Visiting SA: So much more than safaris and Table Mountain

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The 27th of April this year officially marks 30 years of democracy in South Africa. There have been a multitude of changes to the country, but it has remained a prime tourism destination. Notwithstanding crime statistics, power woes and the recent COVID-19 pandemic, tourism plays a major part in the South African economy.


According to the Ministry of Tourism, 8.5 million people visited last year, an increase of close to 50% on 2022. However, that a figure is skewed by the lockdowns that accompanied the pandemic. By far the most visitors come from other African countries, with Zimbabwe and Kenya leading the way.

The US is also a large source of tourist dollars. Many come from Europe, with the United Kingdom the dominant source. German and Dutch visitors are increasingly choosing South Africa as a destination. But the biggest increase in percentage terms came from Russia, with over 28-thousand visitors in 2023. India dominated the Asian tourism market for South Africa, although there is also a steady increase in tourists from China.

South Africa has made a sincere effort to market the country, with advertising campaigns featuring the likes of comedian Trevor Noah. We will ignore the ill-advised plan to serve as a sponsor to the English Premier League soccer team Tottenham Hotspur, which was canned after much criticism.

But those who market South Africa focus on two things – Cape Town and the Kruger National Park. There are so many other places to see, natural and cultural, that many tourists do not even know about.


The most obvious is South Africa’s extraordinary paleontological history. Southern Africa is the birthplace of humankind, and many archeological treasures have been unearthed that have helped academics know more about where we come from and how we have changed.

The Cradle of Humankind is a remarkable place and should get far more visitors than it does. Their website explains that while Earth is about 4.6-billion years old, life first emerged nearly a billion years later, and South Africa has yielded fossils of some of the earliest known dinosaurs, dating back at least 200-million years. Hominids – the ancestors of modern humans – first emerged about seven million years ago, in Africa. Amongst the significant finds at the Cradle of Humankind are the famous fossils “Mrs Ples” and “Little Foot”.

At Maropeng, visitors can see at the Tumulus, an ancient burial mound where one can view ancient tools at the excavation site. An underground boat ride then transports you billions of years back in time through the four elements of fire, earth, air, and water – past volcanoes, icebergs, waterfalls, wind tunnels, and lightening displays. Exhibitions include authentic fossils displays and interactive displays with intriguing facts about humankind. Nearby are the fascinating Sterkfontein Caves, which have yielded some of most important hominid fossils in the world. There is also the aptly named Wonder Cave, and the site of the ‘Taung Child’ which represents the first evidence of human upright walking on two legs.

Just north of Shoshanguve is the Tswaing Crater, a lake created when a meteorite slammed into the Earth about 220 thousand years ago. The crater remains as a blind salt-water lake. On the subject of meteorites, the Vredefort Dome is also a World Heritage Site. Located south of Johannesburg, it is a 190km wide crater, created by a massive meteorite 2 billion years ago. Difficult to see as a whole on site because of its size – it is nearly 200km wide – it is visible from space.


There are also many small museums that get little attention. The Owl House in Nieu Bethesda has been preserved after artist Helen Martins turn her property into a visionary landscape of sculptures, including not only owls, but camels, people, pyramids and people.

The Slave Lodge in Cape Town is one of the oldest buildings in the country. The exhibitions on the lower levels explore the history of slavery in South Africa, and focus on various issues under the umbrella theme of “from human wrongs to human rights”.

Just up the road is Dal Josafat, where you can see some of the best examples of Cape Dutch architecture in an area now declared a National Heritage site.  The area, between Paarl and Wellington, was settled in the 18th century, for the most part by Huguenots. The original farm of Dal Josafat, now named Roggeland, is the oldest in the area. The farmlands were granted to Peter Buck of Lübeck in 1692, but it was Andries Bernardus du Toit who, in 1780, built the restored H-shaped gabled house.

There are many memorials and museums dedicated to the struggle against apartheid rule, from Vilikazi Street to Liliesleaf Farm, The Hector Pietersen Memorial, the Apartheid Museum and the underrated Mandela Capture Site near Howick. Some cemeteries make an effort to look after the graves of apartheid icons, but unfortunately, many have been vandalized. Going further back in history there’s King Shaka’s Grave in Kwadukuza (part of the Battlefields Route that take you on a fascinating journey through the history of the area from before and after the Anglo-Zulu Wars). There is also the memorial in Irene in Pretoria to the victims of the concentration camps, mostly Afrikaner women, that were set up by the British as part of their scorched earth policy during the Anglo-Boer War.