Thanks to South Africa's diverse terrain and pleasant climate, it's possible to experience almost any outdoor activity here, from abseiling to zip lining. Good facilities and instruction mean that most activities are accessible to all visitors, whatever their experience level.

Birdwatching

With its enormous diversity of habitats, South Africa is a paradise for birdwatchers. There are birdwatching clubs nationwide, and most parks and reserves can provide birding lists, with information available from SANParks. Many parks, reserves and accommodation places also have field guides, but it's still worth bringing your own.

Birding Africa (www.birdingafrica.com) Day trips from Cape Town and tours further afield, covering birds and flowers.

BirdLife South Africa (www.birdlife.org.za) Useful information and links. Promotes avitourism (birding ecotourism) routes.

Bird-Watch Cape (www.birdwatch.co.za) Small, Cape Town–based outfit for twitchers, with tours including a nationwide 17-day package.

Cape Birding Route (www.capebirdingroute.org) Information relating to western South Africa, from Cape Point to the Kalahari.

Indicator Birding (www.birding.co.za) Information, articles and tours. Based in Gauteng.

Limpopo Birding Routes (www.limpopobirding.com) Lists guides and four routes, including one taking in the Soutpansberg mountains and Limpopo River Valley.

Southern African Birding (www.sabirding.co.za) Multimedia guides and information.

Zululand Birding Route (www.zululandbirdingroute.co.za) Avitourism project in an area of northern KwaZulu-Natal featuring over 600 bird species.

Canoeing, Kayaking & Rafting

South Africa has few major rivers, but those it has flow year-round and offer rewarding rafting and canoeing. Rafting is highly rain dependent, with the best months in most areas from December/January to April.

Felix Unite Runs trips on the Breede and Orange (Gariep) Rivers.

Induna Adventures (www.indunaadventures.com) White-water rafting and tubing ('geckoing') on the Sabie River.

Intrapid (www.raftsa.co.za) Rafting trips on rivers including the Orange, Doring and Palmiet.

Kaskazi Kayaks (www.kayak.co.za) Sea-kayaking trips in Cape Town.

PaddleYak (www.seakayak.co.za) Sea-kayak online shop, news and tours.

Diving

Take the plunge off the southern end of Africa into the Indian and Atlantic Oceans. Strong currents and often windy conditions mean advanced divers can find challenges all along the coast. Sodwana Bay on KwaZulu-Natal's Elephant Coast is a good choice for beginners, while Aliwal Shoal and Port Elizabeth are also popular.

When to Go Conditions vary widely. The best time to dive the KwaZulu-Natal shoreline is from May to September, when visibility tends to be highest. In the west, along the Atlantic seaboard, the water is cold year-round, but is at its most diveable, with many days of high visibility, between November and January/February.

Costs Prices are generally lower in South Africa than elsewhere in the region. Expect to pay from R5000 for a four-day PADI open-water certification course, and from R350 for a dive.

Equipment Coastal towns where diving is possible have dive outfitters. With the exception of Sodwana Bay during the warmer months (when a 3mm wetsuit will suffice), you'll need at least a 5mm wetsuit for many sites, and a dry suit for some sites to the south and west.

Safe Diving

In popular diving areas such as Sodwana Bay, there is a range of diving companies – including some slipshod operations. When choosing an operator, make quality – rather than cost – your priority. Factors to consider include an operator's experience and qualifications, knowledge and seriousness of staff, whether it's a fly-by-night operation or well-established with a good reputation locally, and the type and condition of equipment and frequency of maintenance. Assess whether the overall attitude is professional, and ask about safety considerations – radios, oxygen, emergency evacuation procedures, boat reliability and back-up engines, first-aid kits, safety flares and life jackets. On longer dives, do you get an energising meal, or just tea and biscuits?

Using operators offering courses certified by the Professional Association of Diving Instructors (www.padi.com) gives you the flexibility to go elsewhere in the world and have your certification recognised at other PADI dive centres.

Fishing

Sea fishing is popular, with a wide range of species in the warm and cold currents that flow past the east and west coasts, respectively.

River fishing, especially for introduced trout, is popular in parks and reserves, with some particularly good highland streams in the Drakensberg (for example, in the Rhodes area). Dullstroom is the capital of highveld fly fishing.

Licences are available for a few rand at park offices, and some shops and accommodation rent out equipment.

Bass Fishing South Africa (www.bassfishing.co.za) Forum and details of fishing sites.

Cape Piscatorial Society (www.piscator.co.za) Licences for sites around Cape Town and the Winelands.

Sealine (www.sealine.co.za) Angling and boating community.

Southern African Trout & Flyfishing Directory (www.flyfisher.co.za) Inspiration for a fly-fishing safari.

Wild Trout Association (www.wildtrout.co.za) Rhodes-based repository of fishing lore.

Hiking

South Africa is a wonderful destination for hiking, with an excellent system of well-marked trails varied enough to suit every ability.

Accommodation Some trails offer accommodation, from camping and simple huts with electricity and running water, to hotels on slackpacking trails in the Eastern Cape and elsewhere. Book well in advance.

Guided walks Various parks, including Kruger, offer hikes ranging from two- to three-hour bush walks to overnight or multiday wilderness trails. Accompanied by armed rangers, you won't cover much distance, but they offer the chance to experience the wild with nothing between you and nature. Numerous tour operators also offer guided hikes in areas such as the Wild Coast and Drakensberg – excellent ways to get off the beaten track and experience African village life.

Off-trail hiking Some designated wilderness areas offer this. Routes are suggested, but it's basically up to you to survive on your own.

Regulations Many trails have limits as to how many hikers can be on them at any one time, so book ahead. Most longer routes and wilderness areas require hikers to be in a group of at least three or four, although solo hikers may be able to join a group.

Safety Not a major issue on most trails, but longer trails have seen muggings and burglaries of accommodation, while robberies and attacks can occur on the contour paths on Table Mountain, neighbouring Lion's Head, Signal Hill and especially Devil's Peak. Check with the local hiking club or park office. On longer and quieter trails, hike in a group and limit the valuables you carry. In Cape Town, do not walk alone, and avoid early mornings, evenings and other quiet times. The Table Mountain plateau is usually safe.

When to Go Hiking is possible year-round, although you'll need to be prepared in summer for extremes of heat and wet. The best time in the northern half of the country is March to October. For Cape Town and the Western Cape, spring (September to November) and autumn (March to May) offer cool, dry weather.

Resources

Recommended books:

  • Best Walks of the Drakensberg by David Bristow.
  • Easy Walks in the Cape Peninsula by Mike Lundy.
  • Hiking Trails of South Africa by Willie and Sandra Olivier.

Online resources:

  • CapeNature (www.capenature.co.za) Administers numerous trails in the Western Cape.
  • SANParks SANParks and the various forestry authorities administer most trails. Lots of information on its website.
  • Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife (www.kznwildlife.com) Controls various trails in the KwaZulu-Natal Drakensberg and Elephant Coast.
  • Hiking Organisation of Southern Africa (www.hosavosa.co.za) Information and links to hiking clubs.

Horse Riding & Pony Trekking

In South Africa it's easy to find horse rides ranging from hours to days, and for all experience levels. Riding trips are offered in national parks, including Addo Elephant, Golden Gate and Mountain Zebra.

Fynbos Trails (www.fynbostrails.com) In the Western Cape.

Haven Horse Safaris (www.havenhotel.co.za) One of many operators offering rides on the beaches of the Wild Coast and Eastern Cape.

Horizon Horseback (www.ridinginafrica.com) In the Waterberg, Limpopo.

Khotso Trails (www.khotsotrails.co.za) In the Southern Drakensberg, including Lesotho.

Savannah Horse Trails (www.savannahhorsetrails.co.za) In the Waterberg, Limpopo.

Kloofing (Canyoning)

Kloofing (called canyoning elsewhere) is a mix of climbing, hiking, swimming and some serious jumping. It has a small but rapidly growing following in South Africa, where you can enjoy it in locations from the Western Cape to Mpumalanga.

There's an element of risk in the sport, so when hunting for operators, check their credentials carefully before signing up.

Mountain Biking

There are trails almost everywhere in South Africa, from the Garden Route to the Kalahari. Cape Town is an unofficial national hub for the activity.

Bike Hub (www.bikehub.co.za) General cycling site, with articles, classifieds and popular forums.

Linx Africa (www.linx.co.za/trails/lists/bikelist.html) Lists trails by province.

MTB Routes (www.mtbroutes.co.za) Maps the locations of more than 400 bike trails nationwide.

Paragliding & Microlighting

Favourable weather conditions year-round and an abundance of high points to launch yourself from make South Africa a fine destination for aerial pursuits. Taking to the South African skies is fairly inexpensive; a helpful contact for getting started is the Aero Club of South Africa.

Paragliding South Africa is one of the world's top paragliding destinations – especially Lion's Head in Cape Town, with further opportunities throughout the Western Cape and nationwide. The strongest thermals are from November to April; outside these months, Barberton in Mpumalanga is a good winter-flying destination. For experienced pilots, airspace restrictions are minimal and there's great potential for long-distance, cross-country flying. South African Hang Gliding & Paragliding Association can provide information on flying sites, schools and clubs.

Microlighting A useful resource with forums and a list of airfields for ultralight aviation can be found at http://microlighters.co.za.

Rock Climbing

Top spots for climbing include Table Mountain, the Cederberg, Montagu, the Drakensberg and Waterval Boven (Emgwenya), near Nelspruit (Mbombela) in Mpumalanga.

Climb ZA (www.climbing.co.za) News, articles, directory and forum.

Mountain Club of South Africa (www.mcsa.org.za) Information and links to regional clubs.

SA Climbing Info Network (www.saclimb.co.za) Has listings and photos of climbing and bouldering routes.

Surfing

The best time of year for surfing the southern and eastern coasts is autumn and early winter (from about April to July). Boards and gear can be bought in most of the big coastal cities. New boards start around R4500 – check out www.gumtree.co.za.

Good spots for beginners – with lessons and gear hire aplenty – are Muizenberg (Cape Town), Jeffrey's Bay and Durban.

Wavescape (www.wavescape.co.za) Surf forecasting and coastal lifestyle website.

Zig Zag (www.zigzag.co.za) South Africa's main surf magazine.

Whale Watching

South Africa is considered one of the world's best spots to sight whales from land. Whale-watching spots dot the southern and eastern coastlines, from False Bay to iSimangaliso Wetland Park. Hermanus, where southern right whales come to calve, is the unofficial whale-watching capital.

Southern right and humpback whales are regularly seen offshore between June/July and November, with occasional spottings of Bryde's and killer whales.

Whale-watching boat trips are offered on both coasts, everywhere from Cape Town and Hermanus to Port Elizabeth and Durban.

Wildlife Watching

South Africa's populations of large animals are one of the country's biggest attractions. In comparison with other countries in the region (Botswana and Zambia, for example), wildlife watching in South Africa tends to be very accessible, with good roads and accommodation for all categories of traveller. It is also comparatively inexpensive, although there are plenty of pricier choices for those seeking a luxury experience in the bush.