South Africa alone has 11 official languages, and a wealth of different cultures from very old: the San (the ancestors of all humans), to quite young: the descendants of the white settlers, and many, many in between. Meeting people and learning about their way of life is a fantastic way of getting to know a destination better. This could be by ways of a township or city tour with a local guide, staying in a home-stay or simply by engaging and talking to the people that you meet. Some of the most interesting things I have learned about life here has been through chatting to hotel staff, waiters and people selling things at the market.
To me, it is important that the meeting is real, and I generally don't include cultural villages and similar staged experiences in my tours. Instead, the focus is on meeting people along the way. On most activities there will be a local guide with us, someone that lives (and grew up) in the area. These people have interesting stories to tell, and they provides us access to people in the community be that a meal at a hole-in-the-wall restaurant, a visit to someone's house or perhaps a storytelling evening. Making use of a local guide is also one of the ways that we can ensure that people benefit from tourism by creating more jobs.
In the small mountain kingdom of Lesotho, there are few roads. Once you get outside the populated lowlands the only way to travel is on foot or (as most locals do) on horse along narrow paths. The sturdy Basotho horse is the best way to explore the remote and untouched villages that nestle deep in the mountains. While it is possible to go for day hikes, I definitely recommend an overnight experience (preferably a few nights if you have the time).
The horses are calm and strong, and will carry you without any obvious effort up and down the steep mountain passes, through rivers and over vast plains. You travel with a local guide and a pack horse that carries your supplies, and you stay in small villages along the way. Here, you can observe life the way its been lived for generations, and it is certainly no "song and dance" experience. Life in the village goes on as usual as you arrive (with the exception for the excitement of the children of course): the women carry on tending their fields, fetching water or cooking dinner and the men, well they do what men here do: mostly sit around. Towards the evening, the young boys return with the herds of cattle and goats to be safely locked up for the night, and someone will bring you a bucket of water for cleaning and cooking.
Riding in Lesotho is definitely one of the best experiences I've ever had, and I recommend it to anyone that loves beautiful nature and meeting new cultures in a relaxed way. Riding experience is not necessary as the horses are very calm and there is no faster pace than walking. You can read more about one of these adventures here.
The People of the Mountains
In the northern part of South Africa, close to the little village of Elim (where Swiss missionaries established one of the first hospitals to care for black people in 1899), there is a hive of creative activity linked to traditional crafts such as wood carving and clay work. Perhaps it was ignited by the rise to international fame by Jackson Hlungwani and Noria Mabasa, perhaps it has always been in the blood of the people living here.
The Ribolla Art Route links many artists in the area along a self-drive route. However, the best thing is to explore together with a local guide who can tell you the stories. Most studios are at the artists' homes, and you are quite likely to meet them in person (and their family too). This is a wonderful way to explore rural South Africa, meet people, learn about the rich Venda and Shangaan culture and perhaps pick up a piece by a future internationally famed artists.
Much of the work is inspired by dreams and intuition. The wood carvers pick up drift wood, and let it tell them their story. The sculptors often depict ancestral stories, inspired by ancient myths and legends.
Ribolla Art Route
While many people probably associate downtown Johannesburg with inner city grit and crime, there is a new energy coming to the surface here. It is driven by a few developments focussed around art, entertainment and food.
Visit Maboneng, the 1 Fox precinct or Braamfontein and you will encounter an African fashion renaissance! These downtown hipsters are hipper than anyone you'll encounter in New York or Berlin. The fabulous mix of African colours and fashion with the international trends will literally blow your mind.
I am quite certain that Joburg will be a city destination in its own right soon. It has a raw and creative energy that I haven't encountered anywhere else in South Africa. Cape Town may be the pretty younger sister, but watch out for this delinquent older brother that is learning how to harness the uncontrolled chaos and turn it into moody brilliance!