South Africa is a massive country, the size of France and Spain combined, and it varies in both landscape and culture. From picturesque beach towns to soaring mountains to semi-desert shrublands to subtropical wetlands, the country is blessed with immense natural beauty. It’s also one of the great cultural melting pots in Africa, with at least 20 ethnic groups living together and speaking 11 official languages (including English). The year 2019 marks the 25th anniversary of democracy in the country.
While most people gravitate toward South Africa for popular attractions like Kruger National Park, Robben Island and Table Mountain, there’s more to this country to explore. You can tour diamond mines, go on a luxury railroad safari adventure, hike southern Africa’s highest mountain range, or revisit history. South Africa’s first-world infrastructure, flights to far corners of the country, and a wealth of five-star hotels and game lodges make it easier than ever to traverse this enthralling land.
Here are 10 off-the-beaten-path things to do in South Africa to consider on your South African vacation:
1. Hike in the uKhahlamba-Drakensberg Mountains, KwaZulu-Natal
Located two hours from Durban in the eastern coastal province of KwaZulu-Natal, uKhahlamba-Drakensberg Park is part of a UNESCO World Heritage site filled with breathtaking hiking trails, waterfalls, and a high concentration of rock and cave art thousands of years old. The uKhahlamba, or the “barrier of spears” in Zulu, is comprised of caves and rock shelters with more than 35,000 paintings by ancient San bushmen. Drakensberg Nature Reserve is also home to wildlife including bearded vultures, black eagles, grey rheboks, oribis, and elands.
2. Admire baobab trees, Limpopo
The iconic baobab tree reigns as king in Limpopo, named after the eponymous river that runs through the province. The largest baobab tree in the world, the “Sunland Baobab,” attracted visitors to Limpopo for years until its demise in 2016. At a whopping 72 feet tall and 155 feet around, it was estimated to be more than 1,060-years old. Since 1933, the tree’s trunk was host to the Sunland Baobab Pub, which served 15 lucky patrons at a time. In the last decade, some of the largest baobab trees in the world have died, potentially due to the warming climate, which make the remaining baobab trees of Limpopo all the more special.
3. Journey in luxury on Rovos Rail, KwaZulu-Natal
Rovos Rail captures the essence of a bygone era with classic wood-paneled coach cars, 24-hour service and gourmet meals complemented by South African wines. The “most luxurious train in the world” offers a number of journeys, including a three-day safari between Pretoria and Durban departing in the summer months. Go on Big Five game drives in Nambiti Conservancy, tour the battlefields of Spionkop with a historian, gaze upon unique African ceramics, or journey into the Valley of 1,000 Hills and the heart of South African Bushveld
4. Search for crocs and hippos in iSimangaliso, KwaZulu-Natal
South Africa’s first World Heritage site contains three major lake systems, eight interlinking ecosystems and Africa’s largest estuarine system, Lake St. Lucia. The name iSimangaliso translates to “miracle and wonder” and the region contains one of the highest concentrations of hippos and crocodiles in Southern Africa. To see them, you can take an estuary boat cruise along St. Lucia to find the main attractions of the region. The ecosystem also hosts large flocks of pelicans, waders, flamingos, and a variety of fish.
5. Walk the Ancient Trails of Cederberg Mountains, Western Cape
Just 2.5 hours from Cape Town await the ancient walking trails of the Cederberg Mountains. Part of the Cederberg Wilderness Reserve, these trails take you through fynbos vegetation—such as the stunning snow protea and Clanwilliam pincushion—past rock formations and clear mountain streams. Small pockets of Clanwilliam cedar trees cling to the sides of the mountains that rise above vineyards and citrus groves of the Oliphants River Valley.
Tip: Visit in the spring and autumn when wildflowers create a gorgeous spectacle.
6. Step through history in Bloemfontein, Free State
South Africa’s judicial capital offers a glimpse into the past by way of several museums. First, you can walk along President Brand Street, Bloemfontein’s historical mile. You’ll find classic sandstone buildings, including the First Raadsaal Museum, the oldest remaining building in Bloemfontein, depicting the establishment of the Free State. The Anglo-Boer War Museum, meanwhile, is the only museum in the country devoted to this devastating war (1899 to 1902). Nearby, the National Women’s Monument pays homage to the thousands of women and children that perished in the concentration camps set up after the British forces captured the city in 1900.
7. Explore the Wild Coast and Nelson Mandela’s roots, Eastern Cape
True to its name, the Wild Coast is untamed wilderness stretching 155 miles from East London in the south to Port Edward. It’s the traditional home of the Xhosa people. Nelson Mandela, former President of South Africa, was born in the small village of Mvezo and often returned later in life to Qunu, the place where he grew up. He is buried in nearby Mthatha, where the Nelson Mandela Museum offers visitors a journey through his extraordinary life.
8. Tour diamond mines in Kimberley, Northern Cape
Kimberley, the capital and largest city in the Northern Cape, fueled the economy of South Africa for decades. Here you can marvel at the manmade miracle of the “Big Hole,” a 1,640-foot-wide by 705-foot-deep hole that sourced 14.5 million carats of diamonds and made De Beers famous. Afrikaner Johannes De Beer discovered diamonds in his farmland and he is buried in Kimberley. These days, you can take a tour of the now-abandoned site, walk out on a high viewing platform, take a ride down a faux mining shaft, and enter a locked vault to see diamonds of all colors. You can also learn about the history of diamond mining in Africa at the small museum on site.
9. Drive the Panoramic Route, Mpumalanga
Mpumalanga is known for being the home of Kruger National Park, but the province boasts myriad natural wonders along the Panorama Route, including: Blyde River Canyon (the world’s third-largest canyon), the aptly named God’s Window (with views of the Mpumalanga Lowveld), the Three Rondavels (massive dolomite rock edifices rising from the canyon), and Bourke’s Luck Potholes (eroded cylindrical holes in the bedrock).
Numerous waterfalls, stunning vistas and rock formations await all that travel the route. Whether your ultimate destination is Kruger or you just want to gaze upon its impressive landmarks, the route makes travels along it worth your while.
Tip: Base yourself in the towns of Hazyview, Sabie or Graskop for a self-driving adventure.
10. Catch the wildflowers in Namaqualand, Northern Cape
Millions of wildflowers bloom each year along 600 miles of coastal desert and arid zones along the Northern Cape’s western coast, starting from Namaqualand in Northern Cape. More than 4,000 species, some of which can’t be found anywhere else in the world, can be seen here during August and September. Located five hours north of Cape Town, the area can be experienced on a drive along the Namaqualand Flower Route and visits to a number of national parks, such as Goegap Nature Reserve and Skilpad Wild Flower Reserve.
Tip: Make sure to book escorted tours early as the season is short and tours fill up quickly.
For more travel to South Africa, visit southafrica.net.