* This article originally appeared here in Escapes Magazine.
With a show-stopping selection of natural wonders, it’s no wonder that South Africa continually tops international lists of countries to visit. Here’s the list of our 7 wonders: tick off those you’ve seen and start planning that trip to those you haven’t yet.
- Table Mountain
What better place to begin than with our beloved Table Mountain, as not only does it feature on our local list, but also the acclaimed global 7 Wonders of Nature. Flanked by Devil’s Peak to the left and Lion’s head to the right, the impressive 3-kilometer long plateau provides the city with its iconic backdrop. At 1086 meter’s above sea level, Maclear’s Beacon is the highest point and a scenic (mostly easy) 30-minute walk from the cable station.
If you’re wanting to spend a night close to the mountain, SANParks has several offerings: the Platteklip Wash-houses on the slopes of the mountain, the Overseers Cottage on top of the mountain, or the magical Hoerikwaggo Tented Camps in Orange Kloof. If you’re fit enough then hike up any of Platteklip, Kasteelspoort or Skeleton Gorge (starting in Kirstenbosch Gardens). Return cableway tickets cost R300…and are free on your birthday!
- Cape Point
At the majestic Southernmost point of Cape Town, the last stretch of Table Mountain National Park’s peninsula tumbles dramatically into the ocean below. The 60-km drive from Cape Town is itself a spectacle, winding around the plentiful bays until finally arriving. The fynbos is part of the Cape Floristic Kingdom: don’t forget you’re also in a UNESCO World Heritage site.
Entrance fees are R80 for South Africans (just don’t forget to take your ID) and if you’re feeling a little lazy to do the walk up to the lighthouse you can enjoy a return trip on the Flying Dutchman funicular for only R85. The Two Oceans Restaurant serves exceptionally fine food, and the cafeteria offers reasonably priced pizza and subs. Duiker and Eland Cottage, as well as Olifantsbos Guest House are available through SANParks if you want to overnight in the park.
The mighty Drakensberg (or ‘Barrier of Spears’ from its isiZulu name), rises in the Eastern Cape and then runs northwards for almost 1000kms before finally coming to rest in southern Limpopo. The most impressive stretch is the 200km section of the Drakensberg in KwaZulu-Natal where the mountains reach heights of over 3000m. If you have a 4×4 vehicle then Sani Pass is an exhilarating drive up into Lesotho where you’re rewarded with a drink at the highest pub in Africa!
Two of the most popular trails are the 60km, 5-day Giants Cup Trail, or the sx-hour Chain Ladder hike to the top of Tugela Falls (third highest waterfall in the world). KZN Ezemvelo offers a wide variety of accommodation options. My top recommendations for accommodation spots are Royal Natal in the North for one of SA’s most beautiful campsites, and then the rustic Cobham overnight hut in Underberg for exceptional value.
- Cradle of Humankind
Not many countries have the privilege of stewarding the revered sacred sites that offer us insight into some of the origins of human life. The Cradle of Humankind is a 60-minute drive from Johannesburg and was proclaimed a World Heritage Site in 1999 for its ancient stones that harbor precious bones.
The Maropeng visitor center is an impressive and world-class learning facility which offers insight into some of what we know about the origins of humankind. The Sterkfontein caves are a treasure chest of hominin fossils – the largest collection in the world. R190 gets you access to both the Maropeng Visitor Center and the Sterkfontein Caves. Stay over at the new Maropeng Boutique Hotel for a little luxury, or try Alto Log Cabin or Teak Guest Rooms for affordable but comfortable stays.
- Tsitsikamma Forest
This ancient forest, famously brought alive by stories of South African writer Dalene Matthee, is the magnificent greenbelt that stretches from Nature’s Valley to Storm’s River Mouth along the famous Garden Route. The indigenous forest is home to giant Yellowwood trees, deep gorges, and startlingly beautiful coastal stretches: one of the country’s best-loved hiking, paddling and nature playgrounds.
The suspension bridge walk at Storms River Mouth is a must-do…and is free. If you don’t opt to stay at the SANParks cottages, cabins or campsite at Storms River, have a look at Tranquility B&B in Nature’s Valley, Fynbos Golf and Country Estate in Eersterivierstrand, or Waterfall Cottage at Bramon Wine Estate.
- Karoo National Park
The Karoo’s ancient landscape may initially appear stark and devoid of life, but this couldn’t’ be further from the truth. The semi-desert region has a vibrant eco-system including over 60 mammals, 200 bird species, and 60 reptiles. The fossil trail is an informative walk that will give you some insight into the creatures that lived here over 250 million years ago. Also check out the viewpoint on Klipspringer Pass and the adventurous Pienaar’s Pass if you have a 4×4.
Day visitors pay R56 to enter the park, which is best enjoyed with a night or two’s stay – especially breaking the Joburg-Cape Town drive. Accommodation is available through the rest camp’s chalets – two isolated cottages – or camping.
- Blyde River Canyon
It’s no secret to most South African’s that Mpumulanga is the proud home to the Blyde River Canyon, the largest green canyon in the world. No South African vacation along the Panorama Route would be complete without a stop at Blyde. Here are my favourite three ways to best enjoy this natural wonder.
Firstly the classic view spot on the R532 offers startling vistas of the canyon and ‘Three Rondavels” (entrance is around R45). If you’re looking for a more close-up experience, the classic boat trip costs around R220 for the 90-minute journey. Expect to meet the local hippo pod, and the eerie and striking ‘weeping face of nature’ – the second-largest tufa waterfall in the world. Lastly, and if the budget allows, Hoedspruit Helicopters offer flips over the Canyon – a thrilling ride that offers a remarkable perspective. The nearby highveld towns of Hazyview and Hoedspruit are favourite places to overnight.