Travelling in Africa might be a daunting journey, even for many seasoned travellers. Even today, occasional news of civil unrest and the legacy of colonialism still afflicting parts of this mighty continent. This, by no means, define many African nations currently in the midst of recovery and progress. Leading the charge into the 21st century, South Africa is big brother to many smaller states, even as the scars of Apartheid heal.
South Africa is everything you’d expect to see on an African adventure. To the east, Kruger National Park is a world class wildlife reserve that attracts over a million of visitors each year. Down south and all along the coast, the Atlantic and Indian Ocean collide in a three-way with rugged cliffs. And further inland, the landscape changes from lush green forests to the parched Karoo desert.
For first-time visitors to South Africa, this itinerary through South Africa covers a lot of ground in a short time, and on a relatively small budget. You’ll visit:
- Kruger National Park
- The Garden Route
- Stellenbosch (Famed winemaking region)
- Oudtshoorn (Ostrich capital of the world)
- Cape Town
We’ll start from Johannesburg. Hang on tight!
Day 1: Johannesburg to the Kruger National Park
Landing at Johannesburg International Airport, make a beeline straight to Nelspruit by bus. Citybus runs a regular service from the terminal to their depot in Nelspruit, taking 4 hours each way. Nelspruit is the gateway to the Kruger National Park, and has plenty of accommodation options.
Rest early and recover from jet lag. Tomorrow will be a long day of wildlife spotting and driving through endless dirt roads.
Day 2 to 4: A 3 day safari in the Kruger National Park
Bright and early in the morning, meet your safari guide. Choosing a guide is tricky business, but Africa Spear is a reliable operator to consider. Your guide will pick you up from the hotel, and drive straight into the Kruger National Park.
For first time safari visitors, engaging a safari guide is essential. The Kruger National Park is filled with dangerous wildlife living in their natural habitat, and rangers cannot guarantee your safety at all times. Navigating the park is also a challenge, as many unassuming dirt roads lead to active watering holes. Most important however, is the skill of a guide. Few can spot wildlife (or ‘game’) 400 meters away while driving at 40km/h – but a professional guide can.
You’ll stay in secured safari camp for 2 nights, dining at the in-house restaurant. If you’re feeling generous, you can also opt for a night safari at an additional cost – it’ll open up yet another world of nocturnal game watching experience.
Day 5: Getting your personal ride at Port Elizabeth
Return to Johannesburg and catch the overnight Shosholoza Meyl train to Port Elizabeth. The sleeper cabins are relatively modern, but you’ll need to bring a good book to keep yourself busy on the 12 hour journey.
Pulling into Port Elizabeth in the morning, get into a rental car and head off to conquer the beautiful coastline of the Garden Route. This is a marked difference from the sweltering inland savannah of Africa, and you’ll surely be making a lot of a pit stops along the way for photographs!
While you could possibly get to Cape Town by nightfall, where’s the fun in that? Over the coming days, you’ll be stopping over many dainty seaside towns. After a long day of driving, you’ll spend the first night on the Garden Route at Mossel Bay.
Day 6: Ostrich watching at Oudtshoorn
The next day, take a detour away from the coast and head to arid Oudtshoorn. With the proud claim as the Ostrich Capital of the World, Oudtshoorn certainly has no lack of ostrich farms, and the meat is the freshest. And yes, it does taste like beef, and not chicken.
Oudtshoorn is also famous for the Cango Caves, a limestone cave complex with evidence of inhabitation as far back as the Stone Age. Today, part of the cave is developed for tourism, but entry is still controlled by mandatory tour groups with a limited quota. If you want to visit this amazing underground cavern, it’s best to make a reservation online beforehand.
Day 7: Shark cage diving at Gansbaai
The next day, return to the coast via Barrydale and Swellendam, two charming colonial towns that resemble those found in midwestern USA. By late afternoon, you’ll reach Gansbaai, a small unassuming seaside town. But this is no average town – it’s one of only a few places in the world where you can jump into a steel cage and come face to face with a great white shark! If you’ve missed your chance here, your next best bet is in Neptune Islands (Australia) or Isla Guadalupe (Mexico).
Shark cage diving usually happens early in the morning, and only when the weather is good out in the ocean. But in a place where operators guarantee shark sightings on every trip, you can be sure that it’ll be worth the early morning wake up call. As such, get an early night’s rest and get ready for the adrenaline rush in the ocean tomorrow.
Day 8: Whale watching at Hermanus
The morning starts with the shark cage diving, ending right about lunchtime. From there, load up the car and head towards Hermanus, which is an hour drive away. While Gansbaai is famed for shark cage diving, Hermanus is popular for whale sightings, starting from as early as June to late November.
The best time to visit is in late September, when the town holds its annual Whale Festival. To aid in whale watching, a paved trail hugs the edge of the cliffs of Hermanus. From the Cliff Walk, you can take in views of the ocean stretching all the way to the horizon.
Day 9: Wine tasting at Stellenbosch and Franschhoek
The next day, drive inland to visit the world-renowned Stellenbosch and Franschhoek wine-making regions. Wines are one of South Africa’s top exports, and it boasts of vintages that rank among the best in the world.
Many vineyards offer wine tasting for free, or at a small fee. This is one of the best chance to savour some of the finest wines without breaking the bank. In fact, the ultra posh Delaire Graff Estate (of Graff Diamonds fame) offers a tasting menu of their best wines in their classy lounge. In retail outlets worldwide, each bottle can easily cost a few hundred US dollars!
Day 10: Play with penguins at Simon’s Town
Once again, head westwards and towards the coast to the Simon’s Town. Located at the Cape Peninsula and right at the doorstep of Cape Town, Simon’s Town is home to a colony of penguins. Somehow, these birds found a place to live right in the heart of a bustling seaside town. Today, the colony is protected by barriers and sharp-eyed attendants, who make sure no harm comes to the cuddly and playful African penguins.
If you have time to spare, take an enjoyable drive through the scenic Chapman’s Peak Drive. Once thought to be impossible to carve a road through challenging cliffs and loose rocks, a road was finally opened in 1922 to much fanfare. This is one of the few toll roads you’ll face, but it’s worth every cent that pays for its upkeep.
End the day at the nearby Camps Bay, yet another bustling seaside town with nice beach vibes reminiscent of Venice Beach in California. Jostle for space on the crowded beach, or just relax and watch the sun set under the horizon out at sea.
Day 11: Visit the dramatic cliffs at Cape Point
As you shake off the sand from your slippers and shorts, prepare for a day of nature and hiking. The tip of the Cape Peninsula is a national park filled with fynbos, a unique class of plants found exclusively along the coast of South Africa. You’ll know them when you see them, as they look otherworldly to most people.
The Cape Peninsula is famous for its milestone in seafaring history. This was where Bartolomeu Dias first rounded the African cape and reached the Indian Ocean in 1488. This set the Portuguese and other Europeans on a course to colonise various parts of Asia and the Pacific over the next five centuries.
The Cape of Good Hope is the point where southernmost tip of the Cape Peninsula lies, but don’t mistake it for the southernmost tip of Africa – that lies in Cape Agulhas, more than a hundred kilometers to the East and South!
The highlight of a visit to the Cape Peninsula national park is climbing up to Cape Point and getting a feel of the howling winds and rough seas that batter the cliffs and lighthouse relentlessly. Here, the weather is extremely unpredictable and deadly – which explains the many shipwrecks scattered all around this area.
Day 12: Climb Table Mountain and see Cape Town at its best
The last few days will be spent relaxing in Cape Town, and exploring this lively and energetic city. Table Mountain, a monolithic rock that towers Cape Town, is the much celebrated icon of the city and is worth a full-day to explore.
However, the flat summit of the mountain is susceptible to cloud cover, which can even cause the cable car to cease operation for safety reasons. Hence over the next 3 days, visit it as soon as you see clear skies.
If you’re feeling adventurous, physically fit and just a tad foolhardy, you can take on the Platteklip Gorge, which can only be described as going up, up and further up. The average hiker can climb the 1,000m cliff face in just under 3 hours, but you’ll likely spend a lot more time admiring the views while catching your breath. This is an exposed trail, so bring loads of water and a jacket – it’s not uncommon that low clouds will form without warning, causing visibility and temperature to fall dramatically.
Day 13 & 14: Explore Cape Town and wander around in one of the world’s most vibrant city
Two days is barely enough to cover Cape Town, but it’ll have to do in this tightly-packed itinerary. There’s loads to see here, but the main sights are:
- V&A Waterfront: Pier-side restaurants, hipster markets, classy shops, and an awesome view of Table Mountain
- Long Street: The main road connecting the CBD from end to end
- Greenmarket Square: A historical square and outdoor market selling mostly African handicrafts
- Robben Island: Infamous prison where Nelson Mandela was incarcerated for 18 out of 27 years spent behind bars
- Company’s Gardens: Started as a small vegetable patch for the Dutch East India Company, it has expanded into a shady park that provides some cover from the scorching heat of the African sun.
- Bo-Kaap: Rows of colourful and historical houses are home to the descendants of freed slaves, and this remains a popular photography spot today.
If you can find some time, join a free tour that covers different locations across Cape Town. With 3 scheduled tours every day, you might even spend an enriching day just walking with these professional and well-informed tour guides.
Dining in South Africa
South Africa remains an affordable place to dine, even in decent casual restaurants where a satisfying meal can cost around USD 6. Local wines are also affordable and many excellent choices can be purchased for less than USD 5.
The usual American fast food chains are easily found in large towns and cities, but try out the homegrown chain Nandos. And yes, they’re not Portuguese as many have come to believe.
Adventurous diners can also go for game meat like zebra, antelope and crocodile. If you’re not so much into exotic meat, ostrich meat is a more palatable choice that tastes almost like beef steak.
A legacy from the colonial era, Cape Malays were brought in from Southeast Asia by the Dutch long ago. While their population has largely integrated with the rest of South Africa, their cuisine still retains the heavy influence of Asian spices. You can try excellent Cape Malay food in Bo-Kaap Kombuis.
Lastly, you have to spend at least one evening grilling over a braai. The South African version of the barbeque is extremely popular with locals, and goes on till late in the night as an endless supply of meat is heaped onto a wood-fuelled fire.
Parts of South Africa is still unsafe for tourists, especially in the shanty towns and the larger cities. Stick to areas frequented by tourists, and you should be relatively safe. If mugged, avoid fighting back if you can. If your life in danger, look for opportunities to run to crowded areas. Unfortunately, crime is still a major social issue that plagues South African society.
AIDS is also an issue here, and it is wise to avoid unprotected sex with strangers. If you have to, use a condom and go for a health screening back home. Do not share syringes, and avoid taking injections in dingy clinics. You’ll probably know it when you’re there.
South African roads are in excellent condition, but some drivers are not. Drink driving is a major issue, and the generous speed limit contributes to an abysmal accident record. Practise defensive driving and observe the cars around you for erratic behavior. If in doubt, slow down and keep to the side or turn-off into a town.
If your idea of South African housing involves mud-brick huts and thatched roofs, you’re centuries behind time. Most towns that this itinerary covers are well-planned and houses are built to a high degree of western comfort.
An night’s stay in a small but clean B&B or lodge can cost around USD 30, although larger and more luxurious international chains will still drain your wallet quickly. If you’re looking for a nomadic adventure, consider hiring a caravan and go on an epic road trip across the country.
While South Africa shakes off the shackles of Apartheid, it also finds itself serving as regional leader among other smaller African nations. This is a place of stark differences, as you can tell when driving past whitewashed seaside towns located just beside a shantytown.
But there is hope that in time, inclusiveness among its different people will bring the nation forward. The South African national anthem is a mixture of 5 languages, and there are 11 official languages for this nation. But there is order in this chaos, and things work as you expect them to. If you’re looking for a relatively fuss-free adventure into Africa, let South Africa be your first choice for a travel destination.