The best hidden gems, province by province
The best hidden gems in every South African province
The best hidden gems in every South African province
The Rainbow Nation, they call it.
South Africa is a country which prides itself on its diversity, and that 100% includes its travel experiences.
From vibrant neighbourhoods overflowing with energy and vibes, to stunning natural landscapes and the wildlife that call them home, South Africa is a kaleidoscope of colour, adventure and culture.
Like a movie you haven’t seen before, expect twists and turns and adventure gems in every corner of this country.
This is our lowdown of the unheralded and lesser-known, but still epic experiences, spanning all nine provinces.
PROVINCE North West
Safari from the skies
Okay, so going on any safari is incredible, life changing, bucket-list stuff. But going on safari from a hot air balloon? ABSOLUTELY WILD TIMES. Just imagine floating above a pride of lions as they take down a gazelle, or watching giraffes saunter across the plains under an African sunset.
Pilansberg National Park is all about crafting these super tranquil safari experiences. Not that we need any more convincing but they’ll even throw in a glass of bubbles, which never hurts. If animals are cool but you’re more of a geology nerd, this birds-eye view is a unique opportunity to see a dramatic volcanic landscape from above. Pretend you’re a vulture or an osprey or a fish eagle.
PROVINCE Free State
Hike to heaven in the Golden Gate
It’s pretty hard to hide something that spans 340 square kilometres, but it seems Golden Gate Highlands National Park has managed to stay well and truly out of the spotlight.
Not to be confused with its more famous San Fransican namesake, South Africa's Golden Gate NP boasts sweeping landscapes and some of the most epic hiking in the country (a competitive field). Not to be missed is its Pride Rock-style sandstone cliff. It's giving Simba.
Other impressive hikes include the Cathedral Cave Walk which descends through several natural caves, including one filled with water. Then there’s the Wodehouse Peak Trail, a 10.5 kilometre loop taking in all the classic African game; zebras, elephants and the like. The cruisy three-hour drive from both Johannesburg and Bloemfontein is also a big plus.
Yebo around Soweto
South Africa informal an expression of affirmation
Word origin Zulu yebo yes, I agree
"Yebo" is important slang to know when in Soweto.
It’s a greeting, a confirmation, an invitation and a positive vibe all in one, and synonymous with Soweto—South Africa’s largest and most famous township—just out of Johannesburg. The great Nelson Mandela grew up around these parts on the famed Vilakazi Street—the only street in the world with two Nobel Peace Prize winners to its name (Desmond Tutu being the other).
Not everyone knows this but the see Soweto is by tuk-tuk or bike, starting at at Lebo’s Backpackers, which is hostel in name only. Lebo's is actually a four-star accommodation with friendly and knowledgable staff who will show you Mandela’s childhood home (bullet holes still visible), shebeens (pubs known for their role in the anti-apartheid movement), workers' hostels (ditto), churches and community centers that give a feel for the rhythm of the streets. Come ready to learn some of South Africa’s most important history.
PROVINCE Eastern Cape
Jeffrey’s Bay, or J-Bay, (or J-Baai if you’re a local, or J-Bae if the bay itself is your best friend) is in the upper, upper echelons of famed surf spots. Labelled the ‘fastest wave in the world', this is the wave that put Africa on the surfing map in the 60s.
From May to August the swells and offshore winds are best, but it’s hardly fickle – you could visit any time of year and still catch some waves. There are around five different breaks to catch at J-Bay, but Supertubes is the most famous and serious of these, and home to the World Surf League event since 1984.
South Africa boasts an array of epic spots on each coastline and cape, all reachable within a few weeks. But there’s no doubting which is the king.
PROVINCE Northern Cape
Visit the desert theatre
The exclamation mark at the beginning of !Xaus Lodge is part of the local ‡Khomani San language, but it may as well summarise travellers’ excitement at getting to a desertscap and seeing the epic night sky.
Situated in the !Ae!Hai Kalahari Heritage Park, this place one of very few ‘Dark Sky Sanctuaries’ in the world, as recognised by the International Dark Sky Association (yes that’s a real thing). The sky is spiritually and culturally significant to the ‡Khomani, one of the world’s oldest ‘First People’, whose culture is full of skylore: tales of the sun, moon, stars, and galaxies.
Let a guide tell you the stories of the sky, and then retreat back your stay—an eco lodge overlooking a gigantic salt pan, in the midst of the beautifully unforgiving Kalahari Desert.
Grab a beer in the mountains
Being at Zwakala, in the mountainous north-eastern town of Magoebaskloof, sort of feels like being at a really cool, relaxed house party which happens to have amazing beer on tap.
There’s a large, green lawn for you to stretch out on and enjoy the South African sun, often with bands playing. Obviously there’s a braai (BBQ), and beer pong and giant jenga—the whole place is a proper vibe.
In Zulu language Zwakala means ‘come closer’—which seems to summarise the setup. Zwakala is an award-winning micro-brewery, so you know the beers are on point; we recommend the Weekend Special – a white IPA named South African Beer of the Year.
PROVINCE Western Cape
Snorkel with a sea dog
Fur seals are rowdy creatures, especially when you find them in a hundred-strong gang just off the Cape’s west coast. You’ll probably smell the pod before you see them—they come with a strong scent of fish guts. Or you might hear them first—their hoarse barking is hard to miss. And while on land you might mistake their blubber for boulders, in the water they’re playful acrobats.
Don’t pass up on the warm wetsuit, these waters are chilly. And if you want to spend any amount of time watching the fur seals play beneath the waves, then you’ll want an extra layer of protection. What to expect: choppy waves (depending on the weather), beautiful kelp forests and the occasional dive bomb from a silly little pup.
PROVINCE KwaZulu Natal
Hippo and croc safari
Fancy a little adrenaline on your South African adventure? If you’re in KwaZulu-Natal, make sure to stop by St. Lucia where experienced teams can take you out onto the estuaries teeming with hippos and crocs.
While there might be bigger names elsewhere in terms of national parks, iSimangaliso Wetland Park - where the St Lucia estuary flows - is host to some 115 different mammal species. Take an incredible boat trip that cruises past the beautiful (albeit slightly terrifying) hippos and Nile crocodiles from a safe distance.
Choose your own Blyde adventure
At 26km long and an estimated 1km deep, the Blyde River Canyon rivals most around the world for vastness, but what you don't expect is how strikingly green the canyon is.
Dense layers of subtropical vegetation wrap the bulk of the precipitous cliffs, between which the Blyde River snakes its way through. You can hike most of the canyon here, and be sure to check out the crazy cylindrical slots known as Bourke’s Luck Potholes. But we reckon the best place to absorb this epic scene is smack bang in the middle of it all, in a damn boat. Meander downstream, take it easy, watch the crocs. Blyde means 'happy' in Afrikaans – we think we’d be happy here too.
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