Southern Africa: The complete guide to Southern Africa

In southern Africa everything is on a larger scale: the waterfalls are higher, the wildlife is wilder and the beaches are never-ending. It is also a place of vivid contrasts: a landscape of huge deserts, yet replete with verdant gardens; where the modern wine industry has taken root and flourished, yet where you are as likely to travel in a steam train as in a car.

WHEN IS THE BEST TIME TO GO?

Spring is about to begin; it will get hotter between now and the end of the year, with the highest temperatures in December and January. But all over southern Africa it can get cool at night if you are in the desert or away from the coast, so be prepared for the contrast. Most rain falls in sudden heavy bursts during the summer; once it has stopped raining, life carries on again as normal. But, if heading out in search of wildlife, plan a trip towards the end of the dry season, when animals tend to hang out together at any remaining waterholes.

HOW DO I GET THERE?

The leading airline between the UK and southern Africa is British Airways (0345 222111), with 13 flights a week from Heathrow to Johannesburg, six a week to Cape Town, and four flights a week from Gatwick to Harare. Virgin Atlantic (01293 747747) also flies between Heathrow and Johannesburg. But airlines from the region, such as South African Airways (0171-312 5000), Air Zimbabwe (0171-491 0009), Air Botswana (0171-757 2737) and Air Namibia (01293 596654), can provide good links around southern Africa and, often, lower fares. Expect hot competition on routes to South Africa this autumn, with fares through discount agents as low as pounds 350.

For further information contact the South African Tourism Board, 5 Alt Grove, London SW19 4DZ; 0541 550044 (brochure request line), 0181-944 8080 (personal enquiries), and the Zimbabwe Tourism Authority, 429 The Strand, London WC2R 0QE (0171-240 6169).

HOW DO I GET AROUND ONCE I'M THERE?

You can fly between all the big cities, but the best way to see Africa is by train, and in South Africa and Zimbabwe, steam trains are still in operation on some routes. The Blue Train, which links Cape Town with Pretoria, is one of the great railway journeys of the world. Trips like this don't come cheap, but if you are interested, contact SAR Travel on 0171-627 3560 (prices from pounds 306 per person for a de luxe one-day, one- night trip from Pretoria to Kruger Park). Rovos Rail specialises in luxury rail tours, also taking in Mozambique, Zambia and Tanzania; contact them on 00 272 1 323 6052.

If these sound beyond your budget, ordinary trains are clean and comfortable too (though you should be prepared for the odd delay), and the whole system is set up for long- distance travel - while if you want to go and watch the driver shoveling coal in to the furnace while the train roars along, you will be welcome. The journey between Cape Town and Johannesburg takes 24 hours plus, but it is a great way to appreciate the sheer size of the country, and fascinating to see the changing landscape.

If you decide to hire a car, remember that all across southern Africa the distances between towns are vast, and it can get very hot. Make sure you take plenty of water with you, particularly in Namibia, where you will be driving across the desert for much of the time; if you break down, it may be a while before another vehicle passes you. Don't drive after dark; if you hit an animal, you probably won't finish the journey. If you prefer to take a bus, the Intercape Mainliner (00 272 1 386 4400) has regular services linking Johannesburg, Cape Town and other South African cities with each other and with Gaborone and Windhoek.

IF I JUST WANT TO HANG OUT, WHERE SHOULD I GO?

Cape Town is the sort of place where you could spend a few days doing nothing in particular, just enjoying the location and the atmosphere. Apart from the great beaches, fantastic restaurants and lively night-life, there are plenty of things to do without making much effort: wander around the re-developed Victoria and Alfred Dock area, for example, or the Malay district, or take a boat trip out to Robben Island. If you find you have the energy for only one thing, make sure that you go up Table Mountain; it is possible to walk up to the top, but most people prefer to take the cable car.

WHAT ELSE SHOULD I SEE IN SOUTHERN AFRICA?

Most of the wonders of Africa are natural, but if you are more interested in historical sights, head out to south Zimbabwe, to the ruins of the Great Zimbabwe. This ancient city was renowned as one of the great capitals of the world, developed by the Shona tribe and inhabited between the 13th century and the end of the 15th, when it fell into decline. It is one of the most significant archaeological sites in sub-Saharan Africa; what you see now are the remains of the stone enclosures in which the important families of the time would have lived; the general population was housed in thatched huts with walls of clay and gravel. Alongside the ruins is a reconstruction of an old Shona village, which, although slightly touristy, does at least give a feel of what living conditions must have been like. The parkland around is attractive, and the vervet monkeys are very tame. The Great Zimbabwe is a few miles from Masvingo. If you have no transport, the Sabi Star Express service may be able to help you out: call them via 00 263 470 4501.

CAN I WEAR MY ROLEX IN

JOHANNESBURG?

Definitely not. Johannesburg has one of the highest crime rates in the world and you should be highly cautious. However, all is not doom and gloom. There are many good restaurants and jazz clubs - ask in your hotel for the hottest night-spots and the safest way to get there. The central business district is more or less a no-go area after dark; don't even get out of a taxi unless you know that the driver will wait to see you safely inside. Most people live in the suburbs - Sandton, Parktown, Richmond and so on - where there are restaurants, shopping malls and cinemas. The rest of the country is much safer, with the usual proviso that it would be pretty stupid to be wandering around any badly lit town or city at night unless other people are out too.

IN THAT CASE I'LL HIT THE BEACH INSTEAD

Zimbabwe and Botswana are land-locked, but Namibia and South Africa have some of the most amazing stretches of unspoilt beach anywhere in the world. Namibia's long Atlantic coastline stretches from the Angolan border, down the Skeleton Coast, and through the Naukluft Park as far as the South African border; the only towns on the way are Henties Bay, Swakopmund and Walvis Bay (grouped side by side half-way down the coast) and Luderitz further south. Unexpectedly for a former German colony, there are few beach towels lined up on the sand, and the most striking feature is the sand dunes, which have been carved into sculptural shapes by the wind.

The beaches around South Africa's Cape are less striking, but on a much larger scale; vast expanses of uninterrupted sand that appear to continue for miles. Take the coast road heading south of the city, and once you have got beyond Sea Point and Houts Bay, the beaches become more deserted. Continue beyond Cape Point as far as the Cape of Good Hope, which is the most westerly point in Africa and has a really beautiful beach, with waves breaking on it from all directions.

AND FOR SOMETHING MORE VERDANT?

Some would argue that the verdant heart of southern Africa is Botswana's Okavango Delta; the best way to see this area is to stay at one of the tiny safari camps in the area, for example those run by Wilderness Safaris - book through Wildlife Worldwide (0181-667 9158).

Otherwise, many people visit South Africa every year simply to see its gardens. Start with the Kirstenbosch Botanical Gardens on the outskirts of Cape Town, sheltered by the spectacular mountain scenery. If you are really serious about plants, though, take a trip along the Garden Route, part of the

Indian Ocean coastline, which stretches for about 150 miles between Mossel Bay and Storms River. Here the mountain range rises up very close to the coast, with lush vegetation in between, and a steam train serves the section between George and Knysna. The best time for a visit is from September onwards, in the spring and early summer. Several companies organise holidays specifically to explore this area; try Cedarberg Southern African Travel (0181-941 1717).

IS IT TRUE THAT THE FOOD IS LIKE THE WORST OF ENGLISH COOKING?

Zimbabwean food does rather resemble ordinary English cuisine circa the Fifties and Sixties: roast beef and Yorkshire pudding, roast lamb and mint sauce, roast chicken and bread sauce. All very comforting, but not a great culinary experience. However, if you are happy to chomp without cutlery, tuck into the authentic and cheap fare (such as sadza and meat stew) that you'll find in the local cafes.

The German colonisation of Namibia has left a legacy of German-style cooking, of which undoubtedly the best part is the tradition of coffee and home-made cakes, which you will find in the network of guest farms that offer hospitality and accommodation around the country.

Rather unnervingly, the meat served in the game lodges and the beasts in the parks are liable to have a certain amount in common; a kind of "you've seen the animal, now eat the pie" mentality. But if you can overcome any natural squeamishness, you will find that eland and oryx are surprisingly tasty. In South Africa, particularly around the Cape, there are Malay and Dutch influences on the cooking, in dishes like bobotie, a rather good mixture of spiced mince and raisins.

WHERE CAN I GO TO TRY OUT THE LOCAL WINES?

South Africa has developed into one of the great wine-producing countries of the world, and is far better organised than most at making the drink accessible without being pretentious - something many European wine-producing countries could learn from.

The centres of the industry are the towns of Stellenbosch and Paarl, which nestle in the mountains, and are both worth a visit in their own right for their Cape Dutch architecture and interesting museums. The various parts of the Wine Route are carefully signposted, and unless you know in advance which wineries you want to visit, in which case you will aim for particular places, it is easy enough to wander freely and stop when the fancy takes you.

Many are located in beautiful white gabled farmhouses and, typically, as well as a tasting-room they will have a simple restaurant in the garden at the back.

You can buy the wine they produce to accompany the meal, and although it is sold by the bottle, the prices are so low, you will think you are being charged only for a glass. If you don't want to drink the whole bottle, it is quite normal to take it away with you. There is an obvious disadvantage in hiring a car to make a trip of this type, so try Hilton Ross (00 272 1 511 1784) for organised packages. A full-day tour with two tastings and a cellar visit costs 190SAR per person (pounds 19.50).

CAN YOU STILL GET DIAMONDS IN SOUTH AFRICA?

Diamonds were discovered in the Kimberley area, in the middle of the country, in the mid 19th century. It's still possible to buy diamonds there, but the main reason most people go is to see the Big Hole. Literally a hole in the ground - the largest man-made hole in the world - it is now half-full of greenish water, and fenced off to stop people falling in. It was originally dug around the pipe that went down into the main diamond seam. Next to it is one of the world's most fascinating museums - a replica of the site's mining village, using many of the original shops that lined Main Street, as well as a reconstruction of the mine manager's house, which contrasts starkly with the shacks that the miners lived in.

WHERE CAN I SEE SOME BIG GAME WITHOUT HAVING A FULL-SCALE SAFARI?

It's an odd feeling to go out on a day trip and find yourself face to face with a white rhino, but there are places in southern Africa where you can do just that. In South Africa you can easily do a day trip from Johannesburg to Pilanesberg National Park, the country's fourth-largest park (00 271 4 555 5355).

Alternatively, take a trip from Bulawayo, Zimbabwe's second city, into the Matopos National Park, and although it is impossible to predict exactly what you will see, you would have to be very blase to be disappointed. Giraffe are pretty common, although they can be hard to identify against the vegetation, and during the afternoon crocodiles are likely to be seen basking by the water's edge.

If you are keen to see elephant, spend a day in Hwange National Park, at the western end of the country, near Victoria Falls.

Even if you don't want to spend a long period on safari, it is often worth staying overnight, since there is a better chance of seeing animals if you go out at sunrise or dusk. Contact the United Touring Company in Harare on 00 263 477 0623 or in Bulawayo on 00 263 961402, to obtain full details of its various minibus tours.

DO I HAVE TO BE SHUT IN A JEEP TO SEE THE WILDLIFE?

Definitely not. One way to enjoy the scenery is to jump right into it with a walking or boating safari in Zimbabwe or Botswana (Wildlife Worldwide, 0181-667 9158). However, there is more to African fauna than just the "big five". Drive across the Namibian desert and you will see all sorts of things, including a seal colony at Cape Cross where there are about 250,000 seals, many of which, if you are lucky, will be lazing on the rocks.

Unless you are confident that you can recognise a klipspringer or a black eagle's nest yourself, it can be a great advantage to go on a tour, since the driver will be able to point out things that you would not otherwise think of looking at. For trips in Namibia, try Oryx Tours (00 264 6 121 7454).

HONEYMOON

DESTINATIONS

VICTORIA FALLS, between Zimbabwe and Zambia, has been a centre of tourism since the railway reached it in 1904. The Victoria Falls Hotel (00 263 1 34203 or 34751), a masterpiece of old-style grandeur, costs $193 per person (about pounds 125) for a double room, $600 (pounds 385) plus for a suite for two.

Or go to Juliasdale, in the Eastern Highlands of Zimbabwe. At the Pine Tree Inn (00 263 2 922 5916) drinks are served on the terrace or by a log fire, followed by a five-course dinner; tea and biscuits are brought to you in bed in the morning, then a full English breakfast. At about pounds 16 for all that, it shows that the best things in life are (nearly) free.

A NIGHT AT THE THEATRE

ANYONE REMOTELY interested in the theatre should include the Market Theatre of Johannesburg (00 271 1 832 1641) in their southern African adventure. It is the most renowned theatre company on the African continent, and possibly the only thing in the city to detain a visitor overnight. Open now for over 20 years, it was founded to encourage indigenous black writing at a time when South Africa was isolated, culturally as well as politically, from the rest of the world. Now, it has developed from a single theatre into an arts complex, able to welcome the best of international theatre into the country as well as exporting its own productions: Peter Brook's production of The Man Who... opens on Tuesday (7 September).

Captions: Visit Kirstenbosch National Botanic Gardens

It's worth making the effort to go up Table Mountain

South Africa's Garden Route is a walk in the National Park

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