Going to South Africa was the single most life-changing event that I have ever experienced. As an 18-year-old with only one chaperoned trip abroad under my belt, I had no idea what to expect. The experience was wild, scary, and exciting all at once.
After spending only a few months along the cape, I can hardly call myself an expert. However, I did experience some of the best things to do in South Africa, including taking in the Garden Route during my stay.
How did I get to South Africa you ask? Well, a lifelong obsession with Great White Sharks and a few significant life changes led me to apply for a cage diving internship with a company called White Shark Africa. Yes, you read that correctly.
Though my beloved internship was shut down due to COVID, a friend has created his own program, Go Dive Mossel Bay, and has a deal with the company with which I interned. I invite you to read about his incredible company, which offers 1-3 month-long internships, scuba courses, shark dives, and more.
After my time in the country, I can confidently say that I personally know a couple of the best spots for visitors along South Africa’s southern coastline. Here are 7 fun things to do in South Africa’s coastal areas.
1) Explore Cape Town
Cape Town is the capital of South Africa. It is a bustling metropolitan area of around 4.6 million people with stunning tourist attractions. You can explore both the city of Cape Town. Plus, check out the accessible natural areas surrounding it, like its two most famous peaks: Lion’s Head and Table Mountain. Table Mountain has been named one of the seven natural wonders of the world (for good reason). Its top is completely flat and offers a beautiful view of the city and surrounding natural areas.
When I hiked Table Mountain, it took approximately three hours. It progressively gets steeper as you approach the top, but the reward for expending your energy is worth it. On the “table,” there is a lovely cafe, gift shop, and an aerial cableway to take you back down. Lion’s Head is a smaller peak but better for the avid adventurer. There are points where you must hold onto a chain to climb, and the top feels less stable than Table Mountain’s flat head.
After these two great sites, I recommend exploring the Cape of Good Hope and Robben Island. The Cape of Good Hope requires a small drive but has an incredible view of the expansive Atlantic Ocean. It’s a great place to catch the sunset.
Robben Island is where Nelson Mandela was imprisoned for 18 out of 27 years. Previous prisoners conduct tours of the island and offer personal perspectives of the dark history surrounding South Africa’s inequality.
Finally, you can check out the V&A Waterfront for food, shopping, and good views. For delicious food and budget accommodation near the waterfront, you can check out Giovanni’s Deli and the [email protected] hostel.
2) Try Some of the Most Underrated Wine in the World at a Nearby Vineyard
When I visited South Africa, I went to a vineyard called ReedValley just outside of my home base of Mossel Bay. Though I had a wonderful experience at this vineyard (maybe a bit too good), Stellenbosch is specifically known for its vineyards and is a quick drive from Cape Town.
Visiting Stellenbosch is one of the best things to do in South Africa. The Stellenbosch region boasts more than 150 wineries and a beautiful backdrop to your wine tasting experience.
South Africa has three famous varieties of wine: Chenin Blanc, Pinotage, and Shiraz/Syrah (though they produce many other types too). I remember a particular wine from my trip called Rose Espumante, though this may be a ReedValley specialty.
I highly recommend South African wine. Its flavor is excellent, sporting many unique varieties. Not only that, but the economy surrounding it is enough for anyone to buy into it. Supporting South Africa’s tourism and wine industries are some of the best ways to help bring money back into the country and create jobs for locals.
3) Go to Boulders Beach and Simon’s Town
I am a wildlife enthusiast. So, I admit that the sight of a snake, shark, bird, or virtually any other animal is enough to brighten my week. Boulders Beach is home to one of my favorite animals in the world: the African or “Jackass” Penguin.
Penguins in Africa, you might ask? Oh yes, and these little guys are loud and proud of their African heritage. They are lovingly called the Jackass Penguins. Their distinct call sounds similar to a donkey, and perhaps earn their namesake because of their attitude.
These little guys need all the help they can get. The AZA lists this endangered species as having only 25,000 breeding pairs left. Boulders Beach is making an extraordinary conservation effort to help boost the penguin population. If you want to help the African Penguin population, they will definitely appreciate your support.
A section of Boulders Beach allows visitors to walk on the beach and thus with the penguins. Unsurprisingly not many of the animals hang out here. However, there are areas where a boardwalk allows you to observe the colony in their natural habitat and leave them undisturbed.
This is one of my top three things to do in South Africa. I love these little guys, the beach itself, and the fantastic efforts that the staff is making to keep the African penguin alive. You might even see the odd Dassie here, a famous and adorable rodent well-known throughout South Africa.
Boulders Beach is right next to Simon’s Town, a lovely coastal village with excellent shopping and tasty seafood. After spending your morning with the penguins, you should look around the local shops for some souvenirs and get a nice meal on the waterfront.
4) Visit the Southernmost Tip of Africa
Next on our journey along South Africa’s Southern coast is Cape Agulhas, where the Indian and Atlantic Oceans meet. Cape Agulhas is also the southernmost tip of the continent of Africa. This is a fantastic place for a photo op and a relaxed day at the beach.
Cape Agulhas is surrounded by rocky cliffs and an incredible view of the ocean. You can either stroll along the boardwalk or go for a small adventure hopping between the rocks that make up the coastline. I recommend checking out the small tidal pools here as well. They are filled with beautiful South African sea life such as the sea urchin, anemone, starfish, and even the odd octopus.
As for your photo op, there are about a million beautiful views. You must also take a picture with the stone plaque that marks the official meeting point between the Indian and Atlantic Oceans. If you’re wondering why Cape Agulhas is the official meeting point between these two bodies of water, it was confirmed by the International Hydrographic Organization. Though currents do change year-round, Cape Agulhas is definitely where the two oceans meet.
There is another tiny town next to Cape Agulhas called Struisbaai, where you can see stingrays if you’re lucky. A small restaurant called Catch Cook, next to the Struisbaai harbor, is where stingrays wait for the fishermen to come back from their daily catch. One particular stingray has gained so much fame that he has a name! Locals call him Parrie the Stingray, and he often hangs out in the harbor. If you go to Cape Agulhas, it may be worth seeing if Parrie is willing to come out and say hi.
5) Walk with Elephants at Indalu Game Reserve
A lesser-known fact of South Africa is that a significant amount of wildlife is actually owned and maintained by ranchers. Thus, these animals live, hunt, and breed the same way they would in the wild, but with minor interference from their owners.
Just northwest of Mossel Bay, on the Garden Route, is the Indalu Game Reserve. Though there are much bigger wildlife parks throughout South Africa, such as Kruger, this is one of the best. Indalu offers the same standard game drives as many other parks, but their best experience is an elephant walk.
Because the Indalu elephants are well-treated and used to humans, you can take an hour to an hour-and-a-half walk next to one of the biggest animals on Earth and feed them. The experience is truly magical. These elephants are entirely free to roam the safari park. Indalu does not endorse riding their (or any) elephants either, as this is a very inhumane practice that typically involves a great deal of animal abuse.
Walking next to a three-ton (or more!) animal, you would expect them to shake the ground with every step they take. However, elephants are one of the quietest animals I’ve been around, and their steps are very delicate.
Indalu and cage diving complete my list of the top three things to do in South Africa. Elephants usually are pretty dangerous due to their sheer size and sometimes aggressive behaviors (check out this insane elephant encounter!), meaning a walk with these guys is an unforgettable opportunity. Indalu also offers accommodation if you want to stay the night.
6) Go Cage Diving in Mossel Bay
South Africa has 11 official languages, one of which is Afrikaans. In Afrikaans, “mossel” means “mussel,” as Mossel Bay is full of them! It is a beautiful town home to a very active population of juvenile White Sharks.
First, let’s clear up the mythology surrounding Great Whites. Only about six shark attacks per year are fatal, meaning selfies, which take an average of 17 lives a year, are more deadly. Many Great White attacks occur due to mistaken identity. A human on a surfboard looks a lot like a seal (their typical prey). Sharks are the doctors of the sea, cleaning up diseased animals. They are vital to the ocean’s ecosystem, and many species are endangered.
White Shark Africa is one of the best places in the world to see sharks. After taking a short 20-minute boat ride to Seal Island, you will be surrounded. You are almost guaranteed to see them, but they are wild animals working on their own schedule.
You cannot go to South Africa and miss out on these guys. Seeing a four-meter animal jump out of the water or swim just centimeters from your face is the most humbling yet incredible experience I’ve ever had.
If you want to stay in Mossel Bay for a couple of days, you can follow the St. Blaize Trail for a beautiful hike or take a dip at Diaz Beach. You can also go whale/dolphin watching on the Romonza Boat, or rent some scuba/snorkel gear and admire the smaller Mossel Bay natives in Kaai 4.
For great Mossel Bay eats, check out Café Gannet for amazing sushi or ostrich. Kaai 4 also serves delicious traditional South African food cooked over a wood fire (what they call a braai in Afrikaans).
7) Take a Joint Safari at Schotia and Addo Elephant Park
Last but not least, if you are taking a trip through the Garden Route, you must do a proper safari. Though Indalu offers game drives, Schotia Safaris Private Game Reserve offers an incredible adventure.
At Schotia, you can see four out of the “big five” African game animals, namely elephants, lions, rhinos, and buffalo. Unfortunately, they do not have leopards, though this is a highly elusive animal, and you would be lucky to see one.
The park rangers at Schotia are not only highly knowledgeable but also very personable. They will make you feel completely comfortable as you gaze at some of the most dangerous animals on Earth.
Besides the big five, you can also see Nile crocodiles, warthogs, ostriches, the elusive secretary bird, and more. A rite of passage that the rangers may offer you is to eat a live termite as well, which surprisingly tastes like mint.
After a long day looking for animals, you might spend the night by the fire listening to someone play the guitar and drinking my favorite South African cider, Savanna. The drivers may take you on a night ride as well to look at the Milky Way.
Schotia offers two options for accommodation: bush camp or traditional lodges. Bush camp is located in the middle of the lions’ section of the park, meaning you can sometimes hear them outside (it’s safe though, don’t worry).
Though the traditional lodges are a more comfortable way to spend your time, as they include private bathrooms and are located outside the safari bit, they aren’t as cool as the bush camp.
The great thing about Schotia is that you can buy a joint package and spend some time at Addo Elephant National Park. This is the best place to see large elephant herds behaving naturally.
Thinking about Taking a Trip to South Africa?
South Africa is by far my favorite country I’ve ever traveled to. Its nature is wild and untouched by the modern world, offering some of the most beautiful views and incredible wildlife experiences I’ve ever had.
However, after writing such a glowing review of the country, I must give you some safety tips. Due to its recent history and the poverty that can be found in the townships that surround many cities and towns, you must be careful as you travel.
Never flash your money, even if you are in a safe area. Always travel with at least one other person or, even better, with a group. If you are out at night, try to avoid dark corners and walk in the street if possible to avoid sidewalks. Please do not participate in what I often hear referred to as poverty tourism or tours that take you into the townships. These are highly exploitative and a very poor way to economically support the country. And always respect the wildlife.
Every country has its problems, which should not discourage you from traveling. The Garden Route, for example, is relatively safe due to its high volume of tourists. Simply be careful and take proper safety precautions as you go.
If you’re looking for the best things to do in South Africa, I highly recommend exploring its southern coastline. Traveling along the coast is an experience that you will never forget. When you go, tell the Great Whites that I miss them!