South Africa travel guide

What to do, where to stay

Why you’ll love it

South Africa is the type of place people visit for the first time and quickly realise they’ve allotted way too little time. While it’s most famous for Cape Town and Big Five safaris, there’s so much more. The Drakensberg mountains form the highest points of the country and are criss-crossed by hiking trails. You can also horse ride, explore sites of ancient rock art, or just enjoy the view from your hotel.

In the Western Cape, there are scores of wine farms within easy reach of Cape Town — and along the coast it’s common to spot southern right whales on their migration from Antarctica from June to October.

While South Africa is most famous for Cape Town and Big Five safaris, there’s so much more

Over on the eastern coast, there are Indian Ocean beaches, world-class surf breaks and wildlife-rich diving spots. Johannesburg is a frenetic, diverse city that leads the way in style; Cape Town’s appeal is its staggeringly beautiful setting. For a retreat from city life, the inland Great Karoo semi-desert sprawls across roughly 40 per cent of the country with old wooden windpumps standing amid vast dusty plains and rugged rolling hills.

What to do

For many, Cape Town is the first port of call. It offers Table Mountain hikes, wine farm visits, fine-dining restaurants, scenic drives along coastal roads and trips to see the resident penguin colony. Visit Robben Island, the offshore prison that held anti-apartheid activists including Nelson Mandela. Rent a car in Cape Town and take a few days to drive east along the scenic Garden Route, stopping at beaches and rural guesthouses along the way. There are single or multiday hikes all over the country and well-equipped campsites throughout. Watch whales breaching, cage-dive with great white sharks and freedive in the kelp forests of the Western Cape.

Over on the Indian Ocean east coast, you can dive with shoals of tropical fish or, for the adventurous, follow the annual Sardine Run and the resulting predator drama. Pick your kind of safari: self-drive through Kruger National Park, soak up the stillness of the Kalahari, fly-camp on a walking safari or stay at one of the finest luxury lodges in Africa — where you can watch elephants quench their thirst at a waterhole, sip a G&T in the bush as the sun sets, and listen to lions roaring in the night.

Where to stay

As a country with a well-established tourism industry — for international and domestic travellers — you won’t struggle with accommodation. In Cape Town, you’ll find the full range of offerings, from award-winning luxury hotels to vibey backpackers and great-value Airbnbs; the Cape winelands also have a slew of plush hotels, as well as characterful boutiques and comfy cottages.

Johannesburg and Durban offer almost as much choice; SA’s three largest cities are destinations in their own rights as well as jumping-off points to explore the rest of the country. You’ll find the swankiest safari properties in private reserves around Kruger National Park, while Kruger itself has lots of self-catering, camping and mid-range options. Other major safari destinations have a similar set-up, though fewer properties. In and around most national parks, there are camping and cottage facilities — for wild camping, look to wilderness reserves (make sure you know where you’re going and prepare for changeable conditions).

Along the Western Cape coast, there are several fancy ocean-view hotels; the accommodation gets more rustic — not necessarily a bad thing — as you continue east. In most rural tourism areas, you’ll find cute family-run guesthouses, backpackers (for all ages and types of travellers) and self-catering cottages, plus the occasional high-end lodge in its own private nature reserve.

Don’t miss

The Cederberg Wilderness Area is three hours north of Cape Town and often overlooked by international tourists. For outdoorsy folk, it’s a dazzling playground of craggy mountains, burnt-orange rock, single-track trails and inky-dark night skies. You can hike, trail run or mountain bike; make sure you have a map as there’s no signal up here (and that’s part of the appeal). As a wilderness area, you can wild camp in the mountains — hire companies in Cape Town can provide all the gear.

There are also campsites with braai (barbecue) facilities, washrooms and electricity, and lots of guesthouses and self-catering cottages if canvas isn’t your thing. There are a couple of luxury hotels for those who want to explore in comfort, including the longstanding Bushmans Kloof, which is in its own private reserve with some well-preserved examples of rock art.

The Cederberg is a hotspot for rock art by the San (sometimes known as Bushman) or Khoi, the indigenous peoples of Southern Africa; a local community-based tourism project has sought to protect this heritage and has trained a number of excellent guides.

When to visit

The best time to visit South Africa very much depends on what you want to do. If you’re planning a safari to Kruger, June to September is best — this is the dry winter season with low bush coverage, making it easier to spot wildlife. If the Western Cape is on your radar then aim instead for December to February. This part of the country has a Mediterranean climate, which means it’s dry during the summer months and wet during winter. Also worth making a note of is the festivals and events across the country, which you might want to time your visit for.

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