South Africa is a place of remarkable contrasts, offering lush subtropical forests, vast and arid desert plains, high-energy cities, hopelessly hippie beaches, abundant wildlife, a rich and fascinating history, friendly people and, pretty much everywhere you go, spectacular natural beauty of all kinds.
This article details the country’s tourist attractions by province:
The Eastern Cape is a study in contrasts: the political womb of the country, the birthplace of the country's foremost statesman Nelson Mandela, and a place of both extreme poverty, and extreme beauty.
Like the rest of South Africa, the Eastern Cape has wildlife-rich national parks and other conservation areas - but with a unique advantage. In the Eastern Cape, there is no risk, as there is in other natural areas, of malaria. The province’s attractions include the Addo Elephant Park, which contains five of South Africa's seven major vegetation zones, and a unique combination of the Big Seven - elephant, rhino, lion, buffalo, leopard, whales and great white sharks, plus a rich heritage of archaeological and historical sites. The reserve also has the largest coastal dune field in the southern hemisphere.
Jeffrey's Bay is said to be one of the top three surfing spots in the world. The town’s other attractions are scuba diving, rock fishing, dolphin and whale spotting, and the dazzling Gamtoos River valley, noted for its bird life.
Grahamstown, originally a military outpost, with its Georgian and Victorian buildings, is where the 1820 British settlers came ashore as part of the British colonial government’s efforts to populate the interior with white people from England. These days it is best known for the annual National Arts Festival, the largest of its kind in Africa. Grahamstown is also a vibrant university town, home to Rhodes University.
In the interior of the province is Cradock, a Karoo town known for resistance politics. It is also the place where Olive Schreiner lived, best known for her novel The Story of an African Farm. She is buried in the hills outside the town.
Also near the town is the Mountain Zebra National Park, a conservation success story which is saving the mountain zebra species from extinction.
The historic town of Graaff-Reinet, with a town centre preserved largely intact from 1786, was the birthplace of Robert Sobukwe, founder of the Pan Africanist Congress. Graaff-Reinet is in the centre of the 14 500ha Camdeboo National Park, in the Great Karoo.
Nieu Bethesda is a little dorp north of Graaff-Reinet, a place that may have disappeared from the map if it weren’t for Helen Martins, a reclusive and obsessive artist generally disliked in the village during her lifetime. For many decades of the early 20th century, Martins worked tirelessly on cramming her small home, today known as the Owl House, with visionary sculpture made from the prosaic materials of cement and parts of glass bottles.
King William's Town marks a significant element of Xhosa history. A mass grave in the cemetery is where hundreds of Xhosa are buried, the result of the disastrous 1857 Nongqawuse prophesy to slaughter their entire stock of cattle and destroy their crops, and in return the ancestors would ensure that white settlers would be blown into the sea. Some 25 000 Xhosas subsequently died of starvation.
Steve Biko, proponent of Black Consciousness, is buried in another cemetery in the town. He died at the vindictive hands of the security police in 1977.
Some 60km west of King William's Town is Fort Hare, originally a multiracial college set up by missionaries, and the place where Tanzania's Julius Nyerere, Zimbabwe's Robert Mugabe and Nelson Mandela were educated.
On the northern edge of the Eastern Cape is Rhodes. San rock paintings can be explored in the vicinity of the town, while winter skiers make their way through Rhodes to Tiffindell, the country's only ski resort, set up against the southern Drakensberg mountains bordering Lesotho.
The remote and undeveloped Wild Coast, stretching from East London to the beautiful Mkambati Nature Reserve, consists of unspoilt beaches, lush forest, green, undulating hills, complimented by hospitality from the local Xhosa community.
The town of Mthatha (previously Umtata) lies in the middle of the Wild Coast region, and is home to the Nelson Mandela Museum. The museum offers guided tours to the nearby village of Qunu, where Mandela grew up. Highlights of the tour include the remains of his primary school, the rock he used to play on and the graveyard where family members are buried.
Bloemfontein, the capital of the province, is the home of the Supreme Court of Appeal, but also the birthplace of JRR Tolkien, author of The Lord of the Rings.
The city is on the route between Johannesburg and Cape Town, and has a number of interesting museums and art galleries, including the Oliewenhuis Art Gallery, the National Afrikaans Literary Museum, and the National Women's Monument and War Museum.
Two interesting personalities have associations with the province. Emily Hobhouse, who campaigned on behalf of Boer concentration camp internees during the 1899-1902 Anglo-Boer (South African) War, is buried at the foot of the National Women's Monument.
Laurens van der Post, explorer, writer and soldier, grew up in Philippolis, a town 160km south of Bloemfontein. Seventy-five of the town's houses have been declared national heritage sites, consisting of a mix of flat-roofed Karoo and Cape Dutch gabled houses, and Victorian broekie-lace gems.
Adam Kok's house, a small, flat-roofed house, is in Voortrekker Street. Kok was the leader of a small band of people called Griquas, originally cattle herders and raiders who were descendants of European, Khoikhoi, Asian and African settlers. They set up a mission station in Philippolis and eventually trekked into KwaZulu-Natal and dispersed as a group, although pockets of their descendants are scattered around the Cape.
The Highlands Route, a road along the Lesotho border for some 280 kilometres, runs around the northern tip of Lesotho, from Phuthadijhaba (Witsieshoek) to Wepener, taking in impressive rock formations. The route passes through Clarens and the Golden Gate Highlands National Park, with its stunning mountain views and gorgeous ravines. Black wildebeest, eland, blesbok, oribi, springbok and Burchell's zebra can be seen in the park, as well as the rare bearded vulture (lammergeier) and the bald ibis. Clarens is well known as an arts and crafts mecca, popular for its cafes and galleries.
The Witsieshoek Mountain Resort gives access into the high Drakensberg escarpment, with a hike to the top of the grand Amphitheatre and the Mont aux Sources, at 3 278m, the source of the Tugela. The Basotho Cultural Village is nearby, showcasing Basotho traditions.
The Free State also has a World Heritage Site - the Vredefort Dome, the result of the two billion-year-old meteorite of 10km diameter that hit the earth about 100km southwest of Johannesburg, creating an enormous impact crater.
The world has about 130 crater indentations of possible impact origin. The Vredefort Dome is among the top three, and is the oldest and largest clearly visible meteorite impact site in the world.
Although South Africa's smallest province, Gauteng is the most industrialised and densely populated. The name of the province means "place of gold", and the metal accounts for its concentration of wealth and its 40% contribution to the country's GDP.
Gold is the reason for Johannesburg's establishment, and the city is defined by its exploitation - although these are fast disappearing, the southern section of the city is littered with large mine dumps and scattered headgear. Main Street in downtown Joburg is lined with mining houses, with street furniture consisting of headgear, coco pans and other mining artefacts.
An earlier mine, shaft 14, now incorporated into the theme park Gold Reef City, offers trips 226 metres below ground. On the same site is the Apartheid Museum, a powerful place commemorating and recording the country's appalling history of racial discrimination.
Further south is the iconic township Soweto. Here the unravelling of apartheid began on 16 June 1976, with schoolchildren rebelling against apartheid education, and many losing their lives along the way. The day has been commemorated in the Hector Pieterson Museum and Memorial, remembering the death of Hector Pieterson, who was the first child to die on the day and became the symbol of repression and police brutality.
The township was home to Nelson and Winnie Mandela; their home is now a museum. Nobel laureate Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu has a home in the same street. Winnie Madikizela-Mandela still lives in the township.
Tours of the township take in the Kliptown Square, where the Freedom Charter was ratified in 1955, shebeens and indigenous restaurants, and the Chris Hani Baragwanath Hospital, the biggest in southern Africa.
The Constitutional Court has found a home in Johannesburg, on the site of a notorious jail where two of the 20th century's icons, Mahatma Gandhi and Nelson Mandela, and many thousands of apartheid petty offenders, were held.
Johannesburg is a cosmopolitan city, attracting immigrants from the day gold was discovered in 1886. It still attracts immigrants, and the result is a lively mix of cultures, languages and cuisines. Like any big city it can be dangerous, but has an energetic, vibrant pace that soon becomes addictive.
The city is home to the country's super rich, and the desperately poor. Upmarket shopping malls abound, together with 70% of South Africa's corporate headquarters, the stock exchange, a significant Art Deco collection, casinos, theatres, museums, art galleries, flea markets, splashes of water and some 10 million trees.
Residents jive to the sounds of a host of musicians, from Sipho "Hotstix" Mabuse, Hugh Masekela and Johnny Clegg to Sibongile Khumalo and Yvonne Chaka Chaka. Several orchestras, numerous kwaito, rap, jazz, maskanda and mbaqanga artists keep Joburgers' feet tapping. The city has several major dance companies, from ballet to Afro-fusion. Several annual music and dance festivals - the joy of jazz, arts alive, dance umbrella - keep residents on their toes. Internationally recognised artists living in the city include William Kentridge, Sam Nthemhetha, Edoardo Villa, Penny Siopis, David Koloane, Cecil Skotnes, Robert Hodgins, Willem Boshoff, and Pat Matlua.
Joburg has several large football stadiums, and hosted the opening and final matches of the 2010 Fifa World Cup at the spectacular calabash-shaped Soccer City.
To the north-west of the city is the Cradle of Humankind, consisting of the Sterkfontein caves and Maropeng, the former the source of some of the world's most significant hominid fossils, the latter visitors' centre and museum set in a huge structure signifying the historical importance of the area in the beginnings of humankind.
The Sterkfontein Caves are where Mrs Ples, dating back 2.5-million years, and Little Foot, an almost complete ape-man skeleton just over 4 million years old, were found. The 47 000ha Sterkfontein valley consists of around 40 different fossil sites, 13 of which have been excavated.
Just beyond the Cradle is the Magaliesberg mountain range, with the Crocodile River running towards this moderately high range on its way to the Hartebeespoort Dam, to become the Limpopo River.
Gauteng's other major city is Pretoria, founded around a Boer farming community in 1855, and the country's administrative capital since 1910. The home of president Paul Kruger, its reputation as the bastion of apartheid was exploded when President Nelson Mandela was inaugurated in 1994 at the iconic Union Buildings, the creation of Sir Herbert Baker. The city's Church Square consists of elegant, colonial-style buildings, a meeting place for Afrikaners for over 100 years. The Palace of Justice and the Raadsaal are the oldest buildings on the square, built in grand, neo-classical style with Joburg's early gold revenues.
South of Pretoria lies the University of South Africa, the country's largest correspondence university. Further south is the Voortrekker Monument, perhaps the most symbolic statement of Afrikaner nationalism in the country.
North of the city is the Tswaing Crater, one of best-preserved meteorite craters in the world. Some 220 000 years ago a meteorite hit the earth, creating a crater of just over one kilometre in diameter. It is one of around 170 impact craters in the world and one of four known impact craters in South Africa.
This province has a bit of everything: beaches washed by the warm Indian Ocean, plentiful wildlife in well-organised game parks, significant battlefields, and two World Heritage Sites: the iSimangaliso Wetland Park and the uKhahlamba Drakensberg Park.
Durban, the country's largest harbour, offers the visitor a mix of cultures: Zulu, Indian and English, with temples, Victorian architecture and Zulu crafts, particularly clay pots and beautiful woven baskets, abundant in the city. The weather is subtropical and can be very humid but its beaches offer swimming all year round.
Not to be missed is the uShaka Marine World, an entertainment park near the Durban harbour. It offers a spectacular aquarium, thrilling water rides, tubing on a canal that winds through the park and under the shark tank, and dolphin and seal shows, where the animals display their remarkable intelligence. There is also a number of restaurants, bars and shops.
Durban is the departure and arrival point, on alternate years, for the world-renowned Comrades Marathon, a 90-kilometre run between Pietermaritzburg and Durban. The gruelling three-day Dusi Canoe Marathon also runs between the two cities. KwaZulu-Natal's Tugela, Umgeni and Umkomaas are three of the country's great rivers.
Some 80km north of Durban is Pietermaritzburg, a well-preserved Victorian city, with a lively multicultural community. This is where Mahatma Gandhi was thrown out of a first-class train on his way to Johannesburg.
Another personality linked to the city is Alan Paton, author of the acclaimed novel Cry the Beloved Country. Paton was born in the city in 1903, and his study, documents and personal memorabilia are preserved in the Alan Paton Centre on the University of KwaZulu-Natal campus.
The city's best museum is the Tatham Art Gallery, with works by Pablo Picasso, Edgar Degas, Henri Matisse alongside works by black South Africans.
Heading north from Pietermaritzburg is the Midlands Meander, a route that takes in a number of crafts stalls, tea shops, pubs, trout-fishing farms, country hotels and B&Bs.
The N3 road through the midlands roughly traces the last journey of Nelson Mandela before he was arrested in 1962, and sentenced to jail for 27 years in the Rivonia Trial.
Most visitors head inland, up the north coast to Zululand and Maputaland, home of the great Zulu kings Shaka and Dingaan. There are several of the country's great game parks in the area - Ithala, Mkuze and Hluhluwe-Umfolozi - well stocked with rhino, as well as the iSimangaliso Wetland Park, a 2 700km patchwork of five distinct ecosystems. This World Heritage Site protects a lake, dunes, a marine zone, papyrus and reeds, and dry savannah and thornveld.
The famous Zululand battlefields provide a graphic reminder of the battles between Boers and Zulus, British and Zulus, and Boers and British, either as do-it-yourself or organised tours. Much blood flowed at places such as Rorke's Drift, Isandlwana, Gingindlovu, Blood River and Spioenkop, and the history of the province was written here.
Alternatively, the uKhahlamba Drakensberg Park, 243 000 hectares in size, stretching 150 kilometres down the western spine of the province, offers great hiking, camping, horse-riding, San rock art, luxury hotels, and majestic views. Its remarkable geology and unmatched wealth of San rock art, makes it a mixed cultural and natural World Heritage Site. For more than 4 000 years the San lived in these spectacular mountains and created a vast body of rock art - the largest and most concentrated collection in Africa. There are some 600 sites and 35 000 individual images.
Limpopo province abuts South Africa's northern border with Botswana and Zimbabwe, and was the entry point of the original Bantu peoples into the country around 300 AD. The province consists of thornbush-scattered lowveld, lush mountain areas, clusters of baobabs, wetlands and a lake district, and a profusion of game farms.
The Limpopo river divides South Africa from its neighbours; its origins can be traced to a spring in Johannesburg.
The Drakensberg mountain range rises in Limpopo, and sweeps down through Letaba, an area of lush forests, lakes and waterfalls, into Mpumalanga and KwaZulu-Natal. But there are also two smaller mountain ranges in Limpopo - the Waterberg and the Soutpansberg. The Waterberg mountains, in the west of the province, are a Unesco-proclaimed savannah biosphere with malaria-free big five game viewing, while the Soutpansberg mountains in the north are sub-tropical, and home of the legendary Rain Queen.
The northern section of the province has significant history - the Mapungubwe site is now a World Heritage Site. The recently formed Mapungubwe National Park is rich in biodiversity, great scenic beauty and the cultural importance of the archaeological treasures of Mapungubwe.
Here is where an ancient African civilisation prospered between 1000 and 1290 AD. The area was already inhabited by a growing Iron Age community from 900 AD and became rich through trade with Egypt, India and China. This is the place where archaeologists excavated the famous golden rhino and other evidence of the wealthy African kingdom of Mapungubwe.
Sandstone formations, mopane woodlands and unique riverine forest and baobab trees can be seen in the park, while impressive Khoi/San rock art shelters have also been uncovered.
The province has several other game parks and nature reserves offering good game viewing opportunities. Bela-Bela (formerly known as Warmbaths) in the south offers tourists a chance to relax in hot springs, pumping 20 000 litres at 50°C every hour.
Wetlands can be found at Nylsvlei, a 160km² nature reserve which attracts some 150 bird species, among them some of the country's rarest indigenous water birds.
Although now deceased, the Rain Queen Modjadji, the hereditary female monarch of the Lobedu people with the power to make rain, lived in the misty mountains of the Modjadji Cycad Reserve. The province is scattered with baobab trees, one of which contains a pub, close to this reserve.
The Soutpansberg mountains, named by the Voortrekker pioneers, previously salt pans but now enjoying a sub-tropical climate, produce exotic crops like macadamia nuts, avocados, mangoes and bananas. Other parts of the range offer unspoilt mountain retreats with around 250 different tree species.
The Waterberg, once an area of lakes and swamps, now hosts a diversity of vegetation, supporting cattle farming, hunting, and various conservation projects. It is a Unesco Savannah Biosphere Reserve and is malaria-free.
The Marakele National Park lies within the Waterberg mountains, and contains an impressive variety of wildlife, yellowwood and cedar trees, five-metre high cycads and tree ferns. Probably the largest colony of endangered Cape vultures (more than 800 breeding pairs) in the world can be found here.
The Lapalala Wilderness Area has the world's only rhino museum. Lapalala also has rhino orphans, in particular Bwana, who lives in the owners' back garden.
The VhaVenda people, a culturally and linguistically distinct African group, are known for their mystical legends and their arts and crafts. They have traditionally lived in the abundant north-eastern corner of the province, a place of lakes, lush forests and waterfalls. Not surprisingly their legends are linked to water and water creatures.
Venda chiefs are buried near Lake Fundudzi and the Sacred Forest, an area of dense indigenous forest north of the Soutpansberg mountains. The nearby Dzata ruins contain the remains of the royal kraal of the kings of VhaVenda, dating from 1400.
Venda arts and crafts are well known, particularly clay pots with distinctive angular designs in graphite silver and ochre. Woodcarver Jackson Thugwane was famous for his wood sculptures while Noria Mabasa produced clay and wood sculptures.
The north-eastern corner of the province offers entry to the Kruger National Park, which borders Limpopo for 70 kilometres. Punda Maria and Pafuri are the most northernly gates to the famous park.
Mpumalanga, on the far eastern edge of the country, is the home of the southern section of the Kruger National Park, arguably the best game park in South Africa.
Kruger covers over 20 000 square kilometres, over 400 kilometres from north to south, with up to 150 species of mammals and over 500 bird species, and 14 well-run rest camps from which to observe this wildlife. A number of private parks abutting the western border of Kruger provide a more exclusive game-watching experience.
Summer temperatures (between December and February) can hover around 30ºC to 40ºC, with winter temperatures at a more tolerable mid-20ºC. In winter there are virtually no mosquitoes, and the vegetation is thinner, making game easier to spot.
The park is divided into three sections: the southern, with the greatest concentration of game, the central section offers good game viewing, while the northern section offers less game but more of a sense of wilderness.
Mpumalanga has spectacular scenery around the escarpment, a section of the Drakensberg that falls down into the lowveld, a tropical fruit growing area. Along the tip of the escarpment are three famous viewpoints - God's Window, Bourke's Luck Potholes and Three Rondavels. Nearby is the Blyde River Canyon, with stunning views and great hiking and river rafting. A five-day hiking trail through the Blyderivierspoort Nature Reserve starts at God's Window, and takes in the views and the flora and fauna of the reserve.
Further north is Pilgrim's Rest, a restored gold-mining town. The town is the site of South Africa's first gold rush, in 1873, and although on a small scale, it lasted for around 100 years. Gold is still mined in the hills south west of the town.
Further south is Barberton, another gold-mining town. In the 1880s gold was discovered and is still mined in the town, where mining tours, including trying some gold panning, can be taken.
The vast Northern Cape is the largest province of South Africa, stretching from the Atlantic Ocean in the west to Kimberley in the east. Covering one third of the country, it is dominated by heat, aridity, large empty spaces and long travelling distances.
The long Orange River separates the Kalahari and the Great Karoo, two semi-desert regions that make up the interior of the province. It was this landscape that led to the discovery of diamonds in Kimberley in the 1870s, and each year, to the blooming of the Namaqualand flowers in the western section of the province.
The province's capital, Kimberley, dates back to the early 1870s when diamonds were discovered between the Vaal and Orange rivers. Dug in the rush frenzy, the 500m wide Big Hole is now the biggest attraction of the otherwise ordinary town. By 1914 when the mine closed, over 14,5 million carats of diamonds had been removed from the earth, from the hole which descends into the earth 800 metres. The Kimberley Mine Museum consists of the old diamond-rush town, with shops, bars, banks and churches.
Diamonds are still mined from two mines on the outskirts of the city, and tours underground are available.
Kimberley is the site of the country's first township, Galeshewe, a tour of which takes in the grave of Sol Plaatje, South Africa's first black writer and a founder member of the ANC, as well as the house where Robert Sobukwe, founder of the Pan Africanist Congress, lived after his release from Robben Island.
Upington lies in the central northern section of the province, on the banks of the Orange River, which flows over the spectacular 56m Augrabies Falls, a huge granite gorge in the landscape. The Augrabies Falls National Park consists of 55 383ha of semi-desert terrain bordering the Orange River.
Another attraction of the Northern Cape is the Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park, a combination of two parks: South Africa's Kalahari-Gemsbok National Park, and Botswana's Gemsbok National Park. It's a vast desert sanctuary abundant in game, set against a landscape of red dunes and hardy vegetation, and stretching for some 38 000 square kilometres, nearly twice the size of the Kruger National Park.
On the north-eastern border of the Northern Cape and North West is Kuruman, famous because of Robert and Mary Moffat. This intrepid couple built a mission station, and although not successful missionaries, Robert Moffat translated the bible into SeTswana in the 50 years that they lived in these harsh conditions. Their eldest daughter, Mary, married explorer David Livingstone.
The land of the Nama people, Khoikhoi herders who gave their name to Namaqualand, is the location of an annual display of multi-coloured daisies in August and September. Some 4 000 species come to life after the winter rains and only in temperatures higher than 16ºC, in spectacular displays.
The Namaqua National Park is home to 3 500 plant species, 1 000 of which are found nowhere else in the world. The park is home to the world's only arid biodiversity hotspot.
Port Nolloth on the Atlantic Coast, at the mouth of the Orange River, is a diamond town that features rich bird life and a lichen forest.
North of Port Nolloth is the Richtersveld National Park, an area of 1 600 square kilometres, a fierce and rugged landscape, the country's only mountain desert, and South Africa's newest World Heritage Site.
The Richtersveld Cultural and Botanical Landscape covers 160 000ha of dramatic mountainous desert. A unique feature of the site - both in South African and international terms - is that it is owned and managed by a community that until recently had very little to call its own. Characterised by extreme temperatures, the landscape affords a semi-nomadic pastoral livelihood for the Nama people, descendants of the Khoikhoi people who once occupied lands across southern Namibia and most of the present-day Western and Northern Cape provinces.
Most well known for the Sun City gambling and casino resort and its neighbouring big-five Pilanesberg Game Reserve, North West's first inhabitants were hunter-gatherers. They were displaced by Iron Age peoples from the north around 1 000 years ago, who settled in the far northern corner of the province.
The province is mostly flat terrain broken by the rocky kloofs and streams of the Magaliesberg mountain range, dotted with holiday resorts and hiking trails.
Sun City consists of four hotels, a golf course, a water park, and assorted entertainment venues. Built in the 1970s apartheid era, it offered white South Africans a place to gamble legally in Bophutatswana, a spurious independent "homeland". In 1994 gambling was legalised and the resort's fortunes dwindled but these days it stands as a decadent oddity in a vast, natural landscape that contrasts sharply with its glitzy attractions.
The adjoining 55 000ha Pilanesberg Game Reserve offers excellent game viewing, with the big five visible along with hippo, giraffe and cheetah, and a large range of bird life.
The tiny but quaint dorp of Groot Marico lies on the way to the capital of the province, Mahikeng (previously known as Mafikeng). Groot Marico is now a landmark after well-known writer Herman Charles Bosman based his delightful short stories on his short experience as a teacher in the town. An annual literary weekend in his name is attended by his fans.
The capital Mahikeng, with a smattering of graceful buildings, became famous during the South African War of 1899-1902. The Siege of Mafikeng happened in 1900, when British Colonel Robert Baden-Powell (of Boy Scouts fame) defended the town against the Boers for 217 days, along with hundreds of local Barolong.
The cruel tragedy of the siege was that British regiments were given armfuls of medals while those Barolong who survived despite meagre rations, were never recognised for their role in the battle.
One of the country's first black writers and a founder member of the ANC, Sol Plaatje, recorded his poignant observations of the siege in a diary.
Cape Town is undoubtedly one of the world's most beautiful cities. Its striking Table Mountain overlooks the city and one of the country's World Heritage Sites, Robben Island, lies about 12 kilometres off the mainland.
Used for centuries as a place to house unwanted people - prisoners of war, criminals, leprosy sufferers, mentally ill patients, a military base, apartheid prisoners, among them Nelson Mandela and Walter Sisulu - for many the island's associations are of isolation and inhumane treatment. Paradoxically, it's also a place of sanctuary for around 132 bird species, some of which are endangered. The African penguin, once close to extinction, breeds prolifically on the island. Around 23 species of mammals, including many types of buck, ostrich, lizards, geckos, snakes and tortoises, also live on the island.
Cape Town itself has much to offer: 150km of beaches, hikes and walks, windsurfing, paragliding, cycling, great restaurants, unique flora, and the winelands.
Established by the Dutch in 1652, the city is a reflection of the different cultures that settled below the mountain: European, Dutch and Malay. An active slave trade, with some 63 000 slaves imported from East Africa, Madagascar, India and Indonesia, has resulted in Cape Town's unique flavour.
The Western Cape was originally occupied by San hunter-gatherers, then the pastoral Khoikhoi, before Europeans made it their home.
Cape Town has many significant old buildings: the Castle of Good Hope, the country's oldest building, as well as the Old Town House, Palm Tree Mosque, Long Street Baths, the South African Mission Meeting House Museum, St George's Cathedral, the South African Museum, Koopmans-De Wet House, De Tuynhuys, the South African National Gallery, the Great Synagogue, and the Houses of Parliament.
The suburb of Bo-Kaap houses the Muslim community, in brightly coloured 19th century Dutch and Georgian terraces. It's a distinctive community, with its own Afrikaans dialect.
The District Six Museum tells of the lively coloured community that lived in the suburb, dismantled in the name of apartheid in the 1970s.
Other places of interest are the Victoria and Alfred Waterfront, the Gold of Africa Museum, and the Two Oceans Aquarium. The Kirstenbosch National Botanical Gardens in Newlands is the oldest and largest botanical garden in South Africa with over 22 000 indigenous plants. It attracts botanists and researchers from around the world.
The dramatic Table Mountain has been a beacon to ships for centuries. The Table Mountain National Park stretches from Signal Hill to Cape Point and includes the seas and coastline of the peninsula. There are 1 400 species of flora on the mountain, and fauna includes baboons, dassies or hyraxes, Himalayan tahrs and porcupines. The mountain is crisscrossed with hiking trails. It is one of the country's natural World Heritage Sites.
Constantia was Cape Town's oldest wine farm, started by Simon van der Stel in 1685. These days it consists of four wine estates: Groot Constantia, Klein Constantia, Steenberg and Buitenverwachting.
Muizenberg, St James, Kalk Bay, Fish Hoek and Simon's Town are quaint villages dotted along False Bay, south of the city.
Chapman's Peak Drive hugs the spectacular coastline until Cape Point and the Cape of Good Hope Nature Reserve, around 60 kilometres from the city centre. Some 2 256 species of fynbos are to be found in the reserve. Cape Point is not the most southerly point of Africa - Cape Agulhas, some 300km south of Cape Town, is where the Indian and the Atlantic oceans meet.
One of the Western Cape’s biggest attractions is the winelands, with over a dozen wine routes and hundreds of estates, extending to the Karoo and into the Northern Cape. The wine regions closest to Cape Town are those surrounding Stellenbosch, Paarl, Franschhoek and Somerset West. Sweeping mountains, Cape Dutch architecture and green valleys characterise the towns and their surrounds.
Other great Western Cape attractions include the hot springs in Montagu, the ostriches in Oudtshoorn, the nearby Cango Caves, Prince Albert and the Swartberg Pass, the extremely isolated valley of The Hell, the Karoo National Park, whale watching at Hermanus, the fishing village of Arniston, and the many charming towns of the Little Karoo.
The Garden Route, billed as "South Africa's paradise", stretches 200 kilometres from Mossel Bay to the Storms River Mouth. The area was once a vast African forest, the remnants of which can be found around Knysna and in the Tsitsikamma National Park at the Storms River Mouth.
It was at Mossel Bay in 1488 that the first Portuguese sailors, captained by Bartolomeu Dias, set foot on South African soil. The ancient Post Office Tree, where for centuries mariners left messages for passing ships, still stands in the town.
Knysna has a unique beauty. Although the coastal town lacks beaches it is a beautiful place, with a vast lagoon gated to the ocean by steep promontories known as the Heads, a surrounding natural forest and local game reserve. It’s a charming and trendy town, offering coffee shops, craft galleries, street traders and oyster restaurants - and a spectacularly indulgent annual oyster festival. The town’s forest, formerly a magnificent woodland and home to Khoi clans and herds of elephants, is still lovely, with tall indigenous trees set among streams flowing to the sea.
On the eastern edge of the Garden Route is the Tsitsikamma National Park, a place of forest, fynbos, rivers and the Storms River Mouth, a five-kilometre estuary stretching into spectacularly wild ocean. The park conserves inter-tidal life, reef and deep-sea fish, including dolphins and porpoises, and a red data species of bird, the African black oystercatcher.
The Storm's River Mouth is also the starting point for South Africa's most popular hiking route, the Otter Trail.
For adrenalin freaks, a highlight of the region is the Bloukrans River bridge, which offers one of the highest professionally supervised bungee jumps in the world - a long and fast 216-metre drop.
The west coast of the Cape contains the West Coast National Park, just inland from the secluded harbour of Saldanha Bay. Thousands of seabirds roost on sheltered islands, pristine beaches stretch endlessly and salt marshes are home to vast concentrations of migrant waders. Up to 4 000 wild flowers can be seen in the park and surrounding areas.
Other small harbour towns are Langebaan, Lambert's Bay, Paternoster and St Helena Bay, where Vasco da Gama first set foot on the country's shores.