South Africa: The amazing destination no one cares about

5 years ago
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View from Table Mountain.

There’s this amazing destination, and it’s far closer than London or New York.

It’s somewhere you will find a mix of cultures; a mix of landscapes. It’s a destination that feels completely foreign, and yet strangely recognisable. And it’s so cheap.

You can swan about in fancy hotels there, or you can camp out under the stars. You can eat at some of the world’s best restaurants, or you can cook your own food over a fire. You can surf, or hike, or drive, or cycle, or jump off high things, or just hang out at a bar. It’s great.

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A bull elephant walks past a car filled with tourists in South Africa’s Kruger National Park.

And yet the weird thing is that people don’t care about it. They don’t go there, and they’re not interested.

This amazing place is southern Africa. Though you, like most, are probably not interested in going there, or maybe even hearing about it. I had to trick you with the headline of this story just to make you read it. What gives?

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Spring flowers bloom as paragliders take to the skies on the slopes of Cape Town’s iconic Table Mountain.

We just aren’t big on travelling to countries like South Africa, Botswana, Namibia and Mozambique. Stories on those destinations don’t get half as many reads as places like New York or Bali. And those destinations never go anywhere near the top 10 destinations that we like to visit.

It seems crazy to me. These are legitimately some of the best destinations on the planet, and we don’t visit. They’re affordable and accessible. There’s no language barrier.

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Ranging from semi-arid land to sand to seasonal wetlands, the Kalahari is the desert with perhaps the greatest concentration of wildlife.

They’re also extremely friendly and surprisingly safe – Namibia and Botswana both get the Smart Traveller’s green “exercise normal safety precautions” stamp of approval, while even South Africa is only rated a yellow “high degree of caution”.

And yet, when I announced I was going to southern Africa for a month, a few friends asked me, completely seriously, if I was taking a gun. To shoot what? People? Elephants? Lions?

The only explanation I can come up with for travellers’ lack of a care factor over southern Africa is that it has an image problem here.

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Traditional huts of the San Bushmen, an indigenous group of hunter-gatherers.

People think of it as this violent, scary place. Which it’s not. They associate it with things like Ebola, even though London is closer to the source of that outbreak than Cape Town. They think malaria will get them, which also isn’t true.

People seem intimidated by southern Africa, thinking you’d never want to drive yourself around there, never want to risk camping there, or going out on the town there. But that’s just a weird assumption. The Germans don’t think that way, and neither do the Swiss nor the Dutch. They’re all driving around there with little to no experience, having a ball.

Maybe people also haven’t got their heads around what’s so great about southern Africa. Maybe they’re not picturing the wide-open spaces, the landscapes that go from barren desert to savannah plains to coastal beauty.

They’re not thinking about places like the Okavango Delta and Kruger, or Etosha and the Kalahari, places you can visit for a very small amount of money and have the time of your life.

A week ago, I was sitting around a campfire in Botswana, drinking a whisky, when an elephant wandered in to our little clearing, rubbed itself up against a tree, munched on a few leaves, and then disappeared into the darkness. And that’s just a normal thing.

And then you have Cape Town, where you can dine at Luke Dale-Roberts’ restaurant, The Test Kitchen, which was just named number 22 in the world by the 50 Best, or you can hang out at the Woodstock markets with all the hipsters. You can tour wineries in Franschhoek.

You can go dune-bashing near Swakopmund in Namibia.

You can explore the colonial architecture of Maputo in Mozambique.

I’m not saying these experiences are necessarily better than those you’d have in, say, Japan, or Peru, or Italy. But they’re up there. Easily up there. Which makes you wonder why no one cares about southern Africa.

 

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