10 Must-dos in South Africa
Featured destinations: South Africa, Kruger National Park, Stellenbosch, Addo Elephant Park, Cape Town, Plettenberg Bay, Sabi Sands, Knysna, Franschhoek, Johannesburg
Published 22 June 2016
South Africa is well known for its diverse wildlife, the rugged coastal landscapes of the Garden Route and for Cape Town, surely the most spectacularly situated city in the world. Combine the three on the classic Cape Town, Garden Route & Safari Journey, and you’ve got the makings of a great holiday. Here are our top suggestions for what to include in your itinerary.
Safari is the top draw for visitors to South Africa and it’s no wonder. Not only is the country home to the fabled Big Five (lion, leopard, elephant, buffalo and rhino) but it is also blessed with its very own floral kingdom, the Cape Floristic Region, where more than 9,000 plant species thrive, 69% of which are found nowhere else in the world. Armed with their cameras, most safari-goers make a beeline for the country’s flagship Kruger National Park, where, unless you are very unlucky, you’ll be practically tripping over the game. Other parks to try include the more sedate (and most convenient for adding on to the Garden Route) Addo Elephant Park and the Sabi Sands Game Reserve, part of the Greater Kruger and location for a handful of rather upmarket safari lodges.
At 1,085m, the flat-topped Table Mountain towers over Cape Town and the ocean beyond. When the famous tablecloth (a stubborn cloud that cloaks the summit) is absent, view-seekers can take the rotating cable car to the top, and some even walk. Once you’ve soaked up the panoramas, abseiling back down again is hard to beat. Strap on your harness and sail down the sheer-sided cliffs, one vertical drop after another, with the big blue of the ocean crashing below you. Breathtaking.
A neighbourhood of Cape Town, this colourful collection of houses and quaint streets was historically the residence of the city’s Muslim inhabitants, mostly descendants of Malaysian slaves. Houses here are painted all sorts of vibrant colours, with a diverting museum and a number of ornate mosques adding to the streetscape. But for most, the delicious Malay food is the big draw. Try the locally-spiced samosas, curries and rotis, or even learn to make them yourself with a Cape Malay cookery class, which is included in our Tastes of South Africa Journey.
Cape Town may have its glitzy shopping malls and swanky hotels, but to find the real beating heart of South Africa you’ll need to head into a township. Within the maze of alleyways, behind the ramshackle metal doors you’ll find an inspiring sense of community. Meet the locals, dance to the African beats in the taverns and try a homemade beer. Soweto in Johannesburg is the most famous township, not least due to its former resident Nelson Mandela, but there’s also Khayelitsha and Langa to choose from, both in Cape Town. A word of warning: do not attempt to visit a township under your own steam – they are best seen with a tour guide.
South Africa produces some of the world’s finest wines, surely the perfect excuse to taste a tipple or two. The Cape Wine Route follows the vineyard trail and, if you are looking for a base for the night, then Stellenbosch and Franschhoek should be your first ports of call. Stellenbosch’s leafy streets and handsome Cape Dutch architecture are the perfect accompaniment to an afternoon spent sampling the Merlot and Chenin Blanc. Best of all, it’s less than an hour’s drive from Cape Town.
The southernmost tip of the world
As you leave Cape Town for the Garden Route coastal drive, be sure to detour to Cape Agulhas, the southernmost tip of the African continent. Nothing stands between here and Antarctica, a mere 3,810 miles away. This is also the point at which the Atlantic and Indian Oceans meet, and there’s even a marker to prove it. Although Cape Agulhas is geographically interesting, it’s perhaps a more rewarding experience to head down to the more famous Cape of Good Hope, 70 miles south of Cape Town, where dramatic cliffs, howling winds and thundering waves create a moody atmospheric scene.
The Cango Caves
Just outside the town of Oudtshoorn, a short detour from the Garden Route, lie the Cango Caves, an extensive two-mile network of tunnels and caverns deep beneath the surface, filled with impressive stalactites and stalagmites. Keen spelunkers have two tours to choose from – the Standard Tour which involves a gentle walk through the caves and learning about their formation, and the claustrophobia-inducing Adventure Tour. For this you’ll need to wear your oldest clothes as you crawl through impossibly narrow gaps and climb through dark tunnels with names like the Post Box and the Coffin, the smallest of which is only 27cm high. Best lay off the biltong.
The ostrich farms of Oudtshoorn
Speaking of Oudtshoorn, the town declares itself the ostrich capital of the world, and is home to numerous ostrich farms. In fact you can’t get away from ostriches here – you’ll see them running around the fields and see their leather, feathers and eggs (made into lampshades) monopolise the shops. Tasty ostrich burgers grace almost every menu, and we’d highly recommend you try one (good news for adventure cavers – they are low in fat). Visit an ostrich farm to learn more about these enormous birds, feed one and see just how strong their egg shells are (answer: very).
The Garden Route is a fantastic whale and dolphin watching destination. Glitzy Plettenberg Bay leads the way, with pretty Hermanus a close second. Jump in a boat or watch from the shore as you spot humpback whales breaching (May-June) and calving (November-February) or southern right whales frolicking (June-November). Bottlenose dolphins are found playing in the surf year-round, and the Plettenberg Bay’s Robberg Nature Reserve is a great place to observe the Cape fur seal.
Storms River Mouth
At the eastern end of the Garden Route, a rather rickety suspension bridge spans the mouth of Storms River, offering sweeping views of the coastline and a bird’s eye view of the crashing waves below. Storms River is all about the adrenaline sports, and fearless adventurers venture here to fling themselves off the 216-metre high Bloukrans Bridge, with nothing but an elastic band strapped to their feet as part of the world’s highest commercial bungee jump. Less scary, and no doubt less stomach churning, are the scenic hikes on offer in nearby Tsitsikamma National Park.