While you could circuit South Africa in a matter of weeks, a more satisfying approach is to focus on one section of the country. Each of the nine provinces has compelling reasons to visit, although, depending on the time of year and your interests, you’d be wise to concentrate on either the west or the east.
The west, best visited in the warmer months (Nov–April), has the outstanding attraction of Cape Town, worth experiencing for its matchless setting beneath Table Mountain. Half a day’s drive from here can take you to any other destination in the Western Cape, a province that owes its distinctive character to the longest-established colonial heritage in the country. You’ll find gabled Cape Dutch architecture, historic towns and vineyard-covered mountains in the Winelands; forested coast along the Garden Route; and a dry interior punctuated by Afrikaner dorps (towns) in the Little Karoo.
If the west sounds too pretty and you’re after a more “African” experience, head for the eastern flank of the country, best visited in the cooler months (May–Oct). Johannesburg is likely to be your point of entry to this area: its frenetic street life, soaring office blocks and lively mix of people make it quite unlike anywhere else in the country. Half a day away by car lie Limpopo and Mpumalanga provinces, which share the mighty Kruger National Park. Of South Africa’s roughly two dozen major parks, Kruger is unrivalled on the continent for its cross section of mammal species.
A visit to Kruger combines perfectly with KwaZulu-Natal to the south, itself offering superb game and birdlife; Hluhluwe-Imfolozi Park is the best place in the world to see endangered rhinos, and there are several other outstanding small game reserves nearby, such as Ithala, Mkhuze and Ndumo. For hiking and nature, the high point of the province – literally – is the soaring Drakensberg, half a day’s drive from Durban. After Cape Town, Durban remains the only city in South Africa worth visiting in its own right: a busy cultural melting pot with a bustling Indian district and lively beachfront. The long stretch of beaches north and south of Durban is the most developed in the country, but north towards the Mozambique border lies South Africa’s wildest stretch of coast. Across the mountain kingdom of Lesotho from KwaZulu-Natal lies the staunchly Afrikaner heartland of Free State.
Long sandy beaches, developed only in pockets, are characteristic of much of the 2798km of shoreline that curves from the cool Atlantic along the Northern Cape round to the subtropical Indian Ocean that foams onto KwaZulu-Natal’s shores. Much of the Eastern Cape coast is hugely appealing: for strolling, sunbathing or simply taking in backdrops of mountains and hulking sand dunes. Scuba diving, especially in KwaZulu-Natal, opens up a world of coral reefs rich with colourful fish, and, south of the Western Cape winelands, along the Whale Coast, is one of South Africa’s major wildlife attractions – some of the best shore-based whale-watching in the world.
With time in hand, you might want to drive through the sparse but exhilarating interior, with its open horizons, switchback mountain passes, rocks, scrubby vegetation and isolated dorps. The Northern Cape and North West Province can reveal surprises, such as the Martian landscapes of the Richtersveld and the lion country of the remote but thrilling Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park.