South Africa’s diverse landscape of mountains, forests, rugged coast and sandy beaches, as well as kilometres of veld and game-trampled national parks, make the country supreme outdoor terrain. This fact hasn’t been overlooked by South Africans themselves, who have been playing outdoors for decades. The result is a well-developed infrastructure for activities, an impressive national network of hiking trails and plenty of commercial operators selling adventure sports.
South Africa has an incredibly comprehensive system of footpaths (inspired by the US Appalachian Hiking Trail). Wherever you are – even in the middle of Johannesburg – you won’t be far from some sort of trail. The best ones are in wilderness areas, where you’ll find waymarked paths, from half-hour strolls to major hiking expeditions of several days that take you right into the heart of some of the most beautiful parts of the country.
Overnight trails are normally well laid out, with painted route markers, and campsites or huts along the way. Numbers are limited on most, and many trails are so popular that you may need to book months (up to eleven months in some cases) in advance to use them (details are given in the Guide).
There are also guided wilderness trails, where you walk in game country accompanied by an armed guide. These walks should be regarded as a way to get a feel for the wild rather than actually see any wildlife, as you’ll encounter far fewer animals on foot than from a vehicle. Specialist trails include mountain biking, canoeing and horseback trails. A handful of trails have also been set up specifically for people with disabilities, mostly for the visually impaired or people confined to wheelchairs.
South Africa has some of the world’s finest surfing breaks. The country’s perfect wave at Jeffrey’s Bay was immortalized on celluloid in the 1960s cult movie Endless Summer, but any surfer will tell you that there are equally good, if not better, breaks all the way along the coast from Namibia to Mozambique.
Surfers can be a cliquey bunch, but the South African community is reputedly among the friendliest in the world and, provided you pay your dues, you should find yourself easily accepted. Some of the world’s top shapers work here, and you can pick up an excellent board at a fraction of the European or US price. Boogie-boarding and body-surfing make easy alternatives to the real thing, require less skill and dedication and are great fun. Windsurfing (or sailboarding) is another popular sport you’ll find at many resorts, where you can rent gear.
On inland waterways, South African holidaymakers are keen speedboaters, an activity that goes hand in hand with waterskiing. Kayaking and canoeing are also very popular, and you can often rent craft at resorts or national parks that lie along rivers. For the more adventurous, there’s whitewater rafting, with some decent trips along the Tugela River in KwaZulu-Natal and on the Orange River.
Diving and snorkelling
Scuba diving is popular, and South Africa is one of the cheapest places in the world to get an internationally recognized open-water certificate. Courses start at around R3300 (including gear) and are available at all the coastal cities as well as a number of other resorts. The most rewarding diving is along the St Lucia Marine Reserve on the northern KwaZulu-Natal coast, which hosts 100,000 dives every year for its coral reefs and fluorescent fish.
You won’t find corals and bright colours along the Cape coast, but the huge number of sunken vessels makes wreck-diving popular, and you can encounter the swaying rhythms of giant kelp forests. There are a couple of places along the southern Cape and Garden Route where you can go on shark-cage dives and come face to face with deadly great whites.
KwaZulu-Natal is also good for snorkelling and there are some underwater trails elsewhere in the country, most notable of which is in the Tsitsikamma National Park.
Fishing is another well-developed South African activity and the coasts yield 250 species caught through rock, bay or surf angling. Inland you’ll find plenty of rivers and dams stocked with freshwater fish, while trout fishing is extremely well established in Mpumalanga, the northern sections of the Eastern Cape and the KwaZulu-Natal Midlands.
There are ample opportunities for aerial activities. In the Winelands you can go ballooning, while paragliding offers a thrilling way to see Cape Town, by diving off Lion’s Head and riding the thermals. More down-to-earth options include mountaineering and rock climbing, both of which have a huge following in South Africa. In a similar vein is kloofing (or canyoning), in which participants trace the course of a deep ravine by climbing, scrambling, jumping, abseiling or using any other means.
If you can’t choose between being airborne and being earthbound, you can always bounce between the two by bungee jumping off the Gouritz River Bridge near Mossel Bay – the world’s highest commercial jump.
Horseriding is a sport you’ll find at virtually every resort, whether inland or along the coast, for trips of two hours or two days. Take your own hat, as not everyone provides them. Birdwatching is another activity you can do almost anywhere, either casually on your own, or as part of a guided trip with one of the several experts operating in South Africa. Among the very best birdwatching spots are Mkhuze and Ndumo game reserves in KwaZulu-Natal.
Golf lovers will have a fabulous time in South Africa as courses are prolific and frequently in stunningly beautiful locations. Finally, if you decide to go skiing at one or two resorts in the Eastern and Western Cape, you’ll be able to go home with a quirky experience of Africa.