6 offbeat ideas for holidaying in SA
If you only do one great local trip or adventure this year, make sure it's something you've never done before, writes Paul Ash
1. Paddle the Orange River
Off in the west, on its last dawdle to the sea, the Orange River is a great, luminous green stripe through the sunbaked Richtersveld. Drifting downstream through the Nama Canyon in an Indian canoe, watching the kingfishers and fish eagles swoop from the trees and hearing the gurgle of the river and the drip, drip, drip of water from your paddles is one of South Africa's greatest adventures, and one that will reunite your heart with your mind.
There are various outfitters who operate trips on different sections of the river but Felix Unite (felixunite.com) will take you down the Nama Canyon itself. Rates are R4 450 for adults and R4 250 for under-18s.
2. Take a ride on a vintage train or plane
In the opening pages of Cry, the Beloved Country, Alan Paton writes of a "small toy train" climbing up from the Umzimkulu Valley: "It is interesting to wait for the train at Carisbrooke (pictured above) while it climbs up out of the great valley. Those who know can tell with each whistle where it is, at what road, what farm, what river."
Not many things endure but, remarkably, the little train has. Thanks to the efforts of a local entrepreneur, it still runs on its narrow gauge from Allwoodburn Station near Ixopo and climbs the hills to Carisbrooke, its panting echoing off the trees. Ixopo is off the beaten track, which makes the journey all the more special. Do not miss the pizzas, cooked in a wood-fired oven built specially on the station platform. E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org or phone 039-834-2963.
For an alternative ride into the past, climb aboard Springbok Classic Air's beautifully restored Douglas DC-3 Dakota for a short scenic flip around Joburg. Flights leave from Rand Airport and cost R550 per person. Telephone 011-824-2142.
3. Take a road trip just for fun
One of the best things I did in 2014 was a five-day drive from Joburg to the Garden Route via Graaff-Reinet and then back home through Port Elizabeth. I took a few roads I had never driven before, such as the "Kudu Corridor" between Uitenhage and Graaff-Reinet - at night - which has left me with a greater respect for those apparently fearless animals.
Road trips are good for the general mood, especially if done out-of-season when the roads are calmer. It can be short or it might be a month-long epic - either way, take a road you don't know and go slowly to let it all sink in.
In his superb guide Been There, Done That, veteran traveller David Bristow recommends the unsung and little-known "Route 63", which runs west across the country from King William's Town to the Atlantic Ocean at Strandfontein.
If time is short, pick a three-day route close to home:
• For Joburgers, head for the Mpumalanga Escarpment and potter around Sabie, Graskop and the lovely Long Tom Pass.
• From Durban, head down the South Coast and then head back slowly along the foot of the 'Berg via Harding, Underberg and Ixopo.
• Capetonians have a great circle through the Overberg to Swelledam then home via Montagu and Ceres. Make sure you stay somewhere nice on the way.
4. Head to a music, food or art festival
Festivals are great levellers of people and attitudes. Nothing like a weekend or six days camping in the mud or watching wooden artworks set the night on fire to really turn you inside-out and help you see the world in a new way.
For music, the annual festivals at Splashy Fen (April 2-6, tickets R625, splashyfen.co.za) in the green fields of the Midlands and Oppikoppi (August 7-9; tickets R650; e-mail email@example.com or see oppikoppi.co.za) in the dusty bushveld of the North West cannot be beaten.
For an adventure in food, head to Calvinia in the Northern Cape - it's just a few hours from Cape Town, fellers - for the annual monster sheep braai, otherwise known as the Hantam Vleisfees (August 30-31; phone 086-759-4728 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org) in which lamb and mutton in all their glory get put to the fire for your enjoyment.
And if you really want to turn your head around, be nimble and bag yourself tickets for AfrikaBurn (April 27-May 3; tickets R741-R1 059, R183 for kids under 14; afrikaburn.com), the wildly alternative, self-reliant outsider art fair and self-expression extravaganza which takes place on a remote and lovely farm in the Tankwa Karoo.
5. Hang out at a book festival
Franschhoek opens its arms every May to writers, publishers, book hounds, bibliophiles and other literary fiends and their friends with its three-day literary festival (May 15-17; flf.co.za), now the country's premier gathering of readers, writers - from Lauren Beukes to Tim Noakes - and those who want to be both. The town's compactness lends itself perfectly to the event - you share the streets with bemused authors up on their luck and get to watch them defend themselves to well-read and occasionally hecklesome readers at public talks and workshops. Events, and accommodation, fill up fast - tickets for the Noakes talk last year could not be had for love, steak or money - so book early.
If you can't get to Franschhoek, then make the trek to the Karoo town of Richmond - the town straddles the N1, so you can't miss it - for the annual Boekbedonnerd "Karoo Books, Art and Filums" festival (richmondnc.co.za/bookfair.html). Too far? Then make sure you open yourself to the Open Book Festival (September 9-13; openbookfestival.co.za) in Cape Town.
6. Take a hike
If anything will chase the blues away it's a long walk in pretty country. If you don't mind waiting a year, put your name down for the Otter Trail (pictured above, phone 012-426-5111) for five days of incomparable hiking down the rugged and beautiful Tsitsikamma coast.
If patience is not your virtue, check for openings on the five-day Hoerikwaggo Trail, which traverses the Table Mountain National Park, with nights spent in tented camps. Phone (021)712-7471, e-mail email@example.com or see sanparks.co.za.
For something truly epic, though, it is hard to beat the enduring pleasure of a long trek down the Wild Coast. You can slackpack from hotel to hotel with your bags going on ahead of you (see wildcoastholidays.co.za) or sign up with a local guide who will take you from village to village (see wildcoasthikes.com).
After a week of ambling down the beach and breathing the sweet sea air of the Transkei, not only will you have forgotten that you were ever in a rut, you won't even know what the word means.
See timeslive.co.za/travel for our top 40 offbeat escapes, adventures and unusual destinations.