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From Soweto to Safari: 6 reasons why you should visit South Africa

From Soweto to Safari: 6 reasons why you should visit South Africa

The sound of cracking bones fills air already thick with heat, and the smell of dead flesh.

Even from our observation point – the back of an all-terrain Land Rover, well away from the ferocious banquet – the stench is overpowering, and the sight impossible to look away from.

Despite the luxuries involved in a safari, the brutal realities of nature hit you in the face harder than a lion taking down a gazelle.

A pack of hyenas gorging on the insides of a giraffe carcass – while fending off hungry vultures – is just one case in point.

Like many things about South Africa, watching this macabre drama is an utterly unforgettable experience.

It’s a place that defines the idea of Big Country wilderness, and yet still finds room for compelling urban narratives filled with art, culture, and experimentation, many of which are direct products of a complex national history.

It is one of the world’s most fascinating destinations.

Here are 6 reasons a trip to South Africa will be nothing short of spectacular.

The ‘Place of Light’: Maboneng, Johannesburg
Street art abounds in Johannesberg (Picture: Martin Guttridge-Hewitt)

South Africa’s biggest city gets its fair of negative press.

But while its aesthetics leave something to be desired, scratching the surface reveals a metropolis alive with ideas and hope.

Maboneng epitomises this more than any other district I visited.

The name translates as ‘place of light’, and while its recent past is dark, today it shines through as an area undergoing large scale re-generation, without the usual trappings of gentrification.

Jonathan Liebmann is an entrepreneur who’s responsible for reclaiming scores of abandoned buildings.

In these reclaimed buildings, many former squats, locals establish their own businesses, thanks to the affordable rents.

The regeneration is this area is increasing employment levels while nurturing start-ups and creative enterprises.

Arts On Main is arguably Jonathan’s trophy piece, a former warehouse complex that now boasts galleries, shops, restaurants, and its own indoor market.

It’s not the only exhibition space in these parts; Hazard Gallery sits inside the old Cosmopolitan Hotel.

When I was there, exhibits included abstract sculptures, contemporary tribal costumes and canvasses filled with written commentaries on modern life, from digital connectivity to social isolation.

The neighbourhood is also home to AGOG, another gallery with a ground floor wine bar and roof terrace offering an top-notch selection of whiskeys.

A host of trendy eateries, music halls, and accommodation options – including my own home from home, the excellent, design-led Hallmark House – are also located here, making for a great base, or at least a fun-filled destination if you want a night of food, drink, and dance.

The street food of Neighbourgoods Market, Johannesburg

Street food pop-ups might be ten a penny these days, but it’s impossible not to be impressed by Jo’burg’s contribution to the scene, Neighbourgoods Market.

Housed in an old office block, head here on a Saturday and prepare to be overwhelmed by flavours while tackling some sizeable crowds.

Samples are available in abundance, whether Indian cuisine, Free State fruit and veg, homemade ginger beer, or spiced biltong – think beef jerky only ten times tastier than the American version.

Once you’re done with the entrance level, don’t forget to head upstairs for some daytime partying, where a well-lubricated crowd of young and old alike get locked into a good times soundtrack as drinks flow freely.

A cycle tour of Soweto
Be prepared for an emotional reaction to the Soweto landscape (Picture: Martin Guttridge-Hewitt)

If anywhere invokes the horrors of South Africa’s past, and the problems that emerged post-Apartheid, then it must be Soweto.

A township currently (officially) home to around 1.3 million, it was a dumping ground for non-whites when they were forced from Johannesburg, having been told the city was being evacuated for a major clean up; they were never allowed to return.

By the 1990s this had become a no-go zone, and even today the level of poverty is profound.

However, preconceptions should be put aside as visiting is essential to truly understand South Africa’s bleakest years, and how much the residents want to get past the shadow they cast.

Lebo’s Soweto Backpackers is a local hostel boasting a lush garden restaurant where traditional food is cooked on open coals. It also acts as a starting point for bicycle tours.

Once on the road, you’ll see sights such as Lilian Masediba Matabane Ngoyi’s house, one of four who led a 20,000 strong women’s march against the extension of Apartheid laws; the former-home of Nelson Mandela, now a museum; and the Hector Pieterson Memorial, named after one of many people killed in skirmishes with the police while fighting for the right to equal education.

The cycling is easy-going, but expect to feel emotionally drained afterwards thanks to the horrifying nature of what you’re presented with.

The Panorama Route 
Take in the incredible views (Picture: Martin Guttridge-Hewitt)

Leaving the sprawl of Johannesburg and its townships behind, the Panorama Route makes you realise the scale of South Africa.

A scenic road in the Mpumalanga province, the average vista is one of vast plains and distant mountains.

You pass through pine forests and villages with names such as Pilgrim’s Rest, and Hazyview, where my lodgings came in the form of the charmingly thatched-roofed Protea Hotel, home to some ridiculously spacious boudoirs.

This is where some of the nation’s finest natural marvels are found, such as the 80m high Berlin Falls, or the smaller, but equally picture-friendly, Lisbon and Lone Creek Falls.

There are also Bourke’s Luck Potholes, the famous God’s Window viewpoint, or the lesser known (and therefore much quieter) Wonder View, where magnificent scenery stretches 250km to the Mozambique border.

The Route is centred around the jaw-dropping Blyde River Canyon, the third largest in the world, the sight of which can’t help but put life into perspective, best seen from the cockpit of a chopper for those who can handle their nerves, and budgets, properly.

A Justicia stop-off

The tiny whistlestop of Justicia is a little known attraction.

Some 30 minutes off-the-beaten-track, people here continue in the same way they have for aeons, sticking to the Shangaan tribal tradition.

It is possible to immerse yourself in this micro-society, if only temporarily, thanks to Vomba Tours, a company working with the villagers to allow small groups of tourists the opportunity to visit on select days.

In return for opening up their homes, locals receive a much-needed income.

This is far from a staid cultural evening; you’ll eat authentic dishes cooked in houses, learn about natural healing methods, and watch traditional dances.

You’ll leave with a better understanding of a way of life that’s at risk of drowning in modernity and globalisation, and in turn you’ll be helping to preserve it for future generations.

The wildlife
You’ll get right up close to the big cats (Picture: Mala Mala)

If South Africa has one big pull, then it must be the Big Five – elephants, rhinos, lions, leopards, and Cape buffalo.

One of the best places to see the lot is the Mala Mala reserve, which covers around 130 square km within the enormous Kruger National Park.

Opening for business in 1927, Mala Mala was the first in the country to switch from shooting with guns to cameras, and it is entirely open, so animals can roam as if they were in the wild.

I saw an abundance of elephants (some at heart-racing close quarters); lions and lionesses (sadly without the roar), zebra, giraffe (thankfully, not just the dead one I mentioned), and, most memorably of all, a leopard.

Mala Mala lays claim to enviably frequent sightings of these elusive cats.

Birds are plentiful and impressive, from the hoodlum kingfisher to owls and eagles, and the joy of taking breakfast in the bush, or indulging in a sundowner – drinks and snacks served on the bonnet of a Land Rover at dusk – are bucket list material.

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I was lucky enough to stay in the most luxurious side of the residence, Rattray’s On Mala Mala.

Guests get their own villas, which come with a huge four poster bed and interiors that scream ‘I’m on safari’, a patio with a plunge pool overlooking the Sand River (a major pull for thirsty species), a well-stocked drinks fridge, and not one, but two, bathrooms.

Meals are served on-site, usually on the decked terrace under the stars, which is next to a leather-bound bar adorned with game-related memorabilia and artwork.

The atmosphere is so familial you’ll be on first name terms by the second beer.

While this is a stunning final destination, the Main Camp at Mala Mala, which comes at a notably lower price tag, is just as welcoming, explaining why this reserve is such a prized jewel in a country that’s no stranger to priceless gems.

Essential information for a South Africa trip

South African Airways offers year-round London Heathrow to Johannesburg flights for £713, or £899 with internal flights to Kruger Mpumalanga Airport (for Panorama Route) and back to Johannesburg from Skukuza Airport (for Mala Mala).

Hallmark House Hotel offers double rooms from R1860 (approx. £114).

Protea Hotel Hazyview offers rooms from R1500 (approx. £92)

Rattray’s On Mala Mala offers suites from US $1150 per person, per night (approx. £826) including some drinks, meals, and game drives. Mala Mala Main Camp prices start from US $800 (approx. £574), including snacks, meals, and game drives.

South African Tourism offers further information.

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