Nature and Activties
South Africa contains a bewildering variety of landscapes within its borders. There's the vast Kruger Park (which is bigger than Ireland) with its classic dry African bush and migrating game animals; the thick temperate forests and lush green river valleys of the Garden Route; the panoramic views and high peaks of the Drakensberg Mountains; Mpumalanga's dramatic Magoebaskloof Valley and the little known mountain world of lakes and sub-tropical forests that surround nearby Tzaneen; the wide, open spaces of the desolate semi-desert plateau of the Great Karoo (which was once an inland sea and which springs to life with flowers after rain); the rolling patchwork of Overberg farmland that's wedged between the sea and the Winelands in the Cape; the Klein Karoo's red sandstone hills; the rugged scenery of the Cederberg, previously home to Bushman and San tribes; and lastly, the harshly beautiful desert landscape of the Northern Cape through which flows the Orange River (the longest river in southern Africa); citrus estates and vineyards flourish where otherwise there would only be scorched veld.
Game viewing and the Kruger National Park
To really make the most of the safari experience we would advise not zipping around a reserve in your hire car, ticking off as many animals as you can before the gates close. Instead, take a few days to visit lesser-known or private game reserves. These can be expensive, but it's an experience worth paying for. Stay in an all-inclusive lodge or camp for two to three nights to allow for plenty of game drives and walks. In-house rangers are the key to a great bush experience and the more questions you ask them, the more you'll get from the experience.
The GG accommodation section is full of ideas on this. We have instead tried to provide a range of interesting things to do (and places to eat) outside the game parks, to fill those days either side of your safari experience.
You can also, of course, visit the massive Kruger National Park. Perhaps Africa's most famous game reserve, it covers nearly two million hectares of land stretching along South Africa's north-eastern border with Mozambique.
Established in 1898 it was later named after the then president of the South African Republic Paul Kruger and is today home to a fantastic array of flora and fauna: 336 trees, 49 fish, 34 amphibians, 114 reptiles, 507 birds and 147 mammals.
This is a public park and, unlike the many private game reserves, you are free to drive around it in your own car, as motorists have been doing since 1927. This can clearly be a great experience. But the Kruger is massively popular and in high season can feel like more of a zoo, with traffic jams of visitors queuing to see this sleeping lion or that grazing rhino, leaning out of their cars to get a better look.
If you are going to go to Kruger, don't just turn up at the gates. Plan your trip in advance as the park has maximum numbers they will allow in at one time and it is very possible that you will not get in unless you are there early enough at busy times of year. The park's website has all the details you could possibly want for this, so take a look at it on www.sanparks.org (particularly the code of conduct page which informs us that the use of roller skates and skateboards is strictly prohibited!).
Know your stinkwood from your yellowwood
Both of these are found in the abundant forestry of the Garden Route, but they are both protected trees. Generations of settlers hacked down these hardwoods like there was no tomorrow, using the magnificent timber to build the floors, ceilings and furniture that you will still see today in many old houses across the country.
Stinkwood (ocotea bullata) is an evergreen that has a pungent rotten-socks smell when it is felled but, as you can't chop it down, try and recognise it from the blisters or bubbles (hence bullata) on the upper side of its leaves. These trees grow to about 25-30m tall with a trunk about 1.6m in diameter. The bark starts smooth grey or pink and turns rough and dark as it matures.
Yellowwood (podocarpus falcatus) whose timber is a deep golden yellow when varnished is a much larger tree, growing up to a massive 60m high. Identify it by its dark purple-brown bark that flakes in round patches.
When I first visited I expected Limpopo to be big, empty and dry all over. I couldn't have been more wrong. In fact, it has rich agricultural zones, growing massive volumes of fruit and vegetables, including 75% of the country's mangoes, 65% of its papaya, 36% of its tea, 25% of its citrus, bananas, and litchis, 60% of its avocados, two thirds of its tomatoes. The Tzaneen area is particularly lush, with mountain lakes and streams feeding thick forest and terraced plantations. Take some time after your game drives for some fantastic walks in this area.
Garden Route, Klein Karoo or Karoo?
Navigation and life in general will become much easier once you know the difference between these three areas. They are essentially divided by two waves of mountains that run east to west, parallel to the coast.
The Garden Route is the band of lush greenery that runs along the coast itself. The ocean is an obvious attraction and the walking here is particularly good. Heading inland to the north you will cross the Langeberg and Outeniqua Mountains (say from George to Oudtshoorn) into the Klein (or Little) Karoo.
This long tongue of land is home to many of South Africa's soft fruit farms and famous too for its ostrich-farming heritage. The R62 is increasingly marketed as the tourist route that whisks you through this part of the world, but the area still has a wonderfully off-the-beaten track reality that is sometimes hard to find nearer the sea. Head north again over the Swartberg range though, into the Groot (Great) Karoo and you really do escape the crowds. Prince Albert, just the other side of the hairy Swartberg Pass, makes a great first stop through this vast, arid expanse of veld that spreads hundreds of kilometres into the Northern Cape and north towards Johannesburg.
Red Stone Hills
These amazing geological formations are well worth a detour from the R62. They date to the enon-conglomerate period, formed 65 million years ago when the earth twisted and a torrent of sanguine mud-stone settled and solidified; a few million years later, bushmen hid in the hills' stone pockets and painted wildlife. A chap from Roberts (the ultimate S.A. bird book) identified 185 birds here, including eagles, black stork and five varieties of kingfisher.
The hills lie half way between Calitzdorp and Oudtshoorn on the R62. Head west from Oudtshoorn for 28km, then take Kruisrivier turn-off. Red Stone is 6km down this road. Check out the Potgieters at Red Stone Hills in our accommodation guide for somewhere to stay.
Get to know the Orange River
- South Africa's longest river, rising in the distant Drakensberg in Lesotho and flowing westwards some 2,200km before it finally hits the Atlantic Ocean at Alexander Bay.
- First discovered by the Europeans in 1760.
- A huge catchment area extending over 973,000km2 reaching deep into Namibia, Botswana and Lesotho.
- The generous provider of Namibian and South African coastal diamonds, washing them downstream from the volcanic pipes of Kimberley and depositing them in the coastal dune field.
Watching Whales and Seeing Sharks
Added to these inland spectacles are the 1,000 plus miles of Indian Ocean coastline along the country's eastern flank, skirted with unspoilt beaches, its warm waters perfect for surfing or watching dolphins. Up the west coast lie another 800 miles of rocky Atlantic shore where the water is too cold for swimming, but the birdlife is spectacular. The two oceans converge around the Cape and the lighthouse at Cape Point is a popular spot to watch them meet.
From July to October migrating southern right whales make these waters their playground, breeding ground and home. If you're on a day trip from Cape Town to the Hermanus area and its whale-watching hotspots, here's a driving tip: take the N2 for a quick journey out there (Sir Lowry's Pass has great views too), but return on the R44 Clarence Drive coast road via Kleinmond and Betty's Bay. This takes longer but is a beautiful drive and, doing it on the return journey, you'll be driving on the sea-side of the road, so the views are better. Not that you would take your eyes off the road for one instant, of course!
These waters are also home to the much-maligned great white shark. Around the Cape, the sharks feed off huge colonies of Cape fur seals, especially around False Bay's Seal Island. During August, they have been filmed breeching fully clear of the water in taking seal pups, unique behaviour that has not been witnessed anywhere else in the world. Chris at Apex Shark Expeditions (www.apexpredators.com) runs a fantastic operation out of Simon's Town that takes people out to watch the spectacle. Alternatively, there are a number of shark cage diving operations for the fearless to see them up close, though this is a contentious business. Do bear in mind that, despite the hype, shark attacks are very rare. The sharks are an important part of this coastline's eco-system and are protected by law. South Africa actually pioneered an international convention that protects the sharks from attack by humans. If you get the chance, visit one of the Natal Sharks Board's shark dissections in Umhlanga, Durban (www.shark.co.za) to really learn about these fascinating creatures.
Surfer's survival kit
Learn the following terms by heart and drop them nonchalantly into conversation at the local bar. Let the kudos - like the waves - roll in.
- Beach Break: waves breaking on the sandy seabed - best to start surfing on (not that you're a beginner or anything...)
- Point Break: waves breaking onto a rocky point. Swaze/Reeves film named after this impressive formation.
- Reef Break: wave breaking over a coral reef or a rock seabed. A classic surfing wave - unforgiving if you Muller (see below) but most rewarding in their perfection. Cloud Break is an extreme reef break.
- Tube: the hollow centre of a breaking wave, and the place to be. Also called a barrel.
- Mullering: wiping out in spectacular style - inevitable.
Waves are either Left or Right depending on which direction the wave breaks from the point of view of the surfer (never from that of the beach observer).
Wind is the ultimate deciding factor between a really 'A1' day's surfing or a non-day. An onshore wind is the worst, dude! The wind blows from out to sea and ensures that all the waves crumble and have no shape, making the waves unsurfable. An offshore wind is the best, ensuring the waves rolling in are well formed.
These stocky dolphins are endemic to the West Coast and really very little is known about them other than what they look like. They measure up to about 6ft with the front half a light grey sweeping into dark blue-black towards the tail. The belly is a brilliant white and they have a blunt fin and flippers. You'll most often see them in twos and threes, off-shore and they tend to be fairly acrobatic, often following the bow waves of boats.
Guano - a history of poo
Guano (derived from the Peruvian Quechua word for dung as if you didn't already know) or bird poo is intrinsically linked to the history of South Africa's West Coast. Apart from smelling quite fantastically foul it also makes for great fertiliser. Generations of breeding birds left the coastline caked in the stuff and European traders fought tooth and nail to scrape it from the rocks during the 19th century, carefully shipping their "white gold" back to Europe where it sold for a fortune.
Cape Point marks the southern tip of the Table Mountain National Park, which stretches for 60km from Signal Hill in the north encompassing Table Mountain and the spiny finger of peaks that stretch south into the Atlantic. Cape Point itself is a wild and windy spot where a footpath leads to its needle-sharp southern tip. It's well worth a visit for hiking and mountain biking and some vigorous fresh air away from the city. To get there drive right through Simon's Town and just keep going. You will pay R35 to enter.
What's so right about a southern right whale?
This whale's name originates from early hunting days when it was simply considered the "right" whale to hunt, because they lived close to shore, and, moving slowly, were easy to approach. If you visit the Western Cape between July and December you are almost certain to see southern right whales. In winter and spring they use the shallow coastal waters to mate and rear their calves. If you're there between August and October and you don't see any whales, you're seriously unlucky. Yup, that's you I'm talking to…. The Overberg is the area everyone flocks to but you will spot whales from the KZN coastline all the way around to the Cape Peninsula and West Coast (we watched them every day from our flat in Kalk Bay). Despite swimming slowly they are pretty acrobatic. Their favourite moves include: flipper slapping, breaching (driving up out of the water, often up to 10 times in a row), lobtailing (slapping the water with the flukes) and sailing, when they hang vertically upside down and use their tail as a sail. Adults grow to 11 - 18m (36 - 59ft) long and weigh between 30 and 80 tonnes. They are browny black in colour, with a white belly. Hunting pushed southern rights almost to extinction, with some 45,000 estimated to have been killed in the first half of the nineteenth century. Today's population is reckoned at up to 4,000. On a lighter (or heavier) note, right whales have the heaviest testes in the animal kingdom with each pair weighing in at up to a tonne, roughly the weight of a small car.
The Big Five
So what about the Big Five? Once you get into the swing of bush living, you'll realize that seeing these particular animals isn't necessarily the be all and end all of your visit. Whatever you see or don't see, you might want to swat up on this box of animal facts to impress your ranger. The Kruger National Park is clearly the largest and most famous of the South African parks, but it is by no means the only great place to see game. The Madikwe Game Reserve in the North West Province, for example, has one of the highest populations of wild dog, a rarely seen and highly endangered species. There are several reserves near Vaalwater in Limpopo; the fact that it is malaria-free is especially useful if you have children going with you. Further south in the Eastern Cape are several private reserves, as well as Addo Elephant Park near Port Elizabeth.
But you don't have to go to a game reserve to see animals you wouldn't normally encounter in, say, Cornwall.. For example you will see as you drive around vervet monkeys, baboons, the occasional tortoise, dassies, meerkats, snakes and ostriches, which are sometimes wild, but mostly farmed (especially around Oudtshoorn). There is also the 'little five' to look out for: the buffalo weaver, rhinoceros beetle, elephant shrew, leopard tortoise and ant lion. Good luck with that one.
Away from the game reserves there are plenty of other national parks to explore in a game vehicle, by foot, by bike, or even by canoe: the Kalahari Gemsbok, Natal Drakensberg, Table Mountain National Park, St Lucia Wetlands, Hluhluwe-Umfolozi. among many other smaller ones.
Some of the most memorable attributes of South Africa are its mountains. You can almost guarantee that there'll be at least one in sight and they provide plenty of opportunities for walking, kloofing and rock-climbing.
For the less able (or willing), much of the countryside can be taken in even from the seat of your car - motoring to Prince Albert over the Swartberg Pass (Klein Karoo) or along Cape Town's Chapman's Peak Drive are fantastic activities in themselves.
The Big 5 is not the be-all and end-all
The Big 5 is originally a hunting term, referring to the five most sought-after game prizes. These are the animals considered the most dangerous to hunt, which would come after you like the wrath of God if you failed to kill them outright, namely:
Rhino (strictly speaking the black rhino - though white rhino can get pretty angry too)
Buffalo - often considered the most dangerous of all.
Please don't let Big 5 sightings make or break your safari. These days it really is just an annoying and slightly ludicrous marketing term. If it were a Big 5 of animals to see rather than to kill, would the cheetah not be in there, and the buffalo out?
Every animal is individually amazing but it's the whole mosaic of bush life which (I think) is really fascinating, from enormous elephants all the way down to the beetles that deal with their dung. Open your eyes to this and you will get much more out of your safari. Here endeth the lesson!
Impress your ranger
The trouble with game rangers is that they know so much. Here's a list of 10 animal facts that you can slip into conversation to try and impress them when bumping up and down in a game vehicle.
- Hippos produce their own sun-block, a sticky pink liquid secreted from the skin that protects them from the sun and stops them drying out. They also kill more people than any of the other game that you will see on safari.
- Lions spend some 20 hrs a day resting.
- Black rhinos are actually grey… as are white rhinos, the white comes from Afrikaans widje, meaning wide and referring to the wide lower lip they use for grazing.
- Of all the big cats cheetahs are the only ones that cannot retract their claws, which they use for grip when they are running.
- Dung beetles don't actually feed on dung - they feed on the juice, by squeezing the dung between their jaws. It takes all sorts to make a world.
- The word giraffe comes from the Arabic zarafah, meaning "the one who walks quickly".
- It's thought that a leopard can lift three times its own body weight and there have been reports of them even dragging young giraffe kills into trees.
- A new-born zebra can stand within 15mins of birth.
- African wild dogs live in packs of up to 20 and cover ranges of hundreds of square miles.
- An African elephant can drink up to 50 gallons of water a day.
And here are three absurd fabrications to slip in to see if they were listening:
- The brown hyena regularly eats up to 86 times its own body weight in a day.
- A full-grown buffalo measures up to 8.5m at the shoulder.
- Fish eagles don't eat fish, they eat grass.
Visit Cape Point and, aside from antelope and ostriches, you may cross paths with a chacma baboon, or more likely an entire flange of them. Also called the dog-faced monkey, the olive-grey chacma has beady (disturbingly human) eyes and a bare dog-like muzzle housing sharp canines. You'll often see them crossing the road or marching along in a column and they will generally move out of your way. They are fun to watch and photograph, but DO NOT feed them.
The Cape baboons have been around for a long time and know every trick in the book when it comes to an easy lunch. When I visited the park a family left their car doors wide open and their shopping on display. Three or four baboons sidled over, hopped into the back of the car and noisily laid waste to the groceries. One of them ended up sitting on the roof eating a packet of crisps, and was not going to be moved.
Should you find yourself in a similar situation with an inclination to try and shoo them away, here are a few points to be aware of:
- Baboons live in troops, ruled by dominant males, that number 50 to 100 strong.
- They can be extremely aggressive and would viciously counter-attack their predators (leopard and cheetah) when threatened.
- They are the largest members of the monkey family with a mature male measuring 1.5 m from head to tail and weighing in at up to 33kg.
- They can run up to 35 - 40 miles per hour.
Bear this in mind.
Tortoises are dangerous because…
… you spend a remarkable amount of time on the road swerving to avoid them. Despite the tide of advice put forward for their benefit, tortoises are forever crossing busy roads. This is not totally surprising as they do move very slowly and there are a lot of them. South Africa is home to 13 species in fact, giving it the richest tortoise diversity on earth. These include the leopard, the hinge-back, the speckled padloper (which sounds more like a suspiciously cloudy English ale), the geometric and the tent.
What is a dassie?
A dassie, or rock hyrax, looks rather like a cross between a guinea pig and a rabbit but its closest relative is, actually, the elephant. You may well find this hard to believe since the dassie is the very incarnation of the opposite of an elephant: small, furry and no trunk at all. They do share similarities of the feet and teeth apparently... though, again, it is hard to see what these might be. Dassies feed on vegetation and, quite accustomed to onlookers, you'll see them nonchalantly munching the grass all over Table Mountain and the Cape Peninsula.
Oudtshoorn and its ostriches
Ostrich feathers have been used throughout history to denote nobility and authority, worn by Egyptian pharaohs, Roman generals and Zulu warriors alike. They became a Europe-wide fashion accessory in the 19th century and an ostrich feather export industry quickly grew up in the Cape Colony. Over-hunting and predation had greatly reduced ostrich numbers and the feather price rose dramatically, sparking a rush into ostrich farming, particularly around Oudtshoorn.
Farmers became very wealthy and built ostentatious 'feather palaces' that still stand in and around the town. Ostrich plumage by the early 1900s had expanded into S.A.'s fourth largest export, but the market collapsed at the start of World War One and it was not until the end of Word War Two that farming ostriches for their meat and leather became established. The world's first ostrich abattoir was erected in Oudtshoorn in 1963.
Today you'll see flocks of these huge birds across the Klein Karoo and Overberg and they are still central to the region's economy. Aside from the meat, the eggs make for huge omelettes, the leather for chairs, clothes, handbags and wallets, and even the eggshells are used to make decorative lampshades.
- An ostrich's eye is bigger than its brain.
- Ostriches don't need to drink. They can internally produce their own fluid and get the rest from vegetation.
- Ostriches live for up to 40 years.
- An ostrich has intestines 14m long to get the most from the tough plants it eats.
So what exactly is "kloofing"?
An adventure sport that takes the direct route following a river down a mountain. Kitted out in a wet suit and helmet you'll abseil, bushwhack, swim, boulder hop (or clamber depending on your agility) and raft your way down the course of a river.
It's generally a safe bet that if it says "pass" on the map the drive will be thrilling, but the Swartberg Pass is something special. This 27km road connects the Klein Karoo to the Karoo between Oudtshoorn and Prince Albert, zig-zagging up the Swartberg range to 1,583m and then down the other side. It's a dirt road all the way and can make for treacherous driving. If the weather is bad road signs at either end tell you if it's closed. Pay attention to these - it may be a beautiful day in Prince Albert or Oudtshoorn, but it can be a different story on the pass. I did it in a little hire car and even in drizzle I was sliding about in the mud. That said, it was utterly magnificent and I took dozens of photos of panoramic views, plunging drops and huge, contorted rock faces.
Chapman's Peak is the most thrilling drive in Cape Town bar none - when it's open. It's an astonishing piece of engineering that cost millions of rand to construct and millions more to maintain so that it is safe. The authorities close the road whenever it rains, or the wind blows hard as there was a fatal accident involving falling rocks 6 years ago. Following this accident the road was closed until late 2003 for major fortification work to ensure that it was safe. Carved into fynbos-cloaked mountainside, the single track coast road links Hout Bay to Noordhoek via a sinuous route that clings to the contours and in places burrows through the sheer cliff face. It's best driven from Noordhoek over to Hout Bay, simply because that way around you'll be on the seaward side of the road and can easily pull in to the various view points - make sure you do this. The views are spectacular and during the whale season (Jun - Dec, as you'll read about a million times in this book) you can look straight down on to the black-brown backs of bobbing southern rights. Make sure you take your binoculars. These also make great picnic spots. The toll (they have to pay for it somehow) costs R22 for a car.
For those who prefer a more relaxed pace, or just want to appreciate some of the finer things life has to offer, then head to the Cape Winelands. The valleys around Franschhoek and the old university town of Stellenbosch are beautiful and many visitors spend a happy few days pootling from winery to vineyard, sampling wines and eating in some of the country's most outstanding restaurants.
Don't let the tourist trail trick you into thinking that these are the only vineyards in South Africa, however. On the contrary, it is often more rewarding to discover the more way-out wineries that others won't find.
Of all who visit South Africa though, it has to be the birders and plant lovers that are the most spoilt - the country is astoundingly rich in both. Of the incredible 900 species of bird that live here, 113 are endemic, including the splendid purple-crested loerie. South African flora is spectacular and you don't have to be green-fingered to be fascinated. South Africa has more than 22,000 species, which represents 10% of the world's total. Namaqualand's springtime (late August and early September) desert carpeting of flowers is one of the wonders of the world and, a little later in October, Pretoria and Johannesburg's streets are a riot of violet from their blossoming jacaranda trees. South African fynbos covers quite a small area of the Western Cape, yet it comprises one of the earth's six separate floral kingdoms, the Cape Kingdom, the smallest and richest of them all, and the only one entirely contained within a single country.
Stellenbosch and Franschhoek are the names most synonymous with South Africa's wine production, but it's well worth going a little further afield for tastings too. Try Wellington and Tulbach or head over the hills to the Worcester or Robinson vineyards. The drive is spectacular and you can really get off the beaten track (something we urge you to do whenever possible).
For wine buffs driving north, there's a string of wineries up the West Coast and also along the banks of the Orange River near Upington in the Northern Cape - so check out these chapters too.
A quick mention for one of my favourite birds. There are a number of loerie species in South Africa but this is, for me, the most beautiful one, found in northern and eastern S.A. They're very distinctive and you'll tend to see them in coastal or riverine forest, often in pairs "furtively clambering through dense foliage" as one book eloquently puts it. The crest on these magnificent birds is indeed purple, its wings and tail a blueish colour and you'll catch flashes of red in the wings when it flies. The purple-crested loerie is a noisy character and before you see it you may well hear its call - a loud kok-kok-kok-kok increasing steadily in volume. So keep your ears and eyes open.
Namaqualand - blooming marvellous
Named after the Nama nomadic herders who occupied these lands Namaqualand stretches from the Orange River in the north to Garies in the south (about half way between Springbok and Vanrhynsdorp on the N7) and from Pofadder in the east to the Atlantic coast.
Every year, for a few weeks, the usually dry and apparently lifeless scrubland of this part of the world is transformed into a sea of colour for an incredible display of spring blooming. The land is literally carpeted in flowers for only a few weeks between mid-August and mid-September. It is very dependent on the weather and some years can be disappointing. The spring bloom is truly one of the wonders of the natural world and travellers come from across the globe just for this. So if you are planning to go, book your accommodation VERY early.
The spring display is led by a phenomenal variety of daisies as well as violets, gladioli, pelargoniums and many more that I can't name. Although the flowers are at their best in the Northern Cape, you need drive only as far north as Darling for a flavour of what it's like (but I'd advise seeing the real McCoy further north).
A jacaranda in blossom is a stunning sight and Pretoria is the place to see them. Almost every avenue is lined with them (some 70,000 apparently). As other spring blossoms fade the jacaranda bursts into an explosion of blue-lilac flower that hangs heavy on the branches and coats the pavements in a carpet of colour.
A Fudger's Guide to Fynbos
Fynbos vegetation covers a vast area of South Africa from Nieuwoudtville in the Northern Cape to Port Elizabeth in the Eastern Cape, and, a great deal of noise is made about it. So what's all the fuss about? I turned to botanists at the University of the Western Cape for answers: The word fynbos comes from the Dutch for fine-leaved and these plants do indeed have small leaves that are leathery and tough to the touch.
Elegant ericas and proteas (South Africa's national plant is the king protea) are the most conspicuous, but in total fynbos contains some 7,700 species of which 70 percent are found nowhere else on earth. As such fynbos constitutes a recognised "floral kingdom". There are only 6 of these in the world usually occupying vast areas like Australia or most of the northern hemisphere. Despite being the smallest of these kingdoms, the Cape Floral Kingdom is the richest with 1,300 species per 10,000km2. The South American rainforest runs a distant second with 400 species. Fynbos is at its best during late winter and spring (the best time to see whales too by coincidence). If you're hungry for more information check out www.botany.uwc.ac.za/envfacts/fynbos.
Where's the capital?
Many people incorrectly assume that business centre Johannesburg is the capital of South Africa but it is actually Pretoria, with Cape Town its legislative centre and Bloemfontein the judicial centre.