These are the 25 best adventure destinations in southern Africa
From shark-cage diving to mountain biking, visit these adrenalin-pumping spots around the country
SA has some of the best adventure sports in the world, from surfing to paragliding, mountain biking, shark diving, birding and wildlife tracking – even snowboarding. If you can dream of something wild enough, you can do it somewhere in SA.
One of the country’s best-known adventure sportsmen is Sebastian Davies, who cycled from Scotland to SA more than two years ago, arriving worn but exhilarated in Cape Town in 2010. There isn’t an adventure sport he has not tried. These days he spends most of his time paragliding, mountain biking and trail running, so who better to guide us through some of the heart-stopping thrills that await the adventure seeker in SA.
For companies looking to use adventure sports as team building exercises, this is covered by most adventure sports providers in the country. What better way to whip your team into shape than to send them off the edge of a cliff with nothing more than a parachute and a breeze, or on a Class 3 rapid on the Orange River, 100km from as cellphone tower or road.
1. Paragliding in Wilderness
“For sheer thrill, I recommend paragliding. You have to take a course at any one of several dedicated schools around the country, and that takes about two weeks,” says Davies. “You need to be single-minded about it, but the efforts is totally worth it once you take your first flight, and feel the up-draft lift you above the birds. Most of my paragliding is done near Sedgefield, close to Wilderness in the Western Cape, but there are vast areas of SA – particularly in the mountainous areas – that are under-explored.”
Until recently, SA held the world record for the longest paraglide – more than 600km from Copperton in the Northern Cape to Lesotho. There’s no need to fear dropping out toe sky, says Davies. Pilots wear parachutes to bail them out in the unlikely event of a mishap.
2. Hang-gliding in Cape Town
Wherever you find paragliding, hang gliding is not far behind. You may have seen tandem hang-gliding off Signal Hill in Cape Town. This is hugely popular throughout the Western Cape, and is actually quite safe. If you don’t want to take hang gliding lessons, hop on board with a trained pilot and enjoy the silence as you circle over Robben Island, Clifton Beach and Signal Hill. Lion’s Head in Cape Town is one of the preferred launching spots for hang gliding, and if the updrafts are in your favour, you can stay up for hours.
3. Kitesurfing in Langebaan
While you’re in the Cape you may as well throw in a bit of kitesurfing. Langebaan is famous for this, and the barriers to entry are lower than for hang-gliding or paragliding: kitesurfing courses run from two to 10 hours depending on the level of competence you want to achieve, and then you are let loose on the choppy, windswept Atlantic waves. Kitesurfing involves a kite, which pulls the surfer, sometimes at breathtaking speeds, across the water.
4. Great white shark diving in Hermanus
Travel one-and-a-half hours up the west coast from Cape Town and you will hit Hermanus, world famous for its great white shark dives. You descend in a protected cage into the water and wait. Eventually one of these beasts of the sea will appear and give you your money’s worth. Copper sharks are only slightly less intimidating than great whites, and are more frequently spotted in these waters. Then again, you may get a whole school of sharks approaching your cage. At which point you will be grateful for the meagre protections of the metal cage and the distance it puts between you and these frightful jaws.
5. Take the famous Otter Trail
Trail running is for the hard-core adventurer and is gaining in popularity. There is something primeval about packing away the cell phone and heading out into “no signal” territory. Be prepared to get tired, dirty and exhilarated. There’s high altitude trail runs in the Drakensberg, and low altitude runs along SA’s craggy eastern seaboard. The granddaddy of them all is the Otter Trail along the Eastern Cape coastline, where you can take the 42km marathon and cross four rivers. Or you can hike the trail at a more leisurely pace. Either way, this is one adventure you can tell your grandkids about.
6. Hiking in the Drakensberg
Hiking up Table Mountain has become so popular in recent years that traffic jams occur frequently on the slopes, as those descending collide with those on their way up. For the more adventurous, head off to the Drakensberg, known for some truly memorable hikes.
There’s the Rainbow Gorge hike near Bergville, the Chain Ladders hike in northern Drakensberg, several hikes around Cathedral Peak and Ploughman’s Kop in Royal Natal Park. Some of these trails will take you through dense bush, rain forest, river valleys and craggy mountain slopes. Be prepared for all weather conditions. The rivers are crystal clear and irresistible after a long walk.
7. Skiing in SA
There’s plenty to do at the famous Tiffindell resort, voted 19th best ski run in the world by CNN in 2014. The ski season is short (three months) but intense. You can easily forget you are in Africa from the top of the ski slope, which caters to experienced and novice skiers and snowboarders. At 2,720m, Tiffindell is great for mountain hikes and other activities in the warmer months. Skiing is available roughly three months in the year, with an artificial snow machine acting as a backup when nature does not oblige.
Ski instructors are available and there are more gentle slopes for the children. Equipment can be rented on site, and there are ski lifts to get you back to the to the start of the slope. Outside of the winter months, this is a perfect spot for high altitude hiking, mountain biking, river tubing and – at night – stargazing.
8. Adventure racing or fly fishing in Mpumalanga
Dullstroom is one of those gems so commonly found in Mpumalanga: great for fly fishing, mountain biking or adventure racing – which is the ultimate race of human endurance, according to AR World Series. “Teams of four athletes race non-stop, day and night, through courses up to 800km in length. Each course is a unique journey, including legs of mountain biking, trail running, kayaking, and rope work.
"Teams must navigate using map and compass through remote wilderness checkpoints. They battle not only other teams, but extreme fatigue, sleep deprivation and unpredictable weather. If one team member quits, the entire team is unclassified.”
You need to be highly trained to do this, and join a team, of which there are many across the country. Adventure racing takes place in scores of locations. To start, you need a mountain bike, hydration pack and running gear.
9. Mountain biking in Sani Pass
This is for the serious mountain biker. The Sani2c is a three-day affair that has become the country’s largest mountain bike stage race. It covers a total distance of 263km with 3,785 metres of ascent, as the trails take you from Sani Pass to the ocean. The route is not particularly technical, and so attracts a variety of bikers, including hobbyists.
For the more hard-core, the 900km-long Joberg2c race takes place over nine days and takes you to parts of the country you will never see from the asphalt road. The race traditionally ends at Scottburgh, south of Durban.
10. Surfing at Jeffreys Bay
Tubes, supertubes, wipeout and tombstone. These are part of the vocabulary of surfers at Jeffreys Bay in the Eastern Cape, regarded as one of the top five surfing destinations in the world due to its rapid, long “tubing right-hand break”, according to Surfer Magazine. Jeffreys Bay attracts surfing aficionados from around the world during peak season, when the waves achieve a level of consistency seldom found elsewhere.
There is a code of conduct among surfers. The locals tolerate no nonsense and have organised themselves to deal with the invasion of surfers from abroad. If you wait your turn and show respect, your wave will come.
11. Scuba diving at Sodwana Bay
There are many great sites for scuba diving in SA, and Sodwana Bay in Kwazulu-Natal is without doubt among the most famous. Head off to Two Mile Reef for a stunning display of tropical fish, turtles and coral reefs. It can get crowded at certain times of the year, but the dives are spectacular and worth any inconvenience.
Other diving spots worthy of a mention include Shark Alley in Kwazulu-Natal, Avalanche Reef near Port Elizabeth, Storms River Mouth along the Garden Route, and A Frame near Simonstown in the Western Cape.
Not to leave Gauteng out of the picture altogether, the Magaliesberg Mountains offer some great adventure opportunities, such as rock climbing, mountain biking, game trails and balloon rising. In fact, pretty much anything that you can do in the Cape and Drakensberg (that does not involve the sea) can be done here.
“My advice is pick an activity that you like and can afford, and gradually increase your skill at it. SA has incredible opportunities for adventure sports and some of our destinations are the best in the world, whether for mountain biking, surfing or paragliding. As a country we need to get outdoors more,” says Davies.
13. White-water rafting on the Orange River
The Orange River carries its secrets from the Lesotho highlands, across the northern province, to the Atlantic Ocean. White-water rafting along the mesmerising Gorge section of the river has become an international sensation for aficionados of the sport. With a maximum Grade 3 rapid, there is nothing too frightening here for most white water enthusiasts. At the bottom of the Gorge, you have to belay 50m down to the bottom of the waterfall.
Out here, there are no roads or cellphone towers, just raw nature and the gentle gurgling of water. You camp at night, take hikes into the bush, and return to the river when it’s time to move on.
14. Adventure thrills on the Crocodile River
Some 45 minutes from Johannesburg or Pretoria in the North West Province, the Crocodile River lies in wait. For those with little time on their hands, there is a 5km-long water rapid that should get your heart pumping, especially as you surf ride a magnificent standing wave in the river. The river covers nine Class 1 and 2 rapids, which can increase to Class 3 during the rainy season.
15. Tubing in Magoebaskloof
You can’t say you’ve done it all until you go tubing along the Groot Letaba River in Limpopo. The sneaky river lulls you into a sense of calm before launching you into the rapids and tests your nerve. For the even more adventurous, the locals will invite you to go “kloofing” (from the Afrikaans word “kloof” or canyon). You get to abseil down waterfalls, lunge yourself into crystal clear pools and bum slide down rapids. At this point it’s just you, water and pure adrenalin. This is great for team building and testing your mettle.
16. Canopying in the Magalies
An hour-and-a-half from Johannesburg is one of the more exhilarating experiences you’ll ever come across: a zip-line tour over the tops of trees in the Magaliesberg mountain range. The same people who introduced SA’s first-ever canopy tour in Tsitsikamma, Limpopo, in 2001, have now expanded their operations to the Magalies in the North West.
This is a great way to see nature from a different angle and feel the brace of wind and speed as you reach speeds of more than 100km an hour in places. This is great for team building, and group sizes are limited to nine people, with two guides for each group.
17. Foot safaris in Kruger
You’ve seen the Big Five from the safety of your car. Now step outside and take a walking safari around the Kruger. Walking safaris are becoming a gig deal among wild life enthusiasts, and you can rest easy that experienced guides will accompany you. One of the companies offering this experience is Africa on Foot on the Klaserie Private Nature Reserve, which shares an unfenced border with the Kruger National Park. On a good day, you’ll get to see lion, leopard, elephant, rhino, buffalo as well as hyena, hippo, giraffe, zebra and a whole host of other wildlife.
18. Harties horse trails
Horse-riding at the foothills of the Magaliesberg mountains is something everyone should try at least once. There are a number of companies offering riding trails, and you don’t need any experience. The views are breathtaking, with the Hartbeespoort Dam behind you and the Magalies range in front of you. Once you hit those trails, you may just feel the urge to keep on going, wherever that may take you.
19. Abseiling the Orlando Towers
Got a weekend to kill and nothing to do? Then do something you will never forget: abseil down the Orlando Towers in Soweto. The views – if you have the stomach to look at anything apart from your rope - are magnificent. Or if something a little more rustic is what you want, head off to Adventure Zone Cullinan, 30 minutes from Pretoria to abseil the 60 metre Muningi Gorge. You can also try rap-jumping if you’re brave, which is abseiling upside down.
20. Bungee jumping the Orlando Towers
You might have thought Soweto’s Orlando Towers were just giant murals. In addition to abseiling, the towers are also used for bungee jumping. The brochures say you can take in the view as you lunge towards earth, but it’s a safe bet you will be looking straight at the ground as it rushes towards your head. Good for team building for those who have the guts to fall to earth like a cannonball, saved only by what is practically an elastic band.
21. Gauteng aerobatic flights
Don’t ever let anyone convince you Gauteng doesn’t have some of SA’s best adventure activities. Try aerobatic flying, for example. You step into a fixed-wing aircraft with a single propeller and take to the air with an experienced aerobatic pilot. He’ll show you the Hammerhead, the Cuban Eight or a Snap Roll, leaving your heart in your throat and eyes at the back of your skulls. Pure adrenalin rush and wind.
22. Bakkie skiing in the Northern Cape
This has got to be a South African first – bakkie skiing in the Northern Cape, which is operated out of Thota Lodge, a short distance from Hotazel. A bakkie pulls you along a custom-made ski designed to withstand the wear and tear of the Kalahari sand roads, and off you go.
One of the great things about the Northern Cape is the absence of people and cars: a perfect place for trying out all those things that you’d never get away with closer to the bigger towns.
23. Gyro-flying in Limpopo
A gyroplane resembles a small helicopter and is a remarkable flying machine that puts you just that bit closer to nature. The Sycamore gyro plane is a South African-developed gyro that has done wonders to promote the sport of gyro-flying. If you have the time, here you can learn to fly in five weeks in quiet air traffic space. Get yourself over to the Marulo Gyro Flight School and book yourself in for a test flight.
24. Sky-diving in Durban
Durban is blessed with beautiful aerial views and unarguably the best way to see this for yourself is by taking a tandem skydive at the Durban Skydive Centre. If you want go solo, you can take courses, which will take a little longer. But for tandem skydivers, there’s a 15-minute briefing session beforehand and then you are taken up to about 10,000ft before exiting the plane for a 40-minute free-fall jump. The parachute is deployed at 5,000ft and the canopy ride lasts about six minutes.
25. Sandboarding on the West Coast
Like snowboarding, sandboarding may take a little practice but once you’ve got the hang of it, you’ll never look back. One of the best places to do this is Atlantis or Silver Sands in Betty's Bay on the Atlantic coast. The sport has become immensely popular in recent years since it does not require snow or a boat to pull you. Even children are doing it. Hurtling down a sand dune at ridiculous speeds and then clambering up the dunes again to repeat the exercise is what it is all about. It’s fun, addictive and great for the legs.
This article was paid for the South African Tourism Board.