Travel Guide | South Africa


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South Africa is one of the most geographically varied countries of the African continent, comprising territory that ranges from the rolling, fertile plains of the highveld and the wide open savanna of the Eastern Transvaal to the Kalahari desert and the peaks of the Drakensberg Mountains. While all of its diverse regions offer ample opportunities for adventure travel, the focus in South Africa - as in much of sub-Saharan Africa - is the safari.

Geography & Climate

South Africa is located, as one might expect, on the southern tip of Africa. It is bordered by the Atlantic Ocean on the west, the Indian Ocean on the south and east. Along its northern border, from west to east, lie Namibia, Botswana, and Zimbabwe, and to the northeast are Mozambique and Swaziland. Wholly-enclosed by South Africa, and situated in its eastern central plain, is the independent kingdom of Lesotho.

Almost all of South Africa's 472 000 square miles (1.2 million square km) lie below the Tropic of Capricorn, and the country is geographically composed of 3 primary regions: an expansive central plateau, a nearly continuous escarpment of mountain ranges that ring the plateau on the west, south, and east, and a narrow strip of low-lying land along the coast. Most of the central plateau (and most of the country) consists of high (4 000-6 000 feet / 1 220-1 830 metres), rolling grassland known as highveld. The highest points of the mountainous escarpment are found in the stunning Drakensberg (dragon's back) Mountains, where the tips of dragon's back can exceed heights of 10 000 feet (3 050 metres).

In the northwest, South Africa's Kalahari Gemsbok National Park, one of the continent's largest game reserves, extends into the red sands and scrub grasslands of the great Kalahari Desert. In the northeast, the highveld plateau descends to the Bushveld and Limpopo River basins. The Bushveld comprises South Africa's extensive savanna, in which is the country's marvelously rich and diverse game reserve, the world-renowned Kruger National Park.

Although South Africa's climate varies considerably across its various regions and environments, temperatures remain comfortable throughout the year. The best time to visit for safari is between May to August, when there is less rain and much less dense vegetation, making animal sightings far more frequent.

History & People

South Africa's population of 40 million is 3-quarters (African) and about 15% white (European), with the remaining 10% comprised of people of mixed white, Malayan, and black descent and people of Asian (mostly Indian) descent. The African majority is composed of many different ethnic groups, the largest of which are Zulu, Xhosa, Tswana, and Bapedi. Until very recently, the country's racial divisions were harshly enforced as part of the government's official policy of Apartheid, or apartness. Although the government began to dismantle apartheid in 1989 after prolonged resistance, protest, and international economic sanctions, racial inequality remains pronounced in South Africa.

South Africa is a very large and extraordinarily varied land, offering almost unlimited opportunities for adventure travel of all sorts--from diving and whitewater rafting to mountain-climbing and trekking. For most visitors, however, adventure travel in South Africa means safari travel, and the best-known safari area in the country is Eastern Transvaal, a continuous stretch of savanna extending for 400 miles along South Africa's northeastern border. The Eastern Transvaal is home to Kruger National Park, undoubtedly one of the finest game reserves in all of Africa.

In addition to the Kruger National Park--and its surrounding private game reserves--visitors interested in safari travel in South Africa are also frequently drawn to Kalahari Gemsbok National Park. A narrow tongue of land extending northward into the vast expanse of the Kalahari Desert. Kalahari Gemsbok is an area of rugged beauty, with shifting dunes, wide-open vistas, and great herds of Springbok and Gemsbok.