South Africa is a country of many surprises, with hidden tourism gems that many travellers may never have heard of, yet that offer rich experiences of culture, heritage, cuisine, history, or innovation.
To discover the true off-the-beaten-track gems around the country, we reached out to our readers – who know their destinations better than anyone else – to share their special towns or attractions. The response was overwhelming, so we have selected just a few for this feature, and will be sharing the others next week.
Graaff-Reinet has an abundance of culture and history, along with dynamic activities for tourists. The Anglo-Boer War Memorial, Reinet House, the historic Graaff-Reinet jail, the Graaff-Reinet Brewery, the Dutch Reformed Church and the cactus nursery are just some of the monuments and landmarks to visit. Graaff-Reinet is also home to the impressive geological phenomenon, the Valley of Desolation, where one can walk to the top to enjoy views of the Great Karoo and a beautiful African sunset. Alternatively, opt for a scenic helicopter flight. A visit to this town can also be combined with a safari experience at one of the local private game reserves.
Known as the ‘oasis of the Free State’ because of its abundance of water, Bethulie is a tapestry of rivers and dams, including the Orange and Caledon Rivers, and the Gariep and Bethulie Dams. It is also home to three notable game reserves: the Gariep Nature Reserve, Oviston Nature Reserve, and Tussen die Riviere Game Reserve. The region also has a fascinating history – from missionaries to mine magnates, Louw Wepener to Patrick Mynhardt, battlefields to the worst of the AWB concentration camps. Bethulie is also home to the famous Royal Hotel, which was established in 1873, and offers access to its 120 000 books and 80 000 vinyl records. The town is a hub of challenging off-road cycle routes, and historic tours across the southern Free State and north-eastern Cape.
The small town of Lady Grey in the southern Drakensberg is the official entry point to the 10 Passes Route. This route includes most of the highest passes in South Africa. The route starts in Lady Grey and includes the idyllic Rhodes and Barkly East. Tiffindell, the only place in SA where it’s possible to ski, is also part of the route. The national monument of the town is a sandstone church, which dates back to the early 1900s. The town is known for its railway track, where the train, no longer in operation, had to manoeuvre backwards and forwards up the slopes in some areas. The Cape Vulture Sanctuary in the Karnmelkspruit gorge is worth visiting and there are a number of arts and music festivals in the town during the year. Hiking, fishing and birding are popular.
Hoedspruit is situated between the Kruger National Park and Blyde River Canyon. In addition to safaris, Hoedspruit offers accommodation, restaurants, shopping experiences, day spas, and wildlife rehabilitation centres. Visit the Kinyonga Reptile Park, Hoedspruit Endangered Species Centre and Moholoholo Rehab.
Wakkerstroom is on the border of KwaZulu Natal and Mpumalanga on the Drakensberg escarpment, and is a peaceful village with an artisanal food and drink culture. The 600ha of wetland with four bird hides, a historic cemetery and the village are all within easy walking distance of each other. There are many activities for energetic visitors, including high-altitude running, road and mountain cycling, off-road biking, horse-riding, scenic drives, hidden fishing spots, art classes and locally organised events. These include the annual March Classical Music Festival, June’s Art and Craft Ramble and Mountain Challenge Run/Walk, an OesFees, an Artisan Food Market, Heritage and Christmas Markets, and a 4x4 event and time trial. In 2019, Wakkerstroom turns 150 years old, and both the Wakkerstroom Music Festival and Mountain Challenge will be celebrated for the 10th year.
On the slopes of the Olifants River Mountains, Porterville is known as the paragliding and hang-gliding capital of the Western Cape. The area is famous for the Disa Uniflora, a rare flower that grows abundantly in the fields. It is also a stone’s throw from the Groot Winterhoek Wilderness area, with rock formations and popular hiking routes. Try to make stops at nearby towns such as Eendekuil, Piketberg and Aurora, as well as mission station towns Goedverwacht and Wittewater. As an example of things to do, Goedverwacht offers several great hiking routes, a flower festival, a guided tour of the Mill Museum, a visit to the local vegetable, fruit and flower gardens, as well as the town’s famous annual Snoek en Patat Festival.
Some of the activities offered by Greyton include bird watching, horse riding and horse-cart rides, hiking trails, bicycling and guided walks, mountain bike tours, wine tasting and chocolate shopping. Just 30 minutes from Greyton is Caledon, home of the Western Cape’s famous natural warm mineral baths. The baths include a Victoria Bath House (erected in 1897), hot pools, a steam room, sauna, frigidarium pool, Swiss shower and Jacuzzi. Greyton also has a craft beer brewery, donkey sanctuary and a historic walk that explores the town’s buildings, which date from 1854. Wildflower viewing and a rose fair showcase the abundance of flowers around the town, with the rose fair taking place on October 29 and 30 and showcasing more than 200 stalls dedicated to roses.
Find the towns
We’ve created a handy map to show you exactly where SA’s off-the-beaten-track towns are hiding. We’ll be adding destinations to this map in our next article.