When we start to travel again, it will be by road first many experts agree. Keeping in our borders and exploring our own backyards.
We asked the travel brains at Travelstart for five of South Africa’s must visit hidden gems, so you can start planning your routes.
1. Richtersveld National Park
About a day’s worth of driving from Cape Town, the Northern Cape’s Richtersveld National Park offers a challenging terrain (leave the Kia Picanto at home; the park is only accessible by 4×4, kombi or LDV) and amazing varieties of birdlife, mountain zebras, vervet monkeys, rhebok, kudu and many more natural inhabitants. Let’s not forget the over 650 plant species ranging from nutritional to medicinal. This is a mountain desert wilderness of amazing beauty and one of the many outstanding hidden gems in South Africa. Just remember to bring provisions, as no restaurant facilities are available, and to plan your route in order to arrive in daylight, as driving in the park at night is not allowed.
2. Augrabies Falls National Park
Augrabies in the Northern Cape is a great hidden gem in South Africa, perfect for hiking and camping, but the highlight in this region is the Orange River’s magnificent Augrabies Falls, 60m high and absolutely astonishing. The original Khoi San residents named them Ankoerebis – “place of big noises”; you will very quickly understand why. Augrabies Falls is also wheelchair accessible. Other attractions include Moon Rock, which you can walk up to enjoy panoramic views of the Martian-like landscape. Also see the Kokerboom, or Quiver tree, because the Bushmen used its soft branches to make quivers for their arrows. Go at your own pace on a self-guided hike in search of the abundant local wildlife and birdlife. You will not come across any rhinos, lions or any of the Big Five, but you certainly will be spoilt for choice. It is an amazing opportunity to walk the trails at your leisure. For a truly brilliant time, watch millions of stars on moonless nights.
3. Cradle of Humankind
The remarkable Cradle of Humankind World Heritage Site, one of the true hidden gems in South Africa, is less than an hour’s drive from Johannesburg, near the Witwatersberg and Magaliesberg mountain ranges. See the Sterkfontein Caves, where scientists have discovered many hominids and animal fossils dating back over 4 million years. There’s Maropeng (meaning “returning to the place of origin” in Setswana) and its exhibition centre, housed in a Tumulus that allows visitors to sail through the various stages of Earth’s formation on an underground boat. Close by is Magaliesberg, one of the world’s oldest mountain ranges. Besides the pure pleasure of finding an abundance of flora, fauna, birdlife and the magnificent sable antelope, they also have fun micro-lighting, abseiling, rock climbing, river rafting and hiking. And, if you are feeling lucky, visit Gauteng’s oldest gold mine. A variety of accommodation is on offer, from camping to super luxurious.
One of the picturesque small towns in South Africa, Napier, in the Overberg, has a bit of everything for the curious traveller. Interested in farm stalls, wine-tasting amenities, cycling, hiking, museums and sweet potatoes, that is! And you can participate in the annual half-marathon and mountain bike race, which normally take place in June. You will probably want to take part just to work off all the “Patat-koek” (a delicious pudding-like cake made from the local sweet potatoes). Make sure not to miss the Toy Museum, with its fascinating collection of rare and traditional toys, including old boat and steam toy collections.
Overlooking the sleepy-looking hollow of Grahamstown you could be forgiven for thinking the charming old University town is where parties come to die. On the contrary, Grahamstown is one of the finest small towns in South Africa. This student town, famous for its history and Rhodes University, is home to the National Arts Festival and several museums and boasts a party atmosphere that’s second to none thanks to the large student population. The first Cape Colony settlers landed on its shores in 1820 and are commemorated by a statue within the beautiful gardens overlooking Gunfire Hill; definitely worth a visit. The town is certainly steeped in history, and one museum displays an original ‘camera obscura’ which inspired early cameras. The National Arts Festival, which takes place between June and July annually, is the biggest of its kind on the continent. The programme includes music, visual art exhibitions, films, student, physical and street theatres, lectures, a craft fair, workshops, dance, physical theatre, a children’s arts festival and much more. Do not worry about finding suitable accommodation; you really will be spoilt for choice with the town’s selection of accommodation.