Plan a fun year with these 15 destinations and activities in South Africa. Do one, do them all, but make sure you get in your car and explore.
Make 2019 your best year yet with these fun things to do and scenic places to see.
1VERNEUKPAN, NORTHERN CAPE Camp on a quiet pan
When last did you watch the sparks of your campfire fade into the Milky Way? Do you want to see a sunset as if for the first time? Most people have heard of Verneukpan, but few have been there. Pitch your tent on the pan – chances are you’ll be the only person. Which is a good thing. Every now and then you need to hear the rush of your own blood to know you’re still alive. Cost: Camping R150 per person. You can camp wherever you want to; there’s also a big wind shelter where you can braai, and a bathroom with a donkey boiler for hot water. TIP It seldom rains, but when it does the pan becomes muddy and slippery. Call beforehand to make sure the pan is dry.
2 GANNAGA PASS, TANKWA KAROO Enjoy a good view and a good meal
I try to drive at least three new roads every year. The Gannaga Pass is one to add to your list. It winds up the Roggeveld Mountains from the Tankwa Karoo, about 35 km south of Middelpos. The pass is 7 km long and has 45 bends! The road surface is usually good, and you should manage in any vehicle with decent ground clearance. Go slowly. Take photos, pull over and take a deep breath. Halfway up the pass, you’ll see a botterboom forest on the slopes. From the viewpoint at the top, look out over the empty plains of the Tankwa, to where the sun disappears behind the Cederberg. It’s often as much as 7˚ C cooler at the top of the pass than at the bottom, which can either be “refreshing” or “freezing”. Gannaga Lodge is 3 km from the summit, where you can sip red wine in front of the fireplace or have a dip in the swimming pool. It’s a lekker place, whatever the weather. Owner Johan Visagie, former commander of the Middelpos police station, heads up the restaurant. On the menu you’ll find Karoo treats like sheep’s tails, skilpadjies, lamb neck and crackling. The pass is so scenic and the lodge so nice, you’ll forget all about the roads you haven’t driven and come again next year! Accommodation: Kliphuis (self-catering) sleeps four – two in a bedroom and two on a sleeper couch. The Farmhouse has five en suite double rooms; The Stalls has six en suite double rooms. From R300 per person per night. 079 922 1688; gannagalodge.co.za TIP The village of Middelpos is about 30 km from the lodge. The Middelpos service station has fuel and a workshop, where you can get your tyres fixed if they’ve been damaged by the stony roads of the Tankwa Karoo. 073 260 5305 – Willem van der Berg
3 VALLEY OF DESOLATION, GRAAFF-REINET Be inspired by a classic view
From this iconic Karoo viewpoint, you can see the plains of the Camdeboo and the town of Graaff-Reinet far below. But that’s not all: You’re also surrounded by dolerite pillars, some of which rise 120 m from the valley floor. These unusual rock formations are the result of volcanic activity about 200 million years ago, followed by erosion over centuries. The Valley of Desolation was painter Pierneef’s muse in the 1940s. The view will also stir your artistic soul. Footpaths lead left and right to views of Spandau Kop in the south, Nqweba Dam in the north and Graaff-Reinet in the east. Cost: Camdeboo National Park conservation fee R43 per adult; R22 per child; free with a Wild card. 049 892 3453; sanparks.org TIP Come early if you want to feel the isolation that’s so characteristic of the Karoo. The rock towers glow red in the late-afternoon sun and you’ll get wonderful photos, but you’ll have to jostle for space. – Jac Kritzinger
4 DE HOOP, RICHTERSVELD Travel to the most remote corner of the country This campsite on the bank of the Orange River is the most popular place to stay in the Ai-Ais/Richtersveld Transfrontier Park. But “popular” in this context is a relative term… The Richtersveld is a mountainous rock desert in the north-western corner of South Africa. You’ll feel like you’ve entered an alien world when you drive through the gates. One year, I visited the park office at Sendelingsdrift in late February – nobody had reported to the gate in a week! Even when De Hoop is fully booked, it’s still quiet. There are only 12 stands, divided into two sections: The upper section is on a sandy beach on the river bank; the lower section is also on the bank with some thorn trees for shade. You can swim, cast a fly for yellowfish and watch grey herons stalking among the reeds. When the sun starts to set, sit back in your camping chair and watch the landscape turn, pink, purple, orange and red. Light a fire and count the stars until the Milky Way explodes into a thousand glittering lights. Cost: SANParks conservation fee R71 per adult; R36 per child under 12; free with a Wild card. Accommodation: Camping from R243 per night for two people; R89 per extra adult; R45 per extra child (max six people per stand). Each section (upper and lower) has an ablution block with cold showers. 027 831 1506 (Sendelingsdrift); 012 428 9111 (bookings); sanparks.org TIP Bring an inner tube and float down the river. – Pierre Steyn
5 BOULDERS, SIMON’S TOWN Visit a penguin colony
It’s wonderful to sit on a beach at sunset looking out over a secluded bay. It’s even more wonderful if one of the most endangered birds in the world swims out of the waves and waddles past you on its way to its nest. Boulders Beach in Simon’s Town is home to a colony of African penguins. There are fewer than 26 000 breeding pairs left in the world and 2 000 of them can be seen on this beach. They’re used to people so you can share the water with them. Boulders is part of Table Mountain National Park. Plant your umbrella on one of the sheltered beaches, or walk along the boardwalks to see the penguins and their chicks up close. Cost: SANParks conservation fee R76 per adult; R41 per child under 12; free with a Wild card. Opening times: Depends on the season. Open daily in December and January from 7 am to 7.30 pm. TIP Boulders is popular over the December holidays so come early if you want the beach and the penguins to yourself. 021 712 0527; sanparks.org – Pierre Steyn
6 QUIVER TREE FOREST, NIEUWOUDTVILLE Watch the sun rise over quiver trees
When the sun peeks over the horizon, the silhouetted leaves of the quiver trees look like stars against the sky. Then the trunks come to life, glowing spooky white in the first light. As the sun climbs higher, it fills in the folds and cracks in the bark until it looks like the trees are wrapped in strips of golden foil. In June and July – when Namaqualand bursts into bloom – the quiver trees bear yellow flowers. You can take photos to your heart’s content. But put down your camera after a while, pour a cup of coffee and spend some quiet time with these ancient plants. They were here long before you were, and it’s likely they’ll be here long after you’re gone. Where? Follow the R357 from Nieuwoudtville towards Loeriesfontein. After about 20 km, turn right onto the Gannabos dirt road. The quiver tree forest is 3 km further, on the right. Accommodation: Gannabos guest farm is 8 km further along the same road. Kareeboom self-catering cottage (sleeps six) from R550 per person. Luxury rondavel (sleeps two) R650 per person, breakfast included. Brandkop guest farm is 3 km back towards town on the R357. The big farmhouse sleeps eight people and the nearby cottage sleeps four. The cottage in the veld is more private and has two double rooms. From R350 per person per night. Gannabos 027 218 1249; gannabos.co.za; Brandkop 027 218 1254; brand[email protected]tam.co.za TIP Stop at the Kokerboom Nursery in Vanrhynsdorp and buy a quiver tree for your garden. 027 219 1062; kokerboom.co.za – Sophia van Taak
7 TAFELBERG, CEDERBERG Climb the second-highest mountain in the Cederberg
Table Mountain in Cape Town is 1 084 m above sea level at its highest point; Tafelberg in the Cederberg is nearly twice as high at 1 964 m – the secondhighest mountain in the range after Sneeuberg. It’s a 14 km hike to the summit and back from the Welbedacht parking area. There are streams where you can fill your bottle, but take enough water just in case (about two litres per person). The last few hundred metres at the top include chains and a rock chimney to wriggle through. You need to be fit. If all that sounds a bit too technical, hike to the neck between Tafelberg and The Spout on the right if you’re facing the mountain – it looks like a kettle made from stone (GPS: S32.41431 E19.20988). From the neck, you can look east over the Langkloof and its endless valleys, all the way to the village of Wupperthal. Follow the same route back. Cost: Conservation fee R70 per adult; R40 per child. Accommodation: Driehoek guest farm is about 2 km from Welbedacht. Camping from R320 per night for four people; R90 per extra person (max six people per stand). Cabins from R470 per night for two people (shared bathroom) or from R610 for two (private bathroom). Self-catering house R800 (two people) to R2 200 (12 people). 027 482 2828; cederberg-accommodation.co.za TIP The Cederberg is very hot in summer and very cold in winter. Visit in spring or autumn. – Sven Hugo
8 OTTER HIKING TRAIL, GARDEN ROUTE Book your spot on a top trail!
On the 45 km, five-day Otter Trail between Storms River and Nature’s Valley, you’ll experience a range of landscapes: cliffs, forests, river crossings… It’s not easy: There are steep sections that will leave you out of breath, but you don’t cover long distances each day and the views from the hiking huts are so spectacular you won’t believe you’re actually allowed to sleep there. It’s a popular hike and you might only get a spot for next year, especially if you’re a big group. But make that booking now – the sooner you do, the sooner you can start getting excited… Cost: R1 302 per person, plus a conservation fee of R59 per person per day (no conservation fee with a Wild card). Maximum 12 people per group. Every overnight stop has two huts with six beds each, a communal lapa and a cold shower. TIP If the full trail is booked out for 2019, you can get a taster on the Waterfall Trail from the Storms River rest camp. It’s basically the first 3 km of the full Otter Trail and leads to a waterfall with a nice pool. Follow the same route back. 012 426 5111; specialisedreserva[email protected]parks.org; sanparks.org – Suzaan Hall
9 ST BLAIZE TRAIL, MOSSEL BAY Walk high above the waves
It’s hard to believe that this day hike between Mossel Bay and Dana Bay is free – you get fresh sea air, fields of fynbos and 180-degree views. You occasionally hike over stretches of sand, but mostly you walk along the cliff tops with views of the ocean. Look out for whales and dolphins. The trail is 13,5 km long but it’s not technical. And you can take it slow… Where? You can hike in either direction. Start in Mossel Bay if you want the morning sun behind you. Park at the lighthouse at The Point. The hike starts at the St Blaize Cave – follow the oystercatcher signs. Arrange to have someone pick you up in Malva Road in Dana Bay – there’s a sign pointing to the trail. TIP Take drinking water, snacks, a hat, sunscreen and a windbreaker. There isn’t much shade or shelter from the elements. 044 691 2202 (Mossel Bay tourism) – Lawrette McFarlane
10 WATERFALL BLUFF, WILD COAST Watch a waterfall tumble into the sea
It’s a relief that major developments haven’t yet reached the Wild Coast. The landscape is still pristine, but seeing the sights requires effort – you need to put on your hiking boots or drive a corrugated dirt road. Waterfall Bluff, about 35 km north of Port St Johns, is one such place. The Mkozi River tumbles about 60 m, directly into the sea. (It’s one of only a handful of waterfalls in the world that do this.) You can reach the waterfall in two ways: Hike about 11 km from Mbotyi Lodge, past Cathedral Rock (a rock arch with one foot in the sea) or hike 4 km from Luphuthana Camp (you need a 4x4 to get to Luphuthana). Take your swimming costume and swim in the so-called Mamba Pools at the top of the waterfall – it’s a setting straight from The Jungle Book. If the sea is calm, you can also swim in the pool under the waterfall. Cost: Hiking with a guide is recommended – book at Mbotyi River Lodge: R400 per day for two people. Accommodation: Camping at Mbotyi from R140 per person; self-catering rondavel with communal bathroom from R850 per night (max six people). Mbotyi Lodge is next to the campsite – rates from R885 per person sharing, full board. 082 674 1064; mbotyi.co.za Luphuthana Camp has en suite safari tents with a communal kitchen (from R360 per person). Bring your own bedding, food and drinks. 011 888 1160; greenfire.co.za TIP If you’re serious about photography, you’ll want a long-exposure shot of the waterfall. Take a tripod and a neutral density filter.. – Evan Naudé
11 HLUHLUWE-IMFOLOZI GAME RESERVE See rhinos by the dozen
If you want a guaranteed rhino sighting in South Africa, you can either head to the nearest zoo or to the oldest game reserve in the country – Hluhluwe-iMfolozi. The R511 tar road cuts the park in half – iMfolozi is in the south and Hluhluwe in the north. iMfolozi is white rhino country. This section of the park is home to the confluence of the White iMfolozi and Black iMfolozi rivers – the area between the two rivers was once the private hunting ground of King Shaka. Tsetse flies kept other hunters and farmers out of the area for many years. When white rhinos were nearly hunted to extinction in the 1800s, a group of about 500 was discovered in present-day iMfolozi. All the white rhinos in the world are descended from this group. White rhinos graze in the flatter areas of the park. Black rhinos are smaller and more shy – they prefer the mountainous Hluhluwe section. If you’re still not sure which is which, the black rhino is the one with the grumpy look on its face… Cost: Conservation fee for both sections of the park R110 per adult; halfprice for kids under 12. Accommodation: Mpila rest camp (iMfolozi): Safari tents and self-catering units from R1 030 per night; the tents and units sleep two people each. Hilltop rest camp (Hluhluwe): Self-catering rondavels from R720 per person; self-catering chalets from R2 700 per night (each unit sleeps three people). Private lodge from R5 400 per night; sleeps six people. TIP Stop for a coffee at Mpunyane restaurant in Hilltop camp, Hluhluwe. Put R5 in the viewing binoculars and see if you can spot the dunes of St Lucia in the distance. 035 550 8476 (iMfolozi); 035 562 0848 (Hluhluwe); kznwildlife.com – François Haasbroek
12 MAPUTALAND Watch turtles lay their eggs
In November, on the beaches between St Lucia and Kosi Bay in northern KZN, female leatherback and loggerhead turtles return to the same place they were born to lay their eggs. The turtle will dig a hole about a metre deep in the sand, above the high-tide mark, and lay about 100 eggs. Then she’ll return to the sea, leaving the babies to fend for themselves when they hatch. About two months later, between January and March, golf-ball-sized hatchlings tackle the long and dangerous journey across the beach to the sea, dodging hungry seagulls and ghost crabs. You have a good chance of seeing the turtles on a tour because the iSimangaliso park officials keep a close eye on the nests and the guides know the beaches well. It feels like a miracle when the guide’s torch lands on a sandy spot and a tiny turtle pops out its head. It blinks and tries to make sense of the big, new world. Good luck, little one! Cost: The nesting sites are inside iSimangaliso Wetland Park; you can only look for turtles with a guide. Several operators offer tours (about R600 per person). Depending on the time of year, you’ll either see turtles laying eggs or the eggs hatching. Rates depend on the size of the group and extras like picnic baskets and transport. Visit isimangaliso.com/activity/ turtle-tours Accommodation: Kosi Bay Lodge has en suite safari tents with a communal kitchen (from R280 per person) and self-catering chalets (from R400 per person). 083 262 4865; kosibaylodge.co.za TIP Bring a headlamp and a warm jacket. It can be cold and windy on the beach. – Evan Naudé
13 BARBERTON GEOTRAIL Travel back in time You can do the Barberton Geotrail again and again and learn something new every time, even if it’s just new geology jargon. It’s a challenge to wrap your head around not only the names of the rocks (arenite, baryte, lapilli), but also how ancient the Barberton greenstone belt is. It’s estimated to have been formed about 3 billion years ago. Every stop on the trail has information boards and graphics to explain what you’re looking at, and how it fits into the bigger picture – everything from tidal sandstone formations to biomats, the first signs of primitive life on earth. The trail starts where the R40 and R38 intersect outside Barberton; you’ll drive over the steep Saddleback Pass for about 45 km to just before you reach the Josefsdal border post to Swaziland. The Geotrail will you put you in your place – in a good way! Cost: Free. Buy a trail guide (R120) at the Barberton tourism office in Pilgrim Street. A guided tour by geology expert Tony Ferrar ( 072 376 2581) costs R200 per group per day (max six people). TIP Set aside at least half a day to drive the trail. Pack a picnic basket. There are braai facilities at some of the viewpoints. The one at Lebombo/ Makhonjwa is 1 800m above sea level and the view gets five stars. A summary of the trail, and all the information, is also available in braille. – Annemarie van der Walt Punda Maria, the northernmost rest camp in the Kruger, has an old-world feel. It captures the pioneering spirit of the early days of the park. Maybe it’s the original pole-and-clay houses built in 1931, which still have communal braai facilities. Or the stories of big game hunters and ivory smugglers who made their own rules in this wild corner of the country. Plan your visit for summer when migratory birds visit the northern parts of the park. You may see rare birds like Eurasian golden oriole, African golden oriole, broad-billed roller and even pennant-winged nightjar. Go look for animal action on the S64 to the Luvuvhu Bridge and the S63 to Crooks’ Corner. The S63 runs along the Luvuvhu River, and through a fever tree forest. When I drove this route, I saw so many birds: Burchell’s coucal, bee-eaters, red-backed shrike, green wood-hoopoe, fish-eagles and an African harrier-hawk. Get out of your vehicle at the Crooks’ Corner viewpoint and look out over the confluence of the Luvuvhu and Limpopo rivers (crocodiles should be lurking). On the other side of the river you’ll see Mozambique, Zimbabwe and the rest of Africa, waiting to be explored… Cost: Kruger conservation fee R93 per adult; R47 per child under 12; free with a Wild card. Accommodation: Camping from R243 per night for two people; R89 per extra adult; R45 per extra child (max six people per stand). Self-catering unit with communal kitchen from R888 per night for two people. Safari tent from R1 055 per night for two people. 013 735 6873 (Punda Maria); 012 428 9111 (bookings); sanparks.org TIP Not in the mood to look at your neighbour’s game-drive photos? Do the Flycatcher hike. The trail starts behind the reception office and there is a bench under some trees about halfway along. He’ll never find you there. – Esma Marnewick