South Africa Country Guide

South Africa Overland Travel Parks and Reserves Destinations Activities History

At A Glance

  • South Africa covers around 1 220 000sq km and is twice the size of Texas
  • There are 11 official languages, but English dominates most sectors
  • The diverse landscape includes coastline, mountains, forests, savannah and semi-desert
  • It’s also home to 10% of the world’s plants which includes the Cape Floral Kingdom
  • Cape Town’s climate differs to the rest of the country during Summer and Winter

South Africa Overland Travel

Stunning scenery, diverse cultures, excellent wildlife and cheap food and drink – what’s not to like about South Africa overland travel?

South Africa has all the necessary ingredients for overlanding: great infrastructure, communications and services on the one hand, and extraordinary destinations, fascinating people, packed game reserves and mile after mile of open road on the other. With its intoxicating mix of Africa, Asia and Europe, South Africa is rich in history – both tragic and triumphant – and it’s impossible to visit the country without absorbing something from the past.

It’s a country that is also trying to move on from the past: the “Rainbow Nation” has transformed itself almost beyond recognition in the last 20 years and the pace shows no sign of letting up. Allow your preconceptions to be challenged on your South Africa overland adventure; itineraries have been created to reflect the many faces of this country and beyond – South Africa combines well with iconic safari destinations such as Namibia, Botswana and Victoria Falls.

Parks and Reserves

South Africa has long led the way in nature conservation and is home to a wide range of national parks, wilderness areas and private reserves. The top trump card is of course the Kruger National Park, South Africa’s biggest and most diverse park but much of the country’s most beautiful and important natural areas are also protected, whether they are rugged coastlines, baking Kalahari grasslands or soaring mountain ranges.

South Africa overland itineraries take full advantage of the country’s natural attractions and overlanders can expect to see great wildlife in superb settings. Find out more with our guide to South Africa’s parks and start planning your overland adventure.

Kruger National Park

The enormous and magnificent Kruger National Park is without question one of the most famous and popular game parks in the world. A 5-hour truck drive from Johannesburg, it’s the size of Wales or Israel and covers a significant chunk of South Africa’s hot and often humid lowveld – from the Crocodile River in Mpumalanga in the south to the Zimbabwe border in the Limpopo Province in the north. Its entire eastern side is the border with Mozambique.

And it’s getting bigger: the fences between borders and those between the private game reserves on the fringes of Kruger have been taken down now to form the Greater Kruger National Park. This gives the animals a much larger area within which to migrate, and boy, does the Kruger have animals: its density of permanent game is said to be unrivalled by any other park in Africa.

Wildlife is abundant in the Kruger. Sighting members of the Big 5 has become something of a quest for many people when on safari, and the Kruger National Park has more than its fair share of these. There are an estimated 1 800 lion, 9 000 elephant, 25 000 buffalo, an unknown number of leopards and 2 300 black and white rhino.

But that’s not all: its rivers and dams are full of hippo and crocodile while its wooded savannahs and grasslands are home to classic plains game such as giraffe, zebra, wildebeest and many antelope species. Other predators include spotted hyena, cheetah and wild dog, and bird watchers better bring their binoculars – the Kruger has a bird list of over 500 species.

It’s got history too: the park was first proclaimed in 1898 as the Sabie Game Reserve by Paul Kruger, then president of the Transvaal Republic. The first motorists entered the park in 1927 for a fee of one British pound. Since then Kruger has catered for hundreds of thousands of visitors each year and the park has excellent facilities, with a good network of roads and game-viewing waterholes.

The public camps have every amenity from shops to banks to laundry services and can accommodate up to 5 000 people per day. That’s not including the luxury camps in the private reserves. Occasionally it gets crowded, with many vehicles parked around the same pride of lion. But with a 2 600 kilometre road network there are plenty of opportunities to go out into the bush and lose the crowds.

The Kruger’s sub-tropical climate means hot rainy summers starting in November and ending around March/April. The summer rains transform the arid park into a lush flowering paradise, but the long grass makes animals harder to see though the bird watching is excellent. The best time for game viewing however is during the dry and much cooler winter months between May and October when the vegetation becomes sparse and wildlife congregates around permanent water sources.

Addo Elephant National Park

Something of a conservation success story, the Addo Elephant Park in South Africa’s Eastern Cape Province was proclaimed a game reserve in 1931. This was to safeguard the last remaining 11 wild elephants that were still roaming the area.

Since then the herds have grown steadily and today the park is home to over 550 elephants and there are numerous other species in the park, including lion and buffalo. In fact, Addo Elephant Park has been so successful that surrounding farmland was steadily acquired and the park has been extended. From a modest 23 sq km in 1931 it now covers 3 600 sq km and – apart from the various terrestrial habitats – it now encompasses a coastal belt with a dune field, and extends into the Indian Ocean. The 120 000 hectare marine reserve includes islands containing Africa’s largest populations of African penguins and Cape gannets.

Addo is famous as a home to the Big 7: lion, buffalo, elephant, leopard, rhino, great white shark and southern right whale. But, given the elusive and/or aquatic nature of some of these species, the highlight here is undoubtedly watching Addo’s elephants, especially around a waterhole, and there is plenty of plains game such as giraffe, zebra, warthog and baboons as well.

Addo has a temperate climate and is a good park to visit at anytime of the year, combines well with the Garden Route and you are almost guaranteed to see elephant.


Tsitsikamma (pronounced sit-si-kama) is a wild and beautiful place. Situated mid-way along the Garden Route, it is a stretch of indigenous forest sandwiched between a rocky Indian Ocean coastline and a backdrop of rugged mountains.

Tsitsikamma is a Khoisan word meaning, ‘place of much water’, and with an abundance of rivers and streams running through its sandstone gorges, it’s a fitting name. The park incorporates an 80- kilometre run of deep forests and secluded valleys, and even extends five kilometres into the ocean to include inter-tidal, reef and deep-sea ecosystems where dolphins and whales frolic.

Afforded formal protection in 1964, it became the first Marine National Park in Africa, and as fishing is not permitted, its marine life remains healthy and diverse. The park is also home to the rare Cape clawless otter, vervet monkeys and baboons, and the forests hide small antelopes and a range of forest and coastal birds.

Most visitors spend time at the Storms River mouth which offers magnificent views up and down the gorge. There are a number of short walking trails, one of which crosses a wobbly suspension bridge, and the park is home to the Otter Trail, a 5-day hike considered the best in South Africa but you’ll need to book months in advance.

On the Storms River itself there’s the opportunity to go black-water tubing – floating down the gentle rapids on giant inflatable inner tubes – and 20km west of Storms River is the Bloukrans Bridge with its eye-popping 216-metre bungee jump, a compulsory stop on every South African overland adventure!


If the altitude doesn’t, the drama and magnificence of the Drakensberg Mountains in KwaZulu Natal will take your breath away. Mountain passes open up into immense valleys and seemingly endless folded hills of green velvet; in other areas bare sandstone rocks rise dramatically as sharp mountain peaks that are sometimes capped with snow.

Much of the Drakensberg range is protected in the form of the Ukhahlamba Drakensberg Park which runs for hundreds of kilometres down the eastern border of the kingdom of Lesotho, a small mountainous country completely surrounded by South Africa. In 2001 the park won status as a World Heritage Site for its outstanding natural beauty and its important historical significance: not only are there spectacular rock formations (with names like Cathedral Peak, Champagne Castle and Giant’s Castle) but these secretive rocks and caves were once the home of San Bushmen who left their considerable mark with rock art – 3 000 paintings at 600 sites.

Ukhahlamba means ‘barrier of spears’ in Zulu and Drakensberg ‘dragon mountains’ in Afrkikaans but don’t let that put you off:  the Drakensberg has many established trails within the park and is one of the best places in Africa for hiking though choose your season carefully – the summer rains might produce bursts of flowers and lush green meadows but lightning storms are a hazard, while the dry winters are extremely cold at night with sharp frosts and snow falls on the upper reaches of the mountains.


Cape Town

Recently voted as the World’s Best Destination 2011 by Fodor’s travellers, Cape Town has a lot to live up to. Luckily this buzzing city, cradled between dramatic mountains, historic wineries and gleaming oceans, more than delivers on its promises and fully deserves its reputation.

There’s a wide range of outdoor activities on offer in Cape Town: hiking, biking, sailing, fishing, surfing, diving, and more extreme adventures like abseiling, kloofing (jumping into rivers from cliffs) and sandboarding. The city centre has some fine museums including the thought-provoking District Six Museum while the famous V&A Waterfront receives over 20 million visitors a year and is a must for great shopping and eating.

With plenty of interesting sightseeing, contemporary museums, beautiful places and a wide range of tours and activities, you won’t be short of something to see or do in the Mother City.


You might love or you might hate it but there’s one thing visitors are often unable to do, and that’s avoid it. Jo’burg is South Africa’s business centre and logistics hub and many South Africa

Overland tours start or finish there.

Jo’burgers like to eat out, and there are some fabulous restaurants, and when it comes to nightlife, Jo’burg really rocks. South African jazz is particularly popular and there are many sophisticated venues where you can get down and experience the rhythm and soul of Africa. Johannesburg warrants at least a couple of days to take in the sights, eat well, shop and soak up the atmosphere. It’s first world; it’s third world; it’s happening – and its name is Johannesburg.

Western Cape

South Africa’s favourite province is home to iconic Cape Town, the pinch-me-I’m dreaming Cape Winelands and the Garden Route plus whale watching, big game parks, empty beaches and fantastic hiking in pristine mountains. It’s a destination for the energetic: the Garden Route has a range of adventure activities including the mother of all bungee jumps at Bloukrans Bridge. See it to believe it.

Eastern Cape

Home to the Xhosa people and Nelson’s Mandela’s birthplace, the Eastern Cape remains one of South Africa’s least developed provinces. The scattered villages and empty coastlines promise an authentically wild experience, far removed from the more familiar South Africa destinations.

Northern Cape

Seemingly endless horizons and a distinct lack of people characterise South Africa’s largest and least populated province. With its stark and unforgiving environments, the Northern Cape appears lifeless during much of the year but the winter rains trigger a mass eruption of spring flowers.

KwaZulu Natal

With its curious blend of English colonialism, Zulu culture and Indian influences, KwaZulu Natal is a bit of an anomaly. It is however home to superb national parks, the dramatic Drakensberg Mountains, historical battlefield sites and a tropical coastline boasting scuba diving and surfing.


Home to the Kruger National Park and the Panorama Route, Mpumalanga is neither short on wildlife nor big views. Easily accessible from Johannesburg, there aren’t many South Africa overland tours that don’t include this province on their itineraries.


South Africa’s smallest province is not only the most populated but – thanks to the presence of big, bold and brash Johannesburg – the country’s economic powerhouse too. Many South Africa overland tours start or finish in the ‘City of Gold’.


Bungee Jumping

Adrenalin junkies rest easy: South Africa and China may be duking it out for title of the highest commercial bungee jump in the world, but at 216 metres, South Africa’s version is so huge that the first rebound is longer than the full descent at Victoria Falls.

It’s on the Garden Route at the Bloukrans Bridge, which marks the border with the Eastern Cape and Western Cape provinces. All Garden Route overland tours stop here, giving you the opportunity to jump. There are also a range of jumps and a bridge swing on the much lower Gouritz River Bridge, closer to Cape Town.

Bungee jumping is a must for those seeking the ultimate adrenalin rush. Standing on the lip of the bungee platform is terrifying. It’s a fear so intense that it grips every organ in your body and pickles your mind. Jumping off the platform takes all the courage you can muster. For a few exhilarating seconds, you plummet through space and silence, before feeling the tug of the bungee cord as it reaches its optimum length.

But it’s not over then. The jump is followed by a series of giant exhilarating bounces that take you on an incredible ride through the Bloukrans Gorge. The bridge comes careening back towards you. Again you fly, without the feel of the cord at your feet. What are you waiting for? 5, 4, 3, 2, 1…bungee!


It surprises many visitors to learn that South Africa is not as well established as other countries on the global hiking circuit. Thanks to the beautiful, and often rugged, scenery, an abundance of wildlife and a great climate, South Africa is a great destination for hiking and walking. There are trails all across the country lasting from just a few hours to several days.

The contrasts are vast: from the lofty peaks of the Drakensberg to coastal and mountain walks in the achingly beautiful Cape and all the national parks and reserves in between. Each trail has its own attractions, offering panoramic views, wonderful wildlife, birdlife and plant life as well as fascinating geographical contrasts. Trails are operated by forestry or nature conservation bodies, various parks boards, municipalities and many private land owners. New trails are opening up more and more of some of the most unforgettable countryside in the world.

Although many trails can be walked without a guide, we’d suggest a guide for mountain hiking in the Drakensberg and the Cape mountains. And in big game country, the safari camps in the national parks and reserves offer game walks with a tracker and armed ranger.

Go for a hike in South Africa – there is no better way to experience wild places than to put your boots on and your feet on the ground, one in front of the other.


The people of South Africa have gone through a cycle of change for hundreds of years. Evidence of human occupation of South Africa extends back 40 000 years, when the Khoi Khoi and San peoples occupied the land. Later they were joined by the Bantu who migrated from the north. The Europeans landed at Table Bay from the 17th century. The Dutch (Boers) staked out the land and began their Great Trek to the interior, where they established the new colonies of the Orange Free State and the Transvaal. The British controlled the towns and coast.

A century of skirmish, conflict and casualty ensued between the British, the Boers and the tribes who owned the land that they desired so much. The discovery of diamonds, and later gold in the Transvaal at the end of the 19th century, resulted in an English invasion which sparked the second Anglo-Boer War. Lives were lost on a massive scale before British victory in 1902. The Union of South Africa was established to mend the country they had nearly destroyed.

An uneasy power-sharing between the two groups held sway until the 1940s, when the Afrikaner National Party was able to gain a strong majority. This had disastrous consequences for the black people of South Africa. Increasingly repressive legislation was introduced and apartheid (‘being apart’) reared its ugly head. Pass laws and classification forced blacks to live separate and inferior lives. Race laws touched every aspect of social life, including a prohibition of marriage between non-whites and whites, and the sanctioning of ‘white-only’ jobs, services and public places. Non-compliance was dealt with harshly. All blacks were required to carry pass books.

In 1960 black demonstrators in Sharpeville who refused to carry their pass books clashed with the police. The conflict left 69 people dead and the government declared a state of emergency. Homelands were created from 1976 to 1981 as independent states ensuring the preservation of white supremacy elsewhere. The homelands denationalised nine million black South Africans who now needed passports to enter South Africa: they were aliens in their own country. The principal black opposition movement was the African National Congress (ANC). The bulk of the ANC’s organisation including its military wing worked in exile. During the state of emergency which continued intermittently until 1989, thousands of activists of the ANC and other groups were arrested. Some died in police custody and others were either banished from the country or imprisoned for life. Nelson Mandela was one of these.

In the 1989 elections, the hard-line national party president, PW Botha, gave way to the much more progressive FW De Klerk. The new government faced constant pressure from the international community and human rights bodies to dismantle apartheid. Over the next 12 months, the De Klerk government removed the ban on the ANC, the South African Communist Party and 30 other anti-apartheid groups. They released the jailed ANC leadership including its leader Nelson Mandela, who had been imprisoned for 27 years. Mandela and his ANC colleagues immediately started negotiating a political settlement with the white government.

After years of struggle during one of the most politically turbulent periods on earth, the ANC was democratically elected to power in 1994. Mandela as president created the ‘Rainbow Nation’. De Klerk became deputy president and he and Mandela jointly won the Nobel Peace Prize. The priorities for the new government were straightforward but daunting: to provide decent standards of housing, education, and health care to the majority black population – needs that had been ignored under the apartheid regime. Before the 1999 elections, Mandela announced that he would not stand for a second term and passed the presidential reins to Thabo Mbeki. Mandela is still one of Africa’s finest statesmen and the majority of South Africans hold great respect and admiration for him. The depth of change required in South Africa is enormous – poverty, unemployment and crime are problems that will take generations to overcome – but an atmosphere of freedom and hope has settled over a new South Africa.

Read more about South Africa’s destinations, parks & reserves or adventure activities, or browse our recommended South Africa overland tours.

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