There are many sides to South Africa from the arid savanna of the Kalahari Desert to the warm waters of the Indian Ocean to the trendy restaurants of Cape Town. The country’s vast amounts of flora and fauna and endemic species make it one of 17 megadiverse nations in the world. The term megadiverse could also be used to describe South African cultures and peoples. There are 11 official languages, many ethnic groups with unique traditions, and settlers from around the world who have influenced the nation’s art, food, and way of life. The efforts of the African National Congress (ANC) and Nelson Mandela led to the establishment of South African democracy in 1994, but places such as Robben Island, where Mandela served part of his 27 years of imprisonment, are a sobering reminder of the segregation and injustice of the apartheid era.
Many first-time visitors to the country and continent start with a safari. In Kruger National Park, one of the largest reserves in Africa located five hours drive from Johannesburg, it’s not unheard of to see the Big Five in a single day. Hyenas, crocodiles, warthogs, cheetahs, and hundreds of birds provide alternative amusement when visitors tire of the large mammals. At the end of a long day of wildlife viewing, the range of luxury lodges in the area are perfect for retiring with a glass of South African red while watching the sun set over the savanna. The Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park on the northern borders with Botswana and Namibia and the Madikwe Private Game Reserve in north-central South Africa are less-visited safari options that provide great wildlife viewing without the crowds.
Cape Town is another popular South Africa destination, known for its dining, architecture, music, and ideal positioning between the South Atlantic beaches and Table Mountain. In the city visitors can see a local Cape Jazz band, try Xhosa and other pan-African foods, or reflect on apartheid at the District Six Museum. A short drive away lies the grand estates and vineyards of the Cape Winelands, the penguin colonies of Boulder’s Beach, and the pungent flora of the Kirstenbosch Botanical Gardens.
East of Cape Town along the southern coast of the country is the Garden Route, a famous driving route from Mossel Bay to Storms River Village. The stretch is full of shoreline scenery, yellowwood-filled forests, and inviting lagoons. The Tsitsikamma forest tests the nerves of thrill seekers with the highest commercial bungee jump in the world, while more placid adventures can be found hiking and canoeing through the Goukamma and Wilderness sections of the Garden Route National Park.
On the east side of the country, the province of KwaZulu-Natal is home to the soaring Drakensburg Mountains, subtropical coastal beaches, historic battlefields, and Zulu and Indian cultural influences. The Giant’s Castle Nature Reserve is a great area for hikers interested in traversing the passes and peaks of the Drakensburg range and observing the rock art of the San people. The town of Eshowe is home to the Zulu where travelers can experience ceremonies that include snake handling and reed dances. Along the coast of the province, iSimangaliso Wetland Park hosts hippos, flamingos, and reefs for scuba diving.
South of the KwaZulu-Natal province, the Eastern Cape attracts fewer tourists than nearby regions. Its secluded coastal areas, remote surf beaches, and private game reserves are an excellent add-on to the busier hotspots of the country.
South Africa’s size and diversity make the country a year-round destination. Residing in the Southern Hemisphere, the seasons are the opposite of those in North America and Europe. Winter is in the months of May to October while the summer is November to March.
The climate also varies dramatically from one region to the next. The winter months of June, July, and August are the best time for wildlife viewing as the dry season in safari regions leads animals to congregate around watering holes. However, the summer months of December, January, and February bring warm dry conditions to Cape Town and the Western Cape making them the ideal time for beach vacations and exploring the city.
How to get there?
Direct flights are available from New York or Atlanta to Johannesburg (JNB) with a duration of around 15 to 16 hours depending on the direction. Cape Town (CPT) and Johannesburg (JNB) can both be reached via connections in the Middle East or other African countries from many major US cities.
How much time?
It’s impossible to see all of South Africa in a single trip so the more time the better. Budget a minimum of four days for most destinations in the country, though several places, such as Cape Town & surroundings, Eastern Cape, and Kruger National Park, probably deserve closer to a week at minimum. Given the travel time from North America, 10 days to two weeks are a recommended start, but a week may be enough for a trip focused on a single activity such as a safari.
Who is it for?
Travelers looking for a comprehensive view of all that Africa has to offer – unparalleled safaris with views of the Big Five and beyond, colorful coastal cities, traditional tribal villages, and a diversity of landscapes from desert to forest.
Visitors from the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom, Australia, New Zealand, and many other countries do not require visas for stays of less than 90 days. Passports must be valid for 30 days past the day a traveler plans to leave South Africa, and should have two blank pages left.
How to get around?
Transportation options are readily available and easy to manage, including a wealth of commercial and charter flights, truly magnificent adventures by rail (such as the Rovos Rail and the Blue Train), car rentals ranging from sedans to 4x4s, and tour buses from large coaches to small or private groups. The major cities also have several local transportation options such as taxis, buses, and shared minibuses that leave when full.
Health and safety concerns?
Like all international travel, it’s important to consult your doctor or local travel health clinic and review the CDC website. For vaccinations, South Africa generally requires little beyond the routine ones, except in the northeast where malaria is present (this includes the Kruger area). Hepatitis A & B and typhoid vaccines are recommended for some travelers, as well. If you are traveling from a country where Yellow Fever is present (even if only a layover), you may be denied entry to South Africa without proof of Yellow Fever vaccination.
South Africa is generally a safe place, though like anywhere in the world there are certain areas to avoid. The riskiest places tend to be at and around major airports, such as Johannesburg’s OR Tambo International Airport (JNB). Be aware of your surroundings, act confidently, and avoid flashing expensive items such as jewelry or electronics. It is best to consult Bureau of Consular Affairs website for recent travel advisories.
Book one of our suggested tours or itineraries or use them as inspiration to work with us to build your perfect private tour!
January – March Deals
8-Night South Africa Highlights Tour – Cape to Coast to King’s Safari Camp
$3,325 USD per person sharing
Keep busy on this eight night South Africa highlights tour! Discover Cape Town, see the peaks and penguins of the Cape Peninsula, taste wine in the scenic vineyards of the Cape Winelands, explore the coast in Hermanus, and search for wildlife in the Timbavati Private Game Reserve. Read more…
12-Night Kruger Safari, Cape Town, and Mozambique Beaches
$3999 USD per person sharing
On this 12-night tour, see the stunning variety of Southern Africa with time in the colorful neighborhoods of Cape Town, Big 5 wilderness game drives on a Kruger safari , and relaxation on the white sand beaches of the Machangulo Peninsula in Mozambique. Read More…
13-Day South African Adventure – Cape Town, Coast, and Winelands
On this 13-Day South Africa Adventure you’ll explore Cape Town, taste South Africa’s best varietals in the Cape Winelands, and marvel in the marine life of the Western Cape coast. Kayak past penguins, cycle from winery to winery, and learn about South African culture and history. Read More…
Looking for something different? We specialize in custom, private travel – contact us and we’ll start planning your perfect trip!
Simbavati Hilltop Lodge: The eight exclusive luxury safari tents of the Simbavati Hilltop Lodge are situated among 12,000 hectares of wild land within the Timbavati Private Nature Reserve, part of the Greater Kruger National Park. Private decks and the lodge infinity pool are perfect for surveying the surrounding bush for game and the distant Drakensberg Mountains. When not relaxing by the pool with a cocktail, the main activity here is game watching. Days at the Lodge include both morning and afternoon/evening game drives to search for the Big Five, wild dogs, cheetahs, and more than 360 species of birds.
Grootbos Private Nature Reserve: Sitting among the twisted branches of a Milkwood Forest, Grootbos is a premier nature reserve only two hours from Cape Town and 30 minutes from the whale watching town of Hermanus. The three lodges at Grootbos incorporate stone, wood, and thatch to blend seamlessly into the natural surroundings without sacrificing luxuries such as cozy fireplaces, canopy beds, and private decks with striking views. The reserve’s knowledgeable guides offer tours exclusive to lodge guests. Excursions include horseback riding, bird watching, and eco-friendly boat trips to track the Marine Big Five of whales, sharks, dolphins, seals, and penguins. Each visit contributes to the Grootbos Foundation which works to conserve the biodiversity of the region and support the education and development of the local community.
Motswari Private Game Reserve: With only 30 guests allowed at a time among its 15 luxurious bungalows, Motswari Private Game Reserve offers a tranquil oasis for Big Five wildlife viewing in the Greater Kruger National Park Conservancy. When not walking or driving through the bush, the air conditioned rooms and outdoor pool offer comfortable spaces to lounge with a drink. Intrepid travelers seeking to immerse themselves deeper into the bush can participate in an overnight walking safari where they’ll camp under the open skies (with proper beds) and enjoy a meal cooked over fire.
Babylonstoren: A working farm and winery in the Cape Winelands, Babylonstoren has 12 guest cottages in the whitewashed Cape Dutch farmhouse style of the 17th and 18th century. Orchards, vineyards, and nearby mountains provide a pastoral setting where guests can stroll through gardens or swim in a restored reservoir. The Babel Restaurant serves rustic, unpretentious meals with plenty of fresh vegetables plucked straight from the garden. While the atmosphere is simple country living, there is room for indulgence at the Spa where fresh-picked herbs are incorporated into the treatments.
Thonga Beach Lodge: Thonga Beach Lodge is a marine lover’s paradise on the Maputuland coast in KwaZulu-Natu province. The remote lodge overlooks a stunning secluded beach and provides great access to pristine snorkeling and scuba diving nearby. Guests can also take a cultural tour of a local Tsonga community or kayak Lake Sibiya, part of iSimangaliso Wetland Park. The Thonga Beach Bar dishes delectable food and cold drinks with its sweeping ocean views.