South Africa is a land of natural beauty, unforgettable scenery, and safari wildlife. Few who visit are ever disappointed. The landscape and terrain is as diverse as any other country – from the lofty and lush Table and Drakensberg Mountains, to the dramatic coastlines of the south, to the scorching deserts inland, to the gorgeous waterfalls of the northeast. Even more diverse is its flora and fauna, highlighted by game viewing of elephants, lions, leopards, rhinos, and buffalo (the “Big Five”) and the colorful carpets of spring flowers found everywhere.
Geographically, South Africa sits at the southern tip of Africa bordered by Mozambique, Namibia, Zimbabwe, and Botswana. Within South Africa are the independent nations of Swaziland and Lesotho in the north. To the east is the Indian Ocean, to the west the Atlantic. In the north are the Drakensberg Mountains where jagged peaks go along with green valleys. Scattered throughout South Africa are more than 20 national parks that feature rare rock formations, lush forests, blooming flowers, and habitats packed with safari wildlife. Just outside the heart of South Africa, the picturesque Cape Town, is the Cape Winelands which are dotted with vineyards and wine estates. The Garden Route along the southern coast takes you through freshwater lakes, wetlands, lagoons, lush forests, sand dunes, and miles of white beaches.
South Africa’s history dates back to ancient man some three million years ago. Fossils found in caves lead experts to believe that the early ancestors of the human race once lived in South Africa. The early humans were hunter and gatherers who eventually learned how to farm and raise livestock. Evidence even suggests that trading occurred between South Africans and the Arabs, Persians, and Chinese based on artifacts found in the thousands-of-years-old sites.
The first Europeans to arrive onto the scene were the Portuguese in the late 15th century. They were the first to successfully circumnavigate the cape of South Africa, which was notorious for its slow winds making it difficult to sail. The cape was eventually named the Cape of Good Hope. The Portuguese, however, had no interest in colonizing South Africa as the coast was rocky and trade with the Khoikhoi natives contentious. The Dutch arrived in the late 16th century and began settling the Cape of Good Hope area with the building of forts and camps, which were used to refuel ships traveling to the orient. Eventually, the entire Cape of Good Hope area was seized by the British in 1795. Gold and diamond were discovered in the late 1800s, which led to the Boer wars – two wars involving the Dutch descendants in South Africa called the Boers and the British. The eventual British triumph in 1902 led to British control of the mines.
After the two world wars, South Africa became tainted with the smear and stench of Apartheid. The Blacks constituting 75% of the population were denied the right to vote and segregated from the British-descended white population. During this period, the famous Nobel Peace prize winner, Nelson Mandela, as the leader of the African National Congress spoke out against apartheid and was imprisoned for 27 years for his activism. He was finally released in 1990 after international pressure and much domestic rebellion. In 1992, apartheid was dismantled and the right to vote was granted to Blacks. In 1994, Mandela became the first Black president of South Africa in 1994. Today, South Africa is known as the “Rainbow Nation”, home to 11 official languages and people of various race, colors, and creeds, making its cities among the more cosmopolitan in the world.
South Africa offers everything from wine touring and beach fun, to safari tours and cave exploring. In the great landscapes of this country, you can also embrace every kind of adventure sport imaginable, from bungee jumping, to hand-gliding, to surfing.
Among the best places to visit in South Africa includes the Table Mountains near Cape Town. This is home to some of the most breathtaking views of the country. You can take a hike up one of the trails or take a cable ride up to the top.
Robben Island is another “must” attraction. It can be reached by ferry ride from Cape Town. The legendary island is where Nelson Mandela was imprisoned during the period of Apartheid. You can take tours of the prison grounds, led by guides who were former inmates. The island has been designated a world heritage site by UNESCO.
The Kruger National Park in the north is often cited as the best tourist attraction of South Africa. It is certainly the best of the country’s 20 national parks, and attracts the most number of visitors. You can take guided walks and jeep tours, and feast your eyes on safari wildlife, which includes lions, rhinos, elephants, buffalo, and leopards.
The Garden Route is another popular attraction. It runs from Cape Town along the coast all the way to the forests of Tsitsikamma. The route totals 600 kilometers and passes through small towns, seaside villages, country farms, and wineries. Along the way are romantic guesthouses amid beautiful scenery where you can stop by and enjoy fine South African cuisine.
The goldmines of South Africa are also a huge draw. Gold and diamonds were discovered in the late 19th century in the northern regions. The fight over control of the mines was a factor that led to the Boer Wars. Today, these underground mines, the deepest in the world, can be visited.
Another popular destination is Soweto, which is south of Johannesburg. It is a vibrant town of about two million people, noted for its historic sites which include the homes of Nelson Mandela and famous Apartheid activist, Desmond Tetu. Also, it is worth stopping by one of the drinking halls in Soweto, called shebeen, to sample the local beer and food.
If you enjoy natural beauty, Namaqualand in the east is worth checking out. It is famous for its vast fields of colorful flowers. Most appreciated are its carpets of daisies. The best time to visit is in the spring and summer months, when the colors are brightest.
The Drakensberg Mountains are another beautiful place to visit. This mountain range is a photographer’s dream. You’ll find cascading waterfalls, jagged peaks, game sanctuaries, and bizarre rock formations, some of them decorated with rock art.
The Cradle of Humankind is another major attraction of South Africa, located west of Johannesburg. It has been designated a world heritage site and features numerous caves including the Sterkfontein where three million year-old skulls of early hominids were discovered. There are also hundreds of caves inhabited by early humans that can be explored.
The Wild Coast of South Africa stretches 3,000 kilometers from the Eastern cape to the Atlantic coast in the west. This stretch is popular among tourists for its resorts and pristine beaches. You’ll find golf courses, luxury hotels, and cozy guesthouses scattered throughout. You can expect to enjoy all the typical beachside activities here.
If you are looking for more resort-like fun, Sun City Resort in the northwest about two hours away from Johannesburg may be the answer. It is a tourism hot spot centered around its luxury casino and two acclaimed golf courses, one of them is home to the prestigious Nedbank Golf Challenge and the other features real crocodiles in the course’s waters. Sun City also hosts topless revue shows and a steady lineup of big-name musicians and entertainers.