South Africa is a large, diverse and incredibly beautiful country. The size of France and Spain combined, and roughly twice the size of Texas, it varies from the picturesque Garden Route towns of the Western Cape to the raw subtropical coast of northern KwaZulu-Natal, with the vast Karoo semi-desert across its heart and one of Africa’s premier safari destinations, Kruger National Park, in the northeast. It’s also one of the great cultural meeting points of the African continent, a fact obscured by decades of enforced racial segregation, but now manifest in the big cities.

Many visitors are pleasantly surprised by South Africa’s excellent infrastructure, which draws favourable comparison with countries such as Australia or the United States. Good air links and bus networks, excellent roads and a growing number of first-class B&Bs and guesthouses make South Africa a perfect touring country. For those on a budget, mushrooming backpacker hostels and backpacker buses provide cost-efficient means of exploring the vast number of places to visit.

Yet, despite all these facilities, South Africa is also something of an enigma; after nearly two decades of non-racial democracy, the “rainbow nation” is still struggling to find its identity. Apartheid may be dead, but its heritage still shapes South Africa in a very physical way. Nowhere is this more evident than in the layout of towns and cities; the African areas – generally poor – are usually tucked out of sight.

South Africa’s population doesn’t reduce simply to black and white. The majority are Africans (79.5 percent of the population); whites make up nine percent, followed by coloureds (just under nine percent) – the descendants of white settlers, slaves and Africans, who speak English and Afrikaans and comprise the majority in the Western Cape. The rest (2.5 percent), resident mainly in KwaZulu-Natal, are descendants of Indians, who came to South Africa at the beginning of the twentieth century as indentured labourers.

Even these statistics don’t tell the whole story. A better indication of South Africa’s diversity is the plethora of official languages, most of which represent a distinct culture with rural roots in different parts of the country. In each region you’ll see distinct styles of architecture, craftwork and sometimes dress. Perhaps more exciting still are the cities, where the whole country comes together in an alchemical blend of rural and urban, traditional and thoroughly modern.

Crime isn’t the indiscriminate phenomenon that press reports suggest, but it is an issue. Really, it’s a question of perspective – taking care but not becoming paranoid. Statistically, the odds of becoming a victim are highest in downtown Johannesburg, where violent crime is a daily reality. Other cities present a reduced risk – similar to, say, some parts of the United States.

Facts about South Africa
  • South Africa has a population of 51 million and eleven official languages: Zulu, Xhosa, Afrikaans, Pedi, English, Ndebele, Sotho, Setswana, siSwati, Venda and Tsonga.
  • The country is a multiparty democracy, the head of state being President Cyryl Ramaphosa. Parliament sits in Cape Town, the legislative capital, while Pretoria is the executive capital, from where the president and his cabinet run the country. Each of the nine provinces has its own government.
  • The highest point in South Africa is Njesuthi, in the Drakensberg, at 3408m. The highest point in Lesotho and Southern Africa is also in the Drakensberg: Thabana Ntlenyana, at 3482m.
  • Nelson Mandela’s widow, Graca Machel, who was previously married to the late president of Mozambique, Samora Machel, is the only woman to have been first lady of two different countries.

Festivals in South Africa

South Africa has no shortage of events – there are over eighty music festivals each year, nine of them over the Easter weekend alone. Apart from these there are umpteen minor events in countless small towns. Diverting as these may be, you aren’t going to plan your trip around them, but there are a number of more significant events (listed here) that may be worth pencilling into your holiday diary. Although Johannesburg and Cape Town tend to dominate, the country’s two biggest cultural events, the National Arts Festival and the Klein Karoo Nasionale Kunstefees, both take place in small Karoo towns (Grahamstown and Oudtshoorn respectively) that, once things get humming, swell to twice their normal size.

January
Cape Town Minstrel Carnival, Cape Town South Africa’s longest and most raucous annual party brings over ten thousand spectators to watch the parade through the city centre on January 2 for the Tweede Nuwe Jaar or “Second New Year” celebrations. Brightly decked-out minstrel troupes parade, and vie in singing and dancing contests. 

Maynardville Shakespeare Festival, Cape Town maynardville.co.za. A usually imaginative production of one of the Bard’s plays is staged each year in the beautiful setting of the Maynardville Open Air Theatre in Wynberg.

February
Cape Town Pride Pageant capetownpride.co.za. Series of gay-themed events over two weeks, taking in a bunch of parties and a street parade.

FNB Dance Umbrella, Johannesburg danceumbrella.co.za. The country’s leading contemporary dance festival showcases a diversity of local forms from mid-February to mid-March.

March
Cape Argus Pick ’n Pay Cycle Tour, Cape Town. The largest, and arguably most spectacular, individually timed bike race in the world, much of it along the ocean’s edge, draws many thousands of spectators.

Cape Town International Jazz Festival, Cape Town www.capetownjazzfest.com. Initiated in 2000 as the Cape Town counterpart of the world-famous North Sea Jazz Festival, this event is held over the last weekend of the month and draws leading local and international performers.

April
Out in Africa South African Gay & Lesbian Film Festival Cape Town and Johannesburg. Purportedly the most popular movie festival in the country, screening gay- and lesbian-themed international and local productions over the first ten days of the month.

Klein Karoo Nasionale Kunstefees, Oudtshoorn, Western Cape kknk.co.za. South Africa’s largest Afrikaans arts and culture festival turns the otherwise dozy Karoo dorp of Oudtshoorn into one big jumping party with a significant English-language component.

Two Oceans Marathon, Cape Town twooceansmarathon.org.za. Another of the Western Cape’s big sporting events is this 56-kilometre ultra-marathon, which bills itself as “the world’s most beautiful marathon”, with huge crowds lining the route to cheer on the participants.

Splashy Fen Music Festival, Underberg, KwaZulu-Natal www.splashyfen.co.za. Held during the second half of the month, South Africa’s oldest music festival draws thousands of punters to a beautiful farm in the Drakensberg foothills, with a spread of mainstream and alternative rock and pop and a kids’ programme too.

Pink Loerie Mardi Gras, Knysna, Western Cape www.pinkloeriemardigras.co.za. Five-day gay pride celebration of parties, contests, cabaret, drag shows and performance in South Africa’s oyster capital.

May
Franschhoek Literary Festival, Franschhoek, Western Cape flf.co.za. Three day celebration of books, writers and wine, featuring leading local and international writers, editors and cartoonists.

Good Food & Wine Show, Cape Town gourmetsa.com. Celebrity chefs from around the world cooking live is just one of the compelling attractions that make this the foodie event of the year. There are also hands-on workshops, delicious nibbles and wine as well as kitchen implements and books for sale. The event is also held in Johannesburg (Sept) and Durban (July).

Comrades Marathon, Durban/Pietermaritzburg, KwaZulu-Natal www.comrades.com. A national institution, held at the end of the month. The Comrades, run along the 80km between Durban and Pietermaritzburg, attracts around thirteen thousand runners, many of them international competitors, and is followed by a huge TV audience.

June
National Arts Festival, Grahamstown, Eastern Cape (see The Grahamstown Festival). The largest arts festival in Africa, with its own fringe festival – ten days of jazz, classical music, dance, cabaret and theatre spanning every conceivable type of performance.

Encounters South African International Documentary Film Festival, Johannesburg and Cape Town encounters.co.za. Fortnight-long showcase of documentary film-making from South Africa and the world.

UN Comedy Festival, Johannesburg. Spin-off of the older Cape Town Comedy Festival.

July
Knysna Oyster Festival Knysna, Western Cape oysterfestival.co.za. Ten days of carousing and oyster-eating along the Garden Route with lots of wine-tasting and other satellite events in between.

Good Food & Wine Show, Durban gourmetsa.com.

Durbs Comedy Festival, Durban. Spin-off of the older Cape Town Comedy Festival.

August
Oppikoppi Bushveld Festival, Northam, North West Province oppikoppi.co.za. South Africa’s scaled-down answer to Woodstock, Oppikoppi (Afrikaans for “on the hill”) brings the bushveld hills alive with the sound of music, as some sixty local and foreign bands rock the bundu (equivalent of Aussie “outback”) for four days and nights.

Joy of Jazz, Johannesburg joyofjazz.co.za. Jo’burg’s flagship jazz festival offers three days of varied music in the Newtown precinct.

September
Arts Alive, Johannesburg artsalive.co.za. Jo’burg’s largest arts event features a month of dance, visual art, poetry and music at venues in Newtown, the cultural precinct in the inner city.

Hermanus Whale Festival, Hermanus, Western Cape whalefestival.co.za. To coincide with the peak whale-watching season, the southern Cape town of Hermanus stages its annual festival over several days towards the end of the month with plays, a craft market, a children’s festival and live music.

Out of the Box Festival, Cape Town unimasouthafrica.org. Extraordinary week-long event that brings together exciting puppetry from all over the subcontinent and beyond with family, adult and film programmes.

Cape Town Comedy Festival, Cape Town www.comedyfestival.co.nz. Africa’s biggest comedy festival brings the world’s hottest acts to the Mother City for a week.

Good Food & Wine Show, Johannesburg gourmetsa.com.

November to March
Kirstenbosch Summer Sunset Concerts, Cape Town 021 799 8783. Popular concerts held on the magnificent lawns of the botanical gardens at the foot of Table Mountain. Performances begin at 5.30pm and cover a range of genres. Come early to find a parking place, bring a picnic and some Cape bubbly, and kick back. Tickets available at the gate.

December
Mother City Queer Projects, Cape Town. A hugely popular party attracting thousands of gay revellers. Outlandish get-ups, multiple dancefloors and a mood of sustained delirium make this event a real draw.

Carols by Candlelight at Kirstenbosch, Cape Town 021 799 8783. The botanical gardens’ annual carol-singing and Nativity tableaux – staged on the Thursday to the Sunday before Christmas – is a Cape Town institution, drawing crowds of families with their picnic baskets. Gates open at 7pm and the singing kicks off at 8pm.

Franschhoek Cap Classique and Champagne Festival, Franschhoek webtickets.co.za. Popular three-day bacchanalia of bubbly sampling – a vast selection of local and French sparkling wine is on hand – and gourmandizing in the Cape Winelands.

December to March
Spier Summer Festival, Spier Wine Estate, Stellenbosch, Western Cape spier.co.za. Four months of major arts events, which are increasingly taking on an African flavour, featuring music, opera, dance, stand-up comedy and theatre.

Outdoor activities in South Africa
South Africa’s diverse landscape of mountains, forests, rugged coast and sandy beaches, as well as kilometres of veld and game-trampled national parks, make the country supreme outdoor terrain. This fact hasn’t been overlooked by South Africans themselves, who have been playing outdoors for decades. The result is a well-developed infrastructure for activities, an impressive national network of hiking trails and plenty of commercial operators selling adventure sports.

Hiking trails
South Africa has an incredibly comprehensive system of footpaths (inspired by the US Appalachian Hiking Trail). Wherever you are – even in the middle of Johannesburg – you won’t be far from some sort of trail. The best ones are in wilderness areas, where you’ll find waymarked paths, from half-hour strolls to major hiking expeditions of several days that take you right into the heart of some of the most beautiful parts of the country.

Overnight trails are normally well laid out, with painted route markers, and campsites or huts along the way. Numbers are limited on most, and many trails are so popular that you may need to book months (up to eleven months in some cases) in advance to use them.

There are also guided wilderness trails, where you walk in game country accompanied by an armed guide. These walks should be regarded as a way to get a feel for the wild rather than actually see any wildlife, as you’ll encounter far fewer animals on foot than from a vehicle. Specialist trails include mountain biking, canoeing and horseback trails. A handful of trails have also been set up specifically for people with disabilities, mostly for the visually impaired or people confined to wheelchairs.

Watersports
South Africa has some of the world’s finest surfing breaks. The country’s perfect wave at Jeffrey’s Bay was immortalized on celluloid in the 1960s cult movie Endless Summer, but any surfer will tell you that there are equally good, if not better, breaks all the way along the coast from Namibia to Mozambique.

Surfers can be a cliquey bunch, but the South African community is reputedly among the friendliest in the world and, provided you pay your dues, you should find yourself easily accepted. Some of the world’s top shapers work here, and you can pick up an excellent board at a fraction of the European or US price. Boogie-boarding and body-surfing make easy alternatives to the real thing, require less skill and dedication and are great fun. Windsurfing (or sailboarding) is another popular sport you’ll find at many resorts, where you can rent gear.

On inland waterways, South African holidaymakers are keen speedboaters, an activity that goes hand in hand with waterskiing. Kayaking and canoeing are also very popular, and you can often rent craft at resorts or national parks that lie along rivers. For the more adventurous, there’s whitewater rafting, with some decent trips along the Tugela River in KwaZulu-Natal and on the Orange River.

Diving and snorkelling
Scuba diving is popular, and South Africa is one of the cheapest places in the world to get an internationally recognized open-water certificate. Courses start at around R3300 (including gear) and are available at all the coastal cities as well as a number of other resorts. The most rewarding diving is along the St Lucia Marine Reserve on the northern KwaZulu-Natal coast, which hosts 100,000 dives every year for its coral reefs and fluorescent fish.

You won’t find corals and bright colours along the Cape coast, but the huge number of sunken vessels makes wreck-diving popular, and you can encounter the swaying rhythms of giant kelp forests. There are a couple of places along the southern Cape and Garden Route where you can go on shark-cage dives and come face to face with deadly great whites.

KwaZulu-Natal is also good for snorkelling and there are some underwater trails elsewhere in the country, most notable of which is in the Tsitsikamma National Park.

Other activities
Fishing is another well-developed South African activity and the coasts yield 250 species caught through rock, bay or surf angling. Inland you’ll find plenty of rivers and dams stocked with freshwater fish, while trout fishing is extremely well established in Mpumalanga, the northern sections of the Eastern Cape and the KwaZulu-Natal Midlands.

There are ample opportunities for aerial activities. In the Winelands you can go ballooning, while paragliding offers a thrilling way to see Cape Town, by diving off Lion’s Head and riding the thermals. More down-to-earth options include mountaineering and rock climbing, both of which have a huge following in South Africa. In a similar vein is kloofing (or canyoning), in which participants trace the course of a deep ravine by climbing, scrambling, jumping, abseiling or using any other means.

If you can’t choose between being airborne and being earthbound, you can always bounce between the two by bungee jumping off the Gouritz River Bridge near Mossel Bay – the world’s highest commercial jump.

Horseriding is a sport you’ll find at virtually every resort, whether inland or along the coast, for trips of two hours or two days. Take your own hat, as not everyone provides them. Birdwatching is another activity you can do almost anywhere, either casually on your own, or as part of a guided trip with one of the several experts operating in South Africa. Among the very best birdwatching spots are Mkhuze and Ndumo game reserves in KwaZulu-Natal.

Golf lovers will have a fabulous time in South Africa as courses are prolific and frequently in stunningly beautiful locations. Finally, if you decide to go skiing at one or two resorts in the Eastern and Western Cape, you’ll be able to go home with a quirky experience of Africa.

Beach conditions
Don’t expect balmy Mediterranean seas in South Africa: of its 2500km of coastline, only the stretch along the Indian Ocean seaboard of KwaZulu-Natal and the northern section of the Eastern Cape can be considered tropical, and along the entire coast an energetic surf pounds the shore. In Cape Town, sea bathing is only comfortable between November and March. Generally, the further east you go from here, the warmer the water becomes and the longer the bathing season. Sea temperatures that rarely drop below 18°C make the KwaZulu-Natal coast warm enough for a dip at any time of year.

A word of warning: dangerous undertows and riptides are present along the coast and you should try to bathe where lifeguards are present. Failing that (and guards aren’t that common away from main resorts out of season), you should follow local advice, never swim alone, and always treat the ocean with respect.

Spectator sports in South Africa
South Africa is a nation obsessed by sport, where heights of devotion are reached whenever local or international teams take to the field. Winning performances, controversial selections and scandals commonly dominate the front as well as the back pages of newspapers, and it can be hard to escape the domination of sport across radio, television and advertising media. The major spectator sports are football, rugby and cricket, and big matches involving the international team or heavyweight local clubs are well worth seeing live.

Football
Football is the country’s most popular game, with a primarily black and coloured following, and it is now starting to attract serious money.

The professional season runs from August to May, with teams competing in the Premier Soccer League (www.thepsl.co.za) and a couple of knock-out cup competitions. Unlike rugby teams, football teams do not own their own grounds and are forced to rent them for specific fixtures. In Gauteng, the heartland of South African football, all the big clubs use the same grounds, which has prevented the development of the kind of terrace fan culture found elsewhere. Nonetheless, football crowds are generally witty and good-spirited. The very big games, normally involving Johannesburg’s two big teams, Kaizer Chiefs and Orlando Pirates, do simmer with tension, though violence is rare. Although Chiefs and Pirates are both Sowetan clubs, they have a nationwide following, and their derbies are the highlight of the PSL’s fixture list.

Games are played on weekday evenings (usually at 7.30pm or 8.30pm) and at 3pm on Saturdays. Tickets cost about R40 to watch top teams play. The national squad, nicknamed Bafana Bafana (literally “boys boys” but connoting “our lads”), qualified for the World Cup finals in both 1998 and 2002, but in 2006 the national team bit the dust when they were brought down by a decisive 3–0 defeat to Ghana in their second match.

Erratic performers, Bafana are imaginative and strong on spectacular athletic feats, but less impressive when it comes to teamwork and resilience. Even games the team should win have an element of unpredictability that makes for great spectator sport. Indeed, at the 2010 World Cup, Bafana delivered an entertaining draw against Mexico in the opening match, but against Uruguay suffered the worst defeat (3–0) for a host nation since 1970 (when Mexico lost to Italy). The hosts went on to put up a spirited performance against France, whom they beat 2–0, but it wasn’t enough to prevent Bafana from being eliminated.

Rugby
Rugby is hugely popular with whites, though attempts to broaden the game’s appeal, particularly to a black audience, have struggled. South Africa’s victory against England at the 2007 World Cup final in Paris did for a brief spell bring the whole country together. The strength of emotion almost matched that shown in 1995 when South Africa hosted the event. Coming shortly after the advent of democracy, it attracted fanatical attention nationwide, particularly when the Boks triumphed and President Nelson Mandela donned a green Springbok jersey (long associated exclusively with whites) to present the cup to the winning side – as depicted in the 2009 Clint Eastwood movie Invictus, starring Matt Damon and Morgan Freeman.

Following that, the goodwill dissipated, to be replaced by an acrimonious struggle to transform the traditionally white sports (cricket and rugby) into something more representative of all race groups, particularly following the government’s policy of enforcing racial quotas in national squads.

Despite these problems, the country’s two World Cup victories in twelve years testify to the fact that South Africa is extraordinarily good at rugby, and you are likely to witness high-quality play when you watch either inter-regional or international games. The main domestic competition is the Currie Cup, with games played on weekends from March to October; admission to one of these matches costs from R55.

More recently this has been overshadowed by the Super 14 competition, involving regional teams from South Africa, New Zealand and Australia. Matches are staged annually from late February to the end of May in all three countries, and in South Africa you’ll catch a fair bit of action in the major centres of Johannesburg, Cape Town and Durban, though smaller places such as Port Elizabeth, East London and George sometimes get a look-in.

International fixtures involving the Springboks are dominated by visiting tours by northern-hemisphere teams and by the annual Tri-Nations competition, in which South Africa plays home and away fixtures against Australia and New Zealand. These are normally played from June to August, and you will need to get tickets well in advance to attend.

Cricket
Cricket was for some years seen as the most progressive of the former white sports, with development programmes generating support and discovering talent among black and coloured communities. The sport was rocked to its foundations in 2000, however, when it was revealed that the South African national captain, Hansie Cronje, had received money from betting syndicates hoping to influence the outcome of one-day matches. Cronje was banned for life, the credibility of the sport took a dive and the national team, the Proteas (formerly the Springboks), struggled for years to raise itself, successfully clawing its way back by 2009 to a respectable number two in international test-match rankings, a position it still held in 2011.

The domestic season of inter-regional games runs from October to April, and the main competitions are the four-day Supersport Series, the series of one-day, forty-overs matches, the MTN40, and the shorter twenty-overs Standard Bank Pro20. The contests see six regional squads slogging it out for national dominance. Games are played throughout the week, and admission is from R50. In the international standings, South Africa is one of the world’s top teams, and you stand a good chance of being around for an international test or one-day series if you’re in the country between November and March. Expect to pay from R100 for an international, which are played in all the major cities.

Running and cycling
South Africa is very strong at long-distance running, a tradition that reached its apotheosis at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics when Josiah Thugwane won the marathon, becoming the first black South African ever to bag Olympic gold. The biggest single athletics event in South Africa, the Comrades Marathon, attracts nearly fifteen thousand participants, among them some of the world’s leading international ultra-marathon runners. The ninety-kilometre course crosses the hilly country between Durban and Pietermaritzburg, with a drop of almost 800m between the town and the coast. Run annually towards the end of May, the race alternates direction each year and is notable for having been non-racial since 1975, although it wasn’t until 1989 that a black South African, Samuel Tshabalala, won it. Since then, black athletes have dominated the front rankings. Almost as famous is the Two Oceans ultra-marathon, which attracts ten thousand competitors each April to test themselves on the 56-kilometre course that spectacularly circuits the Cape Peninsula.

Traversing a 109-kilometre route, the Pick ’n Pay Cape Argus Cycle Tour also includes the Cape Peninsula in its routing. The largest – and most spectacular – individually timed cycle race anywhere, it attracts 35,000 participants from around the world each year in March.

Horse racing
You’ll find huge interest among rich and poor South Africans in horse racing, with totes and tracks in all the main cities. Its popularity is partly due to the fact that for decades this was the only form of public gambling that South Africa’s Afrikaner Calvinist rulers allowed – on the pretext that it involved skill not chance. The highlight of the racing calendar is the Durban July Handicap held at Durban’s Greyville racecourse. A flamboyant event, it attracts huge crowds, massive purses, socialites in outrageous headgear and vast amounts of media attention.

Parks and reserves in South Africa
No other African country has as rich a variety of parks, reserves and wilderness areas as South Africa. Literally hundreds of game reserves and state forests pepper the terrain, creating a bewildering but enticing breadth of choice. While there are dozens of unsung treasures among these, the big destinations amount to some two dozen parks geared towards protecting the country’s wildlife and wilderness areas.

With a few exceptions, these fall under Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife (033 845 1000, www.kznwildlife.com), which controls most of the public reserves in KwaZulu-Natal, and South African National Parks (012 428 9111, www.sanparks.org), which covers the rest of the country. In addition to the state-run parks there are private reserves, frequently abutting onto them and sharing the same wildlife population.

Only some national parks are game reserves. While most people come for South Africa’s superb wildlife, don’t let the Big Five (buffalo, elephant, leopard, lion and rhino) blinker you into missing out on the marvellous wilderness areas that take in dramatic landscapes and less publicized animal life. There are parks protecting marine and coastal areas, wetlands, endangered species, forests, deserts and mountains, usually with the added attraction of assorted animals, birds, insects, reptiles or marine mammals – South Africa is one of the top destinations in the world for land-based whale watching.

If you had to choose just one of the country’s top three parks, Kruger, stretching up the east flank of Mpumalanga and Limpopo Province, would lead the pack for its sheer size (it’s larger than Wales and roughly the size of Massachusetts), its range of animals, its varied lowveld habitats and unbeatable game-viewing opportunities. After Kruger, the Tsitsikamma in the Western Cape attracts large numbers of visitors for its ancient forests, cliff-faced oceans and the dramatic Storms River Mouth as well as its Otter Trail, South Africa’s most popular hike. For epic mountain landscapes, nowhere in the country can touch the Ukhahlamba Drakensberg Park, which takes in a series of reserves on the KwaZulu-Natal border with Lesotho and offers gentle hikes along watercourses as well as ambitious mountaineering for serious climbers.

The unchallenged status of Kruger as the place for packing in elephants, lions and casts of thousands of animals tends to put the KwaZulu-Natal parks in the shade, quite undeservedly. As well as offering the best places in the world for seeing rhino, these parks feel less developed than Kruger, and often provide superior accommodation at comparable prices. Both Kruger and KwaZulu-Natal parks offer guided wildlife trails and night drives, a popular way to catch sight of the elusive denizens that creep around after dark.

Also worth a mention is the Addo Elephant National Park in the Eastern Cape, which has become Big Five country and is being expanded – the only such major game reserve in the southern half of the country. Addo has a lot more in its favour as well: it has the most diverse landscape of any reserve in the country; it is a day’s drive from Cape Town; and it is the only major game reserve in the country that is malaria-free.

Park accommodation
Accommodation at national parks includes campsites (expect to pay R150–200 per tent); safari tents at some of the Kruger and KwaZulu-Natal restcamps (clusters of accommodation, including chalets, safari tents and campsites, in game reserves, from R260 per tent); one-room huts with shared washing and cooking facilities (from R500); one-room en-suite bungalows with shared cooking facilities (from R700); and self-contained cottages with private bath or shower and cooking facilities (from R750). For groups of four there are self-contained family cottages with private bath and kitchen. In national parks accommodation (excluding campsites) you’re supplied with bedding, towels, a fridge and basic cooking utensils. Some restcamps have a shop selling supplies for picnics or braais, as well as a restaurant.

The ultimate wildlife accommodation is in the private game reserves, most of which are around the Kruger National Park. Here you pay big bucks for accommodation, which is almost always luxurious, in large en-suite walk-in tents, or small thatched rondavels, or – in the larger and most expensive lodges – plush rooms with air conditioning. A couple of places have “bush-showers” (a hoisted bucket of hot water with a shower nozzle attached) behind reed screens but open to the sky – one of the great treats of the bush is taking a shower under the southern sky. Some chalets or tents have gaslights or lanterns in the absence of electricity. Food is usually good and plentiful, and vegetarians can be catered for. Expect to pay upwards of R2000, rising to several times that amount at the most fashionable spots. It’s worth remembering that, high as these prices are, all your meals and game drives are included, and as numbers are strictly limited, you get an exclusive experience of the bush in return.

Game viewing
Spotting game takes skill and experience. It’s easier than you’d think to mistake a rhino for a large boulder, or to miss the king of the beasts in the tall grass – African game has, after all, evolved with camouflage in mind. Don’t expect the volume of animals you get in wildlife documentaries: what you see is always a matter of luck, patience and skill. If you’re new to the African bush and its wildlife, consider shelling out for at least two nights at one of the luxurious lodges on a private reserve (for example, those abutting Kruger); they’re staffed by well-informed rangers who lead game-viewing outings in open-topped 4WDs.

The section on Kruger National Park gives more advice on how to go about spotting game and how to enjoy and understand what you do see – whether it’s a brightly coloured lizard in a rest camp, head-butting giraffes at a waterhole or dust-kicking rhinos. Numerous books are available that can enhance your visit to a game reserve – especially if you plan a self-drive safari.

Self-drive safaris
The least expensive way of experiencing a game park is by renting a car and driving around a national park, taking advantage of the self-catering and camping facilities. You’ll have the thrill of spotting game yourself and at your own pace rather than relying on a ranger, and for people with children a self-drive safari is the principal way to see a game reserve, as most of the upmarket lodges don’t admit under-12s. The one real disadvantage of self-driving is that you can end up jostling with other cars to get a view, especially when it comes to lion-watching. Also, you may not know what animal signs to look for, and unless you travel in a minibus or 4WD vehicle you’re unlikely to be high enough off the ground to be able to see across the veld.

The KwaZulu-Natal game reserves – foremost among them Hluhluwe-Imfolozi, Mkhuze and Ithala – offer rewarding opportunities for self-drive touring. The same applies to the Pilanesberg Game Reserve in North West Province, while the remote Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park that stretches across the border into Botswana promises truly exciting wilderness driving. You might choose to cover a route that combines the substantial Kruger National Park with the more intimate reserves of KwaZulu-Natal province.

If you plan to self-drive, consider investing in good animal and bird field guides, and a decent pair of binoculars – one pair per person is recommended if you want to keep your relationships on a friendly footing. Finally, whether you’re cooking or not, it’s worth taking a flask for tea and a cool bag to keep water cold.

Escorted safaris
It’s possible to book places on a safari excursion – such packages are often organized by backpackers’ lodges located near reserves, and occasionally by hotels and B&Bs. On the downside, these don’t give you the experience of waking up in the wild, and entail spending considerably more time on the road than if you were based inside a reserve. But during South African school holidays, when Kruger, for example, is booked to capacity, you may have no other option.

Mostly, you get what you pay for as regards game-viewing packages. Be wary of any cheap deals on “safari farms” in the vicinity of Kruger. These are generally fine if you want to see animals in what are essentially huge zoos and make an acceptable overnight stop en route to Kruger, but are no substitute for a real wilderness experience – sooner or later you hit fences and gates on your game drive. Some of the better places in this category are listed in the relevant chapters.

Safaris on private reserves
If you choose well, the ultimate South African game experience has to be in a private reserve. You can relax while your game-viewing activities are organized, and because you spend time in a small group you get a stronger sense of the wild than you ever could at one of the big Kruger restcamps. Best of all, you get the benefit of knowledgeable rangers, who can explain the terrain and small-scale wildlife as they drive you around looking for game.

Privately run safari lodges in concessions inside Kruger and some other national parks, such as Addo, operate along similar lines. The smaller private reserves accommodate between ten and sixteen guests; larger camps often cater to two or three times as many people, and resemble hotels in the bush. Many safari lodges have their own waterholes, overlooked by the bar, from which you can watch animals drinking. Nowhere are the private reserves more developed than along the west flank of the Kruger, where you’ll find the top-dollar prestigious lodges as well as some places offering more bang for fewer bucks.

A typical day at a private camp or lodge starts at dawn for tea or coffee followed by guided game viewing on foot, or driving. After a mid-morning brunch/breakfast, there’s the chance to spend time on a viewing platform or in a hide, quietly watching the passing scene. Late-afternoon game viewing is a repeat of early morning but culminates with sundowners as the light fades, and often turns into a night drive with spotlights out looking for nocturnal creatures.

Prices, which include accommodation, meals and all game activities, vary widely. The ultra-expensive camps offer more luxury and social cachet, but not necessarily better game viewing. You might find the cheaper camps in the same areas more to your taste, their plainer and wilder atmosphere more in keeping with the bush.

Major parks and wildlife areas
1. Agulhas NP
Marine and coastal
Rugged southernmost tip of Africa with rich plant biodiversity and significant archeological sites.

2. Bontebok NP
Endangered species
At the foot of rugged mountains, the park provides refuge to bontebok and Cape mountain zebra.

3. De Hoop Nature Reserve
Marine and coastal, endangered species, and coastal vegetation
One of the world’s top spots for land-based whale watching with epic coastline and fynbos grazed by rare mountain zebras.

4. Garden Route National Park
Marine and coastal/endangered species
Focused on three sections: Wetlands and coast around Wilderness; Knysna’s forests and lagoon; and Tsitsikamma’s cliffs, gorges and ancient forests.

5. Karoo NP
Desert reserve
Arid mountainous landscape with fossils, herbivores and wild flowers in spring.

6. Table Mountain NP
The natural areas of the peninsula
Extraordinarily rich and diverse flora and fauna that thrives in the wilderness that is Cape Town’s back yard.

7. West Coast NP
Marine and coastal
Wetland wilderness with birding and watersports.

8. Addo Elephant NP
Game reserve
The only Big Five national park in the southern half of the country.

9. Camdeboo NP
Desert reserve
Karoo semi-desert landscape in the foothills of the Sneeuberg range with 120m-high dolerite pillars plus 43 species of herbivore.

10. Mountain Zebra NP
Endangered species
Dramatic hilly landscape in otherwise flat country with rare mountain zebras and other herbivores.

11. Augrabies Falls NP
Desert reserve
Notable for the dramatic landmark from which the park takes its name, where the Orange River plummets down a deep ravine; also great for desert scenery, antelope and prolific birdlife.

12. Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park
Desert/game reserve
Remote desert with rust-red dunes, desert lions, shy leopards and thousands of antelope.

13. Namaqua NP
Marine and coastal
Mountainous and coastal region renowned for its estimated 3500 plant varieties, among them beautiful spring wildflowers.

14. Ai-Ais Richtersveld Transfrontier Park
Mountain and desert
Craggy kloofs, high mountains and dramatic landscapes, sweeping inland from the Orange River, which sustain a remarkable range of reptiles, birds, mammals and plant life.

15. Golden Gate Highlands NP
Mountain enclave
Resort at the foot of rich sandstone formations in the heart of the Maluti Mountains.

16. Pilanesberg NP
Game reserve
Mountain-encircled grassland trampled by the Big Five, accessible from Johannesburg.

17. Kruger NP
Game reserve
The largest, best-stocked and most popular game reserve in the subcontinent.

18. Mapungubwe NP
Archeology/game reserve
World Heritage Site listed for its significance as the location of a highly developed Iron Age culture. Also noted for its landscape and biodiversity, which supports a large variety of mammals.

19. Marakele NP
Game reserve
Striking landscape of peaks, plateaus and cliffs, home to lions, elephants, rhinos and a variety of other mammals.

20. Isimangaliso
Coastal wetland
Vast patchwork of wetlands, wilderness, coast and game reserves.

21. Hluhluwe-Imfolozi GR
Game reserve
KwaZulu-Natal’s hillier, smaller answer to Kruger is among the top African spots for rhinos.

22. Ithala GR
Game reserve
Lesser-known small gem of a game reserve in mountainous country.

23. Mkhuze GR
Game/bird reserve
Top birding venue and excellent for rhinos and other herbivores; walks in wild fig forest.

24. Ukhahlamba Drakensberg Park
Mountain reserve
A series of parks covering the highest, most stirring and most dramatic peaks in South Africa.