Starting in Cape Town, the sweetheart of South African destinations and a place that demands a lingering look at her cosmopolitan mix of attractions, natural beauty and generous beaches which will hold your attention. Marked by the iconic Table Mountain, with internationally renowned restaurants, craft beer and the Cape Winelands within easy reach.
Go up Table Mountain as soon as you can for an orientation of the city. The cable car is weather dependent so take it the first chance you get. If you’d rather something more adventurous, there are numerous marked hiking routes to suite your level of fitness. Either way, once on top do the 45-minute circular walk, it really is flat up there with incredible views, Cape vegetation and many a rock hyrax or dassie to photograph.
If you’d like to hike up some perspective but don’t want to push the capability boundaries, walk half way up Lion’s Head for an excellent view of the city. Once you’re there you could just keep going, but see how you feel.
Visit the Cape Point Nature Reserve or Cape of Good Hope as it is fondly known. The best way is by driving along the False Bay coastline through St. James, Kalk Bay and the naval base of Simonstown. Stop at Boulder’s Beach in Cape Point to visit the African Penguins. Actually if you’d like to have a swim at Boulder’s Beach you’ll be in the water with the penguins, a very special experience indeed.
Look into the numerous hiking trails available in the Nature Reserve, or even take a bicycle and cycle the park. A favorite walk is from the Cape Point Lighthouse to Dias Beach and along to ridge to the South Western most tip. Remember to look out for baboons!
Get to the Sea Point promenade, it may be in the city but offers the idyllic balance between urban high risers and shoreline with space to walk, run, cycle and talk, with yoga on the lawn, public art and inspired benches to pause on as well as a guaranteed place to chat with locals. The Company Gardens also offer a reprieve to nature within the heart of the city. There is even free wifi if you feel the need to connect with the world.
Take to the beaches to simply soak up the sun with the beautiful people at Clifton and Llandudno, with Muizenberg and surfers corner the best place to get on a board.
Dive with thousands of Cape Fur Seals off Hout Bay’s Duiker Island with Animal Ocean. Wetsuit, goggles and snorkels are the only thing that will be between you and these curious animals that will come in for a closer look. Don’t think shark, this is seal territory.
Just over an hour’s drive away is the Elgin Valley, which offers a myriad of attractions, cool climate wines and endless views across apple orchards and vineyard-covered hills. Here is a lesser-known place for nature lovers to escape to, a mountain bikers dream with some of the most demanding and spectacular single tracks for professionals. Other outdoor activities in the valley include quad biking, kayaking, water-skiing, hiking and nature walks.
Too often forgotten is the more barren and rather real area west of Cape Town. The drive up the R27 highway offers a look at Bloubergstrand, Melkbosstrand and Yzerfontein, Blouberg undoubtedly offering the best views towards Table Mountain. The West Coast National Park with its 16-mile beach, tranquil lagoon and game viewing is the perfect place to spend a day. Actually you can book lunch at the Geelbeck Restaurant, or continue to Langebaan and have a meal on the water’s edge. Bear in mind that the wild flower season is from August to early October each year with the West Coast Park becoming covered in a carpet of flowers.
While out on the West Coast consider a weekend of beach glamping at the Beach Camp in the Cape Columbine Nature Reserve with sea kayaking and mountain bikes adding to your rustic and natural experience. Most kayakers are lucky enough to see dolphins while out on the water here.
East of the city you will discover one of the most scenic roads in the world. Clarens Drive, which connect Gordon’s Bay with the inviting Rooiels, Pringle Bay, Betty’s Bay and Kleinmond. Out here Hangklip is ever popular with sand boarders and kite surfers celebrating the wind.
Further along is Hermanus. A town that has built a reputation for having the best shore based whale watching in the world, the season is between June and November each year. With a rocky coast that offers an elevated look at the South Right Whales that frequent our waters each year.
Also in the Overberg is Gansbaai village and what has become known as the capital of shark cage diving. A great attraction to visitors to the Cape, with False Bay having a very high population of these protected animals. Should you wish to partake I recommend you book with Marine Dynamics who place much emphasis on the conservation of these apex animals, rather than the thrill factor.
In the area there are caves to explore, horseriding, boat trips, 4×4 flower safaris, walking trails and beaches to walk on, taking a closer look at life in the rock pools.
Take to the most extreme zip lining in South Africa with a visit to the new Cape Canopy Tours in the Hottentots Holland Nature Reserve, where your adventure will have you flying above age old protected Cape vegetation. Here nature meets adventure in this elevated part of the reserve.
Heading towards the Garden Route on the N2 highway will take you to De Hoop Nature Reserve, a place of untamed wilderness, protected seas, and relaxed game on 36000 hectares near Bredasdorp. With varied accommodation options, from which you can enjoy the numerous marked hiking trails, drives and a guided walk in the marine reserve. This is Cape Nature’s Flagship Nature Reserve and once there it’s easy to see why.
Arriving in Knysna on the Garden Route with a need to explore the outdoors, take a boat trip. Privately owned and protected, it serves as a necessary sanctuary to small game, with caves for exploring, beaches and coastline, a breeding ground for oystercatchers and endless vistas both inland and South to where there is nothing but blue waters.
The ocean adjacent to the lagoon has excellent whale activity during winter and spring with many marine species seen here throughout the year. Ocean Odyssey are Knysna’s only close encounter whale watching operation, with their well-trained skippers providing a memorable experience for all.
For accommodation in the area, Woodlands Cottages are well situated high on the banks of the Bushman’s River, a birder’s paradise with a wide variety of species spotted daily. From here you have easy access to surrounding attractions.
If time is limited, stop for a walk in the Garden of Eden, located between Knsyna and Plettenberg Bay, a fantasyland of wet forest vegetation and towering trees, here is the smell of nature with flowers peeping through the green. Further along, the Tsitsikamma indigenous forest is an enchanting place to visit, with some of the Outeniqua Yellowood trees as old as 700 years.
A great recommendation in the St Francis Bay area is to walk the Chokka Trail, a four-day, slack-packing trail that takes you through three picturesque fishing villages, along the rugged coastline, over sand dunes, through tidal rivers and protected fynbos.
In Jeffrey’s Bay, besides the world famous Supertubes surfers spot, you can go horseriding, exploring the Kabeljouws nature reserve whilst looking out for bird life, including flamingos, spoon bills and even fish eagles. If you’re a confident rider you can enjoy an exhilarating gallop along the beach.
Keeping with the eco theme, the Shamwari Conservation Experience offers a once in a life time opportunity to get behind the scenes at the world renowned Shamwari Game Reserve. Look into their various volunteering programs that offer short and long term involvement as well as learning programs.
At the beginning of the Cape Wild Coast with it’s gentle hills and scattered huts and remote settlements leading down to the ocean, is Areena Riverside Resort. Located on the banks of the Kwelera tidal river east of East London. With excellent views and cruises to the river mouth. Access to the beach is either by boat, river ferry, or a short trip by car, or for the more energetic an interesting hike.
Moving inland the Ukhahlamba-Drakensberg mountain range stretches the entire length of KwaZulu Natal’s western boundary and is home to 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. It’s an outdoor lover’s paradise that includes the Royal Natal National Park, Cathedral Peak, Champagne Castle and Monk’s Cowl. The foothills are scattered with boutiques hotels, lodges, farm stalls, craft brewers, cheese makers, weavers and artists.
Still in the province, consider joining one of the African Insight programs that teach a greater awareness and sensitivity to the surrounds with their wildlife experience, ranger course, science on safari and volunteer options that afford you the opportunity to learn about elephants, turtles and birds in the area.
Nearby is the iSimangaliso Wetland Park, with 332 000 hectares contained in three major lake systems, eight interlinking ecosystems and most of the country’s remaining swamp forests. It also has the one of the densest populations of hippo and crocodiles to be found. Take a boat cruise on the waters, listen for the call of the fish eagle and consider a guided game drive into the park at night. It offers a whole new perspective to the area.
Don’t leave the province without time in Durban, hot in climate, character and local curry, this east coast city lays itself bare with a relaxed and uncomplicated confidence. Walk the Golden Mile beachfront, which runs from North to South Beach. The water is warm and you could walk one-way feet in the sand, the other along the promenade, to get a different feel of the place, all the while salt catching your skin.
Take a canoe paddle on the uMgeni River estuary, one of the most important biodiversity assets in the area. You can experience the combo of beach, estuary and river with great bird watching in particular and the beautiful mangrove swamps.
Back in the heart of the country, Johannesburg is not to be overlooked but rather is well worth stopping in for long enough for you to be infected by the pulse of the city.
Then once you’ve had your fill seek out the great outdoors at the Cradle of Mankind and Sterkfontein Caves about 50km out of the city. One of eight World Heritage Sites in South Africa, archaeological finds here include two-million-year-old stone tools and fossil sites that tell the story of what the world was like when our human ancestors were evolving some two to three million years ago.
Aside from a visit to the Sterkfontein Caves and Maropeng, the official visitor centre of the Cradle of Humankind is also a playground for the people of Gauteng, with a range of facilities and activities, including loads of accommodation choices, restaurants, coffee shops, cycling tracks and hot-air ballooning.
Melville Koppies Nature Reserve, once a small suburb in the west of Johannesburg, was once the princess of bohemian life and known as one of the city’s nightlife hot spots. Today, the Melville Koppies Nature Reserve provides a good place for a stroll to enjoy the flora, small mammals and over 200 species of birds, with spectacular views over the city from the grassy ridges. Here you can breath fresh air and find some quiet.
All this taken into account, one of the best ways to get around the country is with Baz Bus, a unique hop-on hop-off, door-to-door bus service between the backpacking hostels around South Africa. Simply buy one ticket to your final destination and get on and off as many times as you want, wherever you want, with no time limit. It’s genius for the carefree traveller.
Best advise I can offer, always allow time to deviate from the route, as you make your own discoveries, views will captivate you and one or two spots will be very hard to leave. Enjoy our natural wonders.