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Top 10 photographic highlights in South Africa
Read time: 8 mins
The southernmost country on the African continent, South Africa has always amazed photographers with its mega-diverse landscape; think epic coastlines, misty mountains, rolling grasslands, grassy savannahs, and extraordinary deserts. We head to the so-called “Whole World in One Country” where it’s impossible not to wear out your camera on iconic architecture, stunning wildlife, unusual attractions, and unique natural wonders.
Check out the most Instagrammed beach huts
It’s all about the surf culture and hipster scene in Muizenberg (or Muizies as it’s known by the locals) - the bohemian seaside village outside Cape Town that’s considered one of South Africa’s best-kept secrets. The vibe here is both eccentric and eclectic: expect a trendy artisan market, bric-a-brac shops galore, quirky restaurants and bars, weird and wonderful architecture, and a buzzy beachfront lined with miles of sparkling white sand. Most fabulous, though, are the two rows of much-cherished Muizenberg Beach Huts; one located opposite the kids’ play-park at Surfer’s Corner and the other close to the elevated walkway that runs adjacent to the Putt-Putt. These bright, vivid, and extremely photogenic Victorian bathing huts are not only a huge Insta hit, but also a huge part of the neighbourhood’s heritage (speculation on social media platforms that these prominent structures were to be removed led to public outrage by residents).
Get the shot: These iconic huts in repeating hues of red, green, yellow, and blue are wonderful to photograph at any time of day - and in any season. For the most best shots, stand on the street so that you are facing the huts at a 45-degree angle. Also bring a zoom lens for close-ups on the retro detailing (peeling paint, worn wood, missing barge badges, and rusty padlocks).
Visit one of Cape Town’s most iconic buildings
While there has been a slew of new architectural masterpieces that have strengthened Cape Town’s style appeal (the legislative capital was named World Design Capital in 2014), there is no shortage of olde-worlde structures to woo photographers. One of the most iconic is City Hall - the imposing Italian Renaissance-style Edwardian building on Grand Parade, between Buitengracht and Darling Street. Completed in 1905, its standout features include stained glass windows, mosaic floorings and marble staircases, a 61-metre-high bell tower that contains Africa's largest carillon of 39 bells, a 3,165-pipe organ designed by revered organist Sir George Martin, and lashings of honey-coloured limestone imported from England’s city of Bath. Once the centre of city administration, it now hosts regular cultural exhibitions and events, including music concerts by the resident Cape Philharmonic Orchestra and the accessible-to-all City Hall Sessions.
Get the shot: While the interiors are relatively interesting to photograph, it’s the grandiose facade that demands your attention. Most famous, of course, is the balcony where Nelson Mandela gave his first public address on 11 February 1990 just hours after his release from prison (an estimated 250,000 people gathered outside to witness this historical event).
Marvel at the wonderful spring wildflowers
There’s nowhere in South Africa that does springtime flowers quite like Namaqualand, the usually dry and dusty Northern Cape landscape that bursts into a kaleidoscopic carpet of colour from early August to late September (it changes every year, depending on the winter rains). For bloom-hunters, photographers, authors, poets, and artists, the millions of flourishing wildflowers that line 600 miles of coastal desert and arid areas along South Africa’s western coast are so dazzling that it’s not uncommon to spend at least five days here to take in the torrent of colour. Most fabulously, the 3,000 different species and 75-plus flower families growing in these granite hills, valleys, and lava lowlands are found nowhere else on the planet, including the pink-and-white Protea Cryophylla, the yellow Leucospermum Reflexum, the pink Cyanella Alba, the blue Lachanaea Filamentosa, and the orange Arctotis (locally known as the African daisy).
Get the shot: Namaqualand’s spring flower season is very short, so it’s best to travel north and then do most of your bloom-viewing in a southerly direction with the sun behind you (this means that the flowers are always front-facing). As long as it’s a bright day, the best times for photography are late-morning (between 10am and 11am) and around 4pm in the afternoon.
Be awed by South Africa’s great natural wonder
Little beats standing on top of towering dolerite columns and vertical cliffs overlooking South Africa’s vast and ancient Karoo landscape at the 194-square-kilometre Camdeboo National Park. So huge that it almost completely surrounds the town of Graaff-Reinet, the park is split into three main sections: the east for superb hiking trails, the wildlife-viewing area for Cape mountain zebras and kudus, buffaloes, springboks, and 220-plus species of bird, and the west for the Valley of Desolation (also known as The Cathedral of the Mountains). The latter that has become somewhat of a Mecca for photographers; not least for its staggering columns (some 120-metres-high) that are a product of volcanic and erosive forces that have taken around 200 million years to form. Declared a Scenic National Monument in 1935, this well-weathered geological phenomenon is easily accessible to visitors thanks to a road to the top of the valley that was tarred in 1978 (the photo ops of the otherworldly from here are exceptional).
Get the shot: The 45-minute Crag Lizard Trail starts at the Valley of Desolation parking area and extends for just under a mile (it takes in the key valley viewpoints and features information panels about the Karoo’s geological and paleontological history). For the most powerful images, try to get here at sunrise or sunset when the otherworldly rocky landscape is illuminated.
Work your way around the Cape Winelands
Just an hour from Cape Town, South Africa’s Cape Winelands is home to over 300 wine producers and plenty of in-the-known oenophiles keen to get their mitts on a vintage or two. Celebrated for its dry and mountainous climate, this world-famous wine powerhouse is as much about refined gastronomy and incredible scenery as it is about crowd-pleasers such as Methode Cap Classique (MCC), the unique Pinotage, and the Sauvignon Blancs and Syrahs that rank amongst the best on the planet. Of course, no visit here is complete without visiting Stellenbosch - the oak-lined Winelands town that boasts over 100 wine cellars (most are open to the public), a slew of art galleries, shops, and museums, and a craft brewing company that runs one-of-a-kind tours. Must-dos include taking the 90-minute Stellenbosch on Foot Tour, visiting the 900-hecature Jonkershoek Nature Reserve, and stocking up on all sorts of delicacies at Root44 Market, which takes place every Saturday and Sunday from 10am to 4pm.
Get the shot: While every season brings something special to the Cape Winelands, you can’t beat spring for wildflowers and fragrant blossoms and autumn for maximum sunshine, minimal winds, and vineyards tinged with fiery oranges and golden yellows. If you’re visiting during the summer months, bear in mind that the sun will be too harsh for photography between 9am and 3pm.
Meet the cute penguins at Boulders Beach
Located near Simon’s Town, the beautiful Boulders Beach not only tempts with clean sands and safe swimming waters, but it’s the only place in the world where you can get up-close to a colony of African Penguins (formerly known as Jackass Penguins because of their annoying and grating chirp). An original pair was spotted here in 1982, and there was an estimated 2,000 to 3,000 of these little tuxedoed cuties counted in 1997. However, in recent years, the numbers dwindled dramatically - by 2012 the breeding pairs were down to just 400. Nowadays, they are classified as an endangered species and visible only to those who pay their R65 beach entrance fee (the money helps boost the South African National Parks penguin conservation efforts). Once through the turnstiles, you can swim with these inquisitive little creatures, watch them from the various boardwalks, and (if you’re very lucky) pose with them for a sensational selfie.
Get the shot: Penguin-viewing is available year-round at Boulders Beach, but the summer months are the most crowded. In January, the juvenile penguins are moulting (feather shedding) and adults are feeding-up for the breeding season (this lasts from February to August). Penguins feed at sea for much of September and October, so you’re likely to see fewer birds on the beach.
Go hiking at Northern Drakensberg's Amphitheatre
One of the greatest geographical features in all of South Africa, the much-photographed Northern Drakensberg's Amphitheatre (part of Ukhahlamba UNESCO World Heritage Site) is nothing short of epic in both size and scale. Looming over the magnificent Royal Natal National Park in KwaZulu-Natal, this crescent-shaped massif of sheer basalt cliffs boasts near-perfect symmetry, measurements that warrant climbing bragging rights (3.1 miles long and over 4,000 feet high), and a series of challenging hikes that are ranked amongst some of the best on Earth. For those unafraid of heights and fit enough to reach the summit, never-to-be-forgotten views include the Mont-Aux-Sources (the highest point on the escarpment) and the Tugela Falls (the world's second tallest falls where sheets of water drop 3,100-feet from the Amphitheatre's cliff tops). And then, of course, there’s plenty of gothic-like rock towers (it is believed that Drakensberg inspired the setting for South African-born J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings).
Get the shot: Seasonal factors will have a significant bearing on photographers, especially those hiking or spending the night under canvas. As a rule of thumb, the best time to visit Northern Drakensberg's Amphitheatre is between mid-March until mid-June or in September or October. Try to avoid the cold winter months when the weather tends to be unpredictable.
Take the Aerial Cableway up Table Mountain
There’s no better place to watch an African sunset than from the top of Table Mountain, the 600-million-year-old flat-topped plateau that forms a dramatic backdrop to the city of Cape Town (it was officially inaugurated as one of the “New 7 Wonders of Nature” in 2011). Measuring exactly 1,089 metres high and approximately two miles wide, it rewards with more than 1,470 floral species (many of them are endemic), an interesting assortment of wildlife (rooikat, porcupines, mongooses, snakes, tortoises, jackal buzzards, booted eagles, African harrier-hawks, peregrine falcons, rock kestrels), and commanding 360-degree views of Cape Town, Table Bay, and Table Mountain National Park. The easiest way up the mountain is by the Aerial Cableway, a five-minute ride that has attracted a staggering 25 million visitors since opening in 1929 (it was modernised in 1997 and now carries up to 65 passengers per trip).
Get the shot: Once you’ve photographed Table Mountain from below (preferably with a telephoto or wide-angled lens), catch the cableway up the mountain and embark on any of the three easy walks on the plateau: the Dassie Walk, the Agama Walk, and the Klipspringer Walk. There are also free guided walks that depart on the hour from the Twelve Apostles Terrace.
Hit the great beaches along Cape Town’s coastlines
Both of Cape Town's coastlines boast postcard-perfect beaches, each with their own unique charm. Possibly one of the most popular is Camps Bay Beach; not least for its palm-fringed white sands, glittering Atlantic Ocean waters, glitzy restaurants and watering holes, millionaires’ mansions, and brilliant views of Lion’s Head and the Twelve Apostles. Equally worthy of your attention are the four distinctive beaches of Clifton (named first to fourth, separated by huge granite boulders) where you’ll find sparkling soft sands backed by turquoise-tinted waters. Also try to squeeze in a visit to the False Bay coastline that stretches from Cape Point to Pringle Bay on the opposite side of the Cape Peninsula. Here you’ll find a collection of photogenic sandy gems (Muizenberg, St. James, Fish Hoek, Boulders, Glencairn, Windmil, Macassar, Monwabisi, Mnandi) with waters that are approximately four-degrees warmer than the Atlantic beaches.
Get the shot: For gorgeous views of the coastline and the Twelve Apostles, take an early morning walk along the Pipe Track, which starts at the top of Kloof Nek and follows an old water pipe that stretches along the top of Camps Bay. Another great spot is Camps Bay Tidal Pool, especially for stunning sunset shots in the less-crowded winter months.
Enjoy a safari jaunt at Kruger National Park
Of all South Africa’s fabled game reserves, Kruger National Park is the oldest and most diverse (it’s also one of the largest in the world at 19,485-squared-kilometres). The wildlife-watching opportunities here are epic; especially for those staking out the Big Five (a term coined by big game hunters to reference lion, leopard, buffalo, rhino and elephant). Elsewhere, you’ll find plenty to photograph; including 142 other mammals, 507 species of bird, 2,000 tropical and subtropical plant species, and a wide range of habitats such as grass plains and savannahs, wetlands, granite hills, and winding rivers. As far as safaris go, either choose a self-drive in an open-sided 4x4 vehicle or pre-book daily game drives, bush walk adventures, and sundowners with professional guides. Be sure to plan your accommodation carefully prior to travel (the choice ranges from no-frills wilderness camps and hostels to luxurious five-star lodges and tents).
Get the shot: To capture this heart-stirring African wilderness on film, patience and persistence are key. Since flashes are often a no-no, take advantage of the natural light in the early-morning or late-afternoon when the sun is lower in the sky. Also pack two cameras to ensure you don’t miss any of the action (professionals recommend one with a wide lens and one with a long lens).