Popular for its wildlife safari, there are actually a lot of other things to see and things to do in South Africa. Rich in culture and history, South Africa has a lot of places that are worth going to. This is the only country where you get to pet a cheetah, ride an ostrich and live in a palace for USD 120 a night. I’ve also included the history of colonial and modern South Africa to provide some context.
Johannesburg or “Joburg” or “Jozi” is the largest city in South Africa. Coming from Asia or North America, you have to fly to Joburg and take a connecting flight to Cape Town. A lot of the things to do in South Africa are actually outside of Johannesburg.
Our tour guide Tinyiko (pronounced ‘Teeneeko’) took us around Johannesburg and Pretoria for the city tour. We passed a lot of parliament buildings After having seen the wealth of South Africa, our guide who was black African himself, wanted to show us the other side of the city. Joburg is where you’ll find a lot of black people living in shacks with galvanized iron sheets as their walls and roofs. Their taxis were vans, and they behaved a lot like our Jeepneys, cramming twice as many people in the vehicle and driving impetuously.
Cape Town lies on the southwest coast of South Africa known for its many white sand beaches, some of which are good for surfing. However, beware of sharks. Today, Cape Town is inhabited mostly by white Africans, the part of South Africa’s population who could afford the large, expensive houses. It is not as densely populated as Johannesburg, and still retains its historic charm in the midst of modern structures.
Table Mountain National Park
An iconic rock formation overlooking Cape Town, Table Mountain is called such because it’s a long, flat-topped plateau resembling a dinner table. We stayed at Table Bay Hotel (~USD350/night), which has a lovely view of both Table Mountain and the waterfront. We were supposed to take a cable car (Round-trip: ZAR360/adult, ZAR180/child) for a view of the entire Cape Peninsula, but it was closed that morning due to strong winds.
African Penguins live in colonies in Cape Peninsula. They’re also called “Jackass Penguins” because of the “hee-haw” sound that they make. This endangered species of penguins likes to bask in the sun, and most of them can be found in Boulders Beach in Table Mountain National Park.
Cape of Good Hope
The iconic Cape of Good Hope is a rocky headland at the southern tip of South Africa as part of Cape Point Nature Reserve, which is just 50km from Cape Town. As a point where the Atlantic Ocean and the Indian Ocean meet, it became a strategic half-way station for Portuguese explorers. We visited the first lighthouse ever built at Cape of Good Hope, as well as Cape Point, the southwestern-most tip of South Africa.
The coast is riddled with large rocks and was frequently greeted by the crashing waves from the South Atlantic and Indian Oceans. Originally called the “Cape of Storms” for the turbulent waves crashing against the rocks, the cape was later renamed to something more positive when Portugal realized it was a potential sea route to India and the East.
Safari Ostrich Farm
The Safari Ostrich Farm is located in Outdtshoorn, just 5 hours away from Cape Town by car. Ostriches are the fastest two-legged animal in the world and can outrun a cheetah. People weighing below 80 kg were allowed to ride an adult ostrich (like a Chocobo). To ride it, you have to tuck your legs behind its wings, grip the wings for support, then lean all the way back. Let me tell you, it was not easy. I thought I was going to slip off its back if it weren’t for the caretaker running alongside the ostrich!
Ostrich feathers used to be very valuable, and were a status symbol of wealth. 1 kg of feathers were equivalent to 1 kg of gold. People would place them in hats but they shortly grew out of fashion because they would be blown away by the wind.
An ostrich can lay an egg every 2 days. You have to take its eggs if you want it to lay more, because an ostrich would only lay “enough” eggs before settling. However, the more eggs it lays, the less calcium is available in its body, reducing the quality of the subsequent eggs. An ostrich egg is so strong that it can holdup to 120 kg. Just to prove it, they ask you to stand on two of eggs.
The Ostrich Ranch doesn’t waste any part of the ostrich. They serve the meat, paint the eggs, convert the leather into hats and wallets, and turn the feathers into boas and dusters. Ever wondered what ostriches taste like? They taste like steak. Ostrich meat is as tough as beef.
Cango Wildlife Ranch and Cango Caves
Cango Wildlife Ranch is just a few minutes’ drive from the Safari Ostrich Farm. Here you get to see leaping crocodiles, and you get to pet a cheetah. It was a very rare and exciting experience!
Explore and admire the natural stalactite and stalagmite formations within South Africa’s Cango Caves. The last cavern we entered had translucent walls that resonated like drums when tapped.
Palace of the Lost City
Our last and best destination was Sun City, a sprawling resort complex by Sun International known for its luxurious hotels, casinos, golf courses and country clubs. As a premier entertainment hub just a few hours away from Johannesburg, Sun City has its own theaters, a water park, and a manmade beach. Because this place is as large as an actual city, Sun City Resort has a dozen Mercedes Benz sedans at its disposal to shuttle guests around the resort complex.
We stayed at The Palace of the Lost City, which was a palace by its own right. Straight out of a fairy tale, the Palace of the Lost City (~USD300/night) is one of the four hotels in Sun City. As intriguing as it sounds, The Palace of the Lost City is even more impressive in sight. It was an extravagant, massive structure with secrets like the King’s Tower, which is only accessible through a special lift.
Segaetsho Cultural Village
Somewhere in Sun City is the Segaetsho Cultural Village. A group of performers would first explain the different kinds of tribes and dialects before doing an interactive song and dance with the crowd. There were some elements in their culture and traditions that struck me, like the ‘thwala‘ or bride-kidnapping which was customary for the Basotho tribe. The man would kidnap the bride-to-be in public as a marriage proposal, after which he negotiates her price with the father. Once agreed upon, the father would pay his future son-in-law with whatever livestock or objects that his daughter is worth. I asked if the bride-to-be can fight back or run away. Our guide said that it was a disgrace to do so. Being kidnapped was an honor, and in African tradition, the wife must learn to love the man. (At this point, the guide pulled me up front to stand beside my “captor”. My mother was very eager to negotiate my worth.)
The group was then gathered under the mini-auditorium where the African performers started singing some harmonics, accompanied by their drums…then they began to dance. There is something carefree and lively with the way they dance, as if they’re able to shake away their problems. I guess this is something that the Filipinos have in common with the black Africans. We are both musical people who once persevered under oppression and who continue to wade through tough economic conditions with a smile on our lips. One particular step they liked to do was this high kick (reaching overhead) then bring their foot down abruptly on the dusty ground as if they were trying to kill a giant roach. I love the African people in general. They’re a friendly bunch who are so open with their emotions.
Besides the cultural show, Sun City has several other activities available (for a fee) like the guided game drive or walk, elephant back ride or interaction, archery, paintball, shotgun practice, ATV, zip line, and my personal favorite, the Maze of the Lost City which has beer-tasting at the end. The Maze wasn’t simple, and I had to double back a few times, but I made good time. I got out in 15 minutes and enjoyed the rest of the hour sipping 8 different kinds of beer before heading back for the safari game drive.
Located in the northeastern border of South Africa, Sun City Resort’s backyard is the Pilanesberg Game Reserve, where you can go on a safari game drive or a balloon ride over the nature park. It’s a grassy valley with a few man-made watering holes. The Pilanesberg Safari Tour can take about 3 hours and only occurs at sunrise or sunset so you can catch the animals prowling. The game drive takes you up close to see The Big Five animals in Africa: Lion, Leopard, Rhinoceros, Elephant and Wildebeest.
We headed off in our 9-seater, open-air truck at 4 PM and did not return until 7 PM. By then, the winds blew colder and we needed blankets in the truck. We saw mostly wildebeest, antelopes, and the occasional zebras and giraffes. At one point, we spotted some hippos and elephants, but none of the lions or leopards. It was all about luck, I guess. With the sheer size of the reserve, it was a miracle to have even spotted some elephants. It was a pretty fulfilling day either way.
Gold Reef City
Gold Reef City was formerly a gold mine, now turned into an amusement park complete with roller coasters, game booths and a colonial town. We were given the heritage tour which related to us the history of the gold mine.
People from around the world came flocking to South Africa in the late 19th century when they learned that the land was rich in gold. The influx of mining companies and their employees turned the entire area into a mining settlement. Miners of all colors worked side-by-side thousands of feet below. Although the whites were paid 10 times more than the blacks, they all experienced the same level of danger. The work conditions in the mines were terrible, and whenever they descended, they never knew if they were coming back alive at the end of the day.
I first discovered the earthy, reddish Roobios Tea in South Africa, because it was served every morning at breakfast, and there were complimentary tea bags in the hotel rooms. Roobios (pronounced “roy-boss”) literally means “red bush” so it’s often called the “red tea” or “bush tea”. The plant grows specifically in South Africa, but is now consumed around the world. If there’s one thing you could bring home as a gift, it’s Rooibos Tea Leaves.
Our tour guide Tinyiko taught us a phrase that the youth like to say: Sharp-sharp (pronounced ‘”hop-shop”). It meant to signify two thumbs up or “cool”. He said it quite a lot. I would say this trip was totally sharp-sharp, and that this has been the best tour I’ve been in so far.
History of South Africa
Discovery of South Africa
Cape Town is a historic city in South Africa and was instrumental in the spice trade. While the Portuguese had discovered the cape in the late 15th century, they weren’t interested in colonizing it because of its rocky shores and turbulent weather. Thanks to a Dutch spy, Netherlands discovered this secret trade route years later. The Dutch East India Company sent an expedition led by Jan van Riebeeck in 1652 to establish a trading post in the southern coast of Africa. About 5 years later, Cape Town officially became a colony of Netherlands and a slave trading society.
Dutch Colonization of South Africa
The indigenous Africans were enslaved by the Dutch colonists and imported to the Cape Colony along with some slaves from India, Indonesia, East Africa, Mauritius and Madagascar as indentured laborers. There were also European refugees–German, Scandinavian and French–who became the first citizens of South Africa. The intermarriage of all these nationalities formed a multi-racial colony that primarily spoke Dutch.
The Portuguese were technically the first to supply slaves to Europe, mostly from South America. The black Africans slaves were introduced to the market at the height of global slave trading in 19th century. Africa eventually became a major source of slaves for both Europe and North America.
British Colonization of South Africa
At the onset of the Napoleonic wars in early 19th century, Great British occupied South Africa to prevent its mortal enemy–France–from reaching India after the French occupation of Netherlands. The British abolished slavery in 1834 and, 19 years later, South Africa gained political independence as a British crown colony. In that span of time, more British had migrated to Cape Town, spreading the English language and culture.
Gold Rush in South Africa
When diamond and gold were first dug up in 1871 by De Beers, there was a gold rush in a nearby town called Kimberley. African and Indian slaves were put to work in the mining towns for a small salary. (At least the English were fair employers.) They were joined by contracted Chinese laborers at the turn of the 20th century.
Nelson Mandela vs. Racial Segregation
Dutch society had a low regard for the whites who were born in Africa compared to those who were born in Europe. The Asians (Chinese, Indians, etc.) were in between; they were treated better than the blacks but not as well as the whites.
By 1948, racial segregation was institutionalized by a white South African prime minister called D. F. Malan. Through the “Apartheid Movement”, Caucasian citizens held the highest social status, followed by Asians (Chinese and Indians), the Coloured (mixed ethnicity), and the black Africans. The Japanese were an exception (considered white) because they were major trading partners of the Dutch East India Company.
Nelson Mandela was a black African revolutionist who fought against the Apartheid movement. He was imprisoned for 27 years until he was finally released due to the British government’s fear of a civil war. Nelson Mandela eventually became the first President of South Africa in 1994 after the government reformation.
We were able to visit Nelson Mandela’s home in a rich suburb. Outside the walls of his estate were some square depressions in the ground where people used to put colorful rocks with words of encouragement and support for ‘Madiba’ (his real name), especially during the time he got sick.
Things to Know about South Africa
- South Africa has 3 capitals: Pretoria for executive, Cape Town for legislative, and Bloemfontein for judicial.
- There are 11 official languages in South Africa including English.
- The population ethnicity is made of indigenous Africans (68%), Caucasians (19%), Coloured (9%) and Indians (3%).
- The currency in South Africa is the Rand (“ZAR”), which used to be at USD 0.15 in 2011 and has decreased since. As of 2020, ZAR 1 = USD 0.05.