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, www.greyhound.co.za), Intercape (086 128 7287, www.intercape.co.za) and Translux (086 158 9282, 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, 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, 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 (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; 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.
British Airways Comair 086 043 5922, www.ba.com. Flights that cover Bloemfontein, Cape Town, Durban, East London, George, Hoedspruit, Johannesburg, Nelspruit (for Kruger National Park) and Port Elizabeth.
Kulula 086 158 5852, www.kulula.com. Budget flights that cover Cape Town, Durban, George, Johannesburg, Nelspruit (for Kruger National Park) and Port Elizabeth, as well as destinations in Mauritius, Mozambique, Namibia, Tanzania, Zambia and Zimbabwe.
Mango 086 116 2646, www.flymango.com. SAA’s budget airline provides cheap flights from Johannesburg to Bloemfontein, Cape Town and Durban; and from Cape Town to Jo’burg, Durban and Bloemfontein.
South African Airways 086 135 9722, www.flysaa.com. Together with SA Airlink and SA Express, SAA serve the major hubs of Johannesburg, Cape Town and Durban. Other destinations served include Bloemfontein, East London, George, Hoedspruit, Kimberley, Margate, Mmabatho, Mthatha, Nelspruit (for Kruger National Park), Phalaborwa, Pietermaritzburg, Plettenberg Bay, Polokwane, Sun City, Ulundi and Upington.
Velvet Sky 031 582 8722, www.flyvelvetsky.co.za. At the time of its launch in 2011 services were limited to flights between Johannesburg and Durban or Cape Town.
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.
South Africa’s motoring organization, the Automobile Association (AA; 083 843 22, www.aa.co.za), provides useful information about road conditions as well as maps.
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.
Cheap Motorhome Rental www.cheapmotorhomes.co.za. Booking agency that sources competitive motorhome rentals.
Drive Africa Cape Town 021 447 1144, www.driveafrica.co.za. Competitive motor-home deals and cheap car rental. If you’re planning to be on the road for three months or longer, consider their rental-purchase agreement, under which you buy a car and they guarantee to buy it back for an agreed price.
Kea Rentals www.kea.co.za. Good-value motor-home rental.
Maui www.maui.co.za. One of the biggest rental outlets for camper vans and 4WDs.
Tempest 086 003 1666, www.tempestcarhire.co.za. Offers some very competitive rates.
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.