South Africa, officially known as the Republic of South Africa, offers a great introduction to the many jewels of the Dark Continent. Tourists here will find classic African scenery: golden savannah, great gaping gorges, and hauntingly beautiful deserts, as well as their favorite African creatures – and, as a bonus- the creature comforts. Apart from the big-name game parks of Kruger and the Kgalagadi (Kalahari) Transfrontier Park, South Africa is home to some of the world’s most luxurious private game reserves and lodges. Wildlife lovers come here from all corners of the globe in search of the “Big Five”: lion, buffalo, leopard, rhino, and elephant, and often they find it, and so much more.
Durban’s Golden Mile, KwaZulu-Natal
Durban’s sweeping waterfront promenade, the Golden Mile, is a legendary tourist magnet and a great starting point for a tour of the city. Long blond beaches lure swimmers, surfers, and anglers, while the bustling promenade feels like Miami Beach with its high-rise hotels, shops, restaurants, and flashy entertainment complexes. Visitors can stroll along here or rent a bike or Segway. Besides the beach scene, top attractions along this stretch include uShaka Marine World, a wonderland of sea-themed attractions; Moses Mabhida Stadium; and Mini Town, a tiny replica of Durban with a miniature rail network, airport, and harbor scene.
Blyde River Canyon Nature Reserve, Mpumalanga
Beautiful Blyde River Canyon Nature Reserve (also called Motlatse River Canyon) is a favorite stop on the drive between Johannesburg and Kruger National Park. The park is home to Africa’s second largest canyon as well as a rich diversity of wildlife and plants. Lush subtropical foliage, waterfalls, glistening rivers, and lichen-covered rock formations create a striking canvas of color and texture. Game viewing can be particularly rewarding with all the common species of South African primates and many hippos and crocodiles. The best way to explore this spectacular park is via the scenic driving routes or by hiking the extensive trails. Panoramic viewpoints include Three Rondavels and the aptly named God’s Window. Boat trips and whitewater rafting are also available on the rivers.
iSimangaliso Wetland Park, KwaZulu-Natal
iSimangaliso means “miracle and wonder” in the Zulu language, and it’s a fitting name for this World Heritage Area, home to Africa’s largest estuarine system. Formerly the Greater St. Lucia Wetland Park, iSimangaliso lies on the northeastern coast of Kwazulu Natal and connects eight interwoven ecosystems, including coral reefs, croc-filled rivers, lakes, towering coastal dunes, swamplands, and savanna. Not surprisingly, the area supports an incredible variety of wildlife. More than 526 species of birds inhabit the reserve as well as leatherback and loggerhead turtles, leopards, rhino, and Africa’s highest concentration of hippos and crocodiles. This unique wilderness area offers visitors the chance to combine a classic safari experience with coastal adventures in the marine reserve such as kayaking, fishing, diving, and snorkeling.
Kgalagadi (Kalahari) Transfrontier Park, Northern Cape
A merger of South Africa’s Kalahari Gemsbok National Park and Botswana’s Gemsbok National Park, the Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park is one of the largest wilderness areas in the world. Established in 2000, it is Africa’s first officially declared transfrontier park and lies in a remote region of South Africa’s Northern Cape. Gnarled camel thorn trees, red sands, golden grasslands, and deep blue skies provide a bold backdrop for photographs and game viewing. Among the huge diversity of wildlife, this vast conservation area is home to the famous black-maned Kalahari lion, stately gemsbok with their V-shaped horns, the sprawling nests of sociable weavers, meerkats, and many birds of prey. Other predators such as leopard, cheetah, and hyenas are also found here. Four-wheel drive vehicles are recommended for some of the minor rugged roads or for those venturing into Botswana.
Cape Town, Western Cape
One of the planet’s most breathtaking cities, Cape Town is, by population, the second largest settlement in South Africa. Nature surrounds this multicultural city, which nuzzles between a rugged range of mountains and the sea. For a spectacular overview, hike to the peak of flat-topped Table Mountain, or glide up on the cableway. The hour-long hike up Lion’s Head also provides panoramic city vistas. On Table Mountain’s eastern slopes, the magnificent Kirstenbosch Botanical Gardens lie within a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Strolling along the waterfront boardwalk, visitors might see whales spouting from the harbor. Penguins waddle along the golden beaches in False Bay, while south of the city, Cape Point is home to abundant wildlife and diverse botanical wonders. One of Cape Town’s top attractions is the Victoria and Alfred Waterfront. Reminiscent of Fisherman’s Wharf in San Francisco, visitors come here to shop, dine, and enjoy the many entertainment venues, including Two Ocean’s Aquarium. Camp’s Bay, rimmed by beautiful boulder-flanked beaches, offers chic shops and cafes. At sunset, nature lovers stake a spot along spectacular Chapman’s Peak Drive in a dusk ritual known as “sundowners” to watch the sun sink slowly into the sea.