Everything about Africa that stirs the imagination is concentrated in its southernmost country. Lions freely roam vast game reserves such as Kruger National Park, vineyards stretch across the Cape Winelands, and mountains cascade into the sea along miles of beaches. In addition to dream safaris and romantic honeymoons, South Africa offers modern cities with thriving arts and dining scenes. South Africans are welcoming, and the country’s emergence from a turbulent past provides a dramatic history lesson and the promise of something new every time you visit.
EXPLORE SOUTH AFRICA
Some South Africa–bound flights from United States cities have refueling stops en route, and sometimes those stops can be delayed. Don’t plan anything on the ground too rigidly after arriving; leave yourself a cushion for a connecting flight to a game lodge.
In peak season (midsummer, which is from December to the end of February, and South African school vacations), give yourself at least a half-hour extra at the airport for domestic flights, as the check-in lines can be endless—particularly on flights to the coast at the start of vacations and back to Johannesburg’s O. R. Tambo International Airport at the end.
If you are returning home with souvenirs, leave time for a V.A.T. (Value-Added Tax) inspection before you join the line for your international flight check-in. And it’s always a good idea to check what you can and cannot carry onto the plane. There are fairly long distances between gates and terminals at Johannesburg’s O. R. Tambo, particularly between the international and domestic terminals, so clear security before stopping for a snack or shopping, as you don’t want to scramble for your flight.
The longest domestic flight within South Africa is two hours.
If you are visiting a game lodge deep in the bush, you will be arriving by light plane—and you will be restricted in what you can bring. Excess luggage can usually be stored with the operator until your return. Don’t just gloss over this: charter operators take weight very seriously, and some will charge you for an extra ticket if you insist on bringing excess baggage.
Most international flights arrive at and depart from Johannesburg’s O. R. Tambo International Airport, 12 miles from the city. The country’s other major airports are in Cape Town and Durban, but international flights departing from Cape Town often stop in Johannesburg. O.R. Tambo has a tourist information desk, a V.A.T. refund office, several ATMs, and a computerized accommodations service. Porters, who wear a bright-orange-and-navy-blue uniform with an Airports Company of South Africa badge, work exclusively for tips (R5 or R10 a bag). If you’re leaving O. R. Tambo’s international terminal (Terminal A), the domestic terminal (Terminal B) is connected by a busy and fairly long walkway. Allow 10–15 minutes’ walking time between international and domestic terminals.
The Cape Town and Durban airports are much smaller and more straightforward. Cape Town International is 12 miles southeast of the city, and Durban International is 10 miles north of the city. If you are traveling to or from either Johannesburg or Cape Town airport (and, to a lesser extent, Durban) be aware of the time of day. Traffic can be horrendous between 7 and 9 in the morning and between about 3:30 and 6 in the evening.
Just 25 miles outside Johannesburg’s city center in the northern suburbs, Lanseria International Airport is closer to Sandton than O. R. Tambo and handles executive jets, company jets, domestic scheduled flights to and from Cape Town, and some charter flights to safari camps. It has a 24-hour customs and immigration counter, a café, and a high-end flight store. It’s a popular alternative for visiting dignitaries and other VIPs.
The other major cities are served by small airports that are really easy to navigate. Port Elizabeth is the main airport for the Eastern Cape, George serves the Garden Route, and the closest airports to Kruger National Park are the small airports at Nelspruit, Hoedspruit, and Phalaborwa. Most airports are managed by the Airports Company of South Africa.
Transfers Between Airports
There are dozens of flights every day between O. R. Tambo and Cape Town airports. Some of the discount airlines offer better fares for this flight, but if your international flight is delayed, you may be left hanging until the next day. Even if it costs a bit more, it can be worth booking through SAA, as they run the bulk of the flights, and so if you miss one, it’s usually easy to get on another.
South Africa’s international airline is South African Airways (SAA), which offers nonstop service between Johannesburg and New York–JFK (JFK) and Washington–Dulles (IAD), though some flights from Dulles make a stopover in Dakar, Senegal. Delta also offers nonstop service from the United States to South Africa. Flight times from the U.S. East Coast range from 15 hours (from Atlanta to Johannesburg on Delta) to almost 20 hours (on Delta via Amsterdam). When booking flights, check the routing carefully; some involve stopovers of an hour or two, which may change from day to day. European airlines serving South Africa are British Airways, KLM, Virgin Atlantic, Lufthansa, and Air France.
Three major domestic airlines have flights connecting South Africa’s principal airports. SA Airlink and SA Express are subsidiaries of SAA, and Comair is a subsidiary of British Airways. Comair and SAA serve Livingstone, Zambia (for Victoria Falls); Air Zimbabwe and SAA serve Victoria Falls airport in Zimbabwe.
Recent years have seen an explosion of low-cost carriers serving popular domestic routes in South Africa with regularly scheduled flights. Kulula.com and Mango provide reasonably priced domestic air tickets if you book in advance. Phakalane Airways provides service to airports in the Northern Cape. The only downside is that they have fewer flights per day and aren’t always cheaper than SAA.
Charter companies are a common mode of transportation when getting to safari lodges and remote destinations throughout southern Africa. These aircraft are well maintained and are almost always booked by your lodge or travel agent. The major charter companies run daily shuttles from O. R. Tambo to popular tourism destinations, such as Kruger Park. On-demand flights are very expensive for independent travelers, as they require minimum passenger loads. If it’s just two passengers, you will be charged for the vacant seats. Keep in mind that you probably won’t get to choose the charter company you fly with. The aircraft you get depends on the number of passengers flying and can vary from very small (you will sit in the copilot’s seat) to a much more comfortable commuter plane.
Because of the limited space and size of the aircraft, charter carriers observe strict luggage regulations: luggage must be soft-sided and weigh no more than 57 pounds (and often less); on many charter flights, the weight cannot exceed 33 pounds.
African Ramble flies out of Plettenberg Bay and Port Elizabeth and will take direct bookings. Federal Air is the largest charter air company in South Africa; it’s based at Johannesburg’s O. R. Tambo International Airport and has its own efficient terminal with a gift shop, refreshments, and a unique, thatched-roof outdoor lounge. It also has branches in Cape Town, Durban, and Nelspruit (near Kruger). Wilderness Air (previously Sefofane) is a Botswana-based fly-in charter company that will take you anywhere there’s a landing strip from its base in Jo’burg’s Lanseria Airport.
Greyhound, Intercape Mainliner, and Translux operate extensive bus networks that serve all major cities. The buses are comfortable, sometimes there are videos, and tea and coffee are served on board. Travel times can be long; for example, Cape Town to Johannesburg takes 19 hours. Johannesburg to Durban, at about seven hours, is less stressful. The Garden Route is less intense if you take it in stages, but the whole trip from Cape Town to Port Elizabeth takes 12 hours. Buses are usually pretty punctual. Greyhound and Intercape buses can be booked directly or through Computicket.
For travelers with a sense of adventure, a bit of time, and not too much money, the Baz Bus runs a daily hop-on/hop-off door-to-door service between backpackers’ hostels around South Africa and other countries in the region. The rates are a bit higher than for the same distance on a standard bus, but you can break the journey up into a number of different legs, days or weeks apart, and the bus drops you off at some hostels so you don’t need to find taxis, shuttles, or lifts. The Baz Bus offers both 7-day and 14-day unrestricted packages, an especially useful service if you’re planning a long leg followed by a few short ones before returning to your starting point.
It is illegal to smoke on buses in South Africa.
Approximate one-way prices for all three major bus lines are R530–R630 Cape Town to Tshwane (Pretoria), R320–R360 Cape Town to Springbok, R260–R370 Cape Town to George, R380–R510 Cape Town to Port Elizabeth, R250–R350 Johannesburg to Durban, and R600–R750 Cape Town to Durban. Baz Bus also runs direct routes between cities, with prices comparable to those of major bus lines.
South Africa has a superb network of multilane roads and highways, so driving can be a pleasure. Remember, though, that distances are vast, so guard against fatigue, which is an even bigger killer than alcohol. Toll roads, scattered among the main routes, charge anything from R10 to R60.
You can drive in South Africa for up to six months on any English-language license. South Africa’s Automobile Association publishes a range of maps, atlases, and travel guides, available for purchase on its website. Maps and map books are also available at all major bookstores. Carjackings can and do occur with such frequency that certain high-risk areas are marked by permanent carjacking signs.
Service stations (open 24 hours) are positioned at regular intervals along all major highways in South Africa. There are no self-service stations. In return, tip the attendant R2–R5 (more if you’ve filled the tank). South Africa has a choice of unleaded or leaded gasoline, and many vehicles operate on diesel—be sure you get the right fuel. Gasoline is measured in liters, and the cost is higher than in the United States. When driving long distances, check your routes carefully, as the distances between towns—and hence gas stations—can be more than 100 miles.
In the countryside, parking is mostly free, but you will almost certainly need to pay for parking in cities, which will probably run you about R5–R8 per hour. Many towns have an official attendant (who should be wearing a vest of some sort) who will log the number of the spot you park in; you’re asked to pay upfront for the amount of time you expect to park. If the guard is unofficial, acknowledge them on arrival, ask them to look after your car, and pay a few rand when you return (they depend on these tips). At pay-and-display parking lots you pay in advance; other garages expect payment at the exit. Many (such as those at shopping malls and airports) require that you pay for your parking before you return to your car (at kiosks near the exits to the parking areas). Your receipt ticket allows you to exit. Just read the signs carefully.
South African roads are mostly excellent, but it’s dangerous to drive at night in some rural areas, as roads are not always fenced and animals often stray onto the road. In very remote areas only the main road might be paved, whereas many secondary roads are of high-quality gravel. Traffic is often light in these areas, so be sure to bring extra water and carry a spare, a jack, and a tire iron (your rental car should come with these).
Rules of the Road
South Africans drive on the left-hand side of the road, British-style. That may be confusing at first, but having the steering wheel on the right helps to remind you that the driver should be closer to the middle of the road.
Throughout the country, the speed limit is 100 kph (60 mph) or 120 kph (about 75 mph) on the open road and usually 60 kph (35 mph) or 80 kph (about 50 mph) in towns. Of course, many people drive far faster than that. Wearing seat belts is required by law, and the legal blood-alcohol limit is 0.08 mg/100 ml, which means about one glass of wine puts you at the limit. It is illegal to talk on a handheld mobile phone while driving.
South African drivers tend to be aggressive and reckless, thinking nothing of tailgating at high speeds and passing on blind rises. Traffic accidents are a major problem.
If it’s safe to do so, it’s courteous for slow vehicles to move over onto the shoulder, which is separated from the road by a solid yellow line. (In built-up areas, however, road shoulders are occasionally marked by red lines. This is a strict “no-stopping” zone.) The more aggressive drivers expect this and will flash their lights at you if you don’t. Where there are two lanes in each direction, remember that the right-hand lane is for passing.
In towns, minibus taxis can be quite unnerving, swerving in and out of traffic without warning to pick up customers. Stay alert at all times. Many cities use mini-traffic circles in lieu of four-way stops. These can be dangerous, particularly if you’re not used to them. In theory, the first vehicle to the circle has the right-of-way; otherwise yield to the right. In practice, keep your wits about you at all times. In most cities, traffic lights are on poles at the side of the street. In Johannesburg the lights are only on the far side of each intersection, so don’t stop in front of the light or you’ll be in the middle of the intersection.
In South African parlance, traffic lights are known as “robots,” and what people refer to as the “pavement” is actually the sidewalk. Paved roads are just called roads. Gas is referred to as petrol, and gas stations are petrol stations.
Renting a car gives you the freedom to roam freely and set your own timetable. Most of Cape Town’s most popular destinations are an easy drive from the City Bowl. Many people enjoy the slow pace of exploring South Africa’s Garden Route by car, or a few days meandering through the Winelands on their own.
Roads in South Africa are generally good, and rates are similar to those in the United States. Some companies charge more on weekends, so it’s best to get a range of quotes before booking your car. Request car seats and extras such as GPS when you book and ask for details on what to do if you have a mechanical problem or other emergencies.
For a car with automatic transmission and air-conditioning, you’ll pay slightly less for a car that doesn’t have unlimited mileage. When comparing prices, make sure you’re getting the same thing. Some companies quote prices without insurance, some include 80% or 90% coverage, and some quote with 100% protection. Get all terms in writing before you leave on your trip.
Most major international companies have offices in tourist cities and at international airports, and their vehicle types are the same range you’d find at home. There’s no need to rent a 4×4 vehicle, as all roads are paved, including those in Kruger National Park.
Maui Motorhome Rentals offers fully equipped motor homes, camper vans, and 4×4 vehicles, many of which come totally equipped for a bush sojourn. Prices start at around R1,500 per day, not including insurance, and require a five-day minimum.
You can often save some money by booking a car through a broker, who will access the car from one of the main agencies. Smaller, local agencies often give a much better price, but the car must be returned in the same city. This is pretty popular in Cape Town but not so much in other centers.
To rent a car you need to be 23 years or older and have held a driver’s license for three years. Younger international drivers can rent from some companies but will pay a penalty. You need to get special permission to take rental cars into neighboring countries (including Lesotho and Swaziland). Most companies allow additional drivers, but some charge.
Leave ample time to return your car when your trip is over. You shouldn’t feel rushed when settling your bill. Be sure to get copies of your receipt.
In South Africa, it’s necessary to buy special insurance if you plan to cross borders into neighboring countries, but CDW and TDW (collision damage waiver and theft-damage waiver) are optional on domestic rentals. Any time you are considering crossing a border with your rental vehicle, you must inform the rental company ahead of time to fulfill any paperwork requirements and pay additional fees.
Shosholoza Meyl operates an extensive system of passenger trains along eight routes that connect all major cities and many small towns in South Africa. Departures are usually limited to one per day, although trains covering minor routes leave less frequently. Distances are vast, so many journeys require overnight travel. The service is good and the trains are safe and well maintained, but this is far from a luxury option, except in Premier Classe, the luxury service that runs between Cape Town and Johannesburg or Port Elizabeth and between Jo’burg and Durban. In Premier Classe, sleeping compartments accommodate two to four travelers, and single compartments are also available. Compartments include a/c, bedding, and limited room service (drinks only). The Jo’burg–Cape Town and Jo’burg–Durban routes have a compartment for vehicles (including 4x4s).
Tourist Class (the old first-class) has four-sleeper (bunks) and two-sleeper compartments. Don’t expect a/c, heat, or a shower in either class. Bathrooms are shared, compartments have a sink, and bedding can be rented. The dining car serves pretty ordinary food, but it’s inexpensive.
We do not recommend Third class or Economy Class (aka “sitter class”) because that’s what you do—up to 25 hours on a hard seat with up to 71 other people in the car, sharing two toilets and no shower.
You must reserve tickets in Premier Classe and Tourist Class, whereas sitter-class tickets require no advance booking. You can book up to three months in advance by telephone, with travel agents, at reservations offices in major cities, and at railway stations.
A fun way to see the country is on the Shongololo Express. The train is as basic as the Shosholoza Meyl trains, but while you sleep at night, it heads to a new destination. After breakfast, tour buses are loaded, and you explore the surroundings. In the evening, you reboard the train, have supper, and sleep while the train moves to the next stop. Trips include the Dune Adventure (the dunes of Namibia), the Good Hope Adventure (Cape attractions), and the Southern Cross Adventure (six African countries). Rates start at about R1,500 per person per night. By the way, a shongololo is a millipede.
Most hotels have Wi-Fi. Stores such as Woolworths, restaurants such as Wimpy, and most airports offer a countrywide Wi-Fi service called AlwaysOn that allows you 30 minutes of free Wi-Fi per day. If you need more time, you can pay for it.
If you bring your laptop or tablet, you’ll have no problem finding Wi-Fi service in the cities, but it’s unlikely you’ll find anyone to service a Mac outside of Cape Town and Jo’burg.
There are toll-free numbers in South Africa. There’s also something called a share-call line, for which the cost of the call is split between both parties.
The country code for South Africa is 27. When dialing from abroad, drop the initial 0 from local area codes.
Calling Within South Africa
Local calls (from landline to landline) are very cheap, although all calls from hotels add a hefty premium. Calls between a mobile phone and a landline are relatively expensive (up to R5 per minute). Payphones may be coin- or card-operated (the former are being phased out). Phone cards are available at newsstands, convenience stores, and telephone company offices.
When making a phone call in South Africa, always use the full 10-digit number, including the area code, even if you’re in the same area. For directory assistance in South Africa, call 1023. For operator-assisted national long-distance calls, call 1025. For international operator assistance, dial 10903#. These numbers are free if dialed from a Telkom (landline) phone but are charged at normal cell-phone rates from a mobile—and they’re busy call centers. Directory inquiries numbers are different for each cell-phone network. Vodacom is 111, MTN is 200, and Cell C is 146. These calls are charged at normal rates, but the call is timed only from when it is actually answered.
Calling Outside South Africa
When dialing out from South Africa, dial 00 before the international code. So, for example, you would dial 001 for the United States, since the country code for the United States is 1.
Internet calling like Skype also works well from the United States, but it’s not always functional in South Africa unless you’re on a reliable high-speed Internet connection, which isn’t available everywhere. However, if you have a South African “free” cell phone (meaning you can receive calls for free; all phones using an SA SIM card do this), someone in the United States can call you from their Skype account, for reasonable per-minute charges, and you won’t be charged.
Cell phones are ubiquitous and have quite extensive coverage. There are four cell-phone service providers in South Africa—Cell C, MTN, Virgin Mobile, and Vodacom—and you can buy these SIM cards, as well as airtime, in supermarkets for as little as R10 for the SIM card. (If you purchase SIM cards at the airport, you will be charged much more.) Bear in mind that your U.S. cell phone may not work with the local GSM system and/or that your phone may be blocked from using SIM cards outside of your plan if your phone is not unlocked. Basic but functional GSM cell phones start at R100, and are available at the mobile carrier shops as well as major department stores like Woolworths.
Cell phones also can be rented by the day, week, or longer from the airport on your arrival, but this is an expensive option. If you plan to bring a U.S. cell phone while you’re traveling, know what your own company will charge both for calls and data use. Texts cost a fraction of a call and are the handiest option for meeting up with local friends, but for calling a hotel reservations line, it’s best to make the call.
The least complicated way to make and receive phone calls is to obtain international roaming service from your cell-phone service provider before you leave home, but this can be expensive. Any phone that you take abroad must be unlocked by your company for you to be able to use it.
CUSTOMS AND DUTIES
Visitors may bring in new or used gifts and souvenirs up to a total value of R3,000 duty-free. Duty-free allowances of tobacco and alcoholic beverages are also limited.
The United States is a signatory to CITES, a wildlife protection treaty, and therefore does not allow the importation of living or dead endangered animals, or their body parts, such as rhino horns or ivory. If you purchase an antique that is made partly or wholly of ivory, you must obtain a CITES preconvention certificate that clearly states that the item is at least 100 years old. The import of zebra skin or other tourist products also requires a CITES permit.
South Africa’s cities and towns are full of dining options, from chain restaurants like the popular Nando’s to chic cafés. Indian food and Cape Malay dishes are regional favorites in Cape Town, and traditional smoked meats and sausages are available countrywide. Children are allowed in all restaurants but don’t expect toys and games as in American restaurants.
Meals and Mealtimes
In South Africa, dinner is eaten at night and lunch at noon. Breakfast generally consists of something eggy and hot, but many people are moving over to muesli and fruit. South Africans may eat muffins for breakfast but draw the line at doughnuts, so don’t expect too many breakfast sweets. Restaurants serve breakfast until about 11:30; a few serve breakfast all day.
If you’re staying at a game lodge, your mealtimes will revolve around the game drives—usually coffee and rusks (similar to biscotti) early in the morning, more coffee and probably muffins on the first game drive, a huge brunch in the late morning, no lunch, tea and something sweet in the late afternoon before the evening game drive, cocktails and snacks on the drive, and a substantial supper, or dinner, about 8 or 8:30.
If you’re particularly interested in food, stay at a guesthouse selected by Good Cooks and Their Country Houses, which are noted for superior cuisine. For a guesthouse to qualify for inclusion, the chef must be the owner (or one of them).
Many restaurants accustomed to serving tourists accept credit cards, usually Visa and American Express, with MasterCard increasingly accepted.
Reservations and Dress
Most restaurants welcome casual dress, including jeans and sneakers. Very expensive restaurants and old-fashioned hotel restaurants (where colonial traditions die hard) may welcome nicer dress, but other than the Blue Train, few require a jacket and tie.
Wines, Beer, and Spirits
You can buy wine in supermarkets and many convenience stores. Beer is available only in “bottle shops,” which are licensed to sell spirits. Most restaurants are licensed to sell wine and beer, and many also sell spirits. From Saturday at 8 pm through Sunday, you can buy alcohol only in restaurants and bars. You may not take alcohol onto beaches, and it’s illegal to walk down the street with an open container. You can, however, drink with a picnic or enjoy sundowners (cocktails at sunset) in almost any public place, such as Table Mountain or Kirstenbosch. The beach rule is also somewhat relaxed at sundowner time, but be careful.
The electrical current is 220 volts, 50 cycles alternating current (AC); wall outlets in most of the region take 15-amp plugs with three round prongs (the old British system), some take the European two narrow prongs, and a few take the straight-edged three-prong plugs, also 15 amps.
If your appliances are dual voltage, you’ll need only an adapter. In remote areas (and even in some lodges) power may be solar or from a generator; this means that delivery is erratic both in voltage and supply. In even the remotest places, however, lodge staff will find a way to charge video and camera batteries, but you will receive little sympathy if you insist on using a hairdryer or electric razor.
Consider making a small investment in a universal adapter, which has several types of plugs in one lightweight, compact unit. Most laptops and mobile phone chargers are dual voltage (i.e., they operate equally well on 110 and 220 volts), so require only an adapter. These days the same is true of small appliances such as hair dryers. Always check labels and manufacturer instructions to be sure. Don’t use 110-volt outlets marked for shavers only for high-wattage appliances such as hair dryers.
The U.S. embassy is in Pretoria; there’s a consulate in Cape Town.
If you specifically need an ambulance, you can get one by calling the special ambulance number or through the general emergency number. If you intend to do scuba diving in South Africa, make sure you have DAN membership, which will be honored by Divers Alert Network South Africa (DANSA).
DANSA. 0800/020–111; 27/828–106010
General emergency. 10111; 112; 107.
Goods in South Africa’s pharmacies and grocery stores are very similar to those in the States. If you have a favorite brand of toiletry, bring it; otherwise expect to pay average prices for items you may have left at home. Minimarts at gas stations also stock the same range of candies and sodas you would expect of a roadside shop.
Take care to bring enough prescription medicines and a copy of your prescription if you anticipate needing a refill. Ask your doctor to write down the ingredients so that a pharmacist will find a suitable substitute if necessary. Obtain your antimalarials at home.
Incidents of theft from checked baggage in Cape Town and Johannesburg airports make luggage wrapping a popular option. For a few rand, the process of wrapping a bag in impenetrable cellophane is a great deterrent against crime. Fragile items in soft-sided bags can be crushed in the wrapping process, so remove breakable items or place them in the center of the bag to prevent them getting squeezed. The wrapping can be removed by hand or with a knife. Security accepts wrapped bags.
In southern Africa, it’s possible to experience muggy heat, bone-chilling cold, torrential thunderstorms, and scorching African sun all within a couple of days. The secret is to pack lightweight clothes that you can wear in layers, and at least one lightweight fleece pullover or sweater. Take along a warm jacket, too, especially if you’re going to a private game lodge. It can get mighty cold sitting in an open Land Rover at night or on an early-morning game drive. It really and truly does get very cold in almost every part of southern Africa, so don’t fall into the it’s-Africa-so-it-must-always-be-hot trap.
South Africans tend to dress casually. Businessmen still wear suits, but dress standards have become less rigid and more interesting since the late Nelson Mandela redefined the concept of sartorial elegance with his Madiba shirts. You can go almost anywhere in neat, clean, casual clothes, but you can still get dolled up to go to the theater or opera.
It’s easy to get fried in the strong African sun, especially in mile-high Johannesburg or windy Cape Town, where the air can feel deceptively cool. Pack plenty of sunscreen (SPF 30 or higher), sunglasses, and a hat. An umbrella comes in handy during those late-afternoon thunderstorms but is almost useless in Cape Town in the winter, as it will get blown inside out. But do take a raincoat.
Some hotels do supply washcloths; some don’t. It’s always a good idea to have at least a couple of tissues in your bag, and moist towelettes, because there may not be a restroom (or toilet paper) just when you need it. Even an hour in a safari vehicle on a dry day can cover you with dust.
Make copies of all your important documents. Leave one set in one bag, another at home, and try to save them online in a PDF file, which may be the fastest way to access data if you need to replace anything. Consider carrying a small card with emergency contact numbers on it, such as the local U.S. embassy, in case things go terribly wrong.
If your luggage does get lost, your best bet for replacing staple items will be Woolworths (a high-quality brand in South Africa, with both department and food stores). Edgars and Truworths are also fine. You can find all three in most big shopping malls. Mr. Price is South Africa’s Target equivalent, but with less-reliable quality. Cape Union Mart is great for safari stuff. You’ll find a wide supply of toiletries in Clicks.
South Africa is a modern country, but Africa still poses certain health risks even in the most developed areas.
These days everyone is sun-sensitive (and sun can be a big issue in South Africa), so pack plenty of your favorite SPF product from home, and use it generously. And drink plenty of water to avoid dehydration.
The drinking water in South Africa is treated and, except in rural areas, is absolutely safe to drink. Many people filter it, though, to get rid of the chlorine, as that aseptic status does not come free. You can eat fresh fruits and salads and have ice in your drinks.
It is always wise for travelers to have medical insurance for travel that will also help with emergency evacuation (most safari operators require emergency evacuation coverage and may ask you to pay for it along with your tour payments). If you don’t want general travel insurance, many companies offer medical-only policies.
Although there are some nonmalarial safari regions in South Africa, the most serious health problem facing travelers is malaria, which occurs in the prime South African game-viewing areas of Mpumalanga, Limpopo Province, and northern KwaZulu-Natal and in the countries farther north. The risk is medium at the height of the summer and very low in winter. All travelers heading into malaria-endemic regions should consult a health-care professional at least one month before departure for advice. Unfortunately, the malarial organism Plasmodium sp. seems to be able to develop a hardy resistance to new prophylactic drugs pretty quickly, so even if you are taking the newest miracle drug, the best prevention is to avoid being bitten by mosquitoes in the first place. After sunset wear light-color, loose, long-sleeve shirts, long pants, and shoes and socks, and apply mosquito repellent generously. Always sleep in a mosquito-proof room or tent, and if possible, keep a fan going in your room. If you are pregnant or trying to conceive, avoid malaria areas entirely.
Generally speaking, the risk is much lower in the dry season (May–October) and peaks immediately after the first rains, which should be in November, but El Niño has made that a lot less predictable.
Many lakes and streams, particularly east of the watershed divide (i.e., in rivers flowing toward the Indian Ocean), are infected with bilharzia (schistosomiasis), a parasite carried by a small freshwater snail. The microscopic fluke enters through the skin of swimmers or waders, attaches itself to the intestines or bladder, and lays eggs. Avoid wading in still waters or in areas close to reeds. If you have been wading or swimming in doubtful water, dry yourself off vigorously with a towel immediately upon exiting the water, as this may help to dislodge any flukes before they can burrow into your skin. Fast-moving water is considered safe. If you have been exposed, pop into a pharmacy and purchase a course of treatment and take it to be safe. If your trip is ending shortly after your exposure, take the medicine home and have a checkup once you get there. Bilharzia is easily diagnosed, and it’s also easily treated in the early stages.
Be aware of the dangers of becoming infected with HIV (which is a big problem in Africa) or hepatitis. Make sure you use a condom during a sexual encounter; they’re sold in supermarkets, pharmacies, and most convenience stores. If you feel there’s a possibility you’ve exposed yourself to the virus, you can get antiretroviral treatment (post-exposure prophylaxis or PEP) from private hospitals, but you must do so within 48 hours of exposure.
Rabies is extremely rare in domesticated animals in South Africa but is more common in wild animals—one more reason you should not feed or tease them. If you are bitten by a monkey or other wild animal, seek medical attention immediately. The chance of contracting rabies is extremely small, but the consequences are so horrible that you really don’t want to gamble on this one.
Insects and Other Pests
In summer ticks may be a problem, even in open areas close to cities. If you intend to walk or hike anywhere, use a suitable insect repellent. After your walk, examine your body and clothes for ticks, looking carefully for pepper ticks, which are tiny but may cause tick-bite fever. If you find a tick has bitten you, do not pull it off. If you do, you may pull the body off, and the head will remain embedded in your skin, causing an infection. Rather, smother the area with petroleum jelly, and the tick will eventually let go, as it will be unable to breathe; you can then scrape it off with a fingernail. If you are bitten, keep an eye on the bite. If the tick was infected, the bite will swell, itch, and develop a black necrotic center. This is a sure sign that you will develop tick-bite fever, which usually hits after about 8 to 12 days. Symptoms may be mild or severe, depending on the patient. This disease is not usually life-threatening in healthy adults, but it’s horribly unpleasant. Most people who are bitten by ticks suffer no more than an itchy bump, so don’t panic.
Also, obviously, keep a lookout for mosquitoes. Even in nonmalarial areas, they are extremely irritating. When walking anywhere in the bush, keep a lookout for snakes. Most will slither away when they feel you coming, but just keep your eyes peeled. If you see one, give it a wide berth and you should be fine. Snakes really bite only when they are taken by surprise, so you don’t want to step on a napping adder. If on safari or camping, check your boots and shake your clothes out for spiders and other crawlies before getting dressed.
You can buy over-the-counter medication in pharmacies and supermarkets, and you will find the more general remedies in Clicks, a chain store selling beauty products, some OTC medication, and housewares. Your body may not react the same way to the South African version of a product, even something as simple as a headache tablet, so bring your own supply for your trip and rely on pharmacies just for emergency medication.
Shots and Medications
South Africa does not require any inoculations for entry. Travelers entering South Africa within six days of leaving a country infected with yellow fever require a yellow-fever vaccination certificate. The South African travel clinics and the U.S. National Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommend that you be vaccinated against hepatitis A and B if you intend to travel to more isolated areas. Cholera injections are widely regarded as useless, so don’t let anyone talk you into having one, but the newer oral vaccine seems to be more effective.
If you are coming to South Africa for a safari, chances are you are heading to a malarial game reserve. Only a handful of game reserves are nonmalarial. Millions of travelers take oral prophylactic drugs before, during, and after their safaris. It’s up to you to weigh the risks and benefits of the type of antimalarial drug you choose to take. If you’re pregnant or traveling with small children, consider a nonmalarial region for your safari.
The CDC provides up-to-date information on health risks and recommended vaccinations and medications for travelers to southern Africa. In most of South Africa you need not worry about any of these, but if you plan to visit remote regions, check with the CDC’s traveler’s health line. For up-to-date, local expertise, contact Netcare Travel Clinics.
Medical Care in South Africa
South African doctors are generally excellent. The equipment and training in private clinics rivals the best in the world, but public hospitals tend to suffer from overcrowding and underfunding. So if you need to seek medical treatment, ask your hotel or safari operator to get you to a private hospital. In South Africa, foreigners are expected to pay in full for any medical services, so check your existing health plan to see whether you’re covered while abroad, and supplement it if necessary.
On returning home, if you experience any unusual symptoms, including fever, painful eyes, backache, diarrhea, severe headache, general lassitude, or blood in urine or stool, be sure to tell your doctor where you have been. These symptoms may indicate malaria, tick-bite fever, bilharzia, or—if you’ve been traveling north of South Africa’s borders—some other tropical malady.
HOURS OF OPERATION
The most surprising aspect of South Africa’s business hours, especially for tourists who come to shop, is that shopping centers, including enclosed secure indoor malls, almost always close by 6 pm. This is starting to change in Cape Town’s malls, with summer hours increased until 7 or 8, but don’t expect it. It’s rare for a store to remain open after dinner.
Business hours in major South African cities are weekdays from about 9 to 5. Most banks close in midafternoon, usually about 3:30, but dedicated currency exchange offices usually stay open longer. In addition, post offices and banks are open briefly on Saturday morning from about 9, so get there early. In rural areas and small towns, things are less rigid. Post offices often close for lunch, and in very small towns and villages, banks may have very abbreviated hours.
Most museums are open during usual business hours, including Saturday morning, but some stay open longer.
Most pharmacies close about 6, but there’s generally an all-night pharmacy in towns of a reasonable size. If not, look for an emergency number posted on a pharmacy.
Many gas stations are open 24 hours, and urban gas stations have 24-hour convenience stores, some of which have an impressive range of goods.
National holidays in South Africa are New Year’s Day (January 1), Human Rights Day (March 21), Good Friday, Easter, Family Day (sometime in March or April), Freedom Day (April 27), Workers Day (May 1), Youth Day (June 16), National Women’s Day (August 9), Heritage Day (September 24), Day of Reconciliation (December 16), Christmas Day (December 25), and Day of Goodwill (December 26). If a public holiday falls on a Sunday, the following Monday is also a public holiday. Election days are also public holidays, so check calendars closer to your time of travel for those, which are not on fixed dates.
In Cape Town, January 2 is also a holiday, known as tweede nuwe jaar (second new year). School vacations vary with the provinces, but usually comprise about 10 days over Easter, about three weeks around June or July, and then the big summer vacation from about December 10 to January 10.
Because of inflation and currency fluctuations, it’s difficult to give exact exchange rates. It’s safe to say, though, that the region is a good value, with high-quality accommodations and food at about two-thirds or half the cost they would be at home.
Not everything in South Africa is cheap. Expect to pay international rates and more to stay in one of the exclusive private game lodges in Mpumalanga, Limpopo Province, or KwaZulu-Natal—with a fly-in charter figured into the price, expect to pay between $2,000 and $3,000 per couple per night. Flights to South Africa are expensive, but the rash of new low-cost carriers makes popular domestic routes less expensive, with most trips less than $150 one way. Taxis are uncharacteristically expensive, compared with other vacation needs.
ATMs and Banks
South Africa has a modern banking system, with branches throughout the country and ubiquitous ATMs, especially at tourist attractions, in gas stations, and in shopping malls. Banks open at 9 in the morning weekdays and close at 3:30 in the afternoon; on Saturday they close at 11 in the morning, and they are closed Sunday (with the exception of Standard Bank branches in shopping malls, some of which are open on Sunday, 9:30–1). Many banks can perform foreign-exchange services or international electronic transfers, but you will always get a better exchange rate from an ATM. The major South African banks are ABSA, First National Bank, Nedbank, and Standard.
If your card gets swallowed, stay at the ATM and call the helpline number displayed. If possible, withdraw money during the day and choose ATMs with security guards present or those inside stores.
MasterCard, Visa, and American Express are accepted almost everywhere, but Diners Club and Discover are not.
It’s a good idea to inform your credit-card company before you travel, especially if you’re going abroad and don’t travel internationally very often. Otherwise, the credit-card company might put a hold on your card owing to unusual activity—not a good thing halfway through your trip. Record all your credit-card numbers—as well as the phone numbers to call if your cards are lost or stolen—in a safe place, so you’re prepared should something go wrong. MasterCard, Visa, and American Express all have general numbers you can call collect if you’re abroad.
If you plan to use your credit card for cash advances, you’ll need to apply for a PIN at least two weeks before your trip. Although it’s usually cheaper (and safer) to use a credit card abroad for large purchases (so you can cancel payments or be reimbursed if there’s a problem), note that some credit card companies and the banks that issue them add substantial percentages to all foreign transactions, whether they’re in a foreign currency or not. Check on these fees before leaving home, so there won’t be any surprises when you get the bill.
Currency and Exchange
The unit of currency in South Africa is the rand (R), with 100 cents (¢) equaling R1. Bills come in R10, R20, R50, R100, and R200 denominations, which are differentiated by color (beware of the similar color of the R50 and R200 notes). Coins are minted in 5¢, 10¢, 20¢, 50¢, R1, R2, and R5 denominations.
To avoid administrative hassles, keep all foreign-exchange receipts until you leave the region, as you may need them as proof when changing any unspent local currency back into your own currency. You may not take more than R25,000 or US$10,000 in cash in or out of South Africa. For more information, you can contact the South African Reserve Bank.
Even if a currency-exchange booth has a sign promising no commission, rest assured that there’s some kind of hidden fee. And as for rates, you’re almost always better off getting foreign currency at an ATM or exchanging money at a bank.
American citizens need only a valid passport to enter South Africa for visits of up to 90 days; this includes infants. Check the expiration date. If your passport will expire within six months of your return date, you need to renew it in advance, as South Africa won’t let you enter with a soon-to-expire passport. You will be denied entry to the country if you do not have two blank, facing pages in your passport.
Before your trip, make two copies of your passport’s data page (one for someone at home and another for you to carry separately). Or scan the page and email it to someone at home and/or yourself.
All fuel complexes on the major roads have large, clean, well-maintained restrooms. In cities, you can find restrooms in shopping malls, at some gas stations, and in restaurants—most of which are quite happy to allow you to use them.
South Africa is a country in transition, and as a result, experiences growing pains that reveal themselves in economic inequities, which result in high crime rates. Although the majority of visitors experience a crime-free trip to South Africa, it’s essential to practice vigilance and extreme care.
Crime is a major problem in the whole region, particularly in large cities, and all visitors should take precautions to protect themselves. Do not walk alone at night, and exercise caution even during the day. Avoid wearing jewelry (even costume jewelry), don’t invite attention by wearing an expensive camera around your neck, and don’t flash a large wad of cash. If you are toting a handbag, wear the strap across your body; even better, wear a money belt, preferably hidden from view under your clothing. When sitting at airports or at restaurants, especially outdoor cafés, make sure to keep your bag on your lap or between your legs—otherwise, it may just quietly “walk off” when you’re not looking. Even better, loop the strap around your leg, or clip the strap around the table or chair.
Carjacking is another problem, with armed bandits often forcing drivers out of their vehicles at traffic lights, in driveways, or during a fake accident. Always drive with your windows closed and doors locked, don’t stop for hitchhikers, and park in well-lighted places. At traffic lights, leave enough space between you and the vehicle in front so you can pull into another lane if necessary. In the unlikely event you are carjacked, don’t argue, and don’t look at the carjacker’s face. Just get out of the car, or ask to be let out of the car. Do not try to keep any of your belongings—they are all replaceable, even that laptop with all that data on it. If you aren’t given the opportunity to leave the car, try to stay calm, ostentatiously look away from the hijackers so they can be sure you can’t identify them and follow all instructions. Ask again, calmly, to be let out of the car.
Many places that are unsafe in South Africa will not bear obvious signs of danger. Make sure you know exactly where you’re going. Purchase a good map and obtain comprehensive directions from your hotel, rental-car agent, or a trusted local. Taking the wrong exit off a highway into a township could lead you straight to disaster. Many cities are ringed by “no-go” areas. Learn from your hotel or the locals which areas to avoid. If you sense you have taken a wrong turn, drive toward a public area, such as a gas station, or building with an armed guard, before attempting to correct your mistake, which could just compound the problem. When parking, don’t leave anything visible in the car; stow it all in the trunk—this includes clothing or shoes. As an added measure, leave the glove box open, to show there’s nothing of value inside (take the rental agreement with you).
Before setting out on foot, ask a local, such as your hotel concierge or a shopkeeper, which route to take and how far you can safely go. Walk with a purposeful stride so you look like you know where you’re going, and duck into a shop or café if you need to check a map, speak on your mobile phone, or recheck the directions you’ve been given. Don’t walk while speaking on a cell phone.
Lone women travelers need to be particularly vigilant about walking alone and locking their rooms. South Africa has one of the world’s highest rates of rape. If you do attract someone who won’t take a firm but polite no for an answer, appeal immediately to the hotel manager, bartender, or someone else who seems to be in charge. If you have to walk a short distance alone at night, such as from the hotel reception to your room in a dark motel compound or back from a café along a main street, have a plan, carry a whistle, and know what you’ll do if you are grabbed.
All South African hotels pay a bed tax, which is included in quoted prices. In South Africa, the Value-Added Tax (V.A.T.), which at this writing is 14%, is included in the price of most goods and services, including hotel accommodations and food. To get a V.A.T. refund, foreign visitors must present their receipts (minimum of R250) at the airport and be carrying any purchased items with them or in their luggage. You must fill out Form V.A.T. 255, available at the airport V.A.T. refund office. Whatever you buy, make sure that your receipt is an original tax invoice, containing the vendor’s name and address, V.A.T. registration number, and the words “tax invoice.” Refunds are paid by check, which can be cashed immediately at an airport bank or refunded directly onto your credit card, with a small transaction fee. Be sure you visit the V.A.T. refund desk in the departures hall before you go through check-in procedures, and try to organize your receipts as you go, to make for easy viewing. Officials will go through your receipts and randomly ask to view your purchases.
Tipping is an integral part of South African life, and it’s expected that you’ll tip for services that you might take for granted at home. Most notable among these is getting gas, as there are no self-service stations. If the attendant simply fills your tank, tip R2–R3; if he or she offers to clean your windshield, checks your tires, oil, or water, and is generally helpful, tip R5–R10. In restaurants, the size of the tip should depend on the quality of service, but 10% is standard, unless, of course, a service charge has already been added to the bill. Give the same percentage to bartenders, taxi drivers, and tour guides.
At the end of your stay at a game lodge, you’re expected to tip both the ranger and the tracker and the general staff. Different lodgings handle it differently, and checking with the management is one way to make sure you tip properly. However, a good model to follow is to factor 10% of your total room bill. Fifty percent of this figure should go to your ranger/tracker, and 50% should go to the general staff. If you have a personal butler, factor an additional 10% (of your total tip figure). If you have your laundry done, leave R5–R10 for the laundress in a special envelope. Envelopes are usually provided in safari rooms and tents for tipping, but it’s a nice touch to bring your own note cards to write a personal message.
Informal parking attendants operate in the major cities in South Africa and even in some tourist areas. Although they often look a bit seedy, they do provide a good service, so tip them R2–R5 if your car is still in one piece when you return to it.
Comprehensive trip insurance is recommended for all vacations purchased through Vacays4U. Comprehensive policies typically cover trip cancellation and interruption, letting you cancel or cut your trip short because of illness, or, in some cases, acts of terrorism. Ask about insurance policies that cover evacuation and medical care. Some also cover you for trip delays because of bad weather or mechanical problems as well as for lost or delayed luggage.
Always read the fine print of your policy to make sure you’re covered for the risks that most concern you. Compare several policies to be sure you’re getting the best price and range of coverage available.