Visit South Africa to see lions, elephants, zebra, water buffalo, and rhinos in the wild. You’ll love the stunning physical beauty of Cape Town’s mountains, beaches, and sea views. Enjoy wine tasting at South Africa vineyards. South Africa’s tragic racial history is emotionally challenging but inspiring. And the strong dollar makes it more affordable in 2016.

Can these four reasons entice you to put South Africa on your bucket list?

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Kruger National Park in South Africa

Enjoy views in Kruger National Park in South Africa, between spotting animals (Photo Philadelphia TMOM Sarah Ricks)

Magical Safaris

A safari to see wild animals eating, ambling, and playing in their natural habitats is unlike any other experience. My teenaged son and I loved it!

On safari in Kruger National Park, a trained guide drives you in an open-air vehicle. The driver points out where to spy animals. Look off into the distance – is that a log lying in the water? No, it’s crocodile, lying in wait for its prey. Look at that tree, where the branches are rustling. And out walks a family of elephants. Without the trained guide to point things out, I literally would not have seen the gigantic hippo submerged in the river, which looked like a rock. Or a water buffalo bathing, which blended into the river.

Rhino at Kruger National Park. Visit South Africa for a safari, stunning natural beauty, and learning about South Africa’s tragic history.

Rhino at Kruger National Park. Visit South Africa for a safari, stunning natural beauty, and learning about South Africa’s tragic history. (Photo Philadelphia TMOM Sarah Ricks)

Sometimes even I could spot an animal at Kruger Park. I’d look up to see monkeys swinging in trees. A rhino casually grazed next to our van. Our driver often stopped short for pedestrian traffic – like an elephant crossing the street.

We entered Kruger National Park at the Malelane Gate. An overnight stay is required – in comfortable, air-conditioned rooms with three beds, a kitchenette and bathroom. My son and I went out in the van to spot animals twice in the afternoon, once at dawn, and once just before sunset. While that’s a lot of time driving around the Park – and for safety reasons you cannot exit the van – we saw different animals each time.

Beach in Cape Town, South Africa

Boulder Beach in Cape Town, South Africa (Photo Philadelphia TMOM Sarah Ricks)

Natural beauty near Johannesburg and Cape Town, South Africa

A couple of hours drive from Johannesburg, Kruger National Park is famous for its wild animals. But the park landscape itself is gorgeous. Between spotting animals, you’ll be treated to unforgettable vistas of mountains, plains, watering holes, and spectacular sunsets.

The natural beauty near Cape Town is stunning. In Cape Town, Cape of Good Hope is a beautiful cliff and beach area, one of the southernmost tips of Africa. At Table Mountain, the flat-topped mountain that is a symbol of Cape Town, you can take a cable car to the top for gorgeous views of the surrounding area. Camps Bay Beach, lined with upscale restaurants, is set at the foot of mountains, so you get both sea and mountain views from the beach.

Don’t miss the Kirstenbosch Botanical Garden in Cape Town. Its acres of flower gardens, winding paths, and ponds could take a full day to explore, and the view of the mountains and the city below is gorgeous. For a fun day trip from Cape Town, you can explore the beautiful winemaking region, Stellenbosch, where you can schedule winetasting at the vineyards.

Botanical Garden in Cape Town, South Africa

Treetop walkway in the Botanical Garden in Cape Town, South Africa (Photo Philadelphia TMOM Sarah Ricks)

South Africa Has Tragic and Inspiring History

The Apartheid Museum in Johannesburg is a thought-provoking presentation of South Africa’s brutal history of apartheid, the system of laws and customs that, until 1994, kept the white minority population separate from and in control of the black majority. Using photographs, video, text, and creative exhibits that help you to see apartheid from the perspectives of different people, the museum tells the story of apartheid and its aftermath.

In Johannesburg, a former political prison has been replaced by South Africa’s Constitutional Court. The Court is built on the grounds of the prison and includes fragments of the destroyed prison, including its old bricks. A guided tour of the Constitutional Court includes a tour of the former prison, where both Mahatma Gandhi and Nelson Mandela were locked up at different points. In Cape Town, you can visit the island cell where Nelson Mandela spent most of his 27 years in prison, on Robben Island. It is especially moving that your tour guide of the Robben Island prison will be a former political prisoner.

A different way to experience some of the legacy of apartheid is to visit one of the townships, areas set aside for black Africans. You’ll need a guide. A travel company, Tribal Meetings, did a great job of arranging visits for us (a large group) to visit townships in both Cape Town and Johannesburg.

In the Cape Town township of Langa, Tribal Meetings arranged for a walking tour by a township resident. Our guide introduced us to children playing in the streets and even took us into his own house.

Cape of Good Hope, South Africa

You can eat here at Cape of Good Hope, South Africa (Photo Philadelphia TMOM Sarah Ricks)

Lelana Restaurant in Langa Township threw a banquet for our very large group. We heard local musicians, ate foods like ostrich and antelope, and best of all, heard a moving talk by its owner, Sheila. Sheila cleaned houses for years. One day while cleaning, she found a receipt stating her employers had bought 2 cheeses and a glass of wine – for the same amount they paid her for a full month’s work. Shortly after, Sheila started her restaurant in one room of her 2 room house. The restaurant, since expanded into the house next door, only opens for big groups. Tribal Meetings arranged for this memorable experience in a South African township.

In the black township of Soweto in Johannesburg, Tribal Meetings arranged for a guided bus tour of the township, pointing out both Archbishop Desmond Tutu’s house and Nelson Mandela’s former house. The township tour included a stop at an open-air market. We visited the Hector Pieterson Memorial and Museum, which tells the story of the 1976 anti-apartheid student protests that took place in Soweto, the site of the museum.

The fascinating history of Johannesburg and Cape Town was more accessible with a guide. In fact, for safety reasons, in Johannesburg we did not explore without a guide.

Strong Dollar makes South Africa More Affordable

When I was in South Africa in 2016, a U.S. dollar was worth about 16 rand. Since a dollar was only about 11 rand for most of 2014, it is significantly less expensive now.

Apartheid Museum in Johannessburg, South Africa

The Apartheid Museum in Johannesburg may be the best museum I’ve visited (Photo Philadelphia TMOM Sarah Ricks)

 How to Prepare for Visiting South Africa

To learn South Africa’s tragic and inspiring racial history before you visit, movies based on real events can help. Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom (2013), starring Idris Elba, is based on the autobiography of Nelson Mandela, the South African President and anti-apartheid leader. Invictus (2009), starring Morgan Freeman and Matt Damon, is about one way the new President Nelson Mandela attempted to politically unify the country after apartheid – by supporting the national rugby team.

Several books can help prepare to visit South Africa. Kaffir Boy (1986) is a memoir of growing up very poor in Soweto by Mark Mathabane. Long Walk to Freedom: The Autobiography of Nelson Mandela also has a slim abridged version (150 pages). Cry, the Beloved Country (1948) is the classic novel by Alan Paton set in the 1940’s before apartheid was formally the law, but shows the starkly different conditions for blacks and whites in South Africa.

Do you hope to visit South Africa one day, or to return to visit it again? Tell us about it in the comments.