Our South Africa Travel Guide
Whether it’s your first time travelling to South Africa or you’ve been there before, read our guide on the country’s history, etiquette, tipping culture, food, festivals and more.
At a glance
Occupying the southern tip of the African continent, South Africa is a country of staggering physical beauty. From tropical beaches, lush vineyards and stark deserts to sweeping, acacia-studded plains, the landscapes are as varied as they are vast. These diverse habitats are home to numerous wild animals, making the country an excellent safari destination, with a high chance of seeing the Big Five: elephant, buffalo, lion, leopard and lion. There's far more to the wildlife than big and small game though, with numerous birds and marine life species all easily observed.
The cities are just as compelling, and home to a vibrant mix of cultures and ethnicities. Many travellers will encounter the friendly atmosphere of Cape Town, with its grand colonial buildings and spectacular setting between distinctive Table Mountain and the wild Atlantic Ocean. On the edge of Cape Town the sprawling township of Cape Flats is a humbling reminder of the adversity South Africa faced during Apartheid, as well as a reminder of the welfare issues faced by this still developing nation.
Despite this South Africa is striding forward; the bustling metropolis of Johannesburg has seen the regeneration of its poorer suburbs, and 'Jozi' as locals affectionately call the fast-paced city, is a diverting place to spend time in, as is the steamy surf town of Durban.
Cosmopolitan pleasures, a glorious Garden Route to follow, a wealth of wilderness and wildlife and whales to watch, white sand beaches and red sand deserts, rugged mountains, fine vineyards, and a spectacular coastline all combine to make South Africa a complete destination, where every kind of travel experience can be enjoyed.
Culture & etiquette
This 'Rainbow' nation is such a rich mix of different ethnic groups and social backgrounds that there is no single uniform social code of behaviour, all depends on who you're meeting and in what setting - a Calvinist Afrikaans farmer may be somewhat more conservative than a clubbing pubbing twenty something living in Cape Town.
In general, whatever their background South Africans are a welcoming people, proud of what their country has achieved over the last few years and happy to meet visitors, so a modicum of cultural sensitivity and the normal social courtesies are usually all it takes to make friends while you're travelling in South Africa. It might be an idea to avoid overly reaching questions about past politics until you've spent a reasonable amount of time with someone, and to be aware of the enormous inequalities that still exist despite all the progress that has been made in recent years.
Dress is generally an informal affair and shorts and sandals, T-shirts and jeans are perfectly appropriate holiday wear. More up-market hotels and restaurants require smarter gear, but full-on formal is very rarely needed. However, in rural and more conservative areas, it may be a good idea for women to cover up a bit, as the strongly macho attitudes that still prevail in some places can equate into unwanted male attention. Firm refusals are usually enough to deter most unwelcome advances.
South Africans also appreciate humour, a sense of adventure and a spirit of fun, so visitors willing to party hard alongside will probably make friends for life.
Tap water is generally safe to drink in South Africa, though the high mineral content may take some getting used to. Bottled mineral water and an exceptionally extensive range of fruit juices, from the usual suspects to several more exotic and delicious varieties, are widely available at most outlets. Tea lovers may want to try the locally produced rooibos or redbush tea, made from the leaves of an indigenous plant and full of antioxidants.
Beer however, is the national drink, the default choice at braais and in the numerous café style bars and sports bars that have sprung up around the nation. Most of the beer is produced by the massive monopoly that is South African Breweries, so while refreshing enough, not especially distinctive, though the new crop of microbreweries (in particular Mitchell's in Knysna and Birkenhead in Stanford) have started to add a notable ale or two to the list. For a more authentic South African experience, find a shebeen - traditionally run by women (shebeen queens) who were expert at home brewing, and traditionally a township fixture, where dissidents met during the apartheid era, when bars and clubs were off limits due to the segregation laws. They have become an integral part of drinking out in South Africa, serving commercial beer, as well as umqombothi, traditional African beer made from maize and sorghum. As well as serving beer, they serve up music and an exceptional vibe, and modern shebeens can be found away from townships, retaining the festive laid-back atmosphere.
But really, wine is what it's about for travellers, with many cellars offering tastings and great value for money. And it's not as 'New World' as the labels would have you believe, South Africa has a long history in wine-making - the first vines were planted in the Cape of Good Hope in 1655, making this the oldest-new-world wine.
It has to be said however, that during the Apartheid-era years of isolation, South African wine was, like the ruling party of the time, inward looking and traditionalist, producing heavy Bordeaux-style wines. Now the country produces some world-class varieties, combining the best of the Old and New worlds, with notable Sauvignon Blancs and Chardonnays.
The dominant red was Merlot, but the home-grown Pinotage is enormously popular now, and while there are detractors, most would say rightly so.
By far the best way to sample South African wines is in situ, as many of the wineries have spectacular settings, offer tastings, and in some instances, have excellent restaurants matching fine wine to fine food. The Constantia estates in Cape Town, and the towns of Stellenbosch, Paarl and Franshhoek that stud the popular Wine Route, are all rewarding to visit, all of them heritage sites in lovely surroundings.
January - Cape Town Minstrel Carnival, typically held on New Year's Day, the city's longest-running parade kicks off the New Year in style. Historically it was held on 02 January, the one day Cape slaves were given off in the year. A flamboyant collection of performers dance and sing their way through the city centre, drawing thousands of spectators every year.
February - FNB Dance Umbrella, contemporary dance festival featuring new works from South African and African choreographers and international artists, held in Johannesburg.
March - Cape Argus Pick 'n Pay Cycle Tour, the largest individually timed bike race in the world takes place along the coast, starting at Cape Town.
March - Cape Town International Jazz Festival, hugely popular, with international and local artists taking part.
April - Klein Kagroo Nationale Kunstefees, largest Afrikaans art and culture festival, Oudtshoorn, Western Cape.
April - Two Oceans Marathon, billed as the worlds most beautiful marathon, run out of Cape Town.
April - Splashy Fen Music Festival, four days of music and fun on a farm in Underberg, KwaZulu-Natal with the beautiful Drakensberg acting as a scenic backdrop.
May - Good Food and Wine Show, Cape Town.
June - National Arts Festival is the largest arts and culture festival in Africa, Grahamstown, Eastern Cape.
July - Kynasta Oyster Festival, ten days of events along the Garden Route in the Western Cape.
August - Oppikoppi Bushveld Festival, a music festival held in Northam, North West Province, rocking the bundu (bushland) for four days and four nights.
September - Cape Town Comedy Festival.
November/March - Kirstenbosch Summer Sunset Concerts, held on the botanical garden lawns at the foot of Table Mountain in Cape Town.
December - Franschhoek Cap Classique and Champagne Festival, three days of comparing and contrasting the finest local Cap Classiques with some of the best French champagne, in the pretty Franschhoek Wine Valley.
Food & drink
Food played a significant part in the history of South Africa. It was the search for spices that drew the Dutch East India Company to sail to Indonesia, and the need for a half-way stop to restock and refresh led the Company to establish a farm right at the tip of Africa. Parts of an almond hedge planted all those centuries ago can still be seen in Cape Town, in the Kirstenbosch Gardens.
Other remnants from that time persist too, in many South African culinary traditions, including the Dutch elements that are still a significant part of Afrikaner cuisine. In addition, both the spices and the slaves that the Dutch brought back from Java had an impact on the food of the Cape - resulting in the singular Cape Cuisine that is also known as Cape Malay food, a curious melange of Dutch based dishes and Asian flavours, though it also features curries.
Though rich in spices, particularly cinnamon, cloves, cardamom and nutmeg, as well as turmeric, ginger, and chillies, this is a fragrant, not fiery style of cooking, with fruit often added to meat dishes. Bobotie, which has gone on to become virtually a national dish now, is a typical example. Described by some as an 'improvement' on shepherd's pie, this mix of spice infused and fruit studded mince is topped with a savoury custard. Other Cape Malay dishes include bredie (stews, again with spices added, the one-time conventional Dutch hotpot becoming a spicy hot hotpot), of which waterblommetjie bredie, using water hyacinths alongside the meat, is a seasonal speciality. Every day bredies include tomato bredie, cooked long and slow with mutton, cinnamon, cardamom, ginger and cloves as well as chilli.
The best place to try Cape Cuisine or Cape Malay cooking is in Cape Town, where it developed. Likewise, Indian food, is at its best in KwaZulu-Natal, especially around Durban and Pietermaritzburg, where Indian labourers and immigrants settled most heavily. They introduced tropical Asian fruit to South Africa, particularly paw paw (papaya) and mangoes. They also introduced another national favourite - 'bunny chow' - to the land. A dish born out of segregation, when coloured races were not allowed into certain establishments, this hollowed out bread loaf filled with curried beans was easy to hand out surreptitiously through back windows as a comforting takeaway. It remains popular, though fillings now vary and meat versions are most popular.
That's no surprise. If there's one ingredient that unites this rainbow country with no single national cuisine, it's meat, in all its variations, including the ubiquitous biltong, seasoned dried venison or beef. And if there's one way of cooking that unifies all South Africans, it's the braai, an abbreviation of braaivleis, the Afrikaans for 'meat grill'. This is not just a barbeque, it's a South African cultural institution, of immense social importance and central to the country's identity.
Anything can go on that grill, and anything does, from kudu to crocodile steaks, but most frequently it'll be sizeable hunks of steak and lamb, as well as boerewors . These are a legacy from German settlers and a standard Afrikaans staple, chunky coiled sausages made from beef or game or pork, with coriander and other spices. Sosaties, or kebabs, are another firm favourite.
Potatoes, onions and butternut squash wrapped in foil and cooked in the embers are often served alongside, as is mielie pap, which like the braai, unites all South Africans. A polenta style stiff porridge made from maize meal, and served with gravy or relish, a braai without pap would be lacking. This maize meal porridge has long been the mainstay of a meal for black South Africans, served with a meat or vegetable sauce.
Two special occasion meals enjoyed by black South Africans are the excitingly named 'walkie talkie' and the 'smiley'. The former consists of chicken feet and heads (and also the hearts and giblets), the latter is a boiled sheep's head, called smiley due to the rictus grin appearance that results from the meat pulling away from the teeth as it cooks. The result is far more tender and delicious than it looks, and served simply with a sprinkling of salt.
More feisty seasoning is found in the many Portuguese-influenced dishes that have crossed the border from neighbouring Mozambique. Fiery peri-peri prawns are a particular favourite, and this seasoning, based on bird's eye chillies (also known as peri peri) is often used while flame grilling chicken too - the basis of South Africa's now internationally popular chain, Nandos.
Of course, particularly in cities and in tourist resorts, a huge variety of international cuisine is available, but to leave South Africa without sampling some of the above specialities is to leave without truly savouring the country.
The earliest known settlers of South Africa were the Khoi and San people, also referred to as Hottentots by early European setters. Cave paintings suggest that the Khoi and San lived a nomadic life, dependant on the land for their livelihood. These indigenous settlers have long suffered the consequences of migration and invasion by better-equipped tribes and nationalities. When the Bantu speakers arrived in AD500, they brought cattle and political organisation with them, easily displacing the Khoi people from the best farming and grazing lands. By the time the powerful Dutch East India Company arrived at the Cape in 1652, the Khoi people were already suffering from a loss of identity and stability.
The first Europeans to sail the Cape were the Portuguese, explorer Bartholomew Dias being the first to sail around the tip of Africa, christening these wild seas the Cape of Storms. Despite this Europeans didn't settle at the Cape until the arrival of the Dutch (1652). To start with Dutch interest in this area was minimal, establishing a single fort where Cape Town stands today. This was designed as little more than a supply post for ships travelling on trade routes to the East; however, employees of the Dutch East India Company soon gained permission to establish small independent farmsteads to supply the fort. This was to become the beginning of Dutch colonialism in South Africa.
As the settlement grew, the Dutch began to bring slaves over from Asia to supplement their initial employment of the displaced Khoi people. With bad conditions and little to no pay, the Khoi were treated little better than the slaves, and as with all early frontier societies men out numbered the women, so relations between slave owners and their female slaves, or Khoi employees were common. These early relations are believed to be the distant ancestral roots of the mixed race Cape Coloured population, living in and around the Western Cape today.
In 1795, the British arrived in South Africa, sailing into False Bay and annexing the Dutch colony at the Battle of Muizenberg. By 1806 Britain was in control and their sovereignty of the Cape was officially accepted in 1816. Like the Dutch, the British were initially only interested in the Cape as a strategic outpost for their other colonies, however they did attempt to bring peace to areas of the European frontier. The early Dutch settlers, now calling themselves the trekboers, had long been fighting over territory with the Xhosa, Bantu descendants. The British response was to push the Xhosa lands back and ban contact between the two factions.
The other major change to the colony under British rule came with the end of the slave trade. Although aimed at ending horrific slave conditions in the British West Indian colonies, slave owners in the British controlled Cape colony were also required to free their slaves. This caused the first real tension between the British and the trekboer people, and many trekboers decided to move on beyond the boundaries of the colony. This event became known as the Great Trek, and between1835 and 1840, 5000 Dutch settlers, now calling themselves the Vootrekkers, set off with their Khoi servants to establish a new Boer Republic.
South Africa was overlooked by the British for the most part with little to recommend it in the way of commercial exports; this all changed in the 1860s, when a large crop of diamonds was discovered to the north, in modern day Kimberly. By the 1890s a large number of different nationalities had descended on the site looking for work; however, debate over whose territory the region fell under hindered early mining development.
The British eventually succeeded in claiming control of Kimberly. Under the British the mining corporations were narrowed down to a few key mines, lowering competition and subsequently decreasing wages and working conditions. Jobs in the mines were increasingly given to the cheaper African labour force; some mines began keeping this labour force in segregated compounds, giving the owners even greater control over wages and amenities.
The mineral boom in South Africa continued, with the discovery of gold at Witwatersrand in 1886. This time the discovery was clearly within the territories of the Boer Transvaal Republic. The Boers, who still felt cheated by the British annexation of Kimberly, were staunch in defending their rights this time. The British made a play for the territory but were initially thwarted. In 1899, aware of the imminent arrival of British reinforcements, the Boers decided to launch an attack before British troops could arrive. Initially the Boers seemed to be winning, but the tide soon turned and they were pushed back. Sensing defeat the Boers descended to guerrilla tactics, and with the support of the people they continued to disrupt and halt the British advance until 1902.
The Boer War was a horrific event in the history of the Boer people, with the British scorched earth policy, employed to disrupt the guerrillas, leading to massive loss of life in concentration camps, mainly among women and children. During negotiations in 1902 the British agreed to halt the progress of African civil rights to appease the Afrikaner/Boer population and members of the growing middle class African society saw their voting privileges revoked. Newly established African politicians, finding their positions under threat, formed the ANC (African National Congress) in the hopes of lobbying the British government; this moderate political party was soon to grow into one of the key players in African politics and the anti-apartheid movement.
As a direct result of new political policies after the Boer war, the British (Cape) and Afrikaans speaking Transvaal politicians merged to create a new political party, aimed at mending Anglo-Boer relationships. However, many Afrikaners had been left destitute in the wake of wars and the international depression of the 1930s, which increased unrest among the growing white poor.
In 1934 independence from Britain was declared by the newly elected United Party, soon to be replaced by the more right wing National Party. This change saw the introduction of apartheid, the Afrikaans word for apart. Africans saw their homes bulldozed before being forcibly removed to townships and prevented from mingling with the remaining Anglo-Dutch population.
This policy led to the revitalisation of the ANC, and in the 1940s Nelson Mandela joined the ANC youth league. The introduction of segregation laws, aimed at marginalising the rights and conditions of African people, led to various uprisings, and in 1959 peaceful protests against the hated pass laws (requiring all African people to carry a pass for entry into certain areas) were carried out across South Africa. In Sharpville a small scuffle broke out and the police opened fire killing 69 people and injuring countless others. This brutal repression was to become a theme, with peaceful protest, by ANC members and many other Africans being met by government violence throughout the apartheid regime.
Under the government of the National Party, the ANC saw their main political leaders exiled, or thrown in jail. In 1962 Nelson Mandela and other political leaders were arrested and jailed for life, blunting the ANC's growing impact. The ANC had been forced into taking an increasingly militant approach after peaceful protests were systematically and ruthlessly suppressed, but this period saw the party stifled to an extent.
In the 1960s and 70s a new opposition to the regime began, this time led by the trade unions and students run organisations. There were massive strikes across the country and the SASO (South African Student Organisation) organised mass protests against the decision to make Afrikaans the universal language of the education system.
One of these protests led to the Soweto uprising, an event that was to resonate strongly in the international consciousness. On 16 June 1976 thousands of students in Soweto walked from their schools to Orlando Stadium to join a protest rally. Two students were shot on the way, turning the peaceful march into a violent sprawl, carving a destructive path through the township. Riots spread throughout the country and the fleeing perpetrators went on to swell the ranks of the ANC. The riots and associated violence caught the world's attention, putting increasing pressure on the government to put an end to the apartheid regime.
This pressure on the government to introduce reform acts helped turn the political tide, as international companies and factions began to withdraw their support from the country. By the 1980s the government had lost control over large areas of the townships and was facing what it termed 'total onslaught'. Negotiations with ANC and Nelson Mandela began, but it was not until FW de Klerk took power in 1989 that Mandela was released and the ANC unbanned.
After winning an interim election in 1994 the ANC invited all the political parties to join them in the foundation of Government of National Unity (GNU). Discussions resulted in the passing of the democratic constitution of South Africa. The ANC was then left with the task of uniting a country torn apart by civil oppression and correcting the wrongs inflicted on the South African people under the apartheid regime.
In 1995 the National Party officially dissolved as further details of acts committed under the apartheid regime began to leak out. The ANC also faced allegations of internal corruption, with the trials of Jacob Zuma (current president) and Winnie Mandela.
The Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which invited both victims and perpetrators of violence to give testimony, went some way in helping the country recover to an extent from the legacy of apartheid and in the transition to full and free democracy. However, the road to democratic stability has been an uneven one for South Africa, and although the country's economy has improved, there is still extensive poverty and a huge gulf between the rich and the impoverished, and as a result high rates of crime remain in the townships and marginalised communities.
That said, the country's natural wealth in mineral deposits, the abundance of wildlife and stunning scenery that encourage tourism, and the hard-won resilience of the people provides grounds for optimism. The historic name change from The Cape of Storms to The Cape of Good Hope reflects in some ways the story of South Africa so far.
Key words & phrases
South Africa has 11 official languages, and most commonly spoken at home are isiXhosa, isiZulu, Afrikaans and English, and even if not spoken at home, English is generally understood throughout the country, and alongside Afrikaans, the language of business and tourism. It's always a good idea however to learn a couple of phrases of the area you're travelling in, and courteous too. A simple please in isiXhosa (enkosi), or thank you in Afrikaans (dankie) can go a long way. Slang is used frequently, and changes according to region, but some phrases are more or less national, including howzit, a traditional greeting meaning 'how are things?', and the Afrikaans-derived lekker, meaning something nice or something going well. 'Just now' doesn't mean now, but sometime in the near future.
Markets and malls can be found in every city and small town, and even the roads connecting all these are often lined with vendors offering local curios for sale. Bargaining is part of the fun in the markets, but conventional shopping etiquette applies in malls and city shops. Either way, shopping is fun in South Africa, and there is a fabulous range of handcrafted goods and jewellery to choose from, from woodcarvings and intricate beadwork to woven rugs and vibrant garments made from traditional fabrics.
Look out in particular for Zulu baskets and other woven goods (sometimes made from non-traditional telephone wire), Ndebele bead blankets and dolls, Knysna wood art and carvings, 'stained glass' effect Swazi candles in the shape of animals or birds, scarab paper (made from elephant dung but without a whiff factor) brightly painted wooden animal and bird figures, clay pots with abstract designs in silver from Gazanku and Venda, tin flowers made from discarded cans from Kayalitsha, and any amount of jewellery made from locally mined gold and set with semi-precious stones, or if the souvenir needs to be extra-special, locally mined diamonds. There are plenty of culinary delights to stock up on too, from Cape chutneys, preserves and chilli sauces to biltong and last but by no means least - some outstanding Pinotage, a red wine found only in South Africa, and great fun to buy at source from one of the country's best wine estates.
A tip of 10-15% is standard in restaurants, and for hotel stewards, porters, chambermaids - make sure it goes to the intended person. Tour guides should also be tipped 10-15%, and after a safari, it is customary to tip guides.
Where to eat
As you'd expect in a country with such social diversity, South Africa offers every kind of eating establishment, from exquisite fine dining restaurants to cheap as chips cafés serving far more delicious than chips local fare.
All the big cities and all the smart hotels will have a wide choice of international culinary options to choose from. There are also numerous restaurants, not necessarily overly formal ones, where fabulous local produce is given inventive five-star treatment. The restaurant scene in the cities (particularly in Franschoek with its heavily French legacy) and at many of the wine estates is an increasingly sophisticated and delectable one.
There are just as many continental-style cafés to choose from, especially in Cape Town, relaxed venues offering good food or just coffee or a drink.
For an up-to-the-minute overview of new restaurants openings and local favourites, take a look at www.eatout.co.za
The sheer amount of wildlife that roamed the vast expanses of South Africa once seemed inexhaustible. Game was a source of food for many local tribes, but their spears made little impact. The arrival of colonists and their superior weapons changed all that, and many species were decimated, with some animals such as the Cape lion and the peculiar quagga (half stripes, half horse and a relative of the zebra) hunted into extinction. Conservation measures over the last century have achieved impressive results, and game is again prolific here. Some of the wildlife reserves in South Africa are among the best on the continent.
The Big Five remain a compelling attraction - sadly the term originated from the wish-list common to most hunters - of the most dangerous and therefore desirable 'trophy' animals. All can be seen in South Africa - shaggy-maned lions, prehistoric looking rhinos (though the black rhinoceros is in grave danger of extinction), bad-tempered buffalos, slinky, elusive leopards, and majestic elephants.
There are other 'big' animals that are just as captivating, and on the must-see list for many travellers. Cheetahs are easier to spot than leopards, and are absorbing to watch, particularly if engaged in a speedy chase. Elegant gawky giraffes and stocky hippos are also easily seen.
The caracal, or African lynx, like the leopard, is a more secretive creature, nocturnal in its habits. Hyenas may be heard if not seen, but these scavengers have become bolder and are perfectly capable of hovering around campsites to steal food. Wild dogs, resembling mongrels but seriously vicious when hunting, might be seen in the Kruger - otherwise it's rare to spot them, as they are endangered.
Monkeys, from baboons to vervets, are common, but a far more ubiquitous sight in South Africa is that of antelopes on the plains. From the mighty eland (the largest of the lot) to the diminutive Klipspringer, they abound. Springbok, impala, bushbuck and waterbuck, kudu and hartebeest. blue wildebeest and several other varieties are common sights in South African reserves.
South Africa's wide range of habitats, from grasslands, wetlands, forests, savannahs and seashore, means that the birdlife here is spectacularly diverse, and it is possible to see ostriches and penguins on the same day. Over 850 species (about 8% of the world's bird species) have been recorded here, from buzzards to highly coloured bee-eaters. It's possible to see ten varieties of albatross alone, from the wandering albatross to the extremely rare shy albatross. There are king, rockhopper, macaroni and African penguins, petrels and pelicans, cormorants and herons, storks and snipes and swallows, vultures and eagles, francolin and falcons, oystercatchers and lapwings, sandpipers and skuas, parakeets and parrots, lovebirds and nightjars, larks and starlings... all adding their distinctive sounds and songs to the landscapes.
One of the most rewarding venues for birdwatching in South Africa is the Nylsvley Nature Reserve in Limpopo province, 4, 000 beautiful hectares of floodplain with around 370 species, including the rare dwarf bittern and rufous-bellied heron, as well as a multitude of ducks, herons and egrets. On the west coast, the Langebaan tidal lagoon is visited annually by 60, 000 birds, with around 200 species to delight bird lovers at any time, including flamingos, knots, whimbrels, sanderlings, godwits and gulls.
Then there's Mkhuze Game Reserve in KwaZulu-Natal, with lots of big game and over 420 species of birds, including the gorgeous bush-shrike and pink-throated twinspot; or head to Sani Pass on the Drakensberg escarpment for the chance to spot the Bearded Vulture. The Kgalagadi Tranfrontier Park in the Northern Cape is home to over 40 species of birds of prey, while Overberg, close to Cape Town, is where to spot South Africa's national bird, the endemic and elegant blue crane. Pelagic birding trips in the Western Cape and KwaZulu-Natal are immensely rewarding too, with up to 10,000 seabirds of 25 species, including the Wandering Albatross.
More than 11,000 marine species have been recorded in South African waters, more than 5% of all known global marine species. An astonishing 31% of these are endemic, and not found anywhere else. Eight whale species can be found in South African waters, including the blue whale, the largest mammal of all, the southern right whale, killer whales (orcas) and humpbacks. There are many dolphin species, sharks, seals and loggerhead and leatherback turtles to see too, the latter the focus of a major community conservation effort at their nesting grounds on the northern KwaZulu-Natal shoreline.
This great concentration of sea life makes South Africa one of the best destinations in the world for watching marine mammals, whether from land or from boats. Sizeable pods of dolphins frolic in the water year round, and southern right whales come to the sheltered bays of the Western Cape coast to breed, and spend up to five months a year here, playing, courting, rearing their young and providing watchers with some spectacular displays of water acrobatics.
The best time for watching the southern right is from June to November along the Cape south coast. Whale watching territory runs from south of Cape Town all the way east as far as Durban, and watching is easy from cliffs, beaches, and boat trips. It's possible in Cape Town to see the whales from the road along the False Bay coast. Hermanus, considered by some to be the whale watching capital of the world, offers possibly the best land-based viewing - the animals can be seen from a scenic cliff-top watch, and there's a whale-watching festival every September.
Plettenberg Bay, further east, on the Western Cape Garden Route, is a hot spot too. Here orcas are occasionally seen, and bottlenose and humpback dolphins provide year-round watching. A breeding colony of Cape fur seals add to the viewing delights. The whale and dolphin watching industry is most organised here, with numerous boat and kayak trips possible, as well as the chance watching all the fun from above in small aircraft.
Semi-desert, temperate forest, bushveld, high mountains, a subtropical coastal belt are just some of the habitats to be found in South Africa, and each is home to distinct and often intriguing flora.
The Cape Floristic region, on the Southwestern Cape, is the smallest of the six recognised floral kingdoms in the world. It might be the smallest, but it is an area of extraordinary high diversity, home to more than 9,000 plant species, of which 69% are endemic. Fynbos (named for its fine or slender leaves) forms part of this kingdom, and it includes some 350 species of protea, reeds, irises, ericas and pelargoniums, some, like the pincushion proteas, surreal in appearance, others providing vivid splashes of colour. Fynbos extends far beyond the floral kingdom, stretching in a wide belt from the west coast to Port Elizabeth on the Southeast coast, and while it is most diverse and striking in the floral kingdom, it lends beauty wherever it grows.
Fire, common in the dry summer months, is a necessary stage for most fynbos plants, with many seeds only germinating after the intense heat. After fires, many of these plants retain a peculiarly and strikingly beautiful appearance.
More surreal plants can be found in Namaqualand, bordered by the Atlantic Ocean in the west. It's an arid region, and many of the succulents survive solely on the nightly condensation of sea mists, and adaptation has given them their borderline bizarre appearances. The Halfmens ('half human' in Afrikaans) is one such oddity - seen from a distance it has the appearance of a person trudging up a slope. The region is dry and dusty and desolate, but transformed into a carpet of brightly coloured wild flowers from August to October.
The semi-desert Great Karoo region covers approximately a third of South Africa, and here too strange succulents survive amidst little else. Vast swathes of the country are bushveld, a mixture of thorny small trees and tall grasses, with the bonkers looking baobab tree, marula and mopane trees studded here and there. Acacia, the tree of Africa, is common, all silver thorns and golden flowers.
The temperate forests around Knysna are dense, with mighty mature trees tightly packed together, and a thick undergrowth of ferns and creepers. Stinkwood and yellowwood, otherwise rare hardwoods, grow here, and are rather beautiful. In the swampy salty subtropical coastal belt mangroves, palms and wild bananas sprawl, waving above the water lilies and reeds. The lofty mountain ranges are flanked by dense heath, which is replaced higher up by scrubs and grasses, and sedges and ericas, and for brief periods in the spring, by colourful annuals. The Cedarbergs, home to the rare snow protea in the high peaks, and lower down, are characterised by cedar trees, once popular for telephone poles. Thousands are planted annually to ensure the survival of this endemic tree.