From the excitement of big cat safaris and breath-taking hikes; to discovering untouched golden beaches and innovative food. Here are our top experiences in South Africa.


South Africa is a place to be in the great outdoors.

Encountering remarkable wildlife in Kruger National Park, strolling coastal footpaths hiding untouched golden beaches, peering over some of the world’s deepest canyons or lunching on terraces overlooking rows and rows of vines. South Africa is an excellent holiday destination.

During our many visits to the Rainbow Nation, we have had many amazing experiences.

From soaking up incredible views in the great outdoors to understand the legacy apartheid has left behind. Here are our top experiences in South Africa.

OUR TOP EXPERIENCES IN SOUTH AFRICA

SABI SANDS / Following an adrenaline-charged painted wolf hunt in Sabi Sands

ROBBERG PENINSULA / Swimming from an untouched golden beach at the Robberg Peninsula

LANGA / Learning about the lingering impact of apartheid on a township tour

SWARTBERG PASS / Swerving through red rock canyons into the Great Karoo

KALK BAY / Dining on fresh fish straight from the harbour

LION’S HEAD / Hiking up Lion’s Head for sweeping views of Cape Town & Table Mountain

BLYDE RIVER CANYON / Swimming in natural pools at jungle clad Blyde River Canyon

SOWETO / Cycling through the history of Soweto’s brave resistance to apartheid

WINELANDS / Enjoying innovative cooking in the beautiful setting of South Africa’s winelands

KRUGER / Watching scavengers scrap over last night’s kill in Kruger National Park

1 / FOLLOWING AN ADRENALINE CHARGED PAINTED WOLF HUNT IN SABI SANDS

The late afternoon sun was resting upon a pair of leopards. The female seemed frisky, the male content to just lay there. But as the female made her advances the male surrendered. Twenty seconds later mating was over and the female turned onto her back and squirmed around to help impregnation.

Sabi Sands, a private reserve, borders Kruger National Park in the north east of South Africa. Our spotter and driver had taken us off the main path through the deep bush to this spot. A remarkable chance to see these difficult to find animals up close.

Just as we were about to leave, our driver points excitedly to three rarely seen painted wolves, doggedly chasing their prey. The last one had a limp, so we had a chance.

Our jeep was suddenly flying through the South African bush. Scraping trees, swerving termite hills & slicing through sand. Clinging on for dear life, our bones rattled along with the jeep.

The wolves flickered like ghosts in the early evening dusk. One minute they’re a few metres away, the next they shimmered in the distance. We twisted and turned through the bush to keep up. But just as suddenly as they arrived, they were gone. We peered into the dark hoping for one last glimpse of them. But it never came.


Sabi Sands / We stayed at Nkorho Bush Lodge in Sabi Sands private reserve on the western boundary of Kruger National Park. It is a 3-hour drive from Nelspruit airport or 6 hour and 30-minute drive from Johannesburg airport.

2 / SWIMMING FROM AN UNTOUCHED GOLDEN BEACH AT THE ROBBERG PENINSULA

We were clinging to a walking path half way up a coastal cliff. Below seals played in the rough seas that pound the rocky walls of the peninsula; their smell wafted up assaulting our senses. Above us, birds swirled and swooped looking for food.

The path around the Robberg Peninsular began to drop and our noses filled with the clean fresh smell of the ocean. Close to the edge dolphins spirited through waves, while the blowhole of a whale was barely visible on the horizon.

Rounding the corner, the rock and crashing seas gave way to a golden beach protected by a headland. Walking is the only way to get here and it had taken us 3 hours. Our feet sank into the large dunes as they spilled into the ocean. Our footsteps the only ones we could see.

We waded out into the water; crystal clear, cool but refreshing. It wasn’t rough but it was good enough to body surf. Or at least it would have been if I wasn’t useless.

Later, we dried off and unpacked our sandwiches. We sat on the sand, gazed off into the distance, soaked up the sun and listened to nothing but crashing waves. We waited for someone else to turn up. No-one did.


Robberg Peninsula / Robberg Peninsula is a national park just west of Plettenberg Bay. Parking is available at the trailhead and there is a small entrance fee. The path is well marked and easy to follow. Walk clockwise so that the beach is towards the end of the 4-hour walk. Make sure you only swim from the beach that is northeast of the headland called The Island. It is a sheltered area where the riptide is much less dangerous.

3 / LEARNING ABOUT THE LINGERING IMPACT OF APARTHEID ON A LANGA TOWNSHIP TOUR

Walking down a narrow dusty alleyway, we entered a small shack and were introduced to Shadrack, or ‘Shooter’ to his friends. His face, of indeterminate age, was lit by a broken blender he had converted into a lamp. He had built every inch of his wooden and sheet metal home.

We were on a guided tour of his home township of Langa and asked him what had changed most during his lifetime. He didn’t describe new houses going up or the infrastructure being built. He didn’t talk about development or integration. Instead, his thoughts immediately went to his rights. “Twenty-five years ago, I got my legal rights. The right to go where I want, when I want. I became a free man. This is what has changed the most, and it is everything”.

But as we wandered the streets outside his home, we passed hundreds living in temporary shacks and shipping containers. Cramped and claustrophobic they had no running water, few facilities and barely room to sleep. Life for the residents may well have improved, but it is clear they also have a lot further to go.

This is not the Cape Town of gleaming beaches and glossy brochures. It is an all-together different place. A place worth experiencing. A place that leaves a mark.


Siviwe Langa Township Tour / Tours are at 9:00, 12:00 or 14:00 and last 2 to 2.5 hours | Price: R350 | Bookings: Siviwe Tours

4 / SWERVING THROUGH SWARTBERG’S RED ROCK CANYONS INTO THE GREAT KAROO

All morning we had been twisting and turning up chilly mountain passes. Menacing trees loomed in the mist as we peered through the drifting fog. But by midday, we turned inland and suddenly light flooded through the car windows. The temperature rapidly increased from 12 degrees to 32. The fog and mist became bright blue skies and the windy road now cut like an arrow. The coastal forest became a semi-arid desert. And instead of towering trees and thick foliage shrouding the car, barren rock and succulents stretched off into the distance.

But within an hour the straight tarmac road started twisting and turning again. Our car, not enjoying the climb, grumbled and creaked up the side of the Swartberg Mountains. Making one last lunge for the summit, it wheezed before slowly dropping down the other side.

Magnificent red rock walls, cut by the smallest of rivers, rose around us. The river carried life to this barren place. Women and children cooled tired feet in the water while they chattered under a tree. We hopped out to join them.

They suspected we were lost, and in spite of the magnificent scenery, we couldn’t convince them otherwise.


Swartberg Pass / The Swartberg Pass (R328) carves its way through the Swartberg Mountains between Oudtshoorn and Prince Albert. Driving the pass takes 1 hour and 30 minutes and can be comfortably made in a normal 2WD car.

5 / DINING ON FRESH FISH STRAIGHT FROM THE HARBOUR AT KALK BAY  

We had hiked the rugged Cape Point coastline, driven over Chapman’s Peak road and meandered amongst the penguins on Boulders beach. Now, it was time for a break.

We pulled up at Kalk Bay, a cute bohemian town on the Cape Peninsula with bars, coffee shops and gift stores lining the front. Multi-coloured wooden huts beckoned tourists with their camera, and musicians and other crafty folk amble through the streets.

But the heart of the town is the harbour.

Live Bait is a small local restaurant perched on the harbour wall almost sitting in the sea. The room, whitewashed with dashes of nautical-inspired colour, is cool and understated. Waves crashed against the walls and playful seals banged their tails on the windows, as we perused the menu with hungry eyes.

The food was uncomplicated, fresh and delicious. Simply prepared fish was washed down with a South African Viognier, as the endless ocean disappeared over the horizon. Another top experience in South Africa.


Live Bait Restaurant Kalk Bay / 12:00 – 22:00 every day | Website: here

6 / HIKING UP LIONS HEAD FOR SWEEPING VIEWS OF CAPE TOWN & TABLE MOUNTAIN

Cape Town is a beautifully located city. Set in a bowl surrounded by mountains on one side, and the ocean on the other, it offers numerous vantage points. Many take the cable car up to Table Mountain to survey the natural beauty. But the better view is from Lion’s Head.

We waited for the late afternoon light, parked at the base of Signal Hill and strapped on our hiking boots. The path started easily, corkscrewing its way around the rocky outcrop. Each turn provided a different view. The golden beaches of Camps Bay backed by rugged mountains; Robben Island shimmering in the distant ocean; Cape Town city centre nestling in the bowl; Table Mountain’s iconic flat top.

The rocky path, punctuated with yellow and white flowers, cut a swathe through the granite fynbos. We were confronted with steel cables and a ladder for a steep section, but found an easier way around the back, nurturing Paul’s fear of rocky heights.

Just over an hour after we left we were at the top. The views were magnificent, the afternoon light perfect and, thankfully, the two beers in our backpacks still cold.


Lion’s Head / The trailhead begins at Lion’s Head Car Park on Signal Hill Road. The walk up takes 1 hour and 15 minutes. It’s generally easy but requires a bit of scrambling at the end. Return the way you came. Try to go for early morning or late afternoon light.

7 / SWIMMING IN NATURAL POOLS AT JUNGLE CLAD BLYDE RIVER CANYON

Blyde River Canyon is one of the largest canyons in the world. It’s an average of 750 metres deep but sinks to as low as 1,400 metres in some sections. Access to the canyon is not easy so we took off to the Forever Resort which provides maps and a series of well-marked paths to explore the canyon walls and ledges.

Soon after starting our first walk, the dry barren red sandstone plateau unexpectedly gave way to sub-tropical terrain. Trees covered in hanging vines surround the path. Insects, frogs and birds, buzz, leap and chirp along the damp jungle-like path. Small streams meander over ledges and spread out into a water wonderland.

We leapt across stepping stones and clung to branches to drop down to a cool tropical swimming pool nestled in the canyon. We jumped in and resting underneath the trickling waterfall the sweat and tiredness of the walk were washed away and smiles of satisfaction spread over our faces.


Blyde River Canyon / Well-marked walking trails around Blyde River Canyon lead from the Forever Resort; just north of the Three Rondavels on the R532. Park at the resort’s reception, pay the small fee and sign into the visitor’s book. The receptionist will provide information about the paths and how long they take. Don’t miss the Blue Grouse trail and take swimming trunks.

8 / CYCLING THROUGH THE HISTORY OF SOWETO’S BRAVE RESISTANCE TO APARTHEID

The word ‘Soweto’ evokes strong emotions in me. As a child growing up in Thatcher’s Britain, the cold war with the Soviet Union and South Africa’s apartheid regime dominated foreign news. Soweto, the south-western township of Johannesburg, was at the heart of the resistance to apartheid. It was often portrayed as a place of violence and death. The idea that one day I would be cycling around this town seemed preposterous.

But here we were, peddling through the heart of Soweto. Peddling past homes, cafes and businesses; the present and the past. We peddled down Vilakazi street, the only street home to two Nobel Peace prize winners. Archbishop Desmond Tutu’s house on the left, Nelson Mandela’s on the right.

We peddled to its junction with Moema Street. Where during the Soweto uprising of 1976 Hector Pieterson, a 12 year old South African schoolboy, was shot. An 18 year old girl Mbuyisa Makhubo picked up the body and with Hector’s sister tried to run to safety. The image of their plight was captured on camera and spread around the world. We peddled to the museum at the end of the street, where this evocative image and others like it now rest.

Top travel experiences are not always about making life more fun. Sometimes they are about so much more than that. Sometimes they are reminders of the value of life itself.


Soweto Cycling Tour / 2-hour tours cost R550 per person | Bookings: here

9 / ENJOYING INNOVATIVE COOKING IN THE BEAUTIFUL SETTING OF SOUTH AFRICA’S WINELANDS

South Africa is known for its high-quality food at very reasonable prices. On-trend signature dishes, whipped up from local ingredients with a creative flair, adorn the menu of stylish eating establishments. This culinary quality reaches its zenith around the winelands east of Cape Town.

Perched just above the most picturesque section of the Stellenbosch to Franschhoek road lies Delaire Graff Estate. Grand, stylish and modern. Huge glass doors open to a terrace where diners chow down on sumptuous food overlooking beautiful gardens.

Snatching the perfect table, we perused the menu like savage beasts, unfit for such a fine establishment. Artful smears, dollops, bubbling foam, colourful garnishes and flowers accompanied delicious salmon, prawns and lamb. It was a taste sensation, exquisitely prepared in an equally excellent setting.

My best friend got engaged at Delaire Graff. I think he made a rather fine choice.


Delaire Graff Estate / Lunch daily 12:00 – 14:00; Dinner 18:30 – 21:00 Mon – Sat | Website: here.

10 / WATCHING SCAVENGERS SCRAP OVER LAST NIGHT’S KILL IN KRUGER NATIONAL PARK

The alarm went off at 4:30 am and Paul wasn’t happy.

But this is the best time to see cats on safari. Most hunt and eat at night then find a nice shady spot to sleep during the heat of the day. So, every morning at Kruger National Park, we’d bounce out of bed as soon as the camp gates open.

That 4:30 am alarm was all worth it when a pride of lions walked down the road beside our car. Four young males, five females and a bevy of youngsters. We wound down our window and watch them stroll a metre from the car.

A little further up the road, the carcass of a Thomson’s gazelle slumped lifeless in a ditch. The lions had had their fill but there was enough left for others. A black-backed jackal tried to fend off twenty leering vultures, each desperate for their own share. It was seriously outnumbered and outsized yet managed to hold the vultures at bay long enough to feed.

But there were bigger things than jackals and vultures around. A brown spotted hyena’s hulking body rushed in, grabbed the carcass in its massive jaws and lumbered off into the distance. The jackal, vultures and we were left staring at the single bone that it left behind.


Kruger National Park / The best place to see cats in Kruger National Park is around Satara Camp. Get up early, it’s worth the pain.

WHERE NEXT?

All these great experiences are included in our 3 week South Africa itinerary. But our favourite moments were on safari. To help plan your own check out our post about self-driving around Kruger and our couple of days in luxury at Sabi Sands Private Reserve.

You can also read more about our Langa township tour, which is included in our 5 day Cape Town itinerary. Or you can simply peruse all our other South Africa articles here.

If you are thinking about South Africa you might also want to consider Namibia. Our 2 weeks in Namibia was the best holiday we have had for many years and you can find all the highlights of that trip here.

If you have questions please leave them in the comments section below – we always reply. But before you go any further why not follow us on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter and sign up to our monthly newsletter.

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From the excitement of big cat safaris and breath-taking hikes to the joy of discovering untouched golden beaches and innovative food. Here are our top experiences in South Africa. #southafrica #capetown #kruger #winelands #robberg #swartberg #blyderiver

From the excitement of big cat safaris and breath-taking hikes to the joy of discovering untouched golden beaches and innovative food. Here are our top experiences in South Africa. #southafrica #capetown #kruger #winelands #robberg #swartberg #blyderiver

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