South Africans have a vibrant culture, and celebrate the natural beauty and bounties of their cities and towns with festivals and much celebration. Explore the countryside while taking part in these festive gatherings.
The Minstrel Carnival or ‘Kaapse Klopse’ (as it’s known to locals) takes place on 2 January every year. It’s a riot of colour and music as competing troupes of performers singing, playing instruments, carrying a rainbow of umbrellas, and wearing bright costumes put on Cape Town’s biggest street parade. The parade commemorates the terrors of slavery in the mid-19th Century. Participants traditionally paint their faces black and white, and are proud members if the Cape ‘coloured’ community.
Grahamstown National Arts Festival
Arguably the most popular arts festival in South Africa, the National Arts Festival showcases some of the best established and emerging young artists in the country. Theatre, dance, and poetry readings... Street performers, crafts and fine art, tours and lectures – a smorgasbord of art forms entertain the festival’s almost 200 000 patrons that flock to this quaint university town each July. The atmosphere is vibrant, the performances range from first-timers to dazzling showstoppers, and the experience is unforgettable.
Knysna Oyster Festival
Situated along the beautiful Garden Route, every July the town of Knysna is taken over by the annual Knysna Oyster Festival. Over 10 days, more than 200 000 oysters are shucked and slurped, eaten fresh or cooked, and with a variety of fascinating flavours (oysters with Tabasco, lime and ginger, and even tequila!). This popular annual event is not just a celebration of molluscs; it includes that fine Western Cape tradition – wine tastings – and many sporting and charity events, gala evenings and competitions.
Hermanus Whale Festival
Southern Right whales splash about in Walker’s Bay in Hermanus (one of the best spots in the world for land-based whale-watching) for six months of the year. The town even has its own ‘whale crier’ who lets everyone know he’s spotted the large sea mammals by blowing on his kelp horn. The Whale Festival takes place in late September at the peak of the season, and is billed as an ‘enviro-arts’ event, with educational talks, arts, crafts and stage shows, and the Whales & Wheels classic car show.
While not a festival, the annual blooming of the Namaqualand daisies is a natural phenomenon not to be missed! It draws thousands of onlookers, as the 160km stretch of coast in the Western Cape that is usually dry and arid, bursts into carpets of colour with rare, unusual plants – and the Namaqualand daisies, of course. Catch the show from early August through to September, best seen from the Namaqualand National Park.
Oppikoppi Bushveld Festival
South Africa has many ‘rocking’ music festivals. There’s the grand old dame Splashy Fen, which takes place in the breathtaking Drakensburg every April, and Woodstock which happens every September near Hartbeespoort Dam. But the wildest, most popular of all is Oppikoppi. For a few days in the beginning of August, thousands of fans camp out at the ‘koppie’ (or hillside) outside the town of Northam in the Limpopo province to listen to a line-up of local and sometimes international acts.
Ficksburg Cherry Festival
The oldest harvest or crop festival in South Africa, the Cherry Festival held in the town of Ficksburg in the Free State takes place in the third week of November. The locals host a fantastic market, and there are other events to enjoy such as beer fest, baking contests, and a very competitive cherry pip spitting competition. Don’t leave without sampling all the cherry products, including cherries jubilee, cherry fritters, pickled cherries and the cherry ‘mampoer’ (liqueur or moonshine)!
350km from Cape Town, on the Roggeveld plateau, one will find Sutherland, the principal astronomical centre of South Africa. SAAO (The South African Astronomical Observatry) is situated just outside the small Karoo town and is considered Sutherland’s main attraction. Home to SALT (Southern African Large Telescope), the largest single optical telescope in the Southern Hemisphere, Sutherland is an astronomer’s delight. Famously clear skies make for awe-inspiring stargazing. It’s no wonder this special little town is called the Gateway to the Universe.
Nestled in the dusty Karoo valleys of the Eastern Cape, Nieu Bethesda would be a little town like any other in the area were it not for one extraordinary feature setting it apart... the Owl House, and the woman behind its refracted narratives, Helen Martins.
Born in 1897 in Nieu Bethesda, Helen Martins (or Miss Helen as she was known) was the youngest of six children. Her father, Piet, was a notoriously subversive and difficult character with whom Helen shared a complicated relationship. Hester, Helen’s mother, was sickly for most of Helen’s life, though Helen adored her.
Nelson Mandela, the ‘rainbow nation’ and vuvuzelas... South Africa is often painted as a country alive with culture, rich in mineral resources and steeped in history. What tourists don’t know is that the ‘cradle of mankind’ is leading the way in the exploration of the universe – astronomy.
Did you know that Table Mountain is the only geographical landmark on the planet that is represented by its own constellation? The Astronomical Society of South Africa tells us that the first astronomers arrived in the Cape of Good Hope by ship, and navigated by the stars. Since then South African astronomers have identified hundreds of comets, double stars and nebulas.
South Africa’s bid to build the biggest telescope on the planet
The Square Kilometre Array (SKA) will be a “revolutionary radio telescope made of thousands of receptors linked together across an area the size of a continent”. In South Africa, the telescope will be based in the Karoo region of the Northern Cape, which has dark skies, a dry climate and small population and, importantly, very few radio frequencies such as cell phone signals and broadcast towers. “The total collecting area of all the receptors combined will be approximately one square kilometre, making the SKA the largest and most sensitive radio telescope ever built.” The SKA telescope will change what we know about our universe, and answer some important questions:
• How do galaxies evolve and what is dark energy?
• Are we alone in the universe?
• How were the first black holes and stars formed?
• What generates the giant magnetic fields in space?
• Was Einstein right about the theory of relativity?
South Africa hopes to present the answers to these questions to global astronomical community. Currently SA is battling Australia for the rights the host the SKA telescope, which will be announced in 2012. It will attract the top astronomers, scientists and engineers – and will be one of the biggest scientific research facilities in the world.
Star-gazing observatories in South Africa
South Africa has many observatories, which includes the South African Astronomical Observatory (SAAO) which is headquartered in Cape Town and has an observation station in Sutherland in the Karoo, the South African Large Telescope (SALT) also in Sutherland, the Boyden Observatory just outside Bloemfontein which belongs to the University of the Free State, the Hartebeeshoek Radio Astronomy Observatory (HartRAO) outside Krugersdorp and the UNISA Observatory in Pretoria. There are also a number of private and amateur observatories, as well as two planetariums.
The Johannesburg Planetarium which opened in October 1960 was the first of its kind in Africa, and only the second planetarium ever built in the Southern Hemisphere. Beneath the dome is a Zeiss projector that originally belonged to the City Council of Hamburg. Today the planetarium is open to the public on most evenings, hosting shows such as the ‘In the Sky Tonight’ series, as well as children’s star parties and astronomy courses. The Johannesburg Planetarium is situated on the campus of the University of the Witwatersrand.
More modern than the facility in Johannesburg, the Iziko Planetarium in Cape Town has a Minolta Series IV star machine coupled with many projectors, transforming the inside of the auditorium into a dazzling universe of deep sky objects and celestial wonders each evening. The astronomers at the Iziko Planetarium have a special interest in African star lore. This is a good place to stop off and grab a star map of the Southern Hemisphere before heading out to the SALT telescope in Sutherland.
From the floral explosions that sweep across the Cape on South Africa’s western landscapes, to the majesty of the Drakensberg Mountains that soar along the eastern escarpment, the Rainbow Nation is blessed with natural and cultural beauty.
A World Heritage Site is a place – be it natural like a desert or a coral reef, or man-made like an ancient burial tome or an exquisitely built cathedral – that is recognised by UNESCO (United Nation’s Educational Scientific and Cultural Organisation) as having great heritage. “Heritage is our legacy from the past, what we live with today, and what we pass on to future generations. Our cultural and natural heritage are both irreplaceable sources of life and inspiration.”
As at 2010, South Africa is home to eight World Heritage Sites, and a further 12 have been nominated and are in the process of being reviewed against ten selection criteria, two of which include ‘representing a masterpiece of human creative genius’ for a cultural site and ‘containing superlative natural phenomena or areas of exceptional natural beauty and aesthetic importance’ for a natural site.
Once a place is designated a World Heritage Site, both the host country and UNESCO commit to preserving and protecting it for future generations to enjoy. South Africa’s eight World Heritage Sites are...
When viewed from space, you’ll see the unmistakable circular features of a 190km-wide impact crater made by an asteroid 2.023 million years ago. Not only is it the largest crater on the planet, it is also the oldest! Well-preserved although eroded by the years, the Vredefort Dome has helped scientists understand the geological history of the Earth. It is located in the North West and Free State provinces, and approximately 120km from Johannesburg.
Sterkfontein, Swartkrans, Kromdraai, and Environs
Fossils have been discovered at all these sites, including the famous Taung Skull (Australopithecus Africanus) and the archaeological caves of Makapan Valley where humans lived 3.3 million years ago. There is also evidence of the domestication of fire 1.8 million to 1 million years ago. More recently, another fossil was discovered in the Cradle of Humankind by then nine-year-old Matthew Berger and his father, Professor Lee Berger. This juvenile hominid skeleton (Australopithecus Sediba) has been described as the ‘missing link’ in what we understand about human evolution, and has been named ‘Karabo’ which means ‘answer’ in local language Setswana.
UNESCO says, “Robben Island and its prison buildings symbolise the triumph of the human spirit, of freedom, and of democracy over oppression.” Now a major tourist attraction, some of Robben Island’s most famous inmates when the facility was still running include former state president Nelson Mandela, Walter Sisulu, Govan Mbeki, Steve Tshwete, Jacob Zuma and Tokyo Sexwale.
iSimangaliso Wetland Park
On the tropical coastline of Kwa-Zulu Natal, iSimangaliso (which means ‘miracle’ and ‘wonder’) is home to a rich ecosystem that is made up of sandy dunes and coral reefs, three large lakes and swamp lands, as well as many species of flora and fauna, including 526 species of birds. It has the distinction of being named South Africa’s first World Heritage site and is a natural wonder.
uKhahlamba Drakensberg Park
Not only is the park a place of extraordinary beauty, it is also home to the most rock paintings made over a period of 4000 years ago by the San people, which showcased the spiritual life of these ancient tribes.
Mapungubwe Cultural Landscape
Far in the north of South Africa, you’ll find the sites of palaces and settlements – all that remains of what was the largest tribal kingdom of the country in the 14th century.
Cape Floral Region
Explore the rich flowers and plant life of this region in the Eastern and Western Cape and you’ll find over 20% of Africa’s flora, including the ‘fynbos’ which is a type of vegetation that can be found nowhere else in the world.
Richtersveld Cultural and Botanical Landscape
The Richtersveld is home to the Nama people, who still live in portable homes made of rush mats, are semi-nomadic and communally own and manage this beautiful mountain desert landscape.
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After digging to a depth of 100 meters last year, Russian scientists found traces of copper wire dating back 1000 years, and came to the conclusion that their ancestors already had a telephone network one thousand years ago.