South Africa is a big country. Trying to see all of it is an impossible task and choosing these spots for the ultimate guide to South Africa was no mean feat. In the end, I settled for 10 places that I think showcase the beauty of the country.
To put in into perspective South Africa is almost 5 times as big as Great Britain or a little less than twice the size of Texas. It is a diverse country both culturally and geographically. From the fishing villages dotted along the coast to the semi-desert of the Karoo, the majesty of the Drakensberg Mountains and the breathtaking scenery of the mother city, Cape Town. You will have difficulty deciding where to spend your time.
For many people, it is the lure of a safari and seeing the Big Five that is the main drawcard. For others, it is the natural beauty in abundance. If you enjoy a road trip then you will love the wide open spaces, awesome mountain passes and beautiful roads that hug the rugged coastlines.
When to go
You need to decide what your main focus of the holiday will be. If it’s enjoying the ocean and the cafe society lifestyle while soaking up the sun then the summer months (November- March) are best in and around the Cape Town area.
If you are planning a beach holiday in Durban, which is more subtropical, then you would head to KwaZulu Natal in April – October.
You can go on safari at any time of the year, but my preference if you are going to the Kruger National Park is in winter (June, July, August). This is before the rains come and the land is dry. The vegetation is also thinner than is summer so you have a better chance of spotting the game. The animals also tend to head towards the waterholes so it’s a perfect place to set up to view them.
If you have limited time available and let’s face it, most of us do, fly into Cape Town and enjoy the sights then head to the Kruger area for a safari. You can just about manage this in 2 weeks, although if you want to venture further afield another week would be perfect.
The Ultimate Guide to South Africa
I am a proud Capetonian so naturally, this has to be no 1 on my list. It really has everything you could want in a holiday destination. If you are looking for white beaches to catch the rays or surf, a vineyard to wander through sipping a glass of wine or a mountain to climb then Cape Town is the perfect place for you.
You could spend a leisurely morning in the Bo Kaap exploring some local culture or if you are a foodie there are some fabulous farmers markets to enjoy. There are also a number of world-class restaurants, but you will have to book at least 3 months in advance to get a table at any one of these. If you love shopping you will be in heaven at the V & A Waterfront.
Boulders Beach Nature Reserve is also high up on my list of sights to see and the wacky penguins will keep you entertained as they waddle around. You have to visit the Cape Point Nature Reserve which is also on the same side of the peninsula. The views from the top of the point will leave you speechless.
Cape Town is often ranked as one of the most beautiful cities in the world which is a well-deserved accolade.
Discover: The Bo Kaap
The West Coast Flower Route
Just after the winter rains for about 2 months the semi-desert area of Namaqualand becomes a carpet of flowers. Don’t miss this! It is just as beautiful as the lavender fields in Provence.
If you are unable to plan a trip around this time it is still worth a visit to this part of the world as the coast is beautiful. Try and spend a couple of days in Paternoster, a whitewashed fishing village where you can indulge in freshly caught fish, crayfish ( a bit like a lobster with smaller claws) and mussels straight off the rocks.
The Garden Route
No ultimate guide to South Africa is complete without including a visit to the Garden Route. You will be seduced by the sheer natural beauty of a drive along the coast. The 200 km stretch includes George, the Wilderness, Sedgefield, Knysna and Plettenberg Bay and ends in the Tsitsikamma Forest, a magical world of ferns, bird life and giant trees. The sandy beaches, lagoons and cliffs are stunning. If you are an adrenaline junkie then drive an extra 26 km to the Bloukrans River Bridge to bungee from the highest commercial bungee bridge in the world.
This area is a vast semi-desert region best described as big sky country. You really can see for miles. The region is dotted with small villages and a few larger towns. Windmills litter the landscape like solitary sentries guarding the secrets the of the land.
One of these gems is the town of Matjiesfontein, just off the N1 between Touws River and Laingsburg. Visiting here is like stepping back to a bygone era. The town was established in 1884 on the main line between Cape Town and Johannesburg. It was also a popular spa in the Victorian Era and was declared a National Heritage site in 1975. If you want to step back in time then this is living history at its best. The only place to stay is at the Lord Milner Hotel where the Union Jack still proudly flies.
The Drakensberg (Ukhahlamba) Mountains
The Drakensberg mountain range is the highest in South Africa. It has a rich plant life, rugged peaks, forests, waterfalls and rivers in abundance. It is one of the World Heritage sites found in South Africa. It is about 1000 km in length and is paradise for hikers and lovers of the great outdoors.
The area is divided into 3 regions, southern, central and northern, each with their own unique beauty. The mountains are littered with San rock art sites featuring around 35 000 images. Over the years I have visited much of this region, but my favourite remains the northern area. The Amphitheatre is a cliff face that is 5 km wide and 1200 m tall. The scale is immense and you feel totally dwarfed by its majesty. You can climb a chain ladder to the top for spectacular views,
Kruger National Park
You can’t miss visiting the Kruger National Park. It is a once in a lifetime experience for most people and often is the highlight of the trip. This is one of the world’s greatest national parks and covers nearly 2 million hectares. The vast number of animals makes it a unique and special place. If you are lucky enough you can come face to face with the iconic safari animals or Big Five (lion, leopard, rhino, elephant and buffalo)
The scenery changes as you move from the south to the north of the park. The southern part is my favourite with its granite outcrops and the Lebombo mountains dominating the scenery. Because of the diversity of the area, you will find many different species have made this their home.
How to plan your trip to Kruger
Elephants in Kruger
If you like the beach then the coast of KwaZulu Natal has got to be the best destination for you. With sandy beaches that stretch forever, warm water, balmy temperatures and a surfers paradise it has everything if you are looking for some fun in the sun.
It is also home to one of the largest population of Indians living outside of India. Spicy food and delicious curries are always on the menu.
The Transkei is still wild, rugged and for the most part an unspoilt stretch of incredibly beautiful coastline. It starts at the Great Kei River and ends at the Umtamvuna River in the Eastern Cape. This is the home of the Xhosa people and the birthplace of Nelson Mandela.
It is quite rural and the hills are dotted with traditional villages. The houses are known as rondavels because of their circular nature. I love the beautiful indigenous Nguni cattle. They are magnificent animals and come in a variety of colours. They are hardy and are well suited to the environment.
The Transkei is also a favourite amongst fishermen, nature lovers, surfers and hikers.
The Cradle of Humankind
While this might not be a destination that you have considered but it is one of the eight UNESCO World Heritage Sites in South Africa. It is famous for being the place where humankind originated. It is in the Gauteng province about an hour’s drive from Johannesburg and has proved to be one of the world’s richest sources of hominid fossils.
You can also visit the Sterkfontein Caves, another fossil site. You descend around 60m underground and can explore some interesting caves in the process. The Wonder Caves are also in the area and are open to visitors.
The Winelands lie to the east of Cape Town. It is a spectacular part of the country. There are a number of areas to visit which include Stellenbosch, Paarl, Tulbach, Wellington and Franschoek. Grapes are affected by climatic conditions so each region delivers a unique style of wine.
Many of the estates can be visited and most offer wine tastings. A number of them also have restaurants on the property.
If you don’t have the time to head to the country then you could explore the Constantia Wine Route which is much closer to the city centre and produces some outstanding wines. The farms higher up the hill have breathtaking views across the peninsula.
Read: A foodie guide to Paarl
South Africa is a beautiful country with many places that are outstanding in their natural beauty. My ultimate guide to South Africa has only really scratched the surface. Once you have visited I am sure that you will want to return and explore further as many visitors return time and time again. It has such diversity that you will not tire of it easily.
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