South Africa is a large, diverse and incredibly beautiful country. The size of France and Spain combined, and roughly twice the size of Texas, it varies from the picturesque Garden Route towns of the Western Cape to the raw subtropical coast of northern KwaZulu-Natal, with the vast Karoo semi-desert across its heart and one of Africa’s premier safari destinations, Kruger National Park, in the northeast. It’s also one of the great cultural meeting points of the African continent, a fact obscured by decades of enforced racial segregation, but now manifest in the big cities.
Many visitors are pleasantly surprised by South Africa’s excellent infrastructure, which draws favourable comparison with countries such as Australia or the United States. Good air links and bus networks, excellent roads and a growing number of first-class B&Bs and guesthouses make South Africa a perfect touring country. For those on a budget, mushrooming backpacker hostels and backpacker buses provide cost-efficient means of exploring the vast number of places to visit.
Yet, despite all these facilities, South Africa is also something of an enigma; after nearly two decades of non-racial democracy, the “rainbow nation” is still struggling to find its identity. Apartheid may be dead, but its heritage still shapes South Africa in a very physical way. Nowhere is this more evident than in the layout of towns and cities; the African areas – generally poor – are usually tucked out of sight.
South Africa’s population doesn’t reduce simply to black and white. The majority are Africans (79.5 percent of the population); whites make up nine percent, followed by coloureds (just under nine percent) – the descendants of white settlers, slaves and Africans, who speak English and Afrikaans and comprise the majority in the Western Cape. The rest (2.5 percent), resident mainly in KwaZulu-Natal, are descendants of Indians, who came to South Africa at the beginning of the twentieth century as indentured labourers.
Even these statistics don’t tell the whole story. A better indication of South Africa’s diversity is the plethora of official languages, most of which represent a distinct culture with rural roots in different parts of the country. In each region you’ll see distinct styles of architecture, craftwork and sometimes dress. Perhaps more exciting still are the cities, where the whole country comes together in an alchemical blend of rural and urban, traditional and thoroughly modern.
Crime isn’t the indiscriminate phenomenon that press reports suggest, but it is an issue. Really, it’s a question of perspective – taking care but not becoming paranoid. Statistically, the odds of becoming a victim are highest in downtown Johannesburg, where violent crime is a daily reality. Other cities present a reduced risk – similar to, say, some parts of the United States.
While you could circuit South Africa in a matter of weeks, a more satisfying approach is to focus on one section of the country. Each of the nine provinces has compelling reasons to visit, although, depending on the time of year and your interests, you’d be wise to concentrate on either the west or the east.
The west, best visited in the warmer months (Nov–April), has the outstanding attraction of Cape Town, worth experiencing for its matchless setting beneath Table Mountain. Half a day’s drive from here can take you to any other destination in the Western Cape, a province that owes its distinctive character to the longest-established colonial heritage in the country. You’ll find gabled Cape Dutch architecture, historic towns and vineyard-covered mountains in the Winelands; forested coast along the Garden Route; and a dry interior punctuated by Afrikaner dorps (towns) in the Little Karoo.
If the west sounds too pretty and you’re after a more “African” experience, head for the eastern flank of the country, best visited in the cooler months (May–Oct). Johannesburg is likely to be your point of entry to this area: its frenetic street life, soaring office blocks and lively mix of people make it quite unlike anywhere else in the country. Half a day away by car lie Limpopo and Mpumalanga provinces, which share the mighty Kruger National Park. Of South Africa’s roughly two dozen major parks, Kruger is unrivalled on the continent for its cross section of mammal species.
A visit to Kruger combines perfectly with KwaZulu-Natal to the south, itself offering superb game and birdlife; Hluhluwe-Imfolozi Park is the best place in the world to see endangered rhinos, and there are several other outstanding small game reserves nearby, such as Ithala, Mkhuze and Ndumo. For hiking and nature, the high point of the province – literally – is the soaring Drakensberg, half a day’s drive from Durban. After Cape Town, Durban remains the only city in South Africa worth visiting in its own right: a busy cultural melting pot with a bustling Indian district and lively beachfront. The long stretch of beaches north and south of Durban is the most developed in the country, but north towards the Mozambique border lies South Africa’s wildest stretch of coast. Across the mountain kingdom of Lesotho from KwaZulu-Natal lies the staunchly Afrikaner heartland of Free State.
Long sandy beaches, developed only in pockets, are characteristic of much of the 2798km of shoreline that curves from the cool Atlantic along the Northern Cape round to the subtropical Indian Ocean that foams onto KwaZulu-Natal’s shores. Much of the Eastern Cape coast is hugely appealing: for strolling, sunbathing or simply taking in backdrops of mountains and hulking sand dunes. Scuba diving, especially in KwaZulu-Natal, opens up a world of coral reefs rich with colourful fish, and, south of the Western Cape winelands, along the Whale Coast, is one of South Africa’s major wildlife attractions – some of the best shore-based whale-watching in the world.
With time in hand, you might want to drive through the sparse but exhilarating interior, with its open horizons, switchback mountain passes, rocks, scrubby vegetation and isolated dorps. The Northern Cape and North West Province can reveal surprises, such as the Martian landscapes of the Richtersveld and the lion country of the remote but thrilling Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park.
South Africa is predominantly sunny, but when it does get cold you feel it, since everything is geared to fine weather. Midwinter in the southern hemisphere (the reverse of the north) is in June and July, and midsummer is during December and January, when the country shuts down for its annual holiday. The best time to visit depends on where you’re going and what you’re planning to see.
South Africa has distinct climatic zones. In Cape Town and the Garden Route coastal belt, summers tend to be warm, mild and unpredictable; rain can fall at any time of the year and winter days can be cold and wet. Many Capetonians regard March to May as the perfect time to visit, when the winds drop; it’s beautifully mild and the tourists have gone. Subtropical KwaZulu-Natal has warm, sunny winters and tepid seas; in common with the Lesotho highlands, the province’s Drakensberg range has misty days in summer and mountain snow in winter. Johannesburg and Pretoria lie on the highveld plateau and have a near-perfect climate; summer days are hot and frequently broken by dramatic thunder showers; winters are dry with chilly nights. East of Johannesburg, the lowveld, the low-lying wedge along the Mozambique border that includes the Kruger National Park and much of Swaziland, is subject to similar summer and winter rainfall patterns to the highveld, but experiences far greater extremes of temperature because of its considerably lower altitude.
- South Africa has a population of 51 million and eleven official languages: Zulu, Xhosa, Afrikaans, Pedi, English, Ndebele, Sotho, Setswana, siSwati, Venda and Tsonga.
- The country is a multiparty democracy, the head of state being President Jacob Zuma. Parliament sits in Cape Town, the legislative capital, while Pretoria is the executive capital, from where the president and his cabinet run the country. Each of the nine provinces has its own government.
- The highest point in South Africa is Njesuthi, in the Drakensberg, at 3408m. The highest point in Lesotho and Southern Africa is also in the Drakensberg: Thabana Ntlenyana, at 3482m.
- South African President Jacob Zuma’s three-spouse household is modest compared to the fourteen-wife ménage of Swazi King Msawati; King Letsie of Lesotho has been married just once.
- Nelson Mandela’s wife, Graca Machel, who was previously married to the late president of Mozambique, Samora Machel, is the only woman to have been first lady of two different countries.
Despite the large distances, travelling around most of South Africa is fairly straightforward, with a reasonably well-organized network of public transport, a good range of car rental companies, the best road system in Africa, and the continent’s most comprehensive network of internal flights. The only weak point is public transport in urban areas, which is almost universally poor and often dangerous. Urban South Africans who can afford to do so tend to use private transport, and if you plan to spend much time in any one town, this is an option seriously worth considering. It’s virtually impossible to get to the national parks and places off the beaten track by public transport; even if you do manage, you’re likely to need a car once you’re there.
South Africa’s three established intercity bus companies are Greyhound (083 915 9000, http://www.greyhound.co.za), Intercape (086 128 7287, http://www.intercape.co.za) and Translux (086 158 9282, http://www.translux.co.za); between them, they reach most towns in the country. Travel on these buses is safe, good value and comfortable, and the vehicles are usually equipped with air conditioning and toilets. Fares vary according to distance covered and time of year, with peak fares corresponding approximately to school holidays; at other times you can expect about thirty percent off. As a rough indication, you can expect to pay the following fares from Cape Town: to Paarl, R185; Mossel Bay, R225; Port Elizabeth, R315; East London, R400; Mthatha, R470; Durban, R535; and Johannesburg R575.
Translux, Greyhound and Intercape also operate the no-frills budget buslines City to City, Cityliner and Budgetliner, whose schedules and prices are listed on their main websites.
Baz Bus (021 21 422 5202, http://www.bazbus.com) operates an extremely useful hop-on/hop-off system aimed at backpackers and budget travellers, with intercity buses stopping off at backpacker accommodation en route. Its services run up and down the coast in both directions between Cape Town and Port Elizabeth (1 daily), and between Port Elizabeth and Durban (5 weekly). Inland, it runs buses between Durban and Johannesburg (5 weekly). A number of independently run shuttle services connect with Baz services and go in the Western Cape to: Stellenbosch, Hermanus and Oudtshoorn; in the Eastern Cape to: Hogsback, Coffee Bay, Mpande and Port St Johns; in KwaZulu-Natal to: additional points in Durban, Southern Drakensberg, Southbroom; and in Gauteng to Pretoria. In addition to the website, tickets can also be bought through hostels or the Baz offices at Cape Town and Durban’s central tourist offices.
Minibus taxis provide transport to two-thirds of South Africans, travelling absolutely everywhere in the country, covering relatively short hops from town to town, commuter trips from township to town and back, and routes within larger towns and cities. However, the problems associated with them – unroadworthy vehicles, dangerous drivers and violent feuds between the different taxi associations competing for custom – mean that you should take local advice before using them. This is particularly true in cities, where minibus taxi ranks tend to be a magnet for petty criminals. The other problem with minibus taxis is that there is rarely much room to put luggage. However, despite the drawbacks, don’t rule out using this form of transport altogether. In 2005 the government began a seven-year programme of replacing the country’s creaking taxi fleet with new vehicles, which has at least improved the comfort and safety of many of the vehicles. Short of renting a car, minibus taxis will often be your only option for getting around in remote areas, where you’re unlikely to encounter trouble. You should, however, be prepared for some long waits, due to their infrequency.
Fares are low and comparable to what you might pay on the inexpensive intercity buses. Try to have the exact change (on shorter journeys particularly), and pass your fare to the row of passengers in front of you; eventually all the fares end up with the conductor, who dishes out any change.
It’s advisable to ask locals which taxi routes are safe to use.
Travelling by train is just about the slowest way of getting around South Africa: the journey from Johannesburg to Cape Town, for example, takes 29 hours – compared with 19 hours by bus. Overnighting on the train, though, is more comfortable than the bus and does at least save you the cost of accommodation en route. Families with children get their own private compartment on the train, and under-5s travel free.
The Passenger Rail Agency of South Africa (Prasa) runs most of the intercity rail services. Its standard service, Shosholoza Meyl (t086 000 8888, wshosholoza-meyl.co.za), offers Tourist Class travel in two- or four-person compartments equipped with washbasins. The seats are comfortable and convert into bunks; you can rent sheets and blankets for the night (R40 per person), which are brought around by a bedding attendant who’ll make up your bed in the evening. It’s best to buy your bedding voucher when you book your train ticket. Services run between Johannesburg and Cape Town, Port Elizabeth and Durban, as well as between Cape Town and Durban.
Prasa also runs the twice-weekly, upmarket air-conditioned Premier Classe (086 000 8888, http://www.premierclasse.co.za) service between Johannesburg and Cape Town, and Johannesburg and Durban. The trains offer a choice of single, double, triple and four-person compartments, with gowns and toiletries provided, and four-course lunches and five-course dinners served in a luxury dining car – all included in the fare.
The fare from Johannesburg to Cape Town in Premier Classe is R2210 per person (roughly half that to Durban). Tourist Class fares range from roughly R300 per person from Johannesburg to Durban (the shortest route) and R740 from Cape Town to Durban (the longest route) but vary slightly depending on the time of year. Tickets must be booked in advance at train stations or online.
South Africa offers a handful of luxury trains, worth considering if you want to travel in plush surroundings and don’t mind paying through the nose for the privilege. The celebrated Blue Train (http://www.bluetrain.co.za) runs between Cape Town and Pretoria; fares start at R10,930 per person, sharing a double berth for the 29-hour journey. Passengers must be dressed in “smart casual” clothes during the day, and appear in formal wear for the evening meal. Bookings can be made through the website, with Blue Train’s central reservations in Pretoria (012 334 8459) or through the Cape Town reservations office (021 449 2672).
Another luxury rail option is offered by Rovos Rail (Cape Town 021 421 4020; Pretoria 012 315 8242; http://www.rovos.co.za), which runs trips between Pretoria and Cape Town (from R12,000), Durban (R12,000) and Victoria Falls in Zimbabwe (R13,750), at three levels of luxury, with prices to match.
A word of warning about security on trains: as thieves work the stations, especially around Gauteng, don’t leave your valuables unattended in your compartment unless you have some way of locking it, and make sure you close the window if leaving the carriage for a while, even if it is locked.
Flying between destinations in South Africa is an attractive option if time is short. It also compares favourably with the cost of covering long distances in a rental car, stopping over at places en route, and, with several competing budget airlines, you can sometimes pick up good deals.
By far the biggest airline offering domestic flights is South African Airways (SAA), with its two associates SA Airlink and SA Express (reservations for the three go through SAA). SAA’s main direct competitor is British Airways Comair, but there are also the no-frills budget airlines: Kulula, Velvet Sky and Mango, which have more limited networks than the big airlines, but generally offer better deals on the major routes.
On SAA and its associates, you can pick up a one-way tourist-class fare for under R1000 from Johannesburg to Cape Town or from Cape Town to Durban. On the Johannesburg to Cape Town route you’ll generally pick up fares for around R700 on the budget airlines provided you book well ahead and sometimes for as little as half that when there are special offers.
Short of joining a tour, the only way to get to national parks and the more remote coastal areas is by car. Likewise, some of the most interesting places off the beaten track are only accessible in your own vehicle, as buses tend to ply just the major routes.
South Africa is ideal for driving, with a generally well-maintained network of highways and a high proportion of secondary and tertiary roads that are tarred and can be driven at speed. Renting a vehicle is not prohibitively expensive and, for a small group, it can work out to be a cheap option.
Filling stations are frequent on the major routes of the country, and usually open 24 hours. Off the beaten track, though, stations are less frequent, so fill up whenever you get the chance. Stations are rarely self-service; instead, poorly paid attendants fill up your car, check oil, water and tyre pressure if you ask them to, and often clean your windscreen even if you don’t. A tip of R5 or so is always appreciated.
Parking is pretty straightforward, but due to the high levels of car break-ins, attendants, known as “car guards”, are present virtually anywhere you’ll find parking, for example at shopping malls. You’re not obliged to give them anything, but a tip of R2–5 (depending on how long you’ve been parked) is generally appreciated.
Rules of the road and driving tips
Foreign driving licences are valid in South Africa for up to six months provided they are printed in English. If you don’t have such a licence, you’ll need to get an International Driving Permit (available from national motoring organizations) before arriving in South Africa. When driving, you are obliged by law to carry your driving licence and (unless you’re a South African resident) your passport (or certified copies) at all times, although in reality, in the very rare event of your being stopped, the police will probably let you off with a warning if you’re not carrying the required documents.
South Africans drive on the left-hand side of the road; speed limits range from 60km/h in built-up areas to 100km/h on rural roads and 120km/h on highways and major arteries. In addition to roundabouts, which follow the British rule of giving way to the right, there are four-way stops, where the rule is that the person who got there first leaves first. Note that traffic lights are called robots in South Africa.
The only real challenge you’ll face on the roads is other drivers. South Africa has among the world’s worst road accident statistics – the result of recklessness, drunken drivers and unroadworthy, overloaded vehicles. Keep your distance from cars in front, as domino-style pile-ups are common. Watch out also for overtaking traffic coming towards you: overtakers often assume that you will head for the hard shoulder to avoid an accident (it is legal to drive on the hard shoulder, but be careful as pedestrians frequently use it). If you do pull into the hard shoulder to let a car overtake, the other driver will probably thank you by flashing the hazard lights. If oncoming cars flash their headlights at you, it probably means that there is a speed trap up ahead.
Another potential hazard is animals on the road in rural areas; this can be especially dangerous at night, so drive slowly at that time. Also, the large distances between major towns mean that falling asleep at the wheel, especially when travelling through long stretches of flat landscape in the Karoo or the Free State, is a real danger. Plan your car journeys to include breaks and stopovers. Finally, in urban areas, there’s a small risk of being car-jacked; see safety hints.
Prebooking your rental car with a travel agent before flying out is the cheapest option, and will provide more favourable terms and conditions (such as unlimited mileage and lower insurance excesses). Don’t rely on being able to just arrive at the airport and pick up a vehicle without reserving in advance as rental firms do run out of cars, especially during the week.
As a rough guideline, for a one-week rental you can expect to pay from R250 a day (with a R7000 insurance excess) including two hundred free kilometres a day. Most companies stipulate that drivers must be a minimum age of 23 and must have been driving for two years at least. Note that to collect your vehicle, you will need to produce a credit (not debit) card.
The advantage of renting through major companies is that you don’t have to return the car to where you hired it, but can deposit it in some other major centre instead – though rental companies usually levy a charge for this. If you’re planning to drive into Lesotho and Swaziland, check that the company allows it – some don’t. Insurance often doesn’t cover you if you drive on unsealed roads, so check for this too. Local firms are almost always cheaper than chains, but usually have restrictions on how far you can take the vehicle.
Camper vans and 4WD vehicles equipped with rooftop tents can be a good idea for getting to remote places where accommodation is scarce. Expect to pay from R1000 a day for a vehicle that sleeps two. Some companies offer standby rates that knock fifteen to twenty percent off the price if you book at short notice (one week or less in advance). Vans come fully equipped with crockery, cutlery and linen and usually a toilet. The downside of camper vans and 4WDs is that they struggle up hills and guzzle a lot of fuel (15 litres per 100km in the smaller vans), which could partly offset any savings on accommodation.
It’s easy to see why cycling is popular in South Africa: you can get to stunning destinations on good roads unclogged by traffic, many towns have decent cycle shops for spares and equipment, and an increasing number of backpacker hostels rent out mountain bikes for reasonable rates, making it easy to do plenty of cycling without having to transport your bike into the country. You’ll need to be fit though, as South Africa is a hilly place, and many roads have punishing gradients. The weather can make life difficult, too: if it isn’t raining, there is a good chance of it being very hot, so carry plenty of liquids. Cycling on the main intercity roads is not recommended.
Generally speaking, hitching in most areas of South Africa is not a good idea, particularly in large towns and cities. Even in rural areas it’s risky and, while you might encounter wonderful hospitality and interesting companions, it’s generally advisable not to hitch at all.
If you must hitchhike, avoid hitching alone and being dropped off in isolated areas between dorps (small towns). Ask drivers where they are going before you say where you want to go, and keep your bags with you: having them locked in the boot makes a hasty escape more difficult. Check the notice boards in backpacker lodges for people offering or looking to share lifts – that way, you can meet the driver in advance.
South Africa doesn’t really have a coherent indigenous cuisine, although attempts have been made to elevate Cape Cuisine to this status. The one element that seems to unite the country is a love of meat. It’s also well worth paying attention to South Africa’s vast array of seafood, which includes a wide variety of fish, lobster (crayfish), oysters and mussels. Locally grown fruit and vegetables are generally of a high standard.
There is no great tradition of street food and people on the move tend to pick up a pie or chicken and chips from one of the fast-food chains. Drinking is dominated by South Africa’s often superb wines and by a handful of unmemorable lagers. In the cities, and to a far lesser extent beyond them, there are numerous excellent restaurants where you can taste a spectrum of international styles.
Breakfast, lunch and dinner
South Africa’s daily culinary timetable follows the British model. Most B&Bs, hotels and guesthouses serve a breakfast of eggs with bacon and usually some kind of sausage. Muesli, fruit, yoghurt, croissants and pastries are also becoming increasingly popular. Lunch is eaten around 1pm and dinner in the evening around 7pm or 8pm; the two can be pretty much interchangeable as far as the menu goes, usually along the lines of meat, chicken or fish and veg: in fact, any of the dishes mentioned here.
Styles of cooking
Traditional African food tends to focus around stiff grain porridge called mielie pap or pap (pronounced: “pup”), made of maize meal and accompanied by meat or vegetable-based sauces. Among white South Africans, Afrikaners have evolved a style of cooking known as boerekos, which can be heavy-going if you’re not used to it.
Some of the best-known South African foods are mentioned here. For a list of South African culinary terms, including other local foods, see Food and drink.
Braai (which rhymes with “dry”) is an abbreviation of braaivleis, an Afrikaans word translated as “meat grill”. More than simply the process of cooking over an outdoor fire, however, a braai is a cultural event arguably even more central to the South African identity than barbecues are to Australians. A braai is an intensely social event, usually among family and friends and accompanied by gallons of beer. It’s also probably the only occasion when you’ll catch an unreconstructed South African man cooking.
You can braai anything, but a traditional barbecue meal consists of huge slabs of steak, lamb cutlets and boerewors (“farmer’s sausage”), a South African speciality. Potatoes, onions and butternut squash wrapped in aluminium foil and placed in the embers are the usual accompaniment.
Potjiekos and boerekos
A variant on the braai is potjiekos – pronounced “poy-key-kos” – (pot food), in which the food is cooked in a three-legged cast-iron cauldron (the potjie), preferably outdoors over an open fire. In a similar vein, but cooked indoors, is boerekos, (literally “farmer’s food”), a style of cooking enjoyed mainly by Afrikaners. Much of it is similar to English food, but taken to cholesterol-rich extremes, with even the vegetables prepared with butter and sugar. Boerekos comes into its own in its variety of over-the-top desserts, including koeksisters (plaited doughnuts saturated with syrup) and melktert (“milk tart”), a solid, rich custard in a flan case.
Styles of cooking brought to South Africa by Asian and Madagascan slaves have evolved into Cape Cuisine (sometimes known as Cape Malay food). Characterized by mild, semi-sweet curries with strong Indonesian influences, Cape Cuisine is worth sampling, especially in Cape Town, where it developed and is associated with the Muslim community. Dishes include bredie (stew), of which waterblommetjiebredie, made using water hyacinths, is a speciality; bobotie, a spicy minced dish served under a savoury custard; and sosaties, a local version of kebab using minced meat. For dessert, dates stuffed with almonds make a light and delicious end to a meal, while malva pudding is a rich combination of milk, sugar, cream and apricot jam.
Although Cape Cuisine can be delicious, there isn’t that much variety and few restaurants specialize in it. Despite this, most of the dishes considered as Cape Cuisine have actually crept into the South African diet, many becoming part of the Afrikaner culinary vocabulary.
Other ethnic and regional influences
Although South Africa doesn’t really have distinct regional cuisines, you will find changes of emphasis and local specialities in different parts of the country. KwaZulu-Natal, for instance, particularly around Durban and Pietermaritzburg, is especially good for Indian food. The South African contribution to this great multifaceted tradition is the humble bunny chow, a cheap takeaway consisting of a hollowed-out half-loaf of white bread originally filled with curried beans, but nowadays with anything from curried chicken to sardines.
Portuguese food made early inroads into the country because of South Africa’s proximity to Mozambique. The Portuguese influence is predominantly seen in the use of hot and spicy peri-peri seasoning, which goes extremely well with braais. The best-known example of this is delicious peri-peri chicken, which you will find all over the country.
Restaurants in South Africa offer good value compared with Britain or North America. In every city you’ll find places where you can eat a decent main course for under R100, while for R200 you can splurge on the best. All the cities and larger towns boast some restaurants with imaginative menus. Franschhoek, a small town in the Winelands, has established itself as a culinary centre for the country, where you’ll find a number of fine eating places in extremely close proximity to each other. As a rule, restaurants are licensed, but Muslim establishments serving Cape Cuisine don’t allow alcohol at all.
An attractive phenomenon in the big cities, especially Cape Town, has been the rise of continental-style cafés – easy-going places where you can eat just as well as you would in a regular restaurant, but also drink coffee all night without feeling obliged to order food. Service tends to be slick and friendly, and a reasonable meal in one of these cafés is unlikely to set you back more than R75.
Don’t confuse these with traditional South African cafés, found in even the tiniest country town. The equivalent of corner stores elsewhere, they commonly sell a few magazines, soft drinks, sweets, crisps and an odd collection of tins and dry goods, though no sit-down meals.
If popularity is the yardstick, then South Africa’s real national cuisine is to be found in its franchise restaurants, which you’ll find in every town of any size. The usual international names like KFC and Wimpy are omnipresent, as are South Africa’s own home-grown offerings, such as the American-style steakhouse chain, Spur, and the much-exported Nando’s chain, which grills excellent Portuguese-style chicken, served under a variety of spicy sauces. Expect to pay around R40 for a burger and chips or chicken meal at any of these places, and twice that for a good-sized steak. Note that quite a few restaurants don’t have well-defined hours of business, in which case we have stated in the Guide which meals they tend to open for. Phone numbers are given where booking a table might be a good idea.
White South Africans do a lot of their drinking at home, so, for them, pubs and bars are not quite the centres of social activity they are in the US or the UK, though in the African townships shebeens (informal bars) do occupy this role. Having said that, in recent years South African drinking culture has seen a shift with a plethora of sports bars springing up, with huge screens that draw in crowds when there’s a big match on, though at other times they are relaxed places for a drink. You’ll also find drinking spots in city centres and suburbs that conform more to European-style café-bars than British pubs, and which serve booze, coffee and light meals. The closest thing to British-style pubs is the themed restaurant-bar franchises, such the Keg chain or O’Hagans Irish Pub and Grill.
Beer, wines and spirits can by law be sold from Monday to Saturday between 9am and 6pm at bottle stores (the equivalent of the British off-licence) and also at most supermarkets, although you’ll still be able to drink at a restaurant or pub outside these hours.
There are no surprises when it comes to soft drinks, with all the usual names available. What does stand out is South African fruit juice, the range amounting to one of the most extensive selections of unsweetened juices in the world. One unusual drink you might well encounter in the country’s tearooms is locally produced rooibos (or redbush) tea, made from the leaves of an indigenous plant.
Although South Africa is a major wine-producing country, beer is indisputably the national drink. Beer is as much an emblem of South African manhood as the braai and it cuts across all racial and class divisions. South Africans tend to be fiercely loyal to their brand of beer, though they all taste pretty much the same, given that the vast majority of beer in the country is produced by the enormous South African Breweries monopoly. In fact, so big is SAB that in 2002 it bought Miller Brewing, the second-largest beer producer in the US, and formed SABMiller, one of the biggest brewers in the world. The advantage for South Africans was that a number of international labels became available to supplement the pretty undistinguished and indistinguishable local offerings dominated by Castle, Hansa and Carling Black Label lagers, which are likely to taste a bit thin and bland to a British palate, though they can be refreshing drunk ice-cold on a sweltering day. According to local beer aficionados, the SAB offerings are given a good run for their money by Windhoek Lager, produced by Namibian Breweries. Other widely available SAB offerings from their international subsidiaries are Peroni, Miller Genuine Draft, Grolsch and, the best of the lot, Pilsner Urquell.
There are one or two microbreweries, best known of which are Mitchell’s in Knysna, which produces some distinctive ales, and Birkenhead in Stanford. Their beers can be found at some bottle stores and bars between Cape Town and Port Elizabeth.
South Africa is one of the world’s top ten winemaking countries by volume. In 2010 it overtook France to become the UK’s biggest wine supplier. Despite South Africa’s having the longest-established New World winemaking tradition (going back over 350 years), this rapid rise is remarkable for having taken place within the past two post-apartheid decades. Before that, South Africa’s isolation had led to a stagnant and inbred industry that produced heavy Bordeaux-style wines. After the arrival of democracy in 1994, winemakers began producing fresher, fruitier New World wines, but many quaffers still turned their wine-tasting noses up at them. It’s over the last ten years that things have really started to rev up, and some South African winemakers are developing excellent wines that combine the best of the Old and New Worlds.
South Africa produces wines from a whole gamut of major cultivars. Of the whites, the top South African Sauvignon Blancs can stand up with the best the New World has to offer, and among the reds it’s the blends that really shine. Also look out for red wine made from Pinotage grapes – a somewhat controversial curiosity unique to South Africa – which its detractors, perhaps unfairly, say should stay on the vine. Port is also made, and the best vintages come from the Little Karoo town of Calitzdorp along the R62. There are also a handful of excellent sparkling wines, including Champagne-style, fermented-in-the-bottle bubbly, known locally as methode cap classique (MCC).
Wine is available throughout the country, although prices rise as you move out of the Western Cape. Prices start at under R30 a bottle, and you can get something pretty decent for twice that – the vast bulk of wines cost less than R100 – but you can spend upwards of R250 for a truly great vintage. All this means that anyone with an adventurous streak can indulge in a bacchanalia of sampling without breaking the bank.
The best way to sample wines is by visiting wineries, some of which charge a small tasting fee to discourage freeloading. The oldest and most rewarding wine-producing regions are the Constantia estates in Cape Town and the region known as the Winelands around the towns of Stellenbosch, Paarl and Franschhoek, which all have well- established wine routes. Other wine-producing areas include Robertson, the Orange River and Walker Bay.
Although South Africa is predominantly a dry, sunny country, bear in mind that the chart opposite shows average maximums. June and July temperatures can drop below zero in some places; be prepared for average minimums of 4°C in Johannesburg, 7°C in Cape Town and 11°C in Durban.
The most expensive thing about visiting South Africa is getting there. Once you’ve arrived, you’re likely to find it a relatively inexpensive destination. How cheap will depend partly on exchange rates at the time of your visit – in the decade after becoming fully convertible (after the advent of democracy in South Africa) the rand has seen some massive fluctuations against sterling, the dollar and the euro.
When it comes to daily budgets, your biggest expense is likely to be accommodation. If you’re willing to stay in backpacker dorms and self-cater, you should be able to sleep and eat for under £22/$36/€25 per person a day. If you stay in B&Bs and guesthouses, eat out once a day, and have a snack or two, you should budget for at least double that. In luxury hotels expect to pay upwards of £150/$250/€175 a day, while luxury safari lodges in major game reserves will set you back from £200/$325/€230 a day to way beyond. Extras such as car rental, outdoor activities, horseriding and safaris will add to these figures substantially. While most museums and art galleries impose an entry fee, it’s usually quite low: only the most sophisticated attractions charge more than £1/$1.50/€1.
South Africa’s electricity supply runs at 220/230V, 50Hz AC. Sockets take unique round-pinned plugs; see whttp://www.kropla.com for details. Most hotel rooms have sockets that will take 110V electric shavers, but for other appliances US visitors will need an adaptor.
Police and fire
t10177. Netcare 911 private hospital network t082 911.
Nationals of the US, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Japan, Argentina and Brazil don’t require a visa to enter South Africa. Most EU nationals don’t need a visa, with the exception of passport holders from Bulgaria, Croatia, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Romania and Slovenia, who will need to obtain one at a South African diplomatic mission in their home country. As long as you carry a passport that is valid for at least six months and with at least two empty pages you will be granted a temporary visitor’s permit, which allows you to stay in South Africa for up to ninety days for most nationals, and thirty days for EU passport holders from Cyprus, Hungary, Poland and Slovakia. All visitors should have a valid return ticket
Gay and lesbian travellers
South Africa has the world’s first gay- and lesbian-friendly constitution, and Africa’s most developed and diverse gay and lesbian scene. Not only is homosexuality legal for consenting adults of 18 or over, but the constitution outlaws any discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation. This means that, for once, you have the law on your side. Outside the big cities, however, South Africa is a pretty conservative place, where open displays of public affection by gays and lesbians are unlikely to go down well; many whites will find it un-Christian, while blacks will think it un-African.
South African Tourism, on the other hand, is well aware of the potential of pink spending power and actively woos gay travellers – an effort that is evidently paying off, with Cape Town ranking among the world’s top gay destinations. The city is South Africa’s – and indeed, the African continent’s – gay capital. Like many things in the city, Cape Town’s gay scene is white dominated, though there are a few gay-friendly clubs starting to emerge in the surrounding townships. The gay scene is a lot more multiracial in Johannesburg, especially in the clubs. The Pretoria gay and lesbian scene has grown enormously over the past few years. There are also gay scenes in Port Elizabeth and Durban and you’ll find a growing number of gay-run or gay-friendly establishments in small towns all over the country. There are gay pride festivals in Cape Town in February–March (wcapetownpride.org) and in Jo’burg in September (wjoburgpride.org), while the South African Gay and Lesbian Film Festival (woia.co.za) takes place in Cape Town and Johannesburg in October/November.
It’s wise to take out an insurance policy to cover against theft, loss and illness or injury prior to visiting South Africa. A typical travel insurance policy usually provides cover for the loss of baggage, tickets and – up to a certain limit – cash or cheques, as well as cancellation or curtailment of your journey. Most of them exclude so-called dangerous sports unless an extra premium is paid: in South Africa this can mean scuba diving, whitewater rafting, windsurfing, horseriding, bungee jumping and paragliding. In addition to these, it’s well worth checking whether you are covered by your policy if you’re hiking, kayaking, pony trekking or game viewing on safari, all activities people commonly take part in when visiting South Africa. Many policies can be chopped and changed to exclude coverage you don’t need – for example, sickness and accident benefits can often be excluded or included at will. If you do take medical coverage, ascertain whether benefits will be paid as treatment proceeds or only after you return home, and if there is a 24-hour medical emergency number. When securing baggage cover, make sure that the per-article limit will cover your most valuable possession. If you need to make a claim, you should keep receipts for medicines and medical treatment, and in the event you have anything stolen, you must obtain an official statement from the police.
Finding somewhere to access the internet will seldom be a problem in South Africa: cybercafés are found even in relatively small towns, and most backpacker hostels and hotels have internet and email facilities. Expect to pay R25–40 an hour for online access. If you are carrying your own computer or palm-top device you’ll also be able to take advantage of the wireless hotspots at a small (but growing) number of cafés and accommodation.
The deceptively familiar feel of South African post offices can lull you into expecting an efficient British- or US-style service. In fact, post within the country is slow and unreliable, and money and valuables frequently disappear en route. Expect domestic delivery times from one city to another of about a week – longer if a rural town is involved at either end. International airmail deliveries are often quicker, especially if you’re sending or receiving at Johannesburg or Cape Town – the cities with direct flights to London. A letter or package sent by surface mail can take up to six weeks to get from South Africa to London.
Most towns of any size have a post office, generally open Monday to Friday 8.30am to 4.30pm and Saturday 8am to 11.30am (closing earlier in some places). The ubiquitous private PostNet outlets (whttp://www.postnet.co.za) offer many of the same postal services as the post office and more, including courier services. Courier companies like FedEx (t0800 033 339, whttp://www.fedex.com/za) and DHL (t086 034 5000, whttp://www.dhl.co.za) are more expensive and available only in the larger towns, but they are far more reliable than the mail.
Stamps are available at post offices and also from newsagents, such as the CNA chain, as well as supermarkets. Postage is relatively inexpensive – it costs about R5 to send a postcard or small letter by airmail to anywhere in the world. You’ll find poste restante facilities at the main post office in most larger centres, and in many backpackers’ hostels.
Many place names in South Africa were changed after the 1994 elections – and changes are still being made – so if you buy a map before leaving home, make sure that it’s up to date. Bartholomew produces an excellent map of South Africa, including Lesotho and Swaziland (1:2,000,000), as part of its World Travel Map series. The Rough Guide Map: South Africa, Lesotho & Swaziland covers the same turf with the advantage that it’s rip-proof and waterproof. Also worth investing in are MapStudio’s “Miniplan” maps of major cities such as Cape Town, Durban and Pretoria: these are a convenient size and have useful details, such as hotels, cinemas, post offices and hospitals. MapStudio also produces good regional maps, featuring scenic routes and street maps of major towns, and a fine Natal Drakensberg map which shows hiking trails, picnic spots, campsites and places of interest.
South Africa’s motoring organization, the Automobile Association, sells a wide selection of good regional maps (free to members) that you can pick up from its offices.
For travel around the Western Cape (including the Cape Peninsula) and the Eastern Cape’s Wild Coast, the most accurate, up-to-date and attractive touring and hiking maps – the best bar none – are those produced by local cartographers Slingsby Maps (wslingsbymaps.com), which you buy from bookshops.
South Africa’s currency is the rand (R), often called the “buck”, divided into 100 cents. Notes come in R10, R20, R50, R100 and R200 denominations and there are coins of 5, 10, 20 and 50 cents, as well as R1, R2 and R5. At the time of writing, the exchange rate was hovering at around R11 to the pound sterling, R7 to the US dollar, R10 to the euro and R7 to the Australian dollar.
All but the tiniest settlement will have a bank where you can change money swiftly and easily. Banking hours are Monday to Friday 9am to 3.30pm, and Saturday 9am to 11am; the banks in smaller towns usually close for lunch. In major cities, some banks operate bureaux de change that stay open until 7pm. Outside banking hours, some hotels will change money, although this entails a fairly hefty commission. You can also change money at branches of American Express and Rennies Travel.
Cards and travellers’ cheques
Credit and debit cards are the most convenient way to access your funds in South Africa. Most international cards can be used to withdraw money at ATMs. Plastic can come in very handy for hotel bookings and for paying for more mainstream and upmarket tourist facilities, and is essential for car rental. Visa and Mastercard are the cards most widely accepted in major cities.
Travellers’ cheques make a useful backup as they can be replaced if lost or stolen. American Express, Visa and Thomas Cook are all widely recognized brands; both US dollar and sterling cheques are accepted in South Africa.
Travellers’ cheques and plastic are useless if you’re heading into remote areas, where you’ll need to carry cash, preferably in a safe place, such as a leather pouch or waist-level money belt that you can keep under your clothes.
Opening hours and holidays
The working day starts and finishes early in South Africa: shops and businesses generally open on weekdays at 8.30am or 9am and close at 4.30pm or 5pm. In small towns, many places close for an hour over lunch. Many shops and businesses close around noon on Saturdays, and most shops are closed on Sundays. However, in every neighbourhood, you’ll find small shops and supermarkets where you can buy groceries and essentials after hours.
Some establishments have summer and winter opening times. In such situations, you can take winter to mean April to August or September, while summer constitutes the rest of the year.
School holidays in South Africa can disrupt your plans, especially if you want to camp, or stay in the national parks and the cheaper end of accommodation (self-catering, cheaper B&Bs, etc), all of which are likely to be booked solid during those periods. If you do travel to South Africa over the school holidays, book your accommodation well in advance, especially for the national parks.
The longest and busiest holiday period is Christmas (summer), which for schools stretches over most of December and January. Flights and train berths can be hard to get from December 16 to January 2, when many businesses and offices close for their annual break. You should book your flights – long-haul and domestic – as early as six months in advance for the Christmas period. The inland and coastal provinces stagger their school holidays, but as a general rule the remaining school holidays roughly cover the following periods: Easter, mid-March to mid-April; winter, mid-June to mid-July; and spring, late September to early October. Exact dates for each year are given on the government’s information website: whttp://www.info.gov.za/aboutsa/schoolcal.htm.
South Africa’s telephone system, dominated by Telkom, generally works well. Public phone booths are found in every city and town, and are either coin- or card-operated. While international calls can be made from virtually any phone, it helps to have a phone card, as you’ll be lucky to stay on the line for more than a minute or two for R20. Phone cards come in R20, R50, R100 and R200 denominations, available at Telkom offices, post offices and newsagents.
Mobile phones (referred to locally as cell phones or simply cells) are extremely widely used in South Africa, with more mobile than landline handsets in use. The competing networks – Vodacom, MTN, Cell C and VirginMobile – cover all the main areas and the national roads connecting them.
You can use a GSM/tri-band phone from outside the country in South Africa, but you will need to arrange a roaming agreement with your provider at home; be warned that this is likely to be expensive. A far cheaper alternative is to buy a local SIM card that replaces your home SIM card while you’re in South Africa. (For this to work, you’ll need to check that your phone hasn’t been locked to your home network.) The local SIM card contains your South African phone number, and you pay for airtime. Very inexpensive starter packs (R100 or less) containing a SIM card and some airtime can be bought from the ubiquitous mobile phone shops and a number of other outlets, including supermarkets and the CNA chain of newsagents and supermarkets.
Another option is to rent just a South African SIM card or a phone and SIM card when you arrive. Cards start at R5 a day and phones at R7. Phone (and GPS) rental can also be arranged when you arrange car rental. Among the companies that offer this are Avis, Budget, Hertz and National (see Car rental) as does the Baz backpacker bus. There are rental outlets at the major airports: Johannesburg, Cape Town, Port Elizabeth, Durban and George.
Value-added tax (VAT) of fourteen percent is levied on most goods and services, though it’s usually already included in any quoted price. Foreign visitors older than seven can claim back VAT on goods over R250. To do this, you must present an official tax receipt with your name on it for the goods, a non-South African passport and the purchased goods themselves, at the airport just before you fly out. You need to complete a VAT refund control sheet (VAT 255), which is obtainable at international airports. For further information contact the VAT Refund Administrator (t011 394 1117, whttp://www.taxrefunds.co.za).
There is only one time zone throughout the region, two hours ahead of GMT year-round. If you’re flying from anywhere in Europe, you shouldn’t experience any jet lag.
Ten to fifteen percent of the tab is the normal tip at restaurants and for taxis – but don’t feel obliged to tip if service has been shoddy. Keep in mind that many of the people who’ll be serving you rely on tips to supplement a meagre wage on which they support huge extended families. Porters at hotels normally get about R5 per bag. At South African garages and filling stations, someone will always be on hand to fill your vehicle and clean your windscreen, for which you should tip around R5. It is also usual at hotels to leave some money for the person who services your room. Many establishments, especially private game lodges, take (voluntary) communal tips when you check out – by far the fairest system, which ensures that all the low-profile staff behind the scenes get their share.
Given South Africa’s booming tourism industry, it’s not surprising that you’ll have no difficulty finding maps, books and brochures before you leave. South African Tourism, the official organization promoting the country, is reasonably efficient: if there’s an office near you, it’s worth visiting for its free maps and information on hotels and organized tours.
In South Africa itself, nearly every town, even down to the sleepiest dorp, has some sort of tourist office – sometimes connected to the museum, municipal offices or library – where you can pick up local maps, lists of B&Bs and travel advice. In larger cities such as Cape Town and Durban, you’ll find several branches offering everything from hotel bookings to organized safari trips. We’ve given precise opening hours of tourist offices in most cases; they generally adhere to a standard schedule of Monday to Friday 8.30am to 5pm, with many offices also open on Saturdays and Sundays. In smaller towns some close between 1pm and 2pm, while in the bigger centres some have extended hours.
In this fast-changing country the best way of finding out what’s happening is often by word of mouth, and for this, backpacker hostels are invaluable. If you’re seeing South Africa on a budget, the useful notice boards, constant traveller traffic and largely helpful and friendly staff in the hostels will greatly smooth your travels.
To find out what’s on, check out the entertainment pages of the daily newspapers or better still buy the Mail & Guardian, which comes out every Friday and lists the coming week’s offerings in a comprehensive pullout supplement.
Travellers with disabilities
Facilities for disabled travellers in South Africa are not as sophisticated as those found in the developed world, but they’re sufficient to ensure you have a satisfactory visit. By accident rather than design, you’ll find pretty good accessibility to many buildings, as South Africans tend to build low (single-storey bungalows are the norm), with the result that you’ll have to deal with fewer stairs than you may be accustomed to. As the car is king, you’ll frequently find that you can drive to, and park right outside, your destination. There are organized tours and holidays specifically for people with disabilities, and activity-based packages for disabled travellers to South Africa are increasingly available. These packages offer the possibility for wheelchair-bound visitors to take part in safaris, sport and a vast range of adventure activities, including whitewater rafting, horseriding, parasailing and zip-lining. Tours can either be taken as self-drive trips or as packages for large groups. The contacts mentioned in the directory will be able to put you in touch with South Africa travel specialists.
If you want to be more independent on your travels, it’s important to know where you can expect help and where you must be self-reliant, especially regarding transport and accommodation. It’s also vital to know your limitations, and to make sure others know them. If you do not use a wheelchair all the time but your walking capabilities are limited, remember that you are likely to need to cover greater distances while travelling (often over rougher terrain and in hotter temperatures) than you are used to. If you use a wheelchair, have it serviced before you go and take a repair kit with you.
Travelling with children
Travelling with children is straightforward in South Africa, whether you want to explore a city, relax on the beach, or find peace in the mountains. You’ll find local people friendly, attentive and accepting of babies and young children. The following is aimed mainly at families with under-5s.
Although children up to 24 months only pay ten percent of the adult airfare, the illusion that this is a bargain rapidly evaporates when you discover that they get no seat or baggage allowance. Given this, you’d be well advised to secure bulkhead seats and reserve a basinet or sky cot, which can be attached to the bulkhead. Basinets are usually allocated to babies under six months, though some airlines use weight (under 10kg) as the criterion. When you reconfirm your flights, check that your seat and basinet are still available. A child who has a seat will usually be charged fifty percent of the adult fare and is entitled to a full baggage allowance.
For getting to and from the aircraft, and for use during your stay, take a lightweight collapsible buggy – not counted as part of your luggage allowance. A child-carrier backpack is another useful accessory.
Given the size of the country, you’re likely to be driving long distances. Aim to go slowly and plan a route that allows frequent stops – or perhaps take trains or flights between centres. The Garden Route, for example, is an ideal drive, with easy stops for picnics, particularly on the section between Mossel Bay and Storms River. The route between Johannesburg and Cape Town, conversely, is tedious.
Game viewing can be boring for young children, since it too involves a lot of driving – and disappointment, should the promised beasts fail to put in an appearance. Furthermore, of course, toddlers won’t particularly enjoy watching animals from afar and through a window. If they are old enough to enjoy the experience, make sure they have their own binoculars. To get in closer, some animal parks, such as Tshukudu near Kruger, have semi-tame animals, while snake and reptile parks are an old South African favourite.
Family accommodation is plentiful, and hotels, guesthouses, B&Bs and a growing number of backpacker lodges have rooms with extra beds or interconnecting rooms. Kids usually stay for half-price. Self-catering options are worth considering, as most such establishments have a good deal of space to play in, and there’ll often be a pool. A number of resorts are specifically aimed at families with older children, with suitable activities offered. The pick of the bunch is the Forever chain (whttp://www.foreversa.co.za), which has resorts in beautiful settings, including Keurboomstrand near Plettenberg Bay, and two close to the Blyde River Canyon in Mpumalanga. Another excellent option is full-board family hotels, of which there are a number along the Wild Coast, where not only are there playgrounds and canoes for paddling about lagoons, but also often nannies to look after the kids during meals or for the whole day. Note that many safari camps don’t allow children under 12, so you’ll have to self-cater or camp at the national parks and those in KwaZulu-Natal.
Eating out with a baby or toddler is easy, particularly if you go to an outdoor venue where they can get on unhindered with their exploration of the world. Some restaurants have highchairs and offer small portions. If in doubt, there are always the ubiquitous family-oriented chains such as Spur, Nando’s or Wimpy.
Breast-feeding is practised by the majority of African mothers wherever they are, though you won’t see many white women doing it in public. Be discreet, especially in more conservative areas – which is most of the country outside middle-class Cape Town, Johannesburg or Durban. There are relatively few baby rooms in public places for changing or feeding, although the situation is improving all the time and you shouldn’t have a problem at shopping malls in the cities. You can buy disposable nappies wherever you go (imported brands are best), as well as wipes, bottles, formula and dummies. High-street chemists and the Clicks chain are the best places to buy baby goods. If you run out of clothes, the Woolworths chain has good-quality stuff, while the ubiquitous Pep stores, which are present in even the smallest towns, are an excellent source of extremely cheap, functional clothes.
Malaria affects only a small part of the country, but think carefully about visiting such areas as the preventatives aren’t recommended for under-2s. Avoid most of the major game reserves, particularly the Kruger National Park and those in KwaZulu-Natal, North West and Limpopo provinces, and opt instead for malaria-free reserves – Addo Elephant National Park in the Eastern Cape is an excellent choice. Malarial zones carry a considerably reduced risk in winter, so if you are set on going, this is the best time. Tuberculosis (TB) is widespread in South Africa, mostly (but by no means exclusively) affecting the poor, so make sure your child has had a BCG jab. Sun protection is another important consideration.