"Besides the caves and museums, the Cradle of Humankind is a lovely area to drive around and enjoy the rolling hills and the tall, swishing highveld grasses. "
As the country’s frenetic economic centre, Gauteng is normally the province from which South Africans flee as quickly as possible in December. But 2021 is not a normal year.
International holiday travel is practically off the table, and even a short flight to Cape Town feels like a risk. Budgets are tight, tempers are short, and many more Gautengers than usual will be spending the festive season at home this year.
The good news: Gauteng has fantastic weather in December, and there are lots of fun staycation ideas, especially outdoor activities, available to those who decide to stay in and around town.
Here are a few off-the-beaten-path suggestions for Gauteng day trips, most of which can be extended into overnight stays if desired.
Explore a jewel of the diamond rush days
Cullinan is a quaint little town about an hour-and-a-half from Joburg (significantly less from Pretoria) with just enough to see and do in a day, maybe two days for hardcore history buffs.
Sir Thomas Cullinan discovered diamonds here in 1898 and later founded the Premier Diamond Mine. In 1905, Frederick George Stanley Wells found the 3100-carat Cullinan Diamond, the largest diamond in the world, in this mine.
Cullinan is best known for its diamond mine tours, which range from R150 for a surface tour to R600 for an underground tour. But there is plenty to see in Cullinan beyond the mine.
Visit McHardy House, the oldest house in Cullinan, built for mine manager William McHardy in 1903 , and check out some of the other historic buildings, including the Herbert Baker-designed St. George’s Anglican Church.
Enjoy a leisurely lunch at As Greek As It Gets, or grab a drink at the pub along the train tracks near the Cullinan Railway Station.
Take a journey back to the origin of our species
The Cradle of Humankind, a UNESCO World Heritage site less than an hour northwest of Joburg, is the bucolic home of some of the world’s oldest human ancestors.
Day-trippers can visit the Sterkfontein Caves, where archeologists discovered the famous “Mrs. Ples” and “Little Foot” fossils, and the nearby Maropeng Visitors Centre, a museum that takes visitors on a journey through the history of the universe, for a combined price of R160.
Besides the caves and museums, the Cradle of Humankind is a lovely area to drive around and enjoy the rolling hills and the tall, swishing highveld grasses. The Maropeng Boutique Hotel, hidden away in the grasslands behind the Visitors’ Centre, makes a perfect overnight getaway for those who enjoy this kind of scenery.
See the Big Five close to home
Just 30 minutes from Pretoria, Dinokeng Game Reserve is the only free-roaming Big 5 reserve in Gauteng. Although Dinokeng is a relatively new reserve and hence doesn’t have the same biodiversity as the Kruger Park or Pilanesberg, it’s still a great spot to get away and hopefully spot an elephant or lion or two.
A large portion of the Dinokeng Reserve is open for self-driving day-trippers, but overnight visitors can also book into one of several private lodges, like the homey Chameleon Bush Lodge or the Ou Klip Game Lodge, which offers upscale tented accommodation.
Enjoy a day of twitching on an accidental wetland
Although it’s well known to many hard-core birders, the Marievale Bird Sanctuary, about an hour east of Joburg near the town of Nigel, is one of Gauteng’s best kept wildlife-viewing secrets.
Located on a Ramsar wetland site created accidentally by the mining industry in 1930s, Marievale boasts nearly 300 bird species and a variety of other wetland animals. The park is maintained by Gauteng province and admission is free.
It’s best to arrive at Marievale early, as soon as possible after the sun comes up, in a vehicle that can handle muddy roads. Once you’ve spotted a few African spoonbills and pied kingfishers, plan a leisurely braai breakfast in the picnic area.
Marievale is located on the R42 in Ekurhuleni, about four kilometers from the town of Nigel. Opening hours are from 5:30 a.m. to 7:30 p.m. in summer and 6:00 a.m. to 6:00 p.m. in winter. Marievale also offers a few simple chalets for overnight accommodation: Contact the Suikerbosrand Nature Reserve at 011-439-6300 for more information.
Go wild and amble on the Koppies
Joburg’s city parks are its most underrated attraction. Here are two of the best.
Spend a few hours in the Wilds, a municipal nature reserve between Killarney and Houghton. It’s a wonderland of indigenous trees and shrubs, and is dotted with colourful art installations. The Wilds’ greenhouse is home to a beautiful collection of rare cycads.
Walk in the Melville Koppies Nature Reserve and 1000 years back in time, to a rock-strewn, primordial landscape that looks much the same as it did in the Iron Age, but with a beautiful city skyline view in the distance.
Most Sunday mornings, the Melville Koppies hosts in open day in the reserve’s central section, which is normally closed to the public.
The open day is a great opportunity to hike through this pristine landscape and check out the well preserved Iron-Age furnace and other archeological artefacts.