[Updated June 2019]
What do you really know about Mzanzi’s off-the-beaten-path, less-explored destinations? Sure, there are a countless number of popular cities to visit in the country. But, there are so many wonderful hidden gems in South Africa too! Do yourself the pleasure of discovering them all. Here are 10 hidden gems and small towns in South Africa that we are very happy to share with you!
1. Richtersveld National Park
About a day’s worth of driving from Cape Town, the Northern Cape’s Richtersveld National Park offers a challenging terrain (leave the Kia Picanto at home; the park is only accessible by 4×4, kombi or LDV) and amazing varieties of birdlife, mountain zebras, vervet monkeys, rhebok, kudu and many more natural inhabitants. Let’s not forget the over 650 plant species ranging from nutritional to medicinal. This is a mountain desert wilderness of amazing beauty and one of the many outstanding hidden gems in South Africa. Just remember to bring provisions, as no restaurant facilities are available, and to plan your route in order to arrive in daylight, as driving in the park at night is not allowed.
2. Augrabies Falls National Park
Augrabies in the Northern Cape is a great hidden gem in South Africa, perfect for hiking and camping, but the highlight in this region is the Orange River’s magnificent Augrabies Falls, 60m high and absolutely astonishing. The original Khoi San residents named them Ankoerebis – “place of big noises”; you will very quickly understand why. Augrabies Falls is also wheelchair accessible.
Other attractions include Moon Rock, which you can walk up to enjoy panoramic views of the Martian-like landscape. Also see the Kokerboom, or Quiver tree, because the Bushmen used its soft branches to make quivers for their arrows. Go at your own pace on a self-guided hike in search of the abundant local wildlife and birdlife. You will not come across any rhinos, lions or any of the Big Five, but you certainly will be spoilt for choice. It is an amazing opportunity to walk the trails at your leisure. For a truly brilliant time, watch millions of stars on moonless nights.
3. Vanrhynsdorp / Nieuwoudtville
Only 30 minutes apart, both Vanrhynsdorp and Nieuwoudtville together are green-fingered and artistic travellers’ paradises and deserve to be among the top hidden gems in South Africa. Vanrhynsdorp is part of the Namaqualand Region and, being near to the semi-arid Nama Karoo Desert, it has the largest succulent nursery in the world with over 600 species.
Every year around August and September (after the winter rains), the whole countryside bursts into a brilliant eruption of colours from its blooming wildflowers. For the radio heads among the gardeners, a trip to the Latsky Radio Museum in Vanrhynsdorp is recommended. It displays all manner of radios, both donated and sourced in flea markets, including some very unusual ones, like the one used on a Russian spy ship to encrypt Cold War messages.
Onwards to Nieuwoudtville. To get there, you will travel over Vanrhynspas. Originally opened in 1880, this mesmerising pass will give you the chance to “see where you’ve come from” with its double backed route. At Nieuwoudtville is one of the hidden small towns in South Africa, where the views are truly magnificent. You can visit the fascinating Hantam Botanical Garden, declared an International Biodiversity Hotspot because of its international significance and visited every year by global botanists and researchers. It is home to many plant species unique to South Africa.
The area has numerous self-guided walks, interesting dolerite koppies and many wetland birds, including a large population of cranes and marsh birds. It also has the distinction of featuring one of the densest populations of porcupines in the world. While you are there, make sure to visit the Nieuwoudtville Wild Flower Reserve with its many flowers all ready to show their colourful faces to the world in August.
About 15 minutes away, you will find the beautiful Nieuwoudtville waterfall. It is particularly stunning after plentiful summer rains. This serene environment gives you a chance to see large eagles flying overhead in search of prey. Only 20 minutes away is the Kokerboom Forest – which is free to visit – with row upon row of quiver trees. Try to get there in time to take in one of its spectacular sunsets.
4. Sani Pass
For an extraordinary adventure and the chance to take your 4X4 to new heights (9429 ft. above sea level), take a trip to Sani Pass, high in the mountain Kingdom of Lesotho, one of the many hidden gems just outside of South Africa. Located on the cusp of Natal’s beautiful Drakensberg escarpment, the road to the top can be bumpy, with occasional heart-stopping turns, but the view makes it worthwhile. Not to mention the chance to meet Basotho people and learn about their unique mountain culture, and to enjoy a cold glass of the local Maluti Lager at the Highest Pub in Africa! Remember to carry your passport with you.
Backpackers unite! Drop by the gorgeous Chintsa Beach, on the Eastern Cape’s Wild Coast, one of the most outstanding hidden gems in South Africa. Chill and meet travellers from all over the world at the renowned Buccaneers Backpackers. Located between miles of Wild Coast forest and beach, the hostel is laid out more like some kind of backpacker village.
Chintsa Beach is also a surfer’s favourite, with the nearby waves providing a chance to perfect your style and technique. Besides the surf school, there is also the opportunity for horse riding, mountain biking, taking a tour on a big four safari or a township or brewery excursion.
Also read: 20 of the Best Beaches in South Africa
6. Cradle of Humankind
The remarkable Cradle of Humankind World Heritage Site, one of the true hidden gems in South Africa, is less than an hour’s drive from Johannesburg, near the Witwatersberg and Magaliesberg mountain ranges. See the Sterkfontein Caves, where scientists have discovered many hominids and animal fossils dating back over 4 million years.
There’s Maropeng (meaning “returning to the place of origin” in Setswana) and its exhibition centre, housed in a Tumulus that allows visitors to sail through the various stages of Earth’s formation on an underground boat. Close by is Magaliesberg, one of the world’s oldest mountain ranges. Besides the pure pleasure of finding an abundance of flora, fauna, birdlife and the magnificent sable antelope, they also have fun micro-lighting, abseiling, rock climbing, river rafting and hiking. And, if you are feeling lucky, visit Gauteng’s oldest gold mine. A variety of accommodation is on offer, from camping to super luxurious.
7. Grahamstown (Makhanda)
Overlooking the sleepy-looking hollow of Grahamstown you could be forgiven for thinking the charming old University town is where parties come to die. On the contrary, Grahamstown is one of the finest small towns in South Africa. This student town, famous for its history and Rhodes University, is home to the National Arts Festival and several museums and boasts a party atmosphere that’s second to none thanks to the large student population.
The first Cape Colony settlers landed on its shores in 1820 and are commemorated by a statue within the beautiful gardens overlooking Gunfire Hill; definitely worth a visit. The town is certainly steeped in history, and one museum displays an original ‘camera obscura’ which inspired early cameras. The National Arts Festival, which takes place between June and July annually, is the biggest of its kind on the continent.
The programme includes music, visual art exhibitions, films, student, physical and street theatres, lectures, a craft fair, workshops, dance, physical theatre, a children’s arts festival and much more. Do not worry about finding suitable accommodation; you really will be spoilt for choice with the town’s selection of accommodation.
Stanford, in the Western Cape, is another laid back location that’s lesser-known in comparison to the likes of nearby Hermanus. With the Kleinrivier running through it and its mountainous backdrop, it really is a lovely and relaxing small town in South Africa. Close to the Whale Coast, Stanford offers a variety of activities, from exploring antique stores, restaurants and coffee shops to horse riding, boat cruises, bird watching, brewery tours (check out Birkenhead) and even great white shark cage-diving nearby.
Or simply a picnic by the river and watching the world go by. Something else really good to know; Stanford Wines has come into their own and there are plenty of wine tasting opportunities in the nearby estates. If you decide to hang around a bit longer, you have a choice of accommodation, from guest houses and country cottages to Bed and Breakfasts.
While most opt for the indulgences and conveniences of nearby Knysna, Sedgefield’s square features a statue of a tortoise, echoing its motto: ‘the tortoise sets the pace’. As you can imagine, this is one of the small towns in South Africa where relaxation is very much encouraged.
Do as little or as much as you like, the options are pretty good! Picnic by the lagoon, ski on the Swartvlei, bird watch, visit the Saturday markets, enjoy the scenic cycling routes, kayak along the rivers and lagoons, swim or surf. For a change of scene from popular and busy Knysna, why not spend some time unwinding in this laid back town next time you hit the N2?
One of the picturesque small towns in South Africa, Napier, in the Overberg, has a bit of everything for the curious traveller. Interested in farm stalls, wine-tasting amenities, cycling, hiking, museums and sweet potatoes, that is! And you can participate in the annual half-marathon and mountain bike race, which normally take place in June.
You will probably want to take part just to work off all the “Patat-koek” (a delicious pudding-like cake made from the local sweet potatoes). Make sure not to miss the Toy Museum, with its fascinating collection of rare and traditional toys, including old boat and steam toy collections.
We have shared our secrets about these hidden gems and small towns in South Africa; we now look forward to helping you uncover them. Experience another side of the country and enjoy a more satisfying travelling experience.
Do you know of any other hidden gems in South Africa? Let us know in the comments!
The original post was written by Sandra Walker.