From bridge swinging to whitewater rafting, snorkeling with seahorses to viewing white sharks, South Africa’s adventure travel options reach far beyond the traditional safari for which it’s known.
That being said, there’s nothing “traditional” about many of the safari options in South Africa, according to those with experience in visiting and selling the destination.
The choices for viewing – and engaging with – wildlife are far more varied and geared to a broader range of consumers than many agents imagine.
More than safari
“I frequently need to educate my clients about the possibilities that South Africa holds,” said Lois Howes of Superior Travel, a TRAVELSAVERS agency in Freeport, N.Y.
“They all want to go on safari, but I tell them that’s good for part of the trip, but there’s so much more,” said Howes.
“You can go ostrich riding, feed the cheetah kittens at Cango Cheetah and Crocodile Project, drive along the southern route where baboons will come right up to your car – it’s endless.”
With much of the country surrounded by coastline, not all wildlife viewing in South Africa takes place on land.
The coastal areas are prime spots for snorkeling, diving and observing whales, great white sharks, penguins, seals, dolphins and other marine creatures.
“Diving is especially good particularly during the sardine run which happens from May through July and starts at the Western Cape and goes all the way to Durbin,” said Donna Evans, owner of Team Travel/Advavo Travel, a Virtuoso agency in Aurora, Colo.
“The sardines attract all sorts of fish, so divers can really see a great assortment.”
For whale watching, Evans recommends clients visit Hermanas, a town southeast of Cape Town on the Western Cape. It’s not only a center for whale watching excursions but also hosts two festivals celebrating the whale calving and mating season during August and September.
Evans also recommended that clients visiting the West Cape take advantage of an opportunity rarely available outside of South Africa: excursions to view great white sharks.
Boat rides out of Gransbaai take passengers to Shark Alley where operators often agree to refund the fare if they don’t spot a shark.
Snorkeling excursions to view the endangered seahorses of Knysna are another area attraction, one where experienced divers take snorkelers out to view the tiny greenish-brown creatures that have survived for 40 million years.
The waters of Knysna also teem with whales while the nearby Robberg peninsula is a prime habitat for penguins, fur seals and dolphins.
Another prime area for marine adventures is iSimangaliso Wetland Park, a UNESCO World Heritage Site on the northeast coast known for its spectacular coral reefs and biodiversity.
“There is great diving and snorkeling there, along with beaches full of nesting turtles at different times of the year,” said Patricia Feige, a South Africa specialist with ADT-Adventure Travel Desk in Wayland, Mass., which is both a retail travel agency and wholesaler.
Mountains and rivers
South Africa also holds strong appeal for clients who enjoy activities like hiking, mountaineering, rafting, fishing or even bungee jumping, according to Feige.
“The Drakensberg Mountains are really great for hiking,” she said. “Clients can stay in very nice inns with great food and just go out for day hikes or they can do more ambitious treks where they stay at lodges run by the South African park service.
Though not for the faint of heart, bungee jumping is popular in South Africa.
The country boasts one of the world’s highest jump-off points at the Bloukrans Bridge on the border between the Western and Eastern Cape.
Outfitters like Cape Xtreme and Downhill Adventures offer tours that include not only bungee jumping, but shark cage diving, river rafting, biking and bridge swinging – an activity where participants dive from a bridge while harnessed by a rope and then swing like a pendulum under the bridge.
When it comes game viewing, there are many ways to give clients a variety of perspectives on the experience, according to agents.
“Instead of the jeep safari, clients who really want adventure can do a walking safari,” said Margie Jordan, president of Jordan Executive Travel, a Signature agency in Jacksonville, Fla.
“When you see an elephant on foot, it’s a different experience than from a vehicle. Honestly, it scared the living daylights out of me, but it was fun.”
A magical night ride on elephants at Camp Jubulani was a treasured experience for Connie Ebright of Ebright Travel in Glendale, Calif., an Ensemble agency. An Africa specialist, Ebright has visited South Africa 26 times.
“You start with cocktails in the bush, a very elegant experience with Queen Anne chairs and roses in silver bowls,” said Ebright.
“Then they bring in the elephants; there are stairs, so it’s very easy get up,” she said. “It’s wonderfully quiet as you ride along a sand path. As it gets dark you see the extraordinary stars of the southern skies.”
A learning experience
The chance to learn about and even participate in wildlife conservation intensifies the safari experience for many clients, the specialists said.
Evans recommended visiting Addo Elephant National Park, a sanctuary for 550 elephants as well as black rhinos and other endangered species.
The park offers game drives as well as the chance to learn about conservation efforts and even “adopt” a baby elephant by pledging financial support.