In a land of plenty such as ours, where endless landscapes, white beaches, mountain peaks and abundant game await exploration, its not easy to select the top five South African tourist attractions. Yet in a world ever pressed for time, priority is key and a list of must sees will be the basis of any proposed visit. That in mind, these come up tops.
1. Cape Town, meet the Mother City.
The New York Times recently named Cape Town the number one spot to visit in 2014, that on their list of 52 must see destinations. The sweetheart of African destinations, the Mother City will demand a lingering look at her cosmopolitan mix of locals, diverse offerings and beautiful beaches. Iconically marked by Table Mountain, one of the New 7 Natural Wonders of the world, as well as Robben Island where Nelson Mandela spent 19 years of his incaceration.
With internationally renowned restaurants, craft beer and the winelands producing the fine fruits of the vine, its a gastromic delight. Markets such as the Biscuit Mill, Market on the Wharf and the Oranjezicht City Farm Organic Market feed the appetite for local produce. Creativity commands attention as it finds your wherever you look. Formally the World Design Capital 2014, this is heightened by new exhibitions that have Cape Town ever reinventing itself, and the world is invited to share in all she has to offer.
2. Kruger National Park and its abundance of game.
Africa conjures up images of lion, elephant and rhino, rightly so as this is their natural home with no trip to South Africa complete without a safari. As the oldest established wildlife park, dating back to 1898, The Kruger National Park is the place for this. Home to the impressive Big 5, hippos, cheetah, giraffe, zebra and much more. Game viewing can be done by self-drive on the well marked roads, or from one of the private reserves within the park. The joy you will get when spotting these animals in their natural habitat is indescribable, surreal and humbling.
Whether its opulent luxury in the bush that you seek, middle mark game lodges or a camping site from which to take in the peace and quiet, you will find it here. After all, its those animals we are after.
3. Mapumalanga’s panoramic route.
An area of extreme beauty and natural phenomena, the panoramic route will take you from the town of Graskop to the southernmost point of the Blyde River Canyon, the third biggest canyon in the world. Lowveld attractions include magnificent lookout points at God’s Window, Wonderview and the Three Rondawels. The incredible Bourkes Luck Potholes, deep cylindrical cavaties formed by thousands of years of water erosion at the confluence of the Blyde and Treur Rivers, are a gift from nature.
The old mining town of Pilgrim’s Rest deserves a visit. Established during the heady days of the gold rush in the late 1800′s and the whole town is now lovingly preserved as a national monument with restaurants and good shopping. The tumbling waterfalls of Berlin Falls and Lisbon Falls can be visited near Hazyview.
Wherever you base yourself, there are day trips and circular routes that can be planned. There are bananas and giant avocados for sale next to the road, as well as craft and pottery that you will want to squeeze into your hand luggage. The area is easily coupled with your Kruger visit.
4. Ukhahlamba-Drakensberg, reaching for the clouds.
The Ukhahlamba-Drakensberg mountain range stretches the entire length of KwaZulu Natal’s western boundary and has been declared a UNESCO World Heritage site. An area known for hiking trails, bird watching, game viewing, horse trails and some of South Africa’s oldest rock art. There are 4×4 trails, quad bikes to be hired, horse riding and even trout fishing and white water rafting on the Tugela River. Its an outdoor lover’s paradise.
Important to point out the Royal Natal National Park, Cathedral Peak, Champagne Castle and Monk’s Cowl. Karkloof Canopy Tour offer a unique eco-wilderness adventure that involves traversing from one platform to another along a steel cable suspended up to 30 meters above the forest floor. Sounds a little scary, but being in those trees with the birds and whispers of wind, is truly special.
The foothills are scattered with boutiques hotels, lodges, farm stalls, craft brewers, cheese makers, weavers and artists. This is where Ardmore Ceramics came to life, a proudly South African export. The imposing peaks blend into gentle rolling hills and there is a charmed and relaxed pace of life here.
5. Soweto, feel the pulse.
A name that conjures images of a sprawling township with a volatile history and home to over 3,5 million people, this is where much of the struggle against Apartheid played out. It certainly ranks amongst one of the most important and interesting sights in the country and is today a mixture of rich suburbs and poor dwellings which pulse with life, vibrant music and theatre. Emerging fashion and pretty much the coolest kids to be found.
When visiting Soweto it’s certainly worth taking a guided tour to bring the history to life. For example, the only street in the world to house two Nobel Peace prizewinners is here. Nelson Mandela and Archbishop Desmond Tutu both have houses on Vilakazi. Soweto also covers a huge swath of land, over 90 square miles, so it’s easy to get lost in. Not that you should be deterred by that fact. A fun way to do this is with Soweto Bicycle Tours which offer a variety of options. Or if you’re not quite up to the bike ride, a cool Tuk-Tuk can be booked. For the adrenallin junky, a bungee off the Orlando Towers will get that heart rate up.
Which ever way you opt to do it, Soweto will touch your heart and soul and offer a better understanding of South Africa.
Not one for limiting the pleasures of travel and exploration, my advise would be to start with these, but only with the very clear understanding that South Africa is a country of diversity, as rich and full-bodied as a complex red wine, bursting with soul and asking to be savoured. One that you won’t want to leave. Allow some extra time to deviate from the route.
This article first appeared in the Holmes Lifestyle Magazine. Download the latest issue here.