South Africa’s wildlife ranges from penguins to elephants, living on jagged coastlines and rolling expanses of open savanna. The country is the site of a turbulent recent history, a tale of oppression, rebellion and tentative truth and reconciliation that continues to resonate today. And it’s also an exceptionally dynamic country, its cities evolving at a lightning rate. Starting on the Cape peninsula, this two-week itinerary journeys along the continent’s southern shore before turning inland to visit vibrant Johannesburg and wild Kruger, giving ample opportunity to take in all the aspects that make contemporary South Africa such a fascinating place to explore.
Cape Town is one of the world’s most spectacularly situated cities: spilling onto the Cape peninsula at Africa’s southern tip, it is raised above the waves of the Atlantic Ocean and enclosed by a series of dramatic mountains. There are plenty of ways to enjoy this glorious setting: paraglide over the City Bowl from the rearing rocky outcrop of the Lion’s Head; hike in Table Mountain National Park; ride a horse along the Cape’s jagged coastline; or drive out to Boulder Beach to see Africa’s biggest penguin colony. But the city is also about much more than just its world-famous topography. Check out the reputed "most beautiful garden in Africa", Kirstenbosch Botanical Gardens, showcasing South African flora including a giant baobab tree. Or visit Robben Island, where Mandela was incarcerated under Apartheid, and take a tour around the prison and its grounds.
Just 50 km east of Cape Town, Stellenbosch is the second-oldest European settlement in South Africa, a fact seen in its striking Cape Dutch architecture, oak-lined streets, and long established university. This settler history is preserved in a number of historic sites, such as the Powder House, a former distribution point for powder, flint and lead to the town’s 18th century inhabitants. But while this history of European colonization is fascinating - taking travellers back to the early stages of the story that would eventually culminate in Nelson Mandela and Robben Island - most visitors hit up Stellenbosch for one thing and one thing only: wine. It sits in the heart of one of South Africa’s oldest wine-producing regions, and the Stellenbosch Wine Route links together more than 200 wine and grape producers. Be sure to drop in on a few for tours and tastings; some of the most fabled wine estates include Waterford, Rust En Vrede, and Rustenberg.
Photo by tnawrathphoto/Flickr.
Continue another 500 km along Africa’s southern coast from Stellenbosch and visitors will reach a stunning stretch of coastline which Portuguese explorers originally named Bahia Formosa, which means beautiful bay. Today, the small resort town of Plettenberg Bay spreads along the seafront, and it’s a terrific place to stop off for a few days of rest, relaxation, and immersion in the area’s natural world. There are soft sand beaches for sunbathing, big wave beaches for surfing, and safe secluded coves for kicking back with the kids. The town itself is a small vacation destination, and consequently dotted with lovely bars and cafes. But best of all is the wild world that surrounds the town. A few kilometers south-east lies Robberg Nature Reserve, covering a 4 km peninsula visited at different points in the year by fur seals, penguins, dolphins, great white sharks and migrating whales. On land, blue duiker antelopes scamper up sand dunes while a diversity of seabirds circle in the skies above.
Port Elizabeth is that rare thing: a major seaport and busy industrial town that is a real pleasure to visit. A major attraction is St George’s Park, which holds the famous Oval cricket ground, an open air theater, and the excellent Nelson Mandela Metropolitan Art Museum. Beyond the town are a variety of unique wildlife watching spots - the best of these is Addo Elephant National Park, spread over the floodplains of the Sundays River on the final leg of its journey into the Indian Ocean. This is a verdant landscape, scented by citrus trees and roamed by a large population of African elephants, as well as black rhinos, buffalos and a handful of big cat species. In the ocean itself, giant sperm whales and the occasional great white have been spotted; the brave can get even closer to the marine animals at any of the several great diving locations dotted around the Port Elizabeth shoreline.
Johannesburg is South Africa’s largest settlement and one of the most economically dynamic cities on the entire continent. It was also an epicenter of the country’s troubled past, with half of its population living in adjacent Soweto, a township where many black South Africans were forcibly relocated by the Apartheid government, and an increasingly fertile center of resistance and rebellion through the ‘70s and ‘80s. This presents many ways to explore this city. Visitors often opt to relax among its many luxury hotels and restaurants catering to the affluent international crowd, staying (for example) in the Michelangelo Hotel and tripping out to trendy sites such as the bar/restaurant/bookstore Nice. Others take the opportunity to explore the city’s turbulent past, by visiting the moving Apartheid Museum, the Mandela Family Museum, and taking a tour into Soweto. (With inequality still enormous, exploring Soweto alone can be dangerous). And however one chooses to approach it by day, the evening descends in the glimmer of Johannesburg’s famously vibrant nightlife. Braamfontein, the district surrounding the university, is a good bet for those seeking intoxicated night-time adventures.
Save the most spectacular for last: there’s no better way to finish a voyage around South Africa than in Kruger National Park. Situated in the country’s north-east corner, opposite the Cape Peninsula where we began, it is among Africa’s most popular safari destinations. The park has a highly developed tourist infrastructure, and visitors can stay in luxurious lodges on all-inclusive deals that include fine wine and French chefs alongside the wildlife. And there are good reasons that the park has seen such development - it is a magnificent safari site, with more species of large mammal than any other African game reserve. The Big Five - lions, leopards, rhinos, elephants and buffalo - roam the park’s variously vegetated veld, sharing the space with giraffes, cheetahs, hippos and more. Those who prefer a rougher, rawer safari experience head to the north of the park, which is less developed and allows for a wilder perspective of the bush.