Places to visit in South Africa
The trick with any family holiday to South Africa is not to fall into the trap of ticking off too much. It is a massive country and totally justifies a return trip. Perhaps concentrate on the Cape area and Garden Route the first time – you can include a visit to Addo Elephant Park for that wildlife element – then head to KwaZulu Natal, Swaziland, the beaches at Durban and wildlife of the St Lucia Wetlands and Kruger area on another visit. There really are so many outstanding places to visit in South Africa… and why not take a quick jaunt to Victoria Falls afterwards?
Cape Town has to be one of the world’s most attractive cities. With its stunning location nestled between the foot of Table Mountain and the expansive waters of the Atlantic Ocean, it’s hard not to be impressed by its gorgeous beaches, trendy shops and galleries, mouth-watering restaurants, craft markets and vibrant nightlife. From the lively V&A waterfront area you can take a trip to Robben Island where Nelson Mandela was imprisoned for 18 years. Younger children will love hopping on the cable car up Table Mountain, older ones will enjoy the hike to the top through fantastic rugged scenery. Or what about some shark diving?! For something totally different, take a township tour, which will give children an important insight into a completely different way of life.
Flying into Cape Town is a wonderful way to start a family holiday. With little jetlag you can enjoy the sunshine atmosphere of this fabulous city the minute you step off the plane.
The Cape Peninsula
Cape Town lies at the top of the stunning Cape Peninsula. From here you can follow the Cape Point route which spans two coastlines and encompasses the UNESCO listed Cape Floral Kingdom and the Cape of Good Hope Nature Reserve. Follow the scenic Atlantic coast road, past the Blue Flag beaches of Clifton and Camps Bay, through the picturesque fishing village of Hout Bay, along the world famous Chapman’s Peak Drive and on to Cape Point itself.
Here you can have your photo taken at the Cape of Good Hope. Take note, this is NOT the southernmost point of the continent – that honour falls to Cape Agulhas. Children will love the safari feel to this trip as the nature reserve is home to zebra, ostrich, antelope and many cheeky baboons – keep a close watch on your snacks! There are also many haunting shipwrecks and historic lighthouses and plenty of opportunities to stop for a swim.
The return journey hugs the False Bay coastline, Simonstown and Kirstenbosch Botanical Gardens. At Kalk Bay you can enjoy a drink at the Brass Bell in a bar that protrudes into the Atlantic with waves crashing onto the walls and spraying the tables. However by far the most memorable spot for families is Boulders Beach where you can actually swim with the resident penguins.
Winelands & Whale Route
To the east of Cape Town lies the gorgeous scenery of the Winelands. Places such as Stellenbosch, Constantia and Franschhoek to name a few, are centres for world-class wine-making set in gorgeous countryside with picturesque farms and vineyards stretched out beneath rugged mountains. Exquisite Dutch colonial buildings grace the charming towns, tree-lined driveways lead to elegant manors and immaculately maintained rows of vines reach as far as the eye can see. Take the hop on/off tram tours or hire a bike so you can ‘pedal for pleasure’. Children can enjoy the thrilling Cape canopy tour, whooping it up over the fynbos-covered ravines of the Hottentots Holland Nature Reserve.
The coastal town of Hermanus also offers wine tasting but is more famous as one of the world’s best whale-watching sites. Wander the cliff paths and witness these majestic creatures come as close as 5 metres from the shore. The more adventurous could head out in a kayak or you can take a more sedate whale-watching cruise (July-Nov). There is some gorgeous boutique accommodation in the region, often with pools so that all ages are kept amused.
The ‘Garden Route’ forms part of the route between Cape Town and Port Elizabeth, and is famous for its diverse ecology and stunning scenery as well as more recently, the variety of activities families can enjoy along the way. Oudtshoorn is well known as the ostrich capital of the world – get up close to these rather amusing birds or enjoy the subterranean wonderland of the Cango Caves.
Visit the Elephant Park at Knysna, home to over nine herds of rescue elephants or take your own cheeky monkeys to the Monkeyland Primate Sanctuary. Children will love learning more about wild cats at the Tenikwa Wildlife Rehabilitation Centre, near Nature’s Valley. Plettenberg Bay is the gateway to the Tsitsikamma National Park, a spectacular coastal reserve of indigenous forest, deep river gorges and dramatic waterfalls. Take an easy – or challenging – hike, swing through the lush foliage on an exciting canopy tour or savour the views over the Storms River Gorge on a boat cruise.
Addo and Eastern Cape Reserves
For those looking for exciting safari options in a malaria-free zone, the Eastern Cape offers the perfect solution for a family safari holiday in Africa. The area boasts over 50 game parks and nature reserves, some of which are home to the big-five (buffalo, elephant, lion, leopard and rhino). Possibly the most famous is Addo Elephant Park, an easy hour’s drive from Port Elizabeth. The country’s third largest park has a wealth of activities families can enjoy, many of which cannot be offered in the larger parks such as Kruger.
The reserves of Shamwari, Kwandwe and Amakhala also offer superb wildlife-viewing opportunities. Horse-back safaris, rhino trekking and hiking in addition to traditional game drives all make for an exciting and varied safari experience. Accommodation ranges from rustic camps to luxurious child-friendly safari lodges, usually with pools.
The Big One. One of the largest parks in the whole of Africa, Kruger’s nearly 2 million hectares contain an astounding amount of game offering a wildlife experience to rival any of the famed East African reserves. Morning and afternoon safaris allow you to witness an impressive number of species including the big-five – with over 12,000 elephant and 5,000 rhino the children are not going to walk away disappointed. Many more of the classic African animals are found here – hippo, giraffe, zebra, warthog, cheetah and hyena will keep all ages agog with excitement.
Please note that Kruger falls into the malarial zone of South Africa.
It is worth highlighting that the many private reserves surrounding Kruger, such as Sabi Sands and Timbavati, offer a more varied programme of activities as they do not fall under the strict constraints of the main park. And you will still see all of the big game here – animals of course do not acknowledge park boundaries… There is some fantastically child-friendly accommodation available – your children can learn the basics of tracking and bug collecting from a trained ranger whilst you sip sundowners watching the animals meander past your verandah. What is there not to love about a family safari to Kruger?!
The tiny mountain kingdom of Swaziland is a country rich in tribal heritage and scenic beauty. It will add both a cultural element and wildlife experiences to your family holiday. Under 5 hours drive from Johannesburg, Swaziland is home to traditional villages, stunning escarpment scenery and many of the big African game.
Mlilwane Wildlife Sanctuary is a haven for endangered species such as black rhino and you can enjoy self-guided walking trails across the plains in search of zebra, elephant, giraffe and other animals. Swazi people are extremely proud of their culture and colourful ceremonies and dances can be enjoyed throughout the year. The country also has an impressive range of traditional arts and families will enjoy bartering in the local markets and watching craftspeople at work.
KwaZulu Natal is the heart of the Zulu Kingdom. A fiercely traditional land, it was once the exclusive royal hunting ground of King Shaka and is home to Africa’s oldest established wilderness area. It has a picturesque rural landscape dotted with small local villages and contains some of South Africa’s finest game and nature reserves as well as being the location of some of the most infamous battles of the Anglo-Zulu War.
The Buffalo River Valley is the scene of the Isandlwana campaign and the equally dramatic attack on Rorke’s Drift. Visit the emotive British battlefield cemetery or enjoy a captivating account of the confrontation, entertainingly narrated by a local raconteur who will have the children spellbound as he brings the battle to life.
The St Lucia Isimangaliso Wetland Park is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and provides a refreshing change from the traditional plains scenery of many African parks. One of the country’s largest, its pristine coastline contains coral reefs, coastal forests and freshwater marshes serving as a habitat to a rich and varied plant and animal life. Kosi Bay Nature Reserve, which forms part of the park, covers an area of sweeping beaches, mangrove forests and lakes. Here children can snorkel in crystal clear waters, take a boat ride, follow one of the many hiking trails or chat to the local Tsonga fisherman as they gather their nets in the estuary.
Hluhluwe-Umfolozi National Park is an incredibly scenic park, which contains the largest population of white rhino in the world, along with the rest of the big-five. Night safaris here offer the added excitement of sitting amidst a family of elephants beneath the moon, listening to the thunderous sound of a herd of buffalo passing by in the dark or seeing a leopard’s eyes glint back at you.
Drakensberg and Durban
Four hours from Johannesburg lie South Africa’s most dramatic and stunning range of mountains – the Drakensberg. You will not find scenery like this anywhere in the world. The Drakensberg Mountains are a spectacularly beautiful 200-kilometre-long mountain range and a World Heritage Site. Their awe-inspiring flat-topped cliffs tower over riverine bush, lush forests and cascading waterfalls and form a massive frontier separating KwaZulu Natal from the Kingdom of Lesotho.
These well-named ‘Barrier of Spears’ offer some exciting hiking opportunities, the most famous being the trail to the Amphitheatre, a spectacular crescent-shaped massif where the Tugela Falls plummets nearly 1,000 metres in five dramatic leaps. Amongst its majestic panoramas, the Drakensberg contain the highest concentration of Bushmen rock art in the country. Children will be fascinated by the cave paintings on a hike through Giant’s Castle Game Reserve – or seeing the dinosaur footprints near Estcourt. White-water rafting, canoeing or taking a 4×4 up the hairpins of the Sani Pass are all options that can be enjoyed on a family holiday to the Drakensberg.
Just over three hours from the Drakensberg is the laid-back seaside city of Durban. A useful place to tack on a few days at the beach, Durban offers cosmopolitan restaurants, art deco and colonial architecture, a fusion of African and Asian cuisine and a wonderful sub-tropical climate.
With a much maligned reputation, Johannesburg is often seen simply as a transport hub when visiting Kruger or KwaZulu Natal or for adding on an extension to Victoria Falls.
However if you have the time it can be worth spending a day or two here to soak up the city’s diverse cultural experiences as well as some fantastic restaurant fare. Children will be fascinated by the eye-opening experience of seeing how different life can be on a tour of Soweto where you can walk past the former homes of Nelson Mandela and Archbishop Tutu (unbelievably both in the same street) and interact with some of the locals who live in the shanty towns. A visit to the Apartheid Museum will add to their knowledge of recent history and forms an important part of the educational side of a holiday in South Africa.
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South Africa in pictures
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