Gauteng, the landlocked South African province surrounding Johannesburg, has a rich archeological and geological history. This history has created a multitude of unusual tourist activities within an hour or two of Jo’burg – from fossil-filled caves to old diamond-mining towns to balloon safaris over the some of the oldest mountains in the world: here are five of the best Johannesburg day trips.

A couple of visitors walk beneath a flowing South African flag and towards a large grass-covered dome; above it all is a brilliant blue sky
The official visitor centre of the Cradle of Humankind is built to resemble an ancient burial mound © Heather Mason / Lonely Planet

The Cradle of Humankind

The only Unesco World Heritage Site in Gauteng province, the Cradle of Humankind is home to some of the oldest hominid fossils ever discovered. It’s just over an hour from downtown Johannesburg but the Cradle feels like a primordial landscape, with infinite grassy savannah interrupted only occasionally by modern buildings.

The Cradle occupies 470 sq km and is dotted with limestone caves, including the Sterkfontein Caves where Dr Robert Broom discovered 'Mrs Ples' – the 2.3 million year-old Australopithecus africanus fossil – in 1947. Sterkfontein is open for guided tours and has a great museum devoted to human evolution.

Glass spheres hang from the ceiling, each containing skulls or bones from ancient humanid species; people walk behind looking at other artefacts
Evidence of humankind's beginnings on display within the Cradle of Humankind visitor centre © Heather Mason / Lonely Planet

Maropeng, the official visitors centre for the Cradle of Humankind, is a few kilometres from Sterkfontein. The massive, dome-shaped structure, shaped like an ancient burial mound and covered in grass, is a child-friendly museum that tells the story of humans on earth. Visitors can tour Maropeng and Sterkfontein together for a combined price of R190 (US$13).

After a long day of exploring human history, pop in to the luxurious Cradle Boutique Hotel for a glass of wine or cappuccino overlooking the ancient hills.

One colourful balloon moves skyward as eight others are in various stages of inflation on the ground; the light is soft and golden due to sunrise
As the sun peaks over the horizon balloons start to rise on Bill Harrop's airborne tours © Heather Mason / Lonely Planet

Hot-air balloon safaris

Floating silently over the earth in a hot-air balloon is awe inspiring, no matter where you are. But there’s something about floating over the rolling hills of the Magaliesberg – one of the world’s oldest mountain ranges – at sunrise, with mist rising up from the Magalies River and maybe even a glimpse of a zebra or giraffe in the distance. The whole scene makes Bill Harrop’s Original Balloon Safaris in Skeerpoort a truly unforgettable experience.

The tour requires participants to wake at an ungodly hour (especially in summer when the sun comes up early), as the balloons take off just before sunrise. But this magical activity is totally worth a bit of sleep deprivation. Lucky visitors will find themselves in a balloon with the dapper Bill Harrop himself, who wears a jaunty wool cap and cracks witty jokes in between blasting bursts of hot air up into the balloon.

The balloon trip includes a hearty champagne breakfast after the tour, and participants receive a certificate of achievement for braving the sky in a balloon.

Two steel cables descend from the top left of the image to the bottom right; below them is a rocky and forested canyon along with a single person zooming downward on the cables as part of the zipline canopy tour
Flying fast over the rocky canyons in the Magaliesberg range while on a canopy tour © Heather Mason / Lonely Planet

Tour Magaliesberg's canopies by zipline

Ziplining has become a popular adventure activity throughout South Africa and the Magaliesberg mountain range is a great place to do it. The Magaliesberg Canopy Tour, hosted at the Sparkling Waters Hotel & Spa about 90 minutes from Johannesburg, takes participants on a series of ten crisscrossing 'zips'over a scenic gorge called Ysterhout Kloof. The longest line is 140m and the tour lasts an exhilarating 2½ hours.

Sailing over the gorge, with sandstone cliffs above and thick vegetation below, is as beautiful as it is exciting. Ziplining provides a great thrill without the abject terror of bungee jumping or skydiving. The canopy tour includes a light lunch.

Under a blue sky is a A-framed rock church of yellow-brown hues; atop the church is a rounded tower with the middle cut out to hold a bell
Built in 1908, the St George’s Anglican Church in Cullinan was the work of famed architect Sir Herbert Baker © Heather Mason / Lonely Planet

Explore the history of Cullinan

In 1898, Sir Thomas Cullinan discovered diamonds about 100km north of Jo’burg and went on to found the Premier Diamond Mine. The town that quickly sprung up around the mine was named after him, as was the 3100-karat that was discovered at the site a few years later by Frederick George Stanley Wells. The Cullinan Diamond – the largest diamond in the world – was gifted to the Queen of England and went on to become part of the British Crown Jewels.

Today, the diamond mine is still in operation and Cullinan is a charming little tourist town. The town boasts several historic homes and churches, a couple of museums, and visitors can even tour the diamond mine.

The historic buildings include McHardy House, which is the oldest house in town –  it was built for mine manager William McHardy and his family in 1903. Also worth a look is St George’s Anglican Church, which was designed by acclaimed architect Sir Herbert Baker in 1908. Cullinan also has several quirky antique shops and a couple of atmospheric pubs along the old railroad tracks. As Greek As It Gets, one of Gauteng’s best Greek restaurants, is just outside the diamond mine's gates.

Two black-and-white birds sitting in water, with their reflection clear; the heads and long, slender upturned beaks are black, as well as the outer portions of their wings, while the rest of their plumage is white
A pair of pied avocets, with their distinctive upturned bills, at Marievale Bird Sanctuary © Heather Mason / Lonely Planet

Go twitching at Marievale Bird Sanctuary

Virtually unknown to anyone outside the birding community, Marievale Bird Sanctuary is one of Gauteng’s best-kept secrets. An hour’s drive from Johannesburg near the town of Nigel, Marievale is part of a wetland created by the local mining industry in the 1930s. Since then Marievale has become home to more than 230 species of birds. The sanctuary is run by the Gauteng provincial government and admission to is free.

It’s best to arrive at Marievale as close to sunrise as possible, when the air is clear and the morning light is soft. Sitting inside one of the sanctuary’s many bird hides, the only sounds are swishing grass, birdsong and rippling water as birds leave the glassy wetland surface and take off into the air.

Marievale has a lovely picnic area so bring along some eggs and sausages and enjoy a breakfast barbecue after bird watching.

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