Welcome to the Republic of South Africa.
Who lives in South Africa?
South Africa is a nation of over 46-million people of diverse origins, cultures, languages and beliefs. Around 79% are black (or African), 9% white, 9% "coloured" - the local label for people of mixed African, Asian and white descent - and 2.5% Indian/Asian. Just over half the population live in the cities.
Two-thirds of South Africans are Christian, the largest church being the indigenous Zion Christian Church, followed by the Dutch Reformed and Catholic churches. Many churches combine Christian and traditional African beliefs, and many non-Christians espouse these traditional beliefs. Other significant religions - though with much smaller followings - are Islam, Hinduism and Judaism.
What languages do people speak?
There are 11 officially recognised languages, most of them indigenous to South Africa. Around 40% of the population speak either isiZulu or isiXhosa. You don't speak either? If your English is passable, don't worry. Everywhere you go you can expect to find people who speak or understand English.
English is the language of the cities, of commerce and banking, of government, of road signs and official documents. Road signs and official forms are in English. The President makes his speeches in English. At any hotel, the receptionists, waiters and porters will speak English. Another major language is Afrikaans, a derivative of Dutch, which northern Europeans will find surprisingly easy to follow.
Is South Africa a democracy?
South Africa is a vigorous multi-party democracy with an independent judiciary and a free and diverse press. One of the world's youngest - and most progressive - constitutions protects both citizens and visitors. You won't be locked up for shouting out your opinions, however contrary. (But be careful about smoking cigarettes in crowded restaurants!)
What about apartheid?
Up until 1994, South Africa was known for "apartheid" or white-minority rule. The country's remarkable ability to put centuries of racial hatred behind it in favour of reconciliation was widely considered a social "miracle", inspiring similar peace efforts in places such as Northern Ireland and Rwanda. Post-apartheid South Africa has a government comprising all races, and is often referred to as the "rainbow nation", a phrase coined by Nobel Peace Prize winner Desmond Tutu.
What's the weather like?
Summery, without being sweltering. In Johannesburg, the country's commercial capital, the weather is mild all year round, but can get cool at night. Durban, the biggest port, is hot and sometimes humid, a beach paradise. And in Cape Town, where travellers flock to admire one of the world's most spectacular settings, the weather is usually warm, though temperamental. If you're visiting from the Northern Hemisphere, just remember: when it's winter over there, it's summer over here.
Is it a big country?
To a European, yes. The country straddles 1.2-million square kilometres, as big as several European countries put together. To an American, maybe not - it's an eighth the size of the USA. Still, it's more than a day's drive down the highway from Johannesburg in the north to Cape Town in the south (if you're driving sensibly), with the topography ranging across the spectrum from lush green valleys to semi-desert.
Are there big cities with modern amenities?
There's more to Africa than lions. Johannesburg, a city of skyscrapers, sprawls wider than London or New York. The lights work, the water flows, there are multi-lane highways and - unfortunately - traffic jams. You can book into a Hilton or a Hyatt or a Holiday Inn and eat at cosmopolitan restaurants serving anything from sushi to burgers to crocodile steaks. Or you can lie back on a couch and choose from five analogue and over 50 digital satalite TV channels.
What are the big cities?
South Africa has two capitals. Cape Town, the oldest city, is the legislative capital, where Parliament sits. Pretoria, 1 500 kilometres to the north, is the executive capital, where the government administration is housed. Next door to Pretoria, and close enough that the outer suburbs merge, is the commercial centre of Johannesburg, once the world's greatest gold mining centre, now increasingly dominated by modern financial and service sectors. The third-biggest city is Durban, a fast-growing port on the eastern coast, and the supply route for most goods to the interior.
You say the roads are tarred?
Yes, even in the smallest towns. The major centres are connected by over 9 000 kilometres of tarred and regularly maintained national highways, including over 2 000 kilometres of dual carriageway, and the numbers are increasing steadily. The national railway has some 30 000 kilometres of rail track connecting the smallest hamlets. Over 50 airlines and more than 20 million passengers a year move through South Africa's nine principal airports, including the three major international airports in Johannesburg, Cape Town and Durban.
I'll be able to phone home?
That, and more. With a network that is 99% digital and includes the latest in fixed-line, wireless and satellite communication, South Africa has the most developed telecommunications network in Africa. The country's three cellular operators provide telephony to over 20-million subscribers, covering nearly half the population. South Africa's Cell networks are based on the GSM 900 & 1800 Band. GSM, GPRS/EDGE and 3G/HSDPA (1.8 Mb/s internet) is availiable. The number of South Africans enjoying competitively priced access to the Internet, uninterrupted connections and broadband access is growing steadily.
Are there modern banks?
South Africa has a world-class, sophisticated financial sector, abreast of all the latest technological trends. From the moment you step off the plane you'll start seeing banks, bureaux de change and automatic tellers (ATMs) all over. All major credit cards can be used in South Africa, with American Express and Diners Club enjoying less universal acceptance than MasterCard and Visa. Foreign banks are well represented, and you can bank by ATM or Internet.
How far will my money go?
With a favourable exchange rate for many international currencies, you'll find South Africa a very inexpensive destination. South Africa's unit of currency is the rand, which is divided into 100 cents. Coins come in denominations of 5c, 10c, 20c, 50c, R1, R2 and R5, and notes in denominations of R10, R20, R50, R100 and R200.
Will I get to see wild animals?
You won't have to go far to do so. There is nothing quite like the African bush and you can experience it in so many ways. Take a drive through one of the many provincial or national parks, or stay in a luxury private lodge where you will be pampered like a princess.
Or join an overland excursion, sit back and concentrate on spotting the game while someone else does the driving.
For an absolutely typical game experience, you'll need to visit the lowveld of Mpumalanga and KwaZulu-Natal, where elephants lumber gracefully through the bush, and lions rest in the heat of the day after a long night's hunting.
Birds chatter, flitting about from tree to tree, while vervet monkeys groom each other among the leafy branches. Dung beetles roll their heavy loads along the roads, clumsily and steadfastly overcoming every obstacle.
And, unseen, leopards rest deep in the bush camouflaged in the dappled light while zebras graze out in the open, their stripes mingling with the shadows of the grass. Bushbuck skulk in the shadows and kudu elegantly curl their top lips around the tiny, thorn-bedecked leaves of an acacia.
The Western Cape has a different climate and vegetation to the rest of South Africa, so the faunal assemblage is also different. You won't find elephants and lions, but you will see springbok, Cape mountain zebra, bontebok, black wildebeest and many others.
The Eastern Cape is transitional between the Western Cape and the lowveld game areas. Once a bit of a backwater, game-wise, this province is rapidly becoming a favourite safari destination, not least because of its malaria-free status. The Addo Elephant National Park is constantly being enlarged and will extend over a huge range of biomes, from marine to mountain. There are some fantastic private reserves in this province, most notably Shamwari and Kwandwe.
The Free State does not have much in the way of game parks but the scenic Golden Gate National Park is well known for its high altitude game such as eland and black wildebeest.
The Northern Cape is very arid and is most definitely an acquired taste, but there are some wonderful game destinations. The Augrabies Falls National Park is mostly scenic, but does have some excellent game and wonderful birds.
Tswalu Desert Reserve is a very exclusive upmarket lodge where you will see a variety of desert big game, including rhinos, and the Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park, Africa's first cross-border park, is famed for its huge, black-maned Kalahari lions and for the elegant, gemsbok, or oryx, which is found there in abundance.
And if the big fluffy animals are not what you're after, you can do a specialist birding safari.
Cities have grown, much land has been given over to farming, hunting has wiped out entire herds, and the times when a herd of springbok could take days to pass through a Karoo town are long past.
Yet, thanks to the foresight of conservationists past and present, South Africa remains blessed with abundant wildlife.
The Big Five
Best known are the mammals, and the best known of these are the famous Big Five: elephant, lion, rhino, leopard and buffalo. Not that giraffe, hippo or whale are small ...
South Africa's bushveld and savannah regions are still home to large numbers of the mammals universally associated with Africa. The Kruger National Park alone has over 13 000 elephants and 20 000 buffaloes - in 1920 there were an estimated 120 elephants left in the whole of South Africa.
The white rhino has also been brought back from the brink of extinction and now flourishes with a Kruger population of nearly 3 000 and 1 600 in the Hluhluwe Umfolozi Park in KwaZulu-Natal. Attention now is on protecting the black rhino.
Both these parks are home to all five of the big ones, as are other major reserves in South Africa and numerous smaller reserves and private game lodges.
The big cats
The lion tops the food chain - and the glamour stakes. But it does have one formidable enemy in people, who have expelled it from most of the country so that it now remains almost exclusively in conservation areas.
The beautiful leopard survives in a larger area, including much of the southern Cape and far north of the country, although numbers are small in some places.
The third of the famous big cats is particularly fascinating. The cheetah is the speed champ, capable of dashes of almost 100 kilometres an hour. However, vulnerable to the loss of cubs to other predators, the cheetah's population is comparatively small and confined mostly to the far north (including the Kruger National Park), the Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park in the Northern Cape, and reserves in KwaZulu-Natal and North West.
Other quintessentially African large animals are the hippo, giraffe, kudu, wildebeest (the famous gnu) and zebra, all frequently seen in South Africa's conservation areas.
Heightened awareness, however, has created an increased appreciation of lesser-known animals. A sighting of the rare tsessebe, a relative of the wildebeest, may cause as much excitement as the sight of a lion pride stretched out under a bushveld thorn tree. And while one can hardly miss a nearby elephant, spotting the shy little forest-dwelling suni takes sharp eyes and is cause for self-congratulation.
On the really small scale, one could tackle the challenge of ticking off each of South Africa's seven species of elephant shrew - a task that would take one all over the country and, probably, a long time to accomplish.
Over 200 mammal species
With well over 200 species, a short survey of South Africa's indigenous mammals is a contradiction in terms. A few examples will help to indicate the range.
In terms of appeal, primates rate highly. In South Africa they include the nocturnal bush babies, vervet and samango monkeys, and chacma baboons that - encouraged by irresponsible feeding and under pressure through loss of habitat - have become unpopular as raiders of homes on the Cape Peninsula.
Dassies - hyraxes, residents of rocky habitats - and meerkats - suricates, familiar from their alert upright stance - have tremendous charm, although the dassie can be an agricultural problem.
The secretive nocturnal aardvark (which eats ants and is the only member of the order Tubulidentata) and the aardwolf (which eats termites and is related to the hyena) are two more appealing creatures, and both are found over virtually the whole of the country.
And for those who like their terrestrial mammals damp, there is the widely distributed Cape clawless otter, which swims in both fresh and seawater. The spotted-necked otter has a more limited territory. Both are rare, however, and difficult to spot.
One mammal whose charm is newly acquired is the wild dog or Cape hunting dog, one of the most endangered mammals in Africa. Once erroneously reviled as indiscriminate killers but now appreciated both for their ecological value and for the remarkably caring family behaviour in the pack, wild dogs require vast territories. A single pack needs on average several hundred square kilometres.
They are found in small numbers in the Kruger National Park and environs, northern KwaZulu-Natal (including the Hluhluwe-Umfolozi Park), the Kalahari, and the Madikwe reserve in North West province.
More common canine carnivores are the hyena, jackal and bat-eared fox. Besides those already mentioned, felines include the caracal with its characteristic tufted ears, the African wild cat and the rare black-footed cat. Other flesh eaters include the civet, genet and several kinds of mongoose.
The plant eaters are particularly well represented by various antelope, from the little duiker to the large kudu and superbly handsome sable antelope, which is found only in the most northerly regions.
Mammals take to the air, too: South Africa is well endowed with bat species.
Marine mammals and fish
And they take to the sea. The largest mammal of all - in South Africa and the world - is the blue whale, which can grow to 33 metres in length.
But of the eight whale species found in South African waters (including the dramatic black-and-white killer whale), the most frequently seen by humans is the southern right whale. This imposing creature comes into coastal bays to calve, allowing for superb land-based viewing.
The southern right whale represents one of conservation's success stories. Once considered the "right" whale to hunt, its population became so depleted that it was designated a protected species. With the greater familiarity that their return to the coastal bays has produced, they are now as well loved as the many dolphins in our coastal waters.
South Africa's seas are rich in fish species. Perhaps the most awesome of these is the great white shark, but this is only one of more than 2 000 species, comprising 16% of the world's total. Various line fish, rock lobster and abalone are of particular interest to gourmets, while pelagic fish (sardines and pilchards) and hake have large-scale commercial value.
The crocodile ... and other reptiles
Less generously endowed with freshwater fish - 112 named species, a mere 1.3% of the world total - South Africa nonetheless has one river-dweller that is, as much as any of the Big Five, a symbol of Africa. The crocodile still rules some stretches of river and estuary, lakes and pools, exacting an occasional toll in human life.
Other aquatic reptiles of note are the sea-roaming loggerhead and leatherback turtles, the focus of a major community conservation effort at their nesting grounds on the northern KwaZulu-Natal shoreline.
South Africa's land reptiles include rare tortoises and the fascinating chameleon. There are well over 100 species of snake. While about half of them, including the python, are non-venomous, others - such as the puff adder, green and black mamba, boomslang and rinkhals - are decidedly so.
The country's comparative dryness accounts for its fairly low amphibian count - 84 species. To make up for that, however, South Africa boasts over 77 000 species of invertebrates.
Birders from around the world come to South Africa to experience the country's great variety of typically African birds, migrants, and endemics (those birds found only in South Africa).
Of the 950 or so species that have been recorded in South Africa, about 725 are resident or annual visitors, and about 50 of these are endemic or near endemic.
Apart from the resident birds, South Africa hosts a number of intra-African migrants such as cuckoos and kingfishers, as well as birds from the Arctic, Europe, Central Asia, China and Antarctica during the year.
South Africa's birdlife ranges from the ostrich - farmed in the Oudtshoorn district of the Western Cape, but seen in the wild mostly in the north of the country - through such striking species as the hornbills to the ubiquitous LBJs (Little Brown Jobs).
One small area alone, around the town of Vryheid in northern KwaZulu-Natal, offers wetlands, grasslands, thornveld and both montane and riverine forest, and around 380 species have been recorded there.
A birder need not move out of a typical Gauteng garden to spot grey loeries, mousebirds, hoopoes, hadeda ibises, crested and black-collared barbets, Cape whiteyes, olive thrushes ... or a lone Burchell's coucal poking clumsily around a tree. And that would by no means complete the list.
Among the most spectacular birds of South Africa are the cranes, most easily spotted in wetlands - although the wattled crane is a lucky find as it is extremely uncommon. The beautiful blue crane is South Africa's national bird; the crowned crane is probably the flashiest of the three with its unmistakable prominent crest.
Among its larger bird species, South Africa also has several eagles and vultures. Among its most colourful are kingfishers, bee-eaters, sunbirds, the exquisite lilacbreasted roller, and the Knysna and purple-crested louries.
Drakensberg: Barrier of Spears
The uKhahlamba Drakensberg Park has outstanding natural beauty, Africa's highest mountain range south of Kilimanjaro, a fascinating and ancient geology, some of the rarest animals in the world - and the largest, richest and most concentrated series of rock art in Africa. In 2000 it became the fourth site in South Africa to be granted World Heritage status by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (Unesco).
Internationally, there are 812 World Heritage sites, in 137 countries. Africa has 65 sites and South Africa a total of seven. Three of these are cultural sites and three natural. The Drakensberg, because of its remarkable geology and unmatched wealth of San rock art, is a mixed cultural and natural World Heritage site.
The uKhahlamba Drakensberg Park lies in the west of KwaZulu-Natal on the Lesotho border. It is 243 000 hectares in size, stretching 150 kilometres from Royal Natal National Park in the north to Cobham Forest Station in the south. Both the Zulu name uKhahlamba - barrier of spears - and the Afrikaans name Drakensberg - dragon mountains - fit the formidable horizon created by the range. A massive basaltic cap set on a broad base of sedimentary rocks belonging to the Stormberg series of 150-million years ago, the mountains are South Africa's main watershed.
For more than 4 000 years they were home to the indigenous San people, who created a vast body of rock art - the largest and most concentrated collection in Africa. There are some 600 sites and 35 000 individual images in the Drakensberg. In describing the park's natural heritage, Unesco notes its "exceptional natural beauty in its soaring basaltic buttresses, incisive dramatic cutbacks and golden sandstone ramparts. Rolling high altitude grasslands, the pristine steep-sided river valleys and rocky gorges also contribute to the beauty of the site."
The ox-wagons of Boer settlers had to negotiate the Drakensberg's steep passes in 1837 during the Great Trek from the Cape Colony. The apocryphal tale goes that, 40 years later, the name Drakensberg was coined when a Boer father and son reported seeing a dragon, a giant lizard with wings and a tail, flying above the cloud-covered mountain peaks.
From the massive basalt cliffs of its northern reaches to the soaring sandstone buttresses in the south, the range is the highest in Africa south of Kilimanjaro. It is home to the world's second-highest waterfall, the Tugela Falls, with a total drop of 947 metres. They are easily viewed after a heavy rain from the main road into the park.
The Drakensberg's natural and cultural wealth has made it one of South Africa's top tourist destinations. Accommodation caters for all tastes and budgets, from luxury resorts and hotels to guesthouses, bed-and-breakfast establishments, caravan parks and cabins.
Huts and listed caves are available for those who prefer to hike the mountains. Thousands of trails are marked across the Drakensberg, from short ambles through indigenous fern forests to more strenuous expeditions through the mountains' hills and passes. The park offers four golf courses, as well as horse trails, scenic self-drives, trout streams for fishing, and mountain climbing and abseiling activities.
Ancient rock art heritage
The uKhahlamba-Drakensberg Park is also a monument to the San hunter-gatherers, who lived there from the Stone Age until the late 19th century - a 4 000-year occupation.
Living in the sandstone caves and rock shelters of the Drakensberg's valleys, the San made paintings that Unesco describes as "world famous and widely considered one of the supreme achievements of humankind … outstanding in quality and diversity of subject and in their depiction of animals and human beings … which throws much light on their way of life and their beliefs. "The rock art of the Drakensberg is the largest and most concentrated group of rock paintings in Africa south of the Sahara, and is outstanding both in quality and diversity of subject."
Originally roaming freely throughout southern Africa, the San were forced to take refuge in the mountains with the 13th-century migration of Bantu-speaking people into the region and, later, European colonisation. San culture disappeared from the Drakensberg at the end of the 19th century. The artists used red, orange, yellow, black and white, derived from mixing clay, burnt wood and ochre oxides. The paintings have a documentary aspect, showing the San interacting with one other and their environment. Hunting scenes are common. The subject matter changed with the arrival of the settlers from the north and the colonisers from Europe.
The oldest painting on a rock shelter wall in the Drakensberg dates back about 2 400 years, but paint chips at least a thousand years older have also been found.
For the birds
The park is also home to 299 recorded bird species - an astonishing 37% of all non-marine avian species in southern Africa. Ten of the park's bird species are listed as important to world conservation. These include the globally endangered Cape parrot and white-winged flufftail, and the globally threatened corncrake, lesser kestrel and yellow-breasted pipit. The blue crane, Cape vulture and bald ibis are counted as globally vulnerable, while the pallid harrier and black harrier are on the near-threatened list.
Among the park's 48 species of mammal are the threatened eland and endemic grey rhebuck, which each currently number around 2 000 - the highest population nationally. Its colonies of clawless and spotted neck otters are also the largest in South Africa.
An ancient geology
The imposing Drakensberg escarpment is the product of millions of years of sculpting by the elements, with its foundations formed over billions of years. Eons ago, the place was an enormous inland lake, lying on the ancient super continent of Gondwanaland. Sediments carried into the lake were deposited on granite foundations, which formed almost three billion years ago. The sediments of mud and sand were deposited for millions of years into the vast central swamp, home to dinosaurs. Compacted by the immense pressure of the overlying layers, they built up about 490 million years ago. Today the resultant sandstone can be seen in the typical table-top shapes of the Valley of a Thousand Hills and Oribi Gorge.
The next layer of sediments deposited over the Beaufort sandstones built up the blue and grey Molteno and red Elliot formations about 200 million years ago. These form the small cliffs in the Drakensberg foothills. The layer is easily recognised from the tiny quartz crystals that make it sparkle in the sun. Millennia later, the San used the even Molteno layers as a canvas for their art.
Some 160 million years ago, enormous internal pressures caused the super continent of Gondwanaland to crack and drift apart, forming the different continents we have today. Enormous cracks in the crust of the African continent caused massive lava flows, which were to create the Drakensberg.
The thick lavas flowed and cooled, flowed and cooled, adding up to 50 metres of lava at a time. Over 20-million years these flows built up a deposit of basaltic rock over 1.5 kilometres thick in some places, covering an area from Lesotho to most of KwaZulu-Natal and as far as Mozambique and the Indian Ocean. The lava stopped flowing about 140-million years ago. Since then, erosion has been the dominant force in the mountains, forming the imposing peaks and steep-sided valleys we know today. Through the centuries, the slow build-up of soil on the steep slopes has provided a base for vegetation, food for the vast herds of game that once roamed the grasslands.
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