Few visitors do more than pass through South Africa’s largest city, missing out on the throbbing pulse of the nation in which all its cultures can be found. Joburg offers excellent museums (particularly the Apartheid and Hector Pieterson Museums), contemporary African art centres, botanical gardens with endangered eagles, and Africa’s tallest building… all removed from the tourist throng.
South Africa may not offer the (often clichéd) “tribal” experiences of other nations, such as the Himba or the Masai, but what it does have is far more real and accessible without the need for contrived tours. Superb street food, diverse local music, cultural festivals and art fairs are great ways to discover genuine culture on your South Africa vacation, from Xhosa and Zulu to Coloured and Afrikaans.
It’s not a name that springs to mind when planning a trip to South Africa, but iSimangaliso – meaning ‘miracle’ in Zulu – was listed as South Africa’s first UNESCO World Heritage Site. There are 220km of beaches to explore, winding between coral reefs and the Lubombo Mountains, along with wetlands, lake networks, estuaries, over 500 bird species and mysterious swamp forests.
In the rush to see the cities, savannahs and sandy beaches, South Africa’s largest ecosystem is sadly overlooked. The Karoo is wild and arid, yet astonishingly diverse, with succulent plants, mountain zebras and lions living amongst its plains, ravines and flat topped mountains which stretch out to endless horizons. Base yourself in the pretty, Dutch-style Graaff-Reinet or ostrich farming Oudtshoorn for easy excursions while on vacation in South Africa.
Crime, poverty and poor infrastructure have deterred many a visitor from the townships. But they are changing – and rapidly turning into one of South Africa’s biggest cultural draws. Soweto and Khayelitsha host well-managed walking and cycling tours, with opportunities to meet local residents, learn about the resettlements, visit Mandela’s house, sip a cold beer in a shebeen – and provide much-needed income for local residents.
The majestic scenery and Mediterranean climate make this one of the most picturesque South Africa vacation destinations. Wineries here date back to the 1700s, but for a contemporary twist on this traditional industry, visit one of the growing number of black-owned vineyards around Stellenbosch. Alternatively, ride Franschhoek’s open sided Wine Tram through the valley for a narrated tour with tastings.
The newly crowned 2014 World Design Capital may be thronging with tourists, but you can’t come all this way and miss Africa’s most vibrant, dramatically-situated city. A buzzing urban blend of bars, world-class restaurants, cultural festivals and museums sits comfortably side-by-side with sweeping bays, botanical gardens, bold baboons – and even penguins, on Africa’s southwesterly tip.
In 1879, the British army invaded Zululand and found themselves face to face with thousands of Zulu warriors. Today, the battlefields at Rorke’s Drift (where 140 British troops held off up to 4,000 Zulus) and Isandwana (where 1800 British solders were killed) set the stage for mesmerising tours, led by knowledgeable storytellers who bring the scenes to life.
Unlike Asia, Africa has no history of working with elephants. Captive elephants here work exclusively in the tourist trade – and to get them to “behave” around tourists, they are beaten and maltreated so that tourists can touch and even ride them. Knysna has a particularly awful example of this. If you want a genuinely magical elephant experience – go and see these incredible mammals in the wild. You’re in Africa!
A photo of yourself feeding a baby lion will wow friends back home – until you realise what might have happen to the cub once your South Africa vacation is over. Habituated animals can never be released into the wild, and when the cub gets too big to be safely handled it’s not cost-effective to keep. To put it bluntly – there’s a good chance it’ll end up on a canned hunting reserve. Read more about this issue here.
Ok, we’re not going to argue that the Big Five are not worth seeing. No-one is ever disappointed by a rhino. But we do think there is much, much more to a South Africa vacation than just seeing these species, and to miss the landscapes, cultures, birdlife, cities, and lesser-known species in your bid to tick off this list would be a terrible waste of a trip.
The V&A Waterfront attracts more foreigners than anywhere else in South Africa – and with 24 million visitors a year, international hotel chains, shopping malls, overpriced restaurants and characterless cafes are jostling for a piece of the tourist dollar. Come for the views and free family entertainment at the amphitheatre, but be sure to dig deeper into the city to experience more than just the tourist façade.