South Africa is a stunning country of magnificent landscape, from desert dunes to rolling farmlands, savannah bush, subtropical hardwood forests and superb white sand coast. It has game viewing to equal the best in Africa from Kruger in Mpumalanga to the Zululand area of Kwazulu-Natal, and a host of small parks and reserves in the Northern Provinces and Eastern Capes. Where else can you find penguins and elephants living in the same country? There are over 1000 bird species in the country, and the Western Cape alone has one of the richest floral kingdoms in the world, with over 23,000 plant and flower species and spectacular displays that coat the desert in color. The country also has a fascinating human and cultural history, stretching back to the aboriginal San (Bushmen) and Khoikhoi, through the black African peoples to the latest arrivals, the Afrikaans and British. It has never been an easy history – tribal wars raged long before the punishing and bitter conflicts between black and white, from the Zulu Wars to the Boer War and the segregation of apartheid society. Archbishop Desmond Tutu named the newly integrated South Africa ‘the rainbow nation’. It is a fitting name for a country with 11 official languages and people of all colors, race and creed, living in a vividly colored and sculpted landscape
The Western Cape
This area of outstanding natural and floral beauty, in the southwestern corner of the country, stretches from the remote rocky outcrops beyond Lambert’s Bay in the west to the mountains of the southern peninsula. The first area to be colonized by Europeans, it is particularly famous for its wines.
South Africa’s legislative capital is situated at the foot of Table Mountain, the famous flat-topped mountain with views out across the peninsula to the Atlantic and Indian Oceans. It is possible to walk up, but for the less intrepid, there is an excellent cablecar. The main hub of the city center is the Victoria & Alfred Waterfront, the beautifully restored old Victorian harbor which offers free entertainment, a wide variety of shops, museums – including the excellent Aquarium – taverns and restaurants. Boat trips leave from here for harbor tours or the notorious Robben Island, where Nelson Mandela and many other nationalist leaders were imprisoned. The relics of early colonial government are centered on Government Avenue, with many fine old buildings and museums, including the Parliament Buildings; Groote Kerk (mother church of the Dutch Reformed faith); the Cultural History Museum; National Museum; National Gallery; Bertram House; and Company’s Garden, planted in 1652 to provide food for passing sailors. Nearby sights of interest include Bo-Kaap (the home of the Islamic Cape Malay people, confusingly of mainly Indonesian origin); the Castle of Good Hope in Darling Street, built in 1666; the Old Townhouse on Greenmarket Square, housing a permanent collection of 17th-century Dutch and Flemish paintings; and the early 18th-century Koopmans de Wet House. Those interested in learning more about black and ‘Cape-colored’ culture should visit the District Six Museum, Buitenkant Street, and take one of the many excellent guided tours of the outlying townships of Crossroads, Langa and Khayelitsha. It is probably not safe for tourists to venture into these areas on their own.
Cape Town also has excellent sporting and shopping facilities. The Baxter Theater and Artscape Theater Complex offer a mix of local and international fare. Nightlife is concentrated in the V&A Waterfront, Sea Point, and parts of the central business district, notably around Long Street. Further out, the Cape-Dutch homestead of Spier and Ratanga Junction theme park both offer a variety of entertainment from classical to jazz concerts.
South of Cape Town, a long peninsula stretches south, lined by fishing villages and holiday resorts, including Fish Hoek, Hout Bay, Kommetjie, Llandudno, Muizenberg and Simonstown, a delightful Victorian town with a couple of interesting museums and the only colony of penguins to live on the African mainland. Inland, the magnificent Cape-Dutch farm, Groot Constantia, was one of the first wine farms in the Cape, while the Kirstenbosch National Botanical Gardens, created by Cecil Rhodes in 1895 on the lower slopes of Table Mountain, is one of the finest botanical gardens in the world. In the summer there are open-air concerts. Nearby Chapman’s Peak has spectacular views, but the scenic drive from Hout Bay is currently closed due to landfalls, and you need to walk the last section to the summit.
About one hour’s drive from Cape Town, the Cape of Good Hope Nature Reserve covers the southern tip of the Cape peninsula, with a profusion of flowers, birds and animals, culminating in Cape Point, where the Indian Ocean meets the Atlantic.
North of Cape Town, the winelands are a stunning region of vineyards, old Cape-Dutch villages and mansions. Many of the vineyards have excellent restaurants; most offer tastings and some provide bed and breakfast. Stellenbosch, a major center of wine production, is also one of South Africa’s oldest villages with a great many attractive buildings, including the excellent Village Museum. The local tourist office provides details for a historic walking tour. Tiny Franschhoek originally hosted refugee Huguenots from France, who brought their wine-growing skills to South Africa. It now has an excellent Huguenot Museum. Paarl is home to several small museums and the KWV Wine Cellars. In the Breede Valley area, the charming little towns of Tulbagh, Worcester, Wellington and Ceres all have fine old buildings, interesting small museums, beautiful scenery, vineyards and fruit orchards.
The West Coast
The fertility of the southern Cape region gradually gives way to the rugged and beautiful West Coast, which has abundant shellfish, and numerous fishing villages, including Lambert’s Bay, a good surfing spot. Inland, the sculpted sandstone Cederberg mountains separate the west coast from the arid Great Karoo Desert, which bursts into a mass of flowers every October to November.
The South Coast and Garden Route
East from Cape Town, the coastal area known as the Overberg includes attractive resort towns such as Somerset West and Hermanus, probably the best place in South Africa for whale watching; Cape Agulhas, the less than inspirational cape which is actually the southerly tip of Africa; the wreck-strewn cliffs around Arniston; and Elim, a 19th-century Mission village whose principal profession is still growing and drying flowers. Swellendam, 215km (130 miles) from Cape Town, is a charming Cape-Dutch village, rich in fine old buildings, several of which make up the excellent Drostdy Museum.
From here onwards, the south coast becomes known as The Garden Route because of the wealth of forests that used to line the coast. There are a couple of areas of hardwood forest left, but even with so much development, this is a wonderful area for holidays, with excellent beaches, good swimming and plenty of activities on offer.
Mossel Bay was one of the first harbors visited by European sailors and the town now has an excellent museum charting the maritime history of the coast.
Wilderness is a pretty little resort sandwiched between the dunes and the reedy lakes of the Wilderness Natural Reserve, an excellent place for birdwatching and canoeing.
Knysna is a comfortable tourist town situated between the lush inland Knysna forests and the horseshoe-shaped Knysna Lagoon. It has several interesting small museums and a nearby game farm. South Africa’s trendiest resort, Plettenberg Bay, has magnificent beaches, the Robberg Nature Reserve, where you can usually see seals and dolphins and Monkeyland, a sanctuary dedicated to primates of all sorts.
An equally beautiful – but startlingly different – route, called the ‘inland route’, runs parallel to the coast, on the far side of the mountains. This leaves Cape Town via the Winelands, continuing through market gardening towns, such as Ashton, Robertson and Montagu, well known for wine and olives, into the Little Karoo, the scrubby extension of the Great Karoo Desert. Most people choose a mix of the two routes: crossing the Outeniqua and Swartberg Mountains over a series of dramatically beautiful switchback passes, of which the most beautiful is undoubtedly the Swartberg Pass to Prince Alfred; and the more common Outeniqua Pass from George to Oudtshoorn, famous for its ostrich farms, as well as the Cango Caves.
The Eastern Cape
The Eastern Cape is South Africa’s hidden gem, much of it little known and underexplored by tourists, but with an extraordinary variety of cultural history and scenic beauty, ranging from the vast, dry Great Karoo to the fertile agricultural lands of the Little Karoo and the ‘Settler Country’ around Grahamstown and, above all, the magnificent cliffs and coves of the Wild Coast. The Eastern Cape is also home to two of the country’s major seaports, East London and Port Elizabeth, and several excellent small game reserves, including Addo Elephant Park. The area around East London is the homeland of the Xhosa people, many of whom, including Nelson Mandela, have played a crucial role in recent South African history.
‘PE’, as the city is known locally, is unremarkable, being dominated by industry and freeways and subject to strong winds for most of the year. The City Hall and Market Square are worth a visit, containing a replica of the Dias Cross, originally placed by the Portuguese navigator Bartholomew Dias. There are several other interesting buildings, including a memorial to Prester John, the Campanile Clock Tower and the Donkin Lighthouse, while the old part of town, above the city center, has some attractive Victorian houses. The Museum, Oceanarium and Snake Park are also on the seafront at Humewood. The King George IV Art Gallery & Fine Arts Hall has an excellent collection of 19th- and 20th-century art and Castle Hill Museum, in the city’s oldest house, has a fine collection of Cape furniture. Settler’s Park Nature Reserve at How Avenue abounds with indigenous flora and St George’s Park has open-air exhibitions and craft fairs, as well as theatrical productions. South of the city are good beaches, such as King’s Beach and Humewood Beach. The latter features the Apple Express, one of the few remaining narrow-gauge steam trains, which runs on occasion from Humewood to Thornhill.
West of Port Elizabeth
The Eastern Cape portion of the Garden Route (see also Western Cape) notably includes the Tsitsikamma Coastal National Park, the remnant of a once-massive indigenous forest, home to immense native trees such as yellowwoods. Jeffreys Bay is a world-renowned surfer’s paradise. Heading north, miles and miles of sandy beaches run all the way up the coast. The Alexandria State Forest is a reserve that runs along the coast and contains a hiking trail along the beach. East from here is Dias Cross, the location of one of Bartholemew Dias’ stone crosses and a desolate paradise for beach lovers.
Inland, the Karoo is a vast and beautiful upland area with spectacular sunsets: drier, hotter and colder than the coasts. The novelist Olive Schreiner made the area famous and her house at Cradock has been restored. The Mountain Zebra National Park is worth a visit, on the northern slopes of the Bankberg range.
The Addo Elephant National Park, 72km (45 miles) north of Port Elizabeth, was created in 1931 to protect the last of the eastern Cape elephants. Recently massively expanded, it offers an excellent range of game, including black rhino, buffalo and antelope and more than 170 bird species. There are also several private reserves nearby, including the excellent Shamwari and Kwandwe, both of which have very upmarket accommodation and ‘Big Five’ (elephant, lion, leopard, rhino and buffalo) game viewing.
The town of Graaff-Reinet, situated in the heart of the Karoo Nature Reserve at the foot of the Sneeuberg Mountains, is one of the finest surviving Cape-Dutch towns in South Africa, with many attractive 18th- and 19th-century buildings, as well as parks and museums. Just 5km (3 miles) outside the town, it is possible for visitors to drive into the Valley of Desolation along a twisting single-track road that eventually climbs into the mountains.
From the viewpoints, it is possible to look down over Graaff-Reinet across towering red and ochre outcrops of rock. The nearby town of Nieu Bethesda is worth a visit for the Owl House, a remarkable sculpture garden by eccentric artist Helen Martins, subject of a play by Athol Fugard.
East of Port Elizabeth, Kenton-on-Sea and Port Alfred are pretty little holiday towns, the latter on the mouth of the Kowie River – canoeing trips can be undertaken from Port Alfred to Bathurst, home of The Pig and Whistle, the oldest pub in South Africa (1831).
A short distance inland, Victorian Grahamstown is home to one of South Africa’s best universities and hosts a giant annual arts festival each July. The town has many fine buildings, amongst which the most interesting are the Cathedral of St Michael and St George, situated in the triangular Church Square, the 1820 Settlers Monument (after the first British to settle the area), Fort Selwyn, and rows of shops and houses on Church Square, Artificers’ Square, Hill Street and MacDonald Street. The town also has several excellent museums, including the Albany Museum, History Museum, Natural Sciences Museum and the International Library of African Music. Local development projects offer traditional Xhosa meals.
Fort Hare University, in the nearby town of Alice, was the country’s first black university, founded in 1916. King William’s Town is not only a fine Victorian town, with many beautiful houses and the excellent Kaffrarian Museum, but is the birth and burial place of nationalist leader, Steve Biko.
One hour’s drive from Grahamstown is the village of Hogsback, situated in the striking Amatola Mountains. It is an ideal place to walk in the forest of yellowwood, stinkwood and Cape chestnut trees along trails to magical waterfalls – the most spectacular being the aptly-named Bridal Veil and Madonna and Child.
East London and the Wild Coast
East London, built on the mouth of the Buffalo River, is not only South Africa’s fourth-largest port, but a popular seaside resort with a subtropical climate, fine beaches and some of the best surfing in South Africa. There is excellent swimming at Eastern Beach, Nahoon Beach and Orient Beach. The city is not particularly pretty, but it does have some interesting museums and monuments – notably, the East London Museum (with the world’s only Dodo egg and a stuffed coelacanth); the Gately House Museum, built in 1878; the Anne Bryant Art Gallery, with an interesting collection of contemporary South African art; an excellent Aquarium; fine Botanical Gardens; 19th-century Fort Glamorgan; and the Hood Point Lighthouse. Latimer’s Landing has a wide range of good shops and restaurants.
Heading west, the Wild Coast’s history (as a black ‘homeland’) and lack of roads have left it gloriously undeveloped. This is a spectacularly beautiful area of wild cliffs and hidden coves, many parts of it inaccessible to normal vehicles. The main road runs inland through the Eastern Cape’s uninspiring capital, Umtata, with occasional dirt roads winding down to the water’s edge. Nelson Mandela was born in and has retired to Qunu, 34km (20 miles) west of Umtata on the East London road.
The main tourist town in the area is Port St Johns, the closest thing South Africa has to a hippy hangout. Both here and at various coves and rivermouths along the coast are small, hideaway lodges perfect for those who want to relax or fish away from the crowds. Just before the Kwazulu-Natal Border, the Wild Coast Sun, with its casino and waterpark, is an abrupt introduction to the more developed coast near Durban.
To the north is the southern end of the Drakensberg Mountains. South Africa’s only ski resort, Tiffendel, is near the small village of Rhodes, where trout fishing, hiking and pony-trekking are all possible.
Perhaps the most diverse province in South Africa, KwaZulu-Natal contains approximately one-quarter of the South African population and ranges from semi-tropical and tropical coastlands to snow-capped peaks in the Drakensberg. In an otherwise arid country, it has the same rainfall as the United Kingdom.
Growing at an alarming rate, Durban is South Africa’s third-largest city, a mix of cultures including a large Indian community and a new influx of Africans from countries to the north. Because of the almost tropical climate, swimming is possible all year round, although the city’s beaches are becoming increasingly crowded. The central beach area, called the Golden Mile, actually stretches for 6km (4 miles) from the Umgeni River to the Point. Along it are a wide variety of souvenir stalls and family entertainments, from the excellent u’Shaka (aquarium) to funfairs, a snake park and mini-golf. This stretch has also increasingly become a target for muggers, and there are safer and quieter beaches north and south.
Colonial Durban has its heart in Francis Farewell Square, surrounded by a number of fine Victorian and Edwardian buildings, including the City Hall (which now contains the Natural Science Museum and Durban Art Gallery, featuring a fine collection of black South African art and craft). Not far away is the African Arts Center, where much local art is for sale. To the north is Central Park. To the west of the center is the Indian District, characterized by markets, mosques, temples and well-preserved buildings from the turn of the century, including the Juma Musjid Mosque. At the other end of the Madressa Arcade is the Emmanuel Cathedral. To the north is the Victoria Street Market, filled with spices, curios and fresh produce.
To the north, the Botanical Gardens offer cool respite. The other major attractions of Durban lie along the Victoria Embankment and beyond, and include the Yacht Mole, the Ocean Terminal Building (relic of the age of sea travel) and the Sugar Terminal, the nexus of KwaZulu-Natal’s massive sugar industry. Further out west is the suburb of Cato Manor, a fascinating mix of shanties and temples including the Shree Alayam Second River Hindu Temple, which has a firewalking festival in autumn.
Scattered around the town and suburbs are several other interesting small museums, such as the Killie Campbell Collection, an excellent African cultural collection in an old Cape-Dutch mansion, the little Kwamuhle Museum of local 20th-century history, the Natal Maritime Museum and the Old Court House.
Inland: Just north of Durban, the Valley of a Thousand Hills is a popular excursion for locals, with plenty of bijou shops and tearooms; the Assagay Safari Park and Phezulu are basic, child-friendly places offering a crocodile farm, snake park, children’s zoo and Zulu dancing. The Paradise Valley Nature Reserve is a wonderful place to walk off the beaten track.
THE SOUTH COAST: South of Durban a series of beach resorts, including Amanzimtoti, Scottsburgh, Port Shepstone and Margate, have run together to create a ribbon of fun, sea and sand aimed at the family market, with plenty of timeshares, self-catering apartments and fast food. Things to do include a crocodile farm, the Banana Express railway and the Oribi Gorge Nature Reserve, a scenic collection of forests and steep gorges leading down to the beach, covered in dense forest. The offshore Aliwal Shoal and Protea Banks are some of the best dive sites in South Africa.
THE NORTH COAST: North of Durban is a similar string of slightly more upmarket resorts. Umhlanga Rocks is the home of the Natal Sharks Board, which offers audiovisual presentations and shark dissections to those with a taste for gore. Ballito offers a wide range of water and land sports, while just to the north, 19th-century Zulu king, Shaka, used to throw his enemies off the cliff at Shaka’s Rock. Other small towns in the area include Salt Rock, which has a small crocodile farm, Crocodile Creek, the sugar-cane community of Tongaat, and Shaka’s capital, Stanger, home to an interesting small museum.
The Midlands and Drakensberg
Between Natal’s coast and the mountains, there is an area of undulating wooded hills and grassy plains with scattered villages and lush farmland, known as the Natal Midlands. There are a number of small game reserves with a huge variety of animal and bird life in the Midlands and the foothills of the Drakensberg, while local rivers offer excellent fishing. Pietermaritzburg, joint state capital (with Ulundi) is the largest city in the area. Although founded by the Voortrekkers, the town’s architectural heritage is mostly Victorian, best seen in the area around Church Street. There are several excellent museums including the Natal Museum, Macrorie House Museum, Tatham Art Gallery and Voortrekker Museum. The city is particularly attractive in September when the azaleas are in bloom. The Botanic Gardens enable visitors to look at a range of indigenous flora. Within easy reach of Pietermaritzburg are the Howick Falls, the Karkloof Falls and the Albert Falls Public Resort and Nature Reserve.
The Drakensberg is South Africa’s largest mountain range and the official southern end of the Great Rift Valley, which slices north across Africa for 6000km (3728 miles). Its name, which means ‘Dragon Mountains’ in Afrikaans, stems from the jagged backbone of saw-toothed peaks. It is a refreshing place with cold mountain streams shaded by ferns and ancient yellowwood trees. The mountains are capped with snow in winter. The area provides good walking, climbing and riding while the peaks are the realm of eagles and bearded vultures. Popular climbs include Champagne Castle, Cathkin Peak and Cathedral Peak.
In the nearby caves are good examples of the rock art of the Bushmen who, until a century ago, inhabited the area. The Main Caves, in the Giant’s Castle Game Reserve, boast more than 500 rock paintings in a single shelter. The reserve, which flanks the border with Lesotho, is dominated by a massive basalt wall incorporating the peaks of Giant’s Castle (3314m/10,873ft) and Injasuti (3459m/11,349ft) and is home to eland, other antelope and a variety of birds, including Cape vulture, jackal buzzard, black eagle and lammergeier.
Just to the north, the Royal Natal National Park is one of Natal’s most stunning reserves. Its dramatic scenery includes the Amphitheater, an 8km- (5 mile-) long crescent-shaped curve in the main basalt wall. It is flanked by two impressive peaks, the Sentinel (3165m/10,384ft) and the Eastern Buttress (3047m/9997ft). Even higher is Mont-aux-Sources at 3284m (10,775ft). It is the source of the Tugela River which plummets 2000m (6562ft) over the edge of the plateau. Hikers should enjoy following the spectacular Tugela Gorge.
The northern part of KwaZulu-Natal is mainly rolling grassland, spiked by occasional rocky kopjies (hills) which became the bloody frontline in a whole series of wars between the Zulus, Afrikaans and British (1830–1902).
Ladysmith was the site of a devastating siege during the Anglo-Boer War. The Town Hall still shows the scars, while the old Market Hall next door is an excellent Siege Museum. Behind it, the Cultural Center is dedicated to local cultures and heroes, including former World Boxing Champion, Sugarboy Malinga, and the band, Ladysmith Black Mambazo.
There is another excellent museum, the Talana Museum, in Dundee, site of the first battle of the Boer War. This is also the best place from which to visit Isandlwana, Fugitive’s Drift and Rorkes Drift, where a devastating series of battles between the British and Zulus in January 1879 led to the desperate defense of Rorke’s Drift mission station by a garrison of 139. Before the battle began, 35 were already wounded. It resulted in the most Victoria Crosses in a single engagement in the history of British warfare and was filmed as Zulu, starring Michael Caine. The mission is now an interpretive and arts center. Also nearby is the battlefield of Blood River, scene of a famous victory by the Afrikaaners over the Zulus in 1838.
Further east, the little Afrikaaner town of Vryheid (Freedom) was founded in 1884. Today, it is still a pretty little town, with three small museums, the Lukas Meijer House, the Old Carnegie Library and the Nieuwe Republiek Museum. Three major battles of the Anglo-Zulu War were fought nearby.
Just to the south, little-known, but game-rich, Itala Game Reserve (29,653 ha/73,243 acres) has spectacular golden grasslands, rocky kopjes and wooded valleys and is home to all major species except lion.
In the mid-19th century, the Tugela River formed the boundary between British Natal and Zululand. Eshowe (‘the sound of wind in the trees’), now a pretty little farming town, has a Zulu royal pedigree. Fort Nongqayi (1883) is now the Zululand Historical Museum, while the Vukani Museum has the world’s largest collection of traditional Zulu arts and crafts. The 200 hectare (494 acre) Dhlinza Forest is a small but beautiful patch of indigenous hardwood forest.
In the nearby hills are several Zulu cultural villages, including Shakaland, Pobane, KwaBhekithunga, Stewart’s Farm and Simunye, all providing food and accommodation, a tour of a village, discussion of lifestyle and medicine and dance displays. North of the little market town of Melmoth, Mgungundlovu (‘the place of the great elephant’) was the capital of King Dingane (c.1795–1843). The city was destroyed by the Afrikaans, but has now been partially rebuilt as a museum. Ulundi, joint capital of KwaZulu-Natal and still home of the Zulu monarchy, has relatively little for the tourist, but the site of the former royal capital, Ondini, is now the fascinating KwaZulu Cultural Museum.
Much of the northerly part of KwaZulu-Natal is made up of a series of interlinked public and private game reserves that together form one of Africa’s finest concentrations of wildlife. In addition, it has a startlingly beautiful coast, with silver sand beaches (shared with turtles), vast sand dunes and offshore coral reefs. The 38,682 hectare (95,545 acre) Greater St Lucia Wetland Reserve is a loose collection of wilderness areas around Lake St Lucia, including Mapelane, the St Lucia Game Reserve, False Bay Park, Sodwana Bay National Park, Cape Vidal State Forest, Sodwana State Forest, St Lucia Marine Reserve (stretching 5km/3 miles out to sea), the Maputaland Marine Reserve, and the Mkuzi Game Reserve. It covers five distinct ecosystems varying from dry thorn scrub to tropical forest and bordered by giant dunes, beaches and tropical reefs, has ‘Big Five’ game viewing, and is the only place in the world where hippos, crocodiles and sharks share the same lagoon. It also has superb birdwatching and diving and, outside the National Park, excellent fishing.
The 96,000 hectare (237,120 acre) Hluhluwe-Umfolozi National Park offers a broad range of habitats, from rocky hillside to open savannah grass and thick woodland, supporting some 86 species of mammal and around 425 recorded bird species. This is the Eden of almost all white rhinos in the world, thanks to a carefully controlled breeding program that has restocked much of the rest of Africa. Between here and St Lucia is the privately owned 17,000 hectare (42,000 acre) Phinda Resource Reserve.
In the far north, near the Mozambique border, Lake Sibaya is the largest natural freshwater lake in southern Africa (77 sq km/30 sq miles), offering good bird watching, fishing and hiking. Beyond this, are the Ndumo and Tembe Game Reserves, with excellent wildlife, including a large rhino population and a variety of birds, and the magnificent coastal and marine Kosi Bay Nature Reserve; access is by 4-wheel-drive only.
The central Free State metamorphoses from grassland interspersed with small granite outcrops in the west to magnificent sandstone hills in the east.
The capital of this province is Bloemfontein, an imposing but unattractive town which has some surprisingly good museums, including the National Museum, the old Fourth Raadsaal (parliament) of the old Free State Republic, the National Afrikaans Literary Museum, and the Oliewenhuis Art Gallery. By far the most interesting is the National Women’s Memorial and War Museum, telling the chilling story of the Boer War and the British concentration camps (where 26,370 women and children died) from the Afrikaans perspective.
Outside Bloemfontein, the southern Free State is home to the Gariep Dam, a massive 374 sq km (144 sq miles) reservoir, built for irrigation and hydroelectric power. However, the State’s most interesting scenery lies in the eastern highlands, on the Lesotho border. From Bloemfontein, hills rise steadily as one heads past Thaba’nchu, the old seat of the Basotho kings, to Ladybrand, the main route into Lesotho. North from here are Ficksburg, which has an annual cherry festival in spring and the new-age settlement of Rustler’s Valley, which hosts an annual music festival in autumn. Further to the northeast is the Golden Gate National Park, verging on the KwaZulu-Natal Drakensberg, characterized by massive weathered sandstone cliffs tinted a multitude of shades of red, yellow and orange.
Mpumalanga (the ‘land of the rising sun’) covers the highveld plains and mountains from Gauteng to the borders with Swaziland and Mozambique. This is one of the key tourist destinations in South Africa, home, with Limpopo, to the world-famous Kruger National Park, a massive reserve the size of Wales and among the best places in Africa to see the ‘Big Five’, as well as thousands of other species. The park features a wide range of accommodation, from camping (in fenced enclosures to keep lions out) to self-catering huts and cottages.
Surrounding the park, in a series of linked game reserves called Sabie Sand, Manyeleti, Klaserie, Timbavati and the Umbabat, there are numerous private concessions, less crowded but considerably more expensive than the National Parks camps. These small, luxury camps provide vehicles and guides, and offer facilities such as walks, night drives and off-road game-spotting not allowed within the park proper. As animals wander freely throughout the area, the game viewing is as good as in the main park.
The other main area of interest to tourists is the escarpment just to the west of the Kruger boundary. This marks the edge of the African continental plateau with a series of dramatic mountains and plunging cliffs. The road along the rim of the escarpment provides spectacular views of the landscape below, including The Pinnacle, a massive, free-standing granite column; God’s Window, a viewing point over the Lowveld 1000m (3300ft) below; Lisbon Falls and Berlin Falls. It then turns to run along the rim of the Blyde Canyon (26km/16 miles long and 350–800m/1050-2400ft deep), passing Bourke’s Luck Potholes, a series of strange rock formations created by the swirling action of pebble-laden flood water. There is a spectacular five-day hiking trail along the canyon called the Blyderivierspoort Hiking Trail, beginning at God’s Window.
The surrounding area has several attractive market towns, such as Sabie, situated against the backdrop of Mauchsberg and Mount Anderson, with an abundance of waterfalls and wild flowers; Graskop, a forestry village perched on a spur of the Drakensberg escarpment; and Pilgrim’s Rest, a gold-rush town with many historic buildings. Nearby, the Mount Sheba Nature Reserve embraces 1500 hectare (3705 acres) of ravines and waterfalls. Nelspruit, the provincial capital, features the Lowveld National Botanical Gardens on the banks of the Crocodile River, specializing in Cycads, as well as other semi-tropical Lowveld vegetation.
Limpopo (formerly Northern Province)
This province is bordered by Botswana and Zimbabwe to the North and Mozambique to the east, and contains a large section of the Kruger National Park (see the Mpumalanga section). This northern section is generally drier and has far fewer tourists than the southern section but still has excellent game viewing. Access is via the copper-mining town of Phalaborwa, which has some interesting prehistoric sites, or Hoedspruit, home of the Moholoholo Wildlife Rehabilitation Center and Cheetah Project. Just west of the park, the Letaba area is a lush green farming district with excellent walking, riding and bird-watching amongst the tea plantations and Magoeboeskloof Mountains. To the north of Letaba, near the Zimbabwe border, are Venda and Gazankulu, largely rural peasant communities with a reputation for arts and crafts. The mystical South African artist Jackson Hlungwane, who has pieces of his remarkable sculpture in South African and European galleries, is based here. This is also the home of the Rain Queen, said to have been Rider Haggard’s inspiration for She, and the Modjadji Forest, the world’s largest collection of cycads (50-million-year-old palms).
In the west, the Waterberg mountains and the Soutpansberg provide excellent opportunities for hiking, riding and nature watching, and there are several private game ranches in the area.
In the far south, near the Gauteng border, Warmbaths unsurprisingly contains warm mineral springs. In the center of the province are Polokwane (formerly Pietersburg), the provincial capital, notable for the Bakone Malapa Museum, and Potgietersrus, an attractive old Afrikaaner town, with a rare breeds breeding center.
The economic hub of South Africa, Gauteng means ‘place of gold’ in Sotho. Built on the gold reefs, it is heavily urban, containing the cities of Johannesburg, Pretoria and a scattering of satellite towns, many of them heavily industrial.
Johannesburg and Soweto
The discovery of gold near Johannesburg in 1886 turned a small shanty town into the bustling modern city that is today the center of the world’s gold-mining industry and the commercial nucleus of South Africa. The city is currently undergoing a fundamental transformation as planners in the post-apartheid era struggle to integrate wealthy ‘white’ areas to the north, a decaying inner city, and the poverty-stricken ‘black’ townships to the south. The city is, as well as being a potentially dangerous place to live and stroll about, the cultural center of South Africa, with a post-apartheid influx of traders from the north enhancing its cosmopolitan character.
The Central Business District (CBD) is characterized by a stark contrast of skyscrapers and bustling street markets; most businesses catering to affluent clients have moved out to the northern suburbs. A spectacular view of the city is available from the Observatory on the 50th floor of the Carlton Center. To the west, of some historical interest, is the Rand Club, haunt of mining magnates past and present. Also west of the center, Newtown has been the focus of an urban renewal project which includes the excellent Museum Africa, several excellent restaurants, the Market Theater, a famous center of alternative theater during the apartheid era and after; and the South African Breweries’ Centenary Center. More mainstream theater, music and dance can be seen at the Civic Theater in Braamfontein, also the location of the Gertrude Posel Gallery, one of many small, university-run museums, housing a collection of traditional African art.
Just outside the center is Hillbrow, home to, amongst others, large communities of immigrants from the rest of Africa; a landmark is the massive Ponti building, dubbed ‘petit Kinshasa’ by locals. To the north of the CBD lies Yeoville, more bohemian and considerably safer. The center of Yeoville life is Rockey Street, lined with cafes and bars where visitors can while away the days in relative peace.
The north of Johannesburg consists of affluent leafy suburbs. Directly north of the city center, Parktown was the home of the so-called ‘Randlords’, the 19th-century Gold Rush millionaires, whose houses are still an imposing sight. Nearby is a series of wonderful open spaces containing notable landmarks, such as the Johannesburg Zoo, Zoo Lake (across the road) and the South African National Museum of Military History. North of this are Rosebank, teeming with upmarket bars, restaurants and shops; and Sandton, probably the wealthiest part of Johannesburg and to all intents and purposes, now the city center.
To the south is the city’s only amusement park, Gold Reef City, built on the site of a gold mine, with underground tours as part of the attraction.
Soweto, the massive black ‘township’ to the south, is home to some 4.5 million of the province’s poorest people, and also to many shebeens (informal bars) and thousands of churches representing hundreds of mainline and independent African denominations. The safest way to visit Soweto is as part of an organized tour. Tourists are welcome and there is plenty to see. As well as shebeens and music venues, tours include visits to nationalist landmarks such as Freedom Square, used for rallies, the Hector Peterson Memorial, dedicated to the first child to die in the uprisings, and Nelson and Winnie Mandela’s home, now a small museum.
Further afield, Heidelberg is a small town with an interesting Transport Museum. North of Sandton, are the Johannesburg Lion Park, Snake Park, Rhino and Lion Nature Reserve and Lesedi Cultural Village.
Sterkfontein, in the Magaliesberg mountains, is home to the Wonder Caves, one of the world’s most important prehistoric sites; 2.5 million-year-old Australopithecus africanus was first discovered here.
Named after the Voortrekker leader, Andries Pretorius, the town council recently discussed proposals to change the name to Tshwane and ward the town city status. Pretoria is the administrative capital of South Africa, known as the ‘Jacaranda City’ because of the flowering trees lining its streets in October and November. Church Square is the center of the city, and a space of historical importance, while Church Street and its neighbors are lined by some fine 19th-century buildings including Paul Kruger’s House, the Groote Kerk, Melrose House, the old Raadsaal (parliament) of the Boer republic of Transvaal, and the State Theater, which features a program of fairly mainstream dance, music and drama. There are also several excellent small museums in the city, including the Pretoria Art Museum, the studios of local artists’ Coert Steynberg and Anton von Wouw, now both museums, the Museum of Science and Technology and the bizarre but fascinating Correctional Services Museum.
The Union Buildings, overlooking the suburb of Arcadia, are one of the pinnacles of British Imperial architecture, designed by Sir Herbert Baker. They are still the administrative seat of the national government and are famous as the site of Nelson Mandela’s 1994 inauguration as President. A little further out, the Voortrekker Monument is an imposing granite tower built to commemorate the Boer victory over the Zulus at Blood River. Not politically correct these days, it is still a solemn and moving monument, and the little museum beside it is fascinating. Pretoria Zoo is definitely worth a visit and has a cable car for a bird’s eye view of the big cats.
Just out of town, within easy day-trip distance, are several exceptional sights, including the De Wildt Cheetah Farm; Cullinan Diamond Mine (book ahead if you want to do the tour); Pioneer Museum and Willem Prinsloo Agricultural Museum (both ‘living’ museums with costume-clad characters and displays of farming activities); and two fine old houses, the homes of former president, Jan Smuts, and randlord Sammy Marks.
This province’s most famous feature is Sun City, gamblers’ mecca and host to major golf tournaments and star-studded concerts. Its most spectacular hotel, The Lost City, is an H Rider Haggard-like fantasy. Adjacent, the Pilansberg Game Reserve covers around 137,000 hectares (338,540 acres). Several farms and an extinct volcanic crater were included in one of the largest rehabilitation exercises ever carried out. This is now an excellent ‘Big Five’ reserve and the third-largest game park in South Africa. In the far north of the province, on the Botswana border, is the excellent, little known Madikwe National Park, which offers excellent walking safaris.
South from Sun City are Rustenberg; the Rustenburg Nature Reserve, in the Magaliesberg, which features antelope and other game, as well as some rare birds of prey such as the black eagle and Cape vulture; and two fairly large and very dull towns, Klerksdorp and Potchefstroom, the latter home to one of the oldest Afrikaaner universities in South Africa.
The Northern Cape
This vast and barren wilderness stretches from the west coast north to the Namibian and Botswana borders and east to the Free State and North-West provinces. The southwest features spectacular carpets of wild flowers in early spring, while the south is part of the Great Karoo and the north intrudes into the Kalahari Desert.
In 1866, a boy found a shiny ‘pebble’ at Hopetown, 128km (80 miles) south of Kimberley, allowing a primitive and sparsely populated settlement to become the diamond capital of the world. Kimberley is not one of the world’s most exciting places, but it does have enough attractions to warrant a stop, chief amongst them the Big Hole, which is the largest manmade excavation in the world, and the Kimberley Mine Museum, with its replicas of 19th-century Kimberley at the height of the gold rush. The De Beers Hall Museum houses a display of cut and uncut diamonds; here can be seen the famous ‘616’ – at 616 carats, the largest uncut diamond in the world – and the ‘Eureka’ diamond, the first to be discovered in South Africa. Other interesting museums include the William Humphreys Art Gallery (fine art), Duggan-Cronin Gallery (photography) and McGregor Museum (a fine old mansion, with Kimberley’s history displayed).
Near Kimberley is the Vaalbos National Park, a small reserve containing the extremely rare Black Rhino, and the Bultfontein Mine, offering guided tours of a working diamond mine. For those with a military bent, Magersfontein lies to the south of Kimberley, site of a catastrophic defeat inflicted on the British by the Boers early in the Boer War.
Northwest of Kimberley, Kuruman was a missionary center used by Robert Moffat and David Livingstone. It has a gushing spring known as the ‘Eye of God’ and is near the Wonderwerk Cave, an archaeological site of great importance where some of the earliest evidence of the use of fire has been found.
Uppington is a pleasant town on the banks of the Orange River, on the way to the Augrabies National Park, centered on a series of dramatic waterfalls plummeting 56m (184ft) into a narrow ravine carved through the desert. The park is home to many interesting species of desert plants while local animals include baboons, vervet monkeys, rhino and antelope.
Further to the north is the vast Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park, which is one of Africa’s first ‘peace parks’, administered jointly by South Africa and Botswana. It is the largest nature conservation area in southern Africa and one of the largest unspoilt ecosystems in the world, supporting fauna and flora in bewildering variety. To the west, Namaqualand is a vast area of seemingly barren semi-desert, harboring a treasure-house of floral beauty, appearing after sufficient winter rains: daisies, aloes, lilies, perennial herbs and many other flower species. The flowers are best seen from July to September, depending on when the rains fall. Calvinia and Niewoudtville are good locations for flowers.
In the far north, on the Namibian border, is the remote and rocky Richtersveld National Park, accessible only by 4-wheel drive, with an extraordinary lunar landscape and wide variety of rare desert plants.