A visit to thermal springs for health reasons is one of the oldest forms of tourism in the world. In ancient times thermal springs were believed to have supernatural and healing powers, and archaeological digs reveal how thermal springs were used as communal baths in ancient cities like Mohenjo-Daro in India, the palaces of Knossos in Crete, and the Egyptian royal city of Tall al ‘Amarinah. Visits to spas in Europe during the 18th and 19th centuries were all the rage, for health and wellbeing.
In South Africa the hot springs at Bela-Bela were used by the Tswana people hundreds of years ago for healing, and The Baths were pivotal to the San, evidenced by rock art found near The Baths (the hot springs on the Olifants River). Today we head to hot springs mostly for recreation – lots of lolling around in hot pools, plenty of slides and activities for the kids, and the odd hot stone massage thrown in for good measure.
In South Africa there are around 87 documented natural hot springs, most of them in the northerly reaches of the country in what was once the Transvaal (across the Vaal River). Eight thermal springs exist in the northern part of Limpopo alone; another 11 in the Western Cape.
Around 20 of the country’s springs have been converted into thermal resorts, and three of these – Warmbaths (Bela-Bela), Badplaas and Caledon – offer sophisticated health and wellness treatment facilities. On average the hot springs expel36 000 kilolitres of water a day. Most of the springs exist on private properties. Some are available to the public.
We’ve selected 12 thermal hot springs in South Africa…
In the old days these natural ‘hepatic wells’ were used to wash wool and do the town’s laundry. Today you can take the sulphur waters in an indoor hot pool. The Cradock Spa, alongside the upper Fish River, also offers an outdoor Olympic pool, camping sites and hiking trails. Day visitors are welcome.
Badfontein Guest Farm
Badfontein is a private guest farm with a rondawel or two and a campsite that serves as a good alternative to the Aliwal North Spa (which when we last looked was in dire need of a new coat of paint and a great deal of TLC). Badfontein lies west of Aliwal North on the banks of the Orange River.
Set in amongst desert mountains and the waters of the Orange and Molopo Rivers, this community owned project is well worth visiting. The springs are a product of volcanic eruptions and the surrounding scenery is magnificent. It’s also very popular, so book ahead.
This ATKV resort lies nestled in a kloof in the Waterberg just north of Bela-Bela. At its heart are two warm mineral baths and a heated indoor pool, as well as cold water outdoor swimming and splash pools, a water slide, a nine-hole miniature golf course, horseback riding, hiking trails and numerous other family activities. Busy over holidays.
It isn’t surprising that Warmbaths new name, Bela-Bela, means the pot that boils in Tswana. The town is all about its geothermic hot springs, just off the N1 between Pretoria Accommodation and Polokwane. The waters were first part of the Voortrekker farm, Het Bad, but fresh water supply in the area is historically poor, which meant it was visited at only certain times of the year. Now a Forever Resort, it gets very busy during school holidays.
The Emanzana sulphur springs at Badplaas (eManzana) are at the centre of the Forever Resort in eastern Mpumalanga. These ‘healing waters’ were first discovered by Swazi tribesmen, but they became particularly popular as a place to ‘chill out’ when gold was discovered in the De Kaap Valley near Barberton.
These hot water springs, just two hours from Cape Town, have been attracting visitors since 1739. Two swimming pools (one hot and one cold) as well as various rock pools and private baths combine with hiking trails, bird watching and good food for a healing visit.
Goudini Spa, Rawsonville
As far as ATKV resorts go, Goudini is one of the best. The self-catering resort surrounds three outdoor thermally heated swimming pools (each a different temperature) and one indoor pool. Perfect family fun, the spa includes family activities, and incredible views.
Holidays can get busy; avoid if you don’t like crowds, but for families – ideal. Whilst the resort’s accommodation is open to everyone, day visitors must be ATKV members.
Lying in the foothills of the Warmwaterberg this spa is on Route 62, just 30 km outside Barrydale (and just down from Ronnies’ Sex Shop), its backdrop, the Karoo. Warmwaterberg is run by the 6th generation LeGrange family. The main house and bath houses were built in 1908 as a sanatorium, whilst the wooden chalets and caravans were added in the ’80s and ’90s.
There are hikes, wandering peacocks, views out over the Langeberg, and three soaking pools (two warm, one cool). Don’t let the rusty colour of the water put you off. It is high in iron. Best outside of school holidays and mid-week.Accommodation in Barrydale.
On the road between Vryheid and Paulpietersburg on the Battlefields Route, the self-catering resort is described as ‘old world charm’. The hot pools, slide (at extra cost) and beauty spa – offering massages, facials and foot rubs – combines well with the gorgeous setting and an array of colourful birds. Best midweek.
These hot springs, in the Kranskop Valley, were originally used by locals in the area who believed the waters had healing properties. In the 1950s a hotel was built that hosted balls so that the resort was favourably compared with hot springs in Europe. It fell into disrepair until recently when local tourism built flats and rondavels from stones taken from the Lilani River.
The springs have been channelled into four pools. The scenery and bird life is fantastic. Run by the Mthembu Sithole Development Trust. You can only book by phone 072 515 6236.
Shu Shu, Eshowe
Shu Shu (as in shew but this water’s hot!) hot springs lie on an island in the middle of the Tugela River, just below Kranskop, on the old road between Stanger and Greytown (for visitors to the area, this is quite close to Nkandla, about two hours north of Westbrook).
Probably the best part about Shu Shu is that you can only reach the island to use the hot water springs in June and July when the river is low. At any other time of the year, the river floods the pools and you won’t even see the baths. Best of all, the springs remain uncommercialised and are free for use by anyone who can find them (there are no road signs).
They are controlled by a tribal chairman and there is a charge per head for the day.