At the edge of the world, South Africa is everything a final frontier should be. Exotic wildlife is scattered across diverse landscapes from the bone dry Kalahari to the windswept bluffs along the Garden Route, from life-changing Big Five safaris in Kruger National Park, to surfing and shark diving off its beautiful beaches. All this is complimented by a thriving wine industry and gastronomic offerings sure to please the palette, and a warm, welcoming people who are ready to show you a new, different South Africa. South Africa truly has it all.
The second largest city in South Africa is home to an invigorating mix of cultures, which make for colorful visits any time of year. Cape Town is also located near many of the country's premier wineries, offering marvelous mountain vistas and impressive 17th century Dutch architecture. Swimming, surfing, and snorkeling are all popular activities in the area, as are tours of the city and harbor, which afford stunning views of the South African coastline.
Kruger National Park
At 7,580 square miles, Kruger National Park is the one of the largest game reserves in Africa. Kruger is home to more species of large mammals than any other African game reserve, so it's hard to find a better place on earth to see the Big Five roaming the bush. Walking safaris and game drives round out the park's offerings to make a visit to Kruger a must on any South African adventure.
The Garden Route runs over 500 miles along some of the most scenic coastline in the world between Cape Town and the Eastern Cape beaches of Port Elizabeth. Top-notch whale watching, hiking, surfing, and cave exploring are all on the menu here. Find yourself constantly surrounded with the natural wonders of South Africa including mountains, lakes, rivers, valleys and forests brimming with ecological diversity.
The cozy coast
The Garden Route gained its massive reputation as a holiday paradise from white South Africans living in the hot dry interior of the country. They flocked down here in the thousands for Christmas seaside holidays in the relatively cool coastal belt, reveling in the lush green forests and the English-style cottage gardens.
This is the African equivalent of the Pacific Highway through San Louis Obispo and Carmel. It has quaint old towns that work very hard at staying pretty. There are plenty of beautiful old Cape-Dutch B&B's to stay in, lovely little museums to explore and small craft and antique shops to poke around in. There are tea shops with lace tablecloths and cake and seafood restaurants aplenty. This is a place to relax, play golf (with many superb courses), walk and cycle, go riding or fishing, whale and bird watching. Those with a more adventurous streak can bungee off the Bloukrans Bridge, one of the highest in the world, zip through the tree canopy of the Tsitsikamma Forest or take a canoe or kayak out to sea, along the rivers or lagoons.
Botanists have divided the entire world into just six floral kingdoms. South Africa's Western Cape has one all to itself - that's 0.04 percent of the surface of the planet. The largest, the Boreal, covers 42 percent of the earth.
So they take this tiny patch of land, covering 90,000 sq km (34,850 sq miles) from the Cederberg Mountains in the west to Port Elizabeth in the east, very seriously. And so they should. Because it has an astounding 8,500 species of plants. That's 42.5 percent of all the species found in Southern Africa. On Table Mountain alone, there are 1,470 species - more than in the whole of the British Isles.
Most of them are not big and showy. You have to look hard to see the differences. Together they make up a type of mountain scrubland known as 'fynbos' (fine bush), fine-leaved, evergreen plants that can survive the poor soil, hot summers and wet winters. There are reeds, ericas (related to heathers), grasses and bulbs such as strelizias, freesias, pelargoniums, campanulas, lobelias and gladioli which have become common garden flowers around the world.
However the kings of the fynbos are undoubtedly the proteas, which come in an infinite variety of styles and colors but are best known for the heavy furry pink and black flowers that have become the national symbol of South Africa.
Once upon a time - well, about 3 million years ago - the whole region had a warmer climate and was covered in lush subtropical forest. Some died out naturally, much was later cleared by settlers for farming and building. The glorious yellowwood and stinkwood trees which once soared in the tangled woodlands now gleam as Cape Dutch floors or furniture. Now only isolated pockets of virgin forest remain in Knysna and Tsitsikamma on the Garden Route. Tucked into the undergrowth, carefully protected, are some of the oldest plants on the planet - cycads, which are said to be unchanged since the Jurassic era 150-200 million years ago. These plants were around at the same time as the dinosaurs.
Bizarrely, it's left to the Cape's desert areas to be the flashiest, and really show off. Throughout the year, there are interesting things to see here, botanically speaking, such as the extraordinary quiver tree that dots the landscape of the Northern Cape. But with the spring rains in September and October the desert quite literally bursts into life.
The Karoo, stretching east, is a gentler palette of yellow, purple and white. In the west, mesembryanthemums and Namaqualand daisies burst into a psychedelic riot of color that paint great swathes of the landscape in hot pinks, purples and orange. There are flower hotlines and traffic jams as people flock north to see the sight.
For more information call Alki Tours at 206-935-6848 or www.alkitours.com.
12 day South Africa Tour May 13-24, 2017
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By Joan Casanova, Bonnie Plants,
Photographs courtesy of Bonnie Plants, Inc.
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