By Boyd Varty, author of Cathedral of the Wild
After growing up on his family's private game reserve in South Africa, Boyd Varty now lives and works at the sanctuary as a conservationist and an advocate for his native country. His latest book Cathedral of the Wild is a memoir of his time at Londolozi Game Reserve, which included a visit from Nelson Mandela after the South African president was released from prison. Here, Varty—also a recent TED Talk speaker—shares his eight top places to visit in South Africa.
1. Live safari at Londolozi Game Reserve
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Let me welcome you into my home, Londolozi Game Reserve. I’m the fourth-generation custodian of this incredible cathedral of the wild, whose name comes from the Zulu word for “protector of all living things.” My father and Uncle John restored the land over several decades, bringing it back to life and encouraging wildlife—including the famous Big 5—to return. Come look into the eyes of the lions and leopards featured in Uncle John’s documentaries, watch elephants grazing along the Sand River, and enjoy photo safaris of cheetahs, giraffes, and zebras on twice-daily game drives. Of course you’ll savor the five-star cuisine, wines, and luxury accommodations, but more importantly, you’ll reconnect to the natural world and learn the ancient art of tracking wild animals—and, I hope, your own wild nature.
2. Hike up Lion’s Head at full moon
This hike is a firm favorite of many travelers and locals who make the hour-long walk to the top of Cape Town’s iconic mountain peak. A full moon hike is one of the most popular ways to revel in the view and energy of Cape Town's bustling cityscape. Situated between Table Mountain and Lion’s Head, the walk is easygoing and well worth the trip at any time of day, although nighttime offers the most romantic view of the sea of lights below.
Other suggestions: Cape Town is home to many incredible hikes. Explore the rugged terrain of Silvermine Nature Reserve or one of the many paths along Table Mountain.
3. Walk in the wild in Kruger National Park
South Africa’s flagship park offers a number of walking trails where guides take visitors into the heart of the wild. Set aside five days and four nights to explore the Mphongolo and Lonely Bull backpack trails, two of Kruger National Park's most recently opened trails. You’ll immerse yourself in a true wilderness experience, sleeping in a tent and carrying your own provisions. You’re also bound to encounter some of Africa’s most famous animals along the hike and learn about birds, trees, and wildlife from knowledgeable guides.
Warning: Not recommended for anyone who isn’t willing to rough it for a few days.
4. Capture wildflowers of the West Coast
South Africa's West Coast puts on a special show in the spring months of August and September. Masses of flowers in every shade—from fire orange to canary yellow, amethyst purple, and snow-white—carpet the area from the West Coast National Park to Namaqualand. Namaqualand’s famous bright orange daisies signal the beginning of spring in nature’s most beautiful way.
Remember: Check the weather report before making a day trip to these areas. Flowers shut up tight on days when it’s overcast and rainy, so August and September are the best months for flower spotting.
5. Visit the winelands
No trip to South Africa is complete without visiting one of the Cape’s famous vineyards. The Waterford Estate, situated in Stellenbosch, is a personal favorite. This family-run wine estate produces some of the finest wines that the Cape has to offer, along with a wine experience that is hard to match. For a unique taste sensation, try the chocolate and wine pairing. While you’re in the neighborhood, hop on a safari Land Rover for the two-hour drive along the slopes of the Helderberg mountain range.
6. Experience great white sharks
It's the top experience of South Africa's most popular adventures—the chance to meet one of nature's most feared apex predators: the great white shark. Cape Town is known as the “shark capital of the world,” and here you have the opportunity to experience shark cave diving with a number of professional operators. This adrenaline-fueled experience is one to add to your bucket list.
For more adrenaline activities: Try the world’s highest commercial bungee jump off the Bloukrans Bridge along the Garden Route, or descend Table Mountain by abseil—what locals call rappelling—at 1,000 meters above sea level with Abseil Africa.
7. Explore the Blyde River Canyon
South Africa has an impressive record for being host to some of the highest and largest natural wonders. One of these is the Blyde (Dutch for “happy”) River Canyon, located in Mpumalanga, which forms part of the northern Drakensberg escarpment. It's not only one of the largest canyons in the world, but also one of the greenest. Among Blyde River Canyon's verdant landscape and unearthly rock formations you’ll find antelope, hippos, monkeys, bush babies, and even crocodiles. Its falcons and eagles are a birdwatcher’s dream.
Other attractions near the canyon: God’s Window, Bourke’s Luck Potholes, and the Pinnacle.
8. Visit the Mother City
Cape Town is unarguably one of South Africa’s most beautiful cities. It’s the “city with the mountain” (Table Mountain), blue-flag beaches, a world-renowned harbor, fabulous Relais & Châteaux hotels, and some of the best restaurants around. Every part of this city wows, from the historic District Six Museum to the night and day markets, the electric-vibe nightclubs on Long and Bree streets, and celebrity spotting in Camps Bay. There’s Chapman’s Peak Drive, the big surf spots of Muizenberg and Dunes, and the small seaside towns of Simon’s Town and Fish Hoek that each hold their own attraction. This is a city with a buzz.
Activities and places to visit: Robben Island (where Mandela spent 18 of his 27 years in prison), the V & A Waterfront, the penguin colony at Boulders Beach, Cape Point, Simon’s Town, Camps Bay, Lion’s Head, Table Mountain Cableway, and Kirstenbosch National Botanical Garden.
Boyd Varty was raised on Londolozi Game Reserve in South Africa. He currently lives and works at the reserve, and his most recent projects include advocating for the restoration of an ancient elephant corridor, helping the Good Work Foundation create more learning centers in South Africa, and adventuring across the African continent on his motorbike.