When you think South Africa, you think African safari and of the ‘Big 5’ animals most people come to see. Or, perhaps, of its famous coastline, patrolled by Great White Sharks. But South Africa has much more to offer than this, especially when it comes to outdoor adventure travel.

Highlights

  • Hike the Drakensberg Mountains, a dramatic mountain range outside of Durban
  • Camp along rugged coastlines, overlooking pristine estuaries
  • Kayak, bike and fish — all in one day
  • See birds and wildlife along intimate wilderness hiking trails
  • Go scuba diving and snorkeling along with tropical fish along wild coastlines
  • Visit the surfing meccas of Jeffreys’ Bay and St Francis Bay
  • Enjoy river tubing, bungee jumping and zip lining along the Garden Route
  • Get away from it all in the desert lands of the Northern Cape region
  • Go on a wilderness white-water rafting expedition in remote parts of the country

Overview

Map of South Africa highlights
Overview map of the highlights

Geographically, the country occupies a prime position on the African continent, with a coastline bathed by both the Indian and Atlantic oceans, terrain that changes from lush tropical to dry desert and rolling plains to high mountains, and a climate that varies across the country. There is something for everyone, year round.

Here are a few great places to explore for your next outdoor adventure, with a focus on off-the-beaten path experiences.

Durban

Drakensberg mountain
The soft yet rugged mountain landscape of Drakensberg National Park

Durban and its surroundings offer a tropical beach destination popular with South Africans, especially during local school holidays (check your travel dates and expect crowds!). Think holiday towns, golf resorts, hotels (of all standards), warm sea, good surf and hot weather.

Culturally, it’s a great mix of the locally predominant Zulu nation with a strong Indian component, the descendants of indentured labourers who came to work on the sugar farms in the past.

Outside of the city is where it gets really interesting — inland takes you through green and rolling countryside, right up to the majestic Drakensberg (Dragon Mountains), which form part of the escarpment that circles the country. Here you’ll find incredible hiking, whitewater kayaking in the summer months, farm stays, rural villages, bike trails and trout fishing.

Wild Coast Region

Wild Coast - South Africa
Wild Coast region, south of Durban

A few hours south of Durban will take you into the rural Wild Coast region – one of South Africa’s hidden gems. This area stretches down to East London: green hills, traditional villages, beautiful vistas and waterfalls and a stupendously beautiful coastline. Think nature reserves, slackpacking, 4x4 and cycling trails, tented camps overlooking pristine estuaries, local cattle herders, traditional accommodation, welcoming communities, viby backpackers and old fashioned family resorts. This region is also the birthplace of Nelson Mandela and where he is buried – the heartland of the Xhosa people.

North of Durban will take you to a more tropical region. There are number of reserves — both state run and private — and the birding and game viewing are excellent. Think wilderness walking trails (much more intimate than a game drive), excellent scuba diving, easy snorkelling with beautiful tropical fish, secluded campsites and wild, empty beaches.

Port Elizabeth

St Francis Bay South Africa
The famous surf spot of St. Francis Bay near Port Elizabeth

Not the most exciting city, Port Elizabeth is known as the venue for some important sporting events such as Iron Man and Lifesaving Champs. For the visitor, it’s a great entry point for various excellent game reserves as well as the surfing mecca of Jeffreys’ Bay and St. Francis Bay.

Warm water and a sub tropical climate make it a good bet for a winter visit, especially since this is when the surf is firing. It’s also a good start (or end) point for a Garden Route trip.

For surfers, Jeffrey’s Bay and St. Francis Bay are bucket list destinations (Kelly Slater owns a home here, after all). These towns are based around surfing, so you can immerse yourself in surf culture, shop at the various surf retail and outlet stores and possibly bump into your idol in the surf.

Garden Route

Garden Route
Drive along the Garden Route along the south east coast of South Africa

Head south of Port Elizabeth and you will hit the Garden Route, a string of beautiful seaside towns featuring pristine beaches, warm water, green forests and river estuaries. Think hiking trails, nature reserves, water sports and adventure pursuits, such as river tubing, bungee jumping, zip lining, horse riding, scuba diving and whale watching.

Cape Town

Aerial view of Cape Town
Cape town, a mecca for outdoor enthusiasts

Few places in South Africa tick off as many boxes as Cape Town when it comes to outdoor adventure. Part of what makes it so fascinating are the contrasts: rich and poor, hipsters and gangsters, diverse cultures, lifestyles ranging from hard poverty to incredible wealth — Cape Town pretty much has it all.

Northern Cape

Northern Cape, South Africa
Quiver trees dot the harsh but beautiful landscape of the Northern Cape region

Apart from the city’s own attractions, Cape Town is a great starting point for a slightly unusual South African itinerary, one that takes you off the tourist trail and into the wild and empty west coast and Northern Cape areas. Lacking any large cities, these regions have abundant wide open spaces and a harsh but beautiful semi-arid environment. The multitude of wilderness experiences will bring new meaning to the phrase ‘disconnect to reconnect’.

Distances are large and flying may be better than driving if you are short on time, but you won’t regret a visit to this part of the country. It has miles of empty beaches, amazing fishing, kiteboarding and windsurfing, nature reserves and game viewing, wilderness white-water rafting expeditions and a culture and people very different to the rest of the country.

Johannesburg

You can find culture, modern history and ancient history, in places such as the Apartheid Museum, Cradle of Humankind, and township tours. South Africa has a very unique recent history which, to a large extent, still affects everyday life in the country. It’s worth finding out a bit more about the dynamics, as this will deepen your understanding and appreciation of the experiences you have during your trip.

Getting around South Africa

South Africa has two main entry points for international visitors: Johannesburg in the Gauteng province, the economic powerhouse of the country, and Cape Town in the Western Cape Province, without a doubt, South Africa’s most beautiful city.

Johannesburg is a great launch pad for the northern and eastern parts of the country, where many of the game reserves are situated. It’s also a central hub to reach most of the rest of the country by air, road or train. Cape Town has fewer connections and, as the most southerly city, is further away from everything but you really can’t beat its beauty and variety of attractions. And, if you have the budget, there are direct flights to almost everywhere, including the Kruger National Park so you can go from snorkeling with penguins to Big 5 game viewing in a single day.

South Africa is very big country and, unless you are keen on a whistle stop tour, it’s worth doing some research and deciding what you’d like to experience and planning a trip accordingly. Using the major cities as reference points, here are some ideas.