South Africa Photography: The Amazing Rainbow Nation

Zulu Medicine Woman South Africa
Zulu Medicine Woman
South Africa

Traveling to the rainbow nation really surprised me. South Africa is incredibly diverse. Friendly people and stunning landscapes inspire some powerful photography.

South Africa’s landscapes are as varied as its famous wildlife. Local South Africans are generally friendly and welcoming, while modern cities like Cape Town balance out more rural areas like St. Lucia.

Below you’ll discover my favorite photos after 2 months traveling through different parts of South Africa.

Marvel at exotic wild animals on safari, fly over the coast in a microlight, or learn your fortune from an indigenous medicine woman.

Cook home-made bread over an open fire with new friends, wander through luscious green vineyards, inhale aromatic spices at an Indian market, hunt for shooting stars deep in the bush, and share lunch with locals in a township.

These are just a few experiences you can have in South Africa. Enjoy!

Wildlife In South Africa

Young Cheetah Hunting South Africa
Young Cheetah on the Hunt

With nearly 300 species of mammal and over 800 types of birds, South Africa is blessed with a riot of two-legged and four-legged fauna. The “Big 5” get most of the attention – the elephant, rhino, leopard, lion and buffalo.

But expect to see other beautiful creatures like the cheetah, fastest land animal in the world (those deceptively slender legs can propel it along at speeds above 100km/hr).

Traditional Braai

Stick Bread Braai South Africa
Stick Bread at a Braai

In Afrikaans, it’s a braii (which rhymes with “cry”). You know it as “barbecue” or “meat roast”- but the South African barbie is a lot more than a hastily-arranged burger or two with your mates.

It’s often a major social gathering – one man put in charge of grilling the meat, the other men providing moral support, and everyone else tucking into salad and krummelpap (crumb porridge, traditionally eaten alongside the meat). Practice it for yourself on National Braai Day, on the 24th of September every year.

Warm Weather Penguins

Penguin Boulder's Beach South Africa
African Penguin at Boulder’s Beach

Not all penguins like it ice-cold. The African Penguin (also called the jackass penguin, for reasons that become obvious when your first hear it) can be found on the shores of South Africa, gorging itself on anchovies and breeding in burrows built into the cliffs.

And if you’re wondering, it stops itself overheating with the help of a unique gland positioned just above the eye. When temperatures rise, its body pumps blood to this gland to dissipate its excess heat into the air, turning it bright pink in the process (see above).

Breathtaking Landscapes

Night Safari South Africa
Night Safari Under the Stars

For sheer variety of landscapes, South Africa is stunningly good value. Plains turn to forests, mountains to sand dunes. Come away from the coast and the imposing presence of Table Mountain and the land rises, up an escarpment dominated by the Drakensberg Mountains, and onto the Central Plateau.

Beyond is the huge and remarkably varied biosphere called the Great Karoo, once an Afrikaner stronghold, now a growing safari destination.

Diverse Wildlife

Zebra South Africa
Zebra Trying to Hide

South Africa’s wildlife is so varied, even the zebras come in two distinct flavours. The most common type is the plains or Burchell’s Zebra (pictured), identifiable by its pale grey stripe in between black stripes on its hind quarters.

Far less common – and recently threatened with extinction – is the Cape Mountain Zebra, easy to spot because of a chocolate orange mark on the edge of its muzzle. There are still less than 2,000 of them in the world.

Wine In South Africa

Delaire-Graff Wine Vineyards South Africa
Delaire-Graff Wine Vineyards

It may have a history going back to the 17th Century, but South African winemaking is best-known for exploding onto the world stage in the 1980s, after export markets reopened. These days, vineyards like the ones at Stellenbosch (above) are internationally famous creators of some of the world’s most popular Cabernet Sauvignon, Shiraz, Merlot and Pinotage wines.

This is a good place to pull up a chair at a cafe after a long day of exploring, and order a glass of whatever they recommend.

Indian Community

Indian Woman Durban South Africa
Indian Woman Selling Spices in Durban

2010 marked the 150th anniversary of the arrival of the first immigrant workers from India. Over 150,000 Indians arrived between 1860 and 1910, when the practice of indentured labour was ended – and almost three-quarters of them chose to stay, put down roots and settle in South Africa.

Today the majority live around the city of Durban, and the country as a whole contains over 1 million Africans of Indian descent.

South African Safari

Game Drive South Africa
Phinda Safari Game Drive

It’s not South Africa if you don’t go on safari. Nothing beats the thrill of seeing the mightiest of its wildlife up close. It’s a popular activity so you’ll never have problems finding professional tours ready to take you out into the wilds.

But if you’re looking for a “soft” introduction, hire a car and drive to the Kruger National Park for a few days of exploring (don’t expect to see much more than a glimpse of its 2 million hectares) – and stay at a wilderness camp for the night where tents are available for hire.

The Most Dangerous Animal

Hippo Charging St. Lucia South Africa
Hippo Charge in St. Lucia

Stumpy, rotund and comical-looking, the hippopotamus looks like the mother of all pigs – and behaves like a T-Rex. It’s Africa’s most dangerous land animal, able to propel its 3,300lb bulk towards you at terrifying speed.

Hippos are fiercely territorial and aggressive, they’re armed with teeth like sharpened spears, and they really don’t like humans going near them. Adjust your behavior accordingly.

South Africa From The Air

Microlight Coastline South Africa
Microlight Flight over the Coastline

If you think South Africa looks stunning from the ground, the view from above will blow your mind. I enjoyed this stunning microlight’s-eye view of the coast on a perfect day, but you’ll find micro-lighting options all over the country, particularly over game reserves.

You can follow the wildlife from a height that doesn’t disturb it. Becoming a trained microlight pilot will take you 25-30 hours of practice lessons and should be done through a professional flight school.

Poverty In South Africa

Orphan Boy South Africa
Young Orphan Boy

Happily, South Africa’s previously severe poverty and unemployment levels have decreased since the turn of the century – but it’s still a country with its social and economic challenges.

Two million Africans have climbed out of extreme poverty since 2006, and government initiatives, international programs and tourism continue to do their bit.

National Parks

Elephants and Giraffes South Africa
African Elephant & Giraffes

Dominated by the incredible Kruger National Park (nearly 20,000 km2), South Africa’s national parks are spread across every corner of the country, giving you once-in-a-lifetime views of animals in their (protected) habitat.

If you’re sticking to the coast or the area around Cape Town, head to the recently-designated Table Mountain National Park for some of South Africa’s most jaw-dropping views.

Protected Wetlands

Nile Crocodile South Africa
Nile Crocodile at iSimangaliso Wetlands

In Zulu, Isimangaliso means “miracle” – an apt name for the 3,000 square kilometers of wetland coastline and its dizzying biodiversity that’s now enjoying government protection as parkland. It’s a great place to see – and carefully keep your distance from – crocodile and hippo, alongside a wealth of more benign wildlife.

South African Townships

Township Family South Africa
Family Living in Khula Township

Around half of South Africa’s urban population lives in townships – huge areas of primarily working-class housing, a mixture of post-apartheid government planning and informal, unplanned construction.

In the areas that are still underdeveloped, tourism is making a big positive impact – although be warned, the layout is sometimes a little chaotic (and lacking sign posts) so I’d advise you to take a guide who knows the place well.

Big Cats & Predators

African Lion South Africa
Large African Lion Missing an Eye

Nothing beats looking into the sleepy golden gaze of one of South Africa’s big cats and hoping that his last meal wasn’t all that long ago. In the big game reserves, you’ll be able to watch lions marking their territory, roaring to scare off intruders, and preying on other animals for food.

Contrary to popular assumption, it’s the females that do most of the hunting! If you’re lucky, or have a great guide, you’ll also spot leopards and cheetah – although the former are more reclusive, and the latter are so fast you might only see a blur!

Travel Planning Resources for South Africa
Accommodation: Click Here For Deals in South Africa

Packing Guide

Check out my travel gear guide to help you start packing for your trip. Pick up a travel backpack, camera gear, and other useful travel accessories.

Book Your Flight

Book cheap flights on Skyscanner, my favorite airline search engine to find deals. Also read my tips for how I find the cheapest flights.

Rent A Car

RentalCars.com is a great site for comparing car prices to find a deal.

Book Accommodation

Booking.com is my favorite hotel search engine. Or rent local apartments on Airbnb ($35 discount!). Read my post for tips on booking cheap hotels.

Protect Your Trip

Don’t forget travel insurance! I’m a big fan of World Nomads for short-term trips. Protect yourself from possible injury & theft abroad. Read more about why you should always carry travel insurance.

Recommended Guidebook: Lonely Planet South Africa
Suggested Reading: Diamonds, Gold, and War

READ NEXT: Things To Do In South Africa

Would you travel to South Africa for photography? Have any questions? Let me know in the comments below!

THANKS FOR READING

Hi, I’m Matthew Karsten — I’ve been traveling around the world for the last 9 years as a blogger, photographer, and digital nomad. Adventure travel & photography are my passions. Let me inspire you to travel more with crazy stories, photography, and useful tips from my journey.
Matthew Karsten
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46 thoughts on “South Africa Photography: The Amazing Rainbow Nation”

  1. Hey Matthew, im here speding more than two hours in your website! Really amazing and inspiring! congrats! I am learning photography, how did you take that picture at the night safari (I mean, with those bright stars) – awesome pic! Thanks

  2. These are amazing photographs and I particularly like the family in Khula Township. Yes, I am going the have to put South Africa on the list

  3. these are absolutely stunning! and the quality of these pictures is outstanding!!! especially the sky picture, I think I need a better camera to capture a pic like that

  4. Your photos are absolutely stunning! Our last ‘big’ trip was to South Africa and we found it to be incredible. The African sky at night is so hard to describe other than with “WOW” and your photo captures it wonderfully. Loved sleeping under those stars!

    • Thanks Debbie. Yes, the African night sky is mesmerizing. A lot of fun to watch it from the back of a roofless jeep too.

  5. Wow! This is amazing. You take amazing photos. We’re thinking of planning a trip to South Africa for August and this really inspires us! Thank you.

  6. What beautiful photos! I especially love the one of the charging hippos, and the orphan boy. All of the photos are very crisp and evocative. Looking forward to the next installment!

  7. Love the night sky! I have never been able to take a photo like that. Your trips look fantastic, love all your pics. Off today on a 5 month African adventure …. Looking forward to those big African skies

  8. wow! Beautiful photographs.. I love all of them! I stumbled upon to your blog after reading Lesley Carters blog on Fiji.. You guys are truly an inspiration..

  9. ‘Young orphan boy’- I see you, that is the person who took his picture. It is important how we are seen and understood by the young children who see us. It has been said to me on several occasion, he/she usually doesn’t go to anyone else. Children are our future and it is important how we value them, especially those we will meet by a chance encounter.

  10. Thanks so much for this lovely entry and for being such a great promoter of our beautiful country. We’re a tad far off the beaten travel track so travellers need bloggers like you to tell them about us!

    Come back soon, you know 2 weeks is not long enough!

  11. Thanks for sharing these awesome photos! I’d love to visit South Africa – what an amazing experience. I especially love the shots of the people and the animals – beautiful!

    • Thanks a lot Mark! Watching that beautiful cheetah family interact with each other and go hunting together was a highlight from the trip.

  12. This is such a fantastically diverse set of frankly incredible photos. Africa is one of those places that bites you and then keeps on drawing you back – my return feels long overdue! I suspect 2013 could involve a trip there :)

  13. Wow beautiful photos Matt! How were you able to witness a Leatherback Sea Turtle laying her eggs?? Phenomenal! Keep up the great work & priceless photography!

  14. Great collection of photos from South Africa! I love how you put animals, landscape and people photographs in this post. They really give me an even better understanding of the country. It’s really hard to pick one to be my most favorite photo, but if I had to I would go with the picture of the elephant and giraffes.

    • Giraffes are hilarious looking animals. There are times when all you could see were their heads sticking up above the tree-line in the distance.

    • They certainly were. Really want to try and make my own stick bread now. You add butter & honey when it’s done. Great snack for camping!

  15. These pictures are stunning – love them! I travelled trough South Africa one year ago and fell in love with this country. There are so many beautiful places to see & explore! Cape Town is so far one of my favourite city in the world.

  16. Your photography is very evocative. And you have managed to capture the many aspects of South Africa, a fascinating place. Well done!

  17. Beautiful images! Takes me back to my own travels to South Africa, where I was blown away by the incredible diversity of the landscape, wildlife and culture of the country, a diversity that you capture so well in these photos!

    • Hi Kellie. I’d say “diversity” is a great word to describe South Africa. Diverse people, landscapes, and wildlife for sure.

  18. Love all the animals and the view from the Microlight flight. Also loved seeing all those stars at night. Makes you realize how small you are and how big our world is. Beautiful photos – hope I get to South Africa one day.

    • Thanks Jeremy! Yeah, and these are only a few of the many animals I saw in South Africa. The amount & diversity was incredible!

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