Time Out Sydney

Your South African adventure starts here...

Bathe in a waterfall. Live in a treehouse. Experience sunrise over the Kalahari. See lions, leopards, giraffes and rhinos in the wild.

These are just some of the ‘bucket-list’ experiences that can become a reality on a trip to South Africa. This country of extremes balances adventure with gourmet luxury; wilderness with vibrant city life. Time Out’s up-to-the-minute guide focuses on the top 25 local experiences and covers all the major regions, from Cape Town and Johannesburg to the awe-inspiring Kruger National Park.

If you’ve ever dreamed of biking through Soweto, retracing the steps of Nelson Mandela, or riding an elephant – or an ostrich! – then read on to learn how you can tick these experiences off your list...

Raft down a wild river
The mighty Orange River is most definitely the place to go rafting. It’s a popular trip for families and is not too strenuous; there are also trained guides on hand at all times. Camping under the stars and exploring the pristine surrounds adds to the unforgettable experience. Gravity Adventures. +27 21 683 3698. $385 per person for 4 days/5 nights. Discounts for family groups and children 12 and under.

Enjoy amazing South African wines
Indulge in the fruits of South Africa’s oldest vines in the Constantia Valley. The ten wine farms in this area boast the whole range. 
Constantia Valley, Cape TownConstantia Valley, Cape Town. www.constantiavalley.com.

Sleep underneath the stars
The wide-open, rock-hewn Cederberg is a must for hikers and camping enthusiasts. It boasts 710 sq km of mountainous area, sandstone formations, rock pools and rivers. The night sky is a spectacular sight, and it’s a great place to take star-trail photos too. Cederberg Conservancy, Western Cape. $6 payable to CapeNature, www.capenature.co.za.

Go whale-watching
The seaside town of Hermanus, about 1.5 hours outside Cape Town, comes alive from June to October every year… with whales. Southern Right, Humpback and Bryde’s whales come to the protected bays to calve. If you want to get even closer, many companies offer boat rides too. Hermanus, Overberg, Western Cape. Sep 20-24 2013.

Volunteer with endangered species
There’s no better way to get under the skin of a country than to volunteer: whether it’s an elephant rehab, lion-breeding centre or get stuck into penguin rescue. All Africa Volunteers, countrywide. +27 42 296 2563.

Ride a zip line in the forest
See the gem of the Garden Route, the Tsitsikamma National Park, from the best angle: up above. Zip from canopy platforms up to 30m above the ground. Birdlife is plentiful, and there are loads of vervet monkeys. Stormsriver Adventures, Stormsriver, Garden Route . +27 42 2811 836. $47 per person.

Go paragliding
Gliding on thermals in a paraglider with the birds next to you is an unforgettable experience. Even more so when the view down below is of the dramatic wilderness coastline on the Garden Route, with its bright blue waters, pristine white beaches and forested dunes. Cloudbase Paragliding, Wilderness, Garden Route. +27 44 877 1414. Rates from $57 for a tandem flight.

Bathe in a waterfall
While you may not want to stand underneath the world’s second highest waterfall, the Tugela Falls in the Drakensberg, luckily these peaks and valleys offer tamer waterfalls too, perfect for cooling off after a hot hike. Ukhahlamba Drakensberg Park, KwaZulu-Natal. +27 33 845 1002. $3 per person, day visitor.

Go sand boarding
Head to the Atlantis Reserve dunes with its perfect view of Table Mountain in the distance, and prepare to get stuck into those dunes. Guides will give you tips on techniques and you’ll get to ride the dunes in top-notch equipment too. Downhill Adventures, Cape Town. +27 21 422 0388. $78 per person, minimum of 4 people, full day. Tours leave from central Cape Town.

Go on safari in a hot air balloon
Glide over the Cradle of Humankind in a bright hot-air balloon. This is real once-in-a-lifetime stuff, and you’ll see the Hartbeespoort Dam and majestic Magaliesberg from your bird’s-eye view. Bill Harrop’s “Original” Balloon Safaris, Skeerpoort, North West. +27 11 705 3201. $262 per person for 60-minute flight. Discounts for groups.

Stay in a tree house
There are tree houses and then there are tree houses. Jaci’s Tree Lodge in the Madikwe Game Reserve, 3.5 hours’ drive northwest of Johannesburg, is most definitely the latter. Eight tree-house rooms form part of a forested canopy that overlooks the Marico River in the game reserve. Jaci’s Lodges, Madikwe Game Reserve, North West. +27 83 700 2071, +27 83 447 7929. From $309 per person sharing per night.

Eat at award-winning restaurants
When you’re hot, you’re hot: and chef Luke Dale-Roberts is searingly so. This British chef took the Cape Town dining scene by storm when he opened his own restaurant, the Test Kitchen, at the end of 2010. Technical expertise, playful flavours, seasonal produce and a good dash of Asian inspiration make his tasting menus a gourmet extravaganza. The Test Kitchen, The Old Biscuit Mill, 375 Albert Rd, Woodstock, Cape Town. +27 21 447 2337.

Ride an ostrich
Giddy-up – on an ostrich?! These large, flightless birds may not be the smartest, but they are super-cute (and drag queens would kill for those lashes!). You can try and ride one of these feisty birds and you’ll also be able to feed ostriches and see chicks during hatching season. Cango Ostrich Show Farm, 14km outside Oudtshoorn, Klein Karoo, Western Cape. +27 44 272 4623.

Ride a luxury train
A true icon of South African travel, the Blue Train makes travelling between Cape Town and Pretoria a spectacular affair. With a dedicated butler your every whim is catered for. The Blue Train. +27 12 334 8459, +27 12 334 8460, +27 21 449 2672. From $1,304 per person sharing (low season); from $1,616 per person sharing (high season).

Visit Robben Island
Nelson Mandela was incarcerated for 27 years, 18 of which he spent on Robben Island, a desolate speck just off the coast of Cape Town. Get there by ferry and spend a couple of hours learning about the prison and its history from ex-inmates. Seeing Mandela’s cell is a sobering experience. Robben Island Museum. Ticket Sales at Nelson Mandela Gateway, V&A Waterfront, Cape Town. +27 21 409 5100. $24 per adult.

Walk along a sandy white beach
In South Africa, you have your pick of stunning beaches to stroll on. But perhaps the one with the best view is Blouberg Beach, with its postcard view of Table Bay and Table Mountain in the distance. And after working up a thirst on your walk, there are great spots nearby to grab a cold one. Blouberg Beach, Cape Town.

Experience a sunrise in the Kalahari Desert
Tswalu Kalahari covers an area of over 100,000 ha and is South Africa’s largest private game reserve. Seeing the sun rise over this arid landscape makes you feel truly alone in a great, big world. Game can be seen on horseback and include gemsbok and red hartebeest, cheetah and lion. Tswalu Kalahari, Northern Cape. +27 53 781 9331. From $927 per person sharing per night.

Have dinner beneath the stars
In the heart of the Cederberg Conservancy lies ultra-luxurious Bushmans Kloof. This rock-hewn wilderness comes alive at night with a brilliant stellar display. At the open-air Embers restaurant, perched on a cliff and built into a sandstone amphitheatre, you’ll dine on traditional South African grills. Bushmans Kloof Wilderness Reserve and Wellness Retreat, Cederberg, Western Cape. +27 (0) 21 437 9278. From $219 per person sharing per night (low season); from $334 per person sharing per night (high season).

Ride an elephant
There’s no better way to view game than from the top of an elephant. Orphaned offspring are rehomed and act as transportation. It’s an unforgettable experience not only riding these beautiful beasts across the land, but seeing wild animals such as rhinos, giraffes, antelopes and zebras right up close. Pilanesberg Elephant Back Safaris, Pilanesberg, North West. +27 14 552 5020. $141 per person.

Dive with sharks
Near the southern tip of Africa lies the unassuming fishing and holiday villages of Gansbaai and Kleinbaai. But in the waters lurk an apex predator. Shark-cage diving involves you being lowered into the icy waters (wetsuit included) in a metal cage suspended from the boat while great whites come to take a peek at you. Marine Dynamics Shark Tours, Kleinbaai, Overberg, Western Cape. +27 799 309 694. $146 per adult.

Cycle through Soweto
Soweto in Johannesburg is not only home to thousands of South Africans but was also the hub of political opposition to Apartheid. Hopping on a bike is an eco-friendly way to see important sites, such as Nelson Mandela’s former home and the Hector Pieterson Memorial. Soweto Bicycle Tours, Soweto, Johannesburg. +27 11 936 3444. $41 for a 2-hour tour.

Swim with dolphins
The tropical, warm waters of northern KwaZulu-Natal are host to an astounding array of marine life. At the luxurious Thonga Beach Lodge, snorkeling and scuba diving are the perfect ways to experience these benign animals up close. Swim with whale sharks, manta rays, giant turtles and, of course, dolphins. Thonga Beach Lodge, Mabibi, Mbazwane. +27 35 474 1473. From $288 per person sharing.

Go on safari and see the Big Five
The Kruger National Park is the place to go. Whether you want to rough it or luxe it, the choice is yours. Most camps offer game drives, but self-driving is the norm. Expect to spot the big five (lion, leopard, elephant, buffalo and rhino) as well as a vast amount of birds. Kruger National Park. +27 12 428 9111. Daily conservation fee: international visitors $21 per day (adult), $11 per day (child).

Drive the Garden Route
Meandering past spectacular beaches and gorges, through canopies of indigenous forest and beneath cliffs covered in greenery is what driving on the Garden Route is all about. The most scenic stretches are from Mossel Bay through to Plettenberg Bay and the Tsitsikamma. N2, from Mossel Bay to Plettenberg Bay, Western Cape.

Go Kloofing
Canyoning, or ‘kloofing’ as it’s called in South Africa, is the adrenaline-inducing combination of climbing, abseiling, jumping, swimming, rock-hopping and crawling your way down a canyon, following the course of a river, and it’s also loads of fun. Outside Adventures, outside Magaliesburg, North West. +27 83 264 3778. From $68 per person, full day.


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Updated on 23 Jul 2014.

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