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With its rich history, promise of adventure and incredibly welcoming people, South Africa is beckoning travelers from around the world. I was lucky enough to set foot in this remarkable country, hitting Cape Town, Johannesburg and the Madikwe Game Reserve near the Botswana border during a recent trip. As you probably already know, The Points Guy himself is a huge fan of South Africa, and great airfare deals to the country are often featured on our site. Even better for US travelers these days is an advantageous exchange rate, plus the widespread popularity of Uber in the country’s big cities, which helps to make everything more accessible than ever. Here’s a rundown of other enlightening and exciting ways to absorb some of South Africa’s extraordinary culture and history, listed below in no particular order.
1. Set out on an Epic Safari
There’s no shortage of places to join a truly awe-inspiring South African safari, but it’s important to find the right one for you. Ask yourself whether you want a safari day trip or would rather be away for several nights. Would you prefer luxury or rustic accommodations? Do you want to focus on particular animals, or have a guide with a specialty? For me, Madikwe Game Reserve had it all, including the “Big Five” — lion, elephant, buffalo, leopard and rhino — and a whole lot more. The one thing it didn’t have? Mosquitoes — seriously, not a single bite in four days, which still blows my mind. And even better, at lovely Jaci’s Lodges, I was able to join morning and afternoon game drives led by a local who seemed to know everything about this area and its colorful land, air and water inhabitants. We even had wildlife photography expert Andrew Aveley join two drives and supply us with high-end zoom-lens cameras (for about $100 more per day).
2. Enjoy the View From the Top of Table Mountain
You can see this giant flat-top mountain from anywhere in Cape Town, and when the winds from the southeast drape the summit in clouds, it forms what the locals have nicknamed “the tablecloth.” According to legend, the meteorological phenomenon is the result of an annual tobacco-smoking contest between the Devil and the Dutch pirate Jan van Hunks. Better still are the the city and harbor views from the top, reachable via various hiking ascents or an aerial cableway that was installed in 1929. It’s always an excellent day when you can roam the lofty hiking trails that snake across the plateau, which can take you anywhere from 30 minutes to several hours to complete. Other popular activities on Table Mountain include rock climbing, mountain biking and caving. Whatever you do, it’s a good idea to bring a map because the weather up here can be unpredictable and severely reduce visibility.
3. Explore the Victoria & Alfred Waterfront — and Relive History at Robben Island
Of the many Cape Town neighborhoods worth exploring, the Waterfront, often just called “The V&A,” is a pleasant place to stroll, shop at local boutiques, ride the Cape Wheel and eat. It’s home to nearly 500 retail stores, but is still a working harbor so you’ll see fishermen bringing in their hauls from the ocean. The names Victoria and Alfred refer to Queen Victoria and her son, Prince Alfred, who proved extremely popular with the locals when he visited the area as a 16-year-old British navy midshipman. The V&A is also the place to catch the ferry to Robben Island, where you can see a local penguin colony and tour the now-closed prison where Nelson Mandela served 18 of his 27 years behind bars. Over the years, the island has served as a leper colony, an animal-quarantine facility, a World War II fortress and a whaling station.
4. Learn the Whole Story at the Apartheid Museum
In Johannesburg, you’ll find the country’s economic and political epicenter. Among its highlights is the Apartheid Museum, a truly impressive multimedia institution that conveys a better understanding of South Africa’s dark history from 1948 to 1991. Located on the far south side of town, the museum unpacks the difficult story of apartheid, including its origins; the racial oppression and economic disparities of its era; personal narratives of South Africans who had to endure the system; and both the diplomatic resistance and violent uprisings that brought about its downfall. The museum opened in 2001 and features large, permanent exhibits with an incredible array of photographs, recordings, memorabilia, art and large-scale pieces — like an enormous, battered armored police car that once patrolled the townships to break up protests and instill fear in the populace. Allow several hours for a visit to this incredibly powerful museum; it should not be missed.
5. Raise a Glass to the Cape Winelands
There are several areas just outside Cape Town where you can explore rich South Africa wine country. I found Franschhoek (“French corner” in Afrikaans) especially pleasant thanks to the hop-on/hop-off wine tram that stops at several wineries for tastings. The rolling hills are a picture-perfect backdrop for lunch and tasting the award-winning merlot, rosé, and other wines of Dieu Donné Vineyards, which is perched high up on a south-facing slope. Maison Estate, meanwhile, hosts tastings of its crisp, sparkling white and seven more memorable vintages on its lawn or paired with meals in its outstanding bistro. If you’re lucky enough to be nearby on the first Friday of the month, ask about the chef’s tasting menu.
6. Discover the Cradle of Humankind
One of the most humbling and thought-provoking experiences of my South African journey was at Maropeng, a multi-site UNESCO World Heritage area that’s home to the Sterkfontein Caves. Over a half-century ago, archaeologists uncovered hominid fossils and skeletons that date back at least 2.4 million years, including the first adult Austrolopithecus ever found. The extraordinary cave tour alone is worth the hourlong drive northwest of Jo’burg. Wear comfortable shoes, be prepared to duck, bend and squeeze, and if you suffer from claustrophobia, consider skipping the caves and just hanging out and taking in the panoramic views at the Sterkfontein restaurant until the rest of your party emerges.
7. Soak up South African Style in the Maboneng Precinct
In the heart of Johannesburg, you’ll find this urban arts district, home to great indie shops, eateries and galleries housed inside the multilevel Arts on Main complex, which sports a food hall and a big open courtyard with tables and chairs. Head to the David Krut Bookstore to browse creative works by South African artists or wander the local studios and purchase art directly from the creators. Maboneng has a ridiculously cool Sunday street market, with vendors selling handmade wares like hand-printed textiles, jewelry, small beaded animals and so much more. Stroll around and find colorful, often politically inspired Jo’burg graffiti, then grab lunch at Pata Pata to enjoy traditional South African delicacies like boerewors (sausage) or morogo (sautéed African spinach).
8. Splurge on a Fine Hotel
South Africa is home to lots of splurge-worthy accommodations, and in Cape Town, you can go especially luxe with stays at hotels like the Twelve Apostles Hotel & Spa near picturesque Chapman’s Peak, the waterfront’s One&Only Cape Town, or the historic downtown Belmond Mount Nelson (nicknamed “the Pink Lady”). All three are Fine Hotels & Resorts properties, so book with your Platinum Card from American Express to score special perks like room upgrades, continental breakfast, 4:00pm late check-out and complimentary lunch or dinner for two.
9. Dare to Jump at Orlando Towers
So you want a little adventure? Head south of Jo’burg to the famous township of Soweto for extreme sports in and from two deactivated power-station towers. The station closed in 1998, but a decade later, a private company took over the towers, transforming them into a recreational-adventure park that’s adorned with colorful murals on the towers and across the grounds. Today the Orlando Towers Adventure Centre is one of Soweto’s most eye-catching landmarks, where you can try the freefall or big swing inside the towers, or bungee jump from the 33-story-high catwalk stretched between them. Afterward, gradually restore your normal heartbeat by ducking into the attached Chaf Pozi restaurant for real-deal South African barbecued meats (or “braai”), pap (a corn grits-like treat), chakalaka spicy vegetable relish and an ice-cold Castle lager. Cheers!
10. Give Back by Volunteering
Whether your personal interests are to help people, animals, the earth or another cause, consider a day (or more) of volunteering as a fulfilling way to give something back to this special country. You may find it’s more memorable than any other part of your journey. South Africa Tourism’s website hosts an informative rundown on how tourists can contribute to many worthy causes, including links to South African tour companies that organize “Voluntourism” trips. Environmentalists may prefer tree planting and other earthly tasks needed by the African Climate Reality Project in Johannesburg, whose leaders pass on the training they first received by Al Gore. Animal lovers may gravitate to a program like C.A.R.E. (Centre for Animal Rehabilitation and Education), where they will feed baby baboons and aid other wildlife in need. You can also contact a multi-pronged organization like Cape Town-based AVIVA, which arranges volunteer opportunities for travelers to suit a range of interests, like working with kids and schools or supporting endangered species.
What are your favorite things to do in South Africa? Let us know, below.
Featured image courtesy of the author.
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