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Why the best of South Africa is found beyond Johannesburg

Picture of Andrew Thompson
Updated: 1 July 2017
With wildlife, vast natural beauty, interesting history, an established economy, a slick tourism industry, and competitive prices, South Africa is one of the world’s ultimate-tourist destinations. Most flights into South Africa land in the economic hub of Johannesburg, but here’s why the best of the country is found beyond this bustling city.

Wildlife of the Lowveld

South Africa’s wildlife is world famous, and some of the best can be found in the country’s Lowveld (low grassland). There are hundreds of wildlife reserves to choose from, from the ultra luxurious to the no-frills and rustic. Though private reserves offer all-inclusive packages, some of the best game viewing, accommodation options, and prices are still to be found in the nationally-managed Kruger National Park.

Visitors can drive themselves when in the Kruger Park—which saves money and makes spotting wildlife all that much more exciting—or opt to join a guided game drive or walk. Though sightings are not guaranteed, there’s a very good chance of seeing at least one or more of the Big 5 in many of the country’s game reserves.

Cape Wine Country

There are many reasons to visit the Cape, but few are as compelling as the region’s magnificent wines. Cape wine country is vast, and it encompasses hundreds of estates. There’s a choice between visiting estates close to the city in the suburbs of Constantia and Tokai or venturing further afield to the likes of Paarl, Stellenbosch, and Franschhoek. Either way, wine enthusiasts can be confident they are not only getting a good value but some of the finest in the world as well.

Drakensburg Mountains

Cape Town’s Table Mountain may steal most of the international headlines, but there’s a significantly wilder and more compelling mountain range in the country’s eastern region called the Drakensberg. It’s an unspoiled range ripe for exploration, and many resorts and camp sites in the area offer surprisingly competitive deals given the spectacular natural beauty. The mountain range also houses the country’s highest point, Mafadi, which reaches 3,450 metres (11,318.9 feet).

KwaZulu-Natal’s Warm Waters

South Africa’s east coast benefits from the warm Indian-Ocean currents. This means that some of the best swimming and surfing is to be had in the area. The city of Durban and its surrounds are also a cultural melting pot for the country, and there are several idyllic-resort towns that have sprung up both north and south of the busy city.

Secluded Wild Coast

The Wild Coast hasn’t been dubbed such simply due to a clever-marketing campaign. It really is a wild and untouched region of the country. Visitors will find endless rolling hills, rough oceans, empty beaches, and the occasional traditional village. The isolation of this eastern stretch of the country means it’s hard for tourists to get there without their own modes of transportation, but it also means the coast has retained its rugged beauty and endless possibilities for true adventure.

Wildflowers of the Namaqualand

For much of the year, South Africa’s West Coast and Northern Cape Regions have a beauty defined by their stark emptiness. But when the conditions are right—usually between early August and late September—the flat lands undergo a dramatic transformation thanks to a multi-coloured collection of some 3500 flowers. They bloom for just a few short weeks each year and spread out for as far as the eye can see.

Skilpad Wildflower area
Skilpad Wildflower area | © Malcolm Manners / Flickr

Cape Beaches

Cape Town’s waters may be too icy for most, but the beaches are among the world’s most pristine. Crisp-white sand, sparkling-blue waters, and 15 hours of sunshine make this an idyllic summer destination. The beaches range from the trendy and populated to the serene and isolated. They’re perfect for days of reading under the umbrella, long walks, and the occasional quick swim. Don a wet suit and catch some of the country’s best waves at Llandudno and Kommetjie or learn how to surf at the more sedate Muizenberg.

Unspoiled Garden Route

The Garden Route pulls in many visitors each year due to its catchy name alone. But anyone who’s spent any time along this stretch between Mossel Bay in the Western Cape and Storms River in the Eastern Cape will say that it lives up to its reputation. Once small coastal towns like Knysna and Plettenberg Bay may now be bustling tourist destinations, but they’ve still managed to retain their charm. Those willing to venture off the main drag of the N2, there are endless unspoiled delights waiting to be discovered.

Wilderness, South Africa
Wilderness, South Africa | © David Siu / Flickr.com

Silence of the Tankwa

The Tankwa Karoo is getting more press than ever thanks to the rise in popularity of Afrika Burn, South Africa’s answer to Burning Man. But even at other times of the year, there’s a special energy and an overwhelming beauty to this desert just a few hours northeast of Cape Town. There’s a national park in the area that has several rustic and isolated accommodation options. The landscape is unlike anywhere else in the country and though wildlife is limited, that which still exists in this extremely-arid area is truly fascinating.

Multiple Cultures and Traditions

It’s easy for visitors to see the country as one homogeneous group, but South Africa is actually one of the most ethnically- and culturally-diverse countries in the world. Each culture has its own centuries-old traditions that visitors can learn about by exploring the country’s various regions. This diverseness also shows through in artwork, architecture, literature, music, and cuisine. Though many of the cities are becoming increasingly Westernised, there are still eleven official languages spoken in varying amounts throughout the country and cultural diversity is fiercely championed by the South African Constitution.

Xhosa girl, Eastern Cape, South Africa
Xhosa girl, Eastern Cape, South Africa | © South African Tourism / Flickr

Desert Parks of the Northern Cape

Though few tourists venture out into the barren province of the Northern Cape, the stark beauty that lingers in this region is astounding. It’s the country’s largest and yet most-sparsely populated province. Where the country borders with Botswana and Namibia is the Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park, which is home to dramatic red sand dunes, dry river beds, unusual foxes, falcons, antelope, and black-maned lions.

Kgalagadi National Park, South Africa
Kgalagadi National Park, South Africa | © Joachim Huber / Flickr.com