Historically, South Africa was the pariah of the world under its infamous apartheid regime, but caught the imagination of all with Nelson Mandela's release from prison in 1990, followed by the peaceful, first democratic elections in 1994. Since then, it has become one of the top travel destinations, blending elements of both 'Africa of old' with modernity. On one hand, one can escape to wild, remote areas and experience exceptional game viewing and true wilderness. Then, just an hour's flight away, there are modern cities and hotels that compete with the best in the world. With 11 official languages and a diverse range of cultures and ways of life, it is no wonder that Mandela has named South Africans "the rainbow nation".
When it comes to wildlife and scenery, South Africa has a plethora of places to see, including a number of World Heritage Sites and incredible game reserves. One of the most beautiful cities in the world, Cape Town is built amongst an entire, unique Cape Floral Kingdom, one of only six Plant Kingdoms that cover the Earth. There are more naturally occurring, different species of flowers just around Cape Town than there are in the whole of North America or the whole of Europe! On the other side of the spectrum are the deserts and arid areas, including the world's first National Park that traverses the borders of two countries, the Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park.
The coastline of South Africa is enormous, offering superb scenery, such as sandy beaches and sheer, fynbos-covered cliffs of the Garden Route, as well as amazing wildlife opportunities, from southern right whales breaching off Cape Town to pristine coral reefs on the KwaZulu-Natal Coast. The pride of South Africa's natural heritage is the Kruger National Park. At 2 million hectares and over 300km long, this enormous area encompasses a savannah landscape with 147 mammal species, over 400 bird species and numerous reptiles, amphibians and insects.
This diversity is echoed in its peoples. Ancient rock art is a silent testimony to the vanished culture of the first human inhabitants - the San or Bushman people - and the powerful civilisations of Mapungubwe and Thulamela who traded with Chinese and Arab traders a thousand years ago remain entrenched in the ruins of their rock-walled hilltop cities. Later the subregion became a stepping stone between Europe and the spices of the East, and then its own mineral riches were discovered. At the beginning of the 21st century this is a country filled with a colourful mixture of people and cultures, a heady history and not least, a natural heritage that has South Africans defining their land as "a world in one country."
Situated at the southern edge of the African continent, South Africa is bounded by oceans on three sides, with an interior that has a wonderful assortment of habitats, from lush tropical forests to arid deserts, from mountains to the open savannah of the bushveld.
Much of South Africa's natural wealth can be explored in facts and figures - on 1% of the planet's total land surface it has 10% of the world's known bird, fish and plant species and 5% of the world's mammal and reptile species; the third most biologically diverse country on Earth. Such diversity is due to great variations in climate, geology and landscape. Geologically, the country can be divided into three main regions: A narrow coastal strip that demarcates the edge of the continent for 3 000km, an extensive central plateau reaching 2 000 metres above sea level, and the Great Escarpment whose mountain ranges and hills stand in between the first two. These can be split further into rolling plains dotted with acacia trees and scattered dwellings, grasslands that meet the blue sky at the ruler-straight horizon, enormous brooding peaks of the Drakensberg, and chattering rivers that force themselves noisily through narrow gorges - to name but a few.
At the southernmost point, Table Mountain stands like a sentinel guarding Cape Town and its beaches. The south-western Cape is home to the Cape Floral Kingdom, one of the world's six Plant Kingdoms. Its heath-like vegetation, called 'fynbos', is endemic to this area - some 8 000 plant species grow only here, making this one of the most significant concentrations of plant species on Earth. Along the coast eastwards is the dramatic, rocky shoreline where forests grow down steep cliffs to meet spectacular, rough seas crashing on jagged rocks: the Garden Route.
Moving north-east, the straight lines of the arid Karroo with its semi-desert and arid-adapted life give way to the endless, flat grasslands of the plateau, formed millions of years ago when the centre of the continent lifted up. This is the country's economic centre both in terms of grain produce and mineral wealth; some of the world's largest gold and diamond deposits lie deep beneath the unassuming surface.
Around the centre, the escarpment's mountain ranges break the flatness and the land falls towards the coast. These land forms are not just beautiful but are of great importance in the generation of rainfall and runoff; all major rivers have their origins amongst the peaks and precipitous cliffs.
The country's eastern edges - bordered by the Lebombo Mountains (and Mozambique and Swaziland) in the north-east and the Indian Ocean in the south-east - generally receive more rainfall and are covered with savannah bushveld and woodland. This is the site of some of Africa's great conservation and wildlife stories, such as the Kruger National Park, the Hluhluwe Game Reserve where the southern white rhino was brought back from the brink of extinction, and the iSimangaliso (Greater St Lucia) Wetland Park, where the great sea turtles haul themselves up onto the beaches to lay their eggs.
Despite being threatened by increasing population numbers and development, many game reserves and national parks dot the country, protecting some of its 243 mammal, 900 bird, 370 reptile and 220 fish species and its more than 20 300 species of flowering plants. Each reserve or concession serves a vital role in helping to protect a small piece of this immense, picturesque and life-filled land.
The weather in South Africa is generally pleasant throughout the year – warm to hot days, and cool to warm nights. During our winter months however (May to September), it can get very cold at night and in the early morning, particularly when on safari, so we would like to suggest that you pack accordingly – very warm clothing including an anorak/winter jacket, a beanie (woollen hat), scarf and gloves are recommended.
January to March is the peak of summer and the rainfall season in most of the country. Days are normally warm with afternoon cloud build up and possible showers although these are usually short-lived. Wildlife can disperse during this time in search of new grazing. The Cape Province has it’s rainfall in the winter months so it can be hot, dry and windy at this time.
During April to May morning temperatures start to drop and the evenings are cooler. Rainfall is limited and as the free-standing waters dry out, wildlife start to congregate more at perennial water sources.
The early part of June is very cold in the mornings and evenings, occasionally even dropping below zero, and winter lasts until August. Days are normally sunny and pleasant with occasional cold snaps, and windy spells towards the end of this period. Game viewing can be excellent in the dry winter months in some areas. The Cape can experience lovely sunny but cool weather during this period. It is also the rainy season in the Cape so some days can be quite wet and windy.
Spring starts in September with all the vegetation coming into leaf and days are much warmer with the occasional cool evening and morning. From October we experience very warm sunny days with warm evenings. Some rains are experienced sporadically, though larger showers can be expected usually only around December. Wildlife sightings can vary depending how early the rains have started.
Despite regional differences, South Africa’s climate is generally mild throughout the year. Snowfall is limited to the highest mountain peaks and it is a relatively dry country with a mean annual rainfall of 502 millimetres.