When travelers are looking for things to do outside of Johannesburg, they often think of heading to destinations further afield like Kruger Park or Mozambique. However, there are plenty of destinations which are much closer that make for fantastic weekend getaways. One of those places happens to be the Vaal River. Located just under an hour south of downtown Joburg, the Vaal has long been a destination for locals to get away from it all, but it’s also a great place to relax for tourists visiting the area. Some Joburgers even like the area so much that they’ve bought second homes along the river in an area known as “Millionaire’s Row,” and there’s a good reason for that. The scenic Vaal River and surrounding area has plenty of outdoor activities to participate in, several towns to explore, and is even home to the largest meteorite impact crater on earth, the Vredefort Dome. No matter what type of traveler you are, you’re sure to find something fun to do there.
For adventurous travelers, one of the most popular activities along the Vaal is river rafting. There are several tour operators in the area which will take people out for half day and all day trips. You can choose how strenuous you want the rafting to be, as some parts of the river have some fun, low grade rapids to paddle through. This video gives a good idea of the type of rapids you can expect while coasting down the river. If you aren’t up for paddling your way down the river, opt for a boat tour instead, where you can sip on champagne while getting some sun and watching the weeping willows pass you by. Many of the same companies that provide river rafting tours (like the Vaal Streams Eco Resort) also have their own boats in the area to take you out for a relaxing cruise. The river is also popular for fly fishing. The slow flowing river is ideal for creating rocky pools where you can catch bass, catfish, carp, and a local favorite, yellow fish. Some of the resorts that cater to fly fishing include the Wesvaal Holiday Resort and Yellow Fish Paradise. Of course, just about any water activity can be done on the Vaal River, including water skiing, recreational boating, night paddling, swimming, and even snorkeling.
The Vaal River is unique in being the only major river that flows through an asteroid impact crater. Just a few kilometers from the river, you’ll find some of the most scenic landscapes around Joburg inside the Vredefort Dome. The dome is one of eight UNESCO World Heritage sites in South Africa and is the largest and oldest meteorite impact crater on earth. In fact, the area is so wide at 300km that it can only be seen from space. However, you can definitely see some of the features of the rim in the rolling hills that surround the flat farmland of the area. There are numerous trails that are well marked through the area that you can follow for some fantastic daytime hikes. If you aren’t up for a strenuous hike, you can also go quad biking through the area with outfitters such as R.E.A.L. Adventures.
For travelers looking for some culture, Parys makes a nice stop and is cute little town where you can find plenty of boutique clothing stores, antique shops and fun cafes to spend the day in. It isn’t anything like Paris, France, but for a nice stroll through the South African countryside, it does the trick. On weekends, the town gets pretty busy with people bustling down the main street. Visitors can park their cars at most shops and spend a few hours perusing all the cool stuff. You can literally spend hours at a time inside the large antique shops there, so be sure to watch your time!
Dining options are everywhere in Paris and you’ll find most of the restaurants fairly packed on the weekends. If you’re looking for some afternoon drinks, try the Pickled Pig, a fun pub with fantastic South African meat pies. Vetkoek Paleis & Kerrie Huis is somewhat low key but has fantastic traditional Afrikaans Food. For French food that will make you think you’re in the real Paris, try Ruby’s. This establishment regularly has live shows and features a Victorian style decor which is worth it alone. Be sure to stop by some of the traditional candy shops or bakeries to load up on sweets before you leave.
Outside of Parys, there are several shops out in the countryside that have anything from wine tastings, to freshly baked goods, to funky weekend art galleries. The entire area is quite scenic, so feel free to jump in a car and meander around until you find somewhere you want to stop at. If you happen to be there at the right time of the year, there are entertaining events to attend, such as the as the Jazz on the River Festival, F1 Power Boat Racing, air shows, the Round the Island Yacht Race or the increasingly popular Parys Dome Adventure Festival. The athletically inclined might want to attend some of the cycling and running events that go through the valley as well.
While you could certainly go to the Vaal River for the day in back, it’s better to stay for a weekend or more to fully take in the area. There are several places to stay along the Vaal including bed and breakfasts, houseboats, and hotels, but undoubtedly one of the best is the expansive Riverside Sun located in Vanderbijlpark. The hotel is located right on the riverbank and is famous for its stunning, expansive gardens. While the hotel mainly caters to business travelers in the week, it transforms into a vacation resort on the weekend, full of couples leisurely spending their weekends and families having fun in the park areas. The hotel offers private cruises for small parties and other cruises for big events on the Liquid Lounge. If you’re planning a wedding or a big event, the hotel regularly hosts large parties and has everything in place, from outside bars to large walkways along the river to have your party.
No matter where you happen to stay or what activities you get up to, the Vaal River and its surroundings are sure to give you a fun time while keeping you on an affordable budget.