South Africa

South Africa is the southernmost country on the mainland of the Old World, About 80% of the population are Black South Africans. The remainder consists of Africa's largest communities of European (White South Africans), Asian (Indian South Africans and Chinese South Africans), and multiracial (Coloured South Africans) ancestry. There are 11 official languages. Hence the nickname, 'The Rainbow Nation'.

A Very Short History of South Africa

Some of the oldest hominid fossils, in the world have been found in South Africa - its history of settlement dates back at least three million years. Bantu-speaking peoples were present by the fourth or fifth century BC. Portuguese sailors were the first Europeans to frequent the region, but the Dutch were the first colonists, establishing a port and supply base at the Cape of Good Hope in the 1600s. The Dutch colonists (known as the Boers) expanded their land holdings and introduced slavery, despite considerable resistance from the local population.

Then, after a tussle that lasted several years the British eventually captured this Cape Colony in 1806, and they too began to expand. Unsurprisingly, the Boers weren't happy, especially when the British abolished slavery. They moved north, in a mass migration called The Great Trek and established two new republics: Orange Free State, and Transvaal. This involved more bloodshed - they had to defeat the Zulus in battle to do so.

The British too were involved in battles against the Zulus, as they extended their boundaries. However, they were content to leave the Boers alone, until gold and diamonds were discovered in the later 1800s. At that point. Lesotho and Swaziland became protectorates and British settlers (Uitlanders, as the Boers called them) moved into the Transvaal Republic. Cecil Rhodes, South African prime minister, at the time, then engineered an uprising there - the Jameson Raid. It failed, and eventually triggered the Boer Wars between the British and the Dutch settlers. The war became ugly, the British (under Kitchener) resorted to concentration camps, and the Boers finally surrendered in 1902. In 1910 the Union of South Africa was born.

The Union of South Africa

Discrimination against the Black African peoples was rife from the start, with zoning laws prohibiting ownership of land in some areas and forbidding voting. In 1948, these laws were exacerbated by the introduction of apartheid. Resistance movements grew, were subdued and simmered. In 1961 South Africa became a republic and the uneasy situation continued. In 1978 P W Botha became prime minister, attempting to strengthen apartheid and imprisoning resistance leaders such as Nelson Mandela.

However, foreign disapproval was growing. Other countries were increasingly imposing economic sanctions on South Africa and inside the country resistance grew stronger. Botha was forced from office and replaced by Willem de Klerk, who in 1990 pledged to end apartheid. The first democratic elections were held in 1994, when Nelson Mandela was elected president. He retired in 1999.

Facts and Factoids

  • South Africa is the only country in the world to have hosted the Soccer, Cricket and Rugby World Cups.
  • South Africa is extremely rich in minerals and has nearly 90% of all the platinum metals on earth and around 41% of all the world’s gold
  • The South African Rovos Rail is considered the most luxurious train in the world.
  • South Africa shares its national anthem with Tanzania and Zimbabwe
  • South Africa is unique in having three capital cities: Pretoria (executive), Bloemfontein (judicial) and Cape Town (legislative). The largest city, however, is Johannesburg.

What to See in South Africa?

South Africa is renowned for its gorgeous scenery It is also a natural world hotspot, with unique biomes, plant and animal life. I've been three times, visiting:

Johannesburg (or not)

I'm on a jeep trip with an 'adventure tour company', travelling from Johannesburg to Kruger Park and then Mozambique. Flying into Johannesburg, the largest city in South Africa. In fact, it is one of the largest urban areas in the world - a megacity. Jo'burg is not one of the three capitals of South Africa, but it is known as The Gold City . It literally was founded on gold, discovered on the Witwatersrand in 1886. It has expanded to include neighbouring cities, such as Soweto, the black township famous for the riots during apartheid and the home of Desmond Tutu and Nelson Mandela.

Poverty is still rife and Johannesburg has a reputation for very high crime levels. The violence is rarely in the tourist areas, but we are still warned not to go into the city. Instead, we are put up in a cute little B & B on the outskirts. It is just up the road from Gold Reef City and the casino - the main entertainment on offer here. And I did get to see the city, a very time ago, when I visited and went down a gold mine. (It was a long drop).

The Panorama Route

From Jo'burg we pick up The Panorama Region - waterfalls, caves, forests, the Sabie River Gorge and the majestic Blyde River Canyon. It is up to 800 metres deep, carved out of nearly 26 (or 50 depending on who you believe) kilometres red sandstone and dolomite. It was formed over aeons of time, after the ancient super continent, Gondwanaland, split in two and Madagascar and Antarctica broke free from Africa some 200 million years ago. The weight of the surrounding shallow sea tilted it upwards to form the Drakensberg Mountains. The sediments were built up around them in what was then the sea.

Again, depending on which list you use it’s possibly the third largest canyon in the world. Whatever, it’s breath-taking. As usual various landmarks have been given names that are occasionally appropriate. One group of rounded peaks are aptly named The Three Rondavels or The Chief and His Three Wives. Close to the Rondavels on the Drakensberg escarpment is a viewpoint, 700 metres up. This one is called God's Window. Next up, the Bourke's Luck Potholes. These almost perfect circles look as if they have been punched out of the rock to serve as whirlpools.

There's also a 'Crazy Bungee Jump'. The sign says No Refunds.

Kruger National Park - Sabi Sands

Kruger National Park It’s August and the dry winter season, so the park is parched, brown and arid. I’ve been told it’s a good time to visit, as you can see the animals more easily. This region of Africa has some of the highest concentrations of wildlife on the continent, although it’s a huge park, with several large rivers. Kruger is bounded by the (great grey green greasy ) Limpopo River (to the north) and the Crocodile River. There are plenty of watery vistas to enjoy and to support the wildlife.

We start off camping by the Sabie (or Sand) River. I've already been on the Olifants River in Western Cape. This flows through the park. It eventually catches up with the Limpopo, to form a tributary and here we're camping by the scenic Letaba, which is also a tributary of the Olifants.

We bag four of the Big Five: lion, elephant (plenty of these), Cape buffalo and leopard. I’m very happy with this. I’ve seen rhino several times before but leopard is more elusive. There’s a bit of dispute as to whether it is indeed leopard hiding at some distance in the grass, but the markings on the photographs prove the case. There’s also cheetah (and a very cute cub, with a furry ruff), hippo and abundant plains antelopes, (nyala, bush buck, impala) small-spotted genet, giraffe, zebra, wildebeest and baboons. My favourite bird is the lilac breasted roller.

It’s not the best organised tour I’ve ever been on. Our park accommodation is basic, with a shared toilet block and showers (tiny mongooses skittering around) and there's also some camping involved (!) The tour leader, a Jo’burg man is a little gung ho. But our driver is a nice guy and he’s good at spotting the wildlife.

Onwards to Mozambique. I’ve pleaded for a diversion via Swaziland, but Gung Ho is not going to let it happen.

(And read more about South Africa here.)

The Orange River

I've travelled from Zimbabwe to South Africa in a truck on one of the great classic overland routes: Victoria Falls to Cape Town, through Botswana and Namibia in a truck. There are 12 passengers. We have crossed the border from Namibia at the Orange River, singing Jonny Clegg’s’ Great Heart’ as we go. The river was named in honour of the Dutch ruling family, the House of Orange, by the Dutch explorer Robert Jacob Gordon. And here, we have a canoeing expedition. The others get kitted up and splash frenetically. I plead a bad back and am excused active duty. I am paddled along serenely, like the Queen of Sheba. The sunsets here are as blood red as the Namibian dunes.

Olifants River Valley

So, here I am finally back in South Africa, after a brief trip to Johannesburg and Pretoria, the first time I visited Zimbabwe. My next night is spent at Olifants River Valley, after a long day on the road, in the mountains of Western Cape. The Olifant (elephant) is a tributary of the (great, grey, green greasy) Limpopo River. It's gentle and green and very relaxing. This is where all those oranges and lemons come from. And of course, one area is named Citrusdal. There're also honey, rooibos tea and wineries.

Cape Town, South Africa

Wonderful Cape Town, tourist mecca, one of the three capital cities of South Africa. This is the seat of the Parliament of South Africa, the legislative capital of the country, the oldest city in the country, and the second largest (after Johannesburg). It's known as the Mother City.

Glorious weather, fantastic restaurants and bars, (ostrich,  thick tenderloin steaks, sea food and so on) very cheap, laid back, amazing beaches, mountains, vineyards; it’s one of the great cosmopolitan cities. The must see is the iconic giant mesa that is Table Mountain, although you can’t really miss it, as it provides the backdrop, protecting the Mother City. It's one of the oldest mountains in the world. Strangely, photos don’t do it justice.

Before the truckies depart, we take the cable cars to the mountain’s flat top, for 360 degree views of the city, the numerous gorgeous beaches, the busy harbour and Robben Island, the infamous prison that once held Nelson Mandela. There's a Lion's Head formation, to one side and then, to the other, the range of ravines, peaks and gorges that is dubbed the Twelve Apostles. (There are, arguably,18 peaks). These create the stunning backdrop to the city. There is an option to abseil down, but I think not. Instead, we take the spectacular road through the mountains from Chapman's Peak to Hout Bay.

Cape Peninsula

As if the magic city itself isn’t enough, the Cape Peninsula offers a host of attractions. Past the brightly painted facades bathing boxes of Fish Hoek, south to the Cape of Good Hope, which sadly, is not the southernmost tip of Africa after all. Antelope are grazing peacefully on the slopes here. Rock hyrax scamper away. The black and white  Boulders Beach, on closer inspection is white sand, jam-packed with penguins waddling and turning somersaults in the water.

Rugged terrain takes us on to Cape Point. but that's not the African extremity either. That honour belongs to Cape Agulhas, approximately 93 miles east-southeast.

The truckies leave, but I’m not yet alone. I have a great little hotel on the beach at Bantry Bay and a hire car. I eat kingfish and chips by the waterfront (lots of upmarket hotels, boats, of course and other tourist attractions), along with the seals and a Pretorian called Johannes. And I still have other companions lined up. A South African friend has put me in touch with Ann Gail and Chris.

Ann Gail has a delightfully  old fashioned town house and three cats, Sebastian, Sobranie and Tai-Lu, each with their own feeding bowl and scratching post. She takes me to Christmas lunch at the iconic pink Mount Nelson Hotel, nestling at the bottom of Table Mountain. Then, Newlands (the cricket grounds), concerts, theatre, the IMAX (suitably, the Lion King) and a New Year’s Eve concert in the Kirstenbosch Gardens. I wind a few South Africans up talking about rugby, but duck if they mention cricket.

Hermanus, Western Cape

Chris, originally South African and visiting his family for Christmas provides holiday romance. We spend two weeks around the city sampling its Afro-chic delights and its numerous beautiful beaches, Bikini , Camps Bay, Fourth, Clifton, Llandudno, Melkbosstrand, Mnandi and Muizenberg, before driving out for a few days at at Hermanus. This is the African whale-watching location and whale themes abound through to museums and huge skeletons. It’s not whale season, but I am lucky enough to catch a mother and calf motor past. The sea is stunningly azure, and inviting, but it's deceptive, the Atlantic currents are numbingly cold,

Romance number one fairly predictably bites the dust, as it transpires that Chris has been entertaining ‘an old friend from England’ in-between seeing me, and forgetting to tell me about her. ‘But it was a prior engagement , of course I felt obliged to sleep with her’.

Around Cape Town

To the east, it’s an easy journey to the picturesque Winelands destinations, such as Stellenbosch, Paarl and Franschoek. Stellenbosch and Paarl are the two oldest large settlements in South Africa after Cape Town. Picture perfect Cape Dutch architecture: green shuttered colonial mansions, whitewashed houses, tiny turrets and cottage gardens. Huge agapanthus flowers contrasting wonderfully. Plenty of boutiques and cafes too.

Ann Gail works in Paarl and provides a tour of the very modern and efficient, steel drummed wine estate. And Franschoek, which was settled by French Huguenot refugees who of course brought their French experience in viticulture. Franschoek is Dutch for 'French Corner'.

Some of the estates provide gorgeous up market accommodation and restaurants. They abound at Franschoek, where I spend one expensive, but very pampered night.

Am I Mad to Travel Alone in South Africa?

I’m aware I’m beginning to sound like a travel advert - it’s all so gorgeous (except for the romance), but the townships sprawling each side of the main highway are a sobering counterpoint. I’ve been warned to watch out for objects being thrown from the bridges. In fact I’ve been told by numerous people that I’m mad to even contemplate travelling round South Africa on my own.

South Africa is the third-largest economy in Africa and the most industrialized, technologically advanced economy in Africa overall. Since the end of apartheid, government accountability and quality of life have substantially improved. The country is rich in minerals. But poverty and inequality remain widespread, with about a quarter of the population unemployed and living on an inadequate wage. Crime rates and especially, violent crime are high. There have been countless media stories in the UK about tourists here being attacked and robbed, or worse.

I've been driving around in a hire car, with no problems so far, except the very steep hills and a very small engine. And now I'm departing gorgeous Cape Town for Lesotho.


My journey back to South Africa from Lesotho is far too eventful. The starter batteries on the much-too-little-prop-plane are refusing to comply. The pilot eventually announces that he will start the left one manually. This all sounds much too alarming to me, but we make it to Jo’ burg, though very late. There is a stroke inducing transfer to my next plane and I get bundled into business class (not all bad) and arrive in Durban to find that whilst I’ve made it on time my luggage hasn’t.

So, another late start in a hired VW. Maybe I am mad, driving in South Africa, on my own. It’s raining (again), and I’m fumbling with the map, along the Durban Highway and into the mountain wilderness of Zululand. Twelve kilometres down a dirt road hill composed almost entirely of one foot deep mud. Over a rumble strip and the radio jolts. It’s dead. And the right windscreen wiper is stuck in the middle of screen. Why the right one? Dusk fades into dark, and the cell phone signal disappears too. There is nothing moving in the African bush. Am I glad or not? Finally, slithering downhill to discover my isolated lodge. Survive! Luggage arrives. All’s well.

A thirty five year old American bond broker, pleasant face, six two (not bad then), girlfriend (um), Brian shares wine and jokes. Would I like to tour the battle fields with him tomorrow? It’ll save me driving.


Close by is Isandlwana, where the British were heavily defeated by the Zulus in 1879. The site is marked by white cairns and a church. Six miles away from there is Rorke's Drift. Here, Lieutenants John Chard (of the Royal Engineers) and Gonville Bromhead, (24th Regiment of Foot) successfully defended their station of just over 150 troops against an 24 hour attack by 3-4,000 Zulu warriors. The Zulus had broken off from their main force at the day-long Battle of Isandlwana. A host of decorations, including eleven Victoria Crosses, were awarded to the defenders.

Rorke's Drift is really interesting, with its distinctive rocky outcrop and monuments. It’s even more entertaining trying to imagine Stanley and Michael re-enacting their scenes from the epic film Zulu, which re-tells the tale. How accurately the detail is I'm not sure, though the main story is certainly true. The Zulus don't get much dialogue, even though the film bears their name.

There's a memorial at Ulundi. This is where the British inflicted the final defeat on the Zulu nation. Close by, at Ondini, is a reconstruction of the Zulu Royal kraal., built in traditional manner. The last one was burnt to the ground by the British

The Age of Romance is Not Dead

Over picnic lunch and in the car, my chauffeur reveals his philosophies and dating etiquette. He is not in love with his girlfriend. Well he's not sure. They now live apart. She comes from Essex but is called Antonia, not Tracey. Dating in England is so much more complex than the States. In the UK girls put out quickly, you shag someone and then decide if you like them. In the States you have sex on the fifth date. If you're lucky the third. You might compromise on the fourth, but definitely the fifth. After that you're going steady. However, girls who have sex on a first date are sluts.

Back at the Lodge we drink champagne and giggle in the garden. Dinner is even louder.

“You're welcome to crash in my room tonight” Brian offers magnanimously. I decline (graciously of course).

“I don't do one night stands.”

He escorts me to my room. A slightly undignified fumble while I reinforce my answer. He leaves muttering:

“Well a guy has to try doesn't he? “

“A case of too much information.”

As I’m drifting off my cell phone beeps.


The Age of Romance is not dead.

Brian departs, and I spend a lazy day by the pool, (temporarily the only guest) and walking, escorted by three dogs and a pig. in between our slow ambles  they manage to stampede a herd of  cattle, and chase a troupe of monkeys.

Hluhluwe-Imfolozi Park

And then  there’s Hluhluwe-Imfolozi Park too. This is the oldest nature reserve in South Africa. It's supposedly home to Africa's Big Five, but all of those, except the buffalo, are elusive. Nevertheless, it's spring, so the park is full of lovely babies - impala, warthogs, kudu and wobbly giraffes blinking in the grass.


Through velvety hills to Uhmlanga, north of Durban. I'd hoped for some beach time,  but I haven't chosen my spot very well. The beach is disappointingly dirty and the roads are full of hitchhikers wandering all over the inside lanes. My bed and breakfast establishment is decidedly seedy. The fridge smells and I can't work out how to turn the TV off. So I turn the sound right down and put a towel over it.

Garden Route, South Africa

My epic South African journey ends with another iconic African destination. The Garden Route proper is a glorious 190-mile stretch of coastline running from the small town of Mossel Bay (Mussel Bay) to the mouth of the Storms River. It’s called the Garden Route because of the lush coastal forests which line the wide sandy beaches. I'm doing what most folk do and travelling the longer distance from Port Elizabeth to Cape Town, though most people do it the other way round.

My car and  I meander along. More stunning scenery from the thatched cottages of St Francis Bay, to Jeffries Bay with its Disneyesque bridge, to the tourist mecca that is Plettenberg Bay, the oyster bars and beaches of Knysna, to the Tsitsikamma National Park and the adjacent, aptly named town of Wilderness, with its own park.

At Tsitsikamma I wander the beautiful Otter Trail. along the edge of the wild seashore, past the Storm River and a terrifying suspension bridge. There are waterfalls and a diminutive cave turned into a shrine. – Tsitsikamma (pronounced ‘Titzee-car-mah’) is rumoured to still have rare forest elephants walking among the huge old trees.

I’m writing this overlooking the most amazing huge sandy beach, at Sedgefield. Here, there's the Kingfisher Trail to tackle. I had calamari and crayfish by candlelight on the beach last night.

I'm going to catch the 20 million year old Cango Caves, with their stalactite formations, on my way back to Cape Town. Admire the ostrich farms. Then, it's time to go home.

(And read more about South Africa here.)

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