South Africa is a country of rich history, beautiful nature and diverse culture. Unfortunately, not many people know much about this amazing region except that there’s Cape Town and Cape of Good Hope. We’ve asked Charl, a resident of South Africa, an Ironman race finisher, and a passionate traveler, to tell us more about his country.
Hi Charl and thanks for agreeing to share your knowledge! First, would you mind introducing our readers to South Africa in general?
South Africa is an incredibly diverse country, not only in terms of its people and culture, but also in terms of its nature. On the West coast, we have the freezing Benguela Current, and the sea is therefore very cold and rough around Hermanus and Cape Town. On the East coast, meanwhile, we have the warm Mozambique current, bringing hot tropical waters from the equator and resulting in the temperatures that allow you to dive almost all year round. From the spectacular Drakensberg ridge in the East to the cliffs of the Cape of Good Hope in the West – South Africa has something to offer for any traveler!
I’ve heard there is rich tribal culture in some of these regions. Where is it best to go to get a taste of traditional living?
The most interesting destination is KwaZulu Natal province where you can visit traditional Zulu villages and see how people lived centuries ago under Shaka’s rule. It’s a touristic destination, but still very interesting. You can also get a taste of traditional food and music during your visit.
The ancient Khoisan people, speaking a language with the most clicks in the world, live a modern life now, but for a taste of their culture you can see their paintings in Drakensberg caves. The Kingdom of Mapungubwe is famous for being an evidence of a substantial civilization in South Africa prior to Europeans colonization. Now there is a national reserve and a museum near Pretoria where you can see their crafts.
“Informal settlements” are areas where people live in housing units constructed without legal authorization. The largest informal settlement area is around Johannesburg. It’s not very safe to wander there by yourself, but you can visit with a tour.
White colonization suppressed traditional living and certainly left some monuments of its own. What are the most interesting places that tell about colonization era?
Voortrekker monument in Pretoria is one of the most impressive man-made sights in South Africa. It reminds one of a group of white pioneers that first left the Cape region and traveled to the north of the country to escape British colonial rule in the Cape, among others. They settled in the former Transvaal, KwaZulu Natal and also the Free State. The Afrikaans Language Monument in Paarl is also worth seeing.
Cape town has an interesting colonial city center, and off its shores is Robben Island. On it there is a prison where Nelson Mandela was an inmate and which is now a museum.
Cape of Good Hope
Cape of Good Hope has always fascinated me. Tired mariners on battered ships spotting the familiar shape of the Cape and knowing they are already halfway to the rich shores of India… What’s the best way for a tourist to enjoy the beauty of the Cape?
There is a very scenic road leading to Cape Point from Cape Town. The well known Cape Town Cycle Tour runs along it, so a bike ride is nice, or else you can go by car. The Cape Point area is a national park now and there is also a public beach. Die Kasteel – headquarters of the first settlers – is open to the public too. You can also visit the first South Africa post office in Simon’s Town on the Cape.
Cape of Good Hope is actually not the southernmost point of Africa, this fame belongs to Cape Agulhas where the waters of the Indian and Atlantic oceans actually meet. There is a nice road going there from Cape Town with many small towns along the way. Cape Agulhas is very windy so I wouldn’t stay there long. There’s a national park and other beautiful places around for you to explore. Seeing the cape and its surroundings can be a great day trip.
Continuing talking about nature, what are the best hikes in South Africa?
One of my favorite hiking regions is the Drakensberg in KwaZulu Natal. I’ve done two hiking tracks there and they were breathtakingly beautiful! The first one involved climbing Cathedral peak and camping there. It is not a very difficult trail and a fit hiker can manage it in one day. On the second trip we climbed to the top of Tugela Falls – the second highest waterfall in the world! It’s about 800 meters high and pretty scary to stay on top of it.
Otter trail is a 5 day hike from Storms river mouth to Nature’s valley, along the coast. It goes on the cliffs and is quite strenuous but very rewarding as you can observe sea whales, birds (Knysna Loerie) and breathtaking landscapes. There are tourist huts on the way with awesome views. The trail is very popular, and is sometimes booked up to two years in advance.
And the final must do for nature lovers is one of the several backpack trails offered in Kruger National Park – a massive game reserve. While you can also drive by yourself in the park, the backpack trails are in wilderness regions of the park where no cars or other tourists are allowed. You walk in the middle of the African bush and if you are lucky, you see lions, elephants and other wildlife. You live in tents and wash in rivers, two armed rangers are always at your side, just in case.
Timing and Safety
What is the best time to plan a visit to South Africa?
Summer months – November to March – are the best although sometimes it gets very hot in December and January. If you want to see whales, come in September – early October, when they come to Hermanus (Overberg region) to mate and give birth to their small ones. You can observe mothers with calves very close to the land.
Being an adventurous but careful traveler, I cannot fail to ask about safety in South Africa. Are there some special tips? Places to stay clear of?
Crime is a problem, especially in big cities, so be vigilant at all times and try not to walk around at night. If you drive at night, be vigilant at hijacking hot spots, such as traffic lights or secluded areas. There’s safety in numbers, so it’s always safer if you stay in the company of fellow travelers. You should also be careful camping around Lesotho region – I once got my shoes stolen there at night!
Food and Drinks
And finally my favorite question about cuisine! What are the must-taste iconic dishes and drinks in SA?
We love barbecue! The local word for it is braai and it is super popular and traditional. Typically they roast beef which is of very good quality in South Africa. Another favorite dish would be potjiekos – a big black pot full of meat, potatoes, vegetables and rice that you put in the fire and let cook for hours. Cape Town is big on seafood and is one of the best places for fine dining in the world – just make sure you book your table in good restaurants in advance! Hunting is legal in South Africa, and some restaurants serve anything from crocodile and kudu to warthog meat.
South African wines are incredible. The most famous wines come from Stellenbosch, Hermanus and Cape Town. Some of the farms have been there from the time of first governors – hundreds of years ago! Amarula is a sweet cream liqueur unique to South Africa. Its essential ingredients are sugar, cream and the fruit of the African marula tree, also locally known as the Elephant tree or the Marriage Tree.Written by Kate