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Visiting South Africa For the First Time: Here Are My Thoughts

by Laura M

​​Our new traveller spotlight series is created to inspire and encourage travellers to explore new places. The advice in each interview feature includes tips from travellers that will allow you to uncover the beauty of a place.

From breathtaking wildlife encounters and natural beauty to cultural diversity and astounding attractions like Table Mountain, South Africa is a destination with a myriad of offerings. We sat down with Maxime, a Belgian resident who spent some time in the African country, to hear his views and thoughts.

What made you want to visit South Africa?

Ah, it’s a random story! I remember watching The Power of One, a movie set in South Africa during World War II. Released in 1992, it was the first movie I had ever watched that featured Black people being treated so poorly. I was only four years old at the time, but the film changed my life.  At some point in life, I added South Africa to my list of must-visit countries and I was planning on visiting sooner. But I ended up moving to Los Angeles for a couple of years, and my priorities changed. Fast forward a couple of years and the opportunity presented itself – I had to jump on it. My mother, whose friend of 40+ years has a son who was getting married, so I ended up being her plus one.

What was your first impression?

Honestly, it just felt so good to be on the continent. As a Congolese native living outside of Africa, going back is always a good feeling. I found South Africans to be kind and open, which made my time enjoyable. I was happy to escape the semi-cold weather and soak in some sun.

South Africa is a big country, where did you end up visiting?

It’s a big country – the South African population is just over 60 million! But I was blessed enough to visit Cape Town and Johannesburg, two vastly different cities in their own ways. Cape Town gave me a Santa Monica and Miami vibe with its gorgeous white sandy beaches and pristine water. Super picturesque! I visited in April when Cape Town’s weather was around 25 degrees Celsius, and it was perfect coming from Belgium, which was cold at the time. 

I was taken aback by how diverse the landscape is in Cape Town. You have the beaches with the postcard views, but then you also have mountainous areas. A must is trekking to the top of ​​Table Mountain. The flat-topped mountain has some of the best scenic and panoramic views. Being the popular tourist attraction it is, it gets very busy, so I recommend going early to avoid the crowds and the beaming sun.

When planning your Cape Town travel, be sure to visit Boulders Beach (also known as Boulders Bay). Seeing the penguins on the beach was definitely a highlight of my trip. Some people refer to them as South African penguins, but you can spot them on the coast of Namibia as well. 

What about Johannesburg?

Johannesburg, or Joburg as the locals call it, reminded me of downtown Los Angeles. Many mining and finance companies have their headquarters over there, giving the place a big-city atmosphere. With its high rises towering over you, it’s easy to understand that Johannesburg is a big metropolis. Unfortunately, since I was tight on time, I didn’t get to explore as much as I would have liked due to my packed schedule. 

What about safety in South Africa?

I heard people talk about safety in South Africa and had people constantly asking me, “Is Cape Town safe?”. I personally didn’t experience anything negative. Walking around, I regularly saw the military roaming the streets, yet I never felt unsafe. Then again, it’s important to point out that I was hanging out with locals who knew their way around, which made my stay easier. 

3 things to do in South Africa based on your trip

Go wine tasting

Sample wine at to Cape Winelands
Sample wine from a South African winery

South Africa is famous for its selection of wine, and what better place to sample the alcoholic beverage than in the motherland? Forget the ​​wine bars and head to Cape Winelands, a producer of some of the world’s finest wine. Situated within easy reach of Cape Town, it’s a great place to learn about wine, try mouth-watering dishes and take in its majestic scenery.

Book a tour to visit Robben Island 

Robben Island carries a deep history
Robben Island carries a deep history

Visiting a prison might not be at the top of your list, but this one should be. The prison housed its most notable prisoner, former president Nelson Mandela, for 27 years. Despite its dark history, Robben Island, which closed in 1996, became a symbol of triumph. You can only visit by booking a tour, but it’s worth the money to learn about the deep history of apartheid that took place in South Africa.  

Spot the Big 5 and more at Kruger National Park

A leopard at Kruger National Park in South Africa
A leopard at Kruger National Park

If you’re tight on time, head to a wildlife park. An African safari, it’s where you can spot the big 5; elephants, leopards, lions, buffalos and rhinos. But that’s not all. The park is massive, and with an area of 19,623 km2 (7,576 sq mi), you have a lot of grounds to cover. Make sure you grab a Kruger Park map at the beginning of your tour to learn more about the park. If you have time, go on a few African safari tours to maximise your trip.

Share one tip with our readers

Whether you’re visiting South Africa or any other country in the world, being aware of your surroundings should always be a priority. Research your destination and be somewhat street savvy as you navigate through unknown locations, and I’m sure you’ll be fine. I flew out to South Africa with zero expectations, and I can’t wait to go back. Until next time!

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