Millions of ungulates roam the grasslands of the Serengeti and the Maasai Mara in a neverending migration. Monster crocodiles cruise the channels of the Okovango Delta, where the lifegiving waters draw some of the highest densities of wildlife on the continent. Majestic lions roam the desert, ghostly dunes rise towards the skyon the Skeleton Coast, and whale sharks glide through the warm waters of the Indian Ocean. The list goes on, and on. Africa has an incredible variety of beautiful, wonderful and wild experiences to offer you.
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I am a lucky man... not because I went hiking in the Drakensberg with three girls, not because I am unharmed despite poor planning, and not because I managed to get my girlfriend's father's sporty Audi all the way to Injesuthi camp and back without breaking the undercarriage. No; I am a lucky man because the Drakensberg is such a breath-taking part of the country, that despite leading my girlfriend and two friends on the worst organised hike I have ever been involved in (also the first one I led, hmmm), all members involved are still happy to be my friends! Allow me to tell, nay warn, you about my 'how not to hike' experience.
I've been on a number of overnight hikes before, and thought I understood the process fairly well. Little did I know just how many vital decisions are made before you put a thing in your backpack... My first mistake was trying to cater for too many options. Half the party wanted two nights, and the other half wanted three, so I thought we'd carry three nights of food and see how we felt on day two. The group wanted to head for the escarpment, but this is hard to do in two days (from Injesuthi) so we picked a route which looked like a hard hike but allowed us the option of turning back if we ended up not wanting to do the full three days.
Now at the time this sounded reasonable, but let's look closer. If you plan a two-night hike it's easy to justify carrying nicer food, and nicer means heavier. If you suddenly add a third day (in a party of four), it is easy to just add more food, instead of realising that you are now adding a significant amount of extra weight, and should actually replan the meals entirely. A route which allows the option of turning around sounds ok, but we chose to head to the foot of Ship's Prow pass, and to get there from Injesuthi is not only a difficult hike in its own right, but also means scrambling through a kilometre or two of very undefined path about 12km out of camp, after having climbed nearly 1000m already. This may sound fine when your legs are fresh, and when the ranger describes it as a bit of an adventure, but when you get there after 6 hours of hiking uphill it suddenly becomes less appealing, and much more of an adventure!
We did one thing right, which is that we were over-prepared for emergencies, so at no stage did we feel unsafe or in danger, but the effect of these innocent pre-hike choices meant that by the time we pitched our tents, more than 2,500m above sea level, we were so exhausted that we couldn't even appreciate the view. Straight into our sleeping bags after dinner, and we were all hoping that the next day would be better!
A common eland rests peacefully in the sun, showing just how graceful these creatures can be. They have extraordinary features and can sometimes look quite alien and magical with their strange long faces, large torsos, and protuberant humps and dewlaps. The eland is a very sacred animal for the San or Bushman people, and was an important food source for them. Many mythical figures in San religion take the form of an eland, and there are countless depictions of eland in San rock paintings.
Crested Guineafowl love forested areas and they often follow a troop of monkeys through a forest, feeding from the half-eaten fruit the monkeys drop from the trees. The Crested Guineafowls’ slick pompadour hairdos, weird red eyes, and clucking, neurotic movements are endearingly comical, while the mosaic of white spots on their dark chocolate feathers is so exquisite it boggles the eyes.
This chacma baboon displays the strong canine teeth that prompted early explorers to call baboons ‘dog-headed men’. These primates are amongst the largest of all the monkeys and are sometimes uncannily like humans. They have a very strong social bond and live in large troops, roosting at night in high trees or cliffs. A troop moves out to forage for food in the morning, and sentries posted high in the trees watch over them during the day. Their characteristic warning barks can often be heard echoing across valleys.
Looks like a horse, smells like a horse... but is it a horse? Despite the best intentions of the conservationist in me, my human nature cannot help but wonder whether you could ride a zebra.
Like the wolf vs. dog argument, logic suggests that an animal with sufficient wild instincts to take on a lion will have little regard for my pale, pudgy mounting attempts. However, the annals of history hold several successful examples of domestication.
The records do state categorically that despite their improved resistance to African diseases over a textbook horse, they are more unpredictable and tend to panic when stressed. The preferred stock is actually a zonkey (zebra-donkey hybrid).
For someone who spends a lot of time on the road, I have a surprisingly bad sense of direction. So when I popped into the Kruger on my way to Nelspruit from White River, I thought I'd avoid the roadworks on the N4 by taking the parallel road on the opposite side of the river (which, retrospectively, was obviously a narrow winding mountain pass so I really should have known I wasn't saving any time).
First, the Kruger. Turns out that you can't just pop in for an hour or two and 'stalk' game at 30km/h in a roaring little coupé, nor are you going to have a good time if you decide to turn off onto the dirt roads in said little coupé. That said, I was enormously impressed by how friendly the staff were, and how well maintained the roads were (I might have felt a bit nervous, but even the dirt roads were fine for my car). So, I got to see impala and have an wonderful scenic drive and a nice lunch. Perhaps a different strategy next time!
Now, onto my drive back... as it turns out, the road on the other side of the river winds through the Crocodile River Mountain Conservancy - on which I can find very little information online but from what I saw the area appears to be mixed use general conservation land - very bushy, a few tiny villages and farms, and one long gloriously twisty mountain road. This was without a doubt the prettiest mountain pass of my entire 4 week trip! As I hinted earlier, it's not a fast route to take, but if you are in the area and have the time, I'd highly recommend it.
I haven't been on a horse since before I grew chest hair, but still considered myself quite the cowboy... that is, until I stood next to a horse considerably bigger than (how I remembered) the ponies at the riding school I attended when I was 12. I had planned on having a macho photo for this blog, but believe me, the image of me using a stepping log to get on is far more accurate!
We looped through what used to be a baboon trail through the forest, onto a scenic plateau with a breathtaking view of the valley, and back to the paddock. I have no idea how long the ride took because I enjoyed the scenery too much, but later calculation pegs it at just over an hour, with more than enough variation to keep you entertained.
There are numerous horse trails around South Africa, but the Witzenberg Valley and its softly forested slopes is one of my favourite places to spend a day. Do look up Horse Abouts if you are near Tulbagh.
Typically, winter is said to be the best time for a safari, as the rains have yet to come, and the bush is sparse. This makes the game easier to spot, and photographers don’t go home with hundreds of beautiful images of African grasses, with defocussed lions in the background at F2.8
However, the late spring has a very special kind of magic. Yes, the rains have come and the bush is lush and intimidating... but scurrying around under all that brush you will find the next generation. Most of our game drops in early spring, and the harsh wildernesses of Africa turn into the cutest, cuddliest nurseries in the world.
Bear in mind, if you hope to come and see this event, that there are still vast legions of predators lurking about, and you should be prepared for the eventuality of seeing a new entrant to the bushveld make its exit.
If, instead of drifting towards the sciences as a child in search of a world that made sense, I had drifted towards the arts instead, then perhaps I would have the vocabulary I need to express the wonder of this scene. In its purest form, here we have life and death in the same frame of reference, intrinsically connected not just by the shared colours of the two proponents, but intertwined even more deeply in that the caterpillar will soon die to become a moth, but the moth will surely live due to the protection offered by the skull of the seal during its most fragile moments.
Instead, I find myself at a loss for words at the complexity of this scene – perhaps a simple smile might express it best.
A lone survivor of the recent otter invasion of our garden pond sits on his throne, cautiously observing the world. Soon enough, however, the insect-rich waters will rear another crop of tadpoles, and just as the night noises of the frog pond reach their crescendo, the otter will return and the cycle will repeat itself. The pond was there long before we built the house, and it is interesting to wonder for how long indeed has this cycle been going?
Bain's Kloof pass - 25km of tiny, twisty tarmac. The road is so narrow and twisty that even driving at 40km/h leaves you feeling like a racecar driver, making it quite the adventure... and like most passes in the area, it is stunningly pretty. Bain's Kloof, however, has another twist up its sleeve - its dual nature. From the Worcester side, you climb through classic Cape mountains (rocky, steep, with lots of shrubbery), until you suddenly pop over the top and look down onto typical pastoral winelands on the Wellington side.
Roads like these are a pretty good reason to consider renting a car if you spend a few days in Cape Town.
There is a reason why Route 62 features in so many blogs and photographs! Here I find myself rushing through the most beautiful cloudy landscape because I forgot to fill up in the previous town and am now freaking out about getting stranded on a Saturday with only half a pack of biltong in my car. It eventually started raining to make me feel less guilty about only stopping for a photo every 30km, but then the light became so soft that it became even harder to focus on fuel economy. Well, I eventually found fuel, but let me just advise you that not all petrol stations along Route 62 are open over weekends, so don't pass up an opportunity to fill up!
Proclaimed in 1937, Mountain Zebra National Park in the Eastern Cape is a photographer's delight. With grassy plains giving way to mountainous ridges, your photos usually have a stunning backdrop, and there is sufficient game as subjects. You might even spot one of the recently introduced lion or cheetah if you are very lucky.
With their blonde heads, blue eyes and perfect black eyeliner, Cape Gannets are one of the most striking birds on the planet. They are well known for the exuberant and tender way they greet their partners - opening their wings, tapping their beaks together, and vocalizing. The breeding range of these birds is restricted to only a few sites in Southern Africa, so their vibrant, cacophonous and foul-smelling breeding colonies are well protected by conservationists. They might look like avian versions of Nordic supermodels, but their guano was once far more prized than their good looks.
So we are still waiting for the rain. The frogs grow hoarse with their yelling, the river continues to dry, the dust continues to coat my supper when I try to eat outside. There are, however, a few residents of the lowveld where I live that don’t seem to give a flying fig whether the rain ever comes.
Over the last four weeks, the number of insects in the atmosphere has increased exponentially. Beetles, mantids and moths fill the night sky above any light source. If you happen to be reading a tome beneath the light, then you quickly become a crash site for the lowveld’s flying arthropod diversity. I have given up brushing them off – I now just pretend the crawling on my body is an exotic form of massage.
The most enthusiastic, of course, are the cicadas. Released of their year-long celibacy underground, they scream at the heat of the day with a ceaseless quest to attract females. From the catastrophic volume of the shrill outside my window, I can only assume that I am in the midst of the most unsuccessful cicada choir in history.
– James Hendry
I live my city lifestyle unashamedly. I have cellphone signal 24/7, and the petrol station cafe will provide most of what I could possibly run out of at 3 a.m. (usually chocolate - I'm not complicated). The list goes on, but the point is, my childhood days in a seaside village with no Eskom, no tv, and gas geysers, are long forgotten. It was with a shock then, that on our trip through the Eastern Cape, something awoke in me a nostalgia that I was totally unaware of. I say 'something', but I've pinpointed the culprit. On my various travels, I've experienced the spectrum of accommodation, from the bare essentials to every luxury, but it has been a while since I've stayed at a farm cottage. On our Eastern Cape trip, however, these were the venues that we favoured.
Farm cottages are invariably furnished with pieces that look like they have been passed down a generation or two, and the doors and windows tend to creak gently. Wooden floors, worn carpets, dusty tiles... the mere thought would give a Hilton hotel GM a heart attack. Yet, somehow, when you kick off your dirty boots and sit down at the massive wooden dining table for a cup of coffee, it all comes together to transport you into another world, and the message is clear. Switch off the devices - they won't have signal here anyway. Stop stressing about the bright lights - not even a helicopter could get you there fast enough to make a difference. Take off the suit and tie - it will just get dusty here. Relax. If you've ever been into the main homestead on a farm, you'll know that the best furniture is often reserved for the guests, and after a while you forget about the pristinely sterile city lodgings you're used to, and start to appreciate the volumes of character that these cottages exude. When this mental transition occurs, you are ready to appreciate the forgotten luxury of the bare essentials. You are now on holiday.