10 amazing things about South Africa – and how to experience them
South Africa dazzles with its variety. Premier attractions include the urban delights of Cape Town, a long and uniformly stunning coastline, and a host of game reserves where you can get close to elephant, lion, giraffe, zebra and rhino. Here we highlight some unique aspects of South Africa’s diversity that may be unfamiliar to many first-time visitors, and offer tips on how best to experience them.
It’s home to world’s smallest floral kingdom…
Only six floral kingdoms are recognized worldwide and one of them is confined entirely to a single province of South Africa, namely the Western Cape. Centered on Cape Town and the mountains of the Cape Winelands, the biodiverse Cape Floral Kingdom is characterized by a unique heath-like cover known as fynbos – literally ‘fine bush’, in reference to the small leaves
Experience the Cape Floral Kingdom: Cape of Good Hope, a short drive south of Cape Town, boasts a floral diversity encompassing more indigenous plant species than the whole of the UK. It’s also renowned for its rugged coastal landscapes, endemic birds and other wildlife.
.. and most sensational springflower displays
A more extrovert feature of South Africa’s botanical landscape, sometimes cited as the floral equivalent of the Serengeti migration, is the seasonal wildflower displays that blanket the arid Namaqualand region. This biodiversity hotspot supports an astonishing 1,700 species of succulent (more than ten percent of the global total), along with hundreds of different annuals that erupt into a multihued carpet – containing pretty much every colour you can name, and a few you most probably couldn’t – after the spring rains.
Experience Namaqualand’s springflowers Head north from Cape Town along the N7 in August or September, and you should be treated to some wonderful floral displays in the vicinity of West Coast National Park, Vanrhynsdorp, Kamieskroon and Springbok.
uKhahlamba-Drakensberg is a peerless repository of ancient rock art
Running for hundreds of kilometers along the border between South Africa and Lesotho, the scenic uKhahlamba-Drakensberg mountains are protected in a UNESCO World Heritage Site that includes more than 50,000 individual paintings spread across 500-odd different rock shelters and caves.
Experience uKhahlamba-Drakensberg’s rock art: A great starting point is the prosaically named Main Cave in Giant’s Castle Game Reserve, which depicts a variety of stylized shamanic figures alongside eland antelope and other wildlife.
Johannesburg is the world’s largest mining city
The most important economic hub in subequatorial Africa, Johannesburg was founded in 1886 following the discovery of the world’s largest gold deposits (as reflected in its Zulu name eGoli – Place of Gold), it is now the focal point of an urban agglomeration of 15 million people known as Gauteng (a Sotho name that also means Place of Gold). Johannesburg is by far the world’s largest city not built on a major river or lake, while its sprawling suburbs comprise the world’s most extensive manmade forest.
Experience Johannesburg’s gold mining roots: Gold Reef City, situated above a 2-mile-deep shaft that produced 3,000,00lb of gold between 1897 and 1971, is a recreated Victorian mining town that offers plenty of family-friendly activities.
The Cradle of Humankind has yielded more than half the world’s hominid fossils
Ironically, while Johannesburg is unabashedly modern, the nearby Cradle of Humankind UNESCO World Heritage Site ranks as the world’s wealthiest treasure trove of ancient hominid fossils. Mrs. Ples, a 2.5-million-year-old skull unearthed in Sterkfontein Cave in 1936, provided the first confirmation of Charles Darwin’s theory that humans evolved in Africa. Even today, the Cradle’s sprawling limestone caverns and sinkholes regularly yield groundbreaking new paleontological finds.
Experience the Cradle of Humankind A combined visit to Sterkfontein Cave and the innovative and child-friendly Maropeng Visitors Centre is a highlight of any stay in Johannesburg.
South Africa is original and only home of rooibos tea
One of the world’s best-known herbal teas, rooibos (literally red bush) is made from the sundried and fermented leaves of Aspalathus linearis, a small shrub endemic to the Cederberg north of Cape Town. Despite the popularity of rooibos, it doesn’t grow anywhere other than the Cedarberg, so the entire global crop is sourced from the foothills of this majestic mountain range.
Experience rooibos at its source: Cederberg is an underrated hiking destination, and it’s worth dropping into the Rooibos tasting room in the small town of Clanwilliam to sample the tea – the unfermented green variety is particularly healthy.
South Africa has produced four Nobel Peace prizewinners
Nobel peace laureates were Albert Luthuli in 1960, Archbishop Desmond Tutu in 1984 and (jointly) Nelson Mandela and FW de Klerk in 1993. All four are dead, but the influence of Mandela and Tutu still casts a long shadow over the post-apartheid society they were so instrumental in shaping.
Experience the Nobel winners’ legacy: Nelson Mandela remains South Africa’s most universally revered historical figure; associated museums include the jail where he was incarcerated on Robben Island and his old home on Soweto’s Vilakazi Street.
The Cape is one of the world’s top wine producers
South Africa lies in a respectable eighth place among the world’s largest wine producers, with an annual production of around 10 million hectoliters. But most people agree it scores far higher when it comes to overall quality and value for money – not to mention the spectacular settings of many of its finest wine estates.
Experience Cape wine: Most restaurants in South Africa serve a good wine selection, but nothing beats a tasting at one of the gorgeous estates that dot the Western Cape – try Groot Constantia, founded in 1685 in the mountain-ringed southern suburbs of Cape Town, enjoy a sunny picnic on the lawns of historic Boschendal near Franschhoek, or take the kids to the family-friendly Spier estate outside Stellenbosch.
Kruger National Park is the last place to support viable breeding population of all the legendary Big Five
The 7,523-square-mile Kruger is the only park in the world roamed by fully sustainable numbers of all the Big Five. It supports an estimated 45,000 buffalo, more than 20,000 elephant, some 2,000 lion and 1,000 leopard, and the largest surviving populations of both white and black rhino. It’s a great place to see other wildlife, too, and home to a fabulous variety of birds.
Experience the Big Five With its well-maintained roads and affordable rest camps, Kruger is Africa’s top DIY budget safari destination. For a more exclusive experience, private reserves such as MalaMala, Sabi Sand and Timbavati share an open border with Kruger but offer luxury accommodation and expertly guided game drives in open 4x4s.
South Africa shoots high when it comes to competitive sport
South Africa has won three Rugby World Cups, one Men’s Africa Cup of Nations title, and most recently the 2022 edition of the Women’s Africa Cup of Nations. It is the only country other than England to have hosted Football, Rugby and Cricket world cups, while its world-class golf courses were the learning grounds of Gary Player, Ernie Els and Retief Goosen, and Olympic gold medalists include the sprinter Caster Semenya and swimmer Chad le Clos.
Experience sporty South Africa: Seasonally, you can catch domestic football, rugby and cricket matches live at arenas in all the major cities, none more famous than Soweto’s FNB Stadium, which hosted the FIFA world cup final between Spain and Netherlands in 2010. Golfers are in for a treat with more than 400 word-class courses to choose from: long standing favorites include Fancourt Links on the Garden Route, Leopard Creek bordering Kruger and Pearl Valley in the Cape Winelands.