Essential South Africa

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Thanks to its spectacular diversity, South Africa offers more holiday possibilities than any other nation on the continent. We asked Carrie Hampton, who has visited more than 200 safari lodges and dozens of beaches, to let us into the secrets of its best bush and beach destinations.

CT-shutterstock_117451786A ‘world in one country’, a ‘rainbow nation’ and ‘God’s land’ – these labels may be clichés, but they’re well-worn with good reason. South Africa has almost every kind of landscape, from wooded savannah to arid desertscapes, snow-sprinkled mountains to sub-tropical forests. There are warm Indian Ocean coral reefs and cold Atlantic whale breeding grounds. The South African people too, are fascinatingly diverse in race, culture and language.

While the wildlife-watching opportunities here are first class, it’s partly the mesmerizing sway of the ocean that brings visitors flocking to this country at the tip of Africa. Who isn’t going to feel relaxed with soft sand under their feet and a healthy dose of sun on their back? Spending time at the beach after all those early morning game drives in the nation’s many national parks and private game reserves is surely the perfect way to end a South African holiday.

Madikwe, Limpopo
Within sight of the Botswana border and the twinkling lights of Gaborone, the Madikwe Game Reserve was created from scratch in 1991 with a Noah’s Ark operation to translocate game, including cheetahs and wild dogs. It’s been a huge success. With numerous private lodges, Madikwe is much more affordable than the private reserves around Kruger.

Welgevonden, Limpopo
Welgevonden Private Game Reserve, in the rusty-red foothills of the Waterberg Mountains, is three hours’ drive north of Johannesburg. It’s a malaria-free Big Five reseserve, with small-scale accommodation including private retreats and commercial safari lodges with fully-inclusive prices in tune with the local pocket. The surrounding Waterberg valley contains many hunting lodges.

Kruger National Park and Private Game Reserves
This is classic safari country and one of Africa’s top destinations for locals and overseas visitors alike. Kruger has more animal species than any other African park, and over 500 species of bird. Budget travellers can self-drive and stay at public restcamps inside Kruger Park. The adjoining reserves are dotted with upmarket all-inclusive safari lodges. There are literally hundreds of options for game drives and bushwalks. Wildlife sightings are better from a purpose-designed safari vehicle with a knowledgeable guide, but you will also see big game aplenty by simply pottering around Kruger in a hire car.

Hluhluwe Imfolozi & Private Game Reserves of KwaZulu Natal
Hluhluwe Imfolozi is the jewel in the crown of KZN’s public parks, renowned for protecting its black and white rhinos. Watch out for them on a self-drive tour. You’ll find rhinos in all the nearby private game reserves too, such as 5-star &Beyond Phinda and Thanda, and the 3-star & 4-star lodges in the Zululand Rhino Reserve.

Eastern Cape Game Reserves
This is malaria-free wildlife country, with a variety of private game reserves in the wooded hills and bushy valleys an hour or so inland from Port Elizabeth. Addo Elephant National Park is the public game reserve in the area. You can guess from its name what you are likely to see here!

Garden Route Reserves, Western Cape
Wildlife once roamed the coastal belt of the Garden Route. Some private landowners are now reintroducing big game to the beautiful undulating bushland around Mossel Bay and other stretches of the Garden Route. This is a fairly tame safari experience, with the wildlife carefully managed within relatively small estates, but the surroundings are stunningly scenic.

Karoo Safari, Western Cape
Drive for 2-3 hours from Cape Town into the semi-arid Karoo – an inland plateau of witches-hat peaks and big-sky landscapes – and you can safari in a private reserve. Some have vast tracts of land in which lions roam free, rather than being kept in fenced sections, and many have the Big Five, albeit in small numbers. It’s a fairly tame but satisfying region.

Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park
The Kalahari is known for its red sand dunes, dry river beds and photogenic gemsboks, jackals, birds of prey and black-maned Kalahari lions. This vast park, which extends far into Botswana, is an important migration corridor.

Cape Town to Cape Point Beaches
Head south from Cape Town to Cape Point and you’ll find many fabulous beaches. Camps Bay and Clifton, close to the city, attract beautiful people, even though the Atlantic is freezing. Further south, you can go horse riding along the beautiful, long Noordhoek beach, galloping through the shallows. Fish Hoek on the False Bay coast is for sandcastle building and safe swimming, with shark spotters on duty. Kalk Bay has delightful tidal pools and Muizenberg is great for learning to surf.

Langebaan Lagoon, West Coast
This enormous, azure lagoon has many attractions, from shallow paddling in bath-temperature water at Kraalbaai in the West Coast National Park, to challenging kite-surfing and hobie-cat sailing at the seaside town of Langebaan.

Cape Vidal, KwaZulu Natal
This long sandy beach is great for sunbathing and low-tide snorkelling. It’s the conclusion of a drive through the iSimangaliso Wetland Park World Heritage Site, which gives you a bit of sub-tropical bush and beach all in one. Game reserves abound in the surrounding area.

Kenton-on-Sea, Eastern Cape
The Kariega River meets the sea at Kenton, where you can relax on the golden sand or venture into the Indian Ocean. This holiday-home town only gets busy when school’s out. Use it as your beach base after visiting some Eastern Cape game reserves.

Jeffrey’s Bay
J-Bay’s legendary Supertubes Beach has a 300m uninterrupted wave, considered one of the world’s best right-hand surf breaks. The long sands are always scattered with surf dudes and bikini babes and there’s a very chilled vibe.Temperatures average 19°C in winter and 25°C in summer.

Plettenberg Bay & Knysna, Western Cape
On the Garden Route, Plett has scenic sunbathing and swimming beaches, plus dolphin-and whalewatching boat trips. Knysna is where the sea rushes through a narrow gap in the cliffs known as The Heads to form a wide, shallow lagoon, good for boating and cruising.

 

Get Planning
Flying around South Africa makes a lot of sense, especially when you realise it’s 1400km from Johannesburg to Cape Town (13 hours’ drive), and that’s not even the full width of the country. There are endless possible routes, so we’ve chosen three options with beach and bush in mind. These can be mixed and matched to suit your preferences, budget and timings.

10-day Kruger to Cape Town
Kruger >> Cape Town >> Winelands
Days 1-4
Fly from Johannesburg to Kruger National Park, to spend two nights at each of two different safari lodges. Being on safari can be exhausting: you get up very early for morning game drives and there’s barely enough time to scroll through your photographs and have a splash in the plunge pool or an afternoon snooze, between breakfast, lunch and afternoon tea. Then off you go on the afternoon drive, which is immediately followed by dinner and bed. Before you know it, it’s 5.30am and time to do it all over again. But it’s worth it!

Days 5-7
Fly from the nearest airport (or via Johannesburg) direct to Cape Town. Spend three nights in the Mother City, with a hire car or pre-arranged tours. You will want to relax after your safari, so grab a beach bag and head for the Cape beaches. This will take you on scenic routes with fantastic sightseeing potential.

Days 8-9
The Cape Winelands has accommodation of every sort, often with magnificent mountain views and taxis to take you to restaurants and wine estates, so you can sample as much local wine and bubbly as you like. You should note that seven out of the Top 10 Eat Out Guide Best South African Restaurants are in the Winelands, so book as far in advance as possible!
Day 10
Catch a return flight out of Cape Town, either direct or via Johannesburg.

 

14-day Supreme Self-Drive Safari
Kruger >> Swaziland >> Hluhluwe Umfolozi >> St Lucia >> Durban
Days 1-3
Pick up a hire car in Johannesburg and drive to Kruger National Park. Self-drive around the park, staying at pre-booked restcamps. Take some guided walks and night drives with park rangers. Spend your last night in the far south of the park.
Days 4-8
Exit Kruger Park from Malelane Gate and drive to Swaziland, less than 50km south. Enter via the Matsamo/Jeppes Reef border post and hug the scenic west, leading to the cultural heart of Ezulwini Valley. Nearby is Mlilwane Wildlife Sanctuary, a restful place to unwind. Then head east to Mkhaya, where you can track rhino on foot.
Day 9
Exit Swaziland at Golela/Lavumisa in the south and within minutes you’ll see Lake Jozini. A boat trip may reveal warthogs, buffalos, antelopes and even elephants grazing the banks.
Day 10
Visit Hluhluwe Umfolozi Park. The camps in this Big Five reserve are comfortable and affordable.
Day 11-12
Take a boat trip on the St Lucia estuary, looking for hippos, crocs and amazing birdlife. The next day, drive through the iSimangaliso Wetland Park to Cape Vidal beach for some sun and snorkelling, staying overnight in St Lucia town.
Day 13-14
Drive to Durban and settle into a seaview hotel. Dip into the warm Indian Ocean, enjoy the sub-tropical sunshine and tuck into a curry. To extend your trip, you fly to Cape Town for a few days.

 

10-day Luxury Beach and Bush Safari
Madikwe  >> Rovos Rail >> Cape Town >> Winelands
Days 1-4
From Johannesburg, take a 4½ hour transfer to Madikwe Game Reserve, or, better still, fly there. Spend two nights at each of two different safari lodges and see if you can clock up a rare wild dog sighting.
Days 5-7
Transfer to Pretoria and make your way to the private Rovos Rail train station. Board the most luxurious train in the world for a leisurely two-night journey to Cape Town. The Rovos Rail train has exceptionally spacious cabins, with king-size beds and free-standing baths. Once aboard, everything is complimentary including South African bubbly and exquisite cuisine. Don’t forget to dress for dinner: for gents, that means a jacket and tie.
Day 8
The most exciting way to take in the sights of Cape Town is from a helicopter. There are many operators in the V&A Waterfront. You can do anything from a 15-minute Table Mountain flip to a full hour down to Cape Point and back. Once you’ve enjoyed the ride, head to the swish beach suburbs of Camps Bay and Clifton for some ‘me time’ on the sands, followed by sundowners at a cocktail bar on the shore.
Days 9-10
Cape Town has some of Africa’s finest wineries right on the doorstep. Spend a couple of nights in a luxurious Winelands guest house, dining at one of South Africa’s top restaurants in Stellenbosch or Franschhoek.

 

South Africa Factfile
Language English is the official language of commerce and politics, but South Africa has a total of 11 official languages. Zulu is the most widely spoken African language, then Xhosa, followed by Afrikaans and English as a first language. Most South Africans speak more than one language.
Time zone GMT +2
International dialling code +27
Visas Not required by most foreign nationals. Check online!
Health If coming from a yellow fever risk area you may need to show proof of yellow fever vaccination. Malaria occurs in the more northern and eastern parts of South Africa, so precautions may be necessary.
Money The currency is South African rand (ZAR). Exchange rates have been very variable and 2013 alone saw large fluctuations. At the time of writing the exchange rate is around £1=R21, $1=R14 and €1=R16. With the rand weak, South Africa offers great value at the moment.
Getting there There are direct flights from most major cities to Johannesburg and Cape Town. SAA is the national carrier.
Getting around Self-drive is a popular way to travel. A 4WD is not always necessary. Flying between centres makes the huge distances more manageable. Domestic airlines include SAA, Airlink, Kulula and Comair.
Costs Private game lodges tend to be costly, with all-inclusive rates covering accommodation, meals, drinks, game drives and guided walks. There’s also an abundance of excellent guest houses, self-catering options, hotels and backpackers.
Safety While South Africa has a reputation for crime, it’s unlikely that visitors will encounter any. Follow usual precautions like checking your route before setting off, keeping car doors locked, not flaunting cameras and jewellery when walking in the city, and keeping handbags safe.
Books Road Tripping South Africa (Map Studio, February 2014) gives self-drive routes throughout South Africa, with recommended activities.
Recommended guidebooks
South Africa (Rough Guides, 2012)
South Africa, Lesotho and Swaziland (Lonely Planet, 2012),
First-Time Africa (Rough Guides, 2011)
Find out more South African Tourism www.southafrica.net

 

Right time, right place
There’s no bad time to go on safari, but it helps to understand the weather. There are distinctly different rainfall and humidity patterns across the country from the northeast to the southwest.

All but the Western and Eastern Cape game reserves are situated in summer rainfall areas, which get hot and humid from December to March. The more it rains, the more the bush grows; wildlife scatters and becomes harder to see.

In Cape Town, it’s warm and dry at this time of year – just right for a summer holiday. Sometimes, the strong southeast summer wind can play havoc with your plans to spend a day by the sea, but Table Mountain forms a wind break, so you just have to go to the sheltered side to find a wind-free beach.

In winter (from July to September) the bush is dry and animals gather at waterholes. Days are warm and nights are cool. Cape Town, on the other hand, battens down its hatches for cold winter storms interspersed with bright sunny days.

The Eastern Cape has scattered rainfall throughout the year, with a beautifully moderate climate and good beach weather all year round. The beaches of KwaZulu Natal in the east of the country are far enough north to get hot in summer and are most pleasant to visit in the spring and autumn.

 

First published in Travel Africa Issue 65 (Winter 2013/14)

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