Our local expert on South Africa is Tony Plowman; my ex-boss, good friend, and a proud South African. Tony has contributed an extraordinary wealth of information on his country. In fact, I’d be surprised if you could find a bigger, more detailed guide on South Africa anywhere on the internet. Below are his general tips for anyone visiting South Africa.
Click on the highlighted sections below for detailed guides on each province.
1. CAPE TOWN
Note: Based on Tony’s recommendations, we spent 3 months in SA in 2016. Click here for detailed posts and lots of photos. After 4 years of full-time travel, South Africa is still my favorite country.
TOPICS COVERED IN THIS GUIDE:
5) Security and Safety
6) Historical Tidbits, Trivia, and Tips
7) Places to see
This fascinating and fantastic country has a tourist promotion slogan calling upon the visitor to “See South Africa – See the Whole World in One Country”. Surprisingly, the claim comes pretty close to reality! The population of 50 million plus consists of 11 major black tribes (the Zulu and Xhosa being the largest, accounting for over half of the black population), 2 white African ‘tribes’ (Afrikaans and English), a large Indian contingent (split pretty equally between Hindu and Muslim groups) and over 6 million ‘coloured’ (mulattos) originating from the mixing of the original Dutch settlers, their Malay (Indonesian) slaves brought to the Cape, and the indigenous Hottentots.
Its a miracle that not only does the country somehow hang together, but also seems to have its act together too, thriving pretty well in its new, assumed status as the “Rainbow Nation” – and this despite the fact that, given the nation’s history, racial, ethnic and religious makeup, it could be an almost perfect recipe for a Bosnian, Middle-east or other such similar national ‘meltdown’. Instead it has managed to ‘reconcile’ its tragic past away and now leads the continent – and much of the world – with an enlightened constitution, laws and legal guarantees and a very open and ‘liberal’ approach to human rights.
In South Africa, as in so many similar “emerging” countries (Brasil, Argentina etc) ‘first-world’ comforts, infrastructure and facilties cohabit to varying degrees of discomfort with ‘third-world’ problems and inegalities. The past weighs less and less on modern generations, while many of the problems that continue to dominate the country are common to the developing world in general. A big difference is the people’s pride and spirit of hope that pervades the country. The inherent upbeat nature, warmth, friendliness and happy approach of the inhabitants makes any visitor fell quickly at ease and at home.
Their nation is one of the most beautiful, diverse and captivating anywhere, the wonderful rich cultural base enhanced by the wide range of climates, spectacular scenery and stunning physical landscapes – mountains, plains, forests, deserts with undoubtedly amongst the most beautiful and emptiest beaches in the world. To top it all, the country has vast resources of just about every mineral known and the richest, most varied botanical and floral kingdoms on earth, all alongside an incredible diversity of animal and bird life, amongst the richest, best-protected and managed wildlife on the continent, if not the world.
South Africa offers the visitor pretty much anything and everything he could possible wish to see and experience. Indeed, it’s the whole world in one country – or about the closest to it!
2. ACCOMMODATION :
Prices below are indicated in South African Rand. Divide by 10 to convert Rand to USD (ex. R100 = 10 USD)
As can be expected, accomodations in South Africa cater to all budgets and tastes, from international 5-star luxury hotels, and game lodges (see below **) to boutique hotels, classy – and more simple – B & Bs, self-catering apartments and farm ‘stays’ in rural areas. Most can be reserved on the internet. Among local chains in the middle budget range (R750- R900 per night) are Protea Hotels and the Town Lodge and City Lodge group. Often, in off-season the same R900 room can be had for as little as R350 or so. In resort and holiday areas, tariffs can change drastically overnight too; a school holiday week can more than double rates (which then drop as rapidly once the families leave).
Warning: In South Africa (no-one knows why…) hotel tariffs are often quoted on a ‘per person’ basis rather than on a ‘per room’ basis. An easy oversight can double your costs. However, increasingly hotels are changing to quoting tariffs on a ‘per room’ basis – just be sure to check before booking!
South African backpacker hostels are numerous, inexpensive, and of a high standard. Many are also in unique and special locations (like this one at Victoria Bay, near George) Most offer a range of accommodation options from dormitory style digs to private rooms and showers. Expect to pay around R150 – R200 for basic facilities, about R400 – R500 for a room.
A very different and rather unique experience for interested parties is to stay in a ‘township guesthouse’. They offer a wide range of accommodation options, as well as providing a far more intimate and up-front opportunity to get to know the locals better. The guest house should be ‘star’ graded by the TGCSA (Tourism Grading Council of South Africa) . Many are really top-notch, even luxurious, and generally moderately priced . A great many are individually listed on the web, but with a little work (and TripAdvisor help) its not that hard to find the real gems.
Township accommodations in Cape Town
Township accommodations in Johannesburg/Soweto area
Hotel tariffs invariably include breakfast, a great deal which will keep you going all day! South African breakfasts kill most breakfasts dead; a full range of fruits, fruit juices, porridge, any type of egg dishes made to order, accompanied by traditional South African fare like boerewors sausages, bredie, and lamb. South African breakfasts won’t leave you hungry.
ALL the national Parks and wild animal reserves have accommodations, ranging to 1-bedroom to multiple-bedroom bungalows. They are simple but spotless, have all modcons – usually huge verandahs on which to take sundowners, and a braai which is cleaned and resupplied with wood every day. For something more unique: National Parks have ‘rondhavels’ (literally ‘round hovels’ – which are like the African huts, for 2 or more people, with bathroom etc). They are often the cheapest accommodation in the National Parks, cheaper than bungalows or chalets.
Some of the camps are a lot better located (views, waterholes etc) than others so you have to check around before booking. Advance bookings are pretty much always a must.
The National Parks always have a restaurant (often surprisingly very good) as well as a shop, bookstore etc for sun screens, hats, aspirins etc as well as all the basic supplies – milk, bread etc .
Accommodation in Kruger National Park
Accommodation in Tsitsikamma National Park
** Private game reserves surround most of the National Game Parks, like Kruger, effectively extending the area of the National Park itself. All of them have a few to several lodges and are a perfect way to see the maximum amount and variety of game in a limited period of time as well as live the ‘real’ African bush life in total comfort and luxury. Accommodations are often in elevated safari tents with all modern conveniences, scattered around a central ‘boma’, bar and social area. A stay includes safaris, breakfast, sunset “sundowner” drinks and snacks at a waterhole and top-notch gourmet meals centred on South African cuisine and game dishes. But they’re not cheap – generally in the region of about R 5.000 (approx $ 500) per person per day. Many private reserves also offer a selection of various ‘fun’ add-ons; dawn hot-balloon rides, bush treks by foot, on horse (and even on elephants!) Usually a stay of 2 full days will suffice for all but the most ardent wildgame fans.
3. TRANSPORTATION – Getting Around
South Africa has an excellent infrastructure network – road, rail and air – offering a full range of travel alternatives.
One of the best ways to cover the vast distances of the country, especially if time is limited. For example: many people, after visiting the Johannesburg/Pretoria area, take a flight the 1,300 kms to George to visit the Garden Route. Fares from Johannesburg to George can be had for around $120 or so, one way (but shop around). Options: South African Airlines, South African Express, Airlink, British Airlines (Comair).
With its excellent, fast and easy road network, renting a car in South Africa is a great way to get off the beaten path. Cars can be rented (and then dropped off) literally anywhere. All major international agencies are represented here as well as several reliable local franchises. Costs are comparable to N.American/European rates.
Several companies run national services between all major centres. Many lines offer double-decker luxury service. Translux and Intercape have wide coverage and also offer routes into neighbouring countries as well. Also: Citiliner, and Greyhound.
*** A unique, very flexible, convenient and fun is Baz Bus – a hop-on, hop-off service that is perfect for backpackers. Their 20 seater, semi-luxury mini-buses pick you up and drop you off at hostels around the country (no lugging bags around at midnight in a strange town…). Simply buy a ticket to your final destination and you can stop off anywhere along the way for as long as you want (ie. no time limit). Baz Bus also offers a variety of tours to top sites, as well as a ticket pass system for unlimited travel on a 7 to 21 day basis . A great way to meet locals and other travellers.
South Africa has one of the few viable passenger rail services left in the southern Hemisphere. Shosholoza Meyl long-distance passenger trains covers routes to most major cities. Its not luxurious or fast, but it’s comfortable, clean, safe, and cheap, offering a relaxed and unique way to the country. There is an upmarket service that runs between Johannesburg and Cape Town and Durban every week called Premier Classe. Trains are air-conditioned, offer single-berth coupés, two-berth coupés and family compartments. Fares include bedding and meals.
Click HERE for detailed information on both of the above:
Commuter rail services: In Johannesburg there is the high-speed Gautrain linking Johannesburg City Centre, Sandton and Pretoria to the airport. It’s fast, efficient and safe, a perfect way to travel between Joburg and the airport in less than 15 minutes. In Cape Town, use the excellent suburban service to get out to the winelands in Stellenbosch and Paarl, or take the beautiful trip down to Simonstown where the train runs along the rocky seafront from Muizenberg on. Similarly, Durban has a good network of local trains linking the city centre with outlying suburbs and towns as far out as Kelso (80 kms) or Stanger (75 kms).
Tuk-Tuks: Within the city, the easiest and best alternative transport is offered by “tuk-tuks” South African style; more comfort, less polluting, noisy etc … great for short trips, but for anything over 1 kilometre they cost pretty much the same as taxis. But they are a lot more fun !
South African cuisine is locally focused but also really international. Menus often consist of the usual and familiar items; steaks, pizza, pasta, hamburgers etc, but look for game dishes (always ostrich, often warthog, kudu or springbok filets or medallions), and of course traditional Cape Malay cuisine (usually a spicy mix of Indian, Indonesian and Dutch cuisine with unique ingredients like Waterblommetjies…) South African Indian cuisine is a direct reflection of India with the hottest curries and spices. Traditional tribal or bantu cuisine is ever more popular and available, and a ‘must taste’ on everyone’s dining list. Fresh fish is good, plentiful and popular especially in the coastal cities. And don’t forget the local wines and good, varied local beers as the perfect accompaniment to any dish. The country has a wealth of its own home-grown, often unique (as well as the usual international) fast food chains; try Nando’s for its peri-peri chicken, King Pie (and others) for a variety of meatpies, or the myriad of cafés, like Dulce, Brazil or News Café for great coffees, eats and pastries. Reasonably priced, local chains cover the country – steakhouses include the Spur chain; fish and seafood, the Ocean Basket or Cape Town Fish Market franchises . “Real” restaurants include the spectrum of Italian, French, German, Greek and Latino cuisine through to Turkish, Syrian and Thai. You can find almost everything. South Africans are amongst the most ardent BBQ (known as ‘braaivleis’ or simply as a ‘braai’) addicts in the world as many a waistline bears witness to. Be sure to taste a ‘braai’ – it’s very different to the ‘usual BBQ’ , including ingredients like boerewors, bredie, and potjieskos and often game meat. All to be discovered with a great deal of pleasure (and probable indigestion!).
5. SECURITY & SAFETY
The one subject that always but always come up about South Africa is the Security and Safety issue in the country. South Africa has had an extremely bad press – often well warranted – but at times also overly negative, overblown and downright misleading. Locals often don’t help the situation; one seldom stops hearing about “friends of friends” who have been mugged, robbed or assaulted – but seldom do you meet anyone personally who has. But irrespective of heresay, the fact remains; South Africa has a serious crime problem – and a poor reputation – that is of great concern to a great many visitors.
The good news is that In recent years murder rates, car-jackings and other violent and armed crimes have declined considerably. The murder rate has declined from 67 per 100,000 people in 1994–95 to 34 in 2008–09, a reduction of 50%. The annual crime statistics released in 2011 show a continuing downward trend in all serious crimes except rape, which went up by 2.1%. We can all argue about the ‘official statistics’ but South Africans generally concede that things are a lot better – or not as bad – as they were. That alone is progress.
As an interesting point of comparison, and to put things into perspective, Acapulco has a murder rate of 128 per 100.000 (4 times the South African average), New Orleans 58 (almost double the SA level); Detroit 48,5; Baltimore 31,4. Johannesburg has a murder rate below these cities and is 50th on the world’s murder list at 30,5 per 100,000. The notorious Colombian cities that have reportedly seen a big drop in their crime and murder stats are still way higher that their South African counterparts… Cali 77,9 ; Medellin 70,3 ; or Central America’s Guatemala City at 74,5! List of cities by murder rate.
Statistics are one thing – real crimes another. Visitors to South Africa are often surprised, even ‘shocked’ to see the level of security measures used in the country. Most buildings, homes and properties – in areas rich and poor, black and white, are ensconced in security walls, barbed wire and electric fencing (often submerged in creepers and vegetation to soften the effect). Many new – and older – residential developments are in gated communities with security guards, and almost every home will have its own system of security alarms as well. But in reality the situation is little different to the gated-communities that now dominate the USA and elsewhere.
South Africa’s crime problems are a result of the country’s huge income inequalities, high unemployment, under-education and poor social conditions. Recently it was reported that South Africa had overtaken Brazil as the country with the widest income inequalities in the world – hardly a title anyone would want to keep! As in Argentina or Brazil – probably the closest comparative cases – the first-world attributes of so much of South Africa are badly tarnished by the country’s 3rd world side.
Rape is a serious problem too, involving a highly disproportionate number of adolescents and children. This is often blamed on a widely and commonly held belief by many that the cure for Aids (and prevention of) lies with having sex with a virgin. Lenient prison sentences, which are only now being stiffened, usually resulted in a mere 2 year average sentence for rape and have done little to improve the situation or the outrage of this most serious of the nation’s crimes.
Car-Jackings, while having declined considerably in recent years as well, invariably involve very expensive cars, primarily in very expensive, high-priced residential areas.
Visitors should note that a huge percentage of all crime – as in the US, Europe or elsewhere – is concentrated in the low-income and poor areas of any city. It is here that murder, robberies and most of all rapes are the worst .
Without being paranoid, visitors to South Africa should basically practice exactly the same caution and wariness that they would do anywhere, with some local tips for good order. Firstly, statistically, they are a lot less likely than locals to be the victims of a crime. They are basically as unlikely – or as likely – to experience a crime as they are back home. And if they unfortunately are a victim, its generally a case of pickpocket, camera or purse theft rather than anything more serious. So keep everything battened down as you would do visiting anywhere.
As in the US and Europe, it’s often easy to know and ‘feel’ when an area is not comfortable or safe. Go with your feelings and intuitions. The tips listed below are all common-sense for everyone, they apply especially to woman travelling alone so here goes :
— Don’t go it alone if you can avoid it – especially where there are few or no other people – like a quiet, dark street at night. If you have to walk back to your place at night get someone to accompany or escort you back or order a taxi – which are highly reliable and safe.
— Don’t drive in quiet, unknown, dingy or dark parts of the city especially at night. Instead, take taxis. Most nightlife areas in the major cities are well known, defined and safe (Waterfront in Cape Town, Melrose or Sandton in Johannesburg). Stay in those areas.
— Stay at secure places, as almost all places are. Most hotels, accommodations – even hostels – will have good security, often with doormen, key card entry, walls, gates, and/or fences. Check things out when you arrive – if you are not satisfied, or the area isn’t to your taste, don’t stay there. Try and always get a room or reception safe in which to leave your valuables.
— Learn about the local area and potential dangers, if any, at the place you are visiting. Take a little time to find out from your hotel, guesthouse or hostel staff about what actions to take , places to avoid or not, where you can walk to – and where you cannot. They’ll know well the situation in the local area.
— If you visit a township (and you must !) go with a guide, preferably privately or on an organised tour. Townships are generally pretty safe, lively, throbbing with African life and spirit. But certain sections can also be dangerous. Your guide will know the scene – and you will be greeted with open arms by the locals.
— It is perfectly safe to drive anywhere in the country. I would not dream of driving in Peru, Bolivia or even northern Mexico let alone Brazil, but driving in South Africa is a pleasure and the finest way to see the country. The road system is extensive, excellent and safe. In fact it’s a lot more fun than driving ‘back home’ . Signposts are good, and on major roads services and petrol stops efficient, clean (and safe) with full toilet and restaurant facilities. On the road practice the same caution you would back home – avoid picking up hitch-hikers, no matter what. Keep the doors locked and windows up especially in ‘questionable’ areas. Avoid seedy, rundown areas when you come into a city, especially at night – and hide your valuables and lock the car at any stops.
— When parking, use secure paid parking, or alternatively street or public parking manned by identified ‘parking attendants’ who will help find you a place, and look after the car while you are away, in exchange for a few Rand when you get back.
— Panhandlers can at times be persistent, rarely aggressive . But often it’s easier to help them out than not, just to be hassle-free… So keep a few Rand separately and easily accessible for such situations. After all they have so little and we have so much ..no matter how you look at it. Do NOT haul out a bulging wallet or purse and start fiddling through it for a few coins.
— Public transport , particularly in the Cape Town area is generally very safe during rush and daylight hours. If you have to use trains or buses after the evening rush-hour do so with a couple of others, not alone – or take a mini-bus, rikksi or taxi. As everywhere, keep your guard up for pickpockets, bag snatchers etc at all times on public transport or in public and crowded places. Most of the other large cities (Johannesburg, Durban etc) are so extensive and spread-out, distances so vast, that public transport is of little value. In these cities stick to the mini-buses (if you can understand the routes..) or to the rikksis and taxis .
— If you go on safari, listen to your guide! Many safari ‘bakkies’ are totally open and safe – but that means taking and listening to a few important rules. Don’t ever get out of the vehicle unless you have explicit permission to do so. Don’t stand up, either no matter what you want to see or photograph – a very important fact as many predatory animals have poor eyesight but know and are comfortable with the ‘silhouette’. Break the silhouette and the animal often takes fright – or attacks.
— If you do your own drives through the numerous National Parks, never get out or leave the car except at designated spots (game viewing platforms etc) And do NOT feed the baboons – at Cape Point or anywhere else in the country. Besides that feeding them is ‘bad’ for the animals, baboons are dangerous, incredibly powerful and strong, temperamental and can be extremely viscous. Keep as far away from them as you can – very difficult at times – and don’t encourage or entice them. Believe it or not – the bush can be and often is, a lot more dangerous than the cities!
— Above all, don’t let safety concerns keep you away from South Africa. That would be a real Crime !!!
6. Historical Tidbits, Trivia, and Tips
A visit to South Africa is magic, familiar, enlightening, uplifting, stimulating, adventurous, and awesome. At times it can also be banal, unfamiliar, heart-wrenching and even disconcerting or disappointing. But it is always and continually a terrific emotional experience, a crazy mixed up bag of everything that makes up life on the ‘edge’. The place is a bazaar of fabulous sights, authentic experiences, cultural treasures, extreme adventures, urban vibe, a wild and natural paradise – and, not least – of fascinating history crammed with little known sagas and events second to none anywhere. So many of the developments and tragedies of this country, despite their importance, won’t be found in our “western’ history books. Things you may not know about South Africa:
– the Zulu nation fought and held off the British Empire and its power for close to 40 years in the mid-1800s. A rather humbling experience for the Brits, who could never recognize the “worlds’ mightiest fighting machine” for what it was. Even after being finally beaten, the Zulu refused to serve as labour in the sugar plantations, forcing the British to import ‘indentured’ labour from India – thus initiating the large Indian community in KwaZulu-Natal.
– towards the end of the 19th Century, the British invaded the Boer Transvaal republic in an attempted takeover of its vast, newly discovered gold reserves, leading to the Boer War. Once again the entire British Empire and 250.000 British and Colonial troops were kept on the run for 4 years by 60.000 Boers on horseback… another very humiliating experience. The Brits won after initiating their own version of, yes, concentration camps! Interned Boer women, children and their servants, under terrible conditions, were left to suffer the very efficient ravages of malnutrition, cholera and typhus. The Boer War was Britain’s own ‘Vietnam’ and is often cited as the ‘beginning of the end’ of the British Empire. At the time, it marked the psyche of Britain like no other war before. Almost every British, Canadian, Australian and NZ town and city has a prominent memorial to the Boer War.
Postscript: Just 8 years after Peace was made, Britain handed South Africa – and Boers – their Independence.
– the largest man-made ‘hole’ in the world – dug entirely by hand – is the “Big Hole” in Kimberley. Mined between 1860 and 1914. It produced 2.622 kilograms (14,6 million carats) of diamonds. The hole has a surface area of 17 hectares, a 1,6 kilometer perimeter, and is 240 meters in depth (with over 50 meters of accumulated water at the bottom.) Kimberley is also reputed to be the first city in the world illuminated by electric streetlights.
– Johannesburg, with over 6 million trees, has the largest “urban forest” in the world.
– Afrikaans, derived from old Dutch (with healthy inputs from other Bantu languages) is the only European language “born and bred” on the African Continent. Today, despite the political turmoil once surrounding its use, it is one of the most widely spoken languages in the country, being the mother-tongue of the 6 million ‘coloureds’ (mulattos) as well as approximately 70% of the 5 million whites.
– Everywhere one will hear languages other than English (which is only the 5th most widely spoken language in the country – after Zulu, Xhosa, Afrikaans and Sotho). But English is used as the lingua franca throughout the country and all signs, publicity etc are usually in English – often alongside another of the languages. Most South Africans are multilingual, often in several languages. Most speak Afrikaans and English and increasingly the white and coloureds are learning Xhosa, Zulu or another bantu language depending upon where they live in the country.
– In addition to the broad accent in which it is spoken, South African English has been heavily influenced by Afrikaans, as well as the Bantu languages. Some common words and expressions – “Ja” (Yes), “Bakkie” (pickup truck); “Koppie” (hill, usually rocky); “lekker’ (nice, sweet); “Oke” (a guy, type); “robot” (traffic-light); “Takkies” (running, tennis shoes); “Tsotsi” (delinquant); “Mealies” (maize, sweetcorn); “Howzit” (greeting used for all occasions) “Izit” (for sure, true, of course); “‘Braavleis” or “braai” (BBQ).
– South African service (petrol) stations still have attendants (Hooray!), several of whom will usually greet you, fill the tank, check the oil, water and tires, clean the windows – and expect a small tip on top of the bill. Usually a few rand is more than enough and well appreciated.
– In smaller towns, resort centers and many cities there are also parking attendants, usually well identified, who will help find a place and then look after the car while you are away. Payments are not fixed but should roughly reflect the time used. Usually 3 to 5 Rand is greeted with profuse gratitude!
7. PLACES TO SEE
Cape Town (and surrounding area)
Increasingly, Cape Town is the first destination of visitors to South Africa. As the country’s oldest city (1652), and with one of the world’s most iconic and spectacular physical settings at the foot of Table Mountain and the northern end of the beautiful Cape Peninsula, this multicultural, cosmopolitan “Mother City” of 4,6 million is at the centre of the nation’s rich, multi-stranded history and heritage, offering a wealth of culinary experiences, unique shopping and – not least – a palette of activities and adventures second to none.
See a detailed guide to Cape Town HERE.
The Garden Route & Little Karoo
Two distinct geographic regions in South Africa’s Western Cape. The Garden Route lines the coast and is characterized by magnificent white sand beaches and dunes on one side and the impressive Outeniqua and Tsitsikamma Mountains on the other. With a mild yet sunny climate, it is one of the most popular regions for tourists. Across the mountain ranges, in the interior, is the Little Karoo; a semi-desert of open spaces, mountains, wine lands, and ostrich farms.
See a detailed guide to the Garden Route and the Little Karoo HERE.
Eastern Cape Province (and the Transkei)
A huge province covering 1000 km of coastline from the Western Cape up to Kwazulu-Natal Province. An off-the-beaten-path destination featuring wild coastlines and unique cultural activities not found anywhere else.
See a detailed guide to the Eastern Cape Province HERE.
Kwazula-Natal Province (including Durban)
A popular province among travelers due to it’s tropical climate, great beaches, fantastic National Parks, and unique Zulu culture.
See a detailed guide to Kwazula-Natal Province HERE.
Gauteng Province (including Johannesburg and Pretoria)
South Africa’s most urban and populated province containing its largest cities (Johannesburg and Pretoria). It’s an area tourists tend to associate with the worse aspects of South Africa – but reading the attached may convince you (as it did me) that the region is worth a visit.
See a detailed guide to Gauteng Province HERE.
Mpumalanga Province (including Kruger NP and Blyde River Canyon)
Mpumalanga Province, a popular region among tourists, principally for its incredible wildlife and geography.
See a detailed guide to Mpumalanga Province HERE.
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