For such a large country like South Africa, visitors usually need a lot of time to plan their trip before they actually travel. There are many places and experiences to explore in SA and if you are not careful, you might just happen to go back home not seeing even half of what you wanted to.
Unlike other countries in Africa that try hard to bury their colonial legacy, it is this very legacy that forms the foundation of the reformed South Africa. The landscape of the country is a breathtaking mix of deserts, wetlands, grasslands, bush, subtropical forests, mountains and escarpments.
Before you leave for South Africa, obtaining a travel visa to allow you entry into the country is a must. However, before November 2019 visitors to SA had to obtain visas from their home consulate or embassy. A NEW process of application for an eVisa is now available and remains entirely online, saving you the long queues of a Visa office. If the pilot phase of the eVisa which is currently underway is deemed a success, the South Africa Visa for US Citizens will be accessible from the comfort of one’s home or office permanently in the future as well.
To help you plan your trip to SA ahead of time, here are the 10 things you need to know about the country before you visit:
#1 – Touring Cape Town should top your list
If you are looking to carry memories of this old colorful town with you, spare about 4 to 5 nights to get around Cape Town completely. There is a commercialized waterfront and even though there is so much tourist movement around, you will not feel being overcrowded. There are numerous restaurants, shops, cafes and bars making walking around the city pleasant and safe. Least to say, there is never a dull moment in Cape Town.
Don’t forget to visit Bo-Kaap, an photo worthy area in Cape Town popularly photographed for its colorful architecture, and also recognized as a historical centre of Cape Malay culture in the city.
#2 – Buses are a cheap and safe way to travel inter-city in SA
Many urban cities within SA, such as Cape Town, Durban, Pretoria and Jo’burg, operate with a well established city bus network. Not only are the buses a cheap mode of transport but also they are large, clean, air-conditioned and have an onboard toilet. Booking a bus is easy with popular online bus booking platforms such as Travelstart Buses, which helps you compare bus tickets from competing companies and serve the cheapest fare for a return or one-way route within South Africa, or even to neighboring countries.
The most common bus companies include Greyhound, Intercape, and Translux (popular with locals), and Baz Bus for shorter journeys of two hours common with backpackers/budget travelers.
#3 – Eating edible insects is a source of common protein in SA
Did you know that eating insects as a rich source of nutrition is an age old practice known as entomophagy, common in Africa. Reports say, ‘the continent is home to the richest diversity of edible insects – more than 500 species ranging from caterpillars to termites, locusts, grasshoppers, crickets, ants and bees, bugs and beetles’. In July 2019, a pop-up bug restaurant called the The Insect Experience was launched – believed to be South Africa’s first all-insect restaurant.
#4 – SA is a mix of cheap and expensive travel, so plan ahead
Most travelers think that visiting SA is cheap, but it is certainly not the cheapest in the world. Getting to SA if expensive, but once you are there – accommodations and local food comes at an affordable cost. For backpackers, SA is a budget friendly trip with a lot of hostel options; but if you wish to do a lot of touristy stuff – they come at a higher cost. This is true for the high ticket prices one has to pay to access many of the tourist destinations and tours such as the safaris or the shark dive.
The trick to spending less is to make online bookings for expensive activities early on in advance. Some places such as Robben Island take a limited number of visitors on a daily basis and they must be booked way early.
If you are traveling with kids, make their time in SA memorable by taking them to the Two Oceans Aquarium or to the famous Simon’s Town for penguin watching. You can gladly skip the Cape wheel and not feel guilty about it because you get a better view of the city from the popular Table Mountain.
#5 – Carry both cash and cards for money
There are many ATM machines at the airport in South Africa and since you will definitely need to handle cash, withdraw a reasonable amount. As you will be exchanging money at the SA airport, expect the exchange rate to be higher as compared to what you could have spent exchanging currency in your home country. While most of the high end establishments around the country take credit cards, many smaller neighborhoods and vendors accept only cash.
#6 – Be careful of volunteering scams
Over a decade ago volunteering while traveling was a niche activity mostly available for backpackers exchanging work for lodging. Only a few organizations existed before, as compared to today where volunteering abroad has evolved into a booming travel sector.
Since more than half of South Africa lives under the poverty line currently, many voluntourism scams have cropped up in cities ripping of tourists for their money by actually asking them to pay to volunteer. Make sure you read the reviews before volunteering at a particular place and also to talk to previous volunteers who worked there before about their experinces.
#7 – Book your visit to Table Mountain in advance
Table Mountain in Cape Town is believed to be one of the oldest mountains in the world and one of the planet’s 12 main energy centers, radiating magnetic, electric or spiritual energy. Remember that SA experiences dry winters when it is coolest. But the rest of the year is quite favorable for outdoor activities – also the best time to go up the mountain.
Also, there are other high points you can visit such as Signal Hill or Lions Head. Before you head out there, put on warm clothing or at least carry some extra layers of clothes to use later. Many visitors want to tour the Table Mountain so the queues at any given time can be quite long. To make your stay in the queues shorter, make online reservations and book your spot way before the actual date and time of intended travel.
#8 – Use Uber and Taxis as a common option. Or rent a car.
The old system of haggling for the price of a taxi is gradually being phased out in South Africa as is the case for most other places around the continent. If you have a smartphone, download the Uber app to have it ready for use when you land.
You can also rent a car in SA which is inexpensive and opt for a self driving road trip instead.
Alternatively, make sure to only travel in taxis that have price meters. You may also negotiate prices with the taxi driver before your trip starts just to avoid misunderstandings when you arrive to your destination. It is easy to get taxi service in South Africa because the industry is quite vibrant. Your hotel or restaurant staff will know how to order one for you, so ask if you need help.
#9 – SA Safaris are a must
With the many national parks (such as the Kruger National Park), and nature reserves all over South Africa, the range of safari packages to choose from is wide. Majority of game drives as well as walks take place early morning or late afternoon when the temperatures are cool.
Some of these safari sites are prone to mosquitoes so it is advisable to take anti-malaria tablets a few days before arrival. Since game drives are scheduled before hand, most tourists slot to have them towards the end of their trip to South Africa.
#10 – Car Minders are everywhere
The moment you step out of your car after parking on the side of the street, don’t be surprised with locals approaching you to ask if they can watch your car for you. The locals are willing to keep an eye on your vehicle as you run your errands in exchange for money tokens. Being polite goes a long way because the current rates of unemployment in South Africa are quite high and people are just trying to earn an honest living. Part with 30 cents or so every time this happens and you will in most cases come back to your car with everything intact in it.
#11 – Water shortage is a serious problem
Did you know SA once boasted of the cleanest drinking water in the world? Ironically, while the general feeling of living in Cape Town is peace and tranquility, you will now notice its severe water problem. South Africa as a whole experiences prolonged water shortage and visitors may find this discouraging with the ongoing climate change and water crisis.
Observe the locals keenly and you too will learn how to be economical with water and do with the little that is available. To reduce your need for water, carry a hand sanitizer with you at all times, and fill up your water glasses in restaurants only when you really feel thirsty.