When people think of Africa, their minds inevitably go to safaris – which are, of course, one of the ultimate bucket list experiences, right up there with skydiving and making out with Ryan Gosling.
But sadly, a safari is all many people go to Africa for. Getting there from the U.S. requires anywhere from 18-24 hours of flying, and because of that, many people will only go once. So why miss all the amazing sights beyond the Serengeti?
Like any big continent, Africa has far more to offer than just big game. Victoria Falls, for example, on the border of Zambia and Zimbabwe in northern South Africa, is a UNESCO World Heritage site and one of the most spectacular waterfalls on the planet. More than 35 stories high and 1.25 miles wide, it’s twice as high and wide as Niagara Falls. And it’s a staggering thing to behold – thunderous sheets of water, rainforest-like mists and some of the most vivid rainbows you’ll ever witness. Helicopter tours are very popular – and highly recommended – for their breathtaking views.
During the dry season (August to January), visitors can swim in Devil’s Pool, a small, natural basin that sits right at the edge of the falls. It looks terrifying, as though at any moment you’ll be swept over into the falls below, but a large rock “lip” keeps you safe.
There are national parks on both sides of the Zambezi River (one in Zambia, one in Zimbabwe), and the cliffs and gorges in these rainforests below the falls are prime territory for amazing wildlife, from elephants and leopards to antelopes and white rhinoceros.
And then there’s Cape Town, which frequently tops experts’ lists of the Most Beautiful Cities in the World. Visitors to South Africa who just fly into and out of Cape Town are missing the most glamorous and photogenic city in the Eastern Hemisphere. Surrounded by water (the city is a peninsula), and framed by giant Table Mountain, it’s lush, temperate and uber-diverse, with Zulu tribes, globally recognized wineries and supercool European style clubs.
There’s an endless array of attractions in Cape Town, but some of the most popular are:
- Taking the rotating cable cars to the top of Table Mountain for the stunning views. Go in the morning when skies are generally clear.
- Visiting the massive (and adorable) penguin colony on Boulders Beach. A single pair of penguins first chose this spot as their home in the early 80’s, and now more than 2,000 of them reside here. It’s the only place in the world where you can get close to African penguins.
- Taking a day trip to the Cape Winelands for a tour of this huge and globally recognized wine region. There are five different wine routes, featuring hundreds of wineries. The three largest and most scenic are Stellenbosch, Frankschhoek and Constantia.
- Shopping and dining at the Adrian van der Vyver-designed Victoria & Alfred waterfront (aka the “V&A”). Although touristy, it offers beautiful views and is a great place to sit and enjoy dinner or a glass of South African wine.
- Touring the prison on nearby Robben Island, where Nelson Mandela was incarcerated for 18 years. The tours are given by former political prisoners!
And finally, there are the safaris. And yes, they are indeed the pinnacle of any trip to Africa. Kruger National Park, bordered by Mozambique and Zimbabwe, is one of Africa’s largest game reserves and is arguably the best. It’s world-renowned for its quantity and variety of big game (lion, leopard, elephant, buffalo and rhino).
Safaris there run the gamut in terms of quality and luxury, from DIY camping to safari tents (glamping) to 5-star lodges with luxurious bungalows, like Sabi Sabi. So, you don’t have to be rich to come face to face with a lion, but if you want to be extra safe, consider the slightly pricier options, where guest safety is paramount.
A word to the wise: safaris are not particularly geared to night owls. Game drives are generally done at sunrise and sunset, when the animals are most active; which can mean early rising if you don’t want to miss half the fun. But your bleary-eyed crustiness will turn to wonder as these expert guides and trackers get you up close and personal with all manner of wildlife, from the Big 5 to antelope, zebras, giraffes, vultures and much more – and you won’t have to become breakfast.
Most people who go to South Africa will do the standard four or five-day safari itinerary. And they’ll have missed out on so many of the other incredible experiences on offer. True, Africa is a huge continent, and getting from place to place requires coordination. But going there will be, for most of us, a once-in-a-lifetime trip. So, make it as memorable as you possibly can!