Into (the Inexpensive) Africa

How to put that dreamland destination into your own reality.
africa
FOLLOW THE LEADER: Wildebeest cruise across the South African bush (Corbis)

For many an intrepid traveler, visions of an African safari hovers like the Holy Grail of adventure, a glorious silver cloud with the one gray lining: because of the costs typically associated, it's a trip of a lifetime. But follow our lead and concerns of breaking the bank will be replaced with a different, more alluring quandary: How many times-how many countries, game parks, animals, experiences-will I get back there.

We've done our bit, with profiles of the exotic (Cape Verde), the exceptional (Kenya's Masai Mara), the epic (Mount Kilimanjaro), the seemingly everyday (Cape Town), and more. It's up to you to make the most of it.

South Africa
Africa's most affluent country can make your wildest dreams an affordable reality

When South Africa finally ejected the racist apartheid regime in April of 1994, the country quickly became one of the continent's premier locales for the adventurous traveler. Even with a justified reputation of truly sketchy urban areas, intrepid tourists have made South Africa their own-and with a variety of landscapes (from tropical to semi-arid to coastal), animals (from great whites to penguins to the Big Five and their safari brethren), and adventure sports (from multi-day hiking safaris to abseiling to mountain biking to coastal hut-to-hut trekking to world-class surfing), the allure is justified.

Spring in the northern hemisphere marks the beginning of fall in South Africa, and as the country edges toward the winter months, international airfare starts to drop, making transatlantic flights more affordable. And lighting out for South Africa from April through August will also deliver fewer crowds, which means easier access to the tried-and-true attractions and almost isolated environs for the realms less traveled. In short, it's the right time to go. And while the southernmost parts of the country can get chilly (Cape Town's Mediterranean climate has nights as cool as 40 degrees F), the temps shouldn't deter the properly dressed from any and all activities.

One other benefit of braving South Africa's shoulder season? You can partake in one of the most unique, rugged, and rewarding experiences on the entire continent. Imfolozi National Park, a 59,300-acre region in the KwaZulu-Natal province that comprises Africa's two oldest game reserves, hosts the cannot-be-missed Wilderness Trail program. Three types of safari treks put you on the actual game trails of the park's wildest inhabitants, including the Big Five (lions, rhinos, elephants, leopards, and buffalos) and an array of other fauna, including gazelles, impalas, hyenas, zebras, giraffes... Forget the notion of roving, zoo-like safaris; these outings leave the safari trucks at the trailhead and put you-quite literally-on the same playing field as the animals, along with no fewer than two trained Zulu park guides armed with .438-caliber rifles.

Of the three offerings, the Primitive Trail is easily the most taxing, and the most satisfying. A five-day, four-night trek, you lug your own gear, cook by campfire, post watches each night lest a pack of lurking hyenas creep up on your slumbering companions, and hike up to ten miles each day through the animals' territory. The Traditional Trail employs the use of mules to lug your gear and lasts for three days in the bushvelt, along with two nights at a riverside base camp at the beginning and end of your outing. Due to the extreme summer heat in the province, these two strenuous hiking tours only run from March through November. The year-round Weekend Trail hits the bush for two nights-a modest outing only by comparison. Durban-based Gibela Safaris (031.209.7005, www.gibelasafaris.co.za/) can arrange the Wilderness Trail hikes in Imfolozi, and also provides transport to the park, along with tours of the other province attractions, from Zulu cultural tours to trips into the Drakensberg Mountains. Reservations for all Wilderness Trail programs are highly recommended and can be made up to six months in advance.

The Western Cape capital of Cape Town should also not be missed. This stunning city sits between the crashing waves of the Atlantic and the base of Table Mountain-the country's ubiquitous visual signature and one of the most readily accessible active playgrounds in any urban environment. The options here and in the surrounding region are as plentiful and diverse as the varieties of wines grown in the neighboring vineyards: from mountain biking at Tokai Forest Reserve to hiking up and then abseiling 3,500 feet off Table Mountain; from sea kayaking in Haut Bay to horseback riding along Long Beach. The stunning Cape Point and the Cape of Good Hope Nature Reserve is a few hours away, and you could lose entire months touring the vineyards in Stellenbosch, Paarl, and Franschhoek. The aquatically obsessed, meanwhile, can be forever humbled about their position on the food chain when visiting Shark Alley off Dyer Island, where cage diving should keep the predators at bay. Alternatively, scuba dive the many shipwrecks cluttering the sea floor off the Western Cape. And the southern coast of the Western Cape lays claim to Jeffrey's Bay, one of the world's prime surf spots.

For all manners of adventure sport in the Western Cape province-including the new sandboarding obsession-hook up with Adventure Village (021.424.1580). They're a great bunch of local guides who love what they do and enjoy turning visitors onto their local faves. Off-season rates can also be negotiated, and they have connections with other outfitters throughout the country and southeastern Africa. Those anxious for a more subdued trip-especially into the wine region-hook up with Cape Town-based Ocean & Vine (oceanv@netactive.co.za; www.wine.co.za). Owner Wayne Donaldson specializes in custom trips throughout the region.

Access and Resources
Getting There:
Most flights from the States land in either Cape Town or Johannesburg from New York City or Atlanta and run around $1,100. South African Airways (27.11.978.5313, www.flysaa.com) also offers direct flights from New York's JFK to Jo'burg-the flight is long (approx. 13 hours) but the lack of layovers makes it the speediest, and most comfortable, way to reach South Africa.

South Africa Tourism (www.southafrica.net) also hosts several package trips geared around different interests, from safaris to wine exploration. They can also assist in any travel queries.

Getting Around:
The size of South Africa makes domestic flights from the major cities (Durban, Cape Town, Jo'burg) the easiest and quickest way to see most of the country. Each city offers an array of transport options, but if you plan on employing an outfitter, they may assist in airport-to-hotel transport.

The Fine Print:
A current passport and visa are required for entry into South Africa. If you plan on spending time in the bush-particularly on one of the Wilderness Trail programs at Imfolozi National Park-anti-malaria medication is highly advised. There is no risk of yellow fever in South Africa, but if you're coming from certain countries in South America or sub-Saharan Africa, a yellow fever vaccination certificate may be required. Check with the South African Embassy (202.232.4400, www.saembassy.org/) for additional info.

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Nathan Borchelt is the lead editor for Away.com

Published: 5 Apr 2005 | Last Updated: 15 Sep 2010
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication

Best Hotels in South Africa

$131-$151
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Cape Royale Luxury Hotel and Spa
$149-$247
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Victoria and Alfred Hotel
$168
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The Westin Cape Town
$57
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Atlantic Affair Boutique Hotel

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