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10 Things To Do In South Africa

Journalist Bambina Olivares shares things you can’t miss out on this vibrant region.
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Journalist Bambina Olivares shares things you can’t miss out on this vibrant region.

1. Fall in love with Cape Town.
There are few places in the world as breathtakingly beautiful as Cape Town. Nestled between the sea and the mountains, it’s a little bit of San Francisco, a little bit of Monte Carlo, a little bit of New Orleans, and a touch of French country mixed into the heady melting pot of Cape Malay, Afrikaner, British, Huguenot, and indigenous African cultures. Climb to the top of Table Mountain and see the stunning sprawl of the city below you. Then visit the V&A Waterfront, or walk along Long Street, Bree Street, and Greenmarket Square, as well as the colorful Bo-Kaap and adjacent Waterkant areas. Drive through the winding roads of the Atlantic Seaboard along Bantry Bay, Clifton, and Camps Bay.


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A view of Table Mountain from the V&A Waterfront

2. Go on a safari.
Say “Africa” and images of the Big Five—lion, elephant, buffalo, rhino, and leopard—come to mind. Locals, however, never go on “safari”; they go to the “bush.” You can rough it out and drive through the Kruger National Park in your own vehicle, but a few days in one of the luxury game lodges, like Singita, Ulusaba, Sabi Sabi or Phinda bring the safari experience.


Kruger National Park


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Singita Castleton luxury camp

3. Go wild.
There are other opportunities to get personal with the most ferocious to the most adorably docile of the animal kingdom. In Gansbaai, go shark cage diving and get frighteningly close to a hungry great white shark; in Boulders, penguins roam freely along the beach. Drive out to Hermanus and see the humpback whale; on the rocks, you’ll see a community of seals just chilling. Closer to Johannesburg, there are wildlife conservation centers that allow you to cuddle animals under expert supervision, like the Lion Park, the Ann Van Dyk Cheetah Centre in De Wildt, and the Elephant Sanctuary in Hartbeespoort Dam.


Penguins roaming boulder beach

4. Drink up.
South African wines have been winning accolades, and throughout the picturesque Cape Winelands are wine estates that offer excellent food, too. Franschhoek is quaint and charming and by far my favorite town in the Western Cape, so much so that I celebrated my birthday there with my best friends flying in from all over. We stayed at Le Quartier Francais, a Relais & Chateaux property that has the world famous chef Margot Janse running the kitchen. We also spent the afternoon tasting wines at La Grande Provence. Twenty-five minutes away in Stellenbosch is diamond mogul Laurence Graff’s Delaire-Graff estate, which houses an impressive art collection as well as a Graff boutique.

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5. Honor Mandela.
South Africa’s greatest son, the late Nelson Mandela, looms large in the nation’s consciousness. Many public spaces pay homage to Madiba, as he was fondly called, including Vilakazi Street, the site of his humble abode, and the larger-than-life statue of the man himself by Marco Cianfanelli at the Nelson Mandela Square. Robben Island, where he was incarcerated for 18 years under appalling conditions, remains a testament to the indomitable spirit of Mandela. You feel the eerie desolation as you walk through the cold corridors and emerge filled with awe for the man who embodied hope and humility.

6. Discover the amazing power of plants.
Rooibos, moringa, kigelia, fynbos, and aloe ferox are just some of the plants native to Africa that have been making waves in the beauty industry for their exceptional nourishing properties. I use Savane Organic Skincare, an organic luxury skincare range made from ethically sourced ingredients throughout the African savannah, and it’s kept my skin supple in the unforgiving climate. If you don’t like Rooibos in your toner, you can drink it instead! It’s packed with powerful antioxidants, which makes it an enjoyable, caffeine-free alternative to coffee or green tea.

7. Go to market.
In Cape Town, the Neighbourgoods Market at the Old Biscuit Mill redefined weekend markets—here you find artisanal cheeses, Mediterranean dips, home-cured bacon and meats, organic ice cream and the like. Its Joburg counterpart is in Braamfontein, a formerly dodgy innercity area downtown which has since been spruced up with serious hipster cred.

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8. Show some skin.
Touristy as Rosebank’s famous craft market is, it’s a great one-stop-shop for African curios, woodcarvings, beaded bowls and cutlery, antiques, and skins. Zebra skins make a dramatic statement and are relatively reasonably priced here, depending on the quality of the hide. If stripes aren’t your thing, opt for the arresting spatter of brown against white found in the hide of the Nguni cow, or the downy softness of springbok. Other places to visit for African items are Amathuli and Art Africa in Joburg, and Africa Nova in
Cape Town.


African masks at the craft market

9. See the jacarandas.
Despite having spent 10 years in Johannesburg, I remain largely indifferent to it. But I feel a burst of affection for this city towards the end of October, when the jacarandas are in bloom and the trees line the roads in a canopy of purple blossoms. Seeing the spread of the city awash in purple is particularly impressive from the vantage point of rooftop garden of Circa Gallery, my favorite building and art gallery in Johannesburg.

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Jacarandas line the street

10. See the Apartheid Museum.
South Africa is a young democracy still trying to overcome the vestiges of the wholly dehumanizing regime that was apartheid. With economic growth—the country is part of the BRICS consortium of fast-track developing nations—it’s important to move forward without forgetting the past. The Apartheid Museum is soul-crushing, bone-chilling, and devastating yet quietly contemplative and ultimately uplifting. It may not be a lazy Sunday activity, but it’s a must-see, if only to understand the depths of both human depravity and hope.

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The entrance to the Apartheid Museum

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Bambina Olivares
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