A first-timer’s guide to South Africa

 

South Africa offers a huge variety of experiences and it can be hard to know what to choose for your first visit. As a South African who has been living offshore for the last 15 years, here are my tips for your first trip, assuming you have around 2-3 weeks to spend in the country.

First, a quick disclaimer: to really enjoy your time in this beautiful country, you will need to hire a car with GPS. Public transport in South Africa is not as reliable as it could be, and isn’t always safe. Hiring a car is a much more efficient way to get around and a good GPS will keep you out of the more undesirable areas – just be sure you don’t avoid tolls!

 

A sunny afternoon in Kalk Bay, Cape Town

A sunny afternoon in Kalk Bay, Cape Town

 

Most international flights will fly into Johannesburg, and I suggest you spend some time there before moving on. The Northern Suburbs are generally a safe way to go and Sandton is a popular choice, with the nearby mall, shops and restaurants (just avoid Alexandra township down the road). From there you can drive south to the city to visit the Apartheid Museum (and Gold Reef City if you like amusement parks).

The Mabokeng Precinct has some great art and be sure to stop into the Neighbourgoods Market on a Saturday morning – there’s a wide range of food and it’s really delicious! You can also visit Montecasino for a show and dinner or just to see a replica of an Italian village in Africa – ladies, just resist the temptation to wear heels as the cobblestone floors are rather slippery!

 

In the sun at Neighbourgoods Market. Photo by South African Tourism

In the sun at Neighbourgoods Market. Photo by South African Tourism

 

From Johannesburg, drive to Mpumalanga and the Kruger National Park, taking the Panoramic Route through the Blyde River Canyon. The views are amazing, and there are some beautiful walks in the canyon with occasional waterfalls. People say wonderful things about God’s Window, but it’s been misty every time I’ve looked down, so I can’t recommend it from personal experience. The heritage town of Pilgrims Rest is fun to visit, still almost exactly like it was in the 19th century, while Harrie’s Pancakes in nearby Graskop is an institution and it’s definitely worth stopping for a bite.

 

The Blyde River Canyon. Photo by Irene

The Blyde River Canyon. Photo by Irene

 

For most travellers to South Africa, a safari is the highlight of the visit. I suggest considering a private reserve bordering the Kruger National Park rather than Kruger itself. Both have their pros and cons – it just depends on what you’re looking for. In my opinion, a private reserve is better for families with young children or those in a rush. It’s a lot smaller than Kruger and the rangers generally have a good idea where the animals are, meaning you see more animals in a shorter timeframe. It’s a great option if you want to be sure to see the Big 5 in a day or two.

Kruger, on the other hand, is almost the size of Belgium. It’s vast and takes longer to find the animals, but it’s wonderful to get a sense of how much space they need and the size of their territories. I also think it’s worth staying in one of the lodges in the Park or a by a private reserve. Having animals come visit you while you’re having an afternoon drink is a wonderful experience.

 

Elephants walking down the road in the Kruger National Park

Elephants walking down the road in the Kruger National Park

 

From Mmupulanga, drive back to Johannesburg and fly to Cape Town, picking up another rental car when you get there. The Mother City deserves at least a week, and I suggest staying near Sea Point. It’s close to town and the waterfront if you want to take a taxi home, has beautiful views and there are good restaurants and cafes are close by.

In Cape Town, it’s worth ticking the tourist boxes – take a cable car up Table Mountain, drive around the coast and over Chapman’s Peak – the views are stunning. Visit Kirstenbosch and have lunch at a winery in Constantia. Drive past Hout Bay to Cape Point where you can see the light house and the merging of the different coloured waters, then backtrack and visit Kalk Bay and Muizenburg, stopping to see the penguins at Boulders Beach on the way. Closer to the city, visit Bo Kaap with its colourful houses and have the mandatory drink at the V&A Waterfront, with the postcard view of table mountain and the harbour.

 

Sunbathing in Cape Town

Sunbathing in Cape Town

 

Then, leaving the city, spend some time in Stellenbosche and the winelands, before driving up the coast along the Garden Route. Pick a few bays and towns to stop in. If you have time, you can drive all the way up the coast, otherwise make your way up to Knysna and spend a couple of days there before heading back to Cape Town for your flight home.

 

Leave A Comment

Your email address will not be published.