Geographically, much of South Africa is situated on an interior plateau (the highveld), circled by a coastal belt which widens in the eastern hinterland to become bush savannah, or lowveld, where South Africa's most famous reserve, Kruger National Park, is situated. For the first-time visitor, there are usually three crucial stops: a trip to Big-Game Country, most of which is located in and around Kruger National Park, which spans Mpumalanga and the Limpopo Province; a visit to Cape Town and its Winelands; and, time permitting, a self-drive tour of the Garden Route in the Western Cape. Kwazulu-Natal is another area worth considering, not least for the fabulous crafts, lush game reserves, and magnificent Drakensberg mountains.
The Western & Eastern Cape -- The least African of all the provinces, the Western Cape is also the most popular, primarily due to the legendary beauty of its capital city, Cape Town, the neighboring Winelands, and the scenic coastal belt called the Garden Route, which winds through South Africa's well-traveled Lakes District. It also offers some of the best beach-based whale-watching in the world on the Overberg Coast; the world's most spectacular spring flowers display on the West Coast, north of Cape Town; and, in the Karoo, the quaint dorps (small towns) that typified rural Afrikaans culture. The mountains and hills that trail the coastline are a botanist's and hiker's dream, with the Cape Floral Kingdom -- an awesome array of more than 8,000 species -- a treat year-round. The Eastern Cape is where you'll find the Big 5 reserves (those parks where you can spot the Big 5 animals: lion, leopard, rhino, elephant, and buffalo) closest to Cape Town (also malaria free), as well as two of the country's top trails: the Otter Trail, in the Tsitsikamma National Park, the exit point of the Garden Route; and the Wild Coast, bordering KwaZulu-Natal.
Established as a port in 1652, Cape Town was the first gateway to southern Africa from Europe and still retains more of a colonial feel than any other major city. It is cut off from the rest of the country by mountain ranges and has its own distinctive climate -- cool, wet winters and hot, windy summers -- ideal for the wine and deciduous fruits that further cocoon the Cape's inhabitants from the harsh realties of the hinterland. This geographic insularity and the wounds inflicted by apartheid have bred their own set of unique problems, however. Gang warfare and drug trafficking in the Cape Flats -- a region created by the notoriously draconian Group Areas Act, which relocated people of color to housing projects on the outskirts of town -- as well as the increased rancor of the swelling homeless (further exacerbated by the stream of economic refugees from the Eastern Cape and beyond) are serious problems. In a city this size, such problems are hardly unusual, but what is surprising is how cut off from them you'll feel as a visitor.
Mpumalanga & The Limpopo Province -- To the east of Gauteng and the Free State lies the Escarpment -- the end of the Drakensberg mountain range that rises in the Eastern Cape, running up the western border of KwaZulu-Natal before dividing Mpumalanga and the Limpopo Province into the high- and lowveld. Traveling through the Escarpment to reach the lowveld's Big-Game Country, you will find some of the country's most gorgeous views, the continent's second-largest canyon, and the country's first gold-rush towns, one of which has been declared a living monument. Traveling east on scenic mountain passes, you will drop thousands of feet to the lowveld plains. For those who want to see Africa's wild animals on a budget, Kruger National Park offers the best deal on the continent -- a high density of game combined with spotlessly clean, albeit spartan, accommodations. For well-heeled visitors (or those who want that once-in-a-lifetime treat), Kruger is also home to several high-end private concessions that combine ultraluxurious lodgings with great game-viewing (though you cannot go off-road). Along Kruger's western flank, with no fences between, lie the private game lodges in the Sabi Sand, Manyeleti, and Timbavati reserves, which offer a variety of experiences -- from over-the-top-decadent luxury chalets with private plunge pools to rough huts with no electricity. Closer to Johannesburg, the malaria-free Welgevonden reserve offers a Big 5 alternative for those with limited time, while Madikwe likes to market itself as a Big 7 reserve -- cheetah and the rare wild dog being the additional pull.
Kwazulu-Natal -- Hot and humid in summer, warm and balmy in winter, the KwaZulu-Natal coast makes for an excellent beach holiday. Temperatures never drop below 61°F (16°C), and the Indian Ocean is kept warm by the Mozambique Current, which washes past its subtropical shores. Unfortunately, this is no well-kept secret, and development along much of the south and north coasts (Durban being the center) has resulted in another paradise lost and an endless string of ugly, generic vacation and timeshare beach resorts. There are exceptions, the best of which lie north, such as the St Lucia Wetland Park, Africa's biggest estuary and home to large populations of Nile crocodile and hippo, and within easy striking distance of Hluhluwe-Umfolozi, the province's largest Big 5 resort.
After Cape Town, Durban is the most enjoyable city in the country to visit, though it's not in the same league in terms of natural beauty. It's sultry, with that run-down charm associated with the tropics, and home to a fascinating blend of cultures -- besides the Zulu, the largest indigenous group in South Africa, the biggest population of Indians outside of India resides here. Perhaps this is why Durban is a design hothouse, producing the most talented interior and fashion designers in South Africa, and it's a great place to shop for crafts. It is also well situated, should you be interested in combining a visit to a Big 5 game reserve with diving or snorkeling, taking one of the historic battlefields tours, tooling along the Midlands Meander, or hiking through the vast and majestic Drakensberg range (top choice for local hikers). With a new international airport in Durban scheduled for completion in 2009, this relatively undiscovered region is set to offer the Cape some stiff competition.
Exploring the World's Oldest Richest Kingdom
The Cape Floral Kingdom (69,930 sq. km/27,000 sq. miles) covers only .04% of the world's land surface, yet it contains 24,000 plant species; the most diverse of the world's six floral kingdoms -- comparable only to the Boreal Kingdom, which comprises all of northern America, Europe, and Asia (51.8 million sq. km/20 million sq. miles). This high concentration makes it as important a conservation area as the Amazon basin. Although it is by no means as threatened, the battle to control alien invasive species introduced during the past century is ongoing.
The delicate inhabitants of the Cape Floral Kingdom are referred to as fynbos (literally, "fine bush," pronounced "feign-boss") -- an evergreen vegetation characterized by the ability to thrive on nutrient-poor soil and to survive the Cape's windy, baking summers and wet winters. They're thought to be the oldest floral kingdom, and they're certainly the most diverse. Three-quarters of fynbos species are found nowhere else -- many are so specialized they grow only in one valley, while popular indigenous species that have found their way into gardens across the world include the gardenia, red-hot poker, arum lily, strelitzia (bird of paradise), agapanthus, gladioli, and freesia. The most well-known fynbos group is the sculptural protea (of which the King protea is S.A.'s national flower), tiny ericas (with fine, bell-shaped flowers), and restios (reeds). Appearing as a homogenous gray-green heathland from afar, the Cape Floral Kingdom has a delicacy and variety of textures best appreciated at close range. Beyond the Kirstenbosch Botanical Gardens in Cape Town, you'll find the best views at Table Mountain and the De Hoop Nature Reserve and Grootbos Private Reserve.
Straddling the Tropic of Capricorn in southern Africa, Botswana is truly one of the last pristine wilderness areas on the continent. Roughly the size of France, it is bordered by Namibia to the west and north, Zimbabwe to the east, and South Africa to the south.
A sparsely populated country of just over one million inhabitants, Botswana offers a varied wilderness experience, from forest to salt pan, bushveld to rolling savanna, ancient lake beds to palm-fringed islands. The waterless Kalahari covers two-thirds of its surface, so it is nothing short of incredible that it is also home to one of the world's largest inland delta systems: the Okavango Delta, highlight of Botswana. This 15,000-sq.-km (5,850-sq.-mile) inland flood plain fans into the northwestern corner of the country, creating a paradise of palms, papyrus, and crystal-clear channels and backwaters. The life-giving waters provide an oasis for birds and animals, and consequently unparalleled opportunities for humans to view them.
In addition to the delta, Botswana has Chobe National Park to the northeast, a 12,000-sq.-km (4,680-sq.-mile) park that is famed for its huge elephant herds, while to the southeast are the spectacular wide-open spaces of Makgadikgadi and Nxai Pans. Time and money allowing, visits to these areas are essential to your southern Africa itinerary.
Victoria Falls is easy to reach and safe to visit, with two airports within easy striking distance. Note that the falls are also accessible as a day trip from Chobe National Park, Botswana.