Lying under canvas as the sounds of trumpeting elephants carry in the night air, kicking back on the kind of beaches you’ve only previously seen on idyllic postcards or throwing yourself off a dizzyingly high platform with elastic strapped to your ankle. There are heaps of amazing things to do in South Africa that give you the chance to do all of that and a considerable amount more besides.
Comprising nine separate provinces, the magnificent corner of the world known as South Africa comes packed with diversity and has no less than nine UNESCO World Heritage Sites to boast of.
Whether it’s awesome food, spectacular landscapes, rich culture or a huge array of adventure activities it’s hard to figure out which of the top things to do in South Africa you can fit into your trip!
Those who journey to this tip of the continent are inclined to end up with a memory crammed full of unforgettable experiences and touched to the core by the powerful enchantment of Africa.
Here are just ten of the oh-so-many reasons South Africa needs to be on your travel itinerary.
10 Of The Top Things To Do In South Africa
1. Learn to Surf
If learning to surf has always figured somewhere on your lifetime must-do list South Africa offers the perfect opportunity. Home to world famous breaks and well-known as a destination for the pros and surf-passionate, South Africa also offers year-round conditions ideal for the complete novice.
Notable spots for transforming yourself from would-be surfer to wave rider include Cape Town’s Muizenburg with its laid back bohemian air the aptly named Surfers Corner.
Sitting at the heart of the iconic Jeffreys Bay which is home to the surf-world famous Supertubes, beautiful Dolphin Beach offers up some wonderful slower, fun waves – best from April to September – for those just starting out.
Quite how you go about things is up to you – options range from a 1 hour session to surf camps or even the epic 10 week Cape Town to Durban Surf Adventure with Ticket to Ride!
While locations and learning opportunities vary considerably there is one element which tends to link them all – that unforgettable moment when you stand up on a wave for the first time. From this point anything is possible.
2. Meet The Big 5 On Safari
Spotting wildlife is pretty much top of almost every South Africa traveller’s list and you really couldn’t be better placed if ‘go on safari’ happens to be on your bucket list. Consistently featuring in lists of the continent’s best safaris, South Africa is home to the ‘Big Five’ – lion, elephant, leopard, rhino and buffalo.
The national parks and reserves which tend to get the most plaudits include Mala Mala, Kgalagadi and Sabi Sands with the iconic Kruger National Park typically recognised as the brightest gem in the South African safari crown.
The kind of safari you opt into is your choice – possibilities range from the backpacker budget-friendly to the luxurious and from self-drive safaris to those led by a guide.
I joined the crew of Intrepid for a 5 day safari for Johannesburg and loved every minute of it.
3. The Dark History Of Robben Island
Another of South Africa’s nine UNESCO World Heritage Sites, Robben Island which lies just off the Cape Town coast has known previous uses as both a 19th century leper colony and a World War II gun emplacement site. Its most famous use however is that of prison and its most famous inmate Nelson Mandela who passed 18 years here in a tiny cell. Incarcerated for 27 years in total, Nelson Mandela was just one of many Robben Island political prisoners during the apartheid years.
A major highlight of any visit here is the tour guides. As many of them were former political prisoners themselves these guys are living embodiments of Robben Island’s tag-line – ‘a symbol of the triumph of human spirit over adversity’.
4. Get Your Adrenaline Pumping
Ok so we’re cheating a bit and packing a few ideas into number 4, but if you have the kind of bucket-list that features a plentiful amount of adrenaline fuelled activities South Africa is going to give you the opportunity to tick off a lot of them!
It’s one of the world’s capitals for adventure activities. It would be easier to list what you can’t do in South Africa that what you can!
The non-stop fun menu includes such things as bungee jumping, surfing, rock-climbing, sky-diving, canyoning, hard-core hiking and free-diving. If you want to mix-and-match a little wildlife spotting with your thrill-seeking there are also options for snorkelling with sharks, cage diving with great whites and even crocodiles.
The bottom line is, imagine it and the chances are somewhere in South Africa you can probably do it.
5. Visit Soweto
If you know anything of South Africa’s history you will have heard of the township of Soweto and the major part it played in the anti-apartheid movement, most notably the Soweto Uprising of 1976. Once the home of both Nelson Mandela and Desmond Tutu, Soweto with its freedom struggle sites, Mandela family Museum and rich anti-apartheid history is the place to come if you want to learn a little more.
While you’re in town you can also sign up for a bungee jump off the platform of the fantastically decorated Orlando Towers or take in a cold beer or two at one of the shebeens where hip-swaying beats typically come as standard.
6. Travel Along The Garden Route
Stretching from Mossel Bay in the west to Stormsrivier in the east, the Garden Route is 300km of coastline loveliness. So named for its incredible lushness, the Garden Route is liberally sprinkled with lakes, lagoons and an otherwise general richness of natural beauty which all together serves as something of a magnet for the outdoor-lover and adventure-passionate.
With a heap of nature and marine reserves, this area of South Africa is home to coral reefs, an incredible diversity of bird species and has coastal waters frequented by seals, dolphins and whales. Head to one of the bays from May to February and you may be treated to the sight of a whale tail-slapping the water, poking up its head or blowing a spout high into the air – sometimes close in to shore. Plettenberg Bay is a particular hotspot.
7. Go Back In Time At The Cradle of Humankind
A meteorite impact site, a collection of ancient rock art and a cultural landscape area peopled by the Khomani San hunter-gatherers – these are just three of South Africa’s impressively large collection of UNESCO World Heritage Sites. Another inclusion is the complex of caves located about 50km from Johannesburg known as the Cradle of Humankind.
While cave networks the world over often offer up opportunities for a little adventure what makes these particular ones such an essential inclusion in any South Africa itinerary is their collection of ancient fossils and bones including a skull more than 2 million years old. Here, scientists tell us, is where the human story first began and one of the very places from which every being on Earth can trace their descent.
8. Meet The Ocean At The Cape Peninsula
Curving down into the Atlantic Ocean from Cape Town like a slightly deformed bird’s beak can be found the jut of land known as the Cape Peninsula – an area rich in nature of the unspoiled kind. A paradise for hikers, the Cape serves up vistas of spectacular scenery one after the other, vineyards, isolated beaches and the point where the Atlantic Ocean meets the Indian Ocean at the Cape of Good Hope.
Highlights of the area include the chance to spot whales in spring and summer, South Africa’s oldest building – the 17th century Castle of Good Hope – and Simon’s Town with its quaint historical buildings and stunning beaches. Even if you’re not a beach-bunny make sure you check out Boulders Beach where you’ll be able to get up-close-and-personal with a colony of African penguins thousands strong.
9. Marvel At Waterfalls
Surging and powerful, highly picturesque or the kind which empty into an idyllic pool surrounded by lush forest – everyone loves a waterfall no matter what guise they come in. South Africa has more waterfalls than anywhere else on the continent including Tugela Falls which at 948m is Africa’s highest and only beaten on a world scale by Angel Falls in Venezuela.
Looking for dramatic? Try Mpumalanga’s Lisbon Falls or the Augrabies Falls in the Augrabies National Park.
Otherwise, waterfalls are likely to feature heavily on any South African trip and while there are some highly accessible possibilities other involve serious adventure to get to them.
10. Table Mountain
Lets face it, no top things to do in South Africa list is complete without Table Mountain!