South Africa is a beautiful country known as the ‘Rainbow Nation’ and the expanse of what you can do and experience there is just as colourful.
It’s a mix of African culture and urban cities with a turbulent past and is teeming with the Big Five and an abundance of wildlife. So what can you do in the Rainbow Nation if you are a solo traveller? Here are just some of the highlights.
Johannesburg is fast becoming one of the hip and happening cities of South Africa, with a cultural uprising that coaxes even the most timid travellers to the streets. Johannesburg has busily redefined itself over the past decade, breathing new life into old warehouses and derelict buildings, while slowly reclaiming sidewalk spaces for markets, cafes, and art galleries. Begin with a drive through the township of Soweto to the famous Vilakazi Street, home to two Nobel Peace Prize winners, Nelson Mandela and Desmond Tutu. In fact, you don’t even have to drive, with options like bike and walking tours taking a slower more personal approach. At Vilakazi Street you will find Mandela’s house, where he returned after his release from prison, is now a small museum holding intimate mementos of his family life. The Apartheid Museum is a good place to start learning about the history of the city and South Africa as a whole. The Neighbourgoods Market are held every Saturday in a parking garage in Braamfontein, foodies gather around giant paellas, raw oysters, and lots of craft beers while listening to funky African tunes pumped out by a local DJ. Arts on Main has grown into a massive urban renewal project that has lured top artists like William Kentridge, an art house cinema, young fashion designers and ambitious new chefs. Go at the right time and you will be able to enjoy drinks and Salsa on the rooftop.
Cape Town is a vibrant city and a great place to start your African adventure. It’s the land of wineries, great beaches and Al Fresco living with a fantastic V&A Waterfront. Take a cable car ride to the top of Table Mountain, a symbol of hope and freedom for views of the city and its beautiful bay, wander around the artisan market at Greenmarket Square, listen to jazz at Cape Grace or take a stroll along Camps Bay and go celeb spotting with a cocktail on the beach whilst watch bronzed bodies playing volley ball.
To delve into the history of the country, a day visit to Robben Island is definitely a must. Boats from the waterfront will take you to Robben Island, once a high security prison where Nelson Mandela served 18 years within its walls. Former prisoners and guards will take you on a tour around the island which has now become a symbol of peaceful resistance.
Port Elizabeth is a windy, coastal city which thrives on tourism and has plenty of museums to keep you busy. You can take tours here to a township or Nelson Mandela Bay City. Visit the ruins of Fort Frederick or just explore some nature at Alexandria Dune Fields – the largest coastal dune field in the southern hemisphere.
The Zulu Kingdom of KwaZulu-Natal is the battlefield area of South Africa where you can learn more about the Zulu history and walk in the footsteps of Winston Churchill and Mahatma Gandhi. Visit the Elephant Coast, a mecca for eco-tourism and spot whales and bottlenose dolphins all whilst enjoying the views of the basalt cliffs of the Drakensberg Mountains. For the adventurous traveller there’s ostrich riding, great hiking routes, sand boarding, mountain biking, hot air ballooning, canyoning, bungee jumping, and cage diving with great white sharks.
The coastal town of Durban is excellent for surfing and a golden mile of beach, the waterfalls of Drakensberg, Seal Island, and the Cape of Good Hope; a nature reserve of rugged landscape and a 40km coastline. A walk around the city of Durban and you will come across many market places all selling different things. Take in a Zulu experience to learn more about the culture of South Africa’s largest ethnic group (some 10 million Zulus live here). At Shakaland and PheZulu Safari Park, both located in the magnificient Valley of a 1000 Hills, you can walk through beehive huts (replicas of Zulu homesteads), sip traditional beer, watch tribal dances and participate in traditional ceremonies. Follow the Inanda Heritage Route, where you can take a deep dive into some of the city’s most important historical sites. Being a coastal city, Durban has access to some of the best diving areas in South Africa. Last of all, Durban is a city famous for its curry and Bunny Chow. Do not be alarmed as no rabbits are harmed in the making of Bunny Chow, it’s usually beef, chicken or mutton.
You simply cannot visit South Africa without going on safari in one of the many game parks. It is most certainly the ultimate experience to watch the sun rise in the South African bush, sit gazing at wildlife within meters of you and witness the African wild in its most pure form, wild and free. You may need to take malaria tablets if you choose to do a safari in the northern area of the country.
Kruger – Everyone’s heard of Kruger. It’s one of the best parks in the world with a great diversity of animals and an endless landscape of African bush.
Mala Mala – Borders Kruger and is game packed with the Big Five.
Kgalagadi – A spectacular Transfrontier park with the Big Five (not as touristy as the others).
Richtersveld – Arid and desert scenery (better for desert flora than the Big Five). *malaria free
Shamwari – Cultural history and the Big Five. *malaria free
Addo Elephant National Park – Lots of elephants! *malaria free
Madikwe – Excellent year round game viewing and renowned for sightings of wild dogs. *malaria free
Kariega – Boasts the ultimate safari experience. *malaria-free
South Africa doesn’t have the best reputation for safety which often puts off solo travellers, however if you travel sensibly then there is an incredible country to explore.
I won’t lie, it is a country that you need to take extra care in. It does have its problems and a few minutes wandering down a street in Johannesburg at night and you’ll know about them all too soon. If you just pack your street smart and common sense, as you would anywhere when travelling solo, you will honestly be fine.
Just like any country, there are opportunists who will try to take advantage of you, so try and blend in like a local and not stick out like a tourist fresh off the plane.
This means don’t walk around with too much flashy jewellery as you will definitely be a target. Do your research and know where you are going ahead of time and a bit about the place. This will ensure you are not walking around the streets looking like a lost puppy.
It is a no brainer, but don’t go wandering the streets alone at night. Be aware of the areas that are a bit dodgy. Unfortunately, this normally includes townships, where the majority of people often live under the poverty line. By all means don’t avoid them, as they can be a fantastic experience and great way to meet some locals. You can do organized tours of townships, or go there with a local friend, or even stay the night in Soweto where you’ll find one of South Africa’s best hostels, but apart from that it is not recommended to wander by yourself into townships. Central bus stations in big cities can also be very dangerous place at night and are best avoided.
Withdrawing money at ATMs is one time you need to be vigilant. Basically, take someone with you to keep an eye out and be quick with your transaction. Do not walk away with the money in your hand, put it away immediately. If you see a group of people lingering around the ATM, I suggest you go find another one to use.
Getting around in South Africa is easy now with the introduction of Uber, and it is really cheap. I found it the safest way to travel within cities as you are GPS tracked on the app. There are local taxis but these are not recommended, especially at night.
If you opt for the self-drive option, be sure to plan your journey in advance and try not to drive after night fall. Always make sure all doors are locked and never leave belongings on show in the back seat – lock them in to boot instead. If they see anything, they will be more tempted to smash the window and take whatever else they can find. South Africa is notorious for the high rate of car jackings and robberies, so keeping your car and belongings safe is very important. While most of these incidents take place late at night, and mainly in Johannesburg, you can be at risk anywhere so better to be safe the sorry.
Have any questions about travelling solo in South Africa? Speak to Kate Webster who has recently returned from her solo trip there by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org