At the southern tip of Africa, nestling between the Atlantic and Indian oceans, South Africa will intrigue you as a land of contrasts and diverse landscapes. It is an exhilarating and spectacular country, home to amazing wildlife, flora and a rainbow of cultures. The warmth of its people won’t leave you indifferent.
From the untouched deserts of the West Coast, to the subtropical and lowveld regions in the East, offering getaways in all directions to beautiful game reserves, diverse worlds coexist and are the essence of South Africa.
The region of the Cape is in itself filled with “good hope”. Cape Town, a melting pot of colours and cultures lying in the shadows of Table Mountain, offers breath taking views and is recognized as the third most flora diverse region in the world.
Towards the East, the wine route and the garden route reveal to you its charming villages, nature reserves and magnificent beaches bound to awaken your senses, even more so if you get the chance to witness the whales dancing in front of your eyes (June to November).
Inland, the Klein Karoo, the Drakensberg and Kwazulu Natal have their own treasures-caves, grottos, forests, mountains giving way to luscious green valleys, in between areas of bush, waterfalls, gorges, rivers, all offering a wide range of hiking trails and exciting activities.
Mmpumalanga and Limpopo are fascinating lands of bush, hills and safaris. They are home to the main nature reserves such as the Kruger Park.
Discovering South Africa is experiencing the breath of freedom with all your senses.
Native languages (black) are all of Bantu origin. They are divided into four major groups: Nguni, Sotho, Shangan and Venda.
The Zulu, Xhosa, Swazi and Ndebele belong to the Nguni. The Tswana and Pedi belong the the Sotho.
South Africa has 40 million inhabitants.
- 77% native Africans (blacks)
- 9% coloured
- 11% whites (mostly Afrikaners and English descents)
- 3% Asians
South Africa counts 11 official languages, the most spoken being:
- Zulu: (23% of the population)
- Xhosa: 18%
- Afrikaans: 14%
- Pedi: 9%
- English : 9%
The first inhabitants of Southern Africa were the Khoisan, split between the Khoikhoi (Hottentots), who lived a pastoral life, and the San (Bushmen) who were hunter gatherers.
Over 2000 years ago, a group of Bantu people arrived gradually from the North, bringing with them their iron mongery skills.
The black ethnic groups of modern Southern Africa are all of Bantu origin.
The white colonial settlers (Dutch) first arrived in the Cape in 1652. They enslaved the Khoikhoi and imported Asian slaves which led to the origin of today’s coloured and Malay populations (mix of Boers, Asians, Blacks and Khoikhoi).
English settlers arrived in the Cape in 1795 and annexed the region in 1806.
From the 1820s, the difakane, meaning forced migration, was a period of upheaval and suffering for the indigenous peoples of Southern Africa.
The Nguni tribes in modern Kwazulu Natal changed at that time from loosely organised groups of chiefdoms to the more centralised Zulu and Ndebele Nations.
Under the ruthless conqueror and military commander Shaka Zulu, tribes chose to flee to Zimbabwe, Malawi and Zambia. The notable survivors, the Swazi and Basotho forged powerful kingdoms that became Swaziland and Lesotho.
In 1836, a Boer community (farmers), dissatisfied with the British Rule in the Cape Colony, trekked off into the interior in search of new land. When they arrived in what used to be Transvaal (meaning ‘beyond the Vaal river’), now Gauteng, they discovered an apparently uninhabited land (actually deserted during the Difaqane) and settled in and around the area over a decade.
This migration, called the Great Trek is the root of Afrikaner culture, still celebrated today.
Throughout the conquest of Southern Africa, the numerous conflicts between English, Afrikaners and Blacks eventually deprived the Bushmen from their lands. There are now living in the Kalahari Desert in the North Western part of the country spreading over the borders with Namibia and Botswana. They have managed to preserve their history and beautiful culture through art, music and dance depicted by the abundant rock paintings to be found in the Drakensberg area in particular and through the sounds in the music of the country.
Area: 1220000 km2
The topography of South Africa consists essentially of a vast interior plateau covering two thirds of the country. The eastern low lands are separated from the interior plateau by the Great Escarpment. The highest point is Thabana Ntlenyana, peaking at 3483m, in the Drakensberg range in Lesotho.
The central plateau region, referred to as the Highveld, has an average altitude of about 1200m (Johannesburg is1600m above sea level).
The North Eastern Region, or Lowveld, is home to most wild life nature reserves.
Two mountain ranges, the Swartberg and the Langeberg stretch in the southern region at 2500m above sea level.
The main rivers (non navigable) are:
- The Orange River rising in Lesotho and flowing west into the Atlantic Ocean, forming the border between South Africa and Namibia.
- The Vaal (affluent of the Orange River).
- The Limpopo River forming the north east border with Zimbabwe.
- The Tugela and the Olifant Rivers flowing into the Indian Ocean.
The East Coast influenced by the warm Mozambican current from the Indian Ocean is warm and humid throughout the year, providing a tropical climate.
The West Coast is influenced by the cold Benguela current of the Atlantic Ocean. It is temperate and has dry sunny summers with maximum temperatures around 26C. Winters can get cold with average minimum temperatures or around 7C and the maximum around 17C.
The eastern plateau area has a dry, sunny climate in winter with a maximum temperature around 20C and crisp nights with temperature dropping to around 5C. Between October and April there are late afternoon showers often accompanied by spectacular thunder and lightning. It can get very hot in the Karoo and the far North (Kalahari).
Mmpumalanga and Limpopo Province on the lowveld get very hot in the summer. In winter, the days are sunny and warm.
Rainy season (apart from the Cape): November-March
The food processing industry accounts for 20% of the Gross Domestic Product (GDP), the main productions being maize, wheat and sugarcane.
The Cape Region produces excellent wines out of grape varieties imported by the Huguenots at the end of the 17th century.
65% of the country’s surface is used for cattle and sheep farming.
Until the discovery of diamonds and the gold reef, the economy was exclusively agricultural. Since then, mineral wealth (gold, platinum, diamonds, chrome, coal and other minerals) has been the key to development.
Mining accounts for 70% exports and 13% of GDP, South Africa being the biggest gold and platinum producer in the world.
Other industrial sectors include textile, motor vehicle assembly and other technologies.
South Africa is ranked the third biologically diverse country in the world: 18000 plant species, 80% of them being found nowhere else on the planet!
- 720 bird species
- 230 mammal species
- 290 reptile species
- 2100 fish species
- 77000 invertebrate species
Fynbos, stretching over the south of the Western Cape, is the most densely speciated plant community in the world: 8500 plant species have been recorded!
The Cape Peninsula alone counts 2600 species. (Britain counts only 2000 species).
The Karoo covers most of the interior part of the country. It is a hilly semi desert with a very rich flower diversity and extreme temperatures:-10C in Winter (at night) and 40C in summer.
The Central Plateau, covering also Lesotho, is a region of grassland with no trees.
The coastal region around Knysna is home to the smallest biome in South Africa. It rains all year round and is a subtropical forest region.
The East Coast is mainly covered with dune forests and mangrove swamps at river estuaries. The Lowveld is a savannah area (bush) where you will find most of Southern Africa’s wild life reserves. The biome is mainly covered by grass species and beautiful trees such as baobabs, marulas and acacias. The Kalahari Basin is mainly an arid savannah area with almost no trees.
Visas and passports...International visitors must be in possession of a valid passport of at least 6 months. European visitors do not require visas.
The South African currency is the Rand and the course in 2010 hovered around 9 rand per 1 Euro. Banks are open from Monday to Friday from 09:00 am to 3:30 pm and Saturday until 11:00 am.
It is also possible to withdraw money from bank distributors (ATM) by credit cards everywhere in the country. VISA and Master Cards are also accepted.
Telephone…The international code is 27.
Electricity...The voltage is 220 volts, but the plugs are non standard and you will need to get an adapter. they are locally available everywhere.
Fuel and shopping...
Petrol stations are open 24/7. On motorways, they are often integrated into small complexes where there are shops and restaurants.
In towns, shops are opened fromMonday from 9 am to 17 or 18 hours depending on the store. Most of them open on Saturday and often on Sunday morning also.
As a foreign tourist you can get the amount of VAT on purchases you made locally upon departure at the airport. For this you need to submit invoices which should clearly indicate the amount of VAT paid (14%).
The spectacular Drakensberg Range is a mountainous basalt escarpment forming the border between Kwazulu Natal and Lesotho. It offers magnificent scenery of steep summits, peaks, rivers, green valleys and falls. The whole of the protected area, 250000 ha is called Ukhahlamba-Drakensberg and includes the Maluti mounts in Lesotho. The altitude ranges from 1200m to 3482m (highest point of Southern Africa).
The Lower Drakensberg formed around 200 millions years ago. The low layers are old sediment deposits, now sandstones. From the top of the Drakensberg, you can see basalt formations, results of the volcanic activities that took place after the breaking of Gondwana (super continent that Africa was part of). The steep slopes that you can see nowadays were created by the erosion process.
The Drakensberg is mainly covered with grass species. 1800 plant species are visible, 300 of them being endemic to the area. Aloe and protea species grow on the slopes while in the gorges and a few well protected valleys, you can find small yellowwood forests.
Drakensberg’ fauna is represented by the Cape eland and the rooibok. You can also spot other antelopes such as the black wildebeest, the bushbuck and the klipspringer. The Drakensberg is also home to baboons, wild cats such as servals, jackals and caracals as well as otters and 200 bird species including the bearded vulture.
More than 30 000 rock paintings, discovered amongst 520 caves have been recorded. Some of these Bushmen paintings are 8000 years old.
The Drakensberg offers infinite hiking opportunities, from a one day hike to treks of 10 days or more. The park in subdivided into sections that offer a wide range of accommodation, from luxury lodges to cottages and chalets. A few refuges are available if you are on a trek, as well as caves which are common. Booking in advance is essential. Various lodges offering all kinds of accommodation are available outside the official game park areas.
The Wild Coast
The Wild Coast, on the eastern coast line, stretches from the ex Transkei to the Mtamvuna River in the North and Kei River in the South. It is a rural and underdeveloped area, home to the Xhosa people. Most people live in small traditional villages, in huts with no running water or electricity.
Rivers running through undulating hills and flowing into the Indian Ocean is the typical landscape of the Wild Coast. Dune Forests and mangrove swamps fall within the proximity of estuaries.
The mangrove swamp by the Mngazana River, South of Port St Johns is considered to be the richest one of Southern Africa.
Hiking trails follow the coast line and huts for trekkers can be found every 12 km.
Hluhluwe-Imfolozi game reserve
Hluhluwe-Imfolozi game reserve, covering 96 000 ha, is one of the biggest and oldest parks in South Africa (created in 1895). It includes the Imfolozi and Hluluwe reserves. The diverse flora and fauna is home to all the main mammal species. Before it was officially protected, the park was under some kind of conservation policy as it was used as Shaka’s private hunting ground at the beginning of the 19th century (founder of the Zulu Nation).
In the 50s and 60s, the park was proclaimed in order to protect rhinos from becoming an endangered species.
Today, 90% of the world rhino population (about 3000 white rhinos and 500 black rhinos) inhabits this area.
One of the main attractions of the park is the views of the beautiful Umfolozi and Hluluwe rivers flowing through a landscape of hills and trees. Its appeal lies in an intimacy that can not be found in other parks or reserves.
The park offers the opportunity for 3 to 5 day trips in the Wilderness area of the Imfolozi section. This area covers 30% of the whole park and is exclusively reserved for hikes with a maximum of 8 trekkers at a time. No vehicles are allowed in this area. This is our favourite and highly recommend this option! These trips are very popular and must be booked as far as 1 year in advance! The base camp comprises 4 big tents with comfortable camping beds, accommodating 2 people each and has pleasant ablution facilities.
In the cool season (March to October), participants walk towards a more simple and wilder bush camp (donkeys carry the bags). A bush shower is available but the sanitation facilities consist of a whole in the ground!
Kruger National Park & Private Game reserves
The Kruger Park is the biggest park in South Africa: 2 millions ha and an immense biodiversity!
It is in the Lowveld region and has a relatively flat landscape covered in bushes. The park stretches from North to South (350km long) and sees its vegetation vary along the way.
The North of the park is essentially covered with mopane trees, vegetation loved by the elephants. In the West, and in private reserves, mopane trees give way to bush willows, whereas in the South, the park turns into a more open space, with acacias and marulas.
Kruger Park is very structured and offers vast accommodation possibilities, gathered in rest camps (kind of small villages enclosed in the park). Wilder and more intimate options are also available in enclosed bush camps.
Private reserves beyond Kruger’s eastern border will offer you tailored and exclusive experiences. Animals get around freely throughout the whole territory but only the camp residents are allowed inside the private reserve.
Camps are more or less luxurious but always offer an excellent service including accommodation, meals, 4x4 game drives and guided walks. Considering the surface of the park, visitors usually visit the park by car.
However, Kruger offers more attractive activities, not to be missed, such as night drives or early morning walks with an armed ranger. Kruger also offers similar options to those of Imfolozi, a 4 nights and 3 days exploration of the park by foot, starting from an exclusive bush camp for 8 people.
The Cape and The Garden Route
The coastal region of the Eastern Cape, between Port Elizabeth and Mossel Bay, is called the Garden Route. It offers unforgettable sceneries of cliffs, white sand beaches, dunes and the Outeniqua mountain range, making this region one of the most attractive of the continent. Naturally, it is a very popular destination.
To fully enjoy the Garden Route, you have to make detours and take your time. The dense and green forests of South Africa are to be found in particular in the Tsitsikamma and Knysna parks in the West, and offer great opportunities for day or several day hikes like the famous Otter Trail.
Amongst the various activities available are canoeing, abseiling in the Storm River gorges, biking, hiking or bungee jumping. Inland, to the North of Oudsthoorn, a visit of the Cango caves is well worth the trip.
The southern coast of the Western Cape is also famous for its whale, as well as dolphin and shark watching sites (Plettenberg, Hermanus or the beautiful nature reserve De Hoop). The region is also the Cape Floral Kingdom, the smallest but most diverse of the 6 Floral Kingdoms.
Around Stellenbosh and Franschoek, you will find the great South African vineyards (grape varieties originally from France). And let’s not forget Cape Town, whose interest lies less in its city than its stunning landscapes like Table Mountain or the Cape of Good Hope.