Drakensburg Mountains, South Africa (South African Tourist Board)

South Africa


Overview

South Africa travel guide, including map of South Africa, top South Africa travel experiences, tips for travel in South Africa, plus where to see whales and wil

South Africa's defining characteristic is its breath-taking diversity. As well as the Big 5 in Kruger (lions, leopards, elephants, buffalo and rhinos), safari enthusiasts can spot hippo in the Limpopo River, whales off Hermanus and penguins at Boulder's Beach, Cape Town.

Like its wildlife, South Africa's landscapes vary dramatically from the heights of the Drakensberg mountains to the subtropical KwaZulu Natal coast, from the flowering Cape to the vast Karoo semi-desert in its heartland. And with an excellent network of highways, good public transport and clearly marked hiking trials, South Africa is one of the easiest countries to explore on the African continent.

South Africa also has a rich range of cultures and peoples – a fact often obscured by the Apartheid's attempt to categorise in black and white. With 11 official languages, it truly is the Rainbow Nation. So even if you've visited before, you'll have many more South Africas left to see.

Wanderlust recommends

  1. Visit the battlefields of Zululand
  2. Plan a road trip – South Africa is great driving country. Try the Garden Route or north from Cape Town to Namaqualand
  3. Star-gaze in the barren red landscape and eerily deserted towns of the little-visited Northern Cape
  4. Help yourself to an extra serving of Cape Malay culture on a Cape Town cooking course
  5. Explore the big game parks, including Kruger National Park and a host a fabulous private reserves
  6. Hike challenging trails in the little-visited Eastern Cape and Drakensburg Mountains
  7. Find wildlife on shore and at sea in remote KwaZulu-Natal

Wanderlust tips

Sleeping over in South Africa’s national parks is cheap and a great way to experience them early in the morning before the crowds arrive. A real gem is the self-guided Cape of Good Hope National Park Hiking Trail.

Most visitors to Cape Town pile into tourist buses and head straight to Cape Point’s funicular for the photo opportunities. Instead, go slow with the 33.8km two-day Cape of Good Hope Trail, with overnight accommodation in one of three basic cottages. You’ll be rewarded with a fragrant flower trail and secluded beaches on your way to the iconic Cape Point lighthouse.

Further Reading

Travel in South Africa: vital statistics

  • Capital of South Africa: Pretoria (Tshwane)
  • Population of South Africa: 49.2 million
  • Languages in South Africa: Afrikaans, English, Ndebele, Sepedi, Sesotho, Swati, Tsonga, Tswana, Venda, Xhosa, Zulu Time in South Africa: GMT+2
  • International dialling code in South Africa: +27
  • Voltage in South Africa: 220/230 AC (250 in Pretoria), 50 Hz
  • Visas for South Africa: Not required by UK nationals. Find out more about South African visas here
  • Money in South Africa: South Africa rand (R). US dollars are also useful. Credit cards and traveller’s cheques are widely accepted except in remote areas, where you’ll need to carry cash. Tipping is generally expected and very welcome as wages are often low.
  • South Africa travel advice: Foreign & Commonwealth Office
  • South Africa tourist board: South African Tourism

When to go to South Africa

Although generally pleasant and sunny, the best time to go varies by region. The Cape and the Garden Route have a Mediterranean climate. Summers (November to March) are warm and dry (24-27° C); winters (June to August) are mild and moist (7-18° C).

Nearly everywhere else in South Africa, summer sees the most rainfall, with the east wetter than west. If you are visiting subtropical KwaZulu-Natal it is best to avoid December, February and March, which are particularly humid.

Big-game viewing is best in winter, when the malaria threat is also reduced. Whales can be spotted off the west and south coasts from June to November.  The flowers in the western Cape are spectacular in September.

If you spending New Year in the Cape don’t miss the colourful Kaapse Klopse (Cape Ministerial Carnival), which runs for a month from 2 January.  South Africa’s oldest and biggest arts festival – the National Arts Festival – is held from late June to early July at Grahamstown, in the Eastern Cape.

International airports

Cape Town (CPT) is 20km from the city. Johannesburg (JNB) is 25km from the city. Also Durban (DUR), Port Elizabeth (PLZ) and Bloemfontein (BFN).

 

Getting around in South Africa

South Africa’s major towns are served by an excellent internal air system. On popular routes, tickets can be only slightly more expensive than a bus ticket.

Travelling by train in South Africa is very slow – Johannesburg to Cape Town takes 29 hours. But overnighting can be glamorous on the famous Blue Train or equally luxurious routes offered by Rovos Rail. If you’re planning a long stay in South Africa, want the freedom of a car but can’t face the long drive between cities, consider using an intercity train which allows you to transport your car. Be warned, security can be an issue on some trains.

Buses and coaches are efficient and cheap. South Africa’s roads are perhaps the best maintained and connected on the continent. Car hire is widely available and a little cheaper than in Europe. Driving is on the left-hand side of the road. Potential hazards include other drivers, animals on the road in rural areas and car-jacking in urban places.

South Africa accommodation

South Africa has a wide range, from backpacker hostels and B&Bs (Bed en Ontbyt in Afrikaans) through to upmarket safari lodges and 5-star hotels. Accommodation tends to be cheaper in South Africa than Western Europe and the USA but more expensive than the rest of the continent.

Self-catering cottages and apartments can be an affordable option. For decades the homes of poor black South African were hidden from tourists but since the end of the Apartheid, a number of township B&Bs have opened, giving you a different way to experience South Africa.

South Africa food & drink

South Africans are great meat eaters with barbecue (braai) and stews being popular. Other dishes to look out for include Malay-influenced food in Cape Town (eg. bobotie) biltong (dried meat) boerewors (sausage) and game.

Surrounded by two oceans, South Africa is great for seafood. Look for the SASSI (Southern Africa Sustainable Seafood Intiative) sign in restaurants to ensure that the seafood is sustainably sourced.

Fruit and vegetables are of a high standard and though South Africa is a meat-loving society, most restaurants will have vegetarian options and most major towns will have at least one vegetarian restaurant. Mielie pap (maize porridge), eaten with stew, is the staple of most of the population. South Africa’s wines are superb, its beers unmemorable.

Health & safety in South Africa

Tap water is generally safe in South Africa’s cities. However, you should stick to purified water in rural areas. The worst health hazard you're likely to encounter is the sun.

Most of South Africa is malaria free, although there is a seasonal risk (October-May) in KwaZulu Natal, Mpumalanga and Limpopo. Public hospitals are fairly well-equipped in most urban areas and private hospitals are of an excellent standard.

South Africa has had its fair share of crime but most travellers visit without incident. Limit the risk of being mugged or car-jacked by keeping valuables out of view, car doors locked and windows rolled-up. Also, bearing in mind the country’s high HIV rate, travellers should take precautions.