South Africa offers diverse geography, the Big Five, and fascinating history. Pippa de Bruyn offers expert advice on what to do and when to go.
South Africa is a big country. Its north-eastern border, churned out by the Limpopo river, is 1240 miles from the craggy Cape; the golden beaches of the subtropical east, shaped by a warm Indian ocean, are 990 miles from the semi-arid west coast, pounded by an icy Atlantic. It’s a landmass that’s almost five times the size of Britain but it is the diversity of its geography within this that makes it such a fascinating destination. From the Kalahari Desert in the north, where black-maned lions pad across sienna dunes, to the Overberg coastline that sees the annual return of Southern Right whales to calve and nurse their young; the soaring majesty of the Drakensberg peaks to the iconic flat-topped mountain that embraces the port city of Cape Town, this is an extraordinary country to which you will want to return again and again, as so many do.
For many the main drawcard are the Big Five game reserves, where species co-exist as they have for millennia in a primal wilderness that touches the soul, and South Africa still offers the best-value safari you can have on the continent. Others, fascinated by the history of ancient man, come to find out more about some of our oldest hominid remains – some four million years old – in the Cradle of Humankind near Johannesburg. Road trippers are spoilt for choice – with a relatively well-maintained and signposted network that traverse vast, empty valleys and jaw-dropping mountain passes, it’s a wonderful country to explore by car (and an additional boon that South Africans also drive on the left).
Art collectors now include Cape Town as an essential stop on their global shopping trips, and the new Zeitz Museum of Contemporary African Art (opening September 2017) will showcase the creative capital of a continent that has been for too long maligned by stereotypes of poverty and disease. Cape Town and its Winelands also enjoy a stellar reputation for dining – from food markets to fine dining, the quality and affordability will blow your mind.
These are all good reasons to come, but what still takes many by surprise is how much they enjoy the hospitality of South Africans. Some say it is because the South African ubuntu – a philosophy that says that no human can exist in isolation, that we become human through other humans – that there is so much warmth. Regardless, you will find this a most welcoming destination, and engaging with locals easy because most South Africans are able and happy to converse in English.
That said, this is still a country of huge inequality. It may be one of the world’s biggest producers of diamonds, gold and platinum, but some 40 per cent of its population lives below the poverty line. As a result, petty theft can be commonplace and pockets of the big cities no-go areas. It pays, particularly in cities, to be vigilant. It is important to understand the challenges the country still faces. If you’re flying into Johannesburg be sure to visit museums that chart the revolution against apartheid, such as the Hector Pieterson Memorial and the Apartheid Museum, both of which provide invaluable context to a country that is still in flux, and in Cape Town an Uthando tour should be as important as a visit to Robben Island (see Top 10 Attractions in Cape Town).
The first decision to make when planning a holiday here is what sort of break you want – a week lying on the beach, for instance, or a two-week trip combining the best of bush, beach and wine, or a looping road trip that includes a variety of sights but no domestic flights, and so on.
If you’re looking for a beach holiday you’ll need to either fly into Cape Town from November to March, or to Durban to enjoy the subtropical Kwazulu Natal coast from April to October. Safari is good all year round in South Africa – it’s more about where you go than when. Road trips from Cape Town are also good all year round because of the semi-arid Karoo, which is such a great contrast with the temperate Garden Route that neighbours it.
If you’re limited for time you should ideally fly into Cape Town, do a little exploration of the Western Cape, then fly to the Kruger area for safari and depart from Johannesburg or Cape Town home. Two weeks is enough, but you’ll be happy with three.
The three main international airports are Johannesburg, Cape Town and to a lesser extent Durban (King Shaka). There are numerous domestic airports, including two that service Kruger National Park (Kruger Mpumalanga International Airport and Skukuza). Plenty of air-conditioned buses and (not quite as well maintained) trains; both of these are time consuming options not recommended unless you are here for some months. The exception if of course Blue Train (bluetrain.co.za) and Rovos Rail (rovos.com), both ultra-luxurious options that are well worth the money if you love a train journey.
There are loads of scheduled flights a week from London to South Africa, most overnight. The direct flights take about 12 hours to Cape Town and 11 hours to Johannesburg. Only Virgin Atlantic (0844 209 7777; virgin-atlantic.com), British Airways (0844 493 0787; ba.com) and South African Airways (0844 375 9680; flysaa.com) fly direct to Johannesburg, and only BA and Virgin fly direct to Cape Town.
Other airlines offering (usually cheaper) indirect flights include Air France (0871 663 3777; airfrance.co.uk), Emirates (0844 800 2777; emirates.com), Ethiopian Airlines (0800 016 3449; ethiopianairlines.com), KLM (0871 231 0000; klm.com), Lufthansa (0871 945 9747; lufthansa.com ), Qatar (0333 320 2454; qatarairways.com) and Turkish Airlines (0844 800 6666; turkishairlines.com). Booking the two legs of the journey with separate airlines also can work out considerably cheaper (for instance, first taking easyJet to the Continent).
UK-based tour operators that specialise in Africa include Africa & Beyond (0161 789 8838; africa-and-beyond.co.uk), Africa Sky (013 4288 9765; africaskysafari.com), Africa Travel (020 7843 3587; africatravel.com), Imagine Africa (020 7622 5114; imagineafrica.co.za), Rainbow Tours (020 3131 6625; rainbowtours.co.uk), Real Africa (016 0396 4730; realafrica.co.uk) and Expert Africa who specialize in Cape holidays (020 3405 6666; expertafrica.com).
The Telegraph is working in partnership with Africa Travel on an Exclusive Tour of South Africa’s wildflower hotspots. Travelling when the country’s magnificent wild blooms are due to hit their peak, you will be joined by broadcaster and gardener, Carol Klein, and Horticultural experts will be on hand throughout to show you the secrets of the landscapes, including rare plants and places inaccessible to most visitors. The 15-night tour costs from £3,995 per person, departing 14 August 2018. Click here for more information and to book.
For a local Cape Town-based concierge-style operator whose knowledge about where to stay and what to do is limitless, contact Lew Rood (lewrood.com); for a personalised road trip itinerary with safari add-on contact the travel writers (myself included) at Best Kept Shhh (bestkeptshhh.co.za). Rhino Africa, also Cape Town-based, offer an impeccable, highly professional and in-depth service, from day trips to itineraries across Africa (rhinoafrica.com/).
Budget holiday specialists include Fleewinter (020 7112 0019; fleewinter.com), Kuoni (013 0674 4435; kuoni.co.uk), Premier Holidays (08444 937 531; premierholidays.co.uk), Thomas Cook (0800 804 8330; thomascooktours.com), Thomson Tailormade (0844 050 2828; thomsonworldwide.com) and Trailfinders (020 7368 1200; trailfinders.com).