a guided sea kayaking trip promises to get the adrenaline going and offers a unique opportunity to watch whales and explore the magnificent coastline.
- Website: Hermanus whale watching
Considered one of South Africa’s most dramatic landscapes, the towering uKhahlamba Drakensberg mountain range in the KwaZulu-Natal province has exceptional natural beauty in its soaring basaltic buttresses, incisive dramatic cutbacks, and golden sandstone ramparts. A particularly renowned attraction of the area is the Amphitheatre, a mighty wall of basalt of 5 km (3,1 mi) in length and 1000m high (3280 ft). The spectacular Tugela Falls, the world’s second tallest falls (and the highest in Africa), plunges 948m (3110 ft) over the basalt face of the Amphitheatre, down to Royal Natal National Park below. The magnificent mountain scenery with towering peaks and jagged cliffs plummeting into lush green valleys is a must-see destination for avid hikers, who will be in their element here, with hiking trails taking one up towards the peaks on short hour long walks to longer day or multiple day hikes.
Be sure to add at least one day of wine-tasting to your itinerary when visiting South Africa, since the rainbow nation’s wines are well-known all over the globe. The wine routes of South Africa trace not only the history and development of the country’s 350-year-old wine-making tradition, but South Africa’s maturation into a full-bodied, flavourful democracy. The wine routes of South Africa fall largely within the Western Cape province where the bulk of the country’s wine production takes place. Most of the vineyards are centered around the ancient university town of Stellenbosch and the lesser known villages of Franschoek and Paarl. Here, you can discover and explore more than 150 wine farms and estates where both connoisseurs and novice wine-drinkers can enjoy the fruit of the vine. One of my favorites is the Delaire Graff Estate, which also houses a restaurant with a spectacular view that matches the food.
- Website: wine routes of South Africa
What may well be South Africa’s last great wilderness, the Kgalagadi Transfrontier park lies in the large sand-filled basin in the west of the southern African subcontinent, known as the Kalahari. It covers almost one third of the area and forms what may be the largest sandveld area in the world. It’s a place of stunning natural beauty, where the red dunes and scrub fade into infinity, where herds of gemsbok, springbok, eland and blue wildebeest follow the seasons, and where imposing camel thorn trees provide shade for huge black-mane lions and vantage points for leopard and many raptors. If you want to experience similar desolate landscapes without compromising on luxury, you should have a look at Tswalu Kalahari, South Africa’s largest private game reserve, where no more than 30 guests at a time can discover the beauty of this arid savannah, its diverse wildlife and the tranquil serenity.
- Official website: Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park
Along the South Coast of South Africa lies one of the most beautiful stretches of coastline in the world, home to the Garden Route National Park. Here, tall cliffs plunge in dramatic ravines to river mouths and evergreen temperate forests merge with rocky beaches to touch the warm Indian Ocean. In the flagship Tsitsikamma National Park section, look out for inquisitive vervet monkeys, watchful genets, blue duiker, bush pig, Cape clawless otters, and if you’re very lucky, leopard. The water-based life of the Garden Route National Park is just as rich – lagoons and strings of shining lakes begging to be explored by canoe. Offshore, whales and dolphins surf the waves. This wilderness is counterpointed by pleasant coastal towns like Knysna, Plettenberg Bay and Sedgefield, where you can eat fresh oysters, drink locally brewed beer, swing from bungies, whizz through forest canopies, or simply relax on a long, clean beach.
- Official website: Garden Route National Park
The Blyde River Canyon Nature Reserve – South Africa’s most remarkable geological feature – is situated in the Mpumalanga province. Also known as the Motlatse Canyon, it is the third largest canyon on Earth and is situated below the confluence of the Blyde (‘joy’) and Treur (‘sorrow’) rivers. Here, visitors are offered the most spectacular views on the African continent, with vistas as far as the Kruger Park and Mozambique on a clear day. The most famous view-point is that of the Three Rondavels or Three Sisters, with three massive spirals of dolomite rising from the far wall of the canyon. The environment varies from high mistlands to the drier and warmer lowveld around the Blyde River Dam. There are more than 1000 species of flora in the reserve, including several species of endangered cycads, and, in spring, carpets of wild flowers. Try to visit at least one of the nearby several beautiful waterfalls.
- Official website: The Blyde River Canyon Reserve
“This cape is the most stately thing we saw in the whole circumference of the earth”, wrote Sir Francis Drake in 1580 when he discovered the cape. A vibrant city has sprung up since then, but the area’s coastal and mountainous scenery remains unrivaled on the planet. Cape Town, my favorite city in the world, is often dubbed South Africa’s mother city. Blessed with some of the world’s most amazing beaches, jaw-droppingly beautiful mountains, rolling hills of vineyards, spectacular drives and tons of trendy bars and fine dining restaurants to choose from, it is hard to imagine a more picture perfect city destination (and frankly, you won’t find a better one). Combine this with some of the best accommodation and service on offer anywhere in the world and you are left with one of the hottest city destinations you will ever visit. There is so much to do in Cape Town, that I previously published a top 10 list with the best places & activities that every visitor to Cape Town should put on his/her bucket list.
- Official website: Cape Town
- Other accolades: Cape Town features in my top 10 lists of the world’s most beautiful cities, the world’s most amazing city beaches, the world’s most spectacular drives, the world’s most stunning scenery, and top 10 things to see & do in Cape Town.