Every country in the world displays some diversity, but South Africa is clearly one of the most with hippos in the Limpopo River to the penguins waddling on the Cape. There’s the deserted Kalahari, Namakwa’s springtime symphony of wildflowers, iconic Table Mountain and Cape Point, Kruger National Park’s savannah grasslands (scene of the famous lion-buffalo-crocodile battle watched more than 40 million times on YouTube), and KwaZulu-Natal’s wetlands, which has five distinct ecosystems and attracts both zebras and dolphins. In fact, South Africa is ranked sixth out of the world’s seventeen ‘megadiverse’ countries, containing about 10% of all the known species of plants on Earth.
If you’re interested in another kind of wildlife, hit the nightclubs on Cape Town’s jumping Long Street or sample African homebrew in a township shebeen (unlicensed bar). When it’s time to reflect on it all, do it over seafood on the Garden Route, curry in Durban (home to the largest Indian population outside of India), a sizzling Cape Malay dish, a braai (barbecue) with some local friends, or over a bottle of pinotage produced by the oldest wine industry outside Europe.
Of course, it’s impossible for travelers to South Africa to remain oblivious of the fact that, despite the rise of ‘black diamonds’ (middle-class black people), racial inequality persists here. Black and coloured townships face problems such as a horrific HIV/AIDS rate and xenophobic tensions caused by economic refugees from nearby countries.
Nonetheless, South Africans are some of the most upbeat, welcoming and humorous people you’ll encounter anywhere. Two recent events that have brought the diverse nation closer together are the country’s recent inclusion into the BRICS group and the successful hosting of the 2010 FIFA World Cup. Most people believe that hosting the FIFA World Cup was as great a moment for South Africa as its Rugby World Cup home triumph in 1995 (which inspired the movie ‘Invictus’). By contrast however, most South Africans are aware that the country has a long way to go before it can cement its role as one of the leading emerging economies.
South Africa can be visited comfortably any time. Winter (June to September) is cooler, drier and ideal for hiking and outdoor pursuits. Because vegetation is less dense and thirsty animals congregate around rivers and other permanent water sources, winter is also the best time for wildlife-watching. Spring (mid-September to November) and autumn (April and May) are ideal almost everywhere.
More of a consideration than weather is school holidays. From mid-December to January, waves of vacation-hungry South Africans stream out of the cities, with visitors from Europe and North America adding to the crush. Easter is another period in which it is essential to book in advance for popular attractions.
The telecommunications and transport infrastructure and the range of accommodation options in urban South Africa are almost identical to what one might expect in Western Europe and North America. The notable exceptions are Internet speeds, which can be frustratingly slow by first-world standards, and the rail network, which is mostly used for transporting cargo and for luxury travel (and not much else in between for tourists).
South Africa has 11 official languages but English is widely spoken in urban areas and is commonly understood in rural areas.
South Africa’s currency is the rand (R), which is divided into 100 cents. There is no black market. The best currencies to bring are US dollars, euros or British pounds in a mixture of travelers checks and cash, plus a Visa or MasterCard for withdrawing money from ATMs.
There are ATMs in all cities in South Africa, most of which give cash advances against cards belonging to the Cirrus network. Credit cards are widely accepted in South Africa, especially MasterCard and Visa. Nedbank is an official Visa agent, and Standard Bank is a MasterCard agent – both have branches across the country.
Travelling in South Africa is not as cheap as in many less-developed African countries. However, it usually works out to be less expensive than travelling in Europe or North America, and the quality of facilities and infrastructure is generally high. Among the best deals are national parks and reserves, which offer excellent and accessible wildlife-watching at significantly less cost than you would pay in parts of East Africa.
A number of restaurants in South Africa do an excellent job of serving both modern and traditional African food. Traditional African food is generally cooked over an open fire or in a three-legged pot (or ‘potjie’), so meat tends to be served in either stewed or grilled form. A starch usually accompanies the meat: mieliepap (maize porridge), potatoes or rice. Beetroot, carrots, cabbage and pumpkin are the vegetables most commonly served. Typical South African dishes include tripe, morogo (wild spinach), chakalaka (similar to a spicy tomato salsa), amadumbe (sweet potato and peanut mash), and the ubiquitous boerewors roll (our tastier answer to New York’s hot dogs). Other local favorites include a wide variety of delectable Cape Malay dishes, biltong (cured, dried meat) and sweet delicacies such as the koeksister (a sugary swizzle pastry) and melktert (milk tart).
South Africa’s tap water is amongst the best in the world and is safe for consumption in almost all parts of the country.
Visitors on holiday from most Commonwealth countries (including Australia and the UK), most Western European countries, Japan and the USA don’t require visas. Instead, you’ll be issued with a free entry permit on arrival. These are valid for up to 90 days, and your passport must be valid for at least 30 days after the end of your intended visit.
If you aren’t entitled to an entry permit, you’ll need to get a visa (R425 or US$47 or €43) before you arrive. Visit the Department of Home Affairs website (www.home-affairs.gov.za) for more information.
Health and safety
Crime is the national obsession and, apart from car accidents, it’s the major risk that you’ll face in South Africa. However, try to keep things in perspective, and remember that despite the statistics and newspaper headlines, the majority of travellers visit the country without incident. No matter where you are, you can minimise the risks by following basic safety precautions, remaining alert and exercising common sense.
The Center for Disease Control & Prevention (www.cdc.gov) recommends the following vaccinations for South Africa: hepatitis A, hepatitis B, rabies and typhoid, and boosters for tetanus, diphtheria and measles. Yellow fever is not a risk in the region, but the certificate is an entry requirement if you’re travelling both from an infected region.
- Population: 50 million (25th largest in the world)
- GDP: $350 billion (27th in the world)
- GDP Per Capita: $7,200 (64th in the world)
- Demography: 79% black; 9% white; 9% mixed race; 3% east and south Asian
- Official languages: 11 (Zulu, English, Afrikaans, Ndebele, Xhosa, Sepedi, Sotho, Tshivenda, Tswana, Swati and Xitsonga)
- Telephone country code: 27
- Independence from British rule: 1931
- Length of apartheid rule: 1948-1994
- Form of Government: Democracy
- Capital: Pretoria (administrative), Bloemfontein (judicial) and Cape Town (legislative)
- Largest city: Johannesburg (accounts for 14% of SA’s GDP and 4% of Africa’s GDP)