Brief history of South Africa
While Africa is known as the Cradle of Mankind, South Africa has the distinction of being the origin of some of the oldest fossils known to mankind.
The San bushman were the first modern people to venture into South Africa about 2 000 years ago and they were closely followed by the Khoi and Bantu tribes.
Europeans arrived during 1652. The Dutch were the first to colonize the country and remained in power until 1795, when Britain took over. Then in 1803, the Dutch were back on top, only to surrender control back to the British in 1806.
The history of South Africa is littered with conflict between European settlers and the indigenous people, British versus the Boers (early Dutch settlers) and white against black. Ultimately, the Republic of South Africa came into being in 1961.
The country is well-known for clinging to the archaic apartheid system, which involved segregation according to race until 1994. Since then, South Africa has been ruled as a democracy.
Known colloquially as the Rainbow Nation, South Africa is one of the most diverse countries in Africa, with a population of 5.7 million.
South Africa has a good general infrastructure and a solid economy based on agriculture, mining and manufacturing. The country is well known for its pioneering efforts in medicine, military vehicles and petroleum. A high emphasis is placed on the tourism industry too.
The currency in South Africa is the Rand and Forex is available at all major airports and banks. ATM services are readily available throughout the country, even in remote areas. Medical services are basic in government-run hospitals and clinics, but private facilities offer excellent and advanced care. Medevac services are readily available.
Travel insurance is essential for travel to any African country. South Africa has 2 main malaria areas, namely the tropical lowveld (parts of Mpumalanga and Limpopo) and the Far northern coastal areas of KwaZulu-Natal.
Always confer with your doctor well in advance about any necessary malaria precautions when traveling to Africa.
Although there are incidences of highly publicized political unrest in South Africa from time to time, you will find that South Africans in general are a peaceful and welcoming nation.
Provinces in South Africa
South Africa has 9 provinces, namely:
- Western Cape
- Eastern Cape
- Northern Cape
- Free State
- North West Province
These provinces are further divided up into official tourist zones such as the Garden Route, Winelands, Drakensberg, KZN Midlands, Lowveld etc.
Cities in South Africa
South Africa’s major cities are:
Cape Town is an excellent place to start your travels around the country and often at the top of international ‘best of’ lists for tourists. Likewise, Johannesburg is the gateway to the game parks of north-eastern South Africa and has the most international arrivals of any city in Africa.
The Natural World of South Africa
South Africa has been heavily involved in conservation since land for the Kruger National Park was first set aside in 1884.
Both on and off shore, South Africa is awash with unique and amazing creatures, the most notable of these being the sought-after Big Five.
A little out of the limelight, smaller creatures, plants and birds also thrive and can provide hours of diversion wherever you travel in the country.
Geography and Geology
South Africa boasts a varied range of terrains and temperate zones, from the semi-arid Karoo to the lush forests of Tsitsikamma.
Some of the most spectacular geological features of South Africa include:
- Bourke’s Luck Potholes
- Blyde River Canyon
- The Great Escarpment
- Sudwala and Cango Caves
- Table Mountain
- Drakensberg Mountains
- Tswaing Meteorite Crater
- Chapman’s Peak
Animals and Birds
South Africa is one of the most naturally diverse countries in the world. The Cape Floral Kingdom is a world heritage site comprising 1 million hectares, and 9 600 species. Over 70% of these plants are endemic.
Over 100 migratory birds fly to South Africa for the winter, adding to the 725 species which remain year-round. Of these, 50 species occur only in South Africa.
There are 230 different mammals found in South Africa, along with 350 reptiles, 1 200 insects, 110 species of amphibians and over 500 types of fish.
Offshore, coral reefs such as Aliwal Shoal boast some of the best reef diving that there is, as well as a host of shark diving and wreck diving opportunities. It was off the shore of South Africa’s South Coast that the coelacanth, believed to be extinct, was discovered alive and well.
During the springtime, South Africa’s West Coast and interior are blanketed with an array of blooms that boggle the mind, towering baobabs rule over the north-western savannahs and orchids color the forests, while delicate fynbos and spiky aloes grace mountain slopes and fields.
Thousands of species of vascular plants thrive in South Africa’s arid zones, riverine forests, savannahs, mountainsides, wetlands and rivers.
Some of the unique plants endemic to South Africa include:
- King Protea
- Pin cushions
- Arum lilies
- Bird of Paradise Flower (Strelitzia)
- Red Disa aloe
- Rhinoceros Bush
The Kruger National Park is a must-visit destination during a trip to South Africa, but every province has its gems, both national and private.
These are some of the most popular wildlife reserves for game viewing in South Africa:
- Kruger National Park
- Addo Elephant National Park
- Madikwe Game Reserve
- Timbavati Private Nature Reserve
- Sabi Sand
- Pilanesberg National Park
South Africa is also involved in 6 of the 10 Peace Parks which flow across the boundaries of participating states. These are:
- Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park and !Ai-!Ais/Richtersveld Transfrontier Park with Namibia
- Greater Mapungubwe Transfrontier Conservation Area with Botswana and Zimbabwe
- Great Limpopo Transfrontier Park with Zimbabwe
- Lubombo Transfrontier Conservation and Resource Area with Mozambique and The Kingdom of eSwatini (Swaziland)
- Maloti-Drakensberg Transfrontier Conservation and Development Area with Lesotho
In addition, there are a host of parks that focus on other aspects of conservation such as plants and marine species. These include:
- Table Mountain National Park
- Table Mountain National Park
- Ukhalamba Drakensberg National Park
- Agulhas National Park
- Golden Gate Highlands National Park
- West Coast National Park
- Namaqua National Park
- Mapungubwe National Park
South Africa is a leader in accommodation on the continent with various internationally acclaimed hotels to its credit.
You’ll find no shortage of places to stay from rustic camp sites to all-frills resorts. Bed and breakfast accommodation and self-catering options are very popular in this country as they allow you the freedom to try out some of the top restaurants nearby, sample local fare at street markets or enjoy the luxury of a traditional braai.
Treehouses, rooftop trailer parks and haunted hotels are some of the more unusual choices you have when you travel to South Africa.
You’ll find something to tempt your appetite at every turn in South Africa’s cities and towns. Fast food outlets are abundant, as is familiar international cuisine. The adventurous eater can sample local foods at speciality restaurants, markets and off the menu at your hotel.
Don’t miss out on biltong, boerewors, bunny chows, milk tart, monkey gland sauce, malva pudding, koeksisters, mampoer and the ever-popular Amarula during your visit. You’ll find
fresh fruit and vegetables in no short supply anywhere in the country and those who prefer to abstain from meat are catered for with a smile.
Like most African countries, there is no shortage of attractions in South Africa to keep you occupied during your stay.
Some of the best ones include:
- Cape Town
- Wine Route
- The Whale Coast
- Cradle of Mankind
- Garden Route
- iSimangaliso Wetland Park
- Robben Island
You’ll find many accommodation hotspots, curio shops, museums and activities centered around these tourist hotspots.
Activities in South Africa
There is plenty of action on the African continent. From safari’s to sunbathing and sightseeing, you’ll find no lack of things to fill your days.
Don’t miss the chance to:
- Go hot air ballooning over game reserves or the wine route
- Hike, walk and bike around the Drakensberg
- Ride camels, quad bikes and horses almost anywhere in the country
- Take a guided game drive or walk or a self-guided safari
- Go whale watching on land and sea
- Take a dive with the sharks at Gansbaai
- Enjoy some time just lapping up your surroundings
- Play a game of golf with wildlife for company
- Kite-surf, fish, swim, raft or water-ski in rivers and dams * Visit amazing pubs, markets and restaurants
- Sip on local craft beers and gin
- Explore some of the world’s most prestigious wine farms
Check out our activities listings for more detailed information on the above.
While most of South Africa’s original tribes have embraced a modern way of life. There are museums and cultural villages which give you a glimpse of the old ways during your travels. South Africa has 4 ethnic groups namely, African, Colored, White and Asian. In amongst these you’ll find people with a wide range of backgrounds.
Zulu people are by far the most numerous, followed by the Xhosa and then other African races, namely Sotho, Swazi, Tswana, Tsonga, Venda, Ndebele, and Pedi. Most of the white
people in South Africa are descendants of Dutch, English and French settlers and the country has thriving populations of people of Indian and Chinese descent.
Cape Town is a hub of cultural creativity with many theaters, live music venues, museums and galleries to enjoy. It’s also the centre of cuisine in South Africa and has a thriving foodie culture. That said, you’ll enjoy many a unique meal wherever you travel in this country.
South Africa has 11 official languages, which gives you an idea of the extent of cultural diversity in this country. English is the main language spoken in tourist destinations, although Afrikaans is the most widely spoken language in the country.
South Africa is home to a huge range of people of European descent as well as many immigrants from neighboring African countries.
Most major airlines fly into OR Tambo Airport in Johannesburg, Cape Town International Airport and King Shaka International in Durban. Domestic flights between the major centers are easy to come by and economical and charter flights are common.
Hiring a car is first prize if you want to make the most of your time in South Africa, while guided tours are a good option for first-timers.
Keep a GPS within reach if you are traveling in unfamiliar terrain and plan your route carefully. Major highways can get congested during public holidays, so allow extra time for delays.
Visa and Vaccination Requirements
Visitors to South Africa must have a valid passport and may require a visa. South Africa does not offer visa on arrival and has strict rules regarding travel with children.
Be certain to check with your airline and your travel agent about the current legalities if you are traveling with children under 18. These rules are strictly enforced in an attempt to combat child trafficking.
Check at VisaHQ or ask your travel agent for assistance if you are unsure.
A yellow fever vaccination is required for travel to South Africa if you have recently visited a country with a high yellow fever risk.
What to Pack
You will be able to purchase everything you need in most of South Africa’s cities and towns, but you must travel with all your own medications.
Be sure to check with your GP regarding the risk of contracting malaria at your destination. Insect repellent will make your safari a lot more pleasant, and sunscreen and a hat are important for all outdoor activities.
Bring your camera, travel adapters, spare batteries and chargers. One pair of binoculars per person is ideal, to avoid arguments.
Carry a list of important telephone numbers with you at all times and pack your mobile phone for emergency use.
For more information or to book your trip to South Africa, pop African Travel Guide a message via our contact us page, and we will gladly assist you.
Please Note: The details shared herein were correct at the time of publishing. However, with time some of this information may change. We recommend confirming information with suppliers prior to making final travel arrangements. If you do happen to find an issue with any information we’ve shared here, please feel free to contact us so that we can make the relevant changes.