Beyond the big cities: experience South Africa off the tourist trail

Get outside the city sprawl in South Africa to discover the hidden gems lying just beyond the city bounds

It’s easy to get sucked in by South Africa’s cities – once you get a feel for the electric energy of Johannesburg, the multicultural flavour of Durban or the sophistication of Cape Town, it’s hard to imagine tearing yourself away from the buzz. There are always more sights to see, more people to meet, more restaurants to try and more places to go.

Yet you could be missing out on the delights that lie just outside the city boundaries, awaiting adventurous travellers who are curious enough to want to explore, while still having a city base to which to return.

Less than two hours south of Joburg lies the Vaal Dam, set on the border of three provinces – Gauteng, Mpumalanga and Free State – and widely reputed as the best inland water sports spot in the country, perfect for an active day trip away from the city.

Day tripping: get active at the Val Daam river valley Credit: Getty

Fed by the powerful Vaal River and with more than 500 miles of shoreline, it’s a huge area where active types let loose with wild swimming, water skiing and yachting, while anglers can be found casting for freshwater carp and catfish.

An hour in the other direction of the city lies the Cradle of Humankind, a World Heritage site that’s home to more than a third of the human ancestor fossils ever discovered. It’s even possible to go down into the Sterkfontein Caves, where many of the fossils were found.

If your stay is based on the coast in Durban, there are plenty of interesting spots to be found inland. Pietermaritzburg, the capital and second city of KwaZulu-Natal province, is seriously underrated by tourists, yet this Victorian city was the unexpected site of one of the most defining moments in recent history.

Historical importance: explore the Sterkfontein Caves, part of the Cradle of Humankind World Heritage site Credit: Getty

Mahatma Gandhi, travelling by train from Durban to Pretoria in 1893, was ordered out of his seat in the first-class carriage, being told it was reserved for white passengers only. He politely refused, but was thrown off the train at Pietermaritzburg station, left with no choice but to spend a cold night shivering in the platform waiting room.

It’s often cited as a turning point in Gandhi’s life, shaping his philosophy of non-violent resistance, and there’s now a statue in his honour opposite the old colonial buildings on Church Street.

Fellow freedom fighter Nelson Mandela is also commemorated a few miles north in the town of Howick, the place where he was arrested in 1962, marking the start of his 27-year imprisonment. A sculpture designed by artist Marco Cianfanelli now marks the spot, with a creative image of Mandela’s face made from 50 individually cut steel rods.

Nature near the city: the Bushmans Kloof Wilderness Reserve is a three-hour drive from Cape Town Credit: Getty

New app Madiba’s Journey, created to mark the centenary of the statesman’s birth, offers maps, background information and social media connections to make it easier to follow the Mandela trail.

Even on the Western Cape, it’s easy to base yourself amid the comforts of Cape Town, while still getting out to explore its wilder side. Take Bushmans Kloof Wilderness Reserve, only a three-hour drive north, but able to transport visitors through time and space to see ancient San rock art and rugged mountain scenery that’s a world away from the coast.

Alternatively, hire a car and drive a leisurely loop around some of the smaller towns that lie beyond Cape Town, to see South African life outside the city. Visit the Saturday market in Montagu, stroll the longest natural beach in the southern hemisphere at Struisbaai, admire the Cape Dutch architecture of Swellendam, or embrace your inner foodie with the creative culinary scene at Stanford.

For more on holidays to South Africa, visit Learn more about South Africa at

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