The rainbow nation is an unbeatably diverse country, from the soaring Drakensberg mountains and the Karoo’s open spaces to golden Indian and Atlantic Ocean beaches and vibrant cities. The country’s social mix reflects this diversity, with 11 official languages and people tracing their roots to Asia, Europe and Central Africa. It is fascinating to see vastly different lifestyles coexisting - many rural people live in mud huts and practise ancestor worship, while middle class urbanites are more often found at the mall.
Achieving social cohesion remains a challenge following the segregation of apartheid, but it is inspiring to see the progress being made. Nelson Mandela took South Africa through a revolution in the early 1990s, and most South Africans remain committed to his message of unity, with numerous schemes to uplift disadvantaged communities. Whether you choose to learn about township life and experience African culture, or just to hike up Table Mountain and hit the beach, South Africa offers easy and affordable access to activities. Spotting lions in the bushveld, learning to make Cape Malay curries, diving to coral reefs, hiking through dramatic mountains, tasting in the Cape Winelands… it’s all waiting in the rainbow nation.
CAPITAL: Pretoria (administrative); Cape Town (legislative); Bloemfontein (judicial)
MAJOR CITIES: Johannesburg, Cape Town, Durban, Port Elizabeth, East London
PROVINCES: Eastern Cape, Free State, Gauteng, KwaZulu-Natal, Limpopo, Mpumalanga, Northern Cape, North West Province, Western Cape
AREA: 1.2 million km²; about five times the size of Great Britain
NEIGHBOURS: Botswana, Lesotho, Mozambique, Namibia, Swaziland, Zimbabwe
COASTLINE: 2798km. Indian and Atlantic Oceans meet around Cape Agulhas, Western Cape
HIGHEST POINT: Njesuthi (3408m) in the Drakensberg range
POPULATION: 53.7 million. More than 60% in urban areas
ETHNIC GROUPS: Black African (80.2%), comprising the Nguni (Zulu, Xhosa and Swazi), Sotho-Tswana, Tsonga and Venda; coloured (8.8%); white (8.4%), primarily Afrikaners and English-speaking people of British descent; and Indian/Asian (2.5%)
LANGUAGES: 11 official languages including Zulu (22.7%), Xhosa (16%), Afrikaans (13.5%), English (9.6%), Sepedi or Northern Sotho (9.1%), Tswana (8%), Sesotho or Southern Sotho (7.6%), Tsonga (4.5%), Swati (4.5%), Venda (2.4%), Ndebele (2.1%)
RELIGIONS: Christianity (79.8%), Islam (1.5%), Hinduism (1.2%), Judaism (0.2%). Animism is commonly practised by Africans in tandem with Christianity
An epic land
South Africa is the continent’s southernmost country, with the warm Indian Ocean flowing along its east coast and the colder Atlantic along the west. The two oceans meet around Cape Agulhas, Africa’s southernmost point, while the balmy Agulhas Current and chillier Benguela Current meet at Cape Point, the continent’s southwestern-most tip. These diverse oceanic conditions create the contrast between the forested east and rocky west coasts, and contribute to South Africa’s spectacular biodiversity.
Forming the boundaries of KwaZulu-Natal and the Eastern Cape, the east coast is lush and subtropical with humid summers. The south coast, including the Garden Route, is also green and enjoys a Mediterranean climate – hence the abundance of vineyards around Cape Town. The great inland Karoo plateau, where rocky hills and mountains rise from semi-desert scrubland, is arid and gets more so going north-west into the Kalahari. Dividing the Karoo from the coast and the northeastern Lowveld is a great chain of mountains, including the Cape Fold Belt and the mighty Drakensberg.
Southern Africa enjoys a beautiful climate, with warm sunny days and its legendary blue skies for most of the year. Summer runs from December to March, when most of the region basks in warm to hot weather.
The eastern coastline and Lowveld are lush and subtropical with humid summers. Swimming and surfing are year-round activities in spots such as Durban. Inland, Johannesburg is famous for its summer rainfall and afternoon thunderstorms, with pleasantly crisp weather in the winter (June to September), when Cape Town is wreathed in rain clouds. The southern coastline and Cape Town area have a Mediterranean climate with hot, dry summers and wet winters.
The Karoo and Kalahari experience semi-desert conditions, with gruellingly hot summers and chilly winters. Sutherland, at 1500m in the Northern Cape section of the Karoo, is South Africa’s coldest place and sees snow every year. With many peaks towering above 3000m, the Drakensberg and adjoining Lesotho plateau experience severe winter frosts and snowfalls. Otherwise, winters are mild everywhere except in the higher country.
Your trip to South Africa would be incomplete without a wildlife safari. The open plains, dotted with thorn trees and grazing antelopes, have always been an attraction for fascinated animal watchers. Most tourists go on safari hoping to spot the Big Five - lion, leopard, elephant, rhino and buffalo – but the bush offers endless sights and experiences.
Many travellers are equally enchanted by the more modest wildlife, such as the buck, giraffes and zebras roaming the plains. Between looking out for furry mammals, don’t forget the Little Five - elephant shrew, ant lion, rhinoceros beetle, buffalo weaver and leopard tortoise. Ostrich and meerkat are regularly spotted in the Karoo, especially around Oudtshoorn, and a dung beetle hauling his load is a common sight.
South Africa’s wildlife is not limited to the land, with hippos and crocodiles in the waterways and estuaries; and dolphins and sharks, including the Great White, regularly visiting the coast. Whales make an appearance between roughly June and November, when Hermanus is the world’s best land-based whale watching spot.
South Africa has some 20 national parks, from Kruger to the Garden Route, and private game reserves everywhere from the bushveld to the Cape Town area. Winter (June to September) is the best time to view game, as visibility is better with the thinner vegetation and the weather is milder. Safaris are best enjoyed in an open-sided vehicle with a guide, who will tell you more about what you see.
Good parks to view the Big 5
- Addo Elephant National Park Over 600 elephants and the Big Seven (the Big Five plus great white sharks and southern right whales). Roughly between Port Elizabeth and Grahamstown in the Eastern Cape.
- iSimangaliso Wetland Park Five ecosystems on KwaZulu-Natal’s tropical Elephant Coast, inhabited by hippos, turtles, whales and dolphins. Around Lake St Lucia, near the Mozambique border.
- Hluhluwe-iMfolozi Park White and black rhinos in a variety of landscapes, inland of St Lucia.
- Kruger National Park The country’s oldest and biggest national park, an epic place of life and death where the Big Five roam a patch of bushveld the size of Israel. Runs up the Mozambique border from Nelspruit, in South Africa’s northeast corner.
- Pilanesberg National Park An accessible wildlife watching destination, with tarred roads, good lodges and the Big Five in an eroded alkaline crater. Adjoining Sun City, less than three hours’ drive northwest of Johannesburg.
Adventure starts here
With its wonderful weather and beautiful landscape, South Africa has an abundance of outdoor activities to keep everyone busy. The breathtaking mountains, forests and beaches are perfect for traditional activities like hiking, cycling and horse riding. The region is also an awesome adventure destination, offering extreme challenges from the world’s third-highest bungee jump (216m) at Bloukrans, to zip-line tours that involve speeding down a cable suspended high above the ground – fast becoming a South African speciality. Then there’s kloofing (canyoning), white-water rafting, tubing, skydiving, the world’s highest gorge swing, abseiling from Table Mountain, paragliding from Lion’s Head… and countless other thrills and adrenalin fixes.
From Cape Town to Durban, South Africa’s coastline has countless surfs spots and just as many locals willing to share their knowledge – especially in surf capital Jeffrey’s Bay. Kite surfing and wind surfing equipment is available to hire in windier destinations.
Divers can come face to face with a prowling shark, either in a cage at Gansbaai or not. Sodwana Bay and Aliwal Shoal, both in KwaZulu-Natal, are favourites for their unspoilt coral reefs, warm water and diversity of fish and invertebrates; Port Elizabeth is a popular spot to take a PADI course.
That holiday feeling
With its warm, sunny days and long coastline of idyllic sandy beaches, South Africa is the perfect place to release some tension and have some fun. You will soon be following the locals’ lead and making the most of the environment, through al fresco picnics, drinks and festivals, beach bumming and scenic walks.
For special occasions, many fine restaurants serve local specialities, international cuisine and quality South African wine. Eating well is a big part of the South African lifestyle and most towns have a decent restaurant or two, with some of Africa’s best eateries in Cape Town and Johannesburg. Best of all, enjoying South Africa’s gourmet glory is extremely affordable compared with most Western countries, and tourists on every budget eat out a few times.
The vineyards of Constantia, the Cape Winelands and surrounding regions have been producing fine wines for centuries. Many are on beautiful Cape Dutch estates, which welcome visitors to their tasting rooms and restaurants. Tastings are often free, though you may pay the equivalent of a few US dollars for a tasting at a boutique winery or a pairing with chocolate.
There’s nothing better than meeting the people in the countries you visit and South Africans can’t wait to meet you, whether on a township tour, musical safari, cooking experience or at the bar. With 11 official languages from Afrikaans to Zulu, and the lingering fragmentation of apartheid, the country is mind-bogglingly diverse, leading to all sorts of cultural encounters.
Some South Africans can trace their origins to Europe and Asia, but most have their roots in Africa. Zulus, Xhosas, Ndebele and Afrikaners are only some of the people you are likely to meet on your visit. Each culture is unique with its own language and customs. People in rural areas lead more traditional and simple lives that involve ceremonies, celebrations, traditional healing and belief in the ancestors. Many still live in mud and grass huts. Constrastingly, contemporary African music and funky fashions have grown from the hip culture in urban townships like Soweto.
History & heritage
South African history has been turbulent, but South Africans draw strength from the past. Leaders like Nelson Mandela have been an inspiration. Learn about his inspiring life, and the troubled era he brought to an end, at the likes of Johannesburg’s Apartheid Museum, Robben Island and the District Six Museum in Cape Town, and the Nelson Mandela Museum in Qunu, Eastern Cape.
World Heritage Sites
Given South Africa’s diverse culture and history and its spectacular natural resources and wildlife, it is not surprising that it boasts the eight UNESCO World Heritage Sites.
Cape Floral Kingdom
A region that takes up only 0.04% of the world's land area, but contains an astonishing 3% of its plant species. This makes it one of the world’s richest plant regions, and one of 18 biodiversity hotspots globally. Table Mountain National Park, for example, has more plant species in its 22000 hectares than the British Isles or New Zealand. The most common type of vegetation here is fynbos, including ericas and proteas.
iSimangaliso Wetland Park
With one of Africa’s largest estuary systems and the continent's southernmost coral reefs, iSimangaliso’s sandy beaches, forested dunes, wetlands, grasslands, forests, lakes and savannah are home to a range of marine, wetland and savannah species. The landscape is shaped by the sea, wind and the river, making this a marvellous place to see nature at work across five distinct ecosystems.
From the Dutch and British periods onwards, dissidents were incarcerated in this former island prison, reached by ferry from Cape Town’s V&A Waterfront. Nelson Mandela served 18 of his 27 years in gaol here, and the museum has become a symbol of the struggle against apartheid. Former inmates lead tours of the cells and yards.
Cradle of Humankind
A concentration of hominid fossils that have helped trace the origin and evolution of man. The fossils date back millions of years, with around 1000 hominid fossil specimens unearthed here. Famous finds include a nearly complete skeleton of a 3.3-million-year-old australopithecine – a small-brained, two-footed primate that appeared about 5 million years ago.
A mountainous region of outstanding natural beauty that is popular among hikers. It is also home to superb rock art paintings by the San, hunter-gatherers who lived here from the Stone Age until the mid-1800s, giving the area both natural and cultural significance.
An enormous crater created by the impact of a meteorite, 10km in diameter and larger than Table Mountain, which hit this part of the northern Free State 2 billion years ago. The impact may have increased the earth's oxygen levels to a degree that made the development of multicellular life possible. Although eroded, Vredefort Dome remains the world’s oldest and largest clearly visible meteorite impact site.
Richtersveld Cultural & Botanical Landscape
This remote mountain desert on the Namibian border is home to the Nama people, semi-nomadic pastoralists who are descendants of the Khoisan. Continuing their traditional lifestyle, influenced by the area’s extreme temperatures and forbidding geography, the Nama own and manage the area, which was returned to them by the post-apartheid land restitution program.
Mapungubwe Cultural Landscape
Mapungubwe, ‘place of the stone of wisdom’, was South Africa’s first kingdom – a sophisticated civilisation that lasted for 400 years until the 14th century. In the 13th century it was an important trading centre, and its burial grounds have yielded discoveries such as the famous golden rhino. Its rocky landscape, at the confluence of the Limpopo and Shashe Rivers on the borders of Zimbabwe and Botswana, is home to a national park.