Southern Africa abounds with some sensational landmarks: we are proud in South Africa to host no less than eight UNESCO World Heritage Sites, most of which we would be fairly sure you will never have heard of, and Botswana hosts two with Namibia hosting another two. We also play host to one of the New 7 Wonders of Nature (Table Mountain) and Zimbabwe hosts one of the Seven Natural Wonders (Victoria Falls).
Let’s start with the five most famous ones!
Table Mountain, or Hoerikwaggo to give it its proper name, is more than just a mountain: it’s a national park, a South African National Park (or SAN Park for short) that sits most unusually for a national park, in the middle of a city which is Cape Town. Capetonians are a lucky bunch. Less than five minutes from their front doors they can be on top of a mountain with a view of two oceans, beaches, forest and more mountain as well as the city spread out beneath them.
A cableway, itself a wonder, takes you to the top of the mountain but there is so much more to the mountain than simply being on the top. It’s very easy to visit Table Mountain: buses depart from the city centre regularly and there is sufficient parking at the Lower Cable Station if you want to self-drive. We strongly recommend a guide if you intend hiking to the top though.
Victoria Falls is not, as many people think, in South Africa. It’s on the border between Zimbabwe and Zambia, right to the north of Zimbabwe. The Zambezi river flows into a collection of six deep gorges at the town of Victoria Falls (on the Zimbabwean side) and Livingstone (on the Zambian side). Whilst it’s not the highest or widest waterfall in the world, most people would agree that it’s the most spectacular with a staggering 2000 cubic metres a second falling over the cliff edge in full flood (which is akin to an Olympic-sized swimming pool being emptied every second) crashing 100m into the ravine below.
Visiting the Falls is not a cheap or simple exercise as accommodation comes at a premium as do flights. However, it’s definitely worth the visit and it can easily be combined with visits to Botswana and Kruger Park.
The Okavango Delta in Botswana is not a marine but a river delta, in the middle of a desert, the Kalahari. The Okavango Delta is the marshland that the Okavango River floods every year to a greater or lesser degree. Rainfall can be as much as 500mm or as little as 100mm and in any case the Delta only floods for at most three months of the year, or less than a month in some years (the rest of the year being bone dry).
When the Delta floods, it obviously attracts a wealth of animals to its shores. Such a wealth that, in fact, the animal sightings here are amongst the most prolific on the whole continent during the flood season. They visit for the water itself of course but also for the food that is to be had because of the water: one can witness amazing hunting by the larger mammals by boat (makoros) and also simply by sitting unobserved in hides throughout the Delta.
We recommend visiting between March and June, as the Okavango River is filled by rainfall in Angola around January and February. Temperatures and humidity are much better in the flood season than the rest of year around 30C and 60% as opposed to 40C and 80% from October to February.
Cradle of Humankind (and Swartkrans and Sterkfontein Caves) are a collection of three UNESCO World Heritage Sites located very close to each other just west of Johannesburg in Gauteng province. They are both the location of - and the story tellers of - the origins of the modern human. Whilst the oldest human remains ever found were not found here but in Kenya, the largest number of hominin fossils ever found originate in this area, with some dating back as far as 3.5 million years. In fact, 40% of all hominin fossils ever found come from here. The first major find was in 1935 when Robert Broom with the help of schoolboy discovered the tooth of what was then thought to be a missing link. Since then, the cave systems in the area continued to be explored, right up to this day, making it the longest running archaeological expedition of all time. In all there are over 18 caves that have yielded incredible discoveries, the most recent of which was the discovery of homo naledi, which is still being studied but appears to be the skeleton of a now extinct offshoot from the homo line. The skull of homo naledi is the logo for Where It All Began, in case you’re interested!
You can explore the Cradle of Humankind from Johannesburg (it only take 90 minutes to drive there from the city). There is a vast variety of things to see and do in the area beyond the actual visitor centre including lots of sporting activities like fly fishing and hot air balloon flights and game viewing too. You can also actually enter and be guided around the Sterkfontein Cave itself which is a truly humbling experience.
Robben Island is of course the infamous prison island where Nelson Mandela and many other senior figures of South Africa’s liberation movement were imprisoned during the dark days of apartheid. This story in itself is fascinating but the story of the island is even more so: this inhospitable patch of land with little water and subject to the full force of the wind in Table Bay has also played host to a leper colony as well as being a site of imprisonment/exile of some of the most influential leaders of the Xhosa people (such as Makana, Ndlambe and Sandile) and early imams such as Sayed Moturu. The social and political history of the island is as bleak as its geography but as Ahmed Kathrada, himself a prisoner once said: “Robben Island a symbol of the triumph of the human spirit over adversity”. The real jewel in the crown of a visit to the island is that without exception, every single guide was once an inmate on the island: thus you are not told a pastiche of the story, you are told the story from the heart.
Less famous but equally stunning and each meriting a visit on their own are the Kingdom of Mapungubwe, Isimangaliso Wetlands Park, the Vredefort Crater and the Drakensberg Mountains.
Kingdom of Mapungubwe is located far to the north of the country in Limpopo province, about a five hour drive from Johannesburg. It is the site of little understood ancient civilisation and city that was thought to have inhabited the area between 1070 and 1220 and was the precursor to Great Zimbabwe, the magnificent ruins to the north. It was built from stone and timber and had a sophisticated political system as was discovered when the tombs of the rulers were first opened in 1932. Since then, much more digging has taken place and to date over 14 complete skeletons have been discovered in the area, all ceremonially buried with jewellery and artefacts.
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