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Black-maned lions framed against desert dunes, powdery beaches lapped by two oceans, star-studded night skies, jagged mountains – South Africa is the place to go wild.
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These are our favorite local haunts, touristy spots, and hidden gems throughout South Africa.
Location and unique flora combine to make these 5.28-sq-km botanical gardens among the most beautiful in the world. Gate 1, the main entrance at the Newlands end of the gardens, is where you’ll find the information centre, an excellent souvenir shop and the conservatory. Added for the garden's centenary in 2013, the popular Tree Canopy Walkway (informally known as the 'Boomslang', meaning tree snake) is a curvaceous steel and timber bridge that rises through the trees and provides amazing views. The gardens run free guided walks, or you can hire the MyGuide electronic gizmo (R40) to receive recorded information about the various plants you’ll pass on the signposted circular walks. More than 7000 of Southern Africa’s 22,000 plant species are grown here, including the Cape Floral Kingdom's famous fynbos (literally, 'fine bush'; primarily proteas, heaths and ericas). You’ll find a fragrance garden that has been elevated so you can more easily sample the scents of the plants; a Braille trail; a kopje (hill) planted with pelargoniums; a sculpture garden; a section devoted to 'useful' medicinal plants; two hiking trails up Table Mountain (Skeleton Gorge and Nursery Ravine); and the significant remains of Van Riebeeck's Hedge, the wild almond hedge planted by Jan van Riebeeck in 1660 to form the boundary of the Dutch outpost. The outdoor Summer Sunset Concerts, held here on Sundays between November and April, are a Cape Town institution. The gardens are a stop on the City Sightseeing bus. The quiet Gate 3 (aka Rycroft Gate) is the first you’ll come to if you approach the gardens up Rhodes Dr from the south. There are three cafes, including the excellent Kirstenbosch Tea Room.
Do not leave Jo'burg without visiting Constitution Hill. One of South Africa's most important historical sites, the deeply moving and inspirational exhibitions here are split across four locations: the Old Fort, which dates from 1892 and was once a notorious prison for white males; the horrific Number Four Jail, reserved for nonwhite males; the Women's Jail; and the Awaiting Trial Block – now mostly demolished and replaced by the Constitutional Court. Tours depart on the hour and provide essential context. What you will hear and see will be shocking – the brutal facts of prisoners' incarceration here speak volumes. You will come away with an integral understanding of the legal and historical ramifications of the struggle. Many of the country’s high-profile political activists, including Nelson and Winnie Mandela and Mohandas (Mahatma) Gandhi, were once held here. Most tours last one hour and cover the Number Four Jail and Constitutional Court; tours at 10am and 1pm last two hours and cover all sections of the hill. After the tour you are free to wander around. If visiting with children ask directions to Play Africa, an interactive children's play facility in a previously unused section of the Old Fort. Also keep an eye out for regular concerts and cultural events hosted at Constitution Hill. There's a good cafe, called the Hill, inside the Old Fort.
This 77.5-sq-km section of Table Mountain National Park includes awesome scenery, fantastic walks, great birdwatching and often-deserted beaches. The reserve is commonly referred to as Cape Point, after its most dramatic (but less famous) promontory. Bookings are required for the two-day Cape of Good Hope Trail, a spectacular 33.8km circular route with one night spent in a basic hut. Contact the Buffelsfontein Visitor Centre for further details. Some 250 species of birds have been spotted here, including cormorants and a family of ostriches that hang out near the Cape of Good Hope promontory, the southwestern-most point of the continent. There are many bus tours to the reserve but, if you have the time, hiking or cycling through it is much more rewarding. Bear in mind, though, that there is minimal shade and that the weather can change quickly. It’s not a hard walk uphill, but if you’re feeling lazy take the Flying Dutchman Funicular, which runs up from beside the restaurant to the souvenir kiosk next to the old lighthouse (which dates from 1859). A 1km trail runs from here to its successor. It takes less than 30 minutes to walk along a spectacular ridgeway path to look down on the new lighthouse and the sheer cliffs plunging into the pounding ocean.
The Apartheid Museum illustrates the rise and fall of South Africa’s era of segregation and oppression, and is an absolute must-see. It uses a broad variety of media to provide a chilling insight into the architecture and implementation of the apartheid system, as well as inspiring stories of the struggle towards democracy. It’s invaluable in understanding the inequalities and tensions that still exist today. Located 8km south of the city centre, just off the M1 freeway. To do the museum justice schedule 1½ to two hours here. The sheer volume of information can make it an overwhelming experience; particularly distressing is a small chamber in which hang 131 nooses, representative of the 131 government opponents who were executed under antiterrorism laws.
This stunning 260-sq-km reserve centres on the 30km-long Blyde River Canyon, where epic rock formations tower above the forested slopes and eagle-eye views abound at the dramatic meeting of the Drakensberg Escarpment and the lowveld. It's one of the world's largest canyons and one of South Africa’s most outstanding natural sights. Most visitors drive along the canyon’s edge, where Rte 532 offers plenty of viewpoints for gazing in awe. If you have enough time, however, the canyon is even better explored on foot. There are separate entrance fees for each attraction within the reserve.
Around 600 million years old, and a canvas painted with the rich diversity of the Cape floral kingdom, Table Mountain is truly iconic. You can admire the showstopper of Table Mountain National Park and one of the 'New 7 Wonders of Nature' (https://nature.new7wonders.com) from multiple angles, but you really can’t say you’ve visited Cape Town until you’ve stood on top of it.
The area's highlight, with a staggering view of these enormous rounds of rock, their pointed, grassy tops resembling giant huts carved into the side of the canyon. There are short walks in the surrounding area to points where you can look down to the Blydepoort Dam at the Blyde River Canyon Nature Reserve's far north.
Madikwe is the country’s fourth-largest reserve and one of its best, covering 760 sq km of bushveld, savannah grassland and riverine forest on the edge of the Kalahari. It offers Big Five wildlife watching and dreamy lodging among striking (and malaria-free) red sand and clay-thorn bushveld. Madikwe does not allow self-drive safaris or day visitors, which means you must stay at one of its upmarket lodges to explore the reserve, but you get what you pay for at these exclusive bush hideaways. Wildlife watching is the main event here, whether from an open-sided safari vehicle or on foot with an armed ranger on a guided walk. Madikwe's numbers are pretty impressive when it comes to wildlife. For a start, there are around 1200 elephants, six lion prides, 400 giraffes, 340 bird species and healthy populations of klipspringer, kudu, gemsbok, springbok, leopard, caracal, rhino and buffalo. Tragically, one of the two packs of African wild dogs succumbed to a rabies outbreak, and late in 2017 the remaining pack numbered 14 dogs. Also at the end of 2017, three female cheetahs were about to be released into the reserve, hopefully to breed with the four resident males. Although nothing is guaranteed, top-notch sightings are the norm. In one 24-hour period, we saw close to a dozen rhino, elephants and a large buffalo herd all eyeing each other at the same waterhole; a pack of wild dogs; male giraffes fighting; two cheetahs on the hunt; and a pride of 13 lions. Most lodges include two wildlife drives per day (or one drive and a guided walk) in their full-board rates. Rangers communicate via radio with the other drivers in the reserve, so if a family of lions napping in the shade of a thorn tree is spotted nearby, your driver will hear about it. Restrictions on driving off road are minimal and the jeeps are tough enough to tackle most terrain, getting you close to the animals. The rules in Madikwe dictate that only three vehicles may be present at any one sighting, and this is strictly observed. While this may be frustrating while you wait in line and out of sight, it ensures that animals are not pursued/harassed by a convoy of vehicles, and retains Madikwe's credentials as a wonderful place to get up close with the animals. Madikwe has a full suite of outstanding places to stay. Most of them are exclusive and supremely comfortable. Advance booking is mandatory: you will not be allowed through the gates without a reservation (the guard will telephone your lodge to check you have a booking). For extensive information on all of the lodges, visit www.madikwegamereserve.net.
Stunningly stark, arid, rocky landscapes reverberate with cultural intrigue and wandering wildlife at Mapungubwe National Park. A Unesco World Heritage Site, Mapungubwe contains South Africa’s most significant Iron Age site. The birdwatching here is excellent, as is the wildlife, which includes lions, leopards and elephants. But the park is as much about history as wildlife – archaeological finds from the 1930s are on display at the excellent Interpretative Centre and the site itself can be visited on a tour. In addition to the big cats and elephants, watch also for black and white rhinos, meerkats and some bird species that are hard to find elsewhere in South Africa, such as the rare Pel’s fishing owl. The park is divided into an eastern and western section (with private land in between). The main gate is on the eastern side along with the Interpretative Centre, Mapungubwe Hill, a Treetop Walk, Leokwe (the main camp), and the magnificent viewpoints that overlook the confluence of South Africa, Botswana and Zimbabwe. Mapungubwe has excellent organised activities, all of which must be booked in advance at the main park gate. The Heritage Tours are the only way to access the archaeological site, which is otherwise off-limits. All activities begin at the main park gate unless otherwise arranged. These include wildlife drives at sunrise (from 5.30am; three hours) and sunset (from 4pm; three hours); both cost R303 per person. night drives (from 7.30pm; two hours) cost R303 per person, while guided walks (from 6am; three hours) cost R444 per person. A Heritage Site Tour (from 4pm; two hours) costs R247 per person, while Heritage Tour and museum (from 7am and 10am; two hours) will set you back R283 per person.
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