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A first-timer’s guide to South Africa

Last updated 9 November 2020

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.

Start in Johannesburg

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. If you are after somewhere with a bit more character, Rosebank is a good bet and much more pedestrian friendly.

The central city is where you'll find a lot of Johannesburg's interesting attractions and activities. The Mabokeng Precinct has a great art and cafe culture and the Johannesburg Art Gallery is well worth a visit (just be aware that the surrounding are and park isn't the best). Be sure to stop into the Neighbourgoods Market on a Saturday morning – there’s a wide range of food and it’s really delicious!

From there, you can drive south of the city to visit the Apartheid Museum to gain insight into the country's conflicted past and troubled present. If you're interested in visiting a township, Soweto is accessible enough for experienced travellers to visit independently (just make sure you go during the day).

For a change of pace, try visiting Montecasino for a show and dinner, to try your luck at the blackjack table or just to see a replica of an Italian village in Africa. Just resist the temptation to wear heels as the cobblestone floors are rather slippery!

Head to Mpumalanga

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.

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.

Zebras

If Mozambique or Swaziland feature in your travel plans, consider staying in Marloth Park on the southern border of Kruger Park. You miss the sweeping views of the Panoramic Route, but can watch animals wander past your window. You'll also considerably cut down on your travel times.

Finish your trip in Cape Town

From Mpumalanga, 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 and 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.

Cape Town beaches

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 to Port Elizabeth, otherwise make your way up to Knysna and spend a couple of days there before heading back to Cape Town.

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