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While South Africa’s past involves a rough history with colonialism and apartheid, it’s presently full of vitality, culture and remembrance. Based at Africa’s southernmost tip, and with nine provinces, South Africa encompasses a wide variety of wildlife, culture and history. Now the question is: How much do you know about this country? Whether your knowledge is a lot or little, these 10 fascinating facts will make you want to book a flight and convert your dollars to Rand ASAP.

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Traditional Zulu dancers prepare to dance in a local village in KwaZulu-Natal |Photo courtesy of South African Tourism

There are almost a dozen ways to say hello

South Africa is quite a multi-lingual country; it boasts 11 official languages (yes, 11). Both immigrants to South Africa and cultures native to this nation have added to this linguistic roster, so much so that it has been given the nickname “The Rainbow Nation.” Zulu is said to be the most common so be prepared to greet a Zulu person with a simple “Sawubona!”


Houses of Parliament are located in Cape Town. | Photo courtesy of South African Tourism

South Africa has not one capital, but three!

Most destinations have a single capital city, but South Africa’s got three of them. Here’s why: Its governmental powers are divided into different cities. Pretoria (famous for its lush jacaranda trees) is South Africa’s administrative capital and holds the executive branch of the government. Cape Town (famous for beaches, wineries and Table Mountain) contains the legislative branch such as its National Assembly and National Council of Provinces. Lastly, Bloemfontein (famous for monuments and museums) is the judicial capital and location for the Supreme Court of Appeal.

Visitors take a photograph of the Nelson Mandela capture site. | Photo courtesy of South African Tourism

You can walk in Nelson Mandela’s footsteps

A political prisoner turned South African president, the late Nelson Mandela is a global icon. July 18, 2018 marks his centenary, so learn more about Mandela via an app called Madiba’s Journey listing 100 locations connected to him that are open to the public. Robben Island is where Mandela spent 18 out of 27 years of his prison sentence; get there from the Nelson Mandela Gateway Start at the Victoria & Alfred Waterfront in Cape Town. In Johannesburg, see Mandela House, where Mandela resided with his first wife, Evelyn, and then his second wife, Winnie Madikizela-Mandela (Archbishop Desmond Tutu lived on the same street); and Liliesleaf Farm, a hideout for members of the African National Congress until a police raid in July of 1963.

Bunny chow originated from South Africa’s Indian population. | Photo by Michele Herrmann

Indian curry is a regional fixture

If curry is your dish, get your fix in Durban. The city has a style of Indian curry which originated from indentured laborers brought from India to South Africa to work in sugar cane fields in the mid-19th to early 20th century. This population applied their culinary traditions to accessible ingredients, resulting in the creation of a curry containing cinnamon, cardamom and tomato, among other staples. One version to try is bunny chow, a curry served in a white bread bowl that could contain beans, mutton, chicken or veggies. It’s easy to find bunny chow and curries in restaurants around Durban. At The Oyster Box in Umhlanga, north of Durban, order their version of bunny chow or scope out the well-stocked daily curry buffet.

Maropeng Visitor Center at The Cradle Of Humankind World Heritage Site. | Courtesy of The Cradle Of Humankind World Heritage Site

Links to the origins of Humankind are here

In South Africa’s Gauteng province, northwest of Johannesburg, there’s a place that holds some clues to how humans evolved over the past four million years. Discovered by paleontologist Dr. Robert Broom in 1947, the Cradle of Humankind consists of fossil-bearing caves that shed some light on our early human ancestors, known as the Hominids, and their relatives. A UNESCO World Heritage site, this location is said to be a well-preserved record of the stages of modern man’s development. Its visitor center called Maropeng, a Setswana word meaning “returning to the place of origin,” holds artifacts and research on human ancestry.

ALSO: Earn instant travel rewards when you book your South Africa flight and hotel!

An elephant is about to cross the road in front of a game drive in Kruger National Park. | Photo courtesy of South African Tourism

Your chances of spotting wildlife are good

In terms of animals, Africa has a number of countries that are often noted for excellent safaris, and South Africa is a top choice on that list. It’s home to the Big Five (rhino, elephant, lion, leopard and buffalo) and there are many options for seeing them. Bordering South Africa and Mozambique, Kruger National Park is one of Africa’s largest game reserves for viewing this roster. The Big Five can also be seen at private game reserves such as Thula Thula Game Lodge in the KwaZulu-Natal province of Zululand. Love penguins? Near Cape Town, in a town called Simon’s Town, Boulders Beach is inhabited by African penguins, the only species of this kind breeding in Africa.

A diver documents the sardine run just off the coast of Durban. | Photo courtesy of South African Tourism

Sardines make a run along the coast

South Africa’s wildlife goes beyond the land. Every year—usually starting in May and continuing until the end of July—a nautical phenomenon known as the Sardine Run happens along South Africa’s East Coast. Shoals of sardines migrate along the Western Cape and head northward to the shores of Durban (noted for its long stretch of beach known as the Golden Mile) in search of cold-water currents and nutritious plankton, their major food source. They do face some challenges, though; fishermen wait for them with readied nets.

South Africa hosted the 2010 FIFA World Cup. | Photo courtesy of 2010 FIFA World Cup Organising Committee in South Africa

It’s long been a sports mecca

Sports fans, take note. Since 1994, South Africa has had the distinction of holding many sporting events, with perhaps the biggest of them all being the 2010 FIFA World Cup. Other major happenings include the A1 Grand Prix, which took place from 2005 through 2008 on the Durban Street circuit; and the 1995 Rugby World Cup, which South Africa won and would become the story for the 2009 film Invictus. There are other sports that get their moment in South Africa; the country has also hosted championships for swimming, golf, surfing and cricket, too.

A cable car going up Table Mountain. Photo courtesy of South African Tourism

Some of the world’s most photogenic mountains are here

Table Mountain is one of the country’s most photographed attractions. It’s not only on a list known as the New 7 Wonders of Nature, which highlights geological marvels around the globe, but is also both the only South African and natural site on earth to have a constellation of stars (“Mensa,” which means “table” in Latin) named after it. You’ll also find some incredible plant life here, with the majestic Kirstenbosch National Botanical Garden based around its eastern slope. Access this flat-topped mountain by a cable car ride, or if you’re up for the challenge, hike up a route to the top.

 

Winemaker with a couple sampling wine in a vineyard. Image courtesy of South African Tourism

It produces excellent wine and tea

They’re two polar opposites but South Africa is the source for both wine and tea. Also known as redbush tea or bush tea, rooibos is a red bush plant native to South Africa whose thorny leaves are the basis for producing this herbal tea. The plant grows within the Cederberg Mountains, in South Africa’s Western Cape, where it naturally thrives. Then there’s wine. South Africa’s first vineyard was planted in 1655; since that time, the country has wine production divided into regions, districts and wards. Oenophiles will want to make a visit to the Western Cape, having 18 official wine routes along with some wineries dating back to the 19th century. South Africa’s Route 62, a scenic highway, is also said to be the world’s longest wine route.

Bonus Fact: South Africa was where the world’s first successful heart transplant took place, at Cape Town’s Groote Schuur Hospital on December 3, 1967.

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Michele Herrmann

Michele Herrmann

Michele writes about women's travel, destinations, culinary, and cultural topics for various outlets and has ventured as far as Fiji, to date. She also muses her tales on She Is Going Places.

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