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South Africa Travel Guide: What to Do in South Africa

The amount of variety South Africa packs within its borders is nothing short of astounding. From national parks and reserves chock-full of wildlife to beaches overlooking turquoise waters and countryside with seemingly endless rolling hills, South Africa enables visitors to have vastly different adventures all in one trip.

You’d be forgiven for sticking to the most iconic experiences: wildlife safaris, tastings at popular wineries, a Table Mountain cable car ride, maybe even cage diving with great white sharks. But there’s so much more to do here! Take the classic wine tasting and combine it with a local favorite, biltong. Get out of the safari vehicle and search for wildlife on foot. Or take a boat cruise to see the safety nets that protect beachgoers from sharks.

Click through our slideshow for some of the most unforgettable experiences South Africa has to offer. Then read our advice about where to stay and how to get around.

Get Cooking on the Cape

Most people who go to South Africa take wildlife-watching safaris. But in Bo-Kaap, a residential area in Cape Town that dates back to the 18th century, you can go on a “cooking safari.” The area houses the city’s Muslim community, which is known for its distinctive cuisine focused on spices (turmeric in particular).

During Andulela Experience’s half-day Cape Malay Cooking Safari, you’ll visit the Bo-Kaap Museum for an introduction to the area’s history, then amble along cobblestone streets and among brightly painted houses before arriving at a spice shop to purchase ingredients. An informal cooking lesson takes place inside a local home before you get to sit down with your hostess to enjoy the traditional, full-course meal.

Take a Walking Safari

The Greater Kruger region is considered one of the best wildlife destinations in Africa, and there’s no shortage of tour companies willing to take you on a drive in search of the “Big Five” and the other 142 mammal species found here (along with numerous birds and insects). A walking safari in the iconic park enables wildlife enthusiasts to experience the African bush from a more intimate perspective.

Your senses will be on full alert as highly trained armed guards and rangers lead you through the bush during early morning outings. Walking safaris are considered very safe, but it’s important to follow your guide’s instructions at all times — they closely monitor animals’ behavior for signs of agitation. Many of Kruger’s lodges and safari companies offer walking safaris, including Africa on Foot and Africa Walking Safaris.

Advice from a Traveler Who’s Been There

Family trip with children to South Africa by Julie Plummer
“Kruger was amazing. We saw animals every few minutes. We never needed our zoom lens or rarely even our binoculars because the animals were either in the road directly in front of us or at the side of the road. It was one of the highlights of my life to be so close to herds of elephants, hippos, giraffe, lions, cheetah, water buffalo, owls, fox, dozens of colorful birds, eagles, wild dog, lepords (saw 2 with cubs), zebra, impala just to name a few.” Read more!

Meander Through the Midlands

The Midlands Meander is a 50-mile arts and crafts route through stunning scenery in KwaZulu-Natal. Though it started modestly in 1985, some 150 artists now welcome visitors to view everything from pottery and stained glass to windchimes and hammocks. You can even meet the artists themselves (though it’s best to call ahead to find out if you need an appointment).

The route offers additional activities beyond the arts. Avid cyclers can ride the route; Escape Cycle Tours and Bike & Saddle offer multi-day tours. Cafes and pubs are along the way, as are hiking trails. You can even go on a two-hour Karkloof Canopy Tour in a forest reserve. Don’t miss the stunning steel sculpture at the Nelson Mandela Capture Site just outside of Howick — it marks the place where the late Mandela was taken into custody in 1962.

Taste Wine and Biltong

South Africa is well known for its wine and biltong — a type of dried, cured meat similar to jerky (only thicker). Combine the two during this unique tasting experience at Stellenbosch Hills, a winery in the mountainous countryside.

The 30- to 60-minute “Wine, Biltong & Droewors” adventure takes place in the winery’s stylish cellar. Here you’ll taste six wines with a variety of biltong and droewors, a type of sausage. The meats include beef, ostrich, kudu and springbok (the latter two are varieties of antelope). You’ll need to call the winery ahead of time to book.

The tasting inspired Stellenbosch Hills to create an annual competition that invites biltong makers to create an entry complementing a pre-chosen wine.

Advice from a Traveler Who’s Been There

Greetings from South Africa – a short trip report by gardkarlsen
“In the Cape Town area we rented a car for a day to drive around on the Cape Peninsula, we took a tour of the wine lands (Stellenbosch, Paarl, etc) and we got to taste some wine along the route. We took a trip up to Table Mountain, [and] we took a walking tour in the downtown area where we followed in the foot steps of VOC.” Read more!

See Penguins on on the Beach

Penguins don’t just live in frigid Antarctic waters — they also lounge on the beach. Boulders Beach, part of Table Mountain National Park near Simon’s Town, offers proof. In 1985, a few African penguins settled here amid the beach’s large boulders and small coves, and today the colony has grown to more than 2,500. To protect the penguins, which are an endangered species, visitors view them from the safety of raised boardwalks. That way, you can have close-up viewing of the penguins’ comical behavior without disrupting their breeding. A small fee applies.

Beachgoers on the southernmost end of Boulders Beach often find themselves sunbathing and swimming alongside the birds. Resist the urge to reach out and touch one. They may look friendly, but they’re wild animals — they can and do bite.

Advice from a Traveler Who’s Been There

“We drove the harrowing Chapman’s Peak Drive to to a small fishing harbor at Hout Bay and I browsed several of the crafts markets, then we visited the African penguin colony at Boulders Beach near Simon’s Town. These braying penguins rule this beach and we heard they can be quite the late night party animals.” Read more!

Explore a Township

Urban townships, found on the outskirts of many of South Africa’s cities, are a remnant of apartheid control. A guided tour of a city’s township gives visitors insight into the daily life of its residents. Stops may include craft shops, schools, homes, and taverns where you can dance and sample local beer.

For more in-depth reflections on the country’s recent history, Soweto Tours combines a township tour with a visit to Johannesburg’s Apartheid Museum. Kayamandi, near Stellenbosch, is home to the country’s first township theater, the well-reviewed AmaZink Live, which showcases locals singing, dancing and acting. Township bed and breakfasts are beginning to pop up across the country — including Malebo’s B&B in Cape Town‘s Khayelitsha township.

Advice from a Traveler Who’s Been There

The Many Splendours of South Africa by Arvind Pinto
“While in the city we visited Soweto — the black township where in June 1976, the first of the main uprisings of the blacks began. Today Soweto is a more developed township, but with little education many of those who live there still continue within the cycle of poverty.” Read more!

Walk the Waterfall Trail

Located on the famous Garden Route, Tsitsikamma National Park sits along a dramatic rocky coastline and includes a protected marine area. There’s no shortage of hiking trails found here, the most popular of which is the 26-mile Otter Trail, which takes about five days to cover point to point.

Luckily, day hikers can enjoy one of the prettiest sections of the path by hiking the first section, known as the Waterfall Trail. Taking about three hours roundtrip, the four-mile trek follows the coastline, and the halfway point is marked by an impressive waterfall. The hike is challenging — requiring several rock scrambles — but rewarding. Along the way, keep your eyes peeled on the sea for dolphins and whales.

View Ancient Rock Art

Giant’s Castle Game Reserve in the central Drakensburg region showcases historic rock art by the San people, hunter-gatherers who lived in Southern Africa for some 4,000 years. Drakensburg is filled with caves and overhangs, which the San retreated to for shelter. Here they left behind thousands of rock paintings, revealing clues about their ancient way of life. Most depict animals and people, but the full meaning behind many of the images will likely never be known.

More than 600 sites have been identified throughout Drakensburg, but in the interest of preservation, only a few are open to the public. One of the most popular is Main Caves. It’s just a 30-minute walk from Giant’s Castle camp, and guided tours are available. Here you’ll find 500 paintings, some dating back 800 years.

Check Shark Safety Gear

KwaZulu-Natal has the only coastline in South Africa that is protected by shark safety gear, which keeps swimmers safe but also provides research opportunities for scientists. Multiple shark species can be found in this region, including hammerhead, tiger and great white. Before the netting and drum line system was devised, the local community suffered from multiple shark attacks. The Sharks Board’s efforts are considered a successful model for preventing attacks while minimizing environmental impact.

Visitors interested in learning about their efforts firsthand can make a reservation to accompany staff on a two-hour, early morning boat trip as they check the shark net that protects Golden Mile, Durban‘s popular stretch of coastline. You can watch staff release and tag trapped sharks while the sun rises over the Indian Ocean.

Advice from a Traveler Who’s Been There

Diving South Africa by John Nash
“After our first day diving off Durban I didn’t think we would be doing a second day. The ride to and from the dive site in an inflatable boat … was so rough that at one point Sarah was retching. And the visibility was so poor … that I lost sight of both the divemaster and my buddy (wife!), and ended up finishing the dive with a different group — not cool. So when Sarah started getting seasick on the way back from the dive, I pretty much wrote off the second day. But game diver that she is, she said that ‘she didn’t come 5,000 miles to not dive.’ So we went out a second day, and boy, was that the right call!” Read more!

Visit a Traditional Healer

While South Africa has numerous hospitals and medical clinics, many locals also turn to traditional healers, known as sangomas. They are often highly revered, integral members of the community. There are two types of sangomas — one prescribes medicinal herbs and plants for various ailments while the other communicates with ancestors.

Zululand Eco-Adventures in Eshowe offers several tours to visit local sangomas during healing or initiation ceremonies or for a private consultation. Guests may have the opportunity to watch a sangoma speak in tongues or enter a trance-like state.

It’s possible to arrange a sangoma visit in other towns too, like Soweto, and you’ll find dozens of traditional healers at the Faraday Muti Market in Johannesburg. For those able to keep an open mind, meeting a sangoma can be a unique cultural experience.

Best Time to Go to South Africa

The seasons in South Africa run opposite those in North America. The South African summer corresponds with the North American winter — and it’s the most popular season for tourism in the country. If you’re traveling to South Africa to see wildlife, head there during winter. Generally, the best time to spot big game in Kruger National Park is from May through August (and there are fewer mosquitoes during this season too).

South Africa on a Budget

To save as much as possible on your flight to South Africa, plan to travel during the country’s winter, when airfares tend to be cheapest. Once there, to get around for less, take the bus. Train travel is another affordable option, but it’s still more expensive than travel by bus. Heading to Kruger National Park? Safaris can be very pricey. Cut costs by booking a self-catering safari tour, and staying at B&Bs and guesthouses. Other affordable lodging options within South Africa include farmstays, campgrounds and vacation rentals.

–written by Marsea Nelson

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