Published: April/May 2009
The Game Plan: South Africa
The dollar is up, the rand is down—here are the keys to a dream vacation.
Text by Steve Casimiro

If it seems a bit imprudent to suggest international travel in this “end of the world as we know it” era, consider this: Since August, the South African rand has fallen precipitously against the U.S. dollar. And since 2005, it’s dropped by nearly half. That trip to Africa you’ve always dreamed of? Now is the time.

And if ever there was a place to splurge, it’s South Africa. Here’s a country about twice the size of Texas with 11 official languages and numerous ethnic groups, including the Zulu, Xhosa, and San. A place where you can head out on a Big Five game drive in the morning and be sipping a world-class wine at lunch. The next day, you can tour one of the world’s most cosmopolitan cities or stand on the edge of the continent—or both.

By African standards, travel is easy. Roads are good. Domestic flights are reliable. There are sticky fingers, to be sure, and the reports of urban crime are not exaggerated. Still, nowhere else in Africa can you see so much in so little time, and in so many different ways. Go on the cheap by renting a car and hitting the public campgrounds. Or go fully guided and five-star—both options are equally accessible.

Taking the all-you-can-eat travel ethos to heart, we spent eight days scouring the country for the coolest spots and the best ways to see them. We ducked into nomadic huts in the Kalahari, dipped our toes in two oceans at once on the Western Cape, hiked old Zulu trails in the 11,000-foot Drakensberg range, and, of course, scared up our share of big game in famed Kruger National Park. We also used the trip as one gigantic field test, corralling this spring’s best travel apparel and putting it through its paces. With a killer itinerary, premium price, and packing list already assembled, what more are you waiting for?

Taking the all-you-can-eat travel ethos to heart, we spent eight days scouring the country for the coolest spots and the best ways to see them. We ducked into nomadic huts in the Kalahari, dipped our toes in two oceans at once on the Western Cape, hiked old Zulu trails in the 11,000-foot Drakensberg range, and, of course, scared up our share of big game in famed Kruger National Park. We also used the trip as one gigantic field test, corralling this spring’s best travel apparel and putting it through its paces. With a killer itinerary, premium price, and packing list already assembled, what more are you waiting for?

The Kalahari
On the desert’s southern edge, visitors should stop into Augrabies Falls National Park to hike the 11-mile granite gorge and ogle the 184-foot cascade. Nearby, Khamkirri Private Game Reserve offers basic lodging and tons of activities, including rafting, mountain biking, and game drives (doubles from $60; www.khamkirri.co.za).

Sandwiched between Namibia and Botswana, Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park holds South Africa’s most scenic slice of the Kalahari. The bush camps of Kieliekrankie and Urikaruus near the Twee Rivieren entrance feature eco-smart shelters in unfenced settings ($79; saparks.com). Think game at your doorstep.

The Drakensberg
The 700-mile range is split into three regions: north, central, and south—the central being the most dramatic. At its heart, Cathedral Peak Hotel has wonderfully retro accommodations within an hour’s hike from waterfalls and San rock art (doubles from $145; www.cathedralpeak.co.za). For a true trek, consider the ten-hour hike up 9,856-foot Cathedral Peak. To the north, 3,110-foot Tugela Falls is a must-see in Royal Natal National Park. To the south, visitors should make the three-hour hike to Game Pass Shelter in Kamberg Nature Reserve; it’s been called the Rosetta stone of rock art. For helicopter tours or heli-assisted hikes throughout the Drakensberg, contact Transec Helicopters (15 minutes, $75; transec.co.za).

Kruger National Park
South Africans don’t call ’em safaris: They’re “game drives.” Either way, Kruger is your spot. Within the park, visitors can drive designated routes. Skukuza Restcamp offers everything from campsites ($12) to guesthouses ($200; sanparks.org/parks/kruger).

The private game reserves along Kruger’s western edge are generally regarded as the best places to see the Big Five. Kirkman’s Kamp within Sabi Sand Reserve offers morning and evening game drives, a midday walking safari, gourmet meals, five-star rooms, and super-knowledgeable guides (doubles from $720; andbeyond.com). The week before we arrived, a pride of 17 lions set up camp next to the tennis court.

The Western Cape
Within Cape Town, the Protea Hotel Fire & Ice makes a great base for exploring; it’s located near Long Street, the city’s bar and club district (doubles from $176; proteahotels.com). At the edge of town, Table Mountain is rich with hiking trails; Table Mountain Walks details a few of the best online (tablemountainwalks.co.za).

Outside Cape Town, don’t miss the 30-mile drive south to Cape Point. Cape Rhino Tours runs one-day trips that include stops at the penguin colony at Simon’s Town and the white-sand beach at Muizenberg (from $65 per person; caperhinotours.com). On the Western Cape, the Paternoster Lodge has basic rooms (doubles from $80; paternosterlodge.co.za) near the Cape Columbine Nature Reserve, known for its sea kayaking and beach camping (hour-long kayak tours, $10 per person; beachcamp.co.za).

Getting There and Around
South African Airways flies direct to Johannesburg from New York and Washington, D.C., and provides reliable links to most major cities in-country (flysaa.com). Plan to arrive with at least two blank pages in your passport; some travelers with only one have been denied entry. For shorter trips, Hertz rents cars throughout South Africa—just be sure to get one with a GPS, since secondary roads can be poorly signed ($30 a day; hertz.co.za). —S.C.