A few years ago, I got a call from a long-lost friend asking whether I wanted to take a trip to South Africa. I was already living in Zambia and jumped at the thought of a new adventure with a familiar face. He arranged his flight from the Midwestern USA and I purchased a one-way, 48-hour bus trip to Cape Town, South Africa. That bus trip had it all: late night border crossings, dirt, and flat tires. Nothing dampened my mood for travel. After arriving in Cape Town, I soon met up with my jet-lagged friend and we were off! First stop? Table Mountain!
“Did we make it?” My friend checked his watch before glancing up into the heavens and the top of Table Mountain. We watched the cable car as it glided up to its destination. We quickly learned that the cable car was on its last trip and the only other way to the top would be to hike. We walked to the entrance of the trail but stopped and realized the sun would soon be down. It was our last evening in Cape Town and there would be no tomorrow. My friend and I retreated down the road and promised to one day return.
We could “yo-yo” around the world a dozen times without scratching the surface, but it stings when we get so close. Someday, I’ll make it back and breathe in the view of South Africa’s awe-inspiring coast. Until then, it’s an opportunity for others. Let me share five places that are worth a visit when planning a trip to South Africa.
1. Table Mountain
Contact: Tel. +27 (0)2 1424 8181
The sight of Table Mountain as it stands guard over the city of Cape Town cannot be sufficiently appreciated until one stands in its presence and openly gawks at the sheer size of it. If a person times it right, they will see clouds frolic at the mountain’s summit – causing what is known as the mountain’s table cloth.
Bring hiking shoes and arrive at a more appropriate hour than this author, as it will take a person a tough few hours to make it to the top. Alternatively, if someone wants to forgo the exercise, they can just take the cable car to the top, but they should be prepared to wait in line! Check the website for hours of operation for the cable car, as they change according to the season. Expect a round-trip cable car fare to cost you $20. The fee for children is about half of that.
Extra: The image above was taken from Robben Island – a UNESCO World Heritage Site most famously known for being a prison for Nelson Mandela during apartheid. A tumultuous and lively boat ride will get a person out to the island, and they’ll have an opportunity of getting a tour from a guide who was once a prisoner on the island.
2. Kruger National Park
Contact: Tel. +27 13 735 4000
A question a traveler to South Africa is always asked is whether they are going to Kruger National Park. To avoid an exasperated “Why not,” it is recommended that the traveler just plan on going. As one of the largest game reserves on the continent, Kruger National Park is a quality travel destination for people of all molds. Kruger will provide the traveler an opportunity to catch The Big Five: lions, elephants, buffalo, leopards, and rhinos. Kruger provides guests with many different packages that fit their travel and budget requirements. Get up close and see these animals in their own territory! A traveler will most likely be flying into Johannesburg, and from there, they can fly directly to Kruger National Park. Keep that in mind when planning!
Extra: Make sure to check out the website for all available options. A traveler doesn’t want to show up at the park only to see the other tourists taking part in a safari and get jealous. There are plenty of options for everyone – from incredible luxury lodges to camping near the animals. Enjoy everything the park has to offer!
Speaking from personal experience, safaris are more than the jeep ride with the guide shouting “there’s Simba!” I had the good fortune of spending two nights on the African ground in tents and getting up close and personal with the animals. When the sun went down, my guide took me to the open savannah, fed me, and gave me a chair. “Wait,” he muttered. A few minutes later, it was completely dark and there was nothing standing between me and the open wild. Later in the evening, while I was reminiscing about the day’s events, I heard a roar so loud that my hair stood on end.
It’s a memory that will stay vivid in my mind forever.
3. Apartheid Museum
Contact: Tel. +27 11 309 4700
Apartheid was a system of segregation in South Africa between 1948 and 1991. The name Nelson Mandela may be familiar to outsiders (especially the sage adults), but if a traveler is younger, it may be a good idea to pick up a copy of Long Walk to Freedom to gain the context of this not-so-long-ago period in South African history. According to the museum’s website, this is a description of what you can expect:
“A series of 22 individual exhibition areas takes the visitor through a dramatic emotional journey that tells a story of a state-sanctioned system based on racial discrimination and the struggle of the majority to overthrow this tyranny.”
The Apartheid Museum is located in Johannesburg, South Africa, and is open every day from 9 AM to 5 PM.
Do your homework, traveler. If it’s possible, ask someone to provide a tour of a township (show respect and don’t flaunt that camera). Get a glimpse into what life was like under apartheid.
4. Boulders Beach (Penguins!)
Contact: Tel. +27 21 786 2329, Open: 8:00 AM to 5:00 PM
A scenic train ride from Cape Town will land in you Simon’s Town. From there, you’ll soon land on Boulders Beach. Other beaches around Cape Town offer you plenty of options: surfing, scenic views, boating, and nightlife. However, Boulders Beach is slightly different – you’re not allowed on the sand! That’s because this beach is home to a colony of African penguins. These penguins spend their days shuffling between the granite rocks that intermingle with these flightless creatures. Don’t worry! There are plenty of walkways for you to get up close and personal to snag that perfect selfie. This perfect South African destination does require an entrance fee of roughly $5 for adults and a little less for children. Boulders Beach is open from 8 a.m. to 6:30 p.m. during the summer and 8 AM to 5 PM during the winter.
Extra: Take a bus tour (organized from the comforts of your hotel/hostel) and get the inside scoop of your surroundings. You’ll hear the local Cape Town song and find out which celebrities have vacation homes in the quaint coastal towns. An added perk of the bus tours is that they stop at scenic points along the route and allow you to take some truly remarkable photographs of the region. You’ll get to see all the little coastline coves and the pristine South African waters.
5, Wine Tasting in Stellenbosch
Contact: Tel. +27 83 301 6774 (Reservations)
Located about 30 miles east of Cape Town, Stellenbosch is a beautiful city known for the college scene, oak trees and, perhaps most importantly, the wine life. There are plenty of options available for travelers when choosing a Stellenbosch getaway. One option is to take a train from Cape Town to Stellenbosch, and from the comforts of the hotel, travelers can arrange a tour of the area vineyards. People can be picked up from the hotel front door and whisked from one winery to the next, all while enjoying the individual flavors and notes of a favorite bottle. Look out for the chocolate and wine pairings – a personal favorite of the author. Many travelers leave Stellenbosch thinking, “Wow, I could see myself living here.”
Make South Africa Your Next Travel Destination
South Africa will forever be a personal favorite of mine. I’ve had the privilege of spending days in rural South Africa, and I’ve spent time at the base of Table Mountain in Cape Town. I’ve visited the hip areas of Johannesburg, and I’ve toured the South African coastline. I’ve taken a bus down the gut of wine country and have gotten up close with cheetahs. I’ve experienced warm hospitality, and I’ve been stranded on the side of the road with a flat tire. There is no shortage of memories when it comes to South Africa. It simply holds a special place in my heart.
South Africa is a travel destination that everyone should not miss. Give yourself extra time in each spot and create the memories you’ll want to tell again and again. Finally, please do me a favor. Get to the top of Table Mountain!