South Africa Adventures Great and Small

by Sam Barnett on 04 December 2015, 12:12PM

When thinking about South African adventures, your mind may be imagining one of two scenes.


If you’re an explorer, a person of the outdoor world and one keen for activity, then it is a safari. You’re amidst a vast wilderness – perhaps the renowned Kruger Park – immersed in the worlds of thousands of creatures great and small, searching for an up-close experience with the Big Five.

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Perhaps though, this is not your idea of a South African adventure. Rather than searching for lions, giraffe and elephants, you are instead thirsting for Merlot and Pinotage. Your adventure is instead one of the palate, a journey through the country’s immense selection of wine.


Yet South Africa offers so much more than its brilliant wildlife and wine. The country’s adventures span history, adrenaline, even sound. It is a diverse country, one characterised by pleasant surprises.

Exciting steps backwards


South Africa’s history dates back to the earliest days of man. For evidence of this, head to the brilliantly named ‘Cradle of Humankind’, a series of caves which were the birthplace to some of our most elderly relatives. The area recently hit the headlines after the discovery of the Homo Naledi, an entirely new human species which roamed the earth millennia ago.
Located 50km north-west of Johannesburg, the Cradle is one of eight South African World Heritage Sites. The caves are set amongst a wilderness home to scores of rare species, an environment which conjures images of when we lived a more wild existence, as evidenced by the 9,000 stone tools found locally.

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Visitors can enjoy an interactive exhibition, showcasing a selection of the site’s 500 hominin fossils which date back more than three million years. Remarkably, the Cradle of Humankind accounts for 40% of the world’s human ancestor fossils.
However, while the fossils are fascinating, the real adventure comes from tracing their roots. The caves are majestic, eerie, grand and weighted by the gravitas of historical importance. Unexpectedly, they are also home to some serious thrills.


Ever tried abseiling? If you’re like me, it’s likely that you did so with your eyes closed – well, the caves have an answer for this. Here, abseilers descend into darkened caves and caverns, the highlight of which is a 34m venture down the wall of Crystal Cave.


Caving, known as potholing in the UK, provides another of the Cradle’s adrenaline-packed adventures. It involves squirming, clambering and limbering through the nooks and crannies of the caves and, in some instances, can also be mixed with abseiling within the caves’ depths. Try the Swarkantz caves for a real challenge, a testing 65m downwards climb between a sandwich of granite and dolomite.


A more recent past can be explored at Zululand, located in South Africa’s KwaZulu-Natal province. The region is the epicentre of South Africa’s Zulu heritage, a place where ancient traditions are both preserved and incorporated with a modern world. This can be experienced through visits to traditional homes, celebrations and even weddings.

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Each February, visitors to Zululand should make their way to Eshowe, a town named after the sounds made when the wind blows through the trees of the local Dlinza Forest. Throughout this month the town hosts the ancient ‘first fruits ceremony’, held by a traditional Zulu healer known as Khekhekhe. During the ceremony he handles poisonous snakes, putting their heads in his mouth, and tells the story of how Chief Dingiswayo gained power over snakes as a young man.


Walk through the imposing Valley of the Kings, birthplace of the influential and (controversially) illegitimate King Shaka. The feared and revered King revolutionised Zulu warfare in the face of European tactics, pioneering the ‘bull horn’ formation which sparked famous victories such as the Battle of Isandwala.


Experience these colonial-era battles by traveling to KwaZulu-Natal’s north-eastern corner, where two of the most famous conflicts in British and South African military history were savagely fought: the Anglo-Boer and Anglo-Zulu wars.


The battlefields remain a startling, haunting location. Grassy plains are interspersed with sloping peaks, the expanses conjuring images of charging warriors, flailing spears and the crack of muskets. Fallen soldiers are commemorated with a series of graves and memorials, varying from piles of white stones to monoliths. Meanwhile expert tour guides add detail and knowledge to the imagery.

Adrenaline-soaked adventures


Of course, South Africa has far more to offer than just its past. For adrenaline seekers, the country delivers an array of thrills.


The Drakensburg Mountains, found in KwaZulu-Natal, are a great place to start. For those in the know, they are reckoned to be among the most spectacular mountain ranges in South Africa.

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Covering a total of 1,000km, the mountain range can be explored from the back of a horse, the seat of a 4x4, the basket of a hot air balloon or even a helicopter. However, none of these options quite compare with skydiving over the range, which offers both the most adrenaline and the best views.


If jumping out of a plane is a little out of your comfort zone, then you may also want to avoid Bloukrans Bridge Bungy, the world’s highest commercial natural bungee jump. Located in the Eastern Cape, the jump hangs a daunting 216m above the Bloukrans river, which snakes its way through a steep, luscious green valley.

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The jump, which has appeared in the Guinness Book of World Records five times, is a terrifying must-do. Yet the bridge also caters well for those whose knees become too shaky and palms too sweaty at the thought of jumping. Non-jumpers can tour the bridge and enjoy the stupendous gorge view, or tackle a variety of more manageable swings and jumps.
To keep the adrenaline pumping, try sandboarding. The extreme sport has become highly popular in the Cape and sees boarders tackle sand dunes in a similar manner to snowboarders on snow.


The sport is quite an easy learn and highly accessible. A multitude of runs are available and these range from beginner through to expert. The dunes are also surprisingly close to Cape Town, just a 45-minute drive from the Western Cape’s provincial capital.

High peak hiking

Famously, Cape Town sits in the shadows of the beautiful Table Mountain, so-called because of its unusual flat top. The mountain can be reached by cable car, but can be hiked by those looking for more adventure.


The Platteklip Gorge is the most direct route up Table Mountain, although it is also believed to be the most challenging. Though difficult, the hike is beautiful, with hikers regularly encountering the dassie (or hyrax), which is the closest living relative to the African elephant. The diversity of the landscape is second to none, with more species of plant growing on Table Mountain than in the entire United Kingdom. This variation attracts a large array of wildlife, including colourful lizards and a host of native birds.

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For an even less beaten track, unmarked and trail-less hiking can be experienced in areas such as the Cederberg and Groot Winterhoek Mountains near Cape Town, the Wolkberg in the Limpopo province and the Drakensberg Mountains in KwaZulu-Natal. This off-route hiking is more suited to seasoned hikers, but offers a freedom and proximity to nature which will excite true adventure-seekers.

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Elsewhere, Tugela Falls, situated in the Royal Natal National Park, are Africa’s highest waterfalls. Crashing down from 947m, the falls begin from above the clouds and descend into a pool surrounded by wilderness.


Hikers at the falls should scamper up the trail to the top of Mont-Aux-Sources. Reached by chain ladders, the trail is not physically challenging but can take up to eight hours. This time is a worthwhile investment thanks to the trail’s breath-taking views across the wild landscape.


Journey through sound


South Africa’s adventures are not just limited to its history, adrenaline and wilderness, they are also found in its music scene. This is no better represented than by the country’s weird and wonderful music festivals. Smaller in size than their UK counterparts, South Africa’s festivals are full of character and community.


AfrikaBurn is one of the more known festivals and is related to its famous American cousin, Burning Man. Held in the sparse, bleak beauty of the Tankwa Karoo national park, AfrikaBurn takes place in April and centres around a variety of art installations, many of which are burnt towards the festival’s end.


The festival works on a gifting system and no money is exchanged. Visitors are encouraged to act as a whole community and express themselves through unique dress, art, dance and a highly varied music line-up.


Equally quirky is the Up the Creek festival, which takes place in January on the banks of the Breede River near Swellendam, Western Cape. Describing itself as ‘like Woodstock, just wetter’, the festival is distinct for its River Stage, which is just that… a stage atop the river. Rather than packed densely in a pit, crowds float on lilos, dinghies and rubber tubes and listen to country and folk music.


Meanwhile, Splashy Fen tends to be the preferred choice for families. Despite its name, this festival’s stages are on dry ground, although river diving is highly encouraged. The popular festival is one of South Africa’s oldest, having been founded in 1990, and attracts some of the country’s hottest music acts from across a range of genres.


The music is complemented by family-focused activities such as zip lines, river tubing and even paintball (possibly more suited to those whose children are a bit older). Splashy Fen takes place in Underberg, KwaZulu-Natal, in March. The town is somewhat sleepier for the other eleven months of the year, when its focus is its dairy and cattle industries, rather than river tubing and riffs.


Cape Town, on the other hand, is a city that parties year-round. The city is arguably best known for its lively, vibrant jazz scene which is championed at venues like the Alexander Bar Upstairs, Asoka, the Crypt Jazz Restaurant and the Piano Bar. Rarely a night out in Cape Town goes by without a heady mix of saxophone, piano and vocals.

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A city often famous for its wine, Cape Town’s bars are also beginning to serve a growing and exciting range of craft beers. The Weinhaus + Biergarten bar was arguably the birthplace of this revolution, one that has now taken the city by storm and is pioneered by local heroes like Gary Pnematicos, founder of Cape Town’s own Citizen Beer.

 
Music enthusiasts should also look to South Africa’s most stylish city, Johannesburg, where fashion meets funk. The host city for South African Fashion Week, Gauteng’s capital is home to a thriving creative scene which meets, greets and dances at the likes of Neighbourgoods Market and Maboneng Precinct. These quirky hangouts combine shopping and swapping with live music from some of the country’s most exciting up-and-coming acts.


These acts can also be found at the city’s boutique indie bars, such as Muse Café, Afrikan Freedom Station and the historic Radium Beerhall. For a pilgrimage to South Africa’s musical heritage, head to Bassline, where acts perform jazz, blues, afro-bear and even slam poetry. A statue of the late, great Brenda Fassie (known as ‘The Madonna of the Townships’) stands outside the club and is testament to Bassline’s contribution to South Africa’s music scene.

An abundance of adventure


Clearly South Africa is a country which possesses more than just fantastic safari and wines. The Rainbow Nation is one full of adventure, whether you are looking to step back into its past, take on its extreme sports, hike its peaks or listen to its music. Whatever your preference, South Africa is a must-experience holiday destination.


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