Nature and romance in the Cradle of HumankindTop attractions: Maropeng and the Sterkfontein Caves, walks and hikes in the many nature reserves
Some of the world's oldest and most well-known hominid fossils, such as Mrs Ples and the three- million-year-old Little Foot, were discovered in Gauteng's UNESCO-protected Cradle of Humankind, and palaeontologists continue to make ground-breaking discoveries here today. Maropeng is the official visitors' centre for the Cradle Of Humankind and a visit can be combined with a tour of the nearby Sterkfontein Caves where the remains of Little Foot were found.
An easy 45-minute drive from Joburg, the Cradle is also a popular area for walkers, hikers and cyclists. Venues like Cradle Moon Lakeside Game Lodge offer an array of outdoor activities including a 10km hike and mountain-biking trails, as well as open-water swimming and kayaking in the Cradle Moon Dam. Meanwhile, the Nirox Sculpture Park is a beautiful setting for a sunny afternoon, where you can appreciate the regularly changing collection of contemporary sculptures created by local and international artists.
WHERE TO STAY IN THE CRADLE
Maropeng Boutique Hotel
Perfectly located in the heart of the Cradle of Humankind, right next to the Maropeng visitors' centre. Each luxury guest room comes endowed with full-length windows and terraces looking out across the expansive grasslands of the Cradle, towards the Magaliesberg mountains in the distance. The view is particularly stunning at sunset when the grasses turn a vivid shade of gold.
Find out more: call +27 14 577 9100 or book online here.
Ibis River Retreat
Situated inside the Crocodile River Reserve (just north of Lanseria airport), Ibis River Retreat has five spacious, self-catering cottages each with their own wow feature: a private jacuzzi and an indoor fireplace. Four of the five cottages are designed for couples with decent kitchens and large outdoor braai areas. There is one larger cottage, The Francolin, which has two bedrooms and bathrooms and its own firepit. Note that no children under seven are allowed at the property, and they have no back-up for load-shedding.
Find out more and book at ibisriverretreat.co.za
Nestled amid rolling farm landscape that adjoins Nirox Sculpture Park, Farmhouse58 is designed for an immersive experience and an embrace of slow living. Stays celebrate the barefoot lifestyle – think all-natural fabrics, meditation sessions beneath a hidden waterfall, organic food, and nature walks and hikes. There are no carpeted corridors and rooms open straight out into the garden and surrounding farm, meaning you are as close to the land as you can get. An added bonus is, of course, being this close to the beautiful Nirox Sculpture Park.
Find out more and book at farmhouse58.co
Cradle Boutique Hotel
For a luxury stay the Cradle Boutique Hotel book a high-end cottage with a private viewing deck elevated above the 7,000 hectares of nature reserve spilling out below or one of the new, very popular eco-friendly sky rooms. There are two pools on site: the natural filtration lounge pool with a cascading rock waterfall and a second sun-drenched swimming pool framed by private cabanas. The hotel also offers guests the chance to tick off an elusive bucket list item – joining a world-renowned paleo-anthropologist on a visit to a major fossil exploration site in the nearby Sterkfontein Caves area.
Find out more and book at cradlehotel.co.za
A quirky weekend in historic CullinanTop attractions: History and heritage on Oak Avenue, ziplining and quad-biking at Adventure Zone
The quaint town of Cullinan, around 20 minutes drive east of Pretoria, makes the perfect base for a relaxing weekend stayover. The historical town is characterised by a sleepy main street, Oak Avenue, lined by charming Edwardian-era mining cottages that now house cosy cafés and quirky antiques shops. At the end of Oak Avenue is the mine where the famous 3106-carat Cullinan Diamond (more popularly known as The Star of Africa) was found in 1905. Soak in Cullinan's mining history on a visit to the small McHardy House Museum or book a tour of the mine itself.
Just outside of town, hiking, ziplining and other high-energy pursuits await at Adventure Zone Cullinan in the scenic Muningi Gorge. A favourite is the ziplining above the forested gorge at more than 100km per hour and the quad-bike safaris. Read our full guide to what to see and do in Cullinan.
WHERE TO STAY IN CULLINAN
The Cullinan Premier Hotel
One of the oldest buildings in town, this hotel was a popular drinking hole during Cullinan's early years and it is said that the mine's owner, Thomas Cullinan, joined the mineworkers here to celebrate the discovery of the Star of Africa diamond in 1905. The hotel has four different room settings, a spa and restaurant, and is set just metres from the main street, Oak Avenue.
Find out more and book: call +27 12 734 1810, cullinanpremierhotel.co.za
A hilltop spa retreat in the Klipriviersberg at Thaba Eco HotelTop attractions: Hiking, wildlife walks and spa treatments
Set in the exquisite Klipriviersberg Nature Reserve, Thaba Eco Hotel is an ideal family or romantic getaway an astonishingly short distance of just 18km from the city. Once you drive through the gates you get the sense of being at a resort rather than a hotel. There are golf carts to transport you up and down the hills from the spa to the restaurant, pool and the bar hidden amid bushveld trees, or take it slow and stroll around the property and enjoy the birdsong.
Choose from a deluxe or luxury room. The spacious deluxe rooms each come with their own patios overlooking the grounds, while the luxury suites are perched up on the hill and all face west to catch the sunset. The contemporary glass edifice encasing the luxury rooms make for incredible countryside views. At the far end of the property's highest point is the wonderful Sinzinani Day Spa, the ideal place to spend a lazy morning relaxing. Or if you prefer something more energetic, book an eco-drive through the reserve, join a bird watching excursion or enjoy a guided nature walk to learn more about the area's unique ecology.
Find out more and book at thabahotel.co.za
A Soweto stayoverTop attractions: History, tours and great street food
Lebo's Soweto Backpackers, fondly known as Lebo's, is a local institution and one of the most highly regarded backpackers anywhere in the country. In addition to dorm rooms and a campsite, Lebo's also has a fully-fledged guesthouse with cosy single and double rooms that open out into a sunny courtyard and lead onto a private garden with sun-loungers. When staying over, we recommend skipping the self-catering kitchen and paying extra for cooked breakfasts and home-style meals and braais in the evening. The food is excellent South African comfort food, and great value, too.
The best thing about staying over at Lebo's is having the time to explore Soweto at a more insightful pace. You won't be whizzing past the sights, instead you'll have the chance to sit at a local café or bar and watch the world go by. Taking one of the famous Lebo's Soweto Bicycle tours is a must, with options for two-hour, half-day or full-day tours. Other activities to plan into your trip include doing a bungee-jump from the top of the Orlando Towers or catching a concert, show or festival at the Soweto Theatre.
WHERE TO STAY IN SOWETO
Lebo's Soweto Backpackers is located in Orlando West, Soweto. Call +27 11 936 3444 or book online at sowetobackpackers.com
The call of the wild in DinokengTop attractions: Guided or self-drive safaris
The Dinokeng Game Reserve, about 30 minutes drive north of Pretoria, means 'place of rivers' and is Gauteng's biggest free-roaming wildlife reserve. The reserve was created when several private game farms and conservancies took down their fences to establish one large reserve. A patchwork of semi-private dirt roads and official tarred roads crisscrossed by farms and lodges, the reserve boasts ample choice in accommodation to suit all budgets. It is possible to self-drive (the routes are rather confusing so make sure you have a map), or alternatively join a guided game drive or walk.
Dinokeng is a Big Five reserve, although sightings of the Big Five are less common than at the more well-known reserves. Don't come expecting the place to be bursting with elephants; slow down and admire the remarkable birdlife, enjoy a braai in the bush and savour the chance to enjoy a little slice of safari so close to the city.
WHERE TO STAY IN DINOKENG
Chameleon Bush Lodge
A neat option for a self-catering break with 10 well-equipped, modern chalets. Each comes with their own fully equipped kitchen, a large patio and braai area with a view of the waterhole and an outdoor shower for that classic 'bush break' feel. For families there are also larger, two-bedroom chalets that come with their own fire pits for those fireside evenings under the stars.
Find out more and book: Call +27 82 454 6535 or book online at chameleonbushlodge.co.za
While not located inside the Dinokeng Game Reserve, this is a great base for exploring the wider area. Built on the banks of the Roodeplaat Dam, about 15 minutes drive from the reserve, this 46-room hotel is set across 10 hectares packed with indigenous bushveld and great views. Rooms are luxuriously fitted, making this a good alternative to the rustic bushveld feel of other properties in the area (and there's even a spa).
Find out more and book at theblades.co.za
Hike the Magaliesberg mountainsTop attractions: Hiking, farm stays and hot air balloon safaris
Bordering on the Hartbeespoort Dam, the Magaliesberg mountains are about an hour to 90 minutes drive from Joburg and form a beautiful natural border between the Gauteng and North West provinces. By far the most popular activity in this part of Gauteng is hiking, and there are loads of great trails to choose from (see our guide to the best hiking trails). Staying over in the area also gives you the chance to get up early and admire the mountain-top views from the Hartbeespoort Aerial Cableway or take a hot air balloon ride with Bill Harrops Balloon Safaris. A real bucket-list experience, there's nothing quite like watching the sun rise and seeing the world from above in the basket of a soaring hot air balloon. Hot air balloon safaris set off at the crack of dawn, making staying over nearby all the more enticing.
WHERE TO STAY IN THE MAGALIESBERG
Steynshoop Mountain and Valley Lodge
A secluded country hotel nestled in a game farm on the mountain slopes. Choose from five self-catering cottages or book into a room at the upmarket Steynshoop Mountain Lodge hotel. Amenities including tennis courts, volleyball, billiards, a large swimming pool and croquet and you can embark on reasonably challenging walks and hikes from the hotel.
Find out more and book: call +27 14 576 1035 or book online at steynshoop.co.za
This old farm has one of the area's most famous hikes, the challenging 13km Karee trail. The trails are open to day visitors (with prior booking), although staying over means you can get straight to the trail in the early morning and spend the rest of your day relaxing. A good option for larger groups and families, there's a choice of bed and breakfast accommodation, rustic self-catering cottages, self-catering tents and basic backpacker dormitory accommodation. Amenities include a huge swimming pool and a tea room.
Find out more and book: Call +27 11 662 2611 or book online at rustig.co.za
Get on the water at the VaalTop attractions: Staying on a houseboat, watersports, birdwatching
The Vaal Dam, around 80km south of Joburg, is the second largest dam in South Africa by area, with an incredible 800km of shoreline fed by the Vaal River. Unsurprisingly with all that water the Vaal area is popular with anglers, birdwatchers and watersports enthusiasts. There are several venues on the Vaal River that offer boat cruises, and it is even possible to rent a houseboat for the weekend. Young families will find the Emerald Resort and Casino on the banks of the Vaal River in Vanderbijlpark is packed with activities including game drives, a bowling alley, four different climbing wall routes, the I-Zone amusement arcade, putt-putt, and for the little ones the Aquadome water park.
WHERE TO STAY IN THE VAAL
Old Willow No.7 Houseboat Charters
The best way to get on the water in the Vaal is to rent your own houseboat. Old Willow No.7 Houseboat Charters has seven houseboats for rent, each with a cosy double bed and a rooftop seating area with deckchairs for enjoying drinks at sunset. You don't need any prior experience to rent a boat, you'll be shown the ropes (so to speak) beforehand. Each boat also has a small galley kitchen with fridge and electric stove, and of course an on-board braai stand, too. Great for birders, fishing fanatics or adventurous couples looking for an out of the ordinary weekend break in Gauteng. You will need to return your houseboat first thing in the morning, so arrive early on your embarkation day to make the most of it.
Find out more and book at oldwillow.co.za
Stonehaven on Vaal
The Stonehaven on Vaal estate looks out on the Vaal river in Vanderbijlpark and is a popular wedding and function venue. 45 minutes drive from Johannesburg. The charming Loft room has a magnificent view, full en suite and perfect for weekend stayover. Stonehaven’s forte are the fleet of Vaal Boat River cruises running from the Stonehaven Harbour. Depending on which boat cruise visitors choose, bird watching is a treat with over 200 bird species, weddings and corporate functions are offered on board, speedboats and jet skiing and of course, fine dining on all boats.
Find out more and book at stonehaven.co.za
Emerald Resort & Casino
As a popular destination for families living in south Gauteng, it's no surprised that the Emerald also offers a range of accomodation, most of it designed to appeal to families and groupes. In addition to the Emerald Hotel, there's also basic self-catering chalets and the self-catering safari-themed 'bush lodges'.
Find out more and book at emeraldcasino.co.za