Cape Town

4 ways to experience the best of Southern Africa

Southern Africa is a region of diverse attractions. Use bustling Johannesburg and scenic Cape Town as your jumping off points to explore the region’s best landscapes, museums and culture. Words by PIPPA DE BRUYN

Cape Town

City of natural beauty

It’s easy to fall in love with Cape Town, a city surrounding a mountainous reserve that curls into the Atlantic. The oldest winemaking region in the New World, Cape Town’s history goes back to 1652, when vines were planted in the Company’s Garden – still the city’s green lung.

Cape Town’s icon is the flat-topped Table Mountain. Head up Signal Hill at night and you’ll see the city lights strung like a bejewelled necklace along the base of the range’s striking form. For a more close-up look at nature, picnic beside a gurgling stream at Kirstenbosch Botanical Gardens, a showcase of the world’s richest collection of flora. Its terraced lawns blend seamlessly into the indigenous forests that carpet the surrounding slopes.

There’s wildlife here, too. Drive along Chapman’s Peak Drive, a coastal road carved into perpendicular cliffs, to Cape Point, Africa’s most southwesterly location, and stop to watch baboons gambolling on the side of the road.

But Cape Town is more than a nature spot. Its reputation as Africa’s art hub is captured in the Zeitz Museum of Contemporary Art Africa, the first and largest repository for the continent’s contemporary work. Housed in a repurposed grain silo, the building alone is worth a visit. And for a bit of history, Robben Island offers tours of the prison where Nelson Mandela spent 18 years.

Johannesburg

Big city pulse

People flock to Cape Town for its beauty, but to feel the pulse of Africa you need to spend a few nights in Jozi, as Johannesburg is known. It is a city of migrants who come to seek their fortune in the City of Gold, bringing with them the flavours from kitchens across sub-Saharan Africa. This, then, is the most reliable place to sample authentic pan-African cuisine, from the sophisticated Manna Epicure, helmed by Burundian-born chef Coco Reinardz, to the virtually all-vegan delights served family-style by chef Sanza Sandile in his Yeoville Dinner Club.

Nelson Mandela Capture Site Apartheid Museum , Cape town
RAJESH JANTILAL / AFP

It’s also the best place to come to grips with South Africa’s past: the Apartheid Museum is edifying, moving and inspiring, documenting as it does the people’s liberation from oppressive rule. Or take a step way back into our collective past at the Origins Museum or the Cradle of Humankind, an area about 45 minutes from the city where scientists keep unearthing clues, the most recent being a hominid skeleton thought to be about 3.67 million years old. To really get to know the city, join the locals at one of the pavement tables in chi-chi Parkhurst, explore the bars along grungier Melville’s 4th Avenue, or – a personal favourite – spend the evening on pedestrianised Fox Street in downtown Maboneng. Because in the City of Gold, the people are the pulse.

Johannesburg South Africa African Maboneng District Arts , Cape town
RosaIreneBetancourt 10 / Alamy Stock Photo / Argusphoto

Botswana

Safari Hotspot

Botswana has long been known as the best safari destination in Southern Africa, and its glittering jewel is the Okavango Delta. A 15,000-square kilometre alluvial fan of river water that drains away into the Kalahari desert, the Okavango Delta is a miracle of nature: a wonderland of papyrus-fringed channels and lagoons, with clouds reflected on the mirrored waters. Its lush islands support a great diversity of species: 1,061 plants, 89 fish, 64 reptiles and 130 mammals. These include elephants, wildebeest, giraffes, big cats and rhinos. But for many it is the birds – 482 species of them – that provide the best eye candy.

Cape town
Peter & Beverly Pickford Wildlife Photography

Accessed primarily by light aircraft from Maun, the remoteness of the delta is another reason it’s seen as Africa’s prime wilderness area. The country tries to keep tourist numbers low while offering high-priced safaris for those who can afford it – this means experiences tend to be ultra-luxe.

Wilderness Safari has the largest selection of camps, and its flagship Mombo Camp is the most luxurious in the delta, featuring spacious tented villas facing the floodplains. A few new good-value options have opened recently, including Sable Alley in nearby Khwai Private Reserve. This stylish lodge is one of only three in the vast 2,000-square-kilometre reserve, ensuring seclusion amid spectacular wildlife.

Okavango Floating, cape town
2630ben / Getty Images

Namibia

Spiritual Space

One of the least densely populated countries in the world, Namibia features painterly landscapes that are not only extraordinary in their raw beauty, but – outside of relatively busy Sossusvlei – offer the luxury of experiencing much of it alone.

The country is named after the coastal Namib, believed to be the world’s oldest desert, dating back an estimated 55 million years. Certainly it is the most beautiful. After the rains, enormous gravel plains turn pale green and then dry to gold, backdropped by copper-coloured dunes, or lilac hillocks and black rock. And while the Namib might appear arid, it’s filled with life, from the desert-adapted oryx, which is able to cool its blood before it reaches the brain, to the Tenebrionid beetle, which stands on its head at dawn to capture the morning fog.

Cape Town, Walking Big Daddy Dune in Namibia
Sbedaux / Getty Images

Meanwhile, the Kaokoveld Desert’s landscape is defined by sculptural massifs. Here, you can track desert-adapted rhinos and elephants, best done while staying at Mowani Mountain Camp, or seek out giraffes at Hoanib Valley Camp.

The country is best experienced on a looping road trip. Head north to Etosha for safari or Caprivi for birding, then southwest through Koakoveld and Erongo before stopping in the coastal town of Swakopmund for a few days’ cool respite. Then it’s the last loop south, travelling through the awe-inspiring Namib-Naukluft National Park. It requires a fair amount of driving on rutted roads, but don’t let this put you off. Travelling through this vastness, dwarfed by its wild grandeur, you gain perspective, the kind that comes on a journey that touches the spirit.

Cathay Pacific flies from Hong Kong to Johannesburg seven times a week, and to Cape Town three times a week from 13 November 2018 to 18 February 2019

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