Travel Tips South Africa for planning and on the go


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 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

t1011, ambulance

t10177. Netcare 911 private hospital network t082 911.

Entry requirements

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

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 (, 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,

Canada 15 Sussex Drive, Ottawa, Ontario K1M 1M8 t613/744-0330,

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,

US 4301 Connecticut Ave, NW, Van Ness Building Suite 220 Washington, DC 20008 t202/232-4400, 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 ( and in Jo’burg in September (, while the South African Gay and Lesbian Film Festival ( 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.

For unlimited Wi-Fi on the go whilst travelling South Africa, buy a Skyroam Solis, which works in 130+ countries at one flat daily rate, paid for on a pay-as-you-go basis. You can connect up to five devices at once. Prices start from as little as €5 a day.


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 ( offer many of the same postal services as the post office and more, including courier services. Courier companies like FedEx (t0800 033 339, and DHL (t086 034 5000, 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 (, 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:


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,


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.

Tourist information

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, 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 (, 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.

The media in South Africa

South Africa lacks a strong tradition of national newspapers and instead has many regional publications of varying quality. Television delivers a mix of imported programmes and home-grown soaps heavily modelled on US fare, as well as the odd home-grown reality TV show and one or two watchable documentary slots. Radio is where South Africa is finding it easiest to meet the needs of a diverse and scattered audience, and deregulation of the airwaves has brought to life scores of small new stations.


Of the roughly twenty daily newspapers, most of which are published in English or Afrikaans, the only two that qualify as nationals are Business Day (, which is a good source of serious national and international news, and The New Age, which is aligned with the government.

Each of the larger cities has its own English-language broadsheet, most of them published by South Africa’s largest newspaper publisher, Independent News & Media, a subsidiary of the Irish company that owns London’s Independent newspaper and the Irish Independent. In Johannesburg, The Star (, the group’s South African flagship, has a roughly equal number of black and white readers and offers somewhat uninspired Jo’burg coverage, padded out with international bits and pieces piped in from Dublin and London. Cape Town’s morning Cape Times ( and Cape Argus (, published in the afternoon, follow broadly the same tried (and tired) formula, as do the Pretoria News (, the Herald ( in Port Elizabeth and the Daily News ( in Durban.

The country’s biggest-selling paper is the Daily Sun, a Jo’burg-based tabloid that taps into the concerns of township dwellers, with a giddy cocktail of gruesome crime stories, tales of witchcraft and the supernatural, and coverage of the everyday problems of ordinary people. Another Jo’burg tabloid is the Sowetan (, which has been going since the 1980s, but is a far more serious publication than the Sun. In Cape Town, the studiedly sleazy Voice attempts to emulate the Sun in the coloured community, with a downbeat mixture of crime, the supernatural and sex advice.

Unquestionably the country’s intellectual heavyweight, the Mail & Guardian (, published every Friday, frequently delivers nonpartisan and fearless investigative journalism, but at times tends towards the turgid.

The Sunday Times (, on the other hand, can attribute its sales – roughly half a million copies – to its well-calculated mix of investigative reporting, gossipy stories and rewrites of salacious scandal lifted from foreign tabloids, while the Sunday Independent (, from the Independent stable, projects a more thoughtful image but is a bit thin.

The easiest places to buy newspapers are corner stores and newsagents, especially the CNA chain. These outlets also sell international publications such as Time, Newsweek, The Economist and the weekly overseas editions of the British Daily Mail, the Telegraph and the Express – you’ll also find copies of the daily and weekend international editions of the Financial Times.


The South Africa Broadcasting Corporation’s three TV channels churn out a mixed bag of domestic dramas, sport, game shows, soaps and documentaries, filled out with lashings of familiar imports. SABC 1, 2 and 3 share the unenviable task of trying to deliver an integrated service, while having to split their time between the eleven official languages. English turns out to be most widely used, with SABC 3 ( broadcasting almost exclusively in the language, with a high proportion of British and US comedies and dramas, while SABC 2 ( and SABC 1 ( spread themselves thinly across all the remaining ten languages with a fair amount of English creeping in too. SABC 1, with its high proportion of sports coverage, has the most viewers.

South Africa’s first and only free-to-air independent commercial channel ( won its franchise in 1998 on the promise of providing a showcase for local productions, a pledge it has signally failed to meet.

There is no cable TV in South Africa, but DSTV ( offers a satellite television subscription service with a selection of sports, movies, news and specialist channels, some of which are piped into hotels.


Given South Africa’s low literacy rate and widespread poverty, it’s no surprise that radio is its most popular medium. The SABC operates a national radio station for each of the eleven official language groups. The English-language service, SAfm (, is increasingly degenerating into tedious wall-to-wall talk shows interspersed with news. The SABC also runs 5FM Stereo, a national pop station broadcasting Top 40 tracks, while its Radio Metro is targeted at black urban listeners.

To get a taste of what makes South Africans tick, tune into the privately owned Gauteng talk station 702 (in Jo’burg 92.7 FM and in Pretoria 106 FM; or its Cape Town sister station CapeTalk (567 AM;, both of which are a lot livelier than the state stations and broadcast news, weather, traffic and sports reports. Apart from these, there are scores of regional, commercial and community stations, broadcasting a range of music and other material, which makes surfing the airwaves an enjoyable experience, wherever you are in the country.

Health advice for South Africa

You can put aside most of the health fears that may be justified in some parts of Africa; run-down hospitals and bizarre tropical diseases aren’t typical of South Africa. All tourist areas boast generally high standards of hygiene and safe drinking water. The only hazard you’re likely to encounter, and the one the majority of visitors are most blasé about, is the sun. In some parts of the country there is a risk of malaria, and you will need to take precautions.

Public hospitals in South Africa are fairly well equipped, but they are facing huge pressures under which their attempts to maintain standards are unfortunately buckling. Expect long waits and frequently indifferent treatment. Private hospitals or clinics, which are well up to British or North American standards, are usually a better option for travellers. You’re likely to get more personal treatment and the costs are nowhere near as high as in the US – besides which, the expense shouldn’t pose a problem if you’re adequately insured. Private hospitals are listed in the town and city listings throughout the Guide.

Dental care in South Africa is well up to British and North American standards, and is less expensive. You’ll find dentists in all the cities and most smaller towns, listed after doctors at the beginning of each town in the telephone directory.


Although no specific inoculations are compulsory if you arrive from the West, it’s wise to ensure that your polio and tetanus vaccinations are up to date. A yellow fever vaccination certificate is necessary if you’ve come from a country where the disease is endemic, such as Kenya, Tanzania or tropical South America.

In addition to these, the Hospital for Tropical Diseases in London recommends, depending on which parts of the country you’re visiting, a course of shots against typhoid and an injection against hepatitis A, both of which can be caught from contaminated food or water. This is a worst-case scenario, and in any case, typhoid is eminently curable and few visitors to South Africa ever catch it.

Vaccination against hepatitis B is essential only for people involved in health work; the disease is spread by the transfer of blood products, usually dirty needles.

It’s best to start organizing to have jabs six weeks before departure. If you’re going to another African country first and need the yellow fever jab, note that a yellow fever certificate only becomes valid ten days after you’ve had the shot.

Stomach upsets

Stomach upsets from food are rare. Salad and ice – the danger items in many other developing countries – are both perfectly safe. As anywhere, though, don’t keep food for too long, and be sure to wash fruit and vegetables as thoroughly as possible.

If you do get a stomach bug the best cure is lots of water and rest. Papayas – the flesh as well as the pips – are a good tonic to offset the diarrhoea. Otherwise, most chemists should have name-brand anti-diarrhoea remedies, such as Lomotil.

Avoid jumping for antibiotics at the first sign of illness. Instead keep them as a last resort – they don’t work on viruses and annihilate your “gut flora” (most of which you want to keep), making you more susceptible next time round. Most tummy upsets will resolve themselves if you adopt a sensible fat-free diet for a couple of days, but if they do persist without improvement (or are accompanied by other unusual symptoms), then see a doctor as soon as possible.

The sun

The sun is likely to be the worst hazard you’ll encounter in Southern Africa, particularly if you’re fair-skinned.

Short-term effects of overexposure to the sun include burning, nausea and headaches. Make sure you wear adequate sunscreen and you don’t stay too long in the sun – especially when you first arrive.

Take particular care with children, who should ideally be kept well covered at the seaside, preferably with UV-protective sun suits. Don’t be lulled into complacency on cloudy days, when UV levels can still be high.


One ailment that you need to take seriously throughout sub-Saharan Africa is bilharzia (schistosomiasis), carried in most freshwater lakes and rivers in South Africa except in the mountains. Bilharzia is spread by tiny, parasitic worm-like flukes which leave their water-snail hosts and burrow into human skin to multiply in the bloodstream; they then work their way to the walls of the intestine or bladder, where they begin to lay eggs.

The chances are you’ll avoid bilharzia even if you swim in a suspect river, but it’s best to avoid swimming in dams and rivers where possible. If you go canoeing or can’t avoid the water, have a test for bilharzia when you return home.

Symptoms may be no more than a feeling of lassitude and ill health. Once the infection is established, abdominal pain and blood in the urine and stools are common. Fortunately, although no vaccine is available, bilharzia is easily and effectively treatable.


Most of South Africa is free of malaria, a potentially lethal disease that is widespread in tropical and subtropical Africa, where it’s a major killer. However, protection against malaria is essential if you’re planning to travel to any of these areas: northern and northeastern Mpumalanga, notably the Kruger National Park; northern KwaZulu-Natal; the border regions of North West and Limpopo provinces. The highest risk is during the hot, rainy months from November to April. The risk is reduced during the cooler, dry months from May to October, when some people decide not to take prophylactic medication.

Malaria is caused by a parasite carried in the saliva of the female anopheles mosquito. It has a variable incubation period of a few days to several weeks, so you can become ill long after being bitten. The first symptoms of malaria can be mistaken for flu, starting off relatively mildly with a variable combination that includes fever, aching limbs and shivering, which come in waves, usually beginning in the early evening. Deterioration can be rapid as the parasites in the bloodstream proliferate. Malaria is not infectious, but can be fatal if not treated quickly: get medical help without delay if you go down with flu-like symptoms within a week of entering or three months of leaving a malarial area.

Doctors can advise on which kind of anti-malarial tablets to take. It’s important to keep to the prescribed dose, which covers the period before and after your trip. Consult your doctor or clinic several weeks before you travel, as you should start taking medication a week or two before entering the affected region – depending on the particular drug you’re using.

Whatever you decide to take, be aware that no antimalarial drug is totally effective – your only sure-fire protection is to avoid getting bitten. Malaria-carrying mosquitoes are active between dusk and dawn, so try to avoid being out at this time, or at least cover yourself well. Sleep under a mosquito net when possible, making sure to tuck it under the mattress, and burn mosquito coils (which you can buy everywhere) for a peaceful, if noxious, night. Electric mosquito-destroyers which you fit with a pad every night are less pungent than mosquito coils, though note that you may not have access to a power supply at some safari lodges, or if you’re camping. Mosquito “buzzers” are useless. Whenever the mosquitoes are particularly bad – and that’s not often – cover your exposed parts with insect repellent; those containing diethyltoluamide (DEET) work well. Other locally produced repellents such as Peaceful Sleep are widely available.

Bites and stings

Bites, stings and rashes in South Africa are comparatively rare. Snakes are present, but hardly ever seen as they move out of the way quickly. The sluggish puff and berg adders are the most dangerous, because they often lie on paths and don’t move when humans approach. The best advice if you get bitten is to note what the snake looked like and get yourself to a clinic or hospital. Most bites are not fatal and the worst thing you can do is to panic: desperate measures with razor blades and tourniquets risk doing more harm than good.

Tick-bite fever is occasionally contracted from walking in the bush, particularly in long wet grass. The offending ticks can be minute and you may not spot them. Symptoms appear a week later – swollen glands and severe aching of the bones, backache and fever. The disease will run its course in three or four days. Ticks you may find on yourself are not dangerous, just repulsive at first. Make sure you pull out the head as well as the body (it’s not painful). A good way of removing small ones is to smear Vaseline or grease over them, making them release their hold.

Scorpion stings and spider bites are painful but almost never fatal, contrary to popular myth. Scorpions and spiders abound, but they’re hardly ever seen unless you turn over logs and stones. If you’re collecting wood for a campfire, knock or shake it before picking it up. Another simple precaution when camping is to shake out your shoes and clothes in the morning before you get dressed.

Rabies is present throughout Southern Africa, with dogs posing the greatest risk, although the disease can be carried by other domestic or wild animals. If you are bitten you should go immediately to a clinic or hospital. Rabies can be treated effectively with a course of injections.

Sexually transmitted diseases

HIV/AIDS and venereal diseases are widespread in Southern Africa among both men and women, and the danger of catching the virus through sexual contact is very real. Follow the usual precautions regarding safer sex. There’s no special risk from medical treatment in the country, but if you’re travelling overland and you want to play it safe, take your own needle and transfusion kit.


TB is a serious problem in South Africa, but most travellers are at low risk. At higher risk are healthcare workers, long-term travellers and anyone with an impaired immune system, such as people infected with HIV.

A BCG vaccination is recommended for children, most of whom should already have received one in infancy, but it’s not routinely given to adults since it can mask latent symptoms should you later become infected. Adults should take medical advice on the question of immunization if they feel they may be at risk.

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