The 6 Best Things You'll Bring Back from South Africa
Much as we love that old traveler's maxim—take only memories, leave only footprints—the first half goes out the window as soon as you land in South Africa.
Not that we're saying you'll need a whole extra suitcase for your spoils. Many of them—arguably the best, in fact—will be souvenirs of the experiential kind. But make no mistake: In a land of exquisite wine regions, craft markets and galleries, you'll still want some extra room in your luggage—in addition to the extra room on your memory cards.
Here, the six things you'll almost certainly return with:
Enough show-stopping wildlife shots to wallpaper your entire home
Even if you’re just shooting with a smartphone, wildlife is so abundant in South Africa—and that’s before you get out of the urban areas—you can’t help but come home with a Nat Geo-worthy collection of snaps. Think baboons on the street, penguins on the beach—even the occasional Cape Mountain zebra (if you're lucky). To say nothing of the images you capture once you’re actually on a game drive in a safari vehicle.
Kruger is the name that everyone has rightly heard—the iconic national park is home to the Big Five (elephant, lion, rhino, leopard and buffalo) and accordingly epic game drives. But if you're a safari-park-less-traveled type, consider Addo National Park—a preserve established in 1931 amid the lush Sundays River bushland of the Eastern Cape, where 11 highly endangered elephants have since given rise to a population of 350. Their companions include Cape buffalo, black rhino, all manner of antelope and—if you're looking for a smaller find—the rare flightless dung beetle.
On decidedly starker turf—which often makes for unobstructed wildlife spectating—you'll find another reserve: the Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park at the Botswanan border. Officially opened in 2000, this protected patch of the southern Kalahari gives new meaning to animal attraction. The short list of creatures that humans flock to see here: cheetahs, leopards, lions, hyenas, wildebeest, springbok and insanely adorable meerkats. (Then there are the merely insane honey badgers.)
So many additions to your bar, you’ll have to throw more parties
You could make an entire trip out of the country’s centuries-old Winelands (in fact, given the multitude of wine routes and sub-routes, you could make multiple vino-themed trips). And as you’re tasting your way through the various vineyards and wineries, you’ll surely find favorites—from Pinotage to sparkling Methode Cap Classique—that you’ll want to take or ship home.
There are no wrong choices on the Stellenbosch Wine Routes, but one of the wisest choices is a stay at the Delaire Graff Estate on the slopes of Botmaskop Mountain, where your Pinotage will pair perfectly with the resident art collection, gardens and spa.
If you want to stay at an actual vineyard, consider Leeu Estates in Franschhoek, where the Mullineux & Leeu Family Wines team host tastings of Swartland favorites, from the Kloof Street Chenin Blanc to the earthy Mullineux Old Vines White. There's also the surrounding Cape Dutch town to taste and shop your way through.
For a bar addition of a different kind, head to Amarula Lapa in Phalaborwa, along the western border of Kruger National Park, where Amarula liqueur is crafted from the local (and FWIW, nutrient-rich) marula fruit. At the very least, go for a tasting, but if you're there during the January to March harvest, book a factory tour to see how marula is processed.
Happily sore muscles
The hiking ops abound here, from a day trip up Cape Town's Table Mountain—where you'll be rewarded with views of the famed 12 Apostles and V&A Waterfront, among other things—to multi-day adventures. If you're sticking to Table Mountain (or even using it as a starter hike), the Platteklip Gorge route is the most direct. But the India Venster route is arguably the most scenic, starting at the northern slopes and offering unique views of fynbos (the local shrubland) and rock formations.
If you prefer a proper trek, consider the 19-mile Golden Gate Highlands Rhebok Hiking Trail on the Lesotho Border, a two-day hike past sandstone cliffs, streams, ravines and waterfalls, with panoramic view of Lesotho and the Orange Free State.
If you lean even more hardcore, try the 28-mile Otter Trail. Having just turned 50, it's the oldest official hiking trail in South Africa and another of the most beautiful, following the coast between the Storms River mouth and Nature’s Valley, past rivers, streams, dense forests, pristine beaches, tidal pools, the occasional pod of frolicking dolphins and communities of fellow humans as well. (You can stay in basic huts along the trail).
A renewed appreciation for freedom
One of the most stunning experiences you can have not only in South Africa—but in the world—is to visit Nelson Mandela’s cell on Robben Island, where some of the first words spoken to the anti-apartheid revolutionary were, “This is where you will die.” Of course, the eventual Nobel-winning president of the nation didn’t die there, but your tour of the island’s heritage sites—the onetime leper colony’s graveyard, the quarries, the bunkers and the maximum-security prison—will help you understand what a triumph survival really was.
The two-square-mile Robben Island (Dutch for “seal island”) in Table Bay became a World Heritage Site in 1999 and receives thousands of people from across the globe who want to see where Mandela was imprisoned for 18 years (he served 27 years in total). Many of the guides are former prisoners, their own personal stories adding another layer of gravitas and context.
Crafts of all kinds
Johannesburg is an artisan-lover's dream. Start at the Market Shed at 1 Fox (the oldest precinct in town, and one of the first mining camps that sprung up when gold was first discovered here), where you'll find the likes of the Little Shoppe of Treasures—a bonanza of Zulu beaded necklaces, chunky bracelets and bangles.
Another can’t miss-stop is Makotis, which offers an array of traditional Shweshwe fabrics and dresses, as well as ready-made Sepedi shirts (the dyed, geometric-patterned cotton fabric is hugely popular in traditional South African clothing design).
Then there's Keyes Art Mile, Johannesburg’s chicest art and design venue—a mix of galleries, restaurants and shops. Every second Saturday morning, the stretch comes alive with Art and Design Saturdays (think talks, walks, screenings and performances).
From the vuvuzelas to the Zulu isicathamiya singing to the harmonic mbaqanga, South African music can be hauntingly beautiful. For an intro course, try Katzy’s in Johannesburg, where you'll find an impressive lineup of regional bands, whose CDs make for the most soothing soundtracks when you're inevitably missing South Africa at home.