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South Africa: Articles and Essential Resources
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20 Rules for Safe Travel in South Africa

Tips to Enjoy a Culturally Varied and Naturally Beautiful Country

Cape Town Waterfront, South Africa
The Victoria and Albert waterfront at Cape Town, with Table Mountain in the background. ©Tanya Linnegar Photography.

I emigrated from South Africa to Europe in 2002 and re-visited only recently. South Africa is truly a beautiful country, with friendly, hospitable people, incredible scenery, and incomparable wildlife. I believe that these qualities are certainly more worthy of publicity than the crime and other negative aspects. Indeed, I can think of no other place on earth so rich in a diversity of scenic beauty, wildlife, sights, sounds, music, and varied cultures as South Africa. 

Eastern Cape hole in wall, South Africa

The Hole in the Wall on the stunning Wild Coast of the Eastern Cape, near the town of Coffee Bay. ©Tanya Linnegar Photography.

South Africa’s population is a unique mix of Africa, Europe, and Asia. I can think of no other nations with 11 official languages! Of the total population of 48 million, approximately 38 million are black South Africans, 4.2 million are of mixed race, and 1.2 million are of Indian or Asian descent.

The white population is only 4.3 million (9.1% of the total population.) and descends mainly from Dutch, German, French, and British colonial immigrants who came to settle in the country between the 17th and 19th centuries. The black South African population is comprised of the Nguni people ( Zulu, Xhosa, Ndebele and Swazi), the Sotho-Tswana, the Tsonga, and the Venda tribes.

Son of healer from Xhosa village near Coffee Bay

The son of a Sangoma (traditional healer) in a Xhosa village on the Wild Coast near Coffee Bay. ©Tanya Linnegar Photography.

South Africa is renowned for its floral wealth. The 553,000-hectare Cape Floral Region is one of South Africa’s eight World Heritage sites. It was declared by UNESCO’s World Heritage Committee to be of “outstanding universal significance to humanity” and “one of the richest areas for plants in the world.”

The National Parks are among South Africa’s premier attractions. The more than twenty National Parks include the famous Kruger National Park, the vast Kgalagadi Transfrontier National Park, Addo Elephant, Golden Gate, Agulhas, Augrabies Falls, Bontebok, Camdeboo, Hluhluwe-Imfolozi, Karoo, Madikwe, Mountain Zebra, Tsitsikamma, and Wilderness National Parks—each one with its own very distinctive character, flora, and fauna. See www.places.co.za/html/south_african_national_parks.html for a map of the South African National Parks.

Addo Elephant National Park

In the Addo Elephant National Park, the visitor gets really close-up to the elephants! ©Tanya Linnegar Photography.

Apart from the numerous National Parks, there are also many privately-owned game reserves. If you wish to see “The Big Five” (buffalo, lion, leopard, African elephant, and black rhinoceros) you have a better chance of doing so in South Africa than anywhere else in the world.

Rare white lion in South Africa

Getting up close to a rare white lion in one of South Africa’s game parks. ©Tanya Linnegar Photography.

In South Africa, apart from “The Big Five”, over 200 different species of mammal may be observed. The Springbok (South Africa’s national animal – made famous by the Springbok rugby players), white rhino, cheetah, giraffe, zebra, wildebeest (gnu), warthog, monkey, hunting dog, hippopotamus, kudu, impala, sable antelope, and hyena are but a few of these!

South Africa is also a bird-watcher’s paradise with over 800 species to be spotted, including the Ostrich, Kori Bustard, Tawny Eagle, Martial Eagle, Hornbill, Lourie, Kingfisher, Lilac-Breasted Roller, Secretary Bird, and South Africa’s national bird, the Blue Crane.

You will find most South Africans of all races warm and welcoming, eager to show off their spectacular land to visitors from abroad. If you get a chance to meet a local family, you will no doubt be invited to share in the ultimate South African experience, the braai (barbecue). South Africa is keen to welcome tourists from abroad and to repair the recent poor international image of the country. Accommodation standards are high and you will enjoy an abundance of food and drink—not least of all the famous “Castle” beer, and outstanding local wines.

raditional Xhosa village near Coffee Bay

A traditional Xhosa village near Coffee Bay on the Wild Coast.
©Tanya Linnegar Photography.

Certainly, present crime statistics are frighteningly high, but the visitor to South Africa need not walk around in fear, provided that the necessary care is taken to behave in a commonsensical manner, thereby not becoming an easy target for criminals.

If you heed the following 20 important rules, you will greatly minimize the risks of becoming a victim of crime in South Africa and instead be able to experience fully all that this warmly welcoming, African country has to offer:

  1. In large cities, avoid the central business districts at night.
  2. Never walk around any city at night, even if you are part of a group. If you need to go anywhere after dark, ask your hotel or guesthouse to order a reliable taxi for you. Do not just hail any passing taxi on the street!
  3. When out walking anywhere, avoid wearing flashy, expensive watches and jewelry and carrying large amounts of cash. Carry your camera unobtrusively in a bag, rather than slung over your shoulder. Walk purposefully as if you know where you are going and are not a “lost tourist.” Hold your bag close to your body and beware of pickpockets and other confidence tricksters on the streets and in crowded stores. Be aware of ATM theft—never be distracted by a stranger asking for assistance at an ATM!
  4. If driving in a car, keep the doors locked at all times in city traffic. Do not drive with the windows down. Disregard any stranger who tries to confront you at a red traffic light or stop street. 
  5. When parking your vehicle anywhere, do not leave any valuables or any other possessions at all in sight. Put everything in the trunk. Use a good steering-lock at all times when leaving your car unattended. A lock on the fuel tank cap is also an essential and is fitted to nearly all vehicles. Use only a removable car radio and lock it in the trunk when leaving your car.
  6. You will find “car guards” on duty in many city streets, but they cannot guarantee the safety of your car. You will be expected to tip the guard when you return to your car—he is at least a buffer of some kind against car theft or robbery. Only use the services of a person wearing an official “bib” stating that he is a recognized car guard.
  7. Distances between cities in South Africa are large and gas stations not all that plentiful, so be sure to fill your tank whenever possible and ensure that your car is in a good mechanical condition before you set out on any journey.  
  8. Travel with a good, detailed, up-to-date map (available at most gas stations) and plan your route in advance. Note that many cities, towns and streets in South Africa have undergone—or are still undergoing—name changes, so it is essential to get the most recent road and city maps available.
  9. Do not stop for any hitch-hiker or other person seemingly in trouble on the open road, in the street or at motorway off-ramps. Drive on and report the incident to the Police. Only stop at official Police-manned roadblocks. Criminal gangs have been known to set up “roadblocks” to lure motorists—either drive on past or around these or turn back and report the incident to the Police.
  10. Always travel with a cell phone. The emergency number to call for the Police is 10111. A functioning cell phone is essential to carry with you at ALL times. Find out before leaving home if your phone will work in South Africa. If not, hire a cell phone when you arrive.
  11. Before travelling to remote areas such as the Wild Coast, check with the locals as to the best route and the security situation in the area. In general, the country people are most welcoming and hospitable and crime less common than in cities—but it is wise to obtain recent local information before venturing out on your own to remote areas. The National Tourism Information and Safety number to call is 083 123 2345—they will give you up-to-date information on safety in any particular area.
  12. If staying in a hotel or guesthouse, leave your passport, air tickets and other valuables in a safety deposit box at the reception. Carry copies of your passport on you at all times. Keep photocopies of your credit and debit cards in a safe place.
  13. Keep your hotel room locked at all times and only open the door if you are certain who is on the other side.
  14. Park only in areas which are well-lit at night.
  15. Do not walk by yourself in any lonely area such as a stretch of beach, river bank, forest or the countryside without keeping other people in sight at all times. It is best to walk in a group at any time of the day. Avoid walking in lonely areas (even in groups) after dark.
  16. If you wish to visit one of the African townships, only do so on an organized tour, recommended by locals or by your hotel or guesthouse.
  17. Be especially watchful at airports or bus stations, where criminal gangs are known to operate.
  18. Wildlife is plentiful in South Africa—confined to the numerous game parks and reserves within the country. It is not safe to alight from your vehicle when driving through a game park—except at designated rest camps and picnic spots. Remember, these are wild animals and you are a guest in their territory! Do not attempt to approach any animal too closely—if one crosses your path, stop your car immediately and remain silent. Avoid loud noises, playing the radio or other music, shouting, hanging out of the windows, pointing etc. and simply enjoy observing Nature at her best.
  19. Always carry on you at all times the essential numbers of your travel and health insurance and important local phone numbers to call in case of emergency.
  20. If you are a member of the AAA, find out about affiliation to the AA (Automobile Association) of South Africa—an invaluable organization for the motorist, providing all types of travel information and assistance, route maps, weather, road information, and breakdown services throughout the country.

Follow all the above safety rules and do not be deterred from getting to know this very special country.

For More Info on South Africa

Accommodations

South Africa has a wealth of excellent accommodation in all price ranges, and in all areas. The visitor is spoiled with the wealth of choices, so it is wise to consult the knowledgeable Automobile Association of South Africa, unless you have contact with local people, who would be able to recommend suitable accommodation to you. The AA (Automobile Association) www.aatravel.co.za—a highly recommended site for all accommodation searches, reservations etc. 

This comprehensive AA database includes all types of recommended accommodation from luxury hotels, B&Bs, guesthouses, self-catering chalets and apartments, game and nature reserves, lodges, caravan and camping sites throughout South Africa, Namibia, Zimbabwe, Botswana, Malawi, Seychelles, Zambia, Mozambique, Lesotho, and Swaziland.

Recommended Reading

The excellent updated guide “AA Hotels, Lodges, Guest Houses, Bed and Breakfasts: South Africa, Namibia and Other Neighbouring States South African Accommodation and Touring Guide" may be ordered online via Amazonl. If you prefer self-catering, the AA publication: “AA Self-Catering Getaways” including details of chalets, game reserves, caravan resorts, B&Bs with color photographs, may be also be ordered online via Amazon.

Other Recommended Books

AAA Essential South Africa, 6th edition by Richard Whitaker

Insight Guide South Africa 

Transportation

The International Airports in South Africa are Johannesburg (OR Tambo International), Durban and Cape Town. Many other cities have smaller airports e.g. Port Elizabeth, Bloemfontein, Pietermaritzburg, East London, George etc. SAA (South African Airways) is the major domestic and international carrier.

Travel Within South Africa 

The traveler has various options of getting around the country:

1) Organized Tours

Many companies organize tours, either custom-made or on various fixed tourist routes, so if you opt for this means of travel, see the following comprehensive sites: www.southernafricatravel.co.uk or www.aguide2southafrica.com

2) Inter-City Coach Travel

Two main companies cover the routes between major cities:

Intercape: www.intercape.co.za. Example fare: R500 ($51) one-way from Johannesburg to Cape Town.

Greyhound: www.travel2capetown.com/tra-lux-cap-cap-greyhound.html

Before undertaking any journey by coach, it is wise to call The National Tourism Information and Safety number: 083 123 2345 to ensure that your proposed route is safe and that the particular coach company is recommended by them.

3) Car Rentals  

Car rentals are the best bet for the independent traveler. It is also the ideal means of seeing as much as possible of the scenic beauty and wildlife in South Africa’s game parks. It is wise to shop around. Numerous car hire companies operate in South Africa, for example:

Worth noting when driving in South Africa:

  • Drive on the left
  • All road signs are in English
  • Roads are generally in a good condition and a 4x4 vehicle is not necessary, even on unpaved country roads
  • Beware of some erratic driving, especially from mini-bus taxi drivers, who are a  law unto themselves!  There are also unfortunately many unlicensed drivers and un-roadworthy vehicles on the roads. Expect the unexpected and drive defensively.
  • Automatic transmissions are not the rule of the day, the majority of cars having manual transmission, so do request an automatic if you require it from the car hire company.
  • Any valid foreign driver’s license which contains an identity photograph is acceptable. If yours does not conform to this, it is best to get an IDP.
  • When asking for directions, do not be surprised when told to “go to the next robot.” No, you are not in outer space, a “robot” is the unique South Africanism for a traffic light!

4) Domestic Air Travel

Considering the vast distances between cities, this is probably the most convenient option for the traveler on a tight schedule, with the possibility of picking up a rental car at any airport. An example one-way fare from Johannesburg to Cape Town on SAA is approximately R1000 ($103); www.flysaa.com.

Apart from SAA, the following airlines operate in and around South Africa. Shop around for the best fares:

5) Rail Travel 

Spoornet is the South African rail travel provider. However, it is not advisable for the foreign visitor to travel long distances by normal passenger train, due to the criminal element. However, for train-travel fundis, Spoornet has introduced its Premiere Classe with 11 coaches accommodating only 84 passengers, for travel between Johannesburg and Cape Town (and return) twice weekly. The one-way adult fare for this trip (sharing a double room) is R2000 ($206) including all meals and bedding. The trip between Johannesburg and Cape Town takes 25 hours and the route passes some of South Africa’s premier tourist destinations, but stops do not allow time for excursions from the train.

The famous Blue Train is for the traveler able to afford real luxury train travel. The one-way fare from Cape Town to Pretoria is approximately R10000 ($1,033) per person sharing. This includes accommodation, all meals, alcoholic and non-alcoholic drinks, and off-the-train excursions. For routes, fares, and other information visit www.bluetrain.co.za.

Rovos Rail is another exclusive train, known as “the most luxurious train in the world.” offering many different routes and traveling as far as the Victoria Falls. Example fare: Cape Town to Pretoria—1-way adult fare—R9860 ($1018) including accommodation, all meals and excursions. For full details visit www.rovos.co.za.

6) Local Public Transport

The visitor to South Africa is not advised to use any local buses or commuter trains. These are generally jam-packed with commuters and not a good place for the average traveler.The urban public transport infrastructure is not to be compared to that of Europe or the USA, and serves mainly the huge workforce and local population, so is best avoided by the overseas visitor.

Unless you are driving yourself, in towns and cities, use only recommended taxis—which have been ordered for or recommended to you by your hotel or guesthouse. Thousands of mini-bus taxis (usually white in color) operate in and out of urban areas—these are not safe for the foreign traveler to use!  

Important Facts About South Africa

  • Population: 43,786,115
  • Currency: South African Rand—at the time of writing approximately R9.8 = US$1.00. One Rand = 100 cents. 
  • Code: ZAR
  • Electricity: 220/230V 50Hz
  • 11 Official Languages: Afrikaans, English, Nedebele, Northern Sotho, Sotho, Tswati, Tsonga, Tswana, Venda, Xhosa, Zulu. English is generally understood everywhere.
  • 9 Provinces: Eastern Cape, Free State, Gauteng, KwaZulu-Natal, Limpopo, Mpumalanga, Northern Cape, North-West, Western Cape.
  • Administrative Capital: Pretoria
  • Legislative Capital: Cape Town 
  • Judicial Capital: Bloemfontein
  • Time Zone: GMT + 2
  • Country dialing code: +27
  • Weights and Measures: Metric

Other Useful Websites and Phone Numbers

  • Emergency Services: 10111 (the equivalent of  911)
  • Hotline for American Travelers: +1  202-647-5225
  • USA Embassy in Pretoria, South Africa: +27 12 431 4000
  • The South African National Tourism Information and Safety: +27 083 123 2345
  • The AA (Automobile Association) of South Africa:  + 27 083 843 22; www.aa.co.za
  • Useful general information on South Africa: www.southafrica.net 

Please note: Due to regular fluctuations in the Rand-$ exchange rate, all the above prices should be checked at the time of travel using your currency calculator of choice.

Pearl Harris, whose ancestors hail from Britain, was born in 1945 in South Africa where she spent most of her life before emigrating to the Czech Republic in 2002. Pearl is a travel addict and has no intention of ever giving up this habit. She has traveled widely in Europe, Africa, the U.S.A. and the U.K.  Besides travel, her passions are writing, photography, reading and animals.

Pearl is a Diagnostic Radiographer, with a B.A. in English and Linguistics, post-graduate Diploma in Translation and TEFL certificate. Now residing permanently in the Czech Republic, she freelances as an EFL teacher, proofreader and travel writer. Her articles have appeared on www.TimeTravel-Britain.com , Diversions (published in South Africa) and Lifestyles and Bridge magazines (published in Prague).

Pearl’s first book, From Africa to Buková, has recently been published and is available from: www.createspace.com or Amazon.com. 

Tanya Linnegar, Linnegar Photography: linnegarphotography.4ormat.com has authored an article on Coffee Bay in South Africa for Transitions Abroad.

From Africa to Bukova