South Africa â€“ one is the planetâ€™s most hauntingly beautiful countries â€“ holds a special place in my heart since I spent part of my studies here. The country is often referred to as the Rainbow Nation, a term coined by Archbishop Desmond Tutu to describe post-apartheid South Africa and made famous by President Nelson Mandela in his first month of office, when he proclaimed: â€œEach of us is as intimately attached to the soil of this beautiful country as are the famous jacaranda trees of Pretoria and the mimosa trees of the bushveld â€“ a rainbow nation at peace with itself and the worldâ€œ. South Africa is a magnificent country with an incredible display of natural splendor, varying from the majestic coastal scenery around Cape Town in the south to one of Africaâ€™s most famous safari destinations, Kruger National Park, in the north, with the vast Karoo semi-desert across its heart. The nation also harbors one of Africaâ€™s most diverse cultural melting pots, a phenomena obscured by decades of enforced racial segregation, but now fully alive in the larger cities, creating a thrilling creative scene.
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South Africa is a large and diverse country with a climate that varies from region to region:
Cape Town in the Western Cape and the Garden Route in the Eastern Cape experience a Mediterranean-like climate. The winter (June to August) is marked by rainy and sometimes cold weather, although longer warm and sunny spells may occur. Summers in Cape Town (November to March) are constantly dry and warm, although often (very) windy, so it never gets really hot.
The main part of the country, including the Kruger Park, has a somewhat opposite weather pattern as compared to the Cape, with a long, dry winter marked by often chilly nights (May to October) and wet summers in which heavy thunderstorms are frequent events (December to March).
The coastal areas of KwaZulu Natal (where Durban is located) enjoy year-round sunshine with delightfully mild winters, so any time is a good time for a visit here.
The best time to visit South Africa depends on your interests:
For a Cape Town beach holiday or an exploration of the Garden Route, I recommend to travel during the warm, dry summer months. Keep in mind though that it can get very windy in Cape Town at the start and the peak of summer, with the winds only slowing down towards the end of summer.
Although winters in Cape Town are often wet affairs, this is the best time to spot whales in front of the coast, with numbers at their peak in September.
For a safari in the Kruger National Park, I recommend to travel during the winter months. The winter months are drier and cooler, resulting in improved visibility for game viewing as the vegetation is sparser and the animals make their way to the watering holes for hydration.
For hiking in the Drakensbergen, I also recommend the dry and sunny winter months, but be prepared for very cold nights.
If you want to see the whole country, I recommend to travel in spring (October-November) or autumn (March-April) to have the best chance of reasonable winter in both the North (Kruger Park) and South (Cape Town). Overall, spring is my preferred travel period, because you still have a good chance of spotting the Big Five animals after the long, dry winter, as well as some whales that have not left yet the waters around Cape Town.
HOW TO GET THERE
South Africa receives numerous international daily flights via its three main international airports located near Johannesburg, Cape Town and Durban. In addition, it has many smaller airports, served by domestic airlines, of which the ones near Port Elizabeth and Nelspruit are most of the interest to tourists because of their proximity to the Garden Route and the Kruger National Park respectively.
O. R. Tambo International Airport (JNB), the countryâ€™s largest airport, is located between the cities of Johannesburg and the executive capital Pretoria. It serves as the primary airport for domestic and international travel to/from South Africa. Click here for a list of airlines that offer direct flights to Johannesburg.
Cape Town International Airport (CPT) is only a 20 min drive from Cape Townâ€™s city center. It has direct flights to several destinations in Africa, the Middle East, Asia and Europe. Click here for a list of airlines that offer direct flights to Cape Town.
King Shaka International Airport (DUR) is the primary airport serving KwaZulu Natalâ€™s main city, Durban. Click here for a list of airlines that offer direct flights to Durban.
Port Elizabeth International Airport (PLZ) serves the city of Port Elizabeth in the Eastern Cape province and is the main getaway to South Africaâ€™s popular Garden Route. Click here for a list of (domestic) airlines that offer direct flights to Port Elizabeth.
Kruger Mpumalanga International Airport (MQP) is the gateway to the iconic game reserve, the Kruger National Park. Itâ€™s still two and a half hour from the airport to the gate of the Kruger National Park (so you donâ€™t win that much time compared to the five-hour drive from JNB airport). Click here for a list of (domestic) airlines that offer direct flights to Kruger Mpumalanga International Airport.
If you want to travel the whole country, itâ€™s best to either arrive in Johannesburg and depart from Cape Town, or the other way around. Most airliners offer multi-city tickets at often the same price for a round-trip ticket.
Requirements for entry into South Africa differ from country to country, and are subject to change. Prior to departure, always check with your government and your nearest South African embassy or consulate what documents you need for travel to South Africa.
You need a passport valid for a minimum period of 30 days from the date of exit from South Africa. Your passport should have at least two blank pages when you present it at immigration to enter or leave South Africa.
Visitors from visa exempt countries â€“ which includes the USA, Canada, most of Europe, and some Latin American and African countries â€“ do not require a visa for visiting the Republic of South Africa for ninety (90) days or less. Citizens of other countries need to apply for a visa.
Itâ€™s very easy to travel around South Africa and several modes of transportation are available. A public transport network is available, but itâ€™s not very punctual and its safety is questionable, so I recommend to refrain from using that. To really see anything of the country youâ€™ll need other means of transport:
Most travelers will rent a car, which is the easiest and cheapest way of getting around the country. Although the road infrastructure is excellent, the driving conditions can be dangerous on the smaller, two-lined roads because of the undisciplined driver habits of the locals.
Some companies â€“ such as the Bleu Train and Rovos Rail â€“ run luxury trains on the route between Cape Town and Pretoria, and Pretoria and Durban (among a network of other journeys offered across the African continent). With discreet and friendly service, luxurious cabins, and five-star onboard cuisine, these companies hark back to a simpler, more elegant era encompassing the timeless grace and high romance of African exploration. You can read my Rovos Rail trip report here.
Domestic flights are an excellent, safe and reliable way to move around the country if you donâ€™t have a lot of time. South Africaâ€™s major cities are connected daily via multiple flights and the cost of a domestic ticket is often quite cheap. Tickets can be booked online on the website of the five carriers that offer flights within South Africa:
Itâ€™s impossible to suggest one itinerary for South Africa but I hereby share with you a 2 week schedule, based on of my own holidays to the Rainbow Nation. However, thereâ€™s so much to see and do that three weeks are recommended if you have more time and want to travel at a more leisurely pace.
If you have an extra week, I suggest you drive from the Kruger National Park all the way via Swaziland, KwaZulu Natal, the Drakensbergen to Port Elizabeth, after which you can catch up with the itinerary as described above.
If you want to enjoy some days of relaxation on the beach after your South African vacation, I recommend you to end your holiday in Cape Town (which has stunning beaches) or â€“ if you like it more tropical â€“ take a direct flight to either Mozambique, Mauritius or the Seychelles, all within easy reach of Johannesburg.