Explore South Africa
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 wwww.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 EU, the US, Canada, Australia and New Zealand don’t require a visa to enter South Africa. As long as you carry a passport that is valid for at least six months and has 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 90 days. All visitors should have a valid return ticket; without one, you may be required to pay the authorities the equivalent of your fare home (the money will be refunded after you have left the country). Visitors may also need to prove that they have sufficient funds to cover their stay.
Applications for visa extensions must be made at one of the main offices of the Department of Home Affairs, where you will be quizzed about your intentions and your funds. In Cape Town, go to 56 Barrack St (t021 468 4500); in Johannesburg, the office is at the corner of Plein and Harrison streets (t011 639 4000). The Department also has offices in a number of towns – check in the telephone directory or on its website (wwww.dha.gov.za/index.php/contact-us/22-provincial-offices), and make sure that the office you’re intending to visit is able to grant extensions.
South African diplomatic missions abroad
Australia Corner of State Circle and Rhodes Place, Yarralumla, Canberra, ACT 2600 t02/6272 7300, wsahc.org.au.
Canada 15 Sussex Drive, Ottawa, Ontario K1M 1M8 t613/744-0330, wsouthafrica-canada.ca.
Ireland 2nd Floor, Alexandra House, Earlsfort Centre, Earlsfort Terrace, Dublin t01 661 5553.
New Zealand c/o the High Commission in Australia.
UK Consular Section, 15 Whitehall, London SW1A 2DD t020/7925 8900, wsouthafricahouseuk.com.
US 4301 Connecticut Ave, NW, Van Ness Building Suite 220 Washington, DC 20008 t202/232-4400, wwww.southafrica-newyork.net/homeaffairs/index.htm. Consulates: 333 E 38th St, 9th floor, New York, NY 10016 t212/213-4880; 6300 Wilshire Blvd, Suite 600, Los Angeles, CA 90048 t323/651-0902.
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 (wwww.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, wwww.fedex.com/za) and DHL (t086 034 5000, wwww.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: wwww.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, wwww.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. Alternatively, you can check out its website
wwww.southafrica.net, which includes content specific to users in South Africa, the UK, the US, Canada, Germany and France.
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 (wwww.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.Read More