Discover South Africa
South Africa is truly an enigma. Vastly multicultural and quite a significant journey from anywhere else, it sits on the southern tip of Africa. This is where the Atlantic and Indian oceans come together to provide more than 2,500 km of amazing coastline. The interior also boasts an incredible mixture of forests, lakes, plains and mountains, ready and waiting for the more adventurous traveller to enjoy.
Johannesburg is the largest city, but Cape Town may be the most well-known on the south-western coastline. South Africa borders six other countries including Zimbabwe and Namibia. It’s two hours ahead of UTC in the South African Standard Time zone.
The South African people love to welcome tourists to the country and this is one of their main industries. You’ll find them to be very accommodating and friendly, although they are “straight to the point” and some people can be initially offended. If they offer you a gift when you arrive, remember to accept it with both hands as this is seen as a more authentic gesture. Don’t be surprised if you see somebody hissing at you, as this is the traditional way to get somebody’s attention.
When to Visit South Africa
When is the best time to visit? South Africa has a typically dry climate, with temperatures that are consistent throughout the year. For example, in Johannesburg it may go as low as 4°C in the winter time (remember June through August, south of the Equator), but daytime temperatures should always be around the mid ‘20s through all seasons. If you want to go on safari, then May to September is recommended, as this is when the wild animals typically gather around the waterholes in dry season. It’s a very large country, so tailor your travel dates according to the expected weather at your particular destination.
Intercity travel is typically fairly good with a modern network of flights, taxis and rental car companies openly awaiting. However, once you get off the more beaten track then public transport may be fairly sparse, so a rental car or a tour guide is required in these circumstances.
Australians visiting South Africa do not need a visa for a stay of up to 3 months, although some of the rules surrounding travel have recently changed and it’s a good idea to check before you go. You will find English is spoken in all the major destinations, but there are four languages prevalent in the country, with Zulu being the most common.
When you go out at night, the legal drinking age is 18 and tipping is widely accepted, with up to 15% being normal. In South Africa, remember to drive on the left-hand side of the road and bring adapters with you for electrical devices.
Experience South Africa
Like variety? You will love South Africa. This is a very dynamic destination, where culture and heritage combine to provide unique experiences. It is of course very famous for its varied wildlife, but the landscape is breathtaking, the cuisine appetising and enticing, and the people most welcoming.
Four key cities are worthy of your time. Johannesburg, also known as Jo’Burg, is where most of the entertainment options can be found, while Durban is a beachfront destination very famous for its mile-long promenade. This city is also famous for its curries, the large number of restaurants along the seashore, and its surfing.
Pretoria is the cultural “hub” of South Africa, where you will come across a great sporting and arts scene. If you like museums and monuments, you should give yourself plenty of time to explore here. But maybe the most famous of all cities is Cape Town, known as the “mother city.” Its reputation for beauty is well earned and you will instantly recognise the iconic Table mountain, the harbour, and famous beaches.
Things to See and Do in South Africa
You’ve simply got to go on safari when you travel here and put the Kruger National Park on your list. Here you can expect to see all of the exotic African wildlife like giraffes, hippos, elephants, rhinos, zebras and lions. This expansive park covers more than 20,000 km² and you will be able to take a variety of different guided tours to see all these creatures. The park also has an extensive range of well-kept roads, allowing you to rent a car and explore by yourself.
Going underground, explore the Cango Caves. This system stretches for more than 4 km, with amazing rock formations, lofty ceilings and limestone caverns. This is one of the older tourist attractions here and caters for everybody from the timid to the brave. You can take part in a guided tour through the bigger chambers, or find yourself trying to squeeze through tiny passages as part of a more adventurous group.
If you want to get away from the masses, consider walking along the Wild Coast. Here you will find some welcoming lodges and deserted beaches, where you can spot dolphins playing off the shoreline. The native people live in mud huts here, dotted around the hillside, but you can also take part in a more modern sporting activity, by playing a round of golf with the Indian Ocean as a backdrop.
If you like driving, you will love South Africa’s Garden Route. It covers an amazing variety of landscapes, with wildlife aplenty as you drive between Plettenburg and Mossel Bay. Expect to come across ancient forests; take to a kayak to go upriver for some birdwatching, or explore the pristine beaches. There is an extensive range of interior lakes and deep water lagoons and you can even walk through the treetops via a special elevated walkway.
Cape Town is home to the famous Table Mountain. This is a national park which you can easily access via an aerial cableway. If you’re feeling more energetic, you can hike to the top as well and enjoy an abseil adventure. There are some amazing and unique plants on top, as well as fascinating wildlife. You’ll be able to get a great view of the bay and the city below and explore some shops and restaurants.
If you like wine, you’re in luck. South Africa has many of the oldest commercial wineries in the world and a number of different tours called “wine routes” that deal in food, wine, history and culture. There’s a lot of French influence in this area too, with more than 200 individual producers dotted around the Franschhoek Valley and Stellenbosch.
What to Eat
There are plenty of unique culinary gems to whet your appetite here. For example, why not try a loaf of bread that’s been hollowed out and filled with beef or lamb curry? You could try a special form of meatloaf called “boboti” which has spice and curry seasoning, but is topped off with a type of custard.
Many different types of meat are typically thrown onto the barbecue and roasted over a charcoal fire, while guests gather around. Ask for “braaivleis” if you want to try this out. You could be more adventurous and ask for warthog or ostrich meat too.
One of South Africa’s most famous sons was famously kept in prison for 18 years on Robben Island. The late Nelson Mandela, the previous president of the country, was held in isolation in what is now a World Heritage Site. This island is several kilometres off the coast near Cape Town and became notorious for housing political prisoners in troubled times. You can see where Mandela was held as an inmate and you can also get personal insights, as many of the tour guides are former prisoners. They will be able to give you an amazing range of colourful stories about their time here.
Adventure is front and centre in South Africa. You can go diving with sharks, although you will be protected by a cage, of course. The Great White is a sight to behold and this kind of adventure may not be for the fainthearted!
Back on land, you’ve simply got to ride on top of an ostrich. Enterprising farmers have set up farms that allow tourists to go out for a ride, just as you would if you were renting a bicycle.
If you truly are a thrillseeker, you will find the highest bungee jump in the world at the Blourans Bridge. You will be jumping from the bridge more than 200 m down towards the river underneath, so good luck!
Staying Safe While Travelling In South Africa
It’s unfortunate that South Africa has quite a reputation for danger, due to the levels of violent crime that may be encountered. While government warnings and advisories should never be ignored, of course, it would be a shame if they put you off your visit completely. As a consequence, remember that the vast majority of tourists who take precautions and are always aware of their surroundings will have an enjoyable and trouble-free visit.
It’s always advisable for you to stick to official tours and go to locations that are especially designed for the tourist trade. In doing so, you’re very unlikely to come across any of the violent crime that may be more prevalent in townships outside these areas. You shouldn’t walk alone along the streets at night anywhere, however, and always plan to take a licensed taxi either way. It is advisable not to take public transportation in the cities if you are travelling by yourself and keep at arm’s length at all times from any strangers, no matter how friendly they may outwardly appear. Don’t come across as being a tourist by walking around with an unfolded map and a camera around your neck and don’t show off large amounts of money or expensive jewellery items, either.
It’s never advisable to pick up any hitchhikers or to stop to help motorists who seem to be stranded, as these are often tactics used by carjackers. If you can, carry two wallets with you in different pockets, one containing a small amount of money that you can give away to muggers if you are unfortunate enough to be accosted.
It’s best if you only use ATM machines that are located in banks, or hotels. Tampering is fairly widespread and you should always be aware of a vendor who might want to swipe your credit card on two separate machines. One of these may be a skimming device. Never submit to people who introduce themselves as “tourist police.” They may ask to search your luggage and you may find yourself deprived of some valuables. Once again, never give the outward appearance that you are a tourist and try and blend in as much as possible.
There is a high level of crime at Johannesburg’s International airport, unfortunately. Employees have been known to steal valuables that are put into checked-in bags. You should put any of these valuables into your carry-on luggage instead. When you arrive, make sure that you have a rental car booked from a reputable agency, or only use a licensed taxi service to take you to your hotel. Be aware that certain criminal parties may seek to follow tourists who are just arriving from a tiring, international flight.
Expect very high quality medical centres in the major destinations, but be aware that this may not be the case in other places. You need to show proof of insurance or pay upfront for any treatment and understand that you might need a Medivac to the city if you’re in a remote place.
Health and Safety
While tapwater in the cities may be all right to drink, you should get into the habit of drinking only bottled water. Ask your doctor before you travel to see if you need any vaccinations before you go, as remote places will have higher risks of diseases such as cholera or hepatitis.
South Africa is renowned for its wildlife and you will come across many creatures wherever you go. It’s always a good idea to stay inside the car with your windows up and never be tempted to interact with animals, no matter how “cute” they may appear.
You will need a certain sense of adventure and bravery if you’re going to rent a car for extensive driving in South Africa. The standards are very poor and aggressive and it can be difficult to manoeuvre your way through the unpredictable city streets. Don’t drive at night, especially in rural areas as you’ll frequently come across animals and even people in the middle of the roadway. Also, be aware of carjacking, especially in Johannesburg, and give yourself plenty of room when stopped at any traffic lights in case you have to manoeuvre away quickly.