The tourism authority in South Africa once ran a promotional campaign dubbed “A World in One Country”. It was not much of an exaggeration. Situated at the southernmost tip of Africa with 3,000km of coastline, much of it still surprisingly pristine; towering mountain ranges; huge expanses of open bushveld; game reserves teeming with exotic animals; sophisticated cities; and a dynamic culinary and restaurant culture – all at a surprisingly affordable price thanks to a weak local currency, it should be teeming with tourists. But, generally speaking – apart from a couple of weeks at the height of the summer holiday season (December/January), it isn’t.
One of the reasons for that is because getting there entails a long, often expensive flight. If you’re traveling from anywhere outside of Europe, it also means you will have to cross several time zones (3 – 4 hours from India; 6 hours from New York; 9 hours from Sydney, Australia; 6 hours from Singapore). And that means you could spend the first few days of your vacation battling jet lag. But there really is no need for this. Check out Consumer Advisors for some useful options to combat jet lag.
Another possible reason is the “bad press” South Africa gets about crime. There is no question that crime is a problem in most parts of the country; but it is also problematic in many other parts of the world. However, if you take reasonable precautions like not walking about with flashy cameras and jewelry and don’t go wandering off alone into dodgy-looking or isolated areas (particularly after sunset), you should be fine. If you are unsure, ask for advice from the locals – South Africans are generally a remarkably warm and helpful group of people.
The Fairest Cape
The first stop – often the only stop – for most tourists is Cape Town, and it’s easy to see why. This city, the oldest in the country, easily ranks as one of the most beautiful in the world. Set against the backdrop of the flat-topped, iconic Table Mountain and its two adjacent peaks, Lion’s Head and Devil’s Peak, it boasts superb, white sand beaches; a sophisticated nightlife; fascinating culture; and jaw-droppingly stunning scenery. On a clear day, a trip up the Table Mountain cableway delivers a breathtaking, bird’s eye view of the city. And take a drive over Chapman’s Peak or along Clarence Drive (R44) – a magnificent 21km mountain pass that hugs the turquoise coastline – it’s an experience that will be seared into your brain forever.
The Big Five
After Cape Town, most tourists generally head north to one of the many Big Five Game Reserves. The big daddy of these reserves is the Kruger National Park in Mpumalanga. About the size of a small country, Kruger offers accommodation and experiences to suit all budgets. You can stay in one of the six-star, private lodges on the outskirts of the park, opt for a self-catering chalets – or even pitch your own tent – in one of the many camps within the Park itself, of which Skukuza is the largest. Once in the Park, you can either self-drive, or go on a paid-for game drive on an open safari vehicle with your own game ranger and tracker. Either way, keep your eyes peeled for lion, leopard, buffalo, rhino and elephant. You might be surprised to discover just how huge African elephants really are!
However, don’t spend all your time in Mpumalanga game watching. For many people, the green, forested mountains that dominate this part of the country easily rivals the beauty of Cape Town and the Western Cape. It’s not for nothing that some scenic spots have names like “God’s Window”. A new attraction in the area is the Graskop Gorge Lift – an elevator that takes you 51m down a cliff face into a cool mountain forest below. There you can walk along a 500m trail of elevated walkways and suspension bridges to the foot of tumbling, 70m high waterfall.
Another mountainous part of the country – with a totally different appeal and beauty – is the Drakensberg (Dragon Mountains) of KwaZulu Natal. There you can expect to see towering peaks with majestic names like Champagne Castle, Giant’s Castle and Cathedral Peak – names that do justice to their immense beauty. These peaks are sometimes covered in snow in winter – but this seldom lasts more than a few weeks.
One final thing to bear in mind. If you are traveling with children, you may have to obtain special documentation before you enter South Africa. At the time of writing, these regulations were in the process of being amended. Check for updates with your travel agent or local South African embassy or consulate.