The Traveller's Guide To: The Southern African Coast

From Mozambique's azure archipelago to the vertiginous walls of Namibia's Fish River Canyon, the variety of Southern Africa's shores will amaze you. By Justine Vaisutis
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The Independent Travel

WHY SHOULD I STICK TO THE COAST?

Southern Africa's coastline is a melting pot of landscapes, cultures and imagery. The Atlantic and Indian Oceans etch their way into the continent's lower shelf. Vast arid deserts, punctuated by lonely massifs, dissolve into stretches of tropical coast. This visual spectacle is often interrupted by picture-postcard beaches and urban areas, catering to backpackers, sophisticates and everyone in between. Then there's the wildlife - gaping at the continent's furred, feathered and fierce inhabitants, is a must for all visitors.

WHERE'S THE BEACH?

The Atlantic Ocean's glacial temperatures keep all but the brave firmly ashore along Cape Town's Atlantic Coast, but the string of beaches here seduce water babies of all ages with the lion's share of the area's geographic beauty. Bloubergstrand boasts the most dramatic vista, with an uninterrupted panorama of Table Mountain. Trendy young things flock to Clifton's four beaches, flaunting flesh and fashion, before heading for the strip of Camps Bay. A favourite haunt is the ambient Café Caprice at 37 Victoria Road (00 27 214 438 3714).

In stark contrast, the Wild Coast of South Africa's Eastern Cape is a smear of isolated shoreline. As the Atlantic melts into the temperate waters of the Indian Ocean, swimming tops the agenda at Port St Johns, where a spectacular beach is backed by a dramatic fold of hills.

In Southern Mozambique, the holiday village of Vilankulo is peppered with appealing beaches and a healthy spread of accommodation options. But the real feast lies some 10km offshore in the Bazaruto Archipelago - an ethereal quilt of alabaster sand and crystalline sea. On Benguerua Island, Marlin Lodge (00 27 12 543 2134; www.marlinlodge.co.za), takes advantage of the utopian surrounds, pampering guests with a wellness centre, restaurant, secluded beaches and indulgent chalets (from US$189/£105 per person including meals).

CAN I GET MORE THAN JUST MY FEET WET?

Jeffreys Bay is the hub of South African surfing. But if "J-Bay" is the celebrity of Southern Africa's surfing spots, Mozambique's Tofinho is the budding starlet. Intrepid surfers trek to the less-frequented swell at this undeveloped spot to take advantage of the warmer water and breaks off the rocky shelf.

Mozambique's coastline is littered with dive sites including the Bazaruto Archipelago, where some 2,000 species of fish reside. In northern Mozambique, marine life teems beneath the liquid canopy of the Quirimbas Archipelago, and its vivid fringe of reefs provide shelter to angel fish, morays, turtles and colossal reef fish. Encompassing the southernmost islands is the Quirimbas National Park, incorporating protected marine sanctuaries.

IS THERE ANYTHING ELSE TO SEE OFFSHORE?

From October to December, Namibia's forbidding Skeleton Coast echoes with the garrulous barking of the largest sea lion colony on the African coast, as some 100,000 Cape Fur seals converge at the Cape Cross Seal Reserve. Newborn pups join the cacophony in November, and within a week bulls begin the treacherous task of establishing and defending harems of up to 25 cows. The reserve is open 10am to 5pm daily and entry is Namibian $10 (£2) per person, and the same again per vehicle.

Snug in a pocket of Walker Bay, Hermanus is one of the globe's best spots for getting up close and personal with Southern Right whales. Every June they roll into Walker Bay for a five-month pit stop, humbling spectators with their calving, mating and gymnastic frolicking.

Significantly smaller, but no less entertaining, are the Inshore Bottlenose, Indo-Pacific Humpback and Spinner dolphins that frequent Pont D'Ouro in southern Mozambique. Dolphin Encounters (00 27 11 462 8103; www.dolphin-encountours.co.za) offers eco-tours from 350 Rand (£30) per night with breakfast, and dolphin swims from 180 Rand (£15).

WHAT ABOUT THE ONSHORE WILDLIFE?

Skirting 80km of South Africa's Eastern Coast is the Greater St Lucia Wetland Park, a UNESCO World Heritage Site and the largest estuarine system in Africa. Surrounding Lake St Lucia, a conglomeration of unique ecosystems sustains over 520 bird species as well as turtles, whale sharks, hippos, rhinos, elephants and leopards.

Less than 75km north of Port Elizabeth, Addo Elephant National Park (00 27 12 428 9111; www.addoelephantpark.com) began its existence in 1931 as a sanctuary for the 11 elephants that remained in the area. Today their number has grown to over 420, and they now share their habitat with black rhinos, lions, hyenas and large herds of antelope and Cape buffalo. Entry costs 8 Rand (£7).

AND WHAT ABOUT HISTORY AND CULTURE?

Around 600 years ago, Arab traders discovered enigmatic Ilha de Mocambique, 3km off the Mozambican coastline. Portuguese settlers followed in their wake, along with a steady flow of African, European and Middle Eastern migrants. Among the striking architecture on the island is the Palace and Chapel of Sao Paulo (00 258 661 0082). Bathe in more history overnight at Casa Branca (00 258 661 0076), a 300-year-old guesthouse.

Twelve kilometres from Cape Town and encircled by the Atlantic Ocean, Robben Island incarcerated South Africa's exiles for almost 400 years - the most famous inmate was Nelson Mandela, who spent 27 years here. Immaculate views of Table Mountain loom in the background, providing a haunting contrast to the anguish that pervaded the prison during its operation. The island is now a living museum (00 27 21 413 4200; www.robben-island.org.za) and tours are led by ex-prisoners. Entry is 150 Rand (£13).

WHERE CAN I GET THE MOST USE OUT OF MY CAMERA?

On of the largest in the world, the 160km-long Fish River Canyon is a circuitous gorge that plummets 550m in parts and peering into its arid depths feels like standing at the world's end. Access the dizzying heights via Hobas, which marks the entry point to the Fish River Canyon National Park (reservations@mweb.com.na). Vehicles and adults are charged £2 each and the park is closed during summer months due to extreme temperatures.

If you're travelling in spring, the vivid wildflowers of South Africa's Namaqualand, in the north-west, are mandatory. Dense rains pelt this arid plateau in August to produce a living kaleidoscope of tiny flowers.

I'D PREFER A BIT MORE CITY LIFE

Soaring 1,000m above sea level, Cape Town's Table Mountain is beautiful in any season, and its hypnotic atmosphere makes it perhaps the most photogenic of all of Southern Africa's sites. Even when devoid of its signature veil of cloud, the views from the top are as staggering as the rock itself. The easiest and quickest way to enjoy the panorama is via the Table Mountain Aerial Cableway (00 27 21 424 8181; www.tablemountain.net), with a breathtaking ascent from Tafelberg Road near Kloof Nek. The cable cars operate every 15 minutes from 7am to 11pm daily during summer, weather permitting. Winter hours are determined by weather conditions and a return/one-way trip costs between 57-110 Rand (£5/£9).

In the shadow of Table Mountain and boasting an exquisite shoreline, Cape Town is Southern Africa's most beautiful and enigmatic city, simmering with a confluence of cultures, colours and flavours. Its populace is heralded as the country's most open-minded and mingling with Cape Town's locals in the glut of bars, restaurants and cafés, is as big a lure as the city's main tourist attractions.

Among its many museums, the South African Museum at 25 Queen Victoria St, Gardens (00 27 21 481 3800) is devoted to the anthropology and natural history of South Africa. It's open 10am to 5pm daily. Nearby, the South African National Gallery on Government Avenue (00 27 21 467 4660) has an excellent collection of South African, British, Flemish, Dutch and indigenous art and is open from 10am to 5pm Tuesday to Sunday. Entry to each is 10 Rand (£1).

The Kirstenbosch Botanical Gardens at Rhodes Drive, Newlands, (00 27 21 799 8899; www.nbi.ac.za/) peppers the base of Table Mountain with 9,000 of the country's indigenous plants. The gardens are open 8am to 7pm from September to March, and till 6pm from April to August. Entry is 22 Rand (£2).

On Cape Town's harbour, the glitzy Victoria and Alfred Waterfront is a commercial myriad of malls, pubs, bars, restaurants and cinemas. Beyond this, Table Bay stretches out languidly into the Atlantic Ocean. The Waterfront Boat Company at Shop 5 Quay (00 27 21 418 5806; www.waterfrontboats.co.za) conducts cruises daily into the bay, starting from one hour at 70 Rand (£6) per person.

Along South Africa's southern coast, visitors can also satiate their urban cravings in Durban, home to a sprawling esplanade and the largest Indian population in the country. Further west, historical Port Elizabeth tumbles down a bank of hills into Algoa Bay, where drinking and dining options speckle the seafront.

WHAT ABOUT MOZAMBIQUE?

Also perched on an expansive harbour, the Mozambican capital of Maputo has undergone a reinvention to heal the scars left by almost two decades of civil war. A vibrant population now hums amid markets and colonial architecture, including the impressive Fort of Sao Sebastiao, and the palatial Central Railway Station (1910) on Praca dos Trabalhadores.

The iconic Hotel Polana, 1380 Avenida Julius Nyere (00 258 149 1001; www.polana-hotel.com), peers over Maputo Bay from its striking waterfront position. Rooms range from comfortable studios ($153/£85) to the lavish Presidential suite ($1,025/£570 per night).

BEST FOOT FORWARD

Although Africa's southern coast lends itself to epic road trips, it often pays to try travelling with two feet.

Chasing 280km of South Africa's shoreline, the Wild Coast Hiking Trail encompasses five distinct routes. Each trail varies in difficulty and takes three to six days to complete. Also in the Eastern Cape, the five-day Otter Trail darts from river crossings to cliff tops. Based in the Tsitsikamma Coastal National Park, the trek follows 42km of undulating coast from Storms River Mouth to Nature's Valley.

Namibia's Fish River Hiking Trail (see page VIII) is stunning and best suited to fit hikers. It meanders for 86km from Hobas to Ai-Ais hot springs and takes four to five days. The trail is closed from October to February.

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