Abbreviated Guide to a South African Visit
By Robert S. Simon,
Regina Mundi Managing Director/Partner • Africa
You will love the country whenever you travel – depending upon where you want to go and what you want to do. Depending upon your specific routes and plan, a rental car can be very useful outside of the urban metros. And, if you plan on any game viewing in the national parks or road trips, spend the extra money for a solid four-wheel drive like a Toyota Forerunner. It is simply more comfortable if you choose to pursue outdoor activities. If you plan only guided day trips from the urban centers, skip the rental car and use Uber. If you want to leave the details to someone who is experienced, I have a Rolodex of tourism professionals to call upon. However, South Africa is very tourist friendly and you can DIY a great many experiences. However, just for some ideas –
Time and Pace
You need at least 14 days “in country,” and that means 14 whole days. When you add two days on either side for travel, you need to block 18 days total. It takes at least (if not more) 22 hours to fly from the US West Coast to Johannesburg or Cape Town (which airport to select depends on the time of year). Jetlag with the nine or ten time zone change can put you out of action for days.
I have a whole bunch of practical information sheets – all nice and tidy – but you need decide how much activity you want versus how much leisurely enjoyment you want to have. One guarantee: you cannot squeeze a lifetime worth of experience into a time capsule, so decide on the pace and your appetite for “seeing” over “experiencing.”
The way things work in sub-Saharan Africa is that the Atlantic western side gets winter rain (June – September), and the east side gets summer rain (December – March). The advantages of winter travel are:
The advantages of summer are:
Based upon the season it is generally recommended to visit in the north and east of the Republic during the winter, and visit the south and west during the summer. In both cases, reservations for critical experiences (i.e., parks & lodging) must be made in advance. A review of the usual sources of tourist information is advised, though making reservations prior to making a plan is discouraged.
If you go this way, you can head to the Kruger Mpumalanga International Airport and drop the rental car, then catch a flight to Durban tocontinue the tour. Alternatively, rather than go north to Kosi, consider traveling down the coast to Durban, then onward through the area known as the “Wild Coast,” ending in Port Elizabeth. The route to Durban should include few nights at one of the “Big Five” game preserves. The national and provincial parks are excellent and well tourist equipped. Hluhluwe Game Reserve, Imfolozi Game Reserve, Giants Castle Reserve, Falaza Game Park, and several smaller private facilities all cater to the overnight traveler who wants to experience game in an unspoiled setting.
Continuing south into the Durban metro there are typical beach resort towns like Balitto and larger internationally operated resorts such as the Fairmont Zimbali, but the gems are found closer into the Durban metro. My favorites are Umhlanga Rocks hotel – “The Oyster Box” where the food, neighborhood, and beach are all like a little version of Santa Monica, California (without the bling).
While in Durban area there are only a few “must” experience moments. The Shongweni Saturday Market is one of these. Open from 6:30 – 11:30 AM on Saturdays, it is a show case of local food, crafts, live music, and craft beer and wine. The vendors are uniformly engaging and inquisitive with real jobs during the week. The short hours and single day make the experience special for vendor and tourist.
The Durban promenade is also worth renting a bicycle and rolling from the Point (at uShaka Marine World) and the South Beach through to the North Beach. This whole sandy stretch presents some of the best swimming on the Indian Ocean (with shark nets and life guards). The Art Deco buildings are seeing a revival much like Miami Beach, Florida but retaining the access of the ordinary with vendors on the parking medians and even a public hospital (Addington Beach Hospital) taking up blocks of prime ocean front real estate.
The Wild Coast is so named for several well-earned reasons, like the hard to reach coastal enclaves at such beautiful places as Hole-in-the-Wall, Coffee Bay, Port St. Johns, and Port Edward. There are also attractions like the Cape Hermes Lighthouse, Silaka and Lucha nature reserves, Mthatha Dam, and the Tutor Ndamase and Langeni Passes.
Air travel from the Port Elizabeth terminal to Johannesburg’s main Tambo International airport is frequent and there are multiple carriers. The return to Johannesburg should be booked when in country on a one-way ticket from a discount carrier so leaving becomes an act of convenience rather than duty.
Coastal and Interior - None of the “interior” (like the diamond mines of Kimberly) is seen on my Summer and Winter suggestions. The interior is really a mid-August through September trip focused on the desert flower blooms. I like the Atlantic coast area from the Swartland north of Cape Town all the way up to the southern beaches of Namibia. If you came and wanted to see some of this landscape, then be prepared for everything from a rainy and snowy 4° C (40° F) all the way to sunny, dry, and 35° C (95° F) – it could all happen in the same day.
This town is the gateway to the Swartberg and the flowers of the high desert to the north and east. The Koi-San people cave paintings proliferate in this area with hiking trails and self-catering accommodations inside the preserve areas. Guided tours to the best caves are recommended.
The flower season will usually find very acceptable small hotels available in the village itself., but I prefer to stay at the Bushman’s Kloof, which includes both game drives, guided hikes, and small high-end resort amenities (most guests are annual repeats). The drive to the trail heads is about 30km from town and daylight is shorter on this side of the world at that time of year, so I prefer to be closer though it is more expensive. There are also several other options about which I have heard good things.
If you go this far north, then I recommend that you fly out of Windhoek Namibia on your return international leg. You will be pleasantly surprised by the inexpensive prices and the quality craft this national carrier operates.
Religious and Cultural Tourism
The country is packed with significant religious and cultural monuments and experiences. The anti-apartheid struggle is reflected in many locations. The British- Boer conflicts for dominance or independence which preceded the struggle have their own important touchstones. The indigenous peoples (now referred to as the Koi-San) have their own history and stories preserved as national treasures.
The collection of religious communities also presents the opportunity to see the old and new traditions. The long established Jewish communities – much reduced as a result of the mandatory military service during the struggle and the opening of Israel to immigration – is still a vibrant and eclectic mix of east, west and the Sephardic traditions of Africa. The Christians have African evangelicals and other “praise” based faith demonstrations. The followers of Islam have a tolerant and distinctly South East Asian flavor rather than the Arabian versions of practice. In most urban centers there are opportunities to see and experience each of these elements of the great rainbow of cultures and religions which make up the Republic. However, unless adequate time is allowed, you will need to trade off lengthy trips outside the urban centers against these more intense and compact opportunities.
Consider that if you did either the Winter or Summer suggested routes you would need every single day of the 14 to even taste the salt. Everyday beyond 14 is a 100% guarantee of a better and more enjoyable pace of adventure.
Site design by KLARECOM © 2017
Winter travel should begin in Johannesburg (in local patois, “Joberg”) and end in Port Elizabeth. A map will reveal the north-south axis and the desirability of a route that uses Joberg as a base for visits to the capital, Pretoria, and the renown Kruger Park to the east. A good itinerary includes a road trip southeast, through the Drakensberg Mountains past the scenes of horrific battles of the 2nd Anglo – Boer War (1898-1902) and the monuments to the Zulu Wars (1879), stopping in Durban in the province of Kwa Zulu Natal. At this point you need to decide whether to travel north toward the border of Mozambique and see Kosi Bay – a Unesco World Heritage site – and take a zodiac boat off the beach to the reefs to scuba dive Sodwana Bay and the St. Lucia Wetland Park.
Further north along the coast plain takes you to Mabuto, the capital of Mozambique. Beaches with typical “African” resorts are sprinkled along the way. The lure of the Indian Ocean and fresh seafood, and inexpensive five-star accommodations can remind you of Mexico or Morocco. This time of year is safe from malaria and other diseases, so consider a round trip back into South Africa through the famous Kruger National Park. The Giriyondo Border Post opens into the heart of the Kruger with all the rhinos, lions, and elephants on display as you travel west to the Phalaborwa Gate and the South African nation highways beyond.
The Durban curry houses are renown, but I think that a “take-away” picnic enjoyed on a blanket at the Durban Botanic Gardens is the only way to become a true Durbanite for a day. Established in 1849 and free to all, the Gardens are well-kept through the efforts of volunteers. The best places to get that curry may change based on the day – check your relevant sources – but remember one thing: you are on the Indian Ocean so fish curry and prawn masala are really what you want to try. Fresh caught that day and delivered to the chef. The naan bread and the mango lassi to cool the heat of fiery locally grown chilis.
Once you have tired of the good food and warm sand between the toes, head south on either the R102 or the N2 (the roads merge in Durban until the roads reach Port Shepstone) and head to Margate for the first overnight stop. The hand crafted S’khumba Crafts footwear facility is in the banana trees just above town in the village of Ramsgate and worth a visit (I wear mine all the time).
The journey ends in Port Elizabeth, where there are three of the best private game reserves in the Republic (Shawari, Kragga, and Amakhala). There are also tourist-driven experiences such as the Air Force Museum, shark diving, and deep-sea fishing. Small coastal enclaves with extraordinary “Blue Flag” beaches such as Kenton-on-Sea and Port Alfred are worth considering. The golfer who cherishes playing on a “Royal” course will want to make a reservation for the Royal Port Alfred Golf Club course. Consider staying at the brand-new 5-star Royal St. Andrews Hotel on the property.
Summer travel should begin in Cape Town (known by locals as “the Mother City”) and end in Port Elizabeth. The Mother City is the gateway to the Republic’s most cosmopolitan and functional province. The vista from the awe-inspiring Table Mountain is matched by the nautical ambiance of the Victoria & Alfred Waterfront development.
Some short day trips in the area could include a visit to the award-winning wineries and breweries in Stellenbosch area, the Cape Point and Cape Peninsula (Cape of Good Hope) and Cape Agulhas (southernmost point of Africa) light houses, penguin sanctuaries, Simon’s Town naval base, and Chapman’s Peak lookout. There are also the World Heritage site biomes of the Garden Route, including the Cape Floral Kingdom. You’ll see Fynbos, Renosterveld, succulent Karoo, sub-tropical thicket and an Afromontane forest (South Africa is ranked third after Brazil and Indonesia in terms of plant diversity).
The Garden Route can also include stops at the Knysna Heads (where the Indian Ocean meets the South Atlantic and Antarctic Sea), the world’s tallest bungee jump at Tsitsikamma (216 meters), and a “sugar shack” self-catering beach-side bungalow nestled in the rocks of the on-shore island of the Robberg Nature Reserve at Plettenberg Bay.
The trip should end with a stay at the Addo Elephant National Park, which offers three distinctly different natural experiences in the presence of elephants. The experience of these majestic animals and the very simple setting of the various rest camps makes for an African experience under the stars that will linger as you board the plane home.
A trip on this route would start in Cape Town (after several days of local touring the Cape region, the Winelands, and whale watching on the Cape Agulhas). Head north to the beach community of Langebaan for an overnight at the Thali Thali game preserve or in one of the self-catering units in Paternoster (a small village of arts and farm-to-table food renown). Then travel further north along the N7 to the Cederberg Mountains and the community of Clanwilliam.
From Clanwilliam the drive up R364 takes you to the village of Calvinia. The “Upper Karoo” at this time of year is the typical interior of the Northern Cape, but if the weather cooperates the rains will abate, the sun come out, and the flowers will carpet the rolling hills in color. There are several reserves worth viewing, like Akkerndam, Hantam, Oorlogskloof, and the famous Tankawa Karoo National Park. Each has self-catering opportunities which are quite serviceable and pleasant.
North on the R355 takes you to the large border town of Springbok. The junction of the N7 and N14 highways makes this town the South African version of Atlanta, Georgia. In the Northern Cape all roads lead to Springbok. The Namaqua National Park flower scene is so popular that you need to make your self-catering plans or guest house plans early to secure exactly the dates you want. The options include specific “flower camps” from August 11- Sept 10 which are well worth the trip. These are rustic beach camps in safari tents with absolutely nothing around you; it’s like being ship wrecked but with your favorite comforts.
This is the point at which you either turn south and head back to Cape Town on the N7 (a long day behind the wheel) or keep going. The enduring will continue north to the Richtersveld National Park – a United Nations World Heritage site – on the frontier with Namibia. Many people make this stop a part of a longer run to the Skeleton Coast of Namibia, ending at Luderitz on the coast. It is a fabulous trip with plenty of good roads, safe environments, and tourist friendly experiences.