Basic information about the country in general:
The Republic of South Africa is the southernmost and the 9th largest country in Africa in terms of size, it is more than 13 times larger than Hungary. The country's topography is very varied. It is the 5th 'closest' country to Antarctica.
Hundreds of languages and dialects are spoken in the country, of which 11 are official languages, the most widely spoken being Afrikaans, Zulu and English.
The official currency of the country is the South African Rand (ZAR). One Rand was worth ~0,05 Euros at the beginning of 2023.
One of the country’s unique features is that it has three capitals: 1. Cape Town, the political capital, 2. Pretoria, the administrative capital, and 3. Bloemfontein, the judicial capital. But in addition to all these, one of its most important city is Johannesburg.
Another speciality is that the well-known Cape of Good Hope is located here, this is where the Atlantic -, and the Indian Ocean meet and bring together currents of completely different temperatures. To the west of the Cape of Good Hope, the Atlantic Ocean brings its ice-cold waters from Antarctica. And to the east of the Cape of Good Hope, the water is much warmer and more pleasant for swimming.
The proximity of the oceans has a significant influence on the country's climate. The country has a warm subtropical climate. Average temperatures are around 25°C in the warm summer (which is December to February) and around 12°C in the winter (July to August) (obviously, due to the size of the country and its varied topography, the temperature changes between different regions). However, the difference in rainfall is more striking, with the winter months being the wettest around Cape Town (on the western Atlantic coast) and the summer months on the eastern coast.
For all other (non-SA specific) information, see my blog post "African Adventure - what you need to know before traveling to Africa".
Now let's get down to business!
The perfect 8-day South Africa itinerary:
South Africa itinerary:
2 days in Cape Town: Lion's Head, Table Mountain, Clifton Beach, Camps Bay Beach, Sea Point, City Centre
2 days around Cape Town: Cape of Good Hope, Diaz Beach, Boulders Beach, Kirstenbosch Botanical Gardens
4 days Garden Route: Mossel Bay, Wilderness Beach, Kingfisher trail, Paradise Ridge, Gericke's Point, Robberg Hiking, Plettenberg Bay, bridges, suspension bridges, Storms River, St Francis Bay, Sardinia bay, Port Elizabeth...
If you're coming from Europe, even though it's a long journey overseas, the time difference is not a problem, as there is only an hour difference (in European winter time).
So as soon as you arrive (if you're not on an evening flight), you can right away hit the town. It's worth starting with something lighter after the long journey, such as a tour around Sea Point district and its beautiful beaches.
We squeezed in a 5-6 km walk from Sea Point to Camps Bay straight after the long flight, and we were gifted with beautiful scenery at every corner. The road takes you along the coastline, with the ocean on the right, and the city, coastal villas, Lion’s Head and the Table Mountain in the background on the left.
I wrote already about the contrast and the huge gap between the rich and the poor.
Well, on this coastal walk we saw nothing but luxury, this stretch of coastline is full of stunningly beautiful, spacious ocean view villas, most of them are luxury hotels and residences for the rich. All the buildings in this part are surrounded by security fences, often even with live wires on top of the fences to prevent climbing over. Whereas just a few kilometers from here on the way from the airport to the city, you see huge ghettos (townships). There are not many asphalt roads in the townships and they are often surrounded by rubbish. But what's quite surprising is that despite the poor circumstances, most of the bungallows have a satellite.
But back to the beautiful coastal section, which you should not miss, is the
Clifton beach - here you have to pay attention to find one of the staircases leading down to the beach, as they are very clogged. Clifton beach is one big bay technically, but it's divided into four different beaches, which are not separated from each other in reality. It's very varied and the coastline is beautiful, with Lion's Head’s cliff towering over the beach in the background. The beach is sandy all the way along, but there are some sections with huge boulders, which makes the view very special. As because the cold Antarctic current coming in here, the ocean is freezing cold so it's not really possible to walk barefoot in the shallow water along the beach. You can barely feel your feet after about 4-5 seconds, they’ll literally freeze... :D The ocean definitely wakes you up if you dare to do a quick refreshing dip.
For sunset I recommend Camps Bay. It is indeed a sandy beach bay, with rocks on either side and in the middle, and it is a super experience to watch the sunset from the rocks while the warm breeze caresses you.
After sunset, be sure to take an uber to your accommodation!
And now that we've had the chilling part on the beaches, let's move on to some more challenging terrain, namely two hiking trails. For us, it was a pretty hard core day due to time constraints, because we climbed Table Mountain (only up, we took the cable car back down) and Lion's Head in the same day, and in between we were also in the city center.
We thought a lot about which one to start with and at which one to have the sunset at. Finally we decided to climb Table Mountain in the morning and admire the sunset from Lion's Head.
So early in the morning, right after an early breakfast, we called an Uber and headed to the start of the hike. Which was a good decision really, as it's a fairly difficult hike with little shade. And on top of that the terrain is difficult because it's steep and rocky.
However, as we went in the morning, it wasn't too hot, there weren't crowds (which is important because the hiking trail is very narrow), and although the sunset is beautiful from the top, we were told that the weather is not so predictable and if the wind is very strong they close the lift, which means that you have to come down in the dark on the knee-straining hike - which we didn't want.
But in hindsight it was a very good decision and we would do it like this next time as well. There are several hiking trails leading uphill, we chose the most popular and shortest (about 3km one way) Platteklip Gorge.
It doesn't sound too difficult with its 3km, but you have to be in shape to do it, because it's really not easy terrain, but if you are fit it's doable. Although it's described as a ~2-hour hike, I think it's more like 3 hours at a comfortable pace.
What is very important is to have enough water (minimum ~1 liter per person) and sunscreen.
Throughout the hike there are very nice views of the town, the bay behind it, the harbour and of course Lion's Head. Once you reach the top of the steep ascent, you're actually on a completely flat, paved walking path.
By the way, the Table Mountain gets its name from its flat surface, because from the city and from a distance it looks completely flat, flat like a table. (Even though from above you can see the ridges of the mountain, but from a distance it is really flat.)
So when it's humid, there's often a layer of clouds on top of the mountain, which they call Tablecloth (after the name of the mountain) :)
The hiking trails continue up the mountain, but we only hiked the short little nature trail due to time constraints, otherwise you could spend days hiking here.
Then came the less pleasant part, queuing for the lift. Even though we had bought the ticket online in advance (220 rand one way, 395 rand return), we still had to queue for an hour. But it's definitely advisable to buy it online, firstly because sometimes they fill up and then they don't sell any more tickets for that morning/afternoon, and secondly because you don't have to queue for the ticket (because there's a different queue for the ticket than for the cable car itself). Obviously there is a loophole here, the Fast Track ticket, but it is almost four times the price. And the queue is not so bad, because they give out free umbrellas (because of the sun) and you can enjoy the view while standing in line, and quite a few people can get on the lift at once. The lift is really cool by the way, because it's partially open on the side and does a 360 degree turn until you get down (less than 2 minutes), so you can see the view in all directions for a few seconds.
After this adventure we went downtown and walked around a bit. Saturday is market day, when the main square turns into a huge market square and it's mainly the locals who go shopping for food, clothes and other items.
After a short rest, we set off to tackle the second mountain of the day, the Lion's Head.
This is an easier terrain in terms of stamina than Table Mountain. However, towards the end before the summit, there is a section where you have to climb the rocks, it's probably quite a challenge for the ones who are afraid of heights as there is no protection fence. However, the view from the top makes up for everything.
There is no other option, if you want to admire the view from the top you have to hike the ~3,8 km round trip. I highly recommend going up at sunset, as it is truly breathtaking. And again, it's very important that you have enough water with you because there are no shopping facilities on the way. Also, if you opt for the sunset version, you will need a torch/phone on the way down.
As the section near the top is quite dangerous, steep and climbing, my advice is to start hiking down straight after sunset, and then you'll get through the critical section at dusk, and by the time it's completely dark you'll be on easier terrain, but there's no lighting, so you really need a torch.
I did write earlier that it's better to stay at the accommodation after dark. But obviously if you want to watch the sunset, that's not feasible, because it's about 1-1,5 hours to get down afterwards. But you will be surrounded by many hikers, and after you get down you can call the uber, so it was feasible this way.
Uber, SIM card, car rental
I've mentioned Uber several times. I would definitely recommend it within Cape Town because it's easy, fast, reliable. For the few days you are in town, it is unnecessary and expensive to rent a car. However, to use Uber you need the internet, so it is advisable to buy a SIM card at the airport. 5 GB internet + 60 minutes was 359 rand (about 19 Euros), not very cheap but it worked quite well for us. There are two providers MTN and Vodafone (Vodafone markets itself at the baggage claim), but you can only buy it after you come out of the baggage claim, and there is also an MTN counter which has similar conditions but cheaper, so it is better to buy the SIM card from them.
After the Cape Town adventure was over, we paddled off to more distant waters, for which car rental was essential.
I compared a lot of car rental companies, but I couldn't find any with full insurance and zero excess, so I booked with Drive Direct Car Rental. And (it's not a paid advertising), but it really was a fair and professional little business. Everything happened as agreed, they delivered the car to the hotel for pick up and we dropped it off at the airport. It was a well maintained car and the owner was very nice. I can really recommend them. The only downside was that we didn't have unlimited mileage on the rental, but we knew that in advance, so it didn't come as a surprise. But otherwise, a lot of car rental companies limit the mileage included in the price to 200 km per day.
Around Cape Town:
Now that we had a car, we could start our road trip to the Cape Peninsula (the peninsula with the Cape of Good Hope at its tip) and the Garden Route.
Cape of Good Hope
About 1,5 hours drive from Cape Town, the Cape Peninsula is home to the Cape Point Nature Reserve and the Cape of Good Hope.
Google Maps may advise the non-coastal route as it might be slightly quicker, but I would definitely recommend meandering down the west coast all the way and you'll pass through some beautiful scenery. For example, on the beautiful Chapmans Peak Drive and Long Beach, make sure to get out of the car for a while and walk barefoot on the white sand.
By the way, Chapmans Peak Drive is a toll road, but you only pay a small fee (like almost anywhere else, you can pay by card).
You will then soon arrive at Cape Point National Park.
Throughout Africa, you have to get used to the fact that the entrance fees to national parks and major tourist attractions are different for locals and tourists. This was not different here either, the tourist price was around 376 Rand.
Already at the entrance to the national park there was a Baboon sign, warning to drive carefully, as baboons can cross the road at any time.
We had not seen any on the road, but to our surprise, just as we reached the Cape Point sign at the start of the trail, a big baboon walked up and settled in front of the sign. It was our first animal experience in Africa, and at the time we had no idea how many more baboons we would see on the whole trip.
With excitement we set off on the beautifully maintained hiking trail to the Cape of Good Hope, and on the way we admired Diaz Beach below us, which was named after the famous Portuguese explorer Bartolomeo Diaz. Diaz was the first European to circumnavigate the Cape of Good Hope, in 1488.
When we reached the Cape of Good Hope, we were confronted with a spectacle of endless oceans, as the legend says the cliff at Cape of Good Hope is the place where the Atlantic and Indian oceans meet. You can actually see where the two oceans meet because there are always waves (of course, it is also possible that there is a cliff under the water where the waves always break... :) )
At the Cape of Good Hope, be careful with your baseball caps and hats, because the wind is always blowing.
After this short hike, be sure to head up to the lighthouse. This is a short but steep section. You can also take the cable car, but if you're in good shape, it's unnecessary.
Behind the lighthouse there are some stone viewing terraces with a beautiful view of Diaz Beach, and even sunglasses are not safe here, because the wind blows even harder (as you can see in the picture... :D ). I actually felt like I was in a wind tunnel for a few moments.
Behind the lighthouse there is a short hiking trail to the southernmost cliff of the national park, where there is a small old lighthouse, but tourists are not allowed to go all the way to the lighthouse. It's a short half-hour detour or so, but if you can fit it into your time I'd definitely recommend it.
And by the way, many people think, wrongly!, that this is the southernmost point of continental Africa --> because this is the Cape of Good Hope, but it is only the southernmost point of the Cape Town area.
The real southernmost point is in the province of L'Agulhas.
And some even say that's where the Indian and Atlantic oceans actually meet...
But what is certain is that we have already felt the significant difference in water temperature already just a bit east of the Cape of Good Hope (still before the southernmost point).
Just half an hour's drive from the Cape of Good Hope is Boulders Beach, a must-visit place for anyone traveling to Cape Town.
Located on the Cape Peninsula, Boulders Beach is the perfect place to get close to the protected colony of African penguins in their natural habitat.
The African Penguin or Cape Penguin.
Its specialty is that it has a bare pink patch of skin above its eyes, which is helping to keep its body temperature in balance.
At Boulders Beach, you can admire hundreds of penguins from just a few meters distance, quite a unique experience. Immediately after the entrance, a paved walkway leads you in two different directions:
One leads directly to the beach, the beach where the little penguins rest and from where they go fishing in the ocean.
The other leads through a small forest area where you can see penguin nests and, if you're lucky, even penguin eggs.
The two walkways are completely different experiences, so make sure to walk along both. You will see a lot more penguins on the coastal section.
Depending on which month you visit, you may see baby penguins, molting and nesting but as I said as you are on the walkway you just see them from a few meters away. Then you probably ask yourself, where were those pictures taken where you can actually be in touch-distance from the penguins...
To experience this, you need to exit through the entrance of the park and there is a small footpath on the left, which will take you to the "real" Boulders Beach. It's important to keep the receipt and the entrance ticket (275 Rand) from before.
Once you enter the beach area, you see the beautiful beach, which is surrounded by huge boulders, but no penguins... To finally get within arm's distance of the penguins, you have to climb over the big boulders all the way to Middle Beach, and there the real experience awaits. There are no fences, the penguins roam free on the beach.
The furthest side of Middle Beach is bounded by a big rock, beyond which tourists are not allowed, but the penguins are free to roam, but there are always a few adventurous penguins who venture into the tourist area.
They're so tame that you would be able to pet them, but don't do that! Respect the fact that they are wild animals. It is forbidden to feed them and touch them. You may not see the long term consequences at the time, but once they get used to being fed by humans, it becomes increasingly difficult for them to fend for themselves in the wild.
Kirstenbosch Botanical Garden
Kirstenbosch Botanical Garden is a beautiful park at the foot of Table Mountain, established in 1913 to preserve the country's unique flora.
Admission is 220 Rand per person. If one can fit it into their time and budget, I think it's a super programme, but if you have to choose, I think you should go for Boulders Beach.
The Garden Route is the most superb 4-5 day road trip route in South Africa, within a reasonable distance from Cape Town by car. See above my tips on car rental.
The roads from Cape Town all the way to the Garden Route are in good condition. There is a good quality motorway, although around the towns people easily cross the multi-lane roads on foot, so you have to be careful while driving, but it was definitely a much better drive than we expected.
Mossel Bay - Wilderness - Gericke's Point - Knysna - Robberg National Park - Plettenberg Bay - Tsitsikamma National Park - Sardinia Bay Beach - Port Elizabeth
Mossel Bay is the first major stop on the Garden Route. It's a small town with a beach, and while you're here, don't miss Pinnacle Point, which is a large golf course and residential complex, but that's not the point, it's also an archaeological site where one of the earliest human remains were found. There's a nice developed walkway down to the beach, and there are also longer coastal hiking trails and caves.
The other beaches at Mossel Bay were not my favourite, there are many more beautiful beaches along the way.
This is the second overnight base on the Garden Route. It's a cute, tiny village, at a very good location, at the mouth of the Touws Rivier.
It has a small beach, plus the Dolphin's Point viewpoint has a nice view of the bay and the old railroad on the other side. Drive carefully around the center, as there are 60 km/h signs on the main road, and there is a speed check camera.
Half Collared Kingfisher Trail
This is a fully developed trail, which you shouldn’t miss if you are at Wilderness. It's shaded in many places and has a very special part, where there's a small river that cuts the trail and you can cross it on a small hand-powered raft.
Unfortunately, we didn't see any kingfishers on the way, but a refreshing dip in the waterfall at the end of the tour made up for it. You can even jump in a few places here, but we stuck to just swimming in the falls.
Gericke's Point is a great couple of hour coastal walk (with lots of water snails... :) ) that leads to a large rock at the end.
It's easy to get soaked on the last stretch to get over the spit, especially at high tide, but if you can get over and climb the cliff, you'll be greeted by this sight.
Plettenberg Bay, Robberg Nature Reserve
Plettenberg Bay is an important stop on the Garden Route, thanks to the Robberg Nature Reserve.
For me, this was probably the highlight of the whole Garden Route. This national park is located on a peninsula that borders Plettenberg Bay from the southwest.
The entrance fee to Robberg Island was 120 Rand per person.
There are three different lengths of hiking trail to explore the park.
1, The Gap - 2,1 km
This is the shortest 'loop' route. For those with only a short time to spare, this hike is recommended. From here you can enjoy beautiful views of both the north and south coast of the peninsula. This section can be done with young children and older people.
However, the seal colony may not be visible from this section.
2, Witsand - 5,5 km
This is a medium length and medium duration hike. It takes about 2-3 hours at a comfortable pace with plenty of viewing. On this hike, the famous seal colony can be seen in the north-eastern section. Don’t forget your binoculars for a better experience. We were not only scanning this section for the seals, but also for the sharks, as we met a schoolgirl at the start of the hike who was scanning Plettenberg Bay from the first viewpoint from a camping chair, looking for sharks. (As we learned, sharks are usually watched from a lookout in Robberg National Park, both for the safety of the swimmers and surfers, and to protect the sharks as well, because if there is a shark attack, the sharks are not safe after it either.)
At the beginning of the tour, this shark watching lookout offers a wonderful view of the bay and if the weather is clear, it is easy to spot sharks from high up. If the weather is bad, it's more challenging because the ocean surface ripples in windy weather.
So, with this in mind, we've been looking for sharks, and the decoy waves have often led us to believe that we've seen a shark fin, but it always turned out that unfortunately we haven't. The chances are much higher to spot sharks in the morning, and we were there late afternoon, but never mind, we did our best.
The other really cool part of this middle circle, apart from the seals, is the sand hill. If you hike clockwise, shortly after the seals, where the middle and long hike forks, you descend down a big sand hill to the beach following the Witsand trail. I definitely recommend walking barefoot for this one, as it is an amazing experience to walk down / descend the steep sand slope while sinking into the sand. A scarf is also useful here, because if it is a bit windy, the sand is carried by the wind.
After descending you arrive at a beautiful beach, with a big rock at the end. There is a nice well-maintained walkway on it.
This rock is the favourite nesting place for seagulls. Along the way there are two benches where you can rest and admire the endless ocean, and if you're curious you might even see a penguin.
3, The Point - 9,2 km
This is a long hiking trail with some steeper and more difficult sections. Due to its length and difficulty, it is recommended for those who are in good physical condition. It is a beautiful hiking trail.
However, I would recommend the Witsand circuit, it is the golden medium and you can see the essence of the trail on this hike. It can be easily completed in terms of distance, so you don't have to dedicate a whole day to it, but just an afternoon if you're short of time.
Lookout Beach in Plettenberg Bay is worth a stop.
Tsitsikamma National Park
As you continue along the Garden Route to Tsitsikamma National Park, it's worth stopping to take a few photos from the Bloukrans Bridge. Then you can start the last major hike of the Garden Route in Tsitsikamma National Park. The entrance fee is 70 Rand for locals and 280 Rand for tourists.
I recommend 2 hiking trails in this national park, one is a shorter 1 hour easy hike to the suspension bridges at the river mouth. Here the trail is paved all the way, it is a very easy hike.
At the end, the last suspension bridge offers a beautiful view of the canyon, where kayak tours are usually led. You may see a family of dassies (marmot-like animals) and even seals on the hike.
This section can be a warm-up for the longer Tsitsikamma waterfall hike.
I recommend the Tsitsikamma Falls hike only for the adventurous and relatively fit people. Wearing suitable hiking shoes is very important here, because the trail is often rocky, and sometimes you have to use your hands to climb.
The trail runs along the coast, sometimes through forests, sometimes over rocks, and sometimes through rocky seas. During our trip to South Africa, this hike was the most challenging for us, partly because it was still raining just before we started the hike, so we had to walk on slippery rocks in many places. But all in all, I'm really glad we did it despite the rainy conditions, because it really is a beautiful route, and there's this amazing waterfall at the end, in which you can even swim.
Port Elizabeth: Lighthouse, Sardinia Beach
Arriving at Port Elizabeth, we reached the final stop on the famous Garden Route. Here I would like to highlight two things briefly:
Cape Recife Lighthouse, where you can see penguins along the beach.
And Sardinia Beach which is like a mini desert next to the ocean. From the car park you can climb a big sand dune to get to the beach. And it's a similar experience to the Witsand sand hill in Robberg National Park, except that if you go down there, you have to climb back up again... :D
This beach was a perfect closure to the Garden Route road trip.
I think you need at least 4-5 days to explore the Garden Route, but of course the sky's the limit. You can easily spend more days than that if you have plenty of time.
I think it was a super experience and we really saw a lot of beautiful natural wonders along the way, so I would recommend it to everyone.
From here, some people go further north, possibly all the way to Kruger National Park, but for us it was time to go back to Cape Town airport (this ride was almost a full day drive with a few stops) to start the second leg of our African adventure:
Safari in Botswana & Victoria Falls in Zimbabwe
If you enjoyed my post, come with me to these countries too.