Almost from the first moment that I touched down on South African soil, I loved it. Undoubtedly my first real travel love and still my favourite country.
A World in One Country is what they call it. No wonder. There is so much diversity both in the landscapes (from the Drakensberg Mountains to the tropical beaches of Durban, to the spectacular meeting of the Oceans at Cape Town, to the African bush), the climate and the people .
My first visit was back in 1991. It was exactly a year after Nelson Mandela had been released from prison. I landed in Johannesburg and spent the next 6 months travelling around this extraordinary country and neighbouring Zimbabwe. My friend and I purchased beaten-up second hand Citi Golf and we had some epic adventures and met some amazing people as we drove around. The full story is for another time. I have been back many times since, and it takes my breath away every time.
Here are my Top 10 Must Do recommendations of places to go and things to do in South Africa. In another blog coming soon, I will give you my top 10 Must-Do’s for just Cape Town (place I would most like to live)!
Watt Travels Top 10 Must Do Activities in South Africa:
1. Climb Table Mountain with a Guide
Yeah sure, the cable car is great (acceptable for the way down!) but you haven’t truly done Cape Town unless you have done a hike up Table Mountain. The only way to do this properly is with a guide. They are hugely knowledgeable and add to the experience as well as taking you the best ways up the mountain. If you get a good guide (as per my recommendation below), they will point out animals, birds, history, plants/flowers and of course, the amazing views. My favourite route is the Kasteelspoort which starts above Camps Bay and goes up the back of the mountain with some incredible views over the Ocean and Lions Head. To begin with you look out over Camps Bay and Lions Head and then as you get higher you look back down towards Cape Point and then finally, as you reach the top, the famous view Northwards out over Cape Town and towards Robben Island. I highly recommend Martin http://www.tablemountainday.com. He really does make it a memorable experience.
‘During the many years of incarceration on Robben Island, we often looked across Table Mountain at its magnificent silhouette … To us on Robben Island, Table Mountain was a beacon of hope. It represented the mainland to which we knew we would one day return.’– Nelson Mandela.
2. Splash the cash and go on a luxury Safari
Safari is clearly a must-do whilst in South Africa. There are a huge variety of different safari options. You can self- drive a safari into Kruger National Park which is a great way of getting a taster. However there are also some of the best private game reserves and lodges in South Africa. I recommend booking a minimum of 2 nights in a luxury game lodge. These days you can find game reserves all over South Africa – not just on the edge of the Kruger. These game reserves have extremely knowledgeable rangers who really add to the enjoyment of the experience and they know how to find the animals so you are usually guaranteed to see most of the Big 5! In addition, because you are up early in the morning for game drives and then bumping around on a jeep in the bush, I think it is very important to have a lovely luxurious room to come back to and wash and relax. Many of them have amazing bathrooms and some even have an outdoor shower. Then of course there is the food and drink. I absolutely love going for an early morning game drive. Going out in the dark, wrapped up because it is usually pretty chilly. Then stopping for a coffee in the bush and watching the sun come up! Then you know you are in Africa! The sounds and smells of the bush…..After a game drive in the evening, you are usually starving! A lovely piece of game meat cooked on a braai is hard to beat. I recommend three fantastic luxury reserves in three different areas of South Africa, all with very different experiences: Gondwana which is located near Mossel Bay in the Cape http://www.gondwanagr.co.za; or Thornybush Lodge which is on the edge of the Kruger National Park http://www.thornybush.com ; or Madikwe Game Reserve, up in the North-West close to border with Botswana http://www.madikwegamereserve.co.za .
3. Whale watching near Hermanus
Hermanus, about 90 minutes from Cape Town is one of the most famous places in the world for whale watching destinations. Get yourself down to this beautiful whaling town between July and November (Sept – Nov is best) to see these awesome creatures close up. If you are there at end September/ early October then they have the Hermanus Whale Festival which is worth a visit. Hermanus offers the opportunity to see Southern Right Whales, as well as Humpback Whales and Bryde’s Whales. What makes Hermanus particularly special is that you are able to see these whales from land, sea and from the skies above. Most people think about spotting the Big 5 game animals when they come on a South African holiday but you really need to consider the amazing spectacle of seeing these gentle giants of the oceans close up and an equally essential experience. For land-based viewing, I would recommend getting yourself to Siever’s Point, which is usually quite popular but gets great viewing. If you want to get up close and personal then it has to be by boat. I would recommend http://www.southernrightcharters.co.za
4. Take a Tour of Robben Island
No trip to South Africa let alone Cape Town, should be complete without a trip to Robben Island. It is truly inspirational. Robben Island (which means Seal Island in Afrikaans) is located 5 miles north of Cape Town and easily accessible by boat from the V and A Waterfront in Cape Town. Your ticket includes a bus tour of the island and a tour of the prison (from a former prisoner). The bus tour takes you around the island and includes a look at the limestone quarry where the prisoners were made to toil in the blazing heat. The bus also stops for a drink/rest where you get some incredible views of Cape Town and Table Mountain! The tour of the prison by a former prisoner is both humbling and fascinating. Nelson Mandela was a prisoner on Robben Island for 18 years and the former prisoner who acts as your guide gives a revealing glimpse into what life was like behind the bars of one of the most infamous prisons in the world. My top tip for the trip is if it is a nice day, get there as early as possible so that you are one of the first on the boat as then you can get a seat upstairs in the open. On the way out get to see Robben Island approaching and imagine something of what it was like for this prisoners. On the way back you get to see the beauty of Cape Town come closer and closer. When I was last there we were lucky enough to see a whale breaching as we came back towards Cape Town! Make sure you book your tour at least 2 weeks in advance if possible http://www.robben-island.org.za
5. Walk in the Drakensberg Mountains
The Drakensberg Mountain Range is one of South Africa’s most spectacular natural wonders, showcasing a selection of the most breath-taking vistas imaginable. It is the highest mountain range in the country, reaching an impressive 3482 metres above sea level. Its name, Drakensberg, roughly translate to “dragon mountains” or “the mountains of dragons”. And, it’s no wonder that it has earned this name because some of the peaks are mammoth in size and stature. Between and amongst these peaks are plateaus, valleys, slopes, and incredible mountain passes that make for some of the best hiking, walking and cycling adventures in South Africa. There is pretty much something for everyone, including gentle half-day hikes, longer multiple-day trips, challenging climbs and, for those with the necessary experience and equipment, technical mountaineering. My recommended trails are: a) Gudu Falls loop from Royal Natal Mahai campsite. This is an intermediate hiking trail with some fabulous views. You probably need to be reasonably fit to complete this; b) Amphitheatre Hike via Chain Ladders. This one also has spectacular views for the slightly more adventurous. Pretty much all day but certainly worth it.
6. Take a guided tour of Zulu War Battlefields
If, like me, you grew loving the classic film Zulu starring Michael Caine, you will know the famous names of the battles fo the Anglo-Zulu War of 1879 – Isandlwana and Rorke’s Drift. Located near to the town of Dundee in Kwazulu Natal, about 3.5 hours from Durban, the Battlefields are a not-to-be-missed stop on any South African itinerary. I highly recommend a stay at Fugitives Drift (http://www.fugitivesdrift.com) which is the luxury accommodation located close to these battlefields. Not only is accommodation and food outstanding, what really makes it, is the battlefields tours run by the fantastic Rattray family. I was lucky enough to be given a tour by the late David Rattray several years ago, but his son Douglas has taken on the role these days and from all accounts is also brilliant. They have a real passion for the stories and the people and really bring these extraordinary conflicts to life.
7. Play golf on Leopard Creek Golf Course overlooking Kruger National Park
I have worked in the travel and golf industry for some time, and played golf in many countries around the world, but there are very few places more unique than Leopard Creek Country Club. It is located about an hour from Nelspruit in Mpumalanga, on the edge of the Kruger National Park. You can either stay close by or you can come and play here during the day whilst staying at a game reserve nearby. The course itself is immaculate, as you would expect of a course that hosts a European Tour event every year. It is a brilliant design from South African golfing legend Gary Player. However more striking than all of this is, and what makes Leopard Creek a must-play for any golf fanatics, is the regular sightings of Elephants, Giraffes, Hippos, Buffalo, Zebra, Impala and Crocodiles off the course (and indeed on the course in some cases!) http://www.leopardcreek.com
8. Watch Cricket at one of the most beautiful grounds in the world
I am a cricket fan, but to me it doesn’t really matter if you are or not, when you go to watch cricket at Newlands in Cape Town. As it is summer, it is usually pretty warm (in fact one of the hottest days I have ever experienced in South Africa was baking on a grass bank at Newlands). There is often the smell of a braai or two and they do have some grass banks which you can sit on which make it much less formal. Best of all is the backdrop of Table Mountain which rises up behind one side of the ground and gives a fantastic backdrop. Go for a Test Match, a One Day international or a T20 on a sunny day or evening and immerse yourself in a true South African sporting experience. http://www.newlandscricket.com
9. Wine Tasting in Constantia or Stellenbosch
South Africa is one of the great wine-producing countries of the world. It also happens that their vineyards, just outside Cape Town, are amongst the most picturesque in the world. There are few better experiences than tasting wine in the warm Cape sun in a beautiful setting. Depending on how serious you are about your wine, you can either go a do a day’s tour with one or two vineyards or a few days with multiple vineyards in different locations. But whichever way you go, I will guarantee that you will end up buying plenty of wine to either take home or ship home. Also most of the good vineyards have fantastic restaurants attached where you can have a memorable lunch. My personal favourite vineyards and wines are:
Steenberg (Constantia) – Love the wines (especially the Rattlesnake Sauvignon Blanc) and really love the food and the service in Bistro Sixteen82. http://www.steenbergfarm.com
Buitenwervachting (Constantia) – Tricky to pronounce but it means ‘Beyond Expectation’, which this hidden gem certainly is. Famous for its Sauvignon Blanc. http://www.buitenwervachting.com
Vergelegen (Somerset West) – A truly beautiful setting, maintained to perfection and with some of my favourite wines, particularly the GVB Red which it is famous for. http://www.vergelegen.co.za
Lanzerac Wine Estate (Stellenbosch) – Some say the home of Pinotage. Another stunning setting offering views of mountains, lush vineyards, and gardens shaded by oak trees. http://www.lanzerac.co.za
10. Explore the spectacular scenery of Mpumalanga
When I first visited South Africa, my first stop after Jo’burg was the Mpumalanga region (or Eastern Transvaal as it was known then). I had read my Jock of the Bushveld and my Wilbur Smith novels and this area was always one I had wanted to go to. Located roughly 4 hours East of Jo’burg, Mpumpalanga has got some stunning scenery and places to visit. If you exclude the various incredible game reserves and the Leopard Creek golf course that are in this area (which I have already mentioned), you can still find a huge number of unmissable things to do and see:
Bourke’s Luck Potholes – Amazing rock features where the Blyde and Truer Rivers meet
God’s Window – The top of the Panorama route and as the name suggests, an incredible view.
Lisbon Falls – The highest waterfall in Mpumalanga
Gold panning at Pilgrim’s Rest- A small town lost in the 1800’s. Gold is a major part of South Africa’s make up. See what it was like to look for gold
Fly Fishing at Dullstroom – the capital of fly fishing in South Africa.