South Africa, officially known as the Republic of South Africa, offers a great introduction to the many jewels of the Dark Continent. Tourists here will find classic African scenery: golden savannah, great gaping gorges, and hauntingly beautiful deserts, as well as their favorite African creatures – and, as a bonus- the creature comforts. Apart from the big-name game parks of Kruger and the Kgalagadi (Kalahari) Transfrontier Park, South Africa is home to some of the world’s most luxurious private game reserves and lodges. Wildlife lovers come here from all corners of the globe in search of the “Big Five”: lion, buffalo, leopard, rhino, and elephant, and often they find it, and so much more.
Coral reefs, shark dives, dragon-backed mountain ranges, white-water rafting, and golden beaches lapped by legendary surf breaks are some of South Africa’s many other attractions. Traveling around this vast land and touring the vibrant cities, visitors can learn about the nation’s turbulent history: in Cape Town, one of the world’s most beautiful cities; in Durban, a melting pot of cultures and cuisines, at the poignant museums and galleries in Johannesburg, and in Soweto, birthplace of Nelson Mandela, who helped birth democracy in this astoundingly diverse nation
1 Kruger National Park, Mpumalanga and Limpopo Provinces
Kruger National Park is one of the world’s most famous safari parks. One of the oldest game reserves in South Africa, the park lies about a 3.5 to 4.5 hour drive from Johannesburg and offers visitors the chance to see the “Big Five”: lion, leopard, buffalo, elephant, and rhino, as well as an astounding diversity of other wildlife. It’s also home to bushman rock paintings and archaeological sites. Visitors can explore Kruger on the large network of sealed roads; organize a walking safari; or soar over the vast grasslands, gallery forests, and river systems in a hot air balloon. Accommodation ranges from basic campsites to comfortable lodges.
2 Cape Town, Western Cape
One of the planet’s most breathtaking cities, Cape Town is, by population, the second largest settlement in South Africa. Nature surrounds this multicultural city, which nuzzles between a rugged range of mountains and the sea. For a spectacular overview, hike to the peak of flat-topped Table Mountain, or glide up on the cableway. The hour-long hike up Lion’s Head also provides panoramic city vistas. On Table Mountain’s eastern slopes, the magnificent Kirstenbosch Botanical Gardens lie within a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Strolling along the waterfront boardwalk, visitors might see whales spouting from the harbor. Penguins waddle along the golden beaches in False Bay, while south of the city, Cape Point is home to abundant wildlife and diverse botanical wonders. One of Cape Town’s top attractions is the Victoria and Alfred Waterfront. Reminiscent of Fisherman’s Wharf in San Francisco, visitors come here to shop, dine, and enjoy the many entertainment venues, including Two Ocean’s Aquarium. Camp’s Bay, rimmed by beautiful boulder-flanked beaches, offers chic shops and cafes. At sunset, nature lovers stake a spot along spectacular Chapman’s Peak Drive in a dusk ritual known as “sundowners” to watch the sun sink slowly into the sea.
3 Kgalagadi (Kalahari) Transfrontier Park, Northern Cape
A merger of South Africa’s Kalahari Gemsbok National Park and Botswana’s Gemsbok National Park, the Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park is one of the largest wilderness areas in the world. Established in 2000, it is Africa’s first officially declared transfrontier park and lies in a remote region of South Africa’s Northern Cape. Gnarled camel thorn trees, red sands, golden grasslands, and deep blue skies provide a bold backdrop for photographs and game viewing. Among the huge diversity of wildlife, this vast conservation area is home to the famous black-maned Kalahari lion, stately gemsbok with their V-shaped horns, the sprawling nests of sociable weavers, meerkats, and many birds of prey. Other predators such as leopard, cheetah, and hyenas are also found here. Four-wheel drive vehicles are recommended for some of the minor rugged roads or for those venturing into Botswana.
4 Stellenbosch, Western Cape
Stellenbosch is one of the most picturesque towns in South Africa. A mosaic of farms, old oak trees, and white-washed Cape Dutch dwellings, Stellenbosch is one of the best preserved towns from the era of the Dutch East India Company. Today, it’s a university town with a vibrant feel and fantastic scenery. Foodies will love it here. Stellenbosch is home to some of South Africa’s best restaurants as well as many sidewalk cafes. History buffs can take a walk back in time at the Village Museum, a group of four restored houses and gardens dating from 1709 to 1850. Rupert Museum displays important works by South African artists, and the Botanic Garden at the University of Stellenbosch is another top tourist attraction. In the surrounding area, nature buffs can hike and bike on the wilderness trails in the breathtaking Jonkershoek Nature Reserve.
5 The Drakensberg, KwaZulu-Natal
The spectacular Drakensberg, meaning “Dragon Mountains,” is one of the most popular vacation destinations in South Africa and home to the country’s highest peaks. The region encompasses the World Heritage-listed uKhahlamba-Drakensberg Park, a region of jaw-dropping beauty with jagged basalt buttresses and San rock art, and Royal Natal National Park, home to the awe-inspiring Amphitheatre, a magnificent cliff face and source of South Africa’s main rivers. The Giant’s Castle Game Reserve in the region protects large herds of eland. Dense forests flourish in the sheltered valleys, and the area is home to more than 800 different species of flowering plants as well as a rich diversity of wildlife. In the summer, the mountain landscapes are lush and fertile with gushing waterfalls and crystal-clear streams. In the winter, snow cloaks the dramatic peaks. Visitors flock here to hike and bike the scenic mountain trails, fish for trout, rock climb, abseil, parasail, and raft the waters of the fast-flowing rivers. Hot air balloon rides are a great way to appreciate the dramatic topography.